A Mob, Protestors, or a Mob of Protestors at Capitol Hill?

A Mob, Protestors, or a Mob of Protestors at Capitol Hill?

In media coverage and interviews immediately following the 6 January 2021 protests on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, most media pundits, including the BBC, and politicians referred to the Trump supporters who surrounded or breached the building as a ‘mob’. The Guardian as a ‘pro-Trump mob’. That is a reasonably accurate choice of terminology in that the OED defines a mob as ‘a large disorderly crowd of people’, which clearly applies to this case. 

Crowd on Capitol Hill on 6 January 2021

However, in a strikingly analogous event, when protestors breached the Hong Kong Parliament in 2019, they were more consistently referred to as protestors, or pro-democracy protestors. For example, the BBC noted that: “Protesters have been removed from Hong Kong’s parliament after an hours-long siege.”[1] The same coverage referred to those occupying the parliament as demonstrators. (I doubt this was true in the case of coverage in the Chinese media, but I have not confirmed this.) 

Likewise, the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, saw a great deal of protest-related violence which also interrupted US democratic election processes. For example, one BBC account 50 years after the event referred to protestors, anti-war protestors, Vietnam War protestors, or demonstrators.[2] In this case, as all of my contemporaries will remember from watching these protests, that the protestors were not characterized as a mob. I searched online for “mob” in the context of the Chicago convention and nearly all the results noted that the text was missing the word ‘mob’, referring instead to ‘protestors’ or ‘Vietnam War protestors.’  

Clearly, there is a more or less intentional politics of language at play here, where a mob is far less legitimate than protestors. Maybe a mob is less purposeful, or more chaotic? Another OED accepted definition of mob is ‘the common people, the rabble’. Perhaps this is what is being implied about Trump protestors. 

To be fair, if one wished to be fair, it might be better to avoid either term by referring to ‘a mob of protestors.’ That might fit all of these situations and be more acceptable to all of the actors involved. What term would you suggest?

I have not done a comprehensive or systematic comparison of all media coverage of these and other similar events. It is too tangential to my work. That said, it seems blindingly obvious that we all indirectly legitimize or de-legitimize people and political actions by our choice of terms. It might be better to describe a mob of protestors in more neutral terms and then describe what they did – their actions. It may be a cliché, but let their actions speak for themselves without being prejudiced by framing them in a glorified or tainted way through a politically charged label, unless that is exactly what you wish to do. The contemporary term of this communicative act might be virtue signaling – making sure readers or listeners know that you are on the morally correct side? 

As I write, I fully realize I will be judged as morally incorrect by many for asking for more neutrality. I was on the ‘peace patrol’ during Vietnam War (the American War) protests at SUNY Buffalo, and that put me in a similar position – that time between protestors and the police, but a riskier position. In a way, I want to plea for a peace patrol now as well. As President-elect Joe Biden said, he wants to “be President for all Americans.”[3]These protests have created a pretty angry place from which to move ahead on that mission.

Protestor Sitting at Speaker’s Desk, fastcoastnews.com

Afterword

The day after I posted this blog, the Financial Times (8 January 2021: 1) quoted several politicians and others using even more dramatic and more exaggerated characterizations of the mob of protesters, such as domestic terrorists. Joe Biden was quoted as saying: “Don’t dare call them protesters. They were a riotous mob, insurrectionists.” I understand that the President-elect and other politicians have been shocked and frightened if not panicked by what happened on the 6th, but there should be some – surely in academia – who can step back and look analytically and empirically at the complex interaction of multiple choices by multiple actors that led to this debacle. The presence of persons preaching insurrection does not make everyone present an insurrectionist. 

Capitol Hill on 6 January was a disaster. There is a real need to dig into the details of this disaster to ensure that it is not over-simplified to fit political narratives. It was what I would call a ‘democratic disaster’ and like all disasters I’ve studied, they are the result of multiple problems. Rather than being resolved by one simple explanation, they are most often the result of multiple actors making multiple mistakes that interact in ways that lead to an unanticipated disaster. 

I guess a problem is that politicians and the media are pressed to jump to conclusions too quickly. Not to do so risks being labelled as weak or indecisive or on the wrong side. We need individuals or teams that have the resources to dig into the specifics, however complex or simple, and avoid drawing ill-informed lessons that could undermine freedom of expression and assembly, including lawful protests, that are central to the dynamics of democratic politics.

References

William H. Dutton, Donald MacKenzie, Stuart Shapiro and Malcolm Peltu (1995), ‘Computer Power and Human Limits: Learning from IT and Telecommunications Disasters’. PICT Policy Research Paper No. 33 (Uxbridge: Programme on Information and Communication Technologies, Economic and Social Research Council. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3103433

Notes


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-asia-china-48821664

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-45226132

[3] https://www.axios.com/biden-president-for-all-americans-0486555e-ff3f-40aa-8332-53fc4a72b0ae.html


					

The Meaning of Like

Today’s newspaper was riddled with insults and accusations about who ‘liked’ or ‘shared’ various posts on Facebook. To paraphrase, one read ‘that a board member of x [any board or agency or organization] has “liked” or shared social media posts about y [any controversial topic] by z [any controversial figure].’ How could they?

