Fresh Politics, New Media by amy bree becker, ph.d.

Amy Bree Becker is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mass Communication & Communication Studies at Towson University. She researches political comedy, new media, and public opinion. Views expressed are her own.

12 million views for Obama's Appearance on Between Two Ferns

In case you haven't seen it, here's the video of President Barack Obama's appearance with Zack Galifianakis on his Funny or Die web series, Between Two Ferns:





Folks can argue about the quality of the humor present in the clip. I personally found key snippets like the reference to North Ikea or drones funny, but it's hard to deny the fact that the clip has been viewed 12 million times in just one short 24-hour period or the level of meta-coverage for the piece as a wide range of news outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and even the PBS News Hour have covered the President's effort to inject humor into his marketing of the Affordable Care Act.



The video itself was the leading source of visits to healthcare.gov yesterday according to an update from The Washington Post. Whether the video will actually lead to additional sign-ups by those in the coveted under 30 age bracket remains to be seen. As the Post noted:


According to the Sysomos social analytics platform, the video had been mentioned 30,000 times on Twitter as of 1 p.m. eastern. Few of those tweets, though -- about 1,400 -- also mentioned health care.


So while the clip is generating attention, it's not certain that it will have its true intended effect -- increasing enrollment in various health plans prior to the March 31st deadline. As previous academic research by Danna Young has suggested, viewers process comedy peripherally so they may focus more on getting and enjoying the jokes, rather than on internalizing the message about the value of enrolling in a plan through the health care exchange.



At the same time, my own work has suggested that viewers appreciate the politician who can handle both humorous attacks and can be funny enough to make their own jokes. Moreover, it's not just the clip itself that will have an impact but the meta-coverage or mainstream news media coverage of the 6 1/2 minute video that will keep the story front and center through a couple of news cycles.



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Disposition, Political Parody, and the 2012 Election

Ever wonder about the impact of those political parody videos you were watching during the 2012 Election cycle? While you might have found it funny to see Barack Obama or Mitt Romney made fun of, were others finding these things funny as well? Was anybody else watching?

A new article I just published in Human Communication Research addresses these questions and more by applying the disposition theory of humor to the study of both political parody appreciation and the effects of humor exposure.

First, a little background: The Pew Research Center reports that 55% of all registered voters went online during the 2012 Election cycle to watch political video. 37% watched humorous or parody videos dealing with political issues. So yes, you weren't the only one watching those YouTube clips.

The research featured in the HCR article is based on an experimental study that asked subjects to watch one of three sets of videos: a set that featured Democratic-directed humor, one set that included Republican-directed humor, and apolitical content that acted as a control. Within each video set, subjects saw an original video clip (a music video) and then the parody version. For the Democratic-directed humor set, the original video was the Gotye song, "Somebody that I Used to Know," while the parody version was a song that went viral called, "Obama that I Used to Know." For the Republican-directed humor set, the original video was Psy's popular, "Gangnam Style," while the parody version was the song, "Mitt Romney Style," created and promoted by CollegeHumor.com. The apolitical cells featured the Carly Rae Jepsen song, "Call Me Maybe," and the Sesame Street parody, "Share it Maybe," sung by the lovable Cookie Monster.

When analyzing parody appreciation, the results first suggested that disposition (or how much you like Obama or dislike Romney) had a differential impact on humor appreciation. Specifically, those who liked Obama were less likely to appreciate the Democratic-directed humor and more likely to appreciate the Republican-directed humor that attacked Mitt Romney. At the same time those who disliked Romney were less likely to appreciate Democratic-directed humor targeting Obama, but more likely to appreciate the "Mitt Romney Style" clip that poked fun of the Republican nominee.

The study also looked at the interplay between disposition, type of comedy watched, and resulting effects on attitudes -- in this case post-test favorability toward Romney and Obama. The results highlighted a significant effect on attitudes toward Obama for those who dislike Romney and were exposed to the Democratic-directed humor attacking Obama. The bottom line: disliking a candidate and viewing humor where that candidate is the victor can dampen your attitudes toward the victim. For campaigns looking to manage the fallout from these viral parody videos, the research suggests that it may be quite valuable to work to quickly change the media narrative so that attack humor doesn't negatively impact how voters think about your candidate, particularly for those who already dislike the other guy.



Overall the research presents a timely and relevant case study and makes use of some really fun video content (see clips pasted below). From an academic standpoint, the study updates the use of the disposition theory of humor as a key framework in political communication research and also pushes the boundaries of the theory further to look not just at humor appreciation or processing but also humor effects.

