Willisms
Navigation
Buy WILLisms

XML Feed
rss-icon.gif Feedburner RSS
WILLisms.com on Twitter






Featured Entries

The Babe Theory Of Political Movements.
Mar. 21, 2005 11:50 AM

Iran's Sham Election In Houston.
June 20, 2005 5:36 AM

Yes, Kanye, Bush Does Care.
Oct. 31, 2005 12:41 AM

Health Care vs. Wealth Care.
Nov. 23, 2005 3:28 PM

Americans Voting With Their Feet.
Nov. 30, 2005 1:33 PM

Idea Majorities Do Matter.
May 12, 2006 6:15 PM

Twilight Zone Economics.
Oct. 17, 2006 12:30 AM

The "Shrinking" Middle Class.
Dec. 13, 2006 1:01 PM

From Ashes, GOP Opportunities.
Dec. 18, 2006 6:37 PM

Battle Between Entitlements & Pork.
Dec. 21, 2006 12:31 PM

Let Economic Freedom Reign.
Dec. 22, 2006 10:22 PM

Biggest Health Care Moment In Decades.
July 25, 2007 4:32 PM

Unions Antithetical to Liberty.
May 28, 2008 11:12 PM

Right To Work States Rock.
June 9, 2008 12:25 PM



Donate





Links

Ace of Spades
HotAir
Protein Wisdom
Ramparts360
RightWingNews
Urban Grounds
Wizbang








Search



Archives

July 2012
May 2012
April 2012
March 2012
February 2012
December 2011
November 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
March 2011
February 2011
January 2011
December 2010
November 2010
October 2010
September 2010
August 2010
July 2010
June 2010
May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004




Social Security Reform Thursday.
January 29, 2008

Caption Contest Archive
Jan. 21, 2009

The Carnival Of Classiness.
Mar. 14, 2006

Quotational Therapy: Obama.
Apr. 4, 2008

Mainstream Melee: Wolfowitz.
May 19, 2007

Pundit Roundtable: Leaks.
July 9, 2006

A WILLisms.com(ic), by Ken McCracken
July 14, 2006




Credits

Powered by Movable Type 3.17
Site Design by Sekimori




WILLisms.com January 2009 Book of the Month (certified classy):











The WILLisms.com Gift Shop: Support This Site

giftshopbanner.gif











This Week's Carnival of Revolutions: carnivalbutton.gif



Carnival Home Base: homebase.gif

















Site Meter











Willisms

« April 2012 | WILLisms.com | July 2012 »

How to Astroturf a Cause Online: the Story of "I Stand with Bill Powers"

Bill Powers is the President of the University of Texas at Austin. He individually receives an annual income roughly twelve times the median household income of Texas, not counting six figures of deferred compensation or benefits. He commands a robust team of sharp folks internally at UT and has secured the big guns as outside public relations counsel. There is now an ongoing effort-- a well-orchestrated social media campaign which appears highly inorganic-- to "save" him.

This post aims to 1. provide some context for the UT kerfuffle itself, 2. cast some light on how people and organizations successfully astro-turf social media campaigns, 3. provide reasons why members of the media ought to be a bit more careful in how they report on the online/digital/new media horse race, and 4. offer some thoughts on what comes next.

1. Kerfuffle Context
First, some background on what the heck this "Save Bill Powers" stuff is all about.

There's the very, very macro context, which is basically that the higher education establishment has become sclerotic and out of touch, tuition has skyrocketed well beyond inflation, and the next major economic shock in America could easily be the higher ed bubble bursting. It's an iceberg straight ahead and we're the Titanic, but there's still time to steer the ship into safer waters. If we don't, though, yikes.

