The Realities of Disinformation, Social Media, and Relationships Through a Screen

Speaking in Lisbon, Portugal, at CEIS-IUL and OberCom

I am back from a stimulating visit to Lisbon to speak at two events. The first was a talk before lunch on 9 April 2018 with a group composed of individuals from the media and regulatory agencies concerned with disinformation and data protection in the social media world. This was at the beautiful Palace Foz, where OberCom (Observatório da Comunicação) https://obercom.pt/is located, and where communication was centered during Portugal’s period as a constitutional monarchy. My talk focused on conveying the findings of our Quello Search Project. The slides are posted here.

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Palace Foz (Lisbon)

The second talk, on the evening of the 9th, was at CEIS-IUL. I was invited by doctoral students to kick off a panel that was primarily focused on online dating research. My talk aimed at more broadly speaking about the role of social media, and how the realities generally differ from the implications portrayed in the news. I entitled the talk ‘Social Media and Society: News and Reality’.

I was able to bring some of our early research on online dating into the talk. The slides are posted here. I was joined by Cristina Miguel from Leeds Beckett University, Cláudia Casimiro from EIEG/ISCSP-ULisboa, and Jorge Vieira from ISCTE-IUL. My host, Gustavo Cardoso, introduced and moderated the session. Everyone remarked on the imagery of the poster for the forum, entitled ‘Dating Through a Screen’, and the talks on dating underscored how the field has shifted from studies of online dating per se to critical and empirical studies of particular platforms, like Tinder, Match.com, and eHarmony.  Screen Shot 2018-04-02 at 15.36.48

Great to catch up with Gustavo Cardoso, who has a new book out, jointly edited with Manuel Castells, Olivier Bouin, João Caraça, John Thompson, and Michel Wieviorka, entitled Europe’s Crises(Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018). See: http://www.worldcat.org/title/europes-crises/oclc/993624071 The editors put together a group to discuss the crises in Europe, which yielded this impressive collection that will add more analytical scholarship to the growing body of work seeking to make sense of developments across Europe, from the financial crisis to Brexit. Eighteen chapters are grouped into three sections dealing with economic, social and political crises – take your pick – plus an introduction and conclusion. This could be a beautiful text for a course.

 

Korea – a book by Michael Pembroke

I’d like to recommend Michael Pembroke’s Korea: Where the American Century Began (Richmond, Victoria, Australia: Hardie Grant Books, 2018). Despite the title, it is less of a book about Korea than the United States and the evolution of its policies vis-à-vis North and South Korea and China and East Asia more generally. Pembroke is at his best in recounting pivotal moments of the Korean War, focusing on strategic failures of the U.S.-led United Nation’s forces, but also of the Koreans and Chinese that led to such huge military and civilian loses and the present stalemate around the 38th parallel. As some of the endorsements note, it truly is a page turner, but also one of the clearest critical accounts of American decisions leading into and out of the Korean War.

The book underscored my sense that many Americans do not learn as much about the Korean conflict as compared to the World Wars, Vietnam and more recent wars, such as Desert Storm and the Iraq War. I completely agree with Pembroke’s point in a postscript that “Few people, and even fewer Americans, know the true story of the Korean War; few understand the reasons for North Korean hostility toward the United States; and few acknowledge any historical responsibility for the current impasse” (p.253). Pembroke’s perspective might not be viewed by all as ‘the truth’, but it is a well-documented and very convincing account that certainly provided me with a better basis for asking more informed questions about the way forward in Korea.

Pembroke’s father was the commander of an Australian platoon fighting with UN forces in Korea. This does not necessarily give him an independent perspective, but one from which his critical perspectives gain more credibility. I learned less about Korea than I expected, but far more about the US and the Korean War. It is so clear, succinct and timely – an extremely relevant book for anyone with a serious interest in US policy in relation to North Korea, that it is must reading.

 

The Chatham House Rule Should be the Exception

Can We Make the Chatham House Rule the Exception?

gargoyleBalliol
May I quote you?

It is common to debate the definition and correct implementation of the Chatham House Rule. My issue is with its over-use. It should be used in exceptional cases, rather than being routinized as a norm for managing communication about meetings.