Months ago, for example, I received an email from a neighbour saying she could not believe that I had “liked’ a post by one of my old colleagues. I replied that I found his post to be engaging and stimulating – worth reading, but I did not ‘agree’ with his views. 

There are at least two problems with this kind of oversight.

First, to like a post on Facebook does not mean that you agree with it in whole or in part. It could mean that you noticed it, recommended it to others, disagree, or really, it could mean just about anything. For me, a ‘like’ is a general acknowledgement that you had read or have seen the post, as if saying thank you for posting. For example, liking a photo someone posts might simply be a way of saying hello to them. There is no unlike button. Anyone who assumes that a ‘like’ means you agree is simply wrong much if not most of the time. 

A parallel example is when Americans or Europeans visit Japan, they often translate the common Japanese response of “Ah So” – short for ā sō desu ka – to mean the speaker agrees, or is saying “yes”. My Japanese friends tell me it essentially means that the speaker ‘understands’, as in ‘ah, I hear you’. Often, in fact, it implies ‘no’ – not ‘yes’, as it is so impolite to say no. [Correct me if I’m wrong.]

So, in a similar way, it is wrong to assume that a ‘like’ means agreement. If everyone understood this, there would be a lot fewer disputes in the newspapers and online. Many more emojis have been added to online media, but I would not count on the greater choice of emoji settling the issue. What does that wink mean?

The second problem is that I wish my friends, neighbours, or Facebook friends would not make assumptions about my beliefs or opinions based only on such a crude signal as whether I like or share a post. It is a type of social pressure or sanction that can have a chilling effect on me and perhaps on other speakers. If I start thinking that I will be judged by what I ‘like’ – not on what I actually say – then I will stop ‘liking’ anything. Better to say nothing than to be misunderstood. I don’t mind it if I am confronted, such as by my neighbour, as then I can explain myself, if I wish to, and thank them for asking. But one can only assume that too many people draw unwarranted conclusions without testing them with you. Did you mean that you agree with that post?

Given the directions of technical advances, in due course, you might know what I look at or read, even if I don’t react to the post. “You ordered that book?’ ‘You looked at that person’s profile?’ So this kind of problem could get far worse.

Let me apologise to you, if you’ve been critical of my – or anyone’s – ‘likes’. But as they say, apologizing does not mean that I am wrong, but that I value your friendship more than proving myself right. By the way, I have very few “friends” in real life, but many “Facebook friends” – they are not the same thing, so should we all try harder to be as aware of online conventions and the meaning of terms used online, just as we try to keep up with the nuances of speech in general? 

COVID-19 Balancing Acts

COVID-19 Balancing Acts 

The press has fostered growing recognition of the balance that politicians must strike between public health and the economy. This is important, but more attention needs to be focused on the balancing acts of individuals – the public at large. Each individual needs to juggle multiple pressures in making choices about staying at home, social distancing, and how to best comply with COVID-19 guidelines. A rational health communication model might suggest that actors need to focus more effort on gaining a consensus across governmental actors and experts and do a better job in communicating the recommendations in more engaging ways that the public will accept. But this assumes that a clear message can be agreed, sent, and well received. Moreover, what if there are rational reasons for the mixed messages and differences in reception?

It has become increasingly understood that many public officials pursue at least dual objectives – achieving the health objectives of protecting the public from the virus and the economic objectives of getting people back to work and the economy growing. Given that multiple actors are pursuing multiple objectives from different levels of expertise and positions in government, it would be difficult indeed to create a single message to communicate to the public. Given the permutations of actors, expertise, timing, and positions across the nations and regions of the UK, it is almost inevitable that many voices speak for governments of the UK with some major and many subtle differences in messaging. They are not always in sync with expert advice, which also varies across experts and overtime.

At the receiving end, many among the public may not listen or view governmental instructions or announcements or follow news and social media about them. Still others might follow these messages but not fully understand them – feeling confused. And even among those who receive and understand governmental advice, too many fail to comply or follow the recommendations of the experts. 