This is the startling context for this kerfuffle:

college-cost-inflation.gif

Zooming in a bit further, to Texas, we see that tuition at UT went up 39.88% from Fall 2004 to Fall 2011. We also see a Governor, who happens to be a Texas A&M alumnus (that's UT's primary in-state rival, so there's a built-in suspicion among Longhorns), and who has appointed the entire Board of Regents at The University of Texas system, who has committed to making public higher education in Texas more affordable, accountable, and accessible. Specifically, Governor Perry embraced various specific higher ed reforms over the years, including what are known as the "Seven Breakthrough Solutions" as a starting point for reform. Not surprisingly, the higher ed establishment opposed these reforms. Despite UT-Austin receiving more dollars-- and more dollars per student-- in state funding from the State of Texas than UC-Berkeley gets from California, it seems like the only acceptable higher ed reform to the higher ed establishment is more money.

In the summer of 2011, battle lines were drawn, with the "Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education" (a.k.a. "The Coalition") emerging out of the Burson-Marsteller P.R. shop to support Bill Powers and the higher ed status quo. In October of 2011, Natalie Butler and Keshav Rajagopolan (current and former Student Body Presidents, respectively) launched a "spin-off" group group called Young Texans for Excellence in Higher Education. Various groups formed on the other side (including "Rock the Ivory Tower") devoted to affordability and reform.

The Governor also called for a 4-year tuition freeze for incoming college students (in January of 2009) and a $10,000 college degree in 2011. The $10K degree idea was met with scorn and incredulity from the higher ed establishment, but it's now been adopted in public universities across the state. And the tuition freeze? Well, just this month, the UT Regents approved it for two years (not the four that Perry initially called for). Bill Powers lashed out at the tuition freeze idea online and in an email:

powersemail.gif

If all of this context (and the above context is certainly just the Cliff's Notes version this story) was the collective geopolitical navigation of the Great Powers in the 1930s, then Paul Burka's apocalyptic, all-caps Texas Monthly blog post was the bombing of Pearl Harbor:

burkablog.png

2. How to Astroturf a Social Media Campaign
This is where it gets interesting. While most of the press coverage has focused on the numbers of people who "joined" a Facebook group called "I STAND WITH BILL POWERS," at least one member of the press has hinted that something else might be afoot here. The Texas Tribune's Reeve Hamilton tweeted a note of caution:

reevetweet.png

While I already suspected that the anonymously sourced, (and still uncorroborated) BurkaBlog post and the apparent organic response to it was all a little too convenient, Reeve Hamilton's tweet further piqued my interest, so I explored it further. Along with some others in the higher ed movement, it quickly became apparent that a handful of really sharp young folks, working with some powerful organizations with ample resources, synthetically engineered what appeared to be a natural groundswell.

Let's take the url registration, just 100 minutes or so after the nuclear BurkaBlog post went live, the savebillpowers.com domain name had been secured:

urlregistration.png

Okay, that's been known to happen organically, I guess. People just happen to read an unsubstantiated, rumor-mongering blog post at 7:30 pm on a Wednesday night and just happen to buy a domain name that just happens to become the focal point of a public relations campaign, within an hour and a half. And they just happen to buy the domain name anonymously. It just happens all the time.

Meanwhile, the issue positioning, keywords, and instructions went out via Facebook, from Natalie Butler of the "Young Texans":

instructionsgoout.gif

And at nearly this precise moment, #saveBillPowers began trending in Austin, Texas:

trending.png

Accompanying the Save Bill Powers Twitter presence was an identically-branded Facebook page, formed at 8:10 pm (just 40 minutes after the BurkaBlog post hit the web):

whenfbgroupstarted.png

Even with such robust branding, a matching website, matching twitter, implied institutional backing from President Powers himself, and a catchy slogan, the Burson-Marsteller team has only managed to gather mere hundreds of actual fans:

savebillpowers.png

It can be frustrating to oversee such a meager social media presence, but luckily there is a solution. Ditch the Facebook page. Go with a Facebook group!

A bit later, two-time Teaching Assistant to Bill Powers Rachel Meyerson founded the "I STAND WITH BILL POWERS" Facebook group:

rachelmeyersonstartsthegroup.png

Immediately after the group was created, Meyerson added two admins to the group:

admins.png

And they all started adding members to the group.

