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Column: This GOP-leaning political polling firm has turned into a purveyor of anti-vaccine propaganda

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Column: This GOP-leaning political polling firm has turned into a purveyor of anti-vaccine propaganda

Rasmussen Reports used to be a fairly creditable and credible political polling organization, good enough to be included among the pollsters relied on by services such as FiveThirtyEight to give a broad-spectrum gauge of voter sentiment in the run-up to state and federal elections.

It’s true that Rasmussen had a detectable pro-Republican “house effect,” in polling parlance — but one that was consistent enough to compensate for in published polling averages.

But something has happened to Rasmussen in recent years. Not only have its results become more sharply partisan, favoring Republican and conservative politicians, but it also has increasingly promoted right-wing conspiracy theories on topics such as race relations, election results and — perhaps most troubling — COVID vaccines and COVID origins.

By random chance alone…there will be a large number of people who die within, say, 30 days of being vaccinated even if the vaccine has absolutely nothing to do with their deaths.

— Pseudoscience debunker David Gorski, MD

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Earlier this month, Rasmussen tweeted the results of polls it conducted in June 2023 and last month, claiming to find that 1 in 5 Americans believe they know someone who died from a COVID vaccine.

There are many reasons to disregard any such poll asking people what they think about a scientifically validated fact — in this case, that the record shows overwhelmingly that the COVID vaccines widely used in the U.S. are safe and effective.

But Rasmussen has doubled down on its findings. In a series of tweets on June 9, it declared, first: “If the numbers implied by our COVID polling are correct, the vaccines killed more people worldwide than Jews killed in the Holocaust.”

Then it tweeted: “China lied. Fauci lied. People died.” And followed that with: “The government take over of medicine was as deadly as always predicted.”

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In other words, Rassmussen has morphed from a quantifier of public opinion into a participant in the spread of noxious propaganda. It still tries to validate its results by claiming that they’re “relevant, timely and accurate,” citing its “track record.”

But that track record has been sprouting gray hairs. The most recent election polling cited by the web page documenting its track record is from 2010.

More recently, 538, now owned by ABC News, dropped Rasmussen from its polling averages in March. ABC took that step after Rasmussen failed to respond suitably to a questionnaire 538 submitted asking Rasmussen to explicate its polling methodology. Rasmussen published ABC’s query on its website under the headline, “ABC News: ‘Answer Our Questions — Or Else!’”

I asked Rasmussen Reports by phone and email to comment on its tweet and its polling, but received no response.

Rasmussen’s veer to the far right has been noticeable for several years. Founded in 2003 by pollster Scott Rasmussen, the firm’s forecasts received high marks for accuracy in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. But it fell short in 2012, predicting victories for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in several states that Obama won.

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As my colleague James Rainey observed in the aftermath, the Rasmussen polls had been used by conservative media outlets “to prop up a narrative in the final days of the campaign that Romney had momentum and a good chance of winning the White House.”

In 2013, Scott Rasmussen left the firm due to unspecified business disagreements with its owner, the private equity firm Noson Lawen Partners.

In recent years, the firm has resembled a pollster-for-hire appealing to conservative organizations and authors. During the Trump administration, it became known for “a social media presence that embraced false claims that spread widely on the right,” Philip Bump of the Washington Post observed in March.

The firm’s treatment of the 2022 Arizona gubernatorial election, in which Democrat Katie Hobbs defeated Republican Kari Lake, is a good example. In March 2023, Rasmussen reported the results of a poll it had conducted four months after the election, purportedly finding (according to a headline on its website) that “most Arizona voters believe election ‘irregularities’ affected outcome.”

According to Rasmussen, 51% of Arizona voters chose Lake and only 43% voted for Hobbs. The poll placed the election turnout at 92%; actually it was 62.6%.