It is possible to imagine everyone among the public is in the same boat – all wanting to avoid the COVID-19 virus and anxious to get the latest and best information from the government’s health experts. However, the public includes a diverse set of actors, whose behaviour is likely to be shaped and constrained by their:

  • Health: young, healthy individuals are likely to be less concerned about the virus than older people with underlying medical conditions;
  • Employment: highly paid information workers, who can work at home, are likely to be less worried about the economic consequences of the virus than those who work in personal services for low wages;
  • Finances: households financially able to ride out the pandemic versus those with few slack resources, including the homeless;
  • Household: a large family in a small household may find it more difficult to stay at home, or consider a family distributed across multiple households; 
  • Social Networks: college students in fraternities or dormitories are likely to feel social pressure to socialize more than retired seniors living alone;
  • Geography: families living in the most densely populated areas, such as in high-rise apartments, and dependent on public transit, are likely to be less able to socially distance than are rural or suburban residents who can drive for work or to shop. 

These are only a few of the many ways the audience is quite heterogeneous, but they illustrate why it may be difficult for one message to reach an audience who are all as deeply concerned about COVID-19 and equally able to act as a collective. Public communication strategy needs to incorporate the many motivations and constraints that lead to failures of access, understanding or compliance.

I am encouraged by some efforts to empirically understand the public in the time of COVID-19. In the UK, Ofcom has followed public viewing of different media and health messages. And a study of ‘communicating the pandemic‘ at Leeds, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), which I have offered some advice, is looking at how COVID-19 messages are received, how well they are understood, and to what degree individuals comply with government guidance. Studies like that at Leeds could help us move away from an overly simplistic, too homogeneous, overly rational model of the public to an understanding of how a heterogeneous public balances conflicting pressures on their lives as they seek to manage exposure to this virus. Such an understanding should help in communicating guidance effectively in the times of COVID-19 threats.

More information on the Leeds University AHRC study on ‘Communicating the Pandemic’ can be found here.  

Understanding Conflicts in Ukraine

I recommend a 2015 – but still quite relevant – book on the international political situation in Ukraine by Menon and Rumer.* The authors provide a very accessible background on the history of Ukraine, and the evolution of contemporary relationships both within the country and internationally, with Russia, the US, and Germany, France, the UK and the EU. They help clarify a number of over-simplified views, such as any sharp East-West divide within the nation. They describe the recent crisis with Russia, in relation to Crimea and the Luhansk-Donetsk region in Eastern Ukraine, concluding that all of the supporters of Ukraine, such as the US and EU, see their own self-interest at stake in how this evolves, but not strongly enough to intervene or take a more active role, ‘leaving Ukraine to tackle its challenges largely on its own’ (p. 155). And that is where things stand today.

Ethnic majorities throughout Ukraine via Menon and Rumer, 2015

If you would like to better understand the political dynamics of this conflict in Ukraine, I recommend Menon and Rumer’s book. In hindsight, they were exactly right in their view of the prospects, and remain on target.

*Rajan Menon and Eugene Rumer, Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Thanks to SUNY Buffalo (UB)

I began graduate studies in the Department of Political Science at the University of Buffalo in 1969 when UB was called the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY-Buffalo). I had graduated from the University of Missouri at Columbia, where I was inspired by a comparative researcher, Professor David M. Wood, to pursue graduate study in political science. The COVID-19 pandemic and the turmoil it has caused reminded me of when I was at UB amid all the disruptions and student strikes on campus during the Vietnam (American) War. Dramatically different periods and problems, but somehow reminiscent.

My cohort arrived at the interim Ridge Lea Campus – a complex of single-story buildings in Amherst. At one point, I remember some were literally buried completely under heavy snow, causing the cancelling of some exams. While I never experienced the new Amherst campus, I had the benefit of fabulous faculty in the process of building a new department. 

Professor Lester Milbrath, and his ladder of political participation and his turn to environmental research; philosopher of science Professor Paul Diesing with his focus on what scientists actually do; and urban politics Professor Donald Rosenthal, who introduced me to Banfield and Wilson and case studies of Chicago politics, have all passed away. However, they and other faculty, such as James Stimson, who left UB and is now the Raymond Dawson Distinguished Bicentennial Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, were such models of intellect, rigor and integrity that they continue to represent the department for me. And Professor Rudolf Wildenmann, even as a Visiting Professor in the Department from the University of Mannheim, were critical to my work. I almost joined him at Mannheim in 1973. 

Of course, I also continue to value my fellow students. Coming from the Midwest, my first days of graduate studies were intimidating, but students quickly formed a supportive community. I have fond memories of meeting other students, such as Debbie Dunkle and Steve Peterson, who’ve become lifelong friends. We would meet for coffee and breakfast almost every morning in the Ridge Lea cafeteria. One highlight of our conversations was the frequent occasion when any of the grad students received a rejection letter. They would read it out loud for the group to compare and critique. Whenever a student is worried about a job, I tell them about our stacks of rejections, which I continue to find amusing. 

At UB, I focused on urban and comparative politics but also on methods and quantitative data analyses, toting boxes of punch cards around and spending so much time at the central computing center submitting jobs on the big mainframe. SPSS was only being launched while I was a graduate student. I recall colleagues distrusting such software packages as they were too far removed from our own programming. I am sure that my affinity for data analysis created the opportunities I had to work with faculty – so central to my training – but also was key to my move into the study of the political aspects of computing. 

