Did Twitter Decide the Presidential Debates?

October 22, 2012

Shortly before the first Presidential debate, I got an e-mail urging me to tweet three specific questions to Mitt Romney. The subject line read, “The debate will be decided on Twitter.”

Oh sure, I thought. A bunch of us tweet Romney and he’ll address these questions. “How do you plan to create jobs when you keep shipping them overseas?” Etc.

But this wasn’t what the sending organization had in mind by deciding the debate. It had borrowed its subject line from a recent Politico post, which itself was borrowing from a couple of other sources.

They were saying that real-time tweets would shape the post-debate story reporters would tell.

At the very least, the initial Twitter conversation among political reporters would decide who won and who lost, Nathan Gonzales at The Rothenberg Political Report predicted.

New York Times political blogger Michael Shear also views Twitter as a tool to influence debate coverage, but for the campaigns, not the likes of thee and me and only when neither candidate is the obvious winner.

Both Gonzales and Shear focus on what we could call insider conversations. The promise in my e-mail was that I, along with lots of other tweeters, could interject ourselves and thus shape the post mortems.

We’ve no way of knowing, I suppose, what prompts journalists to fix on particular story lines — other than obvious things like what they and their editors think is newsworthy, e.g., winners and losers, and the political bias of the source they write for.

There may, however, be some limited evidence for the influence of mass tweeting.

For example, we know that some major progressive organizations tweeted fact-checks as the first two debates were going on. They’ve got reporters following them — and others who presumably broadcast the more notorious non-facts to their own followers.

And it’s certainly the case that we’ve had a spate of columns on misstatements, distortions, evasions and Romney’s latest disclaimers of positions he’d espoused, even just a few weeks ago.

But they weren’t the post-debate narrative. And they don’t show much of anything about how we grassroots tweeters can shape — let alone decide — a major political debate.

Which brings me to a somewhat different Twitter campaign.

Greg Kaufmann at The Nation launched it with a hashtag — #TalkPoverty — a shorthand, as hashtags must be, for an effort to “push the issue of poverty into the mainstream political debate.”

The post I’m linking to here was the first in a series that focused on questions posed by experts. We could tweet the articles and/or the individual questions, of course.

The Half in Ten Campaign called on its supporters to tweet about poverty issues, using the #TalkPoverty hashtag. It even sponsored a webinar to get novices up to speed on Twitter and created a prefab tweet for anyone who was still timid or just plain busy.

Kaufmann and others, including Half in Ten, gave us the Twitter handles, i.e., user names, for the debate moderators so that we could tweet factoids and questions directly to them.

Well, there sure were a lot of #TalkPoverty tweets — a new crop every day for weeks. I’m told they reached, on average, nearly 350,000 Twitter followers a day — twice as many on debate days.

Anyone who watched the first debate knows what happened — or rather, didn’t happen.

One use each of the words “poor” and “poverty” — both by Romney and neither in the context of saying what, if anything, he’d do to help the people he fleetingly referred to.

Even a broader content analysis, including words and phrases like “low-income,” “welfare,” “food stamps” and “Medicaid,” found that only 10% of the candidates’ statements focused on poverty.

On the other hand, the virtual silence on poverty as a policy issue did become one of the post-debate storylines — not, of course, as often told and retold as the emergence of yet another Romney, the President’s apparent funk or the mystifying tax numbers.

Some columnists were prompted to write about the issue that “went missing,” as the Washington Post‘s Jonathan Capehart put it.

Did this secondary narrative — Twitter-shaped or otherwise — influence the content of the second Presidential debate? Did the ongoing tweet stream itself have an impact?

Not so as you’d notice. But then the second debate consisted largely of answers — or talking points passed off as answers — to questions from the audience.

Not much interest in the plight of poor people there, we gather.

Or perhaps moderator Candy Crowley, who chose the questions, thought that the rest of us wouldn’t be all that interested, judging from her many years of experience as a political reporter and post-debate narrative creator.

Kaufmann thinks that Obama did talk poverty, though without using the p-word.

The policies he cites would certainly be better for poor people than Romney’s tax cuts for small businesses. But I think it’s a stretch to view them as policies specifically designed to fight poverty.

Perhaps, as Kaufmann’s expert interviewee says, the word “poverty” evokes such negative stereotypes that candidates can’t break through if they use it.