In order to boost its "groups," Facebook allows individuals to not only invite someone to a group but actually add him or her to it, whether he or she is even interested. Many Facebookers, even young digital natives, aren't engaged enough to even notice they've been added without their permission. And many Facebookers aren't savvy enough to know how to leave a group after they've been "Facejacked." Some people tend to fear leaving the group and insulting their friends who added them. Needless to say, spam-adding folks en masse to Facebook groups they may or may not agree with is not cool, and it's definitely not true digital virality in any organic sense. Indeed, this guy showed how easy it is to add all of your Facebook friends to a group in only about 20 seconds:

That's not a movement. That's a line of code. And even if you don't use a javascript code (some browsers have blocked scripts like that since the video was made) and have to manually click on each of your friends to invite them, you can still spend just minutes to add hundreds or even thousands of people. To quickly get 10,000 people in a group, you really only need a half dozen young people (who tend to have a lot of Facebook "friends") spam-adding their contacts.

Pranksters angry about the loss of personal control even began adding Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to NAMBLA (North American Man Boy Love Association) groups in protest. It's a problem, and it's bad etiquette at the very least.

Bad etiquette or not, "Facejacking" is how the "I STAND WITH BILL POWERS" group grew and continues to grow. If you go in to the group, click "about," then click to view members by date added, you can find the screenshots below yourself. Scroll down to the beginning (it's kind of an annoying process), and you'll see that nearly everyone was spam-added by just a couple of individuals (these first 120 or so members are in reverse chronological order):

addedsixth.png

addedfifth.png

addedfourth.png

addedthird.png

addedsecond.png

addedinthebeginning.png

See all of those "added" folks? The overwhelming majority: added, not invited. And all by two individuals.

But surely they just seeded it a bit, and it became an organic, sustaining organism of its own shortly thereafter, right? Not really. Yes, others got in on the spam-adding action, but look at a sample from Friday:

addedfriday.png

Lots of spam-added folks. Not really much evidence of a true newsworthy movement.

Or the 21 most recent additions:

mostrecent.png

Again, out of 21 new members, Callie Williams added 1, Shelah Flowers invited 1, Andrew Grant invited 2, Keshav Rajagopolan added 3, and Rachel Meyerson added 14. Rajagopolan and Meyerson alone spam-added 81% of the newest 21 members. In total, 86% of the newest 21 members were spam-added, while 14% were invited.

We've established that the response to this kerfuffle was astro-turfed. So what? People astroturf all the time.

Well, it’s one thing to astro-turf, but it’s another thing to actively lie to the press about it.

3. Why More Skepticism is Needed in Reporting on Social Media

Let's look at Keshav Rajagopolan's statements to the Houston Chronicle.

Did social media explode with support for Bill Powers? According to the Houston Chronicle, yes:

chronlies.gif

Explosions!

Some relevant points:

Keshav Rajagopalan, who was UT’s student body president in 2008-2009, said he started the Facebook group last night after Burka’s post was published. He said thousands have asked to be part of the group. He worked with Powers closely during his time as student body president, but thinks that many UT students who did not know him personally recognize him as a leader that cares about them.

Wait. We just saw that Rachel Meyerson started the group, and that nearly all the early members were spam-added by other people. Indeed, Rajagopolan was personally responsible for a great deal of the spam adding. "Thousands have asked to be part of the group" is just plain deceitful.

While the spam-adding continued at a fast and furious pace on the "I STAND WITH BILL POWERS" group, there was no activity overnight and into mid-morning on the "Save Bill Powers" page:

noactivity.png

Again, a page (rather than a group) doesn't allow you to spam-add. People can be invited, but they can't be added without their permission.

