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The Problem of Abundance

Overwhelmingly Biased

This was written for April 14. Unfortunately, I couldn’t post it until now due to computer issues.

Partisanism has been a common theme in American politics for centuries. People are always taking sides on the decisions that the government made and arguing about the direction the current president and his party are leading the country. The party system can be useful and can help keep one group from starting a regime. However, it is far from perfect. One of the many major problems with a two-party system is that news sources seem to inevitably take sides.

As often as the major news networks boast about how unbiased they are, in truth, every station has an agenda. That agenda is, of course, to make money, keep up viewership, and remain employed. They need to keep their audience engaged and interested, and if they need to put the right spin on the facts to make that happen, many of them will. This is understandable as they are, in every way that counts, a business.

Unfortunately for the viewer, this means that they are receiving their information about the world through a filter, and I think a decent number of college students realize that. Although Donald Trump uses the term “Fake News” to lambast networks that disagree with him, the phrase caught on for a reason. In part, people use it against those with whom they disagree on political issues, however, the popularity of the term is also due to a concern that many share. People don’t want to be misled.

Everyone is inundated with news. It’s on our televisions, our radios, our social media, and our memes. In some ways, people are more informed than they ever have been. On the other hand, with so much news coming from so many sources, it is very difficult to confirm what is true. People realize that a lot of the information they are given is outright lies or, at least, incredibly biased. And unfortunately, when one turns to the major networks hoping to find out the facts, they are very likely to be given a one-sided answer.

In 2017, a Harvard-Harris Poll revealed some interesting results in a survey questioning people’s views on the mainstream media. They shared with The Hill, “65 percent of voters believe there is a lot of fake news in the mainstream media. That number includes 80 percent of Republicans, 60 percent of independents and 53 percent of Democrats. 84 percent of voters said it is hard to know what news to believe online.”

Out of curiosity, I searched the words CNN lies, Fox News lies, and NBC lies. Unsurprisingly, Google responded with many results. It is possible, even likely, that the majority of those webpages are created by people whose political views differ from those they are attempting to discredit, but the sheer number of results indicate that people are scared about being lied to.

I think that Dan Cohen is right, students are interested in the news. As young adults, many students are just beginning to form their own opinions on international affairs, politics, and the world, unfortunately, I’m not sure many of them know where to begin. With so many competing voices, it’s intimidating to try to find a news course that you can trust.

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The Problem of Abundance

News, Research, and the Future of History

While history seems increasingly picked over for good topics, the future lies in adapting and utilizing new tools to expand the field. While to write on Lincoln traditionally more or less requires writing on the “sex life of Lincoln’s doctor’s dog,” to appropriate a phrase that Dr. Browning likes to use, there are alternatives.

The first is analytic reading. Rather than directly reading the wide cannons of early Victorian literature, or the titanic dataflow of modern elections, analytic tools provide tools to digest the material down into a more easily processed finished product.

First though, what do people actually consume. In looking at student news consumption, many students are primarily gathering their information through visual means. When looking at how many news sources there are, and how many things are clamoring for a student’s attention, this should not be surprising. An image can say a lot, while not taking nearly as much time to process as text or video.

New analytic tools create opportunities to do new history in well trodden fields. For example, Franco Moretti discussed the idea that rather than engaging solely with a core cannon of literary works, new history on the Victorian Novels would need to engage with a much more comprehensive set of books. Rather than reading line by line and word by word, engaging with the novels more generally requires adapting mathematical tools and turning them to other uses.

Additionally, new media has also begun its incursion into a collective historical past. The Internet as we know it today has its roots in the 1960s, with the first use of the technology in 1965, when two computers first talked to each other. One of the first major uses of this technology was email, which was developed in 1972, as a way to speed communication between far flung researchers. However, the Internet has spread far beyond simply a tool for researchers, and become a more widely spread entity. For example, Ian Milligan worked with a web host by the name of Geocities.com to develop an image of how different communities and websites presented themselves, and how they interconnected. This is effectively an anthropological study of the historical internet, ranging from family and children, to politics, education, and cars.

Beyond Victorian novels, and the Internet becoming history, there is also the problem of how we plan to do history going into the future. Modern events create far more chatter than almost any historical event. While much of it is going to be lost, it still provides a new historical challenge, to trawl through terabyte upon terabyte of data in order to develop a clear idea of the issues and discourse upon nearly any subject.