If that’s true, then doubly so for proclaiming a renewed war on poverty.


Bits on Uphill Battles — and Downward Falls

August 13, 2012

Another scrapbook of fragments that didn’t get into posts I’ve written, plus some thoughts I had along the way.

Winning Battles, But Not the War

As I wrote about amendments that didn’t get into the Senate’s Farm Bill, I realized, again, what hard times we progressive advocates face.

Basically, we’re reduced to giving thanks — even to legislators themselves — because bills that affect low-income people aren’t as bad as they could have been.

We see this not only nationally, but here in the District of Columbia.

The Fair Budget Coalition, for example, proclaimed victories when high priorities, e.g., homeless services, a delay in further TANF benefits cuts, got into the list of things that will get funding if the Chief Financial Officer predicts more revenues — lots more — than the estimate the budget was built on.

Not faulting FBC  here, especially when the coalition — and others — averted some truly harmful cuts and got some money back in the Housing Production Trust Fund as well.

But I long for victories that actually move us forward.

Upward Mobility in Black and White

My recent post on the Pew Center’s economic mobility report alluded to its findings on blacks born to low-income parents. I’d wanted to include them, but the draft was already pushing against my somewhat indulgent word-count limit.

So here they are, plus some additional race gap facts.

  • The percent of blacks who grew up in the bottom fifth of the income scale is nearly six times greater than the percent of whites — 65% as compared to 11%.
  • More than half (53%) of blacks stay there, while only a third of whites do.
  • Well over half (56%) of blacks raised in the middle fifth fell down to the second or bottom fifth as adults. Less than a third (32%) of whites raised in the middle fell.

What about blacks in the top two fifths? The Pew analysts say the percent — even for both together — is too small to calculate mobility “with statistical certainty.”

Not, I think, surprising. What is to me is how much more slippery the middle rung on the ladder is for blacks.

Disparities in parental income, education and employment opportunities — all in part reflecting persistent race discrimination — can explain why it’s harder for blacks born at the bottom to climb the ladder.

But what accounts for the greater downward mobility — the reverse, if you will, of the American Dream?

Part of the answer apparently is that the median family income for blacks is lower than for whites in every fifth that can be reliability estimated. So even a relatively small income loss can drop them into the next fifth down.

But the plummet to the bottom fifth calls for more explanation than I can ferret out of the report.

Life Is Unfair, in Economese

Found this in a very wonky paper by economists Flavio Cunha and James Heckman: “The best documented market failure in the life cycle of skill formation … is the inability of children to buy their parents and the lifetime resources they provide.”

In other words, children born to parents who’ve got the education, temperament, time and money to invest in developing their cognitive and noncognitive skills, e.g., perseverance, self-control, aversion to risky behaviors, are more likely to become economically and socially successful than children who by “accident of birth” have parents who don’t.

We knew this, of course. And the Pew report indirectly confirms it. But whoever knew it was a defect in our free market system?


Open Court Proceedings Could Change the Child Welfare Narrative

March 4, 2012

Professor Matthew Fraidin sent “a small, friendly amendment” to my post on child welfare narratives. I said that he had previously focused on the need to open now-secret child welfare proceedings, but had turned his attention to narratives.

He explains that the two issues are intimately inked, as follows:

As I pointed out in an article in the Maine Law Review, the closure of child welfare courts plays an important role in creating the inaccurate narrative by suppressing stories other than horror stories.

My speech at the University of Michigan, which you discussed in your post, is an effort to depict the narrative that might exist if the much more common, much truer stories of child welfare could be told — stories of racial disparity, stories of child taken from their families unlawfully and unnecessarily, stories of lawyers who haven’t met with their child or adult clients, stories of judges who openly ignore the law.

Laws creating secret courts not only limit the people who may enter and observe the proceedings. They also limit the stories that may be told by those allowed to enter.

In other words, a lawyer involved in a child welfare case may enter the courtroom and review the documents in the court file, but s/he may not talk, i.e., tell stories, about what s/he knows or has seen or read.

In fact, the only lawfully-allowed stories are stories of criminal acts — murders, brutal injuries or severe neglect, for which adults are charted as criminals. But those don’t come from the child welfare cases and courtrooms.

In those instances, someone gets arrested, and the law places no limit on the information the policy may share with reporters. Reporters then tell the gruesome story beneath a screaming headline. And THAT creates and perpetuates the inaccurate narrative!