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On Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast, Mark Mitchell, Rasmussen’s lead pollster, said its results showed that “people in Arizona, by and large, think that cheating happened.” That unsupported assertion, of course, is the core of the long, fruitless campaign to overturn the election by Lake — who gleefully cited the Rasmussen results.

Rasmussen polls on COVID vaccines and other such topics aren’t entirely worthless. They may not tell us anything useful about scientific research or electoral results, but they do offer a window into how propaganda and claptrap have penetrated deeply into our political discourse, at least within the right-wing fever swamp.

That brings us back to its polling on COVID and COVID vaccines. Rasmussen’s methodology seems to include wording its questions as if they are stating a fact, no matter how dubious. For its May 2024 poll of 1,250 American adults, for instance, it asked, “Do you know someone personally who died from side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine?” Rasmussen reported that 19% replied in the affirmative; the poll had a margin of error of 3%.

Such questions have obvious flaws. The most important is that most respondents have no way of knowing whether an acquaintance’s death was related to the vaccine; nor does Rasmussen, which conducts its polls with robot calls, have any way of authenticating the respondent’s answer.

Blaming the COVID vaccines for a tide of undocumented injuries and deaths is a popular theme in the anti-vaccine community.

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For them, it has the virtue of being suggestive and unverifiable; with nearly 700 million doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines having been administered in the U.S. alone, the law of large numbers implies that “by random chance alone … there will be a large number of people who die within, say, 30 days of being vaccinated even if the vaccine has absolutely nothing to do with their deaths,” in the words of veteran pseudoscience debunker David Gorski.

It’s not unusual for the death or illness of a prominent entertainer or athlete to provoke swarms of anti-vaxxers to assert that the victim must have been recently vaccinated. Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, who I earlier identified as “the most dangerous quack in America” and a “card-carrying member of the anti-vaccine mafia,” misrepresented published research to claim that the COVID vaccine presented an elevated threat of cardiac problems for young men.

The research said no such thing; on the contrary, it said that the risk of cardiac death from the vaccines was statistically nonexistent and, indeed, lower than the risk of cardiac death resulting from catching COVID-19 itself.

Despite all that, conjectures by laypersons that the illness or death of acquaintances can be traced to the vaccines are legion. One promoter of the idea, economist Mark Skidmore of Michigan State University, even concluded from an anonymous database of 2,840 respondents compiled by a third-party survey firm that the number of respondents who said they knew someone who had died from the vaccine meant that the number of deaths from the vaccine in the U.S. “may be as high as 278,000.”

Skidmore’s paper citing that statistic was retracted last year by the peer-reviewed journal that had published it.

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Rasmussen’s promotion of its vaccine-related balderdash is replete with weasel words, as if the firm is opting for plausible deniability.

In its tweet stating that “If the numbers implied by our COVID polling are correct, the vaccines killed more people worldwide than Jews killed in the Holocaust,” for instance, the word “if” carries a lot of baggage — not that its invocation of the Holocaust is defensible under the circumstances.

Similarly, its tweet, “China lied. Fauci lied. People died” refers to a question on its June 23 poll about COVID, in which it asks respondents to agree or disagree with that phrase. (This is known as “JAQing,” for “just asking questions.”)

As for its tweet stating, “The government take over of medicine was as deadly as always predicted,” that’s cast as a comment on a tweet by the former CBS and Fox reporter-turned-conspiracy-monger Lara Logan. She had written, “Pointing out how [Anthony] Fauci was seen by many as one of the worst mass killers in history — is what got me taken off the air at Fox. It was true then — and it is true now.”

Leave aside that the U.S. government has not staged a “take over of medicine,” much less that government action in healthcare has been “deadly.”

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Make no mistake: Rasmussen is responsible for these tweets, and deserves blame helping to foment a mass delusion about the vaccines that may have cost the lives of vaccine resisters. If it ever had a reputation for trustworthiness, it doesn’t have it any longer.

