Thursday Twitter, attribution bias, and political affiliation

1 October 2015

What a mess of a day we’ve had. I thought that last night’s by-election results were worthy of discussion but that’s just the nerd in me looking to talk about numbers. Today has been about the dragging of the DA, first because of Dianne Kohler Barnard’s poor reading comprehension and then because the party’s favorite hereditary ruler, King Dalindyebo, was sentenced to 12 years in jail for kidnapping, assault, arson, and defeating the ends of justice.


Thursday Twitter: abandon all hope

In all the meshuggas, people have barely noticed that the DA had a kak day at the polls and the ANC managed to lose  a municipality to the IFP. I have a theory about Thursday Twitter and why it can turn into runny poo within a few short minutes.

My theory is based on the psychology of the working week: unlike Friday, when most South Africans are already in weekend mode, on Thursday we are angry that it’s not yet Friday. We take this anger out on each other and we look for an excuse to flame, to drag, to snatch weaves and to come for each other’s edges.

Hold on, Paul, you say. What about Sunday Twitter, where the print media make mountains out of molehills and try and sell the rest of us climbing equipment? What about Monday Twitter, when we twitch at our desks listless and hungover?

I would answer you and say Yes but, some people are just professionally angry all the time and anyway, Sunday Twitter doesn’t have the hardness of Thursday Twitter. Sunday Twitter is our time for ritualised dance. We tweet at the editors we love to hate and we tell them how reactionary they are, but we still buy their product. They, in turn, shout at us or ignore us while they pay their debit orders with our money.

How else would you explain Thursday Twitter’s reaction to Ms Kohler Barnard, who stands accused of reposting a bonehead Facebook post by a bonehead journalist, in which he called for the return of PW Botha? (Presumably he burned whatever journalists burn instead of imphepho when he invoked the spirits of the ancestors. My money is on some cheap and vile rolling tobacco.)

Ms K B claims that she only read the first part of the post where the journo slammed the government and the ruling party, which is pretty weaksauce as far as excuses go. If she lost focus two or three sentences into a Facebook post then you have to wonder how much value she can add in Parliament, where I am told that they wake you up after lunch to process pages – PAGES – of boring government documents.

But the question behind my bemusement is, why is nobody calling for the journalist to be censured? I have seen the usual tweets about the usual DA sins, real and imagined (apartheid apologists, racists, eaters of black babies) but nothing about the motivations of the journalist and his newspaper.

Here’s the thing: me and Twitter are guilty of the same logical fallacy of attribution bias.


2 + 2 is normally 4, but results do vary

For a working definition of attribution bias, see this post by Jacques Rousseau on his blog (it is a good blog – I like the laurels particularly). Basically, attribution bias is where you jump to the wrong conclusion because you joined the dots badly and ended up with a picture of a giraffe instead of a stegosaurus.

For example, I developed this dinky little theory about Thursday Twitter. So when I see pitchforks and burning torches on Twitter and it’s a Thursday, I tell myself ‘Aha! It’s Thursday Twitter at work again’  – and I discount all other explanations, like the fact that a politician did or said something particularly stupid and it just happened to fall on a Thursday.

Similarly, when a politician from a party you hate does or says something particularly stupid, you are more likely to conclude that they did this thing because they hail from the Party That Eats Black Babies (or the Party That Hates White People, Always And Everywhere), and not because they, individually are stupid / tired / a closet baby-eater / bad at reading Facebook posts.

I don’t mean to pronounce on Ms K B’s guilt or innocence or her fitness as a human being. Calling for the return of PW Botha, or even being seen to endorse such a call, is going to make a lot of people hopping mad, and justifiably so. I’m just calling for a more thorough examination of why and how we judge things.

Which brings me to my sad feelings about being judged harshly for yesterday’s by-election report…


But honestly guys, I hate you all equally

I like writing election reports and being a giant nerd (just ask my lovely fiancee). I also like to pride myself on being an unbiased and disinterested observer of South African political life. I like to think that I am naturally suspicious of all politicians and political parties and that this is my greatest analytical asset.

Of course, you never really can tell how biased you are, can you, because you are going to be biased about your biases. You can only put on your big boy panties, shoulder any criticism and try harder the next time.

After I posted yesterday’s by-election analysis, a friend of a friend claimed that I was anti-ANC and that I never credited the party for its successes. The criticism stung a bit, because my knee-jerk reaction was to say ‘Hey, I’m the guy who is above bias and anyway, you all suck equally.’

I’ve been accused of being anti-ANC before, and of being anti-DA (by Helen Zille no less) because I am not interested in being an imbongi for either party. The truth is that I do have biases which need constant examination.

I have a soft spot for smaller parties. That’s partly because I favour the underdog (being a Bidvest Wits supporter will do that to you) and also because the libertarian in me has a deep mistrust of big parties and the concentration of power. So if you read my reports you’ll see a bit of a bias towards the IFP, the EFF, the UDM and the PAC. Shem, their victories are so few and far between that someone has to be on hand to chronicle them.

At the same time I’m much more in love with the idea of the IFP (plucky small party sticking it to the big boys) than with the reality of the IFP. The party is stale  and musty with old ideas and old concentrations of power. The creation of the NFP (and the IFP’s subsequent losses in the 2011 municipal elections) is attributable, at least in part, to the refusal of Buthelezi to pass the baton to younger and more dynamic leaders. The party is also largely defined by ethnic and chauvinistic ideals, which are hugely problematic.


Leaping to conclusions is hard on the knees

I’ll try harder to examine my biases in reporting. And I’m not really serious about Thursday Twitter being a thing.

If you think I hate  your party more than I hate other parties, give me a call and buy me a beer. I’m much more likely to make an honest account of myself to you if you buy me a beer first.


One thought on “Thursday Twitter, attribution bias, and political affiliation

  1. Pingback: Extrapolaters gonna extrapolate: early vote-counting and its problems | paul berkowitz

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