Thursday, 24 November 2016

'Fake news' is poison for the body politic – can it be stopped?




Vincent O'Donnell, RMIT University

If prescription drugs contained as much fake content as the news coverage of the 2016 US presidential election, there would be wide demands for government action. But, it was only news.

However, “fake news” can be as poisonous to the body politic as fake pharmaceuticals are to human life. Since the election, self-styled satirist and political disrupter Paul Horner has expressed his fears that his fake news elected Donald Trump.

Democracy stands on fragile pillars of trust, accountability and responsibility. Only when they are in place do citizens willingly consent to be governed. And by choosing to live in a democracy, voters undertake the responsibility to be informed and engaged.

Their representatives, in response, are accountable to represent the balance of electorate interests, but are not delegates – as Edmund Burke established in his Speech to the Electors of Bristol in 1774.
Our democratic edifice rests on the informed voter. Fake news is the concrete cancer gnawing away at the structural integrity of our society.

Facebook, to date, has been a principal metastasising agent. But finally, its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has acknowledged that Facebook is part of the problem. He has committed the company to remedial action.

Facebook has become a news agency, not just a technology company: almost 40% of American adults get their news online.

But then, editorial algorithms can only be so smart.

Je suis satire


Fake news has many faces – some old and familiar, some the product of new technology and the social media revolution.

The first category, satire, has been with us since Aristophanes was in short skirts. It is a necessary and healthy part of a democracy. Modern satire is often based on fake news. Examples abound in theatre, on television and on the internet – The Onion and the Betoota Advocate being two among many. This hoax was a classic, and successful.

The second category of fake news is all about money.

BuzzFeed recently revealed that the Macedonian town of Veles was home to more than 100 websites churning out pro-Trump news. The site was run by young Macedonians with no interest in US politics, but who had every interest in exploiting the advertising revenue from their linkage with AdSense. This guaranteed them income from every page view of their imaginative takes, real or imagined, on events in the US presidential election.

A third and darker category manufactures misleading news for political purposes. Sometimes it simply serves the ideological agenda of a political party; sometimes it is malicious in its falsehoods, seeking to foment distrust and dissent. The far right is particularly adept at this, like the Breitbart attack on successful immigrants from the Middle East.

Criminal intent could be a fourth category. Such sites might use fake news as an initial hook, but are more likely to rely on avarice, greed, lust or loneliness to complete the deception.

How does fake news work?


Fake news works in the same way as effective propaganda.

First, every story begins with factual elements, names, places and events. This forms a connection to the reader’s experience.

The story then moves in directions that accord with thoughts and attitudes the reader has or is predisposed to accept. Thus the particular success of the fake stories with Trump supporters, whose distrust – or hatred – for Democrat Hillary Clinton was visceral.

The story then supports the revelations with facts that are consistent with the imagined events, places them in settings that are generally familiar but less known: foreign cities, small town America, or sleazy porn outlets. The report then corroborates the tale by naming authoritative witnesses or actors who have carriage of the events.

And, crucially, the report adopts the style, presentation and format of genuine news. And it doesn’t help when the mainstream media pick up a story without checking.

Collectively, these elements are going to make Facebook’s task of eliminating fake news extraordinarily difficult without knowledgeable human intervention.

Ways forward


First, there is no substitute for individual scepticism. As has been said about money deals on the internet: “If it seems too good to be true, then it’s certainly not”.

The second is advertiser pressure. Zuckerberg is not responding to fake news out of the goodness of his heart. Advertisers don’t want to be tarred with a fake news association – so, they are saying, “change things”.

The third is source. The established media are failing to capitalise on their source credibility. They have abandoned the check and recheck practices of old in favour of a first to publish, first to correct mentality. That can change.

Perhaps we will see the emergence of a white net, where publishers commit to accuracy above all else, and capitalise on something British thinker David Ricardo would recognise as their competitive advantage. Yes, it would rely on subscriptions, but it would leave all the rest to a free grey net – one that no-one trusts for news.

The Conversation
Vincent O'Donnell, Honorary Research Associate of the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Girls just want to wear pants: the push for gender-neutral uniforms




by Evelyn Tsitas,

Girls suffer from conformity and societal expectation from a very early age. It begins as early as primary school, with the uniforms spelling out the inequity – boys get to wear practical shorts and tops that are easy to move in, while girls get dresses that curb their physical activity.

From 2017 female students at Melbourne private school Carey Grammar 
will be able to opt for gender neutral uniforms. In the UK, 80 state schools, including 40 primary schools, allow girls to wear pants and boys to wear skirts. This is part of a government initiative to encourage LGBTQ rights in the classroom.