My focus today is on Internet studies, most often from a political perspective. The field did not exist when I was in graduate school. In fact, I worked only about one year in a department of political science in my first job at the University of South Florida. Nevertheless, the ideas, theories and methods that I was introduced to at UB have remained central aspects of my work to this day. At every stage of my career, I felt UB had prepared me as well as any of my colleagues for the challenges of research and teaching. I thank the department for whatever success I’ve enjoyed in my career. 

William H. Dutton, Emeritus Professor, University of Southern California and Oxford University

Seth Wenig/AP

Professor Claude Welch

Ridge Lea Campus of My Days

One of the University of Buffalo’s (UB) most outstanding professors, Claude Welch, began his career at UB in 1964 – before my arrival when UB became SUNY-Buffalo – and only recently retired as SUNY Distinguished Service Professor. Professor Welch has been putting together a history of UB’s Department of Political Science and reaching out to former graduate students for their own memories of their days at UB. I never had a class with Claude, but regret missing that opportunity. He has chaired or been a member of an amazing number of dissertation committees, and is one of the few professors I know of who has had a video produced to recognise him as a gifted teacher, entitled ‘Calling it a Career‘.

My thanks to Claude Welch for putting together his history of the department and reaching out to former students like myself. It made me realise how seldom I stop to recognise those who tried to teach me what political scientists do. But I’ve always appreciated their contributions to my education.

Communicate! Reach Out, Inform, and Entertain

Communicate! Reach Out, Inform, and Entertain

Way too much talk, research, and handwringing are all about how to stop people from seeing or believing disinformation, such as the latest conspiracy theories. But pushing governments and platforms or anyone to censor information is not only ineffective in the digital age, but also likely to be dysfunctional – such as in activating the proverbial Barbara Streisand effect.  You will only generate more interest in the information you want to censor. Moreover, you will not communicate the facts, narrative, or truth, as you see it. 

Alternatively, think about two other ways to grapple with misinformation. 

First, place greater trust in people – Internet users, for example, to be more intelligent and more discerning. Almost every empirical study of how people actually use the Internet and related digital technologies like social media indicates that most people who are interested in a topic will look at multiple sources of information.* If they are uncertain or suspicious of one source, they will double or triple check the information, such as by using search or going to a trusted source, such as Wikipedia or an official Web site. Most theories that frighten us about being caught in an echo chamber or filter bubble of false information are technologically deterministic and do not look carefully at how people actually look for and use information. It is clear that the proponents of censorship almost always assume that people are stupid. Only they know how to find the correct information! 

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, put more effort into communicating the right news, information, or facts, rather than trying to block other information. It seems increasingly clear to me that too many government agencies and academic institutions – as two examples – are too complacent about reaching their audiences. They might set up a Web site,  and post a report online, but not really put major effort into reaching out to ensure that a larger audience is aware of the work, can access it, and understand its message. Think about popular conspiracy theories, like QAnon. They have an evolving narrative, a distributed network of people sharing and helping to distribute their messages. They are motivated and creative in getting this information out. Legitimate and more authoritative sources of information need to be just as clever, if not cleverer and more motivated and ingenious in figuring how a narrative and various outlets will help them reach their audiences in not only digestible but compelling ways. 

In the case of QAnon, I agree with a recent post by Abby Ohlheiser that it’s ‘too late to stop QAnon with fact checks and account bans’.** But it is not too late to stop being complacent about how you and your colleagues and organization communicate in this digital world. You need to be creative, smart and motivated to reach audiences. You may be an authority in your own eyes, but few people will come to you as a source of information. Putting something online won’t suffice. If you or your unit has important information, such as about protecting yourself in a pandemic, then you need to reach out to audiences that matter using all the tools available on Twitter, WordPress, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, and via the press. 

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate via chchurches.org

As hypocrite in chief, at least I am writing this blog. But far more would need to be done in order to communicate this message. Agree?

Notes

* For example, see: Dutton, W. H., Reisdorf, B. C., Blank, G., Dubois, E., and Fernandez, L. (2019), ‘The Internet and Access to Information About Politics: Searching Through Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Disinformation’, pp. 228-247 in Graham, M., and Dutton, W. H. (eds), Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing our Lives, 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. An earlier version of this paper is online at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2960697

** Abby Ohlheiser (2020), It’s too late to stop QAnon with fact checks and account bans’, MIT Technology Review, 17 August: https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/07/26/1005609/qanon-facebook-twitter-youtuube/