So, the Save Bill Powers page was essentially a ghost town, and essentially the entirety of the social media operation to that point was astro-turfed by a P.R. firm. Jennifer Sarver of said P.R. firm tweeted:

sarver.png

Julie Shussler of the same P.R. firm posted to the group a bit later:

shussler.png

Matt Portillo said it was a piece of cake, and, sure enough, he (and Shussler) spam-added members as well:

shussler-portillo-meyerson.png

Portillo is also an organizer for the Young Texans, which he calls "a subsidiary of kind of a larger group":

portillo.png

That subsidiary stuff sounds so organic, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, the media drumbeat about how amazing this spontaneous social media movement has kept pounding.

Many uncritical headlines and stories were all over the web this past week. To give credit where credit is due, though, an Austin American-Statesman story did join the Tribune's Reeve Hamilton in noting that something wasn't quite right with the numbers:

By 5 p.m. Thursday, a Facebook group called "I Stand With Bill Powers" had more than 9,800 members, although some whose names were listed said in subsequent posts that they had been included by friends without their knowledge and against their wishes.

Bottom line: the widely reported "I stand with Bill Powers" Facebook effort was not an organic display of support. It was, however, publicly held out by the organizers as organic.

It’s one thing to astro-turf, as that happens sometimes in the public relations field-- it now ought to be clear how easy it is to do that. But it’s another thing to astro-turf and lie and say it was organic, then not only passively allow the media to inaccurately portray it as organic but actively feed that inaccuracy with untrue statements.

As for members of the media, more of them should turn a far more critical eye to claims of social media prowess based on what could very well be pure astro-turf.

4. What's Next?

Moving forward, the higher ed reform movement will continue, and the status quo guardians will continue as well. The UT faculty this week voted to support their boss, although one professor abstained:

English professor Snehal Shingavi was the only member who abstained from voting at the meeting. Shingavi said it was dangerous for the faculty’s support of Powers to be coupled with tuition increases.

“There is an unfortunate narrative in Texas that presents faculty as living off the fat of tuition,” Shingavi said. “It’s important not to connect these two. I abstained from voting because I understood the importance of having a unified vote.”

Meanwhile, the target of most of the negative social media content on the "Save Bill Powers" page(s) and "I STAND WITH BILL POWERS" group, Governor Perry, is not going away quietly on this issue:

"I don't think it's any big secret that I'm for keeping the cost of education down, so my suspicion is that no one in Texas thinks that I'm for tuition growth," Perry said. "It's a good message to send to the citizens of the state that we're not going to just have tuition increasing with no regard for what's happening economically for the citizens of the state."

And, ultimately, that's why this "movement" smelled so fishy from the get-go. You're telling me that students are rallying around the guy who wants to raise their tuition? Yeah, no. It was always a fabricated social media cause via public relations firm. It was well done, no doubt-- a great example of why my alma mater pays them so much to do what they do. But it was never a truly viral or organic cause.

As for Bill Powers, can someone please explain to me what exactly are his accomplishments, or, alternatively, what exactly are his goals, ideas, values, or policies that are worthy of support?

UT Professor Rob Koons bravely asks this very question:

Under President Powers, tuition has climbed over 23% in just 4 years (15% over inflation, as measured by the consumer price index). Average net cost per student (taking into account financial aid) has gone up 33% from 2005 to 2009, from $4534 to $6052 (the System stopped reporting this figure in 2010). In the same period, spending on administrative salary has gone up 86% at the university level, 55% in the College of Liberal Art and 45% in the College of Business, to take two typical examples of the Colleges. Spending on faculty salaries have gone up 21% in the same period (13% over inflation), with no increase in student learning, as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment (in which UT ranks in the 23rd percentile of its peer group).

President Powers' hand-picked student 'advisory' panels (whose discussions and votes have not been released to the public, despite the Open Meeting act) have simply rubber-stamped the views of Powers and his allies. For example, two years ago, after key lawmakers (including Senator Ellis) announced that any increase in tuition above 4% would lead to a reconsideration of tuition deregulation, Powers' panel miraculously determined that UT "needed" an increase of exactly 3.95%. Amazing coincidence!

