Has Brexit Broken Parliament? No. This is Democracy!

The frustration of so many people over the machinations of the UK Parliament during the debates and votes over Brexit is understandable. So it is not surprising to see article after article, and opinion pieces piled on one another about how parliament, if not democracy itself, is broken. The GuardianJournal on 16 March notes: ‘Brexit – a niche production that brought the house down’. The Guardianon 16 March talks of the ‘UK Divided: Disbelief and anger as faith in politicians evaporates’ (p. 15). The political editor of The Guardian writes in The Observer on 17 March of ‘The Week that all but broke British politics (p. 38).’ As an American residing in Britain, I respectfully disagree.

British Parliament Debates Brexit
EU Parliament Debates Brexit

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is no doubt but that this debate is extraordinary, by British, or any liberal democratic standards. Of course, these are not normal, routine debates, but among the most serious in decades for the UK and Northern Ireland. But to say this is the democratic process at work, I am sure I will be branded an enemy of whatever position seems to be prevailing at the moment. Yet I am not evaluating the process on the basis of its likely outcome. No one knows what the outcome will be – still.

Let me explain why I believe this is democracy in a good way – not broken. First, and foremost, it is a real debate. Take a look at the British parliament and the EU parliament. Both are liberal and democratic bodies. But which looks better managed? Which looks like a more democratic process? Which looks more interactive? Given the scale of the EU parliament, the British parliament would be unworkable. But the British parliament remains the model of a democratic political body.

But, you may say, “the parties have lost control, there is no discipline”? Yes, factions have developed within the parties, and individuals seem to be following their own guidance at times. But I see this as a consequence of how serious the issues are (leading all members of parliament to inform themselves) and how much time has been devoted to the issues. In normal legislative processes, most members vote most of the time on the basis of cues. They do not have the time to read every paper on every motion or proposition put before their body. In most cases, they look for cues from their party leaders, from the committee that reports the motion, from experts in the area. In the case of Brexit, every member of parliament has had abundant time and motivation to develop their own positions on the matter. That is good in light of a classic rational model of democracy, but in the real world of politics it means that there are many individually honed and differing judgements on what to do. Therefore, it will take a great deal more time than normally expected to sort out what the collective body will decide.

However, we live in a time of live media coverage of every debate, every repositioning, motion, leak, speech, mistake, raised eyebrow, etc. In earlier days, so much of what is reported routinely today would never be seen or heard, much less broadcast live, and spread on social media. The saying that legislation is like sausage in that it often tastes good in the end, but you don’t want to see it being made. Well, we are seeing negotiations over Brexit unfolding in real time and it is not pretty, but it is what is necessary in order to find ways to accommodate multiple, intense, and firmly held opinions on the way forward. To say that this is not well managed is actually a compliment.

Somehow, whether it is this week, this year, or over decades, decisions will continue to unfold in the Brexit process, or UK-EU relationship. The process may be frustratingly slow, but the most critical issue is that the process seeks to accommodate as many interests or positions as possible and is (and is seen) as legitimate at the end of the day. Not managed. Not rammed down anyone’s throat. But led to accommodate as many individual, strong-minded parliamentarians as possible to achieve a majority – an inevitable compromise to all of the minority opinions in the mix.

In contrast, think whether you would be happy if this were brilliantly ‘managed’ and the position of any one parliamentarian reigned supreme in this process. The idea of having a citizen jury comes close to this idea of doing something, anything, to get this over with. No, the key is to ensure that the end will be the result from a truly democratic process.

 

Brexit and The Border: Must Read

As an American in Britain, the history and issues surrounding the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland has seemed to be too complex to even try to unravel. However, I was pleasantly surprised by Diarmaid Ferriter’s book, entitled, no less, The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics.* The author is a professor at University College Dublin, and a columnist for the Irish Times.