COVID-19 and the Future of Higher Education

Time to Develop an Ambitious Research Agenda

Universities are in the process of telling faculty, students, parents, and the larger public about how they intend to respond to the pandemic of COVID-19.[1] Many decisions have been taken about how classes will be held in the coming academic year. In this context, educators are discussing how they expect all the various actors and stakeholders to respond to different strategies and what this means for the future of higher education. Is this crisis an opportunity for fast tracking the sector to more efficient and affordable approaches to education, if not a major shift to online learning, or are we witnessing an inevitable train wreck for the future of higher education? Alternatively, will most institutions choose to muddle through this pandemic before reverting to more conventional approaches. Simply search online for ‘COVID-19 and the future of higher education’ and you will find a large number of articles, interviews, and opinion pieces. 

via voices.com

I have retired from university teaching and administration. Nevertheless, after decades of teaching and working in higher education, and with a long-term interest and research in online learning and education (Dutton and Loader 2002), I have been concerned about the challenges of moving online[2] and have tried to track unfolding developments and reflect on what should be done.

In following this sector, I have been seriously impressed with the significant steps that have been taken by many universities.[3] Some moved their recent graduation ceremonies completely online albeit many of these institutions promise to invite students back for the real thing in the future. Some universities have chosen to move to online courses completely or to varying degrees in various scenarios of blended or hybrid approaches to delivering courses. And a number are offering more choices to students, such as to defer, take their courses online, offer hybrid (online and in class), or physically attend classes that respect social distancing. All these options are approached in the midst of uncertainty over whether fewer or more domestic and international students will want to attend classes, be able to take online courses, live on campus, and pay the going rates of tuition. 

My main concern in following these developments is the need to learn from this real-world, natural experiment occurring right before our eyes. At a recent online discussion of the transformation of the classroom in higher education, there was an observation of one panelist that captured a shared sense that very little systematic empirical research is being done to track and assess developments. If that is true, then an ambitious research agenda needs to be developed as soon as possible. 

There has already been reporting on early experiences with online education in the aftermath of face-to-face teaching of courses being discontinued at nearly all levels of education, immediately following the spread of COVID-19.[4] There are early predictions of likely financial and pedagogical implications. And many discussions within and across disciplines about how to teach online.[5] But more systematic empirical research on actual impacts needs to be undertaken. So, my major point is that this is the time to capture the lessons being learned by higher educational institutions over the coming year, initially by developing a strong research agenda.  

For a start, educators should be talking to those at innovative institutions of higher education. Even quite traditional universities, such as Oxford, have been doing online education, such as through their Department of Continuing Education.[6] They have over 90 online courses, and some of the first were philosophy courses, where I was surprised to learn that discussion forums worked exceptionally well. There are also online universities, for example, and universities that have been founded and have years of experience in remote or distance education, such as a set of open universities like the Open University of Catalonia(Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) and the first Open University which is based in the UK. Can we learn from them?

I had an opportunity to sit down with two current and former faculty members of the UK’s Open University, based in Milton Keynes.[7]  Established in 1969, the OU has been focused on teaching part-time, mature students, studying alongside adult commitments of work and family, not necessarily with traditional school educational backgrounds, who  cannot or choose not to attend traditional campus-based universities. They were able to share lessons learned over the years in an institution that was designed for remote learning, often using broadcasting and the mail for course materials, with a large number of part-time tutors supporting students in small groups, including marking and commenting on each individual’s course work. Now materials and tuition are largely delivered online, although most qualifications will include the option of a limited number of face-to-face sessions.  

They know the challenges of online and other remote teaching and learning, such as the difficulties of synchronous sessions when many are in the workplace or involved with child-care. They have learned and responded to the expectations of today’s students for multiple media in presentations, including not only text but pictures, case studies, videos, games, audio recordings, virtual laboratories and more, although varied by the course and appropriate to the discipline. There is no such thing as one form of online class, when how teachers approach a chemistry class will be very different from a math or from a philosophy course.

The OU has dealt for decades with issues of accessibility given the mode of teaching and learning, which campus-based universities would have to address if more of their teaching was done online. And the OU and other open universities have found it critical for teams rather than individuals to build courses, given the different skill sets required for the content and its delivery. Traditional campus-based courses are still delivered primarily by one faculty member, possibly with teaching assistants, rather than a team with multiple backgrounds.  

More importantly, given the range of approaches taken by over four thousand universities (degree-granting post-secondary institutions) in the USA alone, this coming academic year should provide an unparalleled opportunity to discover what works well across different kinds of courses and institutions. There will still be problems with such issues as self-selection, with universities making decisions on whether to go online or follow other models. However, this is a common problem of comparative research that should not prevent strong studies.

Hopefully, major research councils should be calling for grant research on the impact of changes underway in higher education. Surely this is being done, but I have not run across major empirical research projects in this area. Universities might be good at doing research, but very few institutions are good at critically researching themselves. They are in a competitive enterprise. That said, education departments at major universities around the world must see this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to study the impact of major innovations in higher education. And there is a small set of academics with a focus on online and educational innovations that could step up to meet this need.  