If child welfare courts were open to the public and press, the narrative would be much more nuanced, to say the least. We would read a diverse array of stories, including stories about lackluster lawyers, caseworkers and judges.

Most importantly, we would read about children who were taken, terrified, from their schools and homes and families, but didn’t need to be.

We’d read about children who were doing better at home than in foster care. We would read about parents who love their children, and children who love their parents and siblings, children who miss their homes and wither in foster care.

Those new stories might change our collective mindset about the child welfare system so that we would no longer think of it simply as a holding pen for animalistic parents and their children, who, inevitably in our minds, are fruit that doesn’t fall far from the tree.

“Child welfare” would be a much more complex phenomenon.

The D.C. Citizen Review Panel’s recent findings suggest that there are literally hundreds of children in foster care unlawfully and to their detriment.

The many, many stories that could be told about those children would convey a much richer, more realistic and less stereotyped image of the parents.

In the meantime, the ideas summarized in my HuffPo article represent an effort to start changing the inaccurate, destructive narrative, even in jurisdictions like the District of Columbia where child welfare proceedings are held in secret.

In my opinion, secret courts protect from challenge the inaccurate narrative created by racial bias and sensational horror stories.

You got it exactly right, Kathryn. “Chang[ing] the stories in our heads” can help us tell accurate stories, which happen to be the ones made illegal by secrecy laws.


Narratives Prop Up Flawed Social Service Programs

February 21, 2012

“The nuclear secret of child welfare,” writes Professor Matthew Fraidin, “is that most children in foster care shouldn’t be there.” And being there harms most of them more than they’re helped by being taken away from their families.

Fraidin has argued in the past that we need to let some sunshine into the now-secretive proceedings that deliver children into the care of many child welfare agencies — the District’s Child and Family Services Administration included.

He still advocates for this, but he’s turned his attention to the narrative that gives rise to the inordinate number of foster care placements.

Or perhaps it’s actually two related narratives.

One is of “brutal, deviant, monstrous parents” whose children have to be rescued from imminent injury or even death. This narrative is “drummed into our heads” by the press, which likes the sensational cases.

Also, I see, by bloggers. Daniel Hiempel, for example, accuses us of allowing “certain children to be abused, even murdered” by ignoring the “empirically true” fact that “cases of abuse and neglect soar in poor neighborhoods.”

Note the class bias here.

The other narrative extends beyond parents who get ensnared in the child welfare system. It’s the propensity of legal service providers, among others, to view low-income clients as “the sum of their needs” — to focus on weaknesses and ignore strengths.

Start instead, Fraidin says, from the premise that clients are “bundles of assets.” Look at what they as individuals can do because then they’ll bust through the narrative and emerge as “complicated, three-dimensional, real” people.

Once we change the story in our heads, we can “change the conversation.” And, I gather, represent clients differently, since Fraidin links the internal narrative change to limiting foster care entries and speeding exits.

The “we” he exhorts are lawyers — and perhaps judges. The article I’m linking to began as a speech delivered at the University of Michigan’s law school.

He refers in passing, however, to anti-poverty programs in general. And surely his message has clear implications for caseworkers and the agencies they work for — nonprofits as well as government entities like CFSA.

David Henderson, who consults for nonprofit service providers, observes that they “too often base their interventions on a presumption of irrationality among the poor” — or he adds in a comment, “assumptions of general incompetence.”

Look, he says, at programs that force parenting classes on homeless people. We’ve got many other examples of this sort.

I’m reminded of a classic — if perhaps mythical — exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

“The rich,” said Fitzgerald, echoing a theme from his Great Gatsby, “are different from you and me.” “Yes,” said Hemingway. “They have more money.”

Seems to me that we as a community could purge the narratives in our heads if we started from the premise that the poor are no different from us, except for having less money.

That would change how we advocate and what we advocate for.

UPDATE: Professor Fraidin has written a very thoughtful response to this post. As he explains, his opposition to secret child welfare proceedings and the prevalent narratives are two sides of the same coin. He also tells us some shocking things we’d learn if proceedings were open.


How Does DC Rank On Poverty, Opportunity And Shared Prosperity?