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This California city lost its daily newspapers — and is living what comes next

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This California city lost its daily newspapers — and is living what comes next

For years Richmond City Councilmember Cesar Zepeda has been on an unsuccessful crusade to persuade the grocery store chains of America — or at least one of them — to bring a supermarket back to his industrial city on the edge of the San Francisco Bay.

He’s persistent. He’s called corporate headquarters. He’s emailed customer relations. Occasionally, he’s gotten executives on the phone, and listened to them stammer on about why Richmond isn’t the right place for them to locate a store, despite its population of 117,000 in the heart of the Bay Area.

After years of disappointing conversations, Zepeda has concluded something basic about his city: It is paying a big price by not being able to tell its own story.

Richmond has not had its own daily newspaper for years. The loss came during a period of profound struggles for the town, which has dealt with fluctuating crime, economic problems and environmental challenges. Zepeda and others say there is a lot of good and bad going on in Richmond, but the dearth of local news coverage offers a skewed view of the city — oversimplified and years out of date — as an impoverished and violent community.

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“The lack of coverage puts us into deserts of everything. We have a hospital desert. We have a grocery store desert,” Zepeda said. “Just the lack of any coverage, it affects the perception.”

In this news desert, the main information source has been the Richmond Standard, a news website funded by Chevron, Richmond’s largest employer. It offers reports on youth sports, crime logs and things to do in town. Recent articles have highlighted a mural project, a car caravan supporting racial justice and upcoming closures to Interstate 80.

But the Standard is conspicuously silent when it comes to hard-hitting reporting on the Chevron refinery, which activists blame for the city’s high rates of hospitalization for childhood asthma. On June 19, the City Council voted to put a measure on the November ballot asking local voters to levy a tax on the refinery that would generate tens of millions of dollars a year to be used as the city sees fit. The lead-up and follow-up to this hugely consequential development were nowhere on the Standard’s homepage.

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Richmond is one in a swelling number of California communities that in recent years have had to navigate civic life without a traditional newspaper. The city — a onetime shipbuilding hub that fell on hard times and is now in the midst of a rebound — was once served by multiple papers, but the grim economics took them out one by one.

All the while, in-depth daily coverage of Richmond, a city with 23 distinct neighborhoods and cutthroat politics, with a refinery of vital importance to the state’s energy economy, shrank and shrank.

“The lack of coverage puts us into deserts of everything. We have a hospital desert. We have a grocery store desert.”

— Zepeda Richmond City Councilmember Cesar Zepeda

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A man wearing a suit and tie.

Councilmember Cesar Zepeda says the dearth of local news coverage in Richmond has resulted in a skewed portrayal of his city, making it harder to draw retailers.

(Josh Edelson / For The Times)

The issue of California’s growing news deserts — and the fallout on civic engagement — has become a heated topic in the state Legislature, where Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) is pushing a measure, Assembly Bill 886, that would require leading social media platforms and search engines to pay news outlets for accessing their articles, either through a predetermined fee or through an amount set by arbitration. Publishers would have to use 70% of those funds to pay journalists in California. Lawmakers are also considering state Senate Bill 1327, which would tax large tech platforms for the data they collect from users and pump the money into news organizations by giving them a tax credit for employing full-time journalists.

AB 886 is sponsored by the California News Publishers Assn., whose members have argued for years that online search engines and social media platforms are gutting the newspaper business by gobbling up advertising revenue while publishing content they don’t pay for. (The Los Angeles Times is a CNPA member, and its business leaders have publicly supported the measure.)

The legislation has drawn staunch opposition from Google and other tech companies, which contend it would upend their business model.

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The rise of the search engine is one of many factors pushing California newspapers out of business. Richmond’s news decline began well before eyeballs and advertising migrated online.

But Richmond’s story is not just about the loss of news. It also shows how a community gets information in a post-newspaper world.

Richmond is now a laboratory for online journalism startups, including the one owned by Chevron, whose massive refinery looms over the city and has been the focus of ongoing concerns over toxic emissions.