In short, the conversation should quickly be shifting from how universities will respond to this crisis to the development of empirical research on what different universities have chosen to do, how these strategies were actually implemented, and with what impact on learning, education, and the larger institution. This is not a new set of questions for the field, but this is an unprecedented opportunity to gain systematic empirical evidence from field research and interviews with those at the leading-edge of (mass) remote teaching. It is not too late to be focusing on the development of an ambitious research agenda for education post COVID-19. I cannot think of a more important focus for researchers with experience and a focus on learning and education.    

Reference

Dutton, W. H. and Loader, B. D. (2002) (eds.), Digital Academe: New Media and Institutions in Higher Education and Learning, London: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.

Notes   

[1] A few examples are described in a recent article in The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/presidents-panel-how-covid-19-will-change-higher-education-136931

[2] https://billdutton.me/2020/04/13/social-distancing-education/

[3] The steps taken by a few universities are described by an article in The Conversation of 2 July: https://theconversation.com/presidents-panel-how-covid-19-will-change-higher-education-136931

[4] Here is a thoughtful set of reflections from Scientific Americanhttps://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/online-learning-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/

[5] A colleague participated in a two-day conference on ‘teaching and learning mathematics online’ sponsored by three relevant learned societies for maths and stats. It included about 500 people who attended on a registered basis, with another 30 or 40 joining on particular session via YouTube. About 1000 are following it up in some formal way. See: http://talmo.uk/

[6] https://www.conted.ox.ac.uk/public-courses

[7] My thanks to Lindsey Court, a Staff Tutor and Senior Lecturer in the OU’s School of Computing & Communications; and Derek Goldrei, an OU Honorary Associate, retired as Staff Tutor and Senior Lecturer in Mathematics, formerly Deputy Director of the Undergraduate Maths Programme, who is also an Emeritus Fellow of Mansfield College at Oxford University.

Self-Preservation of Your Work

Self-Preservation of Your Work

For decades I have been concerned over the fragility of information and whether ephemerality or the transitory nature of information and communication is just an inevitable feature of the digital age. I therefore frequently look back at a talk I gave on the Internet to a conference of historians held in Oxford in the early 2000s. Given that I was speaking to historians, at a time when I was the founding director of the Oxford Internet Institute, one key theme of my talk concerned the major ways in which content on the Web was unlikely to be preserved. The Internet community did not have adequate plans and strategies for preserving the Internet, Web and related online content. I thought they would be engaged – if not frightened – by a shift of content to online media when it might mean losing much of our history with respect to data, documents, letters, and more. 

My audience seemed interested but unmoved. A historian from the audience chatted with me after the talk to explain that this is not new. Historians have always worked in piecing together history from letters found in a shoebox stored in an attic, tomb stones, and so on – not from systematically recorded archives, even though fragments of such records exist in many libraries, museums, and archives. This is nothing new to efforts aimed at writing or reconstructing history. 

This attitude frightened me even more. From my perspective, perhaps the historians had not seen anything yet. And I am continually reminded of this problem. Of course, there have been brilliant efforts to preserve online, digital content, such as the ‘Way Back Machine’, an initiative of the Internet Archive,[i] which indicates it has saved over 446 billion web pages. Yet the archive and its Way Back Machine have become a subscription service and have dropped out of the limelight they shared in the early days of the Web. The archive is also being limited by concerns over copyright that are leading them to reduce valuable services, such as their digital library.[ii]

But a recent and more personal experience brought all of this to the forefront of my thinking. I always print to save a hard copy of anything of significance (to me) that I write. That may seem quaint, but time and again, it has saved me from losing work that was stored on out of date media, such as floppy discs, or failing journals. I recently wanted to share a copy of a piece I did for a journal of the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), written in 1994, when I was director of an ESRC programme. This time my system failed me and I could not find it in my files. 

This was a short piece that the ESRC published in one of its journals called Social Sciences. Being a social scientist, my article focused on the problematic mindset of social scientists regarding outreach (Dutton 1994). Too often, I argued, a (social) scientist thought they were through with outreach once they published an article. The way I put it was that many social scientists believed in sort of a ‘trickle-down’ theory of outreach. Once their work was published, the findings and their implications will eventually trickle down to those who might benefit from their insights.

Today, all disciplines of the sciences are far more focused on outreach and the impact of research. Many research assessment exercises require evidence of the impact of research as a basis for assessment. And individual academics, research units, departments and universities are becoming almost too focused on getting the word out to the world about their research and related achievements. Outreach has become a major aspect of contemporary academic and not-for-profit research enterprises. There is even an Association for Academic Outreach.[iii] One only needs to reflect on the innovative and competitive race to a vaccine for COVID-19, where at least 75 candidate vaccines are in preclinical or clinical evaluation[iv], to see how robust and important outreach has become. Nevertheless, outreach does not necessarily translate into preservation of academic work.