Video Clips:

Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know,"



Democratic-directed humor: "Obama That I Used to Know,"



Psy's "Gangnam Style,"



Republican-directed humor: "Mitt Romney Style,"



Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe,"



Cookie Monster's "Share It Maybe,"



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New Article: Public Opinion Toward Employment Discrimination, 1987-2012

A new article I wrote on trends in public opinion toward employment discrimination is now available online at The International Journal of Public Opinion Research. The article will later be in print in the journal's special issue on Public Opinion about Gay Rights/Marriage being edited by Paul Brewer. The piece examines evolving views on whether school boards should have the authority to fire known homosexual teachers between 1987-2012 (N=35,578). In the process, I consider whether we have seen a sea change in public opinion on the issue similar to the dynamic we've recently been witnessing with the same-sex marriage debate.

As the chart below shows, 51.5% of Americans expressed support for the practice when Pew first started collecting data in 1987. By 2012, only 21% of Americans still expressed support for the practice. These individuals are what researchers call the hard core, those who retain minority viewpoints in the face of majority opposition. As the results suggest, this 21% or the hard core tend to be older males who are less educated, more religious, more conservative in their politics, and more likely to have old-fashioned values when it comes to marriage and family.



The analyses look at what factors explain support for variation in employment discrimination over time. Not surprisingly, the influence of religious and ideological value predispositions matters most but demographics (e.g., gender, age, and level of education) are also important as are key cultural values. Much like the same-sex marriage debate, the importance of partisanship (e.g., being a Democrat vs. Republican) wanes in importance over time and is no longer a significant factor driving opinions after 2002.

When it comes to change over time, the results show that the influence of year or time matters more between 2002-2012 than between 1987-2002 indicating that, much like the same-sex marriage debate, the rate or pace of change on this issue has shifted more rapidly, more recently.

One key take-away: while we've been primarily focusing our attention on marriage equality, opinions have shifted on other LGBT civil rights issues as well. At the same time, the US has yet to add sexual orientation to the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. While the US Senate supported the measure this past November, the bill stalled given a lack of support in the US House of Representatives. At the time of the article's drafting, fully 29 states failed to offer protections against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. So while opinions may have shifted just like with the case of marriage equality, legislation still lags behind.

Stay tuned for the summer release of the special issue which promises to present some interesting research on the current state of public opinion toward gay rights/marriage in the US and abroad.

More on the Pew Research Center's 1987-2012 Values data set.
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Upcoming special issue of Mass Communication & Society: Entertainment Media and Politics

I'm very excited for the Spring 2014 release of Mass Communication & Society's special symposium issue on Entertainment Media and Politics spearheaded by guest editor, R. Lance Holbert.

It's really an honor to have my work included alongside the research of so many respected scholars of hybrid media including colleagues (and friends) Heather LaMarre, Kristen Landreville, and Danna Young.

A table of contents for the special issue is pasted below. Happy spring reading!



Volume 17, Number 3, 2014 • May-June Symposium—Entertainment Media and Politics

Introduction R. Lance Holbert, Guest Editor
Strike While the Iron is Hot: Seizing on Recent Advancements to Propel the Study of Political Entertainment Media Forward

Articles

Hoon Lee and Nojin Kwak
The Affect Effect of Political Satire: Sarcastic Humor, Negative Emotions, and Political Participation

Bruce W. Hardy, Jeffrey A. Gottfried, Kenneth M. Winneg, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson
Stephen Colbert’s Civic Lesson: How Colbert Super PAC Taught Viewers about Campaign Finance

Mark Boukes, Hajo G. Boomgaarden, Marjolein Moorman, and Claes H. De Vreese
News with an Attitude: Assessing the Mechanisms Underlying Effects of Opinionated News

Franziska Roth, Carina Weinmann, Frank Schneider, Frederic Hopp, and Peter Vorderer
Seriously Entertained: Antecedents and Consequences of Hedonic and Eudaimonic Entertainment Experiences with Political Talk Shows on TV

Heather L. LaMarre, Kristen Landreville, Dannagal Young, and Nathan Gilkerson
Humor Works in Funny Ways: Examining Satirical Tone as a Key Determinant in Political Humor Message Processing

Amy B. Becker
Playing with Politics: Online Political Parody, Affinity for Political Humor, Anxiety Reduction, and Implications for Political Efficacy

Book Review
Reviewed by Gary Woodward
Kate Lacey, Listening Publics: The Politics and Experience of Listening in the Media Age

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Mixing Manual Human Effort with the Power of Machine Learning

I really enjoy watching David Brooks and Mark Shields engage in a civil discussion of the week's news on the Friday broadcast of the PBS News Hour. While I don't always agree with David Brooks' politics, I do think he presents some very rational and pressing arguments in his work (his recent column on weed aside).

