All posts by Joe Lance

The Google made me do it: Is the tech giant manipulating democracy?

Who or what rigs elections? Sneaky algorithms, or unskeptical voters?

A Facebook comment has decided to become its own blog post. Maybe it’s trying to boost its own search ranking. (Yeah, I question that logic too.)

Happy Friday. A vocal critic of the ubiquitous search engine Google has published an article and a study that claims the technology firm may be influencing the outcome of elections by changing the order in which search results appear when users search for candidates.

The study imagines a phenomenon called Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) and says, in summary: “In laboratory and online experiments conducted in the United States, we were able to boost the proportion of people who favored any candidate by between 37 and 63 percent after just one search session.”

I have neither the time nor the tools to refute the study’s merits, but let’s just take one step back. Even if it were true that a search tool could (and would) sway public opinion about candidates via search result ranking, the woolly mammoth in the room is that people’s favorability meters are moved at all, about anything, by search result ranking!

The right to vote in free and fair elections is a hard-won, precious thing. It is not to be taken lightly. Citizens who exercise the franchise have the responsibility to examine their choices with the utmost care. We should summon every ounce of critical thinking we have, and use it.

Google’s refutation of the study’s allegations mentions civic tools that they have helped create and provide to the public. I’ve examined and used* these tools, and they are very helpful towards the ideal that an informed public uses unbiased information to choose its government.

But if the public chooses to rely simply on the top three or so results from lazy web searches, then whether or not those search results are (unwittingly or otherwise) manipulated matters not when it comes time to lay blame.

The aforementioned Facebook comment:

Since Google makes available an API with a trove of accurate election data that developers can use to present to users in whatever ways they choose, they’d have to be really cocky to still rely on the approach posited in Epstein’s article, supplanting their own “altruistic” endeavors in the meantime. It’s not impossible, just unlikely. The bigger issue is that internet users are uncritical when choosing from search results, no matter how or why those results are ranked. Sure, that behavior may influence how they view the candidates returned, but what’s the real root of that problem? It’s not the search engine.

*The app I attempted to build in 2014 did not get completed in time for the August elections. I plan to use the API and other tools more in the coming months to build a resource for Tennessee voters in 2016 and beyond.

What a nice nap. Did I miss anything?

Hello again, Tennessee.

The election cycle is quickly ramping up to full-on circus mode, and it’s causing me to want to rekindle this thing. I had every intention of maintaining a steady pace of updates in the off-season that followed what our elected officials actually do after we send them to their respective capitol buildings, but life happens (and roads get paved). No excuses; just picking-up and moving-on.

A Slow Bern?
I checked in on Tuesday with a small group of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders supporters in downtown Chattanooga. The event was not heavily publicized, so unlike the huge crowds that show up when the candidate is present, this gathering could have fit inside a VW Microbus. A couple of the folks had been to the recent Sanders rally in South Carolina, and spoke rather glowingly of the event.

They also spoke of larger groups active in Upper East Tennessee. I don’t have a good sense for how well the Sanders movement is doing statewide, though. Any comments from the Middle and West?

On the other hand, I’m also not aware of any grassroots organizing going on for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, or for former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb.

Carr going for a Cruz
Last week, a Facebook post by former Rep. Joe Carr declared his endorsement of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s GOP presidential primary bid. Carr, as the leading “Beat Lamar” candidate at a Chattanooga Tea Party event in 2014, had praised Cruz and fellow U.S. Sen. Mike Lee. The Cruz campaign also recruited former Williamson County Republican Party chair Kevin Kookogey as state director.

Cruz recently whisked through Tennessee on a bus tour.

With so many Republicans in the race, it is interesting to see how local support is lining up. Former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp is coordinating U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s efforts in the Volunteer State. Rubio is expected to visit Chattanooga on Sept. 3rd.

Businessman Donald Trump and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum will appear at a convention in Nashville this weekend. There are pockets of support for Dr. Ben Carson and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. Anecdotally, a lot of people remain undecided.

The Local
Nashville is in the midst of a municipal runoff election. Memphis is gearing up for its own elections in October.

Hamilton County will elect a new Assessor of Property in March—the only county office to be elected along with the presidential preference primary—and that campaign has kicked-off as well.

There is, as you know, lots more going on. I’ll put my thoughts together on some more political happenings.

Ten—yes, ten—years blogging about Tennessee politics

I don’t feel much like an active blogger (or writer of any kind, bar work emails) these days, but I had to carve out a moment to mark the tenth anniversary of this thing. A decade seems to lend a slight bit of heft to the phrase “passion project.” Either that or I’m just a perfect combination of nerdy and stubborn.

Even through all the fits, starts, and stumbles, I have received consistent feedback from readers across the state that this site is a helpful resource. When it’s going well, it delivers insights from one-on-one conversations with politicos; data about candidates and elections; and commentary from a nonpartisan, pro-civics perspective.

I’m relieved that I can pick up my tablet at any moment and get those things from a variety of other sources. I will keep after you, the public at-large, to demand ever more value from providers; and even to increasingly become providers yourselves. That’s kind of how Tennessee Ticket started.

Another ten-year mark grins at us from just a few months into the calendar: remember that time a bunch of bloggers converged on Belmont University for “BlogNashville”? It would be foolish to assume that a reunion is practical; but who knows? Maybe there are a few fools who’d want to entertain the notion.

Will this blog still be alive in 2025? Now that would be something.

Speaker: mouthpiece or bullhorn?

The Republican-dominated Tennessee General Assembly today effectively chose its leaders for the next session. Though they won’t be official until voted on by the full House and Senate in January, House Speaker Beth Harwell, and Senate Speaker and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey each cruised to another term at the helm via their party’s legislative caucuses.

Ramsey’s re-election was unanimous, but Harwell faced a minor challenge from Rep. Rick Womick, who found 14 other caucus members to stand with him. Womick’s ultimate target in the ill-fated takeover bid wasn’t Harwell, of course, but was instead Gov. Bill Haslam. Womick’s criticism of Harwell was that she served as a mouthpiece for the Haslam administration; whereas, he contended, a House under his speakership would amplify the voice of the electorate who sent conservative members to Nashville, and who oppose the governor’s moderate positions on items like Common Core.

Another increasingly loud critic of Haslam is Rep. Joe Carr, who on Saturday mounted his own conservative-backed challenge, in this case for the chairman spot in the Tennessee Republican Party—with similar results. Carr has taken to Facebook in attacking Haslam. This comes mere days after running for the TNGOP chair as a “unity candidate.”

The style employed by each legislative chamber’s leadership is something to ponder. It can be debated whether Harwell shows enough independence from the governor; but she is often described as fair, intelligent, and deliberate by members of both parties. She does not come across as a firebrand.

Ramsey, an auctioneer by trade, embodies a bolder voice—particularly in online communications and press releases, thanks to his talented and sharp-tongued spokesperson. Given that Ramsey challenged Haslam for the 2010 GOP nomination for governor, it’s unlikely that he’d functionally appear anywhere close to the “puppet” moniker critics have attempted ascribe to Harwell. But even Ramsey stops short of appearing to openly defy Haslam…most of the time.

What would a Womick speakership have looked (and sounded) like? I suppose, for now, the answer is moot.