November 10, 2011

As I recently wrote, the Half in Ten campaign has issued a groundbreaking report that calls on our nation to do two related things:

  • Cut poverty in half
  • Create shared prosperity by increasing opportunities and supports for low-income individuals and families

For both goals, the timeframe is 10 years — less actually, since the report starts the clock running in 2010. That’s because many of the baseline indicators it uses come from the latest Census Bureau reports.

One of the most ambitious aspects of the project are the state-level indicators for both poverty reduction and progress toward the three big priorities the campaign advocates — more good jobs, stronger families and greater economic security.

The state-level indicators are online and include not only the most current figures, but rankings relative to other states. Links let us see the actual figures for all states.

So what do we learn about poverty, opportunity and shared prosperity in the District of Columbia? Here’s a sample.

Reducing Poverty

About poverty, most of us already know. The District has a higher poverty rate than all but two states — 19.2% in 2010.*

No news about food insecurity either. As I previously wrote, the District’s food insecurity rate last year was 13%. This puts the District above a majority of states, with a ranking of 20.

Creating Good Jobs

The indicators for creating good jobs are a mixed bag indeed.

On the one hand, the District tops all states for wage equity between men and women — an average of only 8.6 cents on the dollar separating them, as compared to 21.4 cents nationwide.

It also ranks first in the percent of young adults (25-34 year olds) with an associates degree or higher. Close to two-thirds — 63.6% — of residents in this age group have a college degree of some sort.

But only one state — Nevada — ranks lower in the percent of high school freshmen who graduate four years later. Barely more than half — 56% — of District students graduated on time in 2008.

Strengthening Families

Huge variations in the indicators for this priority as well.

Only one state — Massachusetts — has a lower percent of residents without health insurance. For D.C., the figure is 7.6% — just 3.2% higher than for Massachusetts.

But no state has as high a rate of children under 18 in foster care. No state, in fact, even comes close.

For every 100,000 children in the District, 2,058 have been taken away from their families. In the highest ranking state — Nebraska — the ratio is 1,188 per 100,000. Nationwide, the ratio is 533 per 100,000.

Promoting Economic Security

No big point spreads here, alas.

Last year, only 36.3% of jobless workers in the District received unemployment insurance benefits, putting the District below all but two states — South Dakota and Virginia.

The District also ranks below all but two states in the percent of residents (adults presumably) who don’t have bank accounts — a somewhat primitive, but useful measure for asset building.

Finally — no surprise — the District ranks lower than all but six states for affordable housing, which is here measured as the number of affordable, available rental units per 100 tenants with incomes at or below 50% of the state median.

Only 53% of lower-income tenants here have a chance at an affordable unit.

Why the Indicators?

Half in Ten provides these indicators — and plans updates — so that we can advocate for legislation that “moves … [them] in the right direction” and hold our elected officials accountable for progress.

The campaign focuses mainly on federal policies. Yet when we look at the District’s indicators, we can see that some of them have solutions close to home.

Many, I think, speak to the yawning gulf between the haves and have-nots in our city.

New evidence of this — and another indicator — from the Census Bureau, which reports greater income inequality in the District than in all but two other major cities.

That’s something our local government can address, though we need radical shifts in federal priorities too.

As at the federal level, the core issue is political will. Creating and sustaining it is our business.

Think what could happen if we all asked our policymakers — and aspiring policymakers — what they intended to do about the deplorable numbers here.

* This figure comes from the American Community Survey. As I earlier wrote, it is more reliable than the much-reported one-year figure from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.


10 Things I’ve Learned About Twitter

August 6, 2011

About three months ago, I decided to launch myself into the Twitter world — this after a very good Half in Ten webinar on how to use social media strategically.

Here’s what I’ve learned — and tentatively concluded.