People hold signs that say "Make polluters pay."

Protesters rally in support of putting a measure on the November ballot that would levy a new tax on Chevron’s refinery, generating millions of dollars annually for city coffers.

(Josh Edelson / For The Times)

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The region’s independent online publications are sometimes hard-hitting and admirably hardworking, but they are limited in size and reach. The students at UC Berkeley’s journalism school operate Richmond Confidential, a news lab for student reporters that is funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation. Since late 2020, the husband-and-wife team of Linda and Soren Hemmila have put out the Grandview Independent, whose website proclaims: “For us, there is no story too small.”

There is also a youth-focused site, the Pulse, and a publication that focuses on the area’s Black community. In late June, the team behind the well-regarded local news websites Berkeleyside and Oaklandside launched a sister publication called Richmondside.

Still, said City Councilmember Doria Robinson, “the unfortunate best source” for much of the day-to-day goings on in recent years has been the Richmond Standard.

A woman in a pink sweater, with an American flag behind her.

Councilmember Doria Robinson finds it troubling that Richmond residents get their daily news from a site funded by Chevron, the town’s biggest employer and a source of controversy.

(Josh Edelson / For The Times)

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Robinson is a third-generation Richmond resident who was elected to the council in 2022 and for years before that ran a nonprofit farm in North Richmond. She said she is grateful for the work of all the reporters laboring on a shoestring to bring news to her city. But it doesn’t replace the weight and influence of the local paper she remembers from her youth.

And as for the Chevron paper, she said: “It is just unfortunate to have to depend on a project that is openly and proudly funded by our local petroleum [company].”

In 2011, the news group that owned the West County Times made an announcement that had become all too familiar to Richmond readers: More layoffs and cuts were coming to the chain that published the West County Times along with several other outlets in the East Bay. There would be less news out of Richmond.

Former Councilmember Tom Butt, who sends out an email about Richmond that doubles as an informal newsletter, lamented the decision and urged citizens to complain, writing: “What will this mean for Richmond? Undoubtedly, it will mean reduced coverage of local news.”

Five years later, in 2016, the ax swung again, and the West County Times was merged, along with a number of other newspapers, into two. Another chunk of the reporting staff was cut.

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“The level of connection we were able to maintain with people in the community really evaporated in a significant way,” said Craig Lazzeretti, a journalist who covered the region for 30 years, much of it in Richmond. Over time, Richmond lost its education and public safety reporters, he said, and while City Hall remained a priority, coverage of sports and entertainment also declined.

In its heyday, the coverage was rigorous, and “it did play a significant role” in civic life, Lazzeretti said. “You had a lot of strong political personalities in Richmond.”

He admits the local newspapers of that era were not perfect: “We were covering an ethnically diverse city, and there wasn’t a lot of ethnic diversity in our newsroom.” But reporters did try to reflect what was going on in the city.

A bridge spans a bay.

The Richmond-San Rafael Bridge spans San Francisco Bay, connecting Contra Costa and Marin counties.

(Josh Edelson / For The Times)

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As the 21st century dawned, the West County Times, the lone paper still covering Richmond vigorously, was facing a menacing economic shift: the rise of the internet. Advertising dollars — long the financial mainstay of traditional newspapers — moved online, budgets dwindled, and soon there were almost no reporters left to cover Richmond on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, life in Richmond was entering a dark period. The city’s better-paying manufacturing and industrial jobs were evaporating because of economic shifts, spawning an exodus of middle-class earners to the suburbs.

Chevron, which had long been one of the biggest influences on local politics, stayed. But as concerns mounted about the effects of its refinery on air quality, progressive candidates began organizing to counter the weight of the oil company.

An aerial view of a sprawling complex of tanks.

The Richmond Standard, funded by Chevron, has been conspicuously silent when it comes to hard-hitting reporting on the company’s refinery.