He has written a short and accessible book, seven chapters, 144 pages, that is succinct and authoritative. By using the border as a focus for looking at the history of Anglo-Irish relationships, he is able to illuminates key decisions in their history and clarify the ecology of choices that shaped the partitioning and the present border. For example, after reading Ferriter’s history, I find it difficult to accept current discussions of a ‘hard border’ as if one ever really existed, when “no less than 180 roads crossed the border” (p. 10). The physical border was always porous, but it became a focus for conflict. Likewise, his history brings out the overwhelming centrality of issues over national sovereignty relative to all other issues – in demanding Irish self-government – to the four-decade long struggle that led to the partitioning.

I do not pretend to be a historian of Anglo-Irish relations, and being relatively ignorant of so much of this history, I found the body of the book to be most informative as well as insightful.

One weakness from my perspective was the concluding chapter which turned to Brexit. It seemed to be less closely tied to his historical treatment than I had hoped it would be, and more embedded in the current lines of factional debates. Nevertheless, I think anyone with a serious interest in Brexit and the border issue will find the book to be a basis for a better understanding of today’s debates. I would be happy to hear recommendations for further reading, but from my perspective, it is must reading.

Source: Irishcentral.com

*Ferriter, Diarmaid (2019), The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics. London: Profile Books.

The New News Strategy? How the Panic Over Fake News Could Undermine the News

There seems to be a pattern evolving around concerns over fake news – one that runs counter to more conventional expectations. Most people expect that raising concerns over fake news might actually lead to improvements in search, platforms, regulation, or consumer behavior that improves the quality and diversity of news. However, the opposite might be unfolding.

The story begins with the panic over fake news. It is a panic since most research on the actual use of online news suggests that people see multiple sources and most often check news that they see as questionable but important, such as by using search. This panic over fake news has been fueled by a focus on the production of fake news. It is indeed produced albeit this phenomenon is not new – that is one reason why search engines were invented. But far less attention has been directed at its consumption. When you look systematically at how Internet users consume news, such as information about politics, it is clear that the impacts of fake news are largely mitigated.*

How Panic is Undermining News

However, the mainstream media continue to promote the idea of fake news, with mainstream news being the source of truth and fact, to the degree that politicians, regulators, and the public have become increasingly concerned, pressing online platforms to ‘do something’ about it. Internet platforms have done so by raising quite dramatically the prominence of mainstream news sources when people search for news online.

As a consequence, when you go online for news about what is going on in the world, you are increasingly likely to be steered to the headline news of the mainstream news media. If you wish to go beyond the headline news, you find yourself asked to pay for a subscription to go behind their paywall. This has already proven so effective that even academics are beginning to think that subscription services are seeing a renaissance of sorts. However, this increase is being driven by the platforms and news aggregators prioritizing mainstream news headlines, to avoid the charge of promoting fake news. Thus, the concern over fake news is essentially creating advertising for subscription news services, with more providers moving to pay walls, and existing subscription services raising their rates, doubling them in some cases.

So the Internet is becoming less of a source for diverse news as stories in the long tail are pushed behind the headlines, and more of a source for the most popular headline news – the same news you hear on radio and TV. Will this undermine online first news outlets? I believe it already has done so.

Therefore, I am worried that panic over fake news is leading us to no news beyond the major headline stories that leave so much news uncovered. The thrust of actual research on the use of online news should undermine the panic over fake news, filter bubbles, and echo chambers, but journalists don’t read social science, and the story of fake news serves their interests.

Of course, I am simplifying a complex set of developments, but I believe this captures a pattern that is not being identified in the current fake news narrative. I am a news fan, subscribing to multiple print newspapers and an avid consumer of online news, which has been so complementary to the print news. If we recognize this tendency, we can hack through the headlines, and search for specific topics and information, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself walled off from more information by pay services.

Let me know if you think this is wrong, fake, or exaggerated, let me know. I fear I am right about this, but am open to be proven wrong, and think systematic research on this trend would be of value.