To be clear, the Chatham House Rule (singular) is: “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”*

One of the central rationales of this rule was to enable more transparency by freeing governmental and other officials to speak without attribution.** Clearly, there are cases in which individuals cannot speak publicly about an issue given their position. Think about the many cases in which news sources do not wish to be identified by journalists. Similar situations arise in meetings, and it is good that The Chatham House Rule exists to use in just such occasions to promote greater transparency.

However, it is arguable that The Chatham House Rule is used in ways that do not promote transparency. For example, it is often misunderstood and used to prevent members of a meeting from conveying information provided at the meeting. Clearly, the original rule left participants ‘free to use the information’, just without identifying the source. This expansion of the Rule runs counter to the aim of the rule’s establishment.

In addition, all too often the Rule is invoked not because the content of a meeting is particularly sensitive, but because it creates a sense of tradition, and an aura of importance. It conveys the message that something important will be discussed at this meeting. However, the function of this is more in marketing a meeting rather than creating a safe setting for revealing secret, confidential, or new information.

A related rationale is that it is just ‘the way we do things’ – the tradition. In this case, there is likely to be no need for less transparency, but a case of blindly following tradition, resulting in information being inadvertently suppressed.

In many ways, the times are making The Chatham House Rule more problematic.

First, history is pushing us toward more transparency, not less. The spirit of the Rule should lead us to apply it only when necessary to open communication, such as around a sensitive issue, not to routinely regulate discussion of what was said in a meeting.

Secondly, the authenticity of information that comes out of a meeting is often enhanced by knowing more information about its source. If a new idea or piece of information is attributed to an individual, that individual can become a first source for authenticating what was said, and for follow up questions.

Thirdly, technical advances are making it less and less realistic to keep the source of information confidential. Leaks, recordings, live blogging and more are making transparency the norm of nearly every meeting. That is, it is better to assume that any meeting is public than to assume any meeting is confidential.

Over a decade ago, I once organized and chaired a meeting that included the UK’s Information Commissioner (the privacy commissioner, if you will), and it was conducted under The Chatham House Rule. At the break, I checked with my IT group about how the recording was going, as we were recording the meeting for preparing a discussion paper to follow. Lo and behold, the meeting was being Webcast! This made for a good laugh by the Commissioner and all when we reconvened, but it also reminded me that everyone should assume the default of a meeting in the digital world is that all is public rather than private.

Finally, there are better ways to handle information in today’s technical and political contexts. Personally, I usually record meetings that are about academic or applied matters, as opposed to meetings about personnel issues, for example. So if we convene a group to discuss a substantive issue, such as a digital policy issue like net neutrality, we let all participants know that presentations and discussions will be recorded. We do not promise that anything will be confidential, as it is not completely under our control, but we promise that our recording will be used primarily for writing up notes of the meeting, and that if anyone is quoted, they will be asked to approve the quote before it is distributed publicly.

Of course, when individuals request that something remains confidential, or confined to those present, then we do everything we can to ensure that confidentiality. (As with The Chatham House Rule, much relies on trust among the participants in a meeting.) But this restriction is the exception, rather than the rule. This process tends to ensure more accurate reports of meetings, enable us to quote individuals, who should get credit or attribution, and support transparency.

The Chatham House Rule was established in 1927 with Chatham House being the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs. The worries at that time were more often about encouraging government officials to participate in a discussion about sensitive international concerns by assuring anonymity. Today there are still likely to be occasions when this rule could be useful in bringing people around the table, but that is likely to be exception and not the rule in the era of the Internet, distributed electronic conferencing, and live Tweeting.

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Chatham House, London

Notes

* https://www.chathamhouse.org/about/chatham-house-rule

** As noted by Chatham House: “The Chatham House Rule originated at Chatham House with the aim of providing anonymity to speakers and to encourage openness and the sharing of information. It is now used throughout the world as an aid to free discussion.” https://www.chathamhouse.org/about/chatham-house-rule

 

Who Named MSU Spartans? Stephen George Scofes

Mystery Solved: The Spartan Who Named Michigan State University’s Spartans: Stephen George Scofes

After the second world war, Stephen George Scofes ran a restaurant in Lansing, Michigan, called ‘The Famous Grill’, where he became friends with coaches and athletes at Michigan State University. He came up with the nickname for MSU – the Spartans. Here is the story, as told to me.

