Talks in Europe on Quello Center’s Search and Politics Project

I had a fascinating and challenging week in Europe speaking about the Quello Center’s work on search and politics. The findings of our project, called ‘The Part Played by Search in Shaping Public Opinion’, suggested that concerns over fake news, echo chambers, and filter bubbles is ‘overhyped and underresearched’. The project was supported by Google, and the findings and methodology are publicly available online (see references), along with the slides I adapted for each of the particular talks. The slides are posted here: https://www.slideshare.net/WHDutton/search-and-politics-fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-july2017

In Paris, on the 10th and 11th, I was able to speak at a UNESCO Knowledge Café for a seminar chaired by the Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Guy Berger, for UNESCO staff, which included UNESCO’s Xianhong Hu. I then met with members of the French Audio Visual Regulator, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA); and then members of the Ministère de la Culture (Ministry of Culture); and gave a lecture at Sciences Po, which was jointly organized by Thierry Vedel for the MediaLab and CEVIPOF. I was also able to meet over lunch with a former colleague in the President’s office at the French National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL), which is central to data protection in France.

On the 12th, I was in Rome, where I first spoke at a roundtable over a wonderful lunch at the Centro Studi Americani – the Center for American Studies. That evening, I spoke on the Terrazza dei Cesari with members of YouTrend, an organization of political communicators in Italy, which was picked up by over a thousand on a Facebook Live video stream. The talk was sandwiched by an aperitif and dinner, and sequentially translated.

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Centro Studi Americani

My last stop was in Berlin, where I was able to meet at the Ministry for Culture with representatives of the state media authorities, representing the German Lander. I finished my talks with a roundtable at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute für Internet und Gesellschaft (HIIG – Germany’s first Internet Institute), chaired by Professor Dr. Wolfgang Schulz and joined by Professor Dr. Dr. Ingolf Pernice. As a member of HIIG’s Advisory Committee, it was great to end my trip with a sense of the quality and diversity of faculty, fellows and visitors at the Institute.

This week was an incredible opportunity for me to convey the results of our research. I want to thank all of those who helped organize and attended these events; thank my colleagues on the project, including Grant Blank, Elizabeth Dubois, and Bibi Reisdorf, along with our graduate assistants, Sabrina Ahmed and Craig Robertson; and thank our colleagues at Google for their confidence in our project.

I must say that I was unable to convince many of those involved in these talks that the panics over fake news, filter bubbles and echo chambers have been overhyped. Despite evidence on the many ways that Internet users are likely to mitigate these problems, such as in consulting multiple sources of information about politics, many politicians, regulators and scholars remain very concerned.

I spoke to each group about the ways evidence can fail to change views on these issues as an example of how many divisions in society are not due to filtered or biased information, but to real divisions in opinion. These panics are powerful for several reasons, including the attraction of technologically deterministic perspectives, the role of a confirmatory self-selection or dismissal of evidence, and the role of the third-person effect – I’m okay, but others are likely to be fooled.

References

Dutton, W. H. Talking Points that Formed the Basis for the Talks in Europe: https://www.slideshare.net/WHDutton/search-and-politics-fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-july2017

Dutton, W.H., Reisdorf, B.C., Dubois, E., and Blank, G. (2017), Search and Politics: The Uses and Impacts of Search in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the United States, Quello Center Working Paper available on SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2960697

Dutton, W.H. (2017), ‘Fake News, Echo Chambers, and Filter Bubbles: Underresearched and Overhyped’: https://theconversation.com/fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-underresearched-and-overhyped-76688

Dutton, W. H. (2017), ‘Bubblebusters’, NESTA. http://readie.eu/bubblebusters-countering-fake-news-filter-bubbles-and-echo-chambers/

 

Simplify and Then Exaggerate, Big League

I was taken back years ago when the editor of a major news magazine told me that she told her editors to ‘simplify and then exaggerate’. That was the secret formula for writing a good news story.

th-1To me it is increasingly clear that all the news media have moved in this direction, and to keep in line with political rhetoric, they have also added a huge level of hyperbole to the formula. Fox and CNN are driving this trend, particularly with their panels. We have almost become the nation of hyperbole.

The bad news is that more and more news is so exaggerated that it is simply wrong, misinformation. The worse news is that, in due course, no one will take political rhetoric or news media seriously. It will just be viewed as entertainment.

The best journalists and politicians work harder to avoid this formula, and clarify the complexities surrounding so many issues. Call out over simplistic hyperbole for what it is. Hyperbole is part of President Trump’s style, but it is not simply the President’s rhetoric as this level of exaggeration came before him (the Tea Party) and goes beyond the President today, such as with the media and resistance to Trump, with its followers being proud to be compared to the Tea Party of yesteryear.