In today's New York Times, Brooks critiques our heightened love of machines and the use of automation to replace human dependent tasks like driving cars or picking stocks. Brooks makes the point that even in this age of rapidly expanding technology, there are certain human activities that machines just can't replicate. Brooks is certainly right on some fronts. But maybe the question isn't a dichotomous one -- machine vs. human? Perhaps, as I've seen in my own recent work with a team of computer science colleagues, it's about using machines to enhance human efforts. Relying on techniques from the world of artificial intelligence (e.g., automated machine learning, semi-supervised learning, etc.) can not only make human efforts more efficient but also exponentially increase the amount of data that we as communication researchers are able to process.

In one piece of our current project, my colleagues and I compare the accuracy of traditional manual content analysis coding with automated coding that uses a basic Naive Bayes classifier. Specifically, we're looking at traditional and new media coverage of the same-sex marriage debate in Maryland between 2011-2012. What we've found is that with a little supervision, our automated coding efforts can achieve levels of accuracy greater than 90% suggesting that it may make sense to apply these principles from natural language processing to make sense of even larger bodies of "old media" data.

We've also amassed a dataset of over 9 million tweets to look at new media content. Yet again we've paired manual coding efforts that capture relevancy and sentiment with automated techniques. We applied a Bayes classifier yet again to look at the relevancy of tweets downloaded during 2011-2012 and used support vector machines (SVM) to assess sentiment. The end result -- a much larger set of coded tweets and accurate results (> 90%) when we look at both relevance and sentiment.



In my opinion, the beauty of this project is the balance between human and machine activity. As a scholar of public opinion research and the marriage equality issue in particular, I bring my domain-specific knowledge to the project, applying public opinion theory and traditional content analysis techniques to the coding of the old and new media data. My computer science colleagues bring their knowledge of machine learning, their desire for high-performing algorithms, and their programming skills to the table. What has resulted is a significant interdisciplinary undertaking that pairs traditional mass communication research approaches with the power of computational social science.

We're now moving beyond the text to analyze the social network driving the Maryland-focused same-sex marriage conversation on Twitter between 2011-2012. And truth be told, none of this would have been possible if we hadn't started out with the idea of connecting man and machine. So perhaps, Mr. David Brooks, it's not about humans vs. machines but how can humans and machines work together to solve common, important problems.



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Future Directions for Political Comedy Research

Now out in the latest edition of the National Communication Association's Communication Currents newsletter is an essay I've written with my colleague, Don Waisanen, about our recent review of the state of political comedy research.

The essay translates our recent article published in Review of Communication where we focus on defining the current boundaries of political comedy research. We discuss how research focuses primarily on comedy's features (e.g., things like comedy's devices and conventions, ideological and ethical functions, and contributions to public affairs and civic discourse) and the effects of exposure to this entertaining content (e.g., key outcomes like knowledge and learning, attitudes, and political engagement). The piece also reviews recent work on how viewers process, interpret, develop an affinity for, and come to understand political comedy content.

In the second half of the piece, we work to bridge the features and effects divide by offering 5 key directions for future political comedy research. They include:

1. Bringing conceptual clarity to political comedy's boundaries, terms, and definitions by developing a sharper vocabulary for the study of political comedy.

2. Focusing on the proliferation and diffusion of political comedy. It's time to better understand how comedy is shared and circulated on the Internet, the subcultures that develop around comedy content, and its influence on the political process.

3. Apply traditional mass communication approaches toward a study of the political comedy audience -- looking not just at patterns of exposure but also how audiences evaluate of a range of content types.

4. Better situating political comedy in the larger post-broadcast environment to more fully understand the institutional structures against which comedy operates.

5. Study the effects of comedy over time rather than through the predominant cross-sectional perspective. Doing so will help us understand what features and impacts of comedy content are important over time, various election cycles, etc.

As we conclude, "Communication scholars have been at the forefront of research on political comedy. From studying the pressures political comedy puts on our public discourse to its direct and indirect effects on citizens, communication studies will continue leading efforts to examine the seriously funny."

What do you think is the future of political comedy research?

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What the Jimmy Fallon/Bruce Springsteen "Gov Christie Traffic Jam" song says about Comedy and Politics

2014 means it's time to get back to blogging.

