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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Could Facebook Affect How You Vote?

Message saying "I voted... did you?"

Anybody who logged onto Facebook on election day got hit with a crazy number of “go vote!” messages. Most were from your friends, many were from the companies you’ve Liked. (We tried to make ours go down easier by pairing it with a picture of an adorable puppy.) But there were also some messages from Facebook itself. They were either just general messages to go vote or a list of your friends who’ve already voted (who then told Facebook that they voted, of course).

But here’s where it gets interesting. Not everybody saw these messages. Four percent of Facebook users got no message. Why?

Facebook button saying "Remind Friends to Vote"
Because they were all being subjected to a big social experiment.

The Atlantic explains:

By splitting up the population into these experimental and control groups, researchers will be able to see if the messages had any effect on voting behavior when they begin matching the Facebook users to the voter rolls (whom a person voted for is private information, but whether they voted is public).

Researchers want to know if social pressure from Facebook affects people’s decisions about voting. So, with Facebook’s cooperation, they’re seeing if the “your friends are voting” messages gave people the final push to perform their civic duty.

For most people, Facebook and politics are like potato chips and cupcakes — addictive on their own, but pretty revolting when paired together. The number of posts for (or more likely, against) a candidate before the election was topped only by the number of posts by people complaining about their Facebook feeds being hijacked by friends talking politics.

(Somebody could make a killing on a Facebook app that blocks all references to specific candidates. Get on that, innovators.)

But maybe the constant politi-chatter is reinforcing your political beliefs as it annoys you. You might roll your eyes when one of your friends posts “NOBAMA!”, but maybe that post is a reminder for liberal voters to cancel out that guy’s vote and a reminder for conservative voters to back that guy’s vote up. Maybe individual political messages all blur together after awhile, but the combined effect of seeing them again and again every day helps you develop your opinion.

Think about it this way: Ask the next person you see which presidential candidate they voted for. Most people will answer quickly. Now ask someone how they voted for a specific local ballot measure. Many people won’t even be able to remember.

And which are you more likely to see as a Facebook post — “NOBAMA” or “MEASURE 82, I CHOOSE YOU!”?

(Note to self: Make Pokémon themed bumper sticks supporting ballot measures that end in 2′s.)

California Students: Vote or Face Higher Tuition

You can educate yourself about candidates, but at the end of the day, most people will vote along party lines. That’s just the way things are.

But in most elections, there are other things at stake than just who will take office. The times democracy really gets to chance to shine are with propositions (or ballot initiatives or measures or whatever your state calls them).

That’s when doing your homework before the election really matters. You can’t just say, “More like NObama! LOL! Straight Republican ticket!” or “Binders full of women! LOL! Straight Democrat!” When you’ve got an initiative, you actually need to pay attention to what’s being asked.

This election, college students (and rising college students) in California are faced with two competing propositions, Prop 30 and Prop 38, that could significantly impact how public institutions earn money. If neither of them pass, students should expect to get a tuition hike of around 20%. The schools have to find the money somewhere.

Here’s what each of the propositions are asking:

Prop. 30 — The Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act of 2012

  • Tax hike of 1-3% on single taxpayers earning over $250,000. Also, sales tax goes up a quarter of a cent.
  • Will raise $6 billion over 7 years.
  • If it doesn’t pass, University of California and California State University lose $250 million and K-12 schools lose 3 weeks off the school year.

Prop. 38 — Our Children. Our Future. Local School and Early Education Investment and Bond Reduction Act

  • Tax hike of 0.4-2.2% on single taxpayers earning over $7,316.
  • Will raise over $10 billion over 12 years.
  • No immediate repercussions, but that’s a lot of money K-12 schools won’t get. Plus the state can’t start to pay off its bonds.

Only one of these will be accepted, so if they both receive enough votes to pass, then the one with more votes will get passed into law.