Originally, MSU was established as Michigan Agricultural College, and then Michigan State College, before becoming MSU. With its tradition in agriculture, the College originally had a common nickname – the ‘Aggies’. But as the college transitioned to a more general-purpose university and became more serious about college sports, its promoters in the athletic department and the city began searching for a more promising nickname and mascot to represent the university.

George Stephen Scofes from Quello Center on Vimeo.

George S. Alderton, the Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal, sponsored a contest to find a name to replace the Aggies. In today’s terminology, he crowd sourced a solution. It remains unclear who picked the winner of the contest, but the contest led to MSU ever so briefly being called the Michigan ‘Staters’. The name did not resonate well with many fans, including George Alderton. A local restauranteur, Stephen George Scofes, asked Alderton if he had seen his letter – his submission to the contest, which suggested the name ‘Spartans’. Alderton did not remember the letter, but thought it had promise and researched it with his colleagues.

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Stephen George Scofes and son, George Scofes, at the cash register of The Famous Grill circa 1950

Initially, in his columns, Alderton misspelled Spartans, using an ‘o’ for ‘Sportans’. Stephen Scofes corrected his spelling, and Alderton started to routinely use ‘Spartans’ in his columns. The name caught on, and the rest is history – or it should have been history but was, in fact, totally forgotten and clouded over time. Much later, neither Alderton or anyone else could remember the name of the person who came up with the Spartan name, which we now know was Stephen Scofes.*

Stephen’s son, George Stephen Scofes, himself of a serious age – 89 – today, told me the story of his father coming up with the Spartan name. This came up when I was driving him and our mutual friend, who introduced us, Dimitri Stathopoulos, to an MSU basketball game. Stephen came to the United States from an area near the town of Sparta, Greece. His son George, was born in the USA, but lived in Sparta from the age of two until the end of the second world war, when he moved back to the US at the age of seventeen. His friend Dimitri was also from Sparta. So the Spartan name did not pop out of thin air or the classics, but from real life.

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Dimitri Stathopoulos (left) and George Stephen Scofes

Because Mr. Scofes had a restaurant, The Famous Grill, George’s father knew all the coaches and many of the athletes and sports writers that covered MSU. One of the great coaches, Biggie Munn, liked to bring his players in his restaurant, The Famous Grill and sit in The Big Ten Room. Munn became athletic director at MSU from 1953-71 and invited Stephen Scofes to award the annual ‘sportsmanship’ trophy to the football team.

The Scofes family remain closely attached to MSU, such as through the basketball trophy under the Scofes name, for example. And later, in the 1990s, when Nick Saban was the football coach at MSU, the coach argued that there were many awards for sportsmanship, so why not give an award to an academic who helps the players academically. Since then, Stephen’s son, George, and George’s son Stephen Scofes (that’s the traditional way Greek families recognize their family heritage) give an award to an MSU academic who helps the players, titled ‘The George Stephen Scofes Outstanding Faculty Award’ at MSU. There were twelve recipients in 2017.

For decades, the person who came up with the name that is central to MSU’s identity was forgotten in the folklore of the university. But the mystery is solved: He was Stephen George Scofes, arguably, the first Spartan.

Notes

*A published narrative of the naming of the Spartans is provided in Constantine S. Demos and Steven S. Demos, M.D. ((2008), The Tradition Continues: Spartan Football. East Lansing: Michigan State University Football Players Association, pages 56-57. Their version differs in important ways from my narrative, such as only alluding to the friendship of the Scofes brothers and Alderton, but with no acknowledgement of Stephen Scofes’ role. You will have to reach your own conclusion about who named the Spartans, but I find my interview with George Scofes, his son, to be most credible.