So – lo and behold – I could not find a copy of my piece on ‘Trickle-Down Social Science’. I recall seeing it in my files, but given moves back and forth across the Atlantic, it had vanished without a trace. I searched online for it, and found my books and articles that referenced it, but no copy of the article. I tried the Way Back Machine, but it was not on the Web, as the journal Social Sciences in those days did not put its publication online. I wrote the ESRC, as they might have an archive of their journal. They kindly replied that they not only did not have a copy of the article (from that far back), but, more surprisingly, they did not even have a copy of Social Sciences in their archives. So, 1994 is such ancient history that even revered institutions like the ESRC do not keep copies of their publications. [A former student read this blog and sent me a photocopy, which I used to create a new version of my little viewpoint piece from a quarter-century earlier.]

Well, this little personal experience reminded me of my practice of keeping copies and reinforced the obvious conclusion that I need to preserve my own work, as I had tried to do, and do a more consistent job of it in the process! The toppling of real, analogue statues across the world selfishly reminded me of the need to preserve my own far less significant – if not insignificant – historical record and not to count on anyone else doing this for me. 

So, preserve your own work and don’t rely on the Internet, Web, big data, or any other person to save your work. Take it from C. Wright Mills (1952), any academic should devote considerable time to their files. While Mills argued that maintaining one’s files was a central aspect of ‘intellectual craftsmanship’, even he did not focus on their preservation.

That said, if anyone has a copy of ‘Trickle-Down Social Science’, name your price. 😉

Reference

Dutton, W. (1994), ‘Trickle-Down Social Science: A Personal Perspective,’ Social Sciences, 22, 2.

Wright Mills, C. (1980), ‘On Intellectual Craftsmanship (1952)’, Society, Jan/Feb: 63-70.https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/BF02700062.pdf


[i] http://web.archive.org

[ii] https://www.inputmag.com/culture/internet-archive-kills-its-free-digital-library-over-copyright-concerns

[iii] https://www.afao.ac.uk

[iv] https://www.who.int/blueprint/priority-diseases/key-action/novel-coronavirus-landscape-ncov.pdf?ua=

To Be Virtual or Not to Be: That is Not the Question

Today’s newspapers have wonderfully conflicting stories. One story is about Ministers of Parliament (MPs) in the UK being angry over their ‘virtual parliament’ coming to an end.* The other story is the opposite, about the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, facing criticism from his Cabinet because they are continuing to meet via online video conferencing rather than getting together for face-to-face cabinet meetings.** These are fascinating debates to follow, especially in the added context of US debates over the US Supreme Court, and Congress, particularly some committees, meeting online and in hybrid forms. They are complex, multi-layered debates that will have consequences not only for judicial and legislative processes but also their outcomes. And we all have opinions about it. 

Photo from FT article by George Parker

Before mentioning the role of the coronavirus pandemic, I would like to make one simple point. It is generally supported from decades of research on electronic meetings focused on the costs and benefits of meeting via such options as text-only online, voice-only (phone calls or conferencing), video conferencing, or face-to-face. Obviously, if an information task involves only the transfer of information, then simply using text-based online media, like an email, is the most efficient approach and may have no consequence on the outcome. However, if the task involves negotiation, bargaining, or other interpersonal judgements, then it would be better to use media with more ‘social presence’.*** Face-to-face, in-person meetings have the highest level of social presence, other things equal, followed by video conferencing, followed by only text-based telecommunications. Arguably, any transfer of information is in some part a negotiation, such as ‘please listen’, and some in person meetings, such as a teacher speaking in a large lecture hall can have little social presence. That said, some information tasks are relatively more focused on negotiation, such as arriving at a group decision or judgement. If you are simply giving or receiving information, it is more efficient to use online media. If negotiating or making a judgement, particularly as a group, it is better to meet face to face. 

However, this last call depends on your status in the group. If you are the leader or most influential in the group, it is better (for you) to meet face-to-face, as this will enable you to best assert your authority. If you are less influential in the group meeting, it might well be better for you to meet online, as text- or voice-only such as a phone call can have a leveling effect, making it more difficult for those at a higher status to dominate the discussion. The choice of medium is complicated as it could have redistributive versus pareto-optimal implications. Whatever you decide, some might be better off and others worse off. 

With these issues in mind, the best resolution I’ve found came out of a study of that organizations that concluded it was geography that still mattered the most.**** It was most efficient to be where you need to be for face-to-face communication. For example, back office operations at a bank do not need to be in a central city because it is only important to enable those in the back office to communicate well with one another. They can be located outside of a high-rent district in the city to a more remote back office. In contrast, the top management of a bank would need to have good communication with executives at different businesses, law firms, accounting firms, and so forth, creating an argument for them to be located in the city – where face to face communication will be enabled with other executives. You should try to locate where you most need to have face-to-face communication and rely more on online media for remote communication for less critical information and communication tasks. 