That creates a weird situation, since it makes the two propositions half-compete with each other. The ballot wants you to consider each of these propositions independently, allowing you to vote “yes” or “no” for both, if you want. But both can’t pass.

That means you need to vote strategically. Do you want CA schools to get more money no matter what? Vote both. Do you think the difference between these propositions is significant enough that you want to pick a favorite? Vote for one. Do you think any tax increase isn’t worth it? Vote neither.

 

Should You Vote in Your Home State or Your College’s State?

Vote pin on an American flagI was an out-of-state student. For four years, my family and mailing address were in Virginia, but I spent the majority of the year up in Massachusetts. I kept my voting registration in Virginia, mostly because I’d rather cast a vote in a swing state than in one that tends to lean blue.

Many students might not realize it, but it’s a choice all out-of-state students can make. Confirmed by the 1979 Supreme Court case Symm vs. United States, students are permitted to register as voters in either their home state or the state where they attend school. This applies at the local level too. (The Supreme Court case actually dealt with a dispute over voting in a particular county.)

A website called Countmore.org is designed to help students with the decision by comparing the number of electoral college votes, the breakdown of votes in the last election, the number of issues and candidates on the ticket, and the registration deadline to determine which state is “worth more” in the election.

One the one hand, it’s kind of sad that the value of a vote can measured by a simple online algorithm. It’s kind of sad that we can say, and prove, that one vote counts “more” than another. On the other hand, it’s the way our society is structured and I applaud the site for keeping potential voters informed.

 

Supreme Court Reviewing Affirmative Action

The Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case that could potentially change the way our country handles affirmative action.

Here’s the bare-bones facts of the case. Abigail Fisher, a student whose application to the University of Texas was rejected, sued the school for discrimination. She’s white, and arguing that if she had been a racial minority, she would’ve been accepted.

This isn’t the first time a case dealing with affirmative action has appeared in the court. 1978′s Regents of the University of California v. Bakke declared that a quota system, that is, saying that a certain number of spots are reserved for people of a certain race, is unconstitutional. 2003′s Grutter v. Bollinger, regarding the admissions policy at the University of Michigan, upheld affirmative action by arguing that a school has an interest in diversifying their student body, and should be permitted to consider race as a contributing factor in admissions.

Like most Supreme Court cases, Ms. Fisher’s experience will ultimately not have much to do with the debate. That’s doubly true in this case, since she’s already graduated from a different university. Her circumstances aren’t particularly complicated; she just attended Louisiana State University instead of Texas.

Instead, the case could become an argument over how we can decide when we’ve had “enough” affirmative action. At least, that seems to be the direction the justices were steering the conversation. In other words, at what point will the country decide that schools and other institutions are “diverse enough” and let the policy be race-blind?

That may be a loaded question, but it’s hard to talk about affirmative action without using loaded questions.

Is Voting a Practical Choice or an Idealistic One?

A sample ballot for the 2012 presidential election

This article from The Atlantic is surely one of the most hotly debated articles I’ve seen lately. In it, writer Conor Friedersdorf declares flatly that he will not vote for President Obama because of moral objections to (a) drone strikes in Waziristan, (b) the President’s “kill” list, and (c) how Libya was handled. In a follow-up, Friedersdorf shared some of the responses he received from the article, particularly framed around the question of having certain issues be “dealbreakers” for candidates.

Here’s the binary decision: Are there certain issues that will make you refuse to vote for a candidate or, not, because every vote is a compromise already?

Friedersdorf insists that the first is true, not simply because it’s the stance he’s taken, but because he believes that everyone draws their own personal moral lines in the ground. But the examples he gives are of situations that would never happen:

“If two candidates favored a return to slavery, or wanted to stone adulterers, you wouldn’t cast your ballot for the one with the better position on health care.”