(Josh Edelson / For The Times)

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By 2010, candidates backed by the Richmond Progressive Alliance had pressed the company to contribute more fees to the city to compensate for environmental damage. And then came the disaster of August 2012, when a corroded pipe at the refinery sprung a leak, igniting a series of fiery explosions that shrouded the East Bay in choking black smoke. More than 100,000 people were ordered to shelter in place, with windows and doors sealed shut, and thousands sought medical treatment after inhaling toxic air.

The episode set off a wave of activism that included investigations into Chevron’s operating practices. In August 2013, Chevron agreed to plead no contest to criminal charges stemming from the fire and pay $2 million in fines.

Five months later, on Jan. 23, 2014, Chevron launched the Standard.

“We think it’s good for us to have a conversation with Richmond on important issues, and we also think there are a lot of good stories in this city that don’t get told every day,” the company wrote to readers in announcing the news site.

Progressives were alarmed: The entity that in their eyes most needed watchdogging was now a leading source of local coverage.

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A woman in baseball cap holds a sign saying "Make Polluters Pay."

Tina Szpicek rallies in support of a November ballot measure that would levy a new tax on Richmond’s Chevron refinery.

(Josh Edelson / For The Times)

Still there was now a reporter roaming the neighborhoods, reporting on a new baseball field, a burglary, local businesses and even some local politics.

In June, while the Standard ignored the City Council’s vote on taxing the refinery, it did cover a Little League triumph, a shooting that left two people dead and the schedule of movies to be screened this summer at “Movies in the Park.”

Ross Allen, a spokesperson for Chevron, said the community didn’t need the Standard to cover the council’s vote — it was a big enough event that it received ample coverage in mainstream California publications.

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He added, however, that Chevron opposes the proposed tax, and that “we will have coverage on the reasons why that is a terrible idea for Richmond in the Standard. We’ll have it everywhere.”

The Times interviewed Richmond residents in June to gauge whether the long absence of a local newspaper mattered in their lives. Many said they were unaware of Richmond’s news media history, but in interview after interview stressed their hunger for news about their city.

Juan Alfredo, 27, recently moved to Richmond from Guatemala after a stopover in Los Angeles. He paused to chat while walking his little white poodle in the city’s Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline Park. Across the sparkling waters of the bay, the San Francisco skyline and misty green hills of Marin County rose in the distance.

An aerial view of a refinery with a bridge in the distance.

Richmond is one of many smaller working-class cities that saw its local newspapers buckle as print advertising revenue and paid circulation dropped.

(Josh Edelson / For The Times)

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Alfredo said that he loves Richmond’s physical beauty, but that his new home struggles with some quality-of-life issues, including trash and messed-up streets. And he has no idea where to turn for information about what is going on in the city.

A few miles away, Elaina Jones, who moved from nearby Orinda last year, said she enjoys the community in the Marina Bay neighborhood. But she said she has little sense of what’s happening in the rest of the city. What she does know, she learns not from local media but from talking to her older neighbors.

Still, she plans to vote in the local elections in November — and said to do so she needs to figure out what’s going on.

One of her would-be representatives, City Council candidate Sue Wilson, said the lack of a local newspaper means candidates often work to reach voters one-on-one, by going to their doors.

Lots of residents are in the dark about who’s running for office and their positions on issues. That may be one reason, some officials said, that voter turnout in local elections is abysmal.

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Wilson said Richmond’s tumultuous politics often make her think, “This seems like the sort of thing that would be in the newspaper.”

She paused. “But then there is no newspaper.”

The journalists at Richmondside hope to do their part to change that. On June 25, the site went live with what they hope will be dynamic coverage.

Richmondside is the latest offshoot of the Cityside Journalism Initiative, a nonprofit online news platform launched by journalists looking to reinvigorate local news coverage in the Bay Area. The effort is funded through grants and reader donations.

A boy walks by murals celebrating Richmond's history.

