Tag Archives: Andreas Ekstrom

What’s New in Fake News: Choosing our Facts (2)

What’s New in Fake News: Choosing Our Facts (2)     —by Jinny Batterson

In an earlier blog post, written not long after last fall’s elections, I retold a surprise encounter with a Trump supporter while visiting family in California, the “left coast.” This veteran of stints in the Marines and the U.S. Coast Guard played down Trump’s divisive rhetoric. (“He’s just a brash New Yorker,” the man told me.) He was upset about Hillary Clinton’s misuse of a private email server and, above all, concerned about illegal immigration. He quoted facts and figures, both historical and current, to bolster his anti-immigrant arguments. He claimed that 750,000 “illegals” made up 10% of the population of New York City, taking jobs and housing from more deserving legal residents. When I mentioned the proportion of our national food supply harvested by immigrant labor, he shunted my concerns aside—that was old news, he said. During World War II, there was a shortage of native-born farm workers, so immigrants were brought in to pick crops, but nearly all of them had been sent home during the Eisenhower administration. I did not have ready answers, but thought some of his statements were likely exaggerations.

Shortly after our conversation, I used a borrowed computer to look up figures via Google for “illegal immigration to New York City.” The closest match I could find was a Newsmax article from September, 2015 that appeared near the top of the retrieved list. It mentioned the 750,000 figure, but for New York State as a whole, in 2012, with an undocumented proportion of less than 4%.  Since the new year, I’ve repeated my “illegal immigration to New York City” query, and also done further Internet research on farm labor trends. As of January 19, 2017, the lead site from a Google search on New York City illegal immigration was a sponsored advertisement for an immigration lawyer. The second highest site came from Wikipedia, with a host of disclaimers at the beginning of the article, much of which was written in 2014. This article cites a 2005 estimate of 535,000 “illegal immigrants” in New York City, sourcing the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a lobbying group formed during the 1980’s to advocate for reductions in both legal and illegal immigration to the United States. 

Further research about immigrant farm labor trends produced the information that a “bracero” program (from the Spanish term for manual laborer) for Mexican temporary farm workers was in place from 1942 to 1964. The number of braceros peaked at 445,197 in 1956, during the Eisenhower administration. The program was replaced in 1965, as part of an overall reform of the immigration system, by a program of temporary “H-2A” visas for immigrant farm workers.  Recent estimates from multiple sources put the proportion of undocumented workers in the seasonal farm labor force at over a million—somewhere between 50 and 70% of 2.4 million temporary farm workers.  According to a Wikipedia article most recently updated on January 17, 2017, there were approximately 140,000 seasonal farm workers certified under the “H-2A” program in 2015. 

Most “news” articles these days have an explicit or implicit editorial slant. Each of us is enabled to “choose our facts,” about immigration or any other issue, from among a huge number of available sites, given the continuing explosion of information in Internet, television, radio, and print sources. It becomes more important than ever to attempt to develop a balanced perspective. As I continued struggling to expand my views after my encounter with the Coast Guard veteran, I found a brief online talk by Swedish journalist Andreas Ekstrom about bias in Google search results.  Two of the most important factors in Google rankings of the relevance of a query result, he explained, are: 1) similarity of search terms,  and 2) the number of accesses to a particular site. Relevance is monitored and recalculated frequently, so the same query done several weeks apart can produce widely differing results. For example, the 2015 Newsmax immigration article for New York that showed near the top of my results list in November, 2016, no longer made the first screen of results in January, 2017.

If we are to maintain a representative democracy, Americans of all political persuasions will need to become more diligent about how we access news. It may take some time in our hurried lives to distill actual information from the plethora of opinions  and “fake news” that so often masquerade as the real thing. It will be increasingly important to distinguish the trustworthiness of news sources; often, we’ll need to pay more attention to when an article was published and how recently it has been updated. Above all, we will need to continue to choose our “facts” carefully.      

The Myth of Objectivity: Choosing our Facts

The Myth of Objectivity: Choosing Our Facts     —by Jinny Batterson

This fall’s election season left me both physically and emotionally exhausted. In October, as attack advertising on all sides escalated and early voting started, I finalized plans to visit extended family on the west coast shortly after the election was over. It seemed a good way to regain some longer term perspective—the two generations that come after me would help me regain balance.