That’s probably true. But it’s doesn’t change the fact that, for better or worse, most people at some point will support something they find morally reprehensible with a vote. Obviously not all people are neatly categorized as either Republicans or Democrats. Even once you add in Libertarians, Socialists, the Green party, the Constitution party, or the Modern Whig party (yes, that’s a thing), you can’t possibly encompass the full spectrum of political and moral opinion. And just because someone calls themselves a Republican, Democrat, or whatever, doesn’t necessarily mean they subscribe to every platform of that party.

So people will indirectly support things they find vile, as long as it’s something vile that we, as a society, have still marked as up for grabs. The most contested social issues are ones where both sides feel they have the moral high ground: abortion, gay marriage, gun control, capital punishment, etc. While many people will draw their moral lines in the ground over one of these issues, many more people ignore them all together. For some of those people, it’s because they have no interest in getting bogged down in moral debate. For others, it’s the belief that the candidate ultimately doesn’t have that much of an impact on moral issues.

Martin Sheen playing President Bartlet on "The West Wing"At this point, I’d like to turn the article over to conversation. What do you believe is the purpose of voting? Is it strategic, made to help whoever you think would be the most capable leader to win? Or is it to take a stance, to say “This is what I believe,” and strategy be damned? (Even if casting a vote for what you believe is by writing in a vote for Martin Sheen or Oscar the Grouch.)

Are Students IDs Good Enough Proof to Vote?

McLovin's ID from "Superbad"

Quick quiz: How many forms of ID do you have?

Modified question: How many forms of ID do you have on you right now?

Once we exclude the passports, Social Security cards, birth certificates, and all those other documents that you usually just cram into that single, unsorted drawer of important papers that you never open, most of us only carry around a single form of ID.

For people who drive, it’s their driver’s licenses. For college students, it’s typically their student IDs, which most colleges demand that you carry at all times.

But that’s based on my experience. I grew up in Virginian suburbs where it’s impossible to get around without a car. What about college-age people who grew up in cities, where public transportation makes learning to drive mostly pointless? What about people who’re from a socio-economic background where getting a car while in their late-teens and early-twenties is impossible? Other than proving you’re old enough to buy cigarettes and alcohol, what’s the point in getting an ID?

A number of states — specifically Kansas, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin — are in the middle of legislative debates over what should be considered an acceptable form of ID. The anti-student ID group feels that non-government issued documentation is too easy to fake, so allowing student IDs is just an invitation to voter fraud. The pro-student ID group feels banning student IDs is going to disenfranchise young voters, particularly lower-income young voters who aren’t rushing out to get driver’s licenses as soon as they are of age.

There’s a lot that could be said about political motivations. Since the young and lower-income demographic tends to lean left, the Left is naturally the side complaining about disenfranchisement.  And just as predictably, the Right is the side claiming that this is really about preventing fraud. But nobody can have a reasonable debate when you just start throwing out accusations of motivation, so let’s throw that discussion out entirely.

Does voter fraud happen? Sure. But virtually never with people showing up at polls claiming they’re someone they aren’t. South Carolina’s State Election Commission ran a study of 900 suspicious votes credited to dead people. They only made it through 207 of the votes before they decided the study wasn’t worth continuing. 106 were clerical errors. 56 were people who weren’t, as it turned out, actually dead. 32 were caused by stray marks picked up by scanners. And 3 were absentee ballots cast by people who died before election day.

I can understand how jarring it seems requiring government-issued ID for college students to buy beer but not to vote. But take into account the absurd lengths college students will go in pursuit of beer. If only college students were that passionate about voting…

I am sympathetic to the idea of tightening up restrictions on voter ID… at least I can see where it’s coming from, but I think it’s ultimately overstating a problem. If voter fraud is an issue, banning student IDs is the equivalent of “duck and cover” to protect yourself from a nuclear blast. It’s not going to stop the problem, even if it makes you feel better. If someone is going to commit voter fraud, it’s going to be electronically. That’s a much more efficient means of screwing things up than spending all day waiting in polling lines with fraudulent IDs.