Even with most school students in American able to wear casual clothes rather than uniform, dress codes throughout the country tend not to be very accommodating to transgender or gender-fluid students.

The moves to gender neutral uniforms are part of a wider recognition of the importance of building a culture of inclusion and diversity. The current school uniforms for girls are part of a legacy of inequity in which women are seen as ornamental accessories first, equal members of society second.

School uniforms prescribed for girls are uncomfortable, impractical and downright stressful – I have been there, and I applaud any school that enables girls to wear a uniform that allows them the freedom of dress boys take for granted.

My own school uniform is seared into my memory, and that of all my friends. Every school reunion, talk will inevitably turn to the uniform and the notorious ‘knicker checks’ and skirt length checks at the girls’ school I attended.

In these enlightened times of equity and diversity, it will seem strange indeed, and a violation of all sorts of rights, when I describe how the Middle School Headmistress would line the girls up and make us expose our underwear to check we were wearing the regulation school colours and sturdy cotton knickers, brown for every day and bright yellow to go under the obscenely short yellow sports tunic.

You lost House points if you turned up to school wearing non-regulation knickers. Those detested Bonds Cottontails that make my stomach turn if I see them lined up crisply in a shop, full of their intentional virginal overtones. Double points were taken off for the naughty fashion forward girls who provoked the Headmistress’s ire by turning up in brightly coloured Witches Britches, which created a shock of static electricity from belly button to knee.

But we girls were not outraged. We were suffering too much to be outraged. Oh, how we suffered in our uniforms. Suffering from the uncomfortable, humiliating, unflattering and restricting school uniform. Suffering from the sports tunic that was so short it meant every girl opted to wear tracksuit pants underneath no matter how hot it was.

How we avoided heat stroke was a miracle. In the middle of summer, on the sports oval, there we would be – dark brown tracksuit pants affording us a modicum of modesty and ability to move without everyone looking at our nether regions.

If that wasn’t bad enough, any girl who had the misfortune of actually having a bust ended up wearing the heavy wool dark brown jumper all summer as well, as the summer sports uniform was cut so that it gaped in the middle buttons across one’s chest, save for those who had not yet entered puberty.

Did I mention this foul ensemble was poly cotton, so mercilessly clung to our puppy fat? I can’t recall if the school produced any sporting champions. It would appear unlikely given the clothing restrictions.

The general uniform was equally as bad. Let me describe it in all its glory – an A lined poly cotton dress, with buttons down the front so each could gape apart in turn, especially if you had a bust. Under a totalitarian regime, peons will find a way to subvert the system, and so we did – we wore the thick jumper year round as a mass protest against ‘the gape’, and the more radical among us would roll the top up so it sat firmly under the bust.

The winter uniform was marginally better because the cold weather afforded us a degree of comfort. We still had to wear jumpers to cover ‘the gape’ in the button down beige shirt, which made us all look like we had jaundice and restricted our movements, but girls with older sisters had it worse. Understandably to save money their parents made them wear their older sister’s heavy wool tunics, which hobbled any activity.

The rest of us ‘got away’ with a flared brown shirt that sat fetchingly on our stomachs, and clung to the thick wool tights that complemented the look. As our parents reminded us, they were paying school fees, so the inevitable tears and snags on the tights had to be stitched up like a scar on Frankenstein’s creature. Younger girls were cautioned against imaginative play in the school gardens lest they snag their hose.

The fact is that at the girls’ school I attended, the uniform in turn infantilised and sexualised us all, and at the end of our last exams, many of us felt compelled to burn the beastly garments which had caused us so much suffering over six long years. I would like to find the people on the School Board and force them to wear that bloody uniform. Did they think it made us more ‘ladylike’? Did they not give a damn?

Despite my experience, I am a strong supporter of school uniforms. Get it right, as they do for boys, and it really is a wonderful democratic form of dress for students. As a working mother, it is one less thing to think about.

As the mother of sons, I have not had a reprise of the misery I suffered for someone else’s vision of what girls should look like.

A school uniform shouldn’t inflict misery on one gender, which is exactly what archaic girls’ uniforms do. Let’s be honest, a dress is a fashion statement, nothing more, and while I admit to being very partial to a fetching dress and high heels in the workplace, I am doing nothing more physically stressful than sitting at a desk, or going to meetings.

Clothing should be appropriate, and at school, girls should be afforded the same comfort and practicality in clothing as boys. Indeed, all children should have the right to be comfortable, and warm, and cool, and able to move without feeling awkward about their bodies or revealing too much flesh because of ridiculously cut outfits.