For example, in the great internet flame war of 2015-2016, aka the 2016 presidential election, MIT actually did a fairly large scale analysis of how the discourse on Twitter actually looked, called The Electome. This shared analysis of the election with a number of news sources, and showed some particularly interesting outcomes, not by reading tweets, but instead using keywords to find what was being talked about, and how it was discussed.

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/d3xamx/journalists-and-trump-voters-live-in-separate-online-bubbles-mit-analysis-shows

By boiling down the nearly billion tweets about the election into graphs, images, and datasets spread among a number of news platforms, the Electome managed to take an utterly overwhelming dataset and turn it into more easily analyzed information. When considering other modern events, such as the Coronavirus, similar tools will have to be used for analysis and evidence gathering.

However, this does not mean that the old methods of history are outdated or obsolete. Rather, they provide a different manner of information, and should be recognized as such. Older history creates opportunities to analyze particular news sources, or pieces of evidence closely and deeply, while analytic tools create a much more broad context.

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The Problem of Abundance

The Needle in the Haystack

This week’s readings got me thinking about the overabundance of online source material we have for both historical research and for daily information necessary for keeping up with current events. The amount and variety of information available to students and everyone else in the digital age is overwhelming, and can cause people to simply give up trying to find accurate, unbiased information, as Dan Cohen explains in his article entitled “What We Learned from Studying the News Consumption Habits of College Students.” This in turn relates to Ian Milligan’s chapter, “Learning to See the Past at Scale,” in the book, “Seeing the Past with Computers: Experiments with Augmented Reality and Computer Vision for History.” In his chapter, Milligan describes in detail methods for handling an overabundance of sources on the web, and how to archive them.

While this abundance can be beneficial for students and scholars everywhere, making the need to visit physical libraries often obsolete, and making the research process possible even during a global pandemic, there are clear issues that can and do arise. I personally resonated with Cohen’s article, because I only keep up with the news when I am living with my parents, and consequently my news comes from multiple TV sources. Outside of that, I only get news from talking to other people and Facebook, and maybe my CNN app sometimes. I truly find the time it takes to closely analyze my news sources and consult each one every single day, searching endlessly for reliable information, to be exhausting, especially on top of my graduate school work and other responsibilities. Along with that, the simple amount of information that hits me when I do consult several news sources “paralyzes” me, as Cohen mentions, and often it is so full of negative, dire news that it puts me in a bad state of mind as well. Am I the only graduate student/young professional who feels this way?

I agree with Cohen’s assessment that “A more active stance by librarians, journalists, educators, and others who convey truth-seeking habits is essential.” I agree that, as Cohen says, it is problematic that only 7% of college students have consulted their local librarian today. However, how should these people step up to the plate? What should they be doing more of in order to help with this problem? Cohen claims that students have a lack of “temporal bandwidth,” and are always stuck worrying about the now instead of being able to see the bigger picture, thanks to social media and excess information. How are we to combat this? How do I, as a grad student myself, combat this in my own life? While being informed as a global citizen is important, I have immediate concerns like classes, Covid19, and internships to be concerned with. The more “stuff” that gets piled into our minds to worry about will only make us less capable of remembering information, planning wisely for the future, and doing adequate work. I, and most other students I know, cannot contain both out current worries and concerns, historical worries and concerns, and future ones in our heads, along with everyone else’s current issues, without falling apart. Most working adults should not have to do this either, or cannot do it! I would have liked for Cohen to have provided some possible solutions to the problem he was highlighting in his article, since the way it is written seems to just add one more thing to the plate of worries.

In relation to digital history, the experience of trying to keep up with the news is quite similar. Hunting for historical sources can be hit or miss, depending in your topic, and sometimes, the amount of websites and articles and photos and videos is so overwhelming that an amateur researcher, such as a college or grad student, doesn’t even know where to start or how to narrow themselves down enough to actually learn something from their research and make a contribution to the field of history. Searching through thousands of articles from just one search that you thought was fairly specific takes too much time and energy to waste. endlessly tracing the web for metadata on a photograph that has been used countless times by different people is a tremendous waste of time, especially for those who don’t know about TinEye, a site that helps you find origins of images more easily. Knowing what research question to settle with and follow can be like running on a hamster wheel, and sometimes, it takes forever to find a topic that other people haven’t covered (hence the abundance of historical information available stressing people out in the first place). While digital history and a variety of sources are a gift, I agree that it should be managed properly, but I don’t know how to accomplish that, and apparently, neither did Cohen…