Therefore, the key question is not whether to use online or face-to-face communication, but where you should be in order to facilitate face-to-face communication with the most critical people you are meeting with. Here is where the problems arise for politicians, legislators, and (possibly) judges. Should they be closer to their constituents, their colleagues, the leaders of their party, the defendant, the media, or their staff. 

The coronavirus pandemic simplified this calculus, as they were required to stay at home and use online media. As the lock downs ease, the experience with working online might lead some to wish to remain online, but the interests of most politicians, including parliamentarians and members of congress will be to be many places at once in order to work with many different kinds of actors critical to their role in politics and government. In this situation, online media will help people to be where they most need to be at any given time to meet face-to-face with the most critical groups. 

Sounds simple, but it is not. Ideally, this understanding should lead legislatures and parliaments and executives to enable their colleagues to have options. Tell them: “Be where you should to have the most important conversations you can have today – to be present in the most critical meetings.” Use online media to follow, contribute to, and otherwise participate in activities that are less critical. You might well need to be left alone to write, of example. In some respects, these issues might lie in part behind moves to ‘hybrid’ virtual legislatures, and ‘hybrid’ online teaching options, so that some activities can be moved online, and some remain face-to-face. But choices need to be more fine-grained and flexible than most hybrid models appear to be. 

I’ve glossed over many issues but hope to have moved some people away from wondering which is better: virtual or real face-to-face communication. That is not the right question. 

References

*Sebastian Payne, (2020), ‘Anger among MPs over end of ‘virtual parliament’’, Financial Times, Wednesday 3 June: 2. 

**George Parker, (2020), ‘Unrest as Johnson’s ‘Potemkin cabinet no longer takes decisions’’, Financial Times, 3 June: 

*** Social presence, and its relationship to different communication media, emerged from some terrific experiments conducted and reported by Short, J., Williams, E., and Christie, B. (1976), The Social Psychology of Telecommunications (London: John Wiley and Sons). 

****Goddard, J., and Richardson, R., (1996), ‘Why Geography Will Still Matter: What Jobs Go Where?’, pp. 197-214 in Dutton, W. H. (ed.), Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities. (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 

Publication of A Research Agenda for Digital Politics

A Research Agenda for Digital Politics 

The publication of my most recent edited book, A Research Agenda for Digital Politics, is available in hardback and electronic forms at: https://www.e-elgar.com/shop/gbp/a-research-agenda-for-digital-politics-9781789903089.html From this site you can look inside the book to review the preface, list of contributors, the table of contents, and my introduction, which includes an outline of the book. In addition, the first chapter by Professor Andrew Chadwick, entitled ‘Four Challenges for the Future of Digital Politics Research’, is free to read on the digital platform Elgaronline, where you will also find the books’ DOI: https://www.elgaronline.com/view/edcoll/9781789903089/9781789903089.xml

Finally, a short leaflet is available on the site, with comments on the book from Professors W. Lance Bennett, Michael X. Delli Carpini, and Laura DeNardis. I was not aware of these comments, with one exception, until today – so I am truly grateful to such stellar figures in the field for contributing their views on this volume.  

Digital politics has been a burgeoning field for years, but with the approach of elections in the US and around the world in the context of a pandemic, Brexit, and breaking cold wars, it could not be more pertinent than today. If you are considering texts for your (online) courses in political communication, media and politics, Internet studies, or digital politics, do take a look at the range and quality of perspectives offered by the contributors to this new book. Provide yourself and your students with valuable insights on issues framed for high quality research. 

List of Contributors:

Nick Anstead, London School of Economics and Political Science; Jay G. Blumler, University of Leeds and University of Maryland; Andrew Chadwick, Loughborough University; Stephen Coleman, University of Leeds; Alexi Drew, King’s College London and Charles University, Prague; Elizabeth Dubois, University of Ottawa; Laleah Fernandez, Michigan State University; Heather Ford, University of Technology Sydney; M. I. Franklin, Goldsmiths, University of London; Paolo Gerbaudo, King’s College London; Dave Karpf, George Washington University;  Leah Lievrouw, University of California, Los Angeles; Wan-Ying Lin, City University of Hong Kong; Florian Martin-Bariteau, University of Ottawa; Declan McDowell-Naylor, Cardiff University; Giles Moss, University of Leeds; Ben O’Loughlin, Royal Holloway, University of London; Patrícia Rossini, University of Liverpool; Volker Schneider, University of Konstanz; Lone Sorensen, University of Huddersfield; Scott Wright, University of Melbourne; Xinzhi Zhang, Hong Kong Baptist University.