I can sympathize with the logic, even if I think it’s flawed, of the legislators in Kansas, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin. Florida, on the other hand, gets no such sympathy. Between the recent vote purge (comparing voting lists with DMV info and eliminating 100,000 people’s votes) and recent legislation against third-party voter registration groups, I have a lot of trouble giving that state the benefit of the doubt. That’s not just “duck and cover.” That’s blowing up the desk before the nuke gets the chance.

Dear Businesses, Don’t Lie With Social Media. It Ends Badly. For You.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone be so impassioned about kinda-OK chicken sandwiches as I have over the past week. If you haven’t heard… first of all, good for you. How do you manage to avoid all these blog fodder stories? Second, here’s the summary of the major points:

  1. Chick-fil-A CEO asked if his apparent stance against gay marriage is true. Answers, “Guilty as charged.”
  2. The Henson company cancels their agreement to sell Muppet toys through Chick-fil-A.
  3. Chick-fil-A posts a message at its restaurants saying the Muppet toys were pulled because of a safety hazard.
  4. Mike Huckabee calls for an end to the “hate speech” against Chick-fil-A.
  5. Chick-fil-A accused of defending themselves using dummy Facebook accounts.

If you’re thinking that the jump from step 3 to step 4 is completely ridiculous, then congratulations, you’re a reasonable person. If “I’m going to buy my chicken sandwich somewhere else!” is a form of hate speech, then what words do you have left to describe racism and death threats?

Instead I want to talk about step 5. Now, technically we don’t have any hard evidence proving that these dummy accounts were created by the fast food chain’s PR team, but it is pretty suspicious. A stock photo pasted onto a few-hours-old account solely dedicated to defending the company? It’s a dummy account for sure, and a lazily made one at that. But theoretically anybody could have made it, I’m just not sure why anyone not on their payroll would have any reason to.

Even if we give Chick-fil-A the benefit of the doubt, there are plenty more companies guilty of actions just this moronic.

Back in 2005, cosmetics company L’Oreal started a blog solely dedicated to how great they and their products are. The blog was written from the perspective of a non-existent woman named Claire, whose raves about L’Oreal skin creams were coming right from the brains of the marketing department. Needless to say, they were eventually caught in their lie.

WalMart started a very Morgan-Spurlock-esque stunt blog, chronicling a couple who was journeying from Nevada to Georgia and staying overnight in WalMart parking lots along the way. Except none of this was true: WalMart was simply fashioning a false narrative and peppering it with “interviews” by WalMart employees gushing about how much they love their jobs.

Gaming developer Bioware was caught redhanded abusing the voting system on Metacritic, the aggregate review site. One reader noticed that the language of a few of the posts praising Bioware’s Dragon Age 2 without any qualification sounded a bit canned. After a bit of digging, he found that multiple profiles were created that day by Bioware employees to generate artificial positive word of mouth. Weirdly, the parent company of Bioware, EA, sent out the most sarcastic member of their PR team, who apologized for nothing, saying “I’m betting Barack Obama voted for himself too.”

It’s mindboggling to me that any company would ever think they could get away with something like this, though I can understand the temptation. Imagine you work in marketing and your employer hits a PR iceberg. Somebody in the company needs to put out the little fires, and it’s not going to be the CEO. So you, as a marketing employee, decide to go for direct approach of speaking to customers through Facebook, Twitter, a blog, whatever. Except you can’t directly engage because nobody wants to hear a company rep make excuses. So you lie about who you are, because it’s the Internet, and you’re protected under a veil of anonymity.

Except that last part is completely untrue. People will always find out. Even if you do a better job covering your tracks than the Bioware people did. (They were caught because one employee was using the same alias on multiple sites. Figuring out who it was involved one Google search and one LinkedIn search.)