Now that I’m in sunny California, we’ve mostly avoided talking politics. I’m sure we don’t agree on everything. Avoiding hasty words is an antidote for having to take them back later. The grandkids are cute, and generally uninterested in grown-up concerns.

However, I haven’t escaped political repartee entirely.  My first Sunday here, I was sitting under a shade tree, watching the kids play as the awards ceremony for our son’s final cross country race of the season droned on. A man also watching from nearby piped up with unsolicited advice: several of the kids were playing in a way that might result in injury, he said. A friend of his had had a dangerous fall and lost an eye. I thanked him, mentioned his concern to the kids, asking them to be a little more careful, and thought that would be the end of our interaction. No such luck. 

“What do you think about the results of the election?”  he inquired.

“I’m not too happy,” I responded. “I would have preferred that the other presidential candidate had won.” 

“How could anyone support someone who violated the first tenet of public service?” he jibed. “I was in the Coast Guard. If I had sent classified information over a private email server, I’d forever have been disqualified from further service, let alone from becoming Commander in Chief.” 

Not wanting to get further enmeshed in a discussion that didn’t seem likely to have any positive result, I tried for more neutral ground.

  “Neither candidate was all that appealing,” I ventured. “I didn’t like the way Mr. Trump repeatedly insulted all sorts of people.” 

“Most of that was just bluster,” he responded. “After all, Trump is a brash New Yorker. Still, he has valid points. For example, there are over 750,000 illegal immigrants in New York City alone. That makes more than 10% of the population. They’re taking up housing that should be available to those of us who were born here or came here legally.”

Succumbing to continuing a conversation that I was pretty sure would end badly, I responded, “In the part of the country where I live, immigrant labor harvests nearly all of the crops. We need those workers.”

“Ha!” he said. “There was a time, during World War II, when there was a shortage of local workers for harvesting because so many American men were serving overseas, so immigrants were allowed in. However, once the war was over, Eisenhower sent them all back where they came from.”    

‘Look,” I said, “it seems that you and I view very different parts of reality. I respect your perspective, but I can’t agree with it.”

“Lady,” he said, “you’re entitled to choose your opinions, but you cannot choose your facts.”  With that, he strode off, triumphant. 

Not one gifted in coming up with snappy responses, I later did a bit of further research. Estimates of illegal immigrants/undocumented workers in New York vary widely, with the high-end 750,000 figure most likely coming from an online 2015  post by conservative-leaning publisher Newsmax. Every article about immigration has an editorial slant, explicit or implied—emphasizing either the costs or the contributions of this section of the American population. Some sources stress the need to keep families together, the need for skilled workers, or the aging of the U.S.’s native-born population. Others emphasize the need to reserve jobs/housing/advancement opportunities for the native-born. During the presidential transition, immigration remains a hot-button issue. 

I don’t have a pat answer. I’m not hopeful that our national immigration policies will become either more sensible or more humane for the near-term future. However, I believe that there is a way toward consensus in our nation of immigrants.  As recently as 2013, the U.S. Senate managed to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill,  S.744, with a substantial bi-partisan majority.  No comparable bill has so far passed the House of Representatives.

To further chances for reform, I believe we’ll need to listen to each other’s stories more deeply. We’ll need to broaden our array of “facts” beyond the mostly biased reporting we’re being subjected to on all sides.

To get a more general view, I turned to a different Internet site and searched for TED talks about “search engines.” I found the following brief talk by Swedish journalist Andreas Ekstrom—“The moral bias behind your search results.”  (http://www.ted.com/talks/andreas_ekstrom_the_moral_bias_behind_your_search_results/transcript?language=en)  

Ekstrom uses two examples of image search results that got temporarily distorted by massive bias: the first, a 2009 derogatory representation of Michelle Obama, was quickly removed by Google; the second, an equally derogatory 2011 representation of mass murderer Anders Breivik, was allowed to continue until it died out on its own. Ekstrom concludes: “And I (emphasize) this because I believe we’ve reached a point in time when it’s absolutely imperative … to remind (ourselves) that that wonderfully seductive idea of the unbiased, clean search result is, and is likely to remain, a myth.” 

Let’s choose our “facts” carefully.