 

 

 

 

Surrogate News: The End of Journalism?

Surrogate News: The End of Journalism?

News coverage of the 2016 US presidential election vividly illustrated a worrying trend. It goes well beyond the decline of the newspaper to the decline of quality journalistic reporting in favor of entertaining news commentary. Perhaps I have a romantic view of the past. Perhaps journalism may be better than ever, but let me develop this point.

To begin with, it is important to acknowledge the larger context in which most news organizations are facing various levels of financial trouble. The newspaper, for example, used to be quite profitable enterprises in the US, with major revenue for classifieds and other ads. The Internet has undermined the growth of revenue for newspapers, such as by providing far better options to the classified ads. With ad revenue dropping, there have been major drops in subscriptions, and the number of newspapers published. However, the growth in online news has not been generating the revenues that maintained the traditional newspaper.

However, the decline of the traditional newspaper and its business model, does not necessarily translate into a decline in news coverage. The Internet and social media provide some new sources of news, and have also lowered the costs of traditional news gathering and reporting. And it is increasingly technically possible for any reporter in the world to be read by anyone interested in the story the reporter puts online. First hand accounts are increasingly more available through social media and mobile Internet smartphones. These developments are occurring, but so are some countervailing trends.

First, there are fewer reporters on site, in the field. Some of the major world news organizations, such as Al Jazeera and CCTV, are able to bring live reporting from the sites of news developments to their viewers. But these are exceptionally well-funded news operations, and funded by state entities, which can compromise their editorial and reporting independence. Generally, first hand reporting of the news is declining except for the rising reliance on Twitter and other social media coverage picked up by the wire services and other news organizations.

Secondly, there is some evidence of a rise of churnalism, which is the uncritical publication of press releases by politicians, business organizations and government agencies. Perhaps churnalism is simply more apparent with Internet Web sites devoted to exposing it. If true, as I believe it to be, this is another symptom of a decline in the quality of reporting.

Thirdly, and most worrying to me, is the rise of surrogates as major news sources. To the credit of CNN, for example, which makes a great use of these sources, they at least call them surrogates. During the election, CNN rolled out Trump, Clinton, Sanders, and many other candidates’ surrogates. Decades ago, I recall some early discussions of concerns over the major news organizations interviewing journalists as sources, rather than the actual protagonists and eyewitnesses to events. This was widely criticized as a poor substitute for authentic news reporting. Perhaps people of interest to the news reporter are more difficult to interview, more inaccessible, but for whatever reasons, there is a major growth in the reliance on journalists several steps removed from the actual actors who are the subject of the news.

There is a silver lining to the increased reliance on paid surrogates. They are trained and polished presenters, unlike many of the actual subjects of the news. There is no doubt that many of the surrogates are entertaining, bright, articulate, and knowledgeable individuals. But they are not so much reporting the news, but trying to interpret stories in ways that throw a positive light on their candidate. They can only provide commentaries on the news, most of which we already know, and from their staged point of view – a surrogate for a particular candidate. They are the ultimate extension of the so-called spin doctors for the candidates, such as immediately following a debate. They give us a perpetual debate of the spin-doctors, but not news. Whether print or TV journalists – the distinction is disappearing as the star surrogates move across platforms – the focus is on entertaining discussions of the ‘breaking news’ reported by others. The print journalists that are good on TV will be the most read in the papers, and that is likely to privilege engaging delivery over original substance.

The surrogates provide the greatest example of the decline of quality journalistic coverage. Journalists are not only becoming the sources of the news, many steps removed from the subjects and news events that they comment on, but also not from an objective, disinterested position. So you can hear a surrogate on a news panel ‘report’ that they had just had (presumably during a commercial) a call from one of their candidate’s supporters, and use that call as the basis of their sense of how the campaign was going. th

News has moved from the provision of information to entertainment as a means to reduce costs and increase viewers and readers. Journalists have moved from seeking to objectively report what is happening by distancing themselves from the hard news, being on stage rather than in the field, and slanting their story to fit their surrogate role.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, there should be serious and careful discussion of all the institutions that brought us to two candidates with such unfavorable ratings among a worryingly divided electorate, but those institutions should go beyond the parties and the primary process, to also include critical assessment of the role of surrogate news in fostering our current distrust of the news, government, and the political process most generally. The public is – somehow – putting up with surrogates for real high-quality news. Its entertaining.

10th Anniversary of OII’s DPhil in Information, Communication & the Social Sciences