Anyone who objects to gender neutral uniforms should be forced to wear a school girl’s dress for a week and try and do what we expect girls to do in that unsuitable attire.  It is said that Ginger Rogers could do exactly what Fred Astaire did, but while dancing backwards with high heels on. Let’s not make education a similar exercise for girls because of what we expect them to wear.

This article was originally published on the Online Opinion website


Monday, 14 November 2016

A call for innovative responses to youth justice




By Stan Winford, Principal Coordinator, Legal Programs

The history of youth justice in Australia over the last 200 years or so is characterised by the failure of punitive detention to impact on recidivism or to address at an individual or systemic level the underlying issues which have propelled many young people into the justice system and into custody. Across Australia, youth detention facilities house a disproportionate number of detainees with mental health issues and cognitive impairments, limited educational attainment, and histories of abuse, trauma and victimisation. Detention facilities have effectively become warehouses for vulnerable and disadvantaged young people, failing to effectively support education and rehabilitation, instead engendering criminogenic relationships and behaviour.

Aboriginal people have been more exposed to this failure than any other group, and are devastatingly over-represented in the youth justice system, particularly in the Northern Territory. Not enough has been done by successive governments to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Aboriginal people represent approximately 30% of the population of the Northern Territory, but 96% of children and young people in detention in the Northern Territory are Aboriginal.

Jurisprudence, criminology and behavioural science all tell us that children and young people have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults. Yet the evidence shows that detention facilities provide an education in crime, and children who have been detained are more likely to re-offend in future. Detention is also the most costly form of responding to youth offending. Last year, governments across Australia spent $698 million on youth justice, and most of it (62.8 per cent, or $438 million) was spent on detention rather than community based responses. Detaining children and young people in closed environments is inherently unsafe. In the last five years, there have been investigations into youth detention facilities in almost every Australian state and territory. Violence and the use of excessive force appear to be endemic.

The documented backgrounds of children and young people in detention include very high rates of family violence, parental drug and alcohol abuse and contact with child protection systems. Rather than addressing this deep-seated trauma, however, youth detention exacerbates it by imposing additional trauma in the form of an uncompromising and authoritarian environment where violence – from other detainees and from authorities – is a constant threat.

If these costly facilities are not reducing re-offending and are harming young people, the question must be asked: why do we persist with this approach? Can we respond to trauma with trauma informed practices that address the underlying issues rather than their symptoms? Are there innovative alternatives?

It may be that the continued existence of youth detention centres themselves – with their consumption of a disproportionate share of juvenile justice budgets, and their tendency to present a deceptively appealing ‘out of sight, out of mind’ solution to a complex problem – create the greatest barriers to the development and adoption of alternative responses.

Despite this, alternative responses do exist, and demonstrate a path forward for youth justice. In Victoria, for example, Parkville College incorporates culturally appropriate and trauma informed practices, and establishes safeguards for young people in detention. Parkville College is a school within a detention facility in Melbourne.  Parkville College employs a therapeutic and trauma informed approach to learning and teaching. It aims to create lasting change for incarcerated students by establishing positive relationships and addressing the impact of trauma. It offers cultural connections to Koorie students and incorporates effective pathways for young people to maintain their education without interruption while transitioning out of detention.

Critically, it also helps create a safe environment for young people, and treats education as a right not a privilege. In many youth justice facilities, detainees frequently miss out on education because of the unavailability of custodial staff to supervise them, or because the ‘good order and security’ of the facility is prioritised above all else.  Normally, when education meets custody, custody wins. By contrast, if a young person is not available to participate in a class at Parkville College, education staff – having an obligation to teach them – can ask where they are, and for custodial staff to make them available.  Even if there is some valid reason for the absence of the student, the ability for teaching staff to ask the question provides an important measure of accountability. The learning environment established by the presence of teaching staff creates a fundamentally different culture, while the physical presence of teaching staff alongside custodial staff minimises the risk of inappropriate treatment.

Nationally and internationally, there are many other examples of innovative approaches to youth justice like Parkville College. Other jurisdictions are successfully harnessing the opportunities offered by restorative justice, therapeutic justice, justice reinvestment, culturally informed justice approaches, and solution-focussed courts to create more positive outcomes for young people.  Many of these responses are based on ‘user-centred’ approaches to designing solutions to entrenched and systemic problems. They recognise that to have the best chance of identifying opportunities for early intervention and diversion, the trajectory of people’s journeys through justice systems and processes must be understood. These are responses that focus on reducing trauma, and are informed by the people who have the most at stake in seeing them adopted. These responses focus on the power of education to transform young lives, disrupting the ‘trauma to prison pipeline’ and putting young people back on track. Innovative responses like these represent the best opportunity we have to change our approach for the better, so that another generation of young people are not lost to a system that fails to responds to their needs and the needs of the community.