 

*Here is a blog about this panic: https://theconversation.com/fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-underresearched-and-overhyped-76688 and here is an article about how few users are susceptible to fake news, echo chambers, and filter bubbles, and why: Dutton, W. H., and Fernandez, L. (2018/19), ‘How Susceptible Are Internet Users?’, InterMEDIA, December/January 2018/19 46(4): 36-40. Online at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3316768

 

Charles Benton Early Career Scholar Award at TPRC 2019

The 47th Research Conference on Communications, Information, and Internet Policy will be held from September 20-21, 2019, at American University Washington College of Law Washington, D.C. TPRC is an annual cross-disciplinary conference on communications, information, and Internet policy that convenes researchers and policymakers from law, economics, engineering, computer science, public policy and related fields working in academia, industry, government, and nonprofit organizations around the world.

TPRC is seeking submissions for its 47th conference, including papers, posters, panels, a Student Paper Competition, the Graduate Student Consortium, and for the Charles Benton Early Career Scholar Award. As a recent member of the TPRC Board of Directors, I would like to draw your attention to the conference, and the award for early career researchers.

TPRC and the Benton Foundation have announced the third year of the Charles Benton Early Career Scholar Award, recognizing scholarship in the area of digital inclusion and broadband adoption. This special honor will be awarded at TPRC in 2019 in honour of Charles Benton, a longstanding supporter of TPRC and tireless advocate for media, communications and digital equality. The award recipient will receive US$1,500 and will be recognized at a lunch during the TPRC conference and the winner will receive complimentary registration for the conference.

Applications and nominations can be received for scholars currently enrolled in a degree program or no more than five years from receipt of their most recent degree. Acceptable submissions include:

  • An original, empirically-based research paper pertaining digital inclusion and/or broadband adoption
  • A policy proposal for digital inclusion and broadband adoption with a discussion of the justification
  • An essay on a topic dealing with digital inclusion and/or broadband adoption.

Submissions must be less than 25 double-spaced, typewritten pages, including notes and references and will not have been formally published in a peer reviewed outlet prior to TPRC47.

The recipient will be chosen by a TPRC Board Committee and must attend the conference and agree to work with Benton Foundation’s Executive Editor, Kevin Taglang, to produce a blog article based on the winning submission for benton.org.

Due Dates:

Applications: May 31

Notice of Decision: July 15

Blog post: December 31

For questions regarding the Charles Benton Early Career Scholar Award, please contact me at William.Dutton at gmail.com or check out the TPRC conference website at: https://www.tprcweb.com

Dollar Waiting on a Nickel: Life and Work Online

I planned to spend all of my day writing, but instead, I spent the entire day trying to deal with problems with routers, software, browsers, etc. My router disconnected from my printer, and reconnecting is not straightforward. I received proofs for a book review from a publisher, who insisted I use their browser and their editing software to amend my proofs, which caused hours of wasted time. In the end, I refused to download their software just to make a few minor adjustments.

via Arthur Berger

I had a father-son team of carpenters working at my home once, and they kept saying to each other that one had a ‘dollar waiting on a nickel’. They had a major job to do that was waiting for a trivial job to be completed. This is becoming my life online. Increasingly it is difficult to do real work while trying to cope with the increasingly complicated packages of hardware and software that raise untold numbers of new problems on a daily basis.

I am so old and senior that I am increasingly moving to the strategy of telling those who insist that I use their system, their form, their preferred browser, their software, and their time frame, to simply read my email. No thank you.

If You Read an Email Message, Read It All: Responding to a Worrisome Trend

Much is said about how the Internet has changed our communication habits, such as shifting communication to email and text messaging versus pen and paper letters through the post. And I enjoy debates over how email might be effecting our writing styles. But I am noticing a worrisome trend, which is admittedly only anecdotal – simply a relatively personal observation – but one that I fear is a plausible development. That is, people are not reading beyond the first few lines and seldom reading your entire message.

Courtesy Arthur A. Berger

It is evidenced by such things as people responding to mail, but only to the first question or first point in a message. For example, you might ask someone two questions, and they only respond to the first. Similarly, if I make a sarcastic point, or make an attempt at joking, it is misunderstood – possibly not read carefully or in the context of the entire email.