  1. It’s possible to express a thought in fewer than 140 characters — even for someone as voluble as I. And it’s good discipline because you need to bore down to the core message.
  2. It’s not possible to express a thought of any complexity or even to qualify a relatively simple thought. No room for “possibly,” “unless,” etc. And, of course, no room for acknowledging different views.
  3. Tweeting infects one’s thought processes. I often think through issues while taking my daily constitutional. Find myself talking to myself in little blips. This also happens when I read something I like (or don’t).
  4. Twitter is a great distraction. When I get to a tough place in a draft, I have yet another way to put off the inevitable slogging through. And I take advantage of it, though I know I shouldn’t.
  5. Twitter is truly a social medium — much more collaborative than a blog. Many cryptic conversations. Lots of tweets and retweets to help others get information out to broader networks.
  6. For some people, Twitter seems to fill a void. Maybe they need a sense of connection and there’s no one around they’re really connected to. Or maybe it’s something completely different. I just don’t get why some people tweet fragmented streams of their daily lives. Do get why some people tweet — how shall I say? — fragments of themselves.
  7. Twitter can be part of an activist communications campaign, but only by facilitating networking among organizations and individuals who are already engaged — and communicating with one another in less confining ways. Mini-messages — often comprehensible only to those in the know — don’t grow grassroots.
  8. Tweeting can subvert activism. It’s easy to feel one’s doing something for a cause by tweeting or retweeting a message. But one’s not really doing anything that will make a direct impact on the powers-that-be. At best, Twitter is a way of letting others know what they can do, but only via links.
  9. Malcolm Gladwell is partly right when he says the next revolution won’t be tweeted. Successful campaigns for social change have leaders and lieutenants. Also a critical mass who’ll put real skin in the game. Twitter followers aren’t the same as, for example, the people who followed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. across the bridge at Selma.
  10. But the next revolution — assuming we have one — may be tweeted in ways Gladwell doesn’t allow for. Social media could help keep participants connected. They might help get the media coverage needed to build support — and provide some measure of protection. Twitter might have gone the way of the telegraph by then. But I doubt we’ll see a replica of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

What do you more seasoned tweeters say?


New Survey Results Offer Strategy Insights For Advocates

July 1, 2011

Washington Monthly editor Art Levine observes that the District’s safety net organizations are “mostly under-funded, poorly organized and lack media savvy” — this as a partial explanation for the spending cuts and related policy changes the DC Council seemed ready to approve.

I think Levine’s basically right about the limits of our hometown advocacy campaigns, though organization seems to be getting better. Something similar could probably be said about many safety net campaigns in cities across the country.

But, journalist that Levine is, he may be overestimating the difference “media savvy” could make — and discounting the effectiveness of some strategies that even a savvy PR specialist would find challenging to pitch.

It’s certainly true that our major media have been much more preoccupied with bickering among Councilmembers over the Mayor Gray’s proposed tax increases — even more preoccupied with the ins-and-outs of potential malfeasance.

But it’s questionable whether more and better reporting on the proposed safety net cuts would have made much difference. Many reasons for this.

One is suggested by a fascinating new report on which strategies Congressional staff think would have a significant influence when their bosses hadn’t already made a firm decision on an issue.

For strategies directed to Capitol Hill offices — the most comparable to the offices Councilmembers occupy in the Wilson building — news editorial endorsements ranked eighth among the twelve options that staff surveyed were asked about.

Only 10% of them thought editorial endorsements would make “a lot of positive difference.”

Seems reasonable to assume that straight news coverage would make less — though it could, of course, build support among the dwindling number of people who still follow what can properly be characterized as news.

But support means nothing unless it’s acted on. And here’s where some of the other survey results are enlightening.

Top of the effective strategies list were in-person visits from constituents, followed by contacts from constituents who represent other constituents. Well over 90% of survey respondents endorsed both — and 46% put the former in the very influential category.

Individualized letters and e-mails came in next, followed by phone calls. Form letters and e-mails ranked much lower. And only 1% of respondents thought they would make a big difference.

Same 1% for comments on social media sites. Not good news for us bloggers and tweeters.

Respondents were also asked which strategies they thought were important for understanding constituents’ views.

Again, in-person strategies — attending events and town hall meetings — ranked very high. So did personalized messages, whether conveyed via snail mail, e-mail, telephone or fax.

Identical communications ranked lower and were considered very important by only 4%.

Now, the U.S. Congress isn’t the DC Council and its counterparts. We’d be in even worse straits if it were. But that doesn’t mean the survey findings are irrelevant to local advocacy campaigns.

To my mind, in fact, they may be more relevant than to large national campaigns. Because local organizations have much more limited resources. Investments in strategies with a low return can mean little or no investments in the high pay-offs.

Perhaps advocacy organizations at all levels could use the survey findings as a strategy screen. At the very least, the findings seem to me a call to assess strategies that are routinely used just because they’re part of the repertoire.

What do you think?


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