The CIJ has formally provided the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory with a submission on innovative responses to youth justice.  Keep an eye out for the full submission on the Royal Commission website here.

This article was originally published on the Centre for Innovative Justice Blog.  

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

What effect will closet Trump voters have on the US Election?




Alex Kusmanoff, RMIT University; Fiona Fidler, University of Melbourne, and Sarah Bekessy, RMIT University

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump recently claimed “phony polling” is suppressing his vote and predicted the outcome of the US election will be “Brexit times five”.

By “Brexit times five”, Trump is referring to the surprising referendum result in favour of Britain leaving the European Union, an outcome that went against the predictions of most polls. Given the unexpected triumph of Britain’s “Leave” campaign, is it possible that Trump could produce a surprise result of even greater proportions?

Many explanations are put forward to account for voting patterns, especially when they don’t match the polls.

Good sampling methodology – that is, how to choose a group of people likely to reflect the characteristics of the broader population – is key to ensuring accurate and useful results. An understanding of likely voter turnout is also important, especially in the US and other countries where voting is voluntary.

But other factors, such as the language and wording used, can also effect the results of any survey, including electoral polls.

One likely factor in the discrepancy between the pre-referendum Brexit polls and the final result was social desirability bias – the human tendency to portray ourselves in the most favourable light. This bias may not necessarily be conscious. It’s common in social surveys, where the need to be seen to be doing “the right thing” can overwhelm honest responses.

For example, it’s socially desirable for people to disagree with the statement “I sometimes feel resentful when I don’t get my own way”, even though it’s likely everybody has felt this way at some time. Self-reporting of alcohol consumption is typically 40-50% lower than actual consumption rates.
In the case of Brexit, the “Leave” campaign became associated with xenophobia and racism. Because this was regarded negatively by mainstream society, it likely resulted in people understating their support for the “Leave” campaign when asked by pollsters.

Social desirability bias is exacerbated by the presence of other people, so it’s more prominent when survey questions are asked directly by an interviewer, either in person or over the phone.

If social desirability was a factor in the inconsistency between the Brexit polls and the final result, we should see a difference between the polls taken by telephone interviews and those conducted online.
Let’s look at the polls from the final week of the Brexit campaign. Out of five telephone polls, none predicted a win for “Leave”. Out of eight online polls, four predicted a win.

This is particularly surprising because one might expect lower polling for the “Leave” vote in online polls, since this method captures younger voters who were (at least publically) more opposed to Brexit. Assuming no other methodological issues were at play, this suggests that social desirability may have been a factor.

Like the “Leave” campaign, Trump’s campaign is associated with the socially negative attributes of xenophobia and racism, as well as sexism and allegations of sexual misconduct. This is likely to cause a social desirability bias with a tendency for people to under report their support for Trump.

Now let’s look at Trump’s “Brexit times five” claim. In both telephone and online polls taken during the last week of the Brexit campaign, the average result was 46.5% for “Remain” and 44.5% for “Leave”. Excluding the undecided voters, this equates to 51% for “Remain” and 49% for “Leave”.
The result of the actual vote was 48% for “Remain” and 52% for “Leave”. On the basis of this simplistic analysis, and with this particular mix of telephone and online polls, we could argue that social desirability bias suppressed the polled support for “Leave” by around 3%.

As of November 1, the US polling aggregation website FiveThirtyEight says the national averages for the popular vote in the US election are 49.2% for Clinton and 44.5% for Trump, a difference of 4.7% in favour of Clinton.

If Trump is able to achieve “Brexit times five” – that is, gain 15% more votes on election day than the polls would suggest – he would indeed be well-placed for victory. But unlike Brexit, this result would need to be repeated in each state and reflected in the Electoral College votes, rather than just a single national vote.

Although important and often present, the effects of social desirability bias are likely to be relatively minor in polls that are properly conducted, and only likely to cause surprise results in a tight race. The degree to which the polling averages may be misled by social desirability bias depends on the mix of methods used to collect the answers – with a greater reliance on telephone polling more likely to capture a greater degree of bias.

So while it’s possible that Trump’s polling is depressed, and while he may win more votes than expected on Election Day, he’s still unlikely to win the Presidency.

The Conversation
Alex Kusmanoff, PhD candidate, Inter-disciplinary Conservation Science and Research Group, RMIT University; Fiona Fidler, Associate professor, University of Melbourne, and Sarah Bekessy, Associate professor, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.