I am convinced that people are so inundated with email that they are trying to find all sorts of shortcuts, such as quickly deleting near-spam email that makes its way through filters, and also only rapidly reading what they need in order to delete or respond to an email as quickly as possible. It is like: “Okay. Bill wants to know x” and quickly responding, but not realizing I also wanted to know y.

So it is not only that people don’t write letters anymore. Many people don’t genuinely read their email anymore. One reason social media like blogs, Twitter and Facebook are so valued is that there is no pressure to actually read or respond to anyone’s post. And so most people don’t do either, and can be quite selective. In contrast, comparatively speaking, email still creates a greater sense of obligation to respond, if only to confirm receipt. However, in today’s busy-busy world, we respond as efficiently as possible. In the process, we sometimes fail to genuinely read the full text.

So what can we do? Here is what I am doing more and more.

First, keep trying to write better, clearer, more succinct emails. I try to keep my emails as short as possible. Short and simple but not too short or simple to be ambiguous or misunderstood. Flame wars have been started by short misunderstood emails.

Secondly, telescope your point(s) in the introduction if not the subject of the email. Readers might then look for the announced points, even if they are trying to short-circuit reading the entire missive.

Third, I increasingly avoid making more than one point per email. So I’ll send two emails, each on a separate point, rather than combine multiple asks in one message. Also you might separate them by a day or two. Is this adding to our email glut? Maybe, but you also increase the likelihood of your message being read and meaningful. It also forces you to think harder about whether you need to ask every question that comes to mind.

Finally, when using humor, sarcasm, or telling a joke, you might well be wise to stoop to the point of adding an emoji to guard against the reader taking you too seriously or literally. 🙂

Ironically, if I am right, most of you will not get this far in my blog to read these strategies, particularly those who are overwhelmed. I can only suggest that you need to do your best to keep your readers by keeping the text interesting throughout, and try to avoid getting overwhelmed. Just say “no” and stay within your limits.

Thank you again, Lord Ashdown

Lord Ashdown died on 22 December 2018 at 77 years of age, and was buried in Somerset this week on 10 January 2019. After serving as a Royal Marine, and serving years as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and an MP, his life has been celebrated by many.

It may seem small, but I can’t help but remember Paddy Ashdown for helping me and my colleagues by taking the time to speak at the last international conference of the Programme on Information & Communication Technologies (PICT) in 1995. The conference was entitled ‘The Social and Economic Implications of Information and Communication Technologies’, and was held at The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster, London, from 10-12 May 1995.

The Rt. Hon Paddy Ashdown agreed to do the keynote of the conference, and he was joined by other parliamentarians, including John Battle, Kenneth Baker, Richard Caborn, Chris Smith, Ian Taylor and Sir Kenneth Warren. The event, and Paddy Ashdown’s keynote, was a capstone to one of the first social science research programmes focused on information and communication technologies, such as the Internet. It was sustained by two phases of research grants from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). I was national director of this programme during its last years, following earlier directors, Bill Melody and Nicky Gardner. It gave me the opportunity to work with such great colleagues as Martin Cave, Richard Collins, Rod Coombs, Jane (Yellowtrees) Douglas, David Edge, Wendy Faulkner, James Fleck, the late Chris Freeman, Nick Garnham, Andrew Gillespie, John Goddard, Leslie Haddon, Christine Hine, David Knights, Sonia Livingstone, Stuart Macdonald, Robin Mansell, Ian Miles, Geoff Mulgan, Hugh Willmott, Vince Porter, Paul Quintas, Kevin Robins, the late Roger Silverstone, Colin Sparks, John Taylor, Juliet Webster, Robin Williams, Steve Woolgar, and many many others.

PICT was a successful research programme that paved the way for a series of research programmes to follow on its heels and together make an incredible difference in the way people in the UK and worldwide think about the societal implications of the Internet and related information and communication technologies. I’m not sure if those who contribute their time and efforts to supporting academic research, as Paddy Ashdown did, realise how their contributions make a difference and are remembered. So thank you again, Lord Ashdown, for seeing the significance of what we were doing and supporting it with your presence – well before the significance of the new technologies were widely recognised.

Lord Paddy Ashdown