Change in rankings:
US News #44 in 2008, #45 in 2012. A drop of one position, paid for by at least a 33% increase in costs to students!

Four-year graduation rate
2005: 46.4%
2008: 47.7

Six-year graduation rate
2005: 74.8
2008: 77.5

Nursing exam pass rate (UT graduates):
04-05: 97.0
2008: 92 (A drop of 5%)

Engineering exam pass rate:
04-05: 90.2
2008: 89

Exactly what are his accomplishments?

More on that dismal learning percentile figure:

On March 14, Washington Post reporter Daniel de Vise, in his piece "Trying to assess learning gives colleges their own test anxiety," reported that the University of Texas at Austin ranks very low in achievement of student learning. "For learning gains from freshman to senior year," writes de Vise, "UT ranked in the 23rd percentile among like institutions. In other words, 77 percent of universities with similar students performed better." The Post obtained this data through a public records request. The standardized test was conducted by the Collegiate Learning Assessment.

Prof. Richard Arum, a New York University sociologist, "reviewed UT's results at the request of the Post." He found that "seniors have spent four years there, and the scores [on student learning] have not gone up that much."

Ouch.

Again, what are Bill Powers' accomplishments? Somehow vastly higher tuition with academic ranking and performance stagnation doesn't seem like an accomplishment.

That all being said, the faster we can bring this back to a discussion about ideas rather than a quarrel between players, the better. For students. For parents. For alumni. For employers. For taxpayers. For everyone. Right now, the easy fixation is on Rick Perry vs. Bill Powers, but the ideas they are talking about are important. Tuition. Affordability. Accountability. Opportunity. The American Dream. Texas as America's shining state on a hill.

Do we accept the broken status quo, or do we reform our higher education system in Texas?

Posted by Will Franklin · 16 May 2012 02:40 PM · Comments (14)

Texas Job Domination: 2002-2012.

Trivia Tidbit of the Day: Part 956 -- Jobs-

Today's disappointing BLS job figures continued to mask the real employment situation in the country. While the official numbers showed 115,000 new jobs and an unemployment rate at 8.1%, Jim Pethokoukis notes that the unemployment rate would be 11.1% if United States labor force had remained the same size as when Obama took office.

But not all states are created equal. Texas, over the past decade, has outpaced the nation in both total jobs and private sector jobs.

All jobs, including government jobs:

alljobs.gif

click image for larger version

Texas added 1.32 million jobs during the 10-year span, far and away the biggest increase in raw numbers. New York finished a distant second with its addition of 335,900 jobs, roughly one-quarter the size of Texas' upswing.

Texas looks even better if you just include private-sector jobs:

privatesectorjobs.gif

click image for larger version

Moreover, five of the top six cities for private post-recession employment gains are in Texas.

Texas is also now number one for construction jobs. Texas leads the brand-new list of best states for business:

Between June 2009—which marked the official end of the recession—and July 2011, the number of jobs increased in the state by 328,000. Nationally, the job growth in that time period was 697,000 according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This translates to Texas jobs making up 47 percent of the national net job creation.

And three Texas cities are among America's top 4 fastest growing (4 in the top 9).

Oh, and on Forbes' new list of the top twenty most polluted cities in America, all five of the worst five are in California. And of the worst twenty, how many were in Texas? Zero.

We have all of these economic policy laboratories and experiments in our history and present, showing us what works and what doesn't. There's North Korea and South Korea. East Germany and West Germany. Hong Kong and the rest of China. California and Texas. Freer markets, limited government, and lower levels of taxation produce more prosperity, better environmental outcomes, and a better life for everyone.

So, knowing this, how do far-left Democrats like Barack Obama ever receive any votes from anyone, ever?

-------------------------------------

Previous Trivia Tidbit: Education Bonk.

rss-icon.gif twitter-icon.gif facebook-icon.gif

Posted by Will Franklin · 4 May 2012 10:37 AM · Comments (0)