In fact — and people working in marketing should understand this more than anyone else — it doesn’t even really matter if people find admissible-in-court-type evidence against your company. If they suspect that a company is being dishonest, they will hold it against them, especially if, like Chick-fil-A, they’ve already given people a reason to dislike them in the first place.

Companies of the world: Your customers are just as intelligent and resourceful as you are. You aren’t going to outsmart them, so don’t try. People are very, very responsive to feeling that they’re being manipulated, and social media makes it very, very easy for them to see right through lies.

I’d say “stop it,” but let’s be honest: Fails of this magnitude are pretty entertaining to watch.

“As Much Education As They Can Afford” — Gaffe or the Plain Truth?

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney (R)

At a rally in Virginia, Mitt Romney said that he wanted to make sure that America remains “a place of opportunity,” where “everyone has a fair shot” and “get[s] as much education as they can afford.”

Now, we’re not a political blog. And we really, really don’t want to be one. A political blog latches on to every bit of phrasing and twists and turns it around to try to reveal some hidden truth or underlying theme about a candidate, a party, an organization, whatever. The knee-jerk reaction to Romney’s phrasing is easy: “What do you mean as much as they can afford? Are you saying the financially privileged deserve better educations than other Americans?”

That’s a boring conversation. Is Romney’s phrasing a subtle hint at an underlying bias toward the wealthy? Who cares? The last thing I want to do is contribute to the always petty conversation around election season.

But we are (or at least we’d like to think we are) a blog about ideas. And at the root of over-analyzing Romney’s statement is an interesting discussion: How much education should be free, and how much should you have to pay for?

First of all, education is never free. It can’t be. Even if, in the future, our current concepts of classrooms, degrees, and homework are completely unrecognizable, students will always need two things: equipment (books, computers, art supplies, etc.) and teachers (professors, coaches, etc.). Even if the students of the future consume all of their education through all-purpose interactive tablets, someone needs to buy the tablets. Even if the students of the future are all taught by very life-like robots, someone needs to pay the programmers and engineers making robots. Because teachers will always need salaries and equipment will always need to be purchased, someone always needs to pay for education, whether parents, taxpayers, grant donors, or the students themselves.

So when we say “free” what we really need to be saying is “accessible.” Should everyone have the same access to education? Well, sure. That should be an easy answer. That’s only what’s fair, right? No sane person would claim that the very poor don’t deserve to be just as informed as anybody else. That’s the reason why it’s important to make sure resources like libraries and public schools allow anyone to access them freely. We can’t claim to be a democratic society and prevent accessibility of information.

But at the same time, we can’t really claim that all education is created equal. Obviously, some schools are going to be better than other schools. A lot of that depends on the quality of the teachers. A lot of that depends on the quality of the administrators. But most of it, unfortunately, has to do with money. Schools with more money will be able to pay teachers better, provide better tools for their students, fund more extracurricular activities, and provide more out-of-the-classroom experiences. So while we should certainly always strive to make education be as universally accessible as possible, the sad fact is that it won’t be.

Let’s take it back to Romney’s words, specifically, the word “afford.” Naturally, when we think about affording something, we think about money, but that’s actually a secondary definition. The primary, according to Merriam-Webster anyway, is “to manage [or] to bear without serious detriment.” So “affording” education means more than just paying for it. It means being able to dedicate the time and energy necessary to achieve your goals.

Again, I’m not here to nitpick word choice of a person who’s on camera 24/7, I’m just making a point. An education is always going to be an investment. Even if you didn’t have to pay for four years of undergraduate studies, you still were dedicating four years of your life toward making your future opportunities better. That’s a cost in itself. And that’s a cost that not everyone will be able to handle.

Getting a good education is achieved through hard work and good resources. That’s always going to take money and energy. The more we can help one another have access to quality education, the better. But there will always be a personal cost to a student: long-term, like loans, or short-term, like choosing to be a full-time student instead of having a job. We can (and should) keep the cost as low as possible, but a student needs to be willing to make that personal investment.

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