Anyone who knows me well also knows it's no secret that I am a big Bruce Springsteen fan. It's kind of a pre-requisite if you grew up in New Jersey. Perhaps the best part of my ICA 2013 London conference trip was that it overlapped with the E Street Band's stopover at Wembley Stadium in London. The ticket stub is proudly displayed in our house.

Those who know the academic me also know that I spend a good chunk of my time researching the impact of exposure to political comedy and entertainment. Over the years I've found that exposure to political comedy is positively related to feelings of internal political efficacy or the belief in one's ability to effectively understand and participate in politics, that political comedy content can act as a gateway encouraging young people in particular to seek out political information from traditional news sources, and that viewing interviews on political comedy programs increases citizen knowledge and participation in politics. My work has also shown that there may be some benefits for the politician who can both take and tell a good joke.

The net conclusion of this extensive body of work is that political comedy is an important force in our mediated political environment and that these varied forms of hybrid media can impact our politics and our citizens.

My favorite clip from 2014 so far is this week's Jimmy Fallon/Bruce Springsteen parody of Born to Run, "Governor Chris Christie's Fort Lee, NJ Traffic Jam." The clips is a comic hit and has been making a strong political point. In case you haven't seen it, here's the video:







Why is this such great comedy?

Well first, the piece is a great parody. The Fallon version of the song makes explicit reference to the original -- straight down to the reference to Highway 9, the wrapping of legs around those velvet rims, and even the first line of the song is partially the same as the original: "In the day we sweat it out on the streets ..." As a comic form, parody is meant to serve as a copy of the original text, one that is infused with a critical take on the original form. It's no surprise that both Fallon and Bruce sport a cut-off shirt, dark sunglasses, and Bruce's red bandana. They're offering commentary on the classic performance of the song and allowing even those who aren't big Bruce fans (and memorized the lyrics to Born to Run as a kid) to quickly identify with some very iconic imagery.

The piece not only incorporates a spot-on parody but also offers a satirical take on the power and influence Christie wields as the state's chief objective. Moreover, the clip even features self-ridicule with Bruce comically remarking about the length of his live shows. Voters appreciate it when politicians are willing and able to poke fun of themselves. The same sentiment rings true for musicians and pop culture figures as well.

Finally, the clip makes use of an increasingly popular platform -- the ever-present YouTube -- so that viewers who missed the original broadcast can quickly catch the clip and share via their favorite social networking platform. To date, the clip uploaded to the official "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" YouTube page has seen 2.25 million views in just 2 short days and received over 2,000 user comments (the original appearance was Tuesday night the 14th with the video appearing online on the 15th). That's not counting the metacoverage of the parody across a range of news outlets or other cross-postings. Bottom line: the clip's viral nature has contributed to its success.

Why does this all say about politics?

While the clip is certainly entertaining, it's also making a contribution to our political -- not just comic -- discourse.

As my own research has shown, when celebrities engage in political activity, citizens, especially young voters take notice. And as the Washington Post has so aptly noted, this parody of Born to Run is not Bruce Springsteen's first foray into politics. Ever since Ronald Reagan misappropriated Born in the USA in a political stump speech, the Boss has had a fair amount to say about which candidates he supports and which politicians he'd like to see run out of office. Springsteen's push to elect both Obama and Kerry are just two recent examples.

Like many contemporary musicians, Springsteen uses his popular platform to make statements about issues as well, much like other contemporary popular musicians including Beyonce, Bob Dylan, the Black Eyed Peas (think will.i.am) and others. And we're just talking about the B's. A review of the lyrics from "We Take Care of Our Own," says it all:

"From Chicago to New Orleans From the muscle to the bone From the shotgun shack to the Superdome We yelled "help" but the cavalry stayed home There ain't no-one hearing the bugle blown We take care of our own We take care of our own Wherever this flag's flown We take care of our own"

In fact you could argue that Bruce is known for being political. As such, lending his voice to the Christie "bridgegate" controversy has all the more impact especially if you're familiar with Christie's super fandom and his reaction to their embrace in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Thus for Bruce to kick Christie to the curb is an extra big deal, especially given the Governor's status as the 2016 front-runner for the GOP nomination.

While the Bridgegate scandal may fade as we really kick the 2016 contest into high gear (can't we get through the 2014 midterms first?!?!), it's certain that this viral parody will not. Even if you're not a Bruce fan like me, it's hard to argue that the Fallon/Bruce video isn't a slam dunk for comedy and for politics and one that will reappear each time Christie makes a gaffe or is associated with a new scandal.

Let's hope 2014 brings even more great political comedy and music too!

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