Surveys done by Richmondside, a new online news venture, found residents want “the rest of the world to know there are many positive stories” in their city.

(Josh Edelson / For The Times)

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Richmondside’s new editor, Kari Hulac, said the publication would have two full-time staffers and two interns, as well as editorial support from across the organization and contributions from freelancers. She said readers can look forward to air quality coverage, as well as stories on neighborhood issues, small businesses and public safety.

For Hulac, a veteran Bay Area journalist, the launch represents a welcome second chance to be involved in local news.

“I’ve locked the door on a newsroom,” she recalled of shutting a news bureau in Tracy. “I put the handwritten note on the door: ‘This office is closed permanently.’”

“If you had told me, I don’t know, a year ago, that I would be back in the Bay Area working in a local newsroom again, I never in a million years would have believed it,” she said.

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California’s news industry is shrinking while misinformation spreads. Here's what the numbers tell us

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California’s news industry is shrinking while misinformation spreads. Here's what the numbers tell us

As the world turned digital, people were quick to drop their Sunday papers and pick up their smartphones for news. Advertisers followed suit as digital platforms became more valuable real estate than print newspapers, leaving California news outlets desperate to find ways to stay profitable and relevant.

Supporters — including the California News Publishers Assn. and the Media Guild of the West which represents journalists at the Los Angeles Times — believe Assembly Bill 886, will give the industry a greatly needed boost by requiring online platforms like Google to pay news outlets when linking to their content. News outlets must spend at least 70% of the received funds on their staff.

A second bill being considered by California lawmakers, Senate Bill 1327, would charge Amazon, Meta and Google a “data extraction mitigation fee” for data they collect from users. The funds would go toward supporting local newsrooms.

California has lost one-third of its newspapers since 2005, according to a 2023 Northwestern Medill School of Journalism report. The number of journalists in the state has dropped 68% since then, and despite shifting efforts to digital, news outlets are struggling to attract readers and subscribers.

The Los Angeles Times cut more than 20% of its newsroom in January, representing one of the largest staff cuts in the newspaper’s 142-year history. Since L.A. Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong sold the San Diego Union-Tribune to a hedge fund in July 2023, its staff has been cut by an estimated 30%. LAist is also facing “a significant budget shortfall” over the next two years and has offered voluntary buyouts to journalists ahead of a potential round of layoffs.

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Americans are turning to social media for news, citing its convenience and speed. The share of Americans using social media for news increased from 27% in 2013 to 48% in 2024, according to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report 2024.

But concerns about unreliable sources and misinformation have been growing. Four in 10 Americans who get news from social media say they dislike the inaccuracy, up from three in 10 in 2018, according to a 2023 Pew Research Center survey. After the 2016 presidential election, about a quarter of Americans said they shared fabricated news stories, knowingly or unknowingly.

As conspiracies and misinformation spread and exacerbate polarization, local newsrooms meant to hold officials accountable and keep community members well-informed are becoming fewer and farther between.

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As the two bills make their way through the state Legislature, here’s what you need to know about California’s shrinking news industry and evolving media advertising scene.

Sunday circulation for some of the largest newspapers in California, including the Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register and San Diego Union-Tribune, has dropped at least 30% since 2015. The Fresno Bee has seen the largest percentage decrease in Sunday newspaper circulation, down 79% in just eight years. Its daily average of 110,400 papers in 2015 plummeted to 23,000 in 2023.

“There’s no mistaking that this is a brutal moment for journalistic employment,” Gabriel Kahn, USC professor of professional practice of journalism, said. “Jobs are shrinking, and local coverage is disappearing.”

The San Francisco Bay area saw the largest drop in journalism employment per 1,000 jobs in the state since 2009, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In 2009, one out of 1,000 employed people worked as a journalist. In 2023, only a half of those jobs remain.

While the Bay Area saw a sharp decline in the number of journalists in the early 2010s, journalism employment has been inching back upward since 2015.