The Famous Grill Lansing
The Famous Grill: Where the ‘Spartan’ Name was Cooked Up

Regulatory Consultations are not Plebiscites

Try as You May, but Consultations are not Plebiscites

Debate over the current and former FCC consultations on net neutrality have led a number of otherwise well informed telecommunication policy researchers and analysts to focus on the number of submissions for or against an FCC ruling, such as in a WSJ article today: https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2017/12/04/fcc-rebuffs-calls-senators-ny-ag-delay-net-neutrality-vote-over-fake-comments/920446001/

Regulatory consultations are simply not plebiscites. They are not opportunities for the public to vote a ruling up or down. They are meant to determine if the ruling has addressed all reasonable issues. So if a member of the public raises an issue that is new or not addressed in the ruling, it is important, and the agency would need to address it. If the public simply raises a point made by others, or which has been addressed by the ruling, then it is superfluous.

For this reason, there have been efforts to use text analytics to read the many submissions enabled by email and other electronic messaging applications leading to thousands if not millions of submissions – more than a few people can read. The area of development has been called e-Rulemaking. Using text analytics, it is possible to identify a new point, and also easy to identify duplicated submissions, for example. One million duplicated submissions that raise no new points are not significant to a consultation, unless people are treating them like votes, which would be inappropriate. That is why it is really not that worrisome that bots are participating in a consultation. There is a human being behind every bot, and unless the bot makes a new and valid and reasonable point, then its significance is nil.

Am I wrong? Let me know.

But try as you may to use comments to consultations as if they are votes, this would be a misunderstanding of their role. They should not be counted as if they were a plebiscite. Software like ‘texifter’ is available and under development to filter and sort through tons of comments to discover valid points for considering in a consultation. Stu Shulman, the inventor of @discovertext playfully characterizes them as BS filters. See a recent talk by Stu to get a sense of the history and status of work in this area: http://quello.msu.edu/event/erulemaking-a-history-a-theory-a-flood/  


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/239140103″>eRulemaking: A History, A Theory, A Flood by Stu Shulman</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/quellocenter”>Quello Center</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

Broadening Conceptions of Mobile and Its Social Dynamics

Wonderful to see a chapter by me, Frank Hangler, and Ginette Law, entitled ‘Broadening Conceptions of Mobile and Its Social Dynamics’ in Chan, J. M., and Lee, F. L. F. (2017), Advancing Comparative Media and Communication Research (London: Routledge), pp. 142-170. It arrived at my office today.

The volume evolved out of an international conference to mark the 50th anniversary of the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2015. But the paper’s origins date back to a project that I did during my last months at Oxford in 2014, and early in my tenure at MSU, as the Principal Investigator with Ginette and Frank, of a project called ‘The Social Shaping of Mobile Internet Developments and their Implications for Evolving Lifestyles’, supported by a contract from Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd to Oxford University Consulting. This led first to a working paper done jointly with colleagues from Oxford University and Huawei: Dutton, William H. and Law, Ginette and Groselj, Darja and Hangler, Frank and Vidan, Gili and Cheng, Lin and Lu, Xiaobin and Zhi, Hui and Zhao, Qiyong and Wang, Bin, Mobile Communication Today and Tomorrow (December 4, 2014). A Quello Policy Research Paper, Quello Center, Michigan State University.. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2534236 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2534236

The project moved me into a far better understanding and appreciation of the significance of mobile, but also its varied and evolving definitions. Before this paper, I was skeptical of academic work centered on mobile as I considered it one area of Internet studies. However, by the end of the project, I became convinced that mobile communication is a useful and complex area for research, policy and practice, complementary to Internet studies. In the working paper, we forecast the disappearance of the mobile phone device, which seemed far-fetched when we suggested this to Huawei, but is now becoming a popular conception. So look forward to a future in which that awkward scene of people walking along looking at their mobile will come to an end, in a good way.

This paper illustrates the often circuitous route of academic work from conception to publication, which is increasingly international and collaborative. So thanks to the editors, my co-authors, Oxford Consulting, and Huawei for your support and patience. Academic time is another world. But it was all worth doing and the wait.

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     Frank Hangler, Co-Author

 

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Ginette Law, Co-Author