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The Problem of Abundance

Bias: The Current and Terrible Solution to Abundance

Bias is inevitable, but should we at least try to avoid it. Some of it is not the consumer’s fault; YouTube and Facebook create bias in your feeds. Dan Cohen’s article “What We Learned from Studying the News Consumption Habits of College Students,” discusses how students want to have unbiased, factually correct news sources. Cohen goes on to state students feel they do not have the time to look for them, or do not trust any of them. The student’s lack of time and distrust in sources leads them to get their information from less than reliable sources or their peers and professors. It is interesting to note that they do find reputable sources for their academic projects, but are not willing to do the same for their daily news. If all news sources are biased, would it be better to use a combination of news sources with opposing biases to find the overlapping truth?

Bias also happens in the history classroom; there is so much history to teach, that inevitably some, well most of it, gets left out. There are countries I know little to nothing about because the curriculum did not cover them in my world history class in grade school. Taking our history from the internet is also automatically biased, as the internet has only existed for a small portion of the earth’s existence. Also, not everyone has the internet or the ability to use technology to add their story to the worldwide web. Therefore, their stories will be left out of the record like the masses before the 1960s. In Ian Milligan’s chapter of Seeing the Past with Computers: Experiments with Augmented Reality and Computer Vision for History, “Learning to See the Past as Scale: Exploring Web Archives through Hundreds of Thousands of Images,” the author did a study of different websites of a handful of first world countries. There is a lot of content on the internet, so some inevitably were excluded. Still, the data set Milligan chose was biased as there were no third world countries in the mix. Although the third world countries would be outliers, they still need to be included to portray an accurate picture of the world wide web.

Bias is inevitable, especially as information is abundant, and there is an abundance of perspectives in the world. Therefore, admitting your prejudice and trying to include as much information and as many views, may be the best route forward.

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The Problem of Abundance

It’s All Too Much

In the wise words of John Oliver: memes aren’t facts.

The truth is, though, a large amount of people get their information on current events from easily digestible sources on websites they usually go to anyway. I’m certainly guilty of doing that, and I’m well aware that those sources might not be entirely accurate. As our readings this week pointed out, though, there’s just too much out there to sift through. At some point, you just have to accept what’s convenient and move on with your day.

Another issue that came to mind is how sites like Facebook and YouTube use algorithms to “suggest content you’ll like”, but ultimately end up creating an echo chamber for the opinions you already have. 60 Minutes did a piece a few months ago that discussed, in part, how YouTube’s suggested videos feature helps spread conspiracy theories, false information, and the messages of hate groups.

This is a systemic issue. Social media platforms and popular websites seem to not care if they put too much information out there. As long as they get traffic and advertising revenue, they don’t care if an individual falls for conspiracy theory nonsense. They have no incentive to curate what information is spread. Worse, if these sites did start to monitor the accuracy of information being spread, they’d be accused of violating someone’s First Amendment rights.

All of this is to say… I legitimately have no idea how to approach this issue. You can tell individuals to “be vigilant” or “corroborate your sources”, but even then, people will take the easier option if the information in question isn’t of dire importance to them. The only real way to have a permanent solution to this is to monitor what is uploaded and what is distributed, and there’s no way of ethically doing that.

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The Problem of Abundance

Technology and the History Classroom

In this digital age it has become more common for technology to seep into the classroom where wanted or unwanted.  Many of today’s students have some ort of device whether it be a phone, tablet, or laptop. These types of technology should be utilized in a history classroom. For example, there are a ton of primary sources available online that students could analyze to get experience working with those kinds of sources. Virtual Reality has also become a good method of bringing technology to the classroom. Several museums have created virtual version of their displays that allow used to visit the museum from wherever they are at. There are really two versions of the VR museum experience. If a institution has the resources they can have students use virtual reality goggles to literally step into the museum without leaving the school. The other version is a 3D tour of a museum or historic building, these allow students to be guided through the institution by going to the museum website. Digital collections of artifacts also can help when studying a particular period since it would allow a student to look and read about an object from the time without having to travel to see it in person. The major drawback to students’ access to technology has to be the fact that they can be flooded with information. This is extremely relevant today with the outbreak of Covid-19. New channels are constantly reporting about the virus and its impact. This is a bad thing due to the fear it spreads but also in a way is a good thing for future historians. The constant coverage gives historians a multitude of digital primary sources on the virus. Also, the fact that each source reports it differently can help future historians show how news was reported by different agencies.