Kahn said the number of journalists in the Bay Area is dependent on the national relevance of Silicon Valley, which in recent years has consistently found headlines with topics like social media and artificial intelligence and tech figures like Elon Musk.

“Coverage about glitzy topics whether its celebrities in L.A., tech or politics … can gain national audiences, so there will always be demand for people to produce that kind of journalistic content,” he said. “Silicon Valley has always had ways to grow, and as they grow, journalists are added on to cover that surge.”

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Journalism jobs continue to be concentrated in metropolitan hubs such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Sacramento and San Jose. The number of journalists in Los Angeles and Orange County increased 34% in the past decade while the number in San Jose and San Diego remained roughly unchanged.

The number of journalists in the state’s capital, however, notably plummeted 57% in the last decade. The Sacramento area saw the largest drop in total journalism employment since 2013.

McClatchy, the publisher of the Sacramento Bee and dozens of other news outlets across the country, filed for bankruptcy in 2020 and was acquired by a New Jersey hedge fund later that year. TV stations have also consolidated news coverage in Sacramento by doing the same with less, Kahn said.

“The truth is, this is still the place where a $300-billion budget gets approved [and] lots of business [gets] transacted,” he said. “I’m surprised there’s not more [coverage].”

As social media and search engines dominate the advertising business that once fueled the journalism industry, many California news outlets that have stuck to old business models are watching money go down the drain, Kahn said.

National digital advertising expenditures in California increased 54% since 2018 while print media advertising decreased 27%, according to Borrell Associates.

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The most popular social media for California registered voters for election-related news is YouTube, followed by Facebook, Instagram, X and TikTok. And as more Americans experience news fatigue and turn to social media for news and comedic relief, news outlets continue to lose digital readership.

Ten major California news websites, including latimes.com, sfchronicle.com and ocregister.com, have seen at least a 35% drop in total unique visitors since January 2021.

The OC Register’s website saw one of the largest percentage decreases in the past three years at 72%.

Kahn attributed some of the digital readership loss to difficulties optimizing journalism content for search engines.

“One of the major woes that journalism is feeling is that their audience is dependent on Silicon Valley giants and their algorithms,” Kahn said.

A poll from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies conducted from May 29 to June 4 found that California registered voters rely on Google and other search engines almost as much as newspapers and magazines to get news about election-related issues.

Digital advertising has become a major business for Google’s parent company, Alphabet, with revenue nearly quadrupling in the past decade. Google advertising, which includes Google search, YouTube ads and other networks, racked in an unprecedented $237.8 billion in 2023.

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The U.S. Justice Department and eight states, including California, brought a landmark antitrust case against Google in 2023, accusing it of abusing its power to monopolize the digital advertising market.

“Any money falling into these [journalism] institutions is going to be positive, because they have basically been watching the water drain out of the bathtub for the past decade and a half,” Kahn said.

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What is 'surveillance pricing,' and is it forcing some consumers to pay more? FTC investigates

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What is 'surveillance pricing,' and is it forcing some consumers to pay more? FTC investigates

It’s no secret that Californians pay more than the rest of the country for many goods and services — gas, housing, food, you name it. That’s part of the high cost of living in this state.

What’s less well known, though, is that consumers may be paying higher prices than their neighbors pay.

Tech firms and consultants have been offering companies the ability to set “personalized” prices online based on a customer’s ability or willingness to pay, using algorithms and artificial intelligence to sift through mountains of data to help maximize sales and profits. Advocates say the technology simply takes the principle of efficient pricing to its logical extreme; critics say it’s unfair, discriminatory and a perversion of free-market capitalism.

On Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation that aims to determine how widespread this kind of “surveillance pricing” has become and what its effects have been. The five commissioners voted unanimously to order eight financial, tech and consulting companies to reveal what pricing services they offer, what data they collect to power these services, who is using their services and what effect that’s having on consumer prices.

FTC Chief Technology Officer Stephanie Nguyen said in an interview that the agency knows companies “are collecting massive amounts of data about consumers,” including very detailed, sensitive data about their demographics, where they go, what they look for and what they buy. The agency also knows that companies are able to use these data to specifically target information to individuals or groups.

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Its new inquiry, she said, aims to determine whether, how and how often such data are being deployed to set prices. She added that the agency is just gathering information at this point, and that none of the companies are being accused of any wrongdoing.

Privacy advocates welcomed the investigation.

“This study is such a critical first step in a really important conversation about what we think the rules should be around pricing — what we think the norm should be,” said Lindsay Owens, executive director of Groundwork Collaborative, an economic policy think tank.

Rather than setting prices based on supply and demand, surveillance pricing looks at indicators of your ability and willingness to pay, such as your credit card and bank balances, or “whether it’s late at night and you’re looking for an Uber home,” said Lee Hepner, senior legal counsel for the American Economic Liberties Project.

“We have heard allegations that some companies are now able to charge you a different price based on how close you are to your next payday, or if you just got paid,” he said.

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The eight companies ordered to submit information to the FTC are financial industry titans Mastercard and JPMorgan Chase, consultancies Accenture and McKinsey & Co., and tech companies Revionics, Bloomreach, Task Software and PROS.

JPMorgan Chase said Tuesday that it hadn’t heard from the agency yet. Mastercard said it would cooperate in the process, and the other six companies did not respond to requests, or could not be reached, for comment.

The unanimous vote of the commission reflects a bipartisan interest in exploring the issues around pricing based on personal data, which in turn mirrors public sentiment about online privacy. A survey last year by the Pew Research Center found that 81% of respondents were concerned about how companies use the data collected about them, and 67% had little to no understanding about what companies did with their data.

One of the threats posed by surveillance pricing is that it gives companies an incentive to collect even more data about customers because the information might be useful in these pricing systems, said R.J. Cross, the director of the consumer privacy program at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

“The overcollection of data already comes with security and privacy issues,” she said; the more data that’s collected, the more likely it is that the information will be exposed in a breach or hack. “It’s just going to add fuel to a fire that may have big, negative consequences for all of us down the line.”

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Owens said another issue is how surveillance prices erode the longstanding practice of having a public price, which emerged when retailers stopped haggling over everything and started putting price tags on their goods. Public prices are important, Owens said, because they help ensure fairness and are transparent and predictable.

The absence of predictable prices, Hepner said, makes it hard for people to budget for what they need.

George Slover, senior counsel for competition policy at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said “bespoke pricing” amounts to an extreme reversal of a system that has worked for consumers since the advent of the price tag. Instead of sellers offering goods and services to anonymous buyers, he said, “the seller knows everything about the buyer, and what they are likely, willing and able to pay” — while keeping the buyer in the dark about what the seller is charging everyone else.

“It inverts, or you might say perverts, the assumptions at the very foundation of the justification for the free market,” he said.

The use of AI to power surveillance pricing systems is a potential hurdle to the FTC’s inquiry, observers say, because the systems’ inner workings may be difficult to unpack and understand.

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“It makes the job a lot harder if the people who are making the AI systems can’t even clearly articulate why a system is making a decision,” Cross said. “That really puts regulators at a disadvantage.”

The legal landscape is murky, too.

There are federal laws that prohibit charging discriminatory prices in certain circumstances — for example, when people are charged different rents or mortgage interest rates based on their race — but Hepner said surveillance pricing may represent “a new frontier in price discrimination” not reached by those statutes.

The FTC may have the power to rein in surveillance pricing, though, if the agency determines that it violates the federal law against unfair and deceptive practices. And in Owens’ view, it is by nature deceptive because it’s done in secret — you don’t know you’re paying more online than someone else for the same goods, so “you have no idea that you should be upset.”

“Isolation and obfuscation,” she added, “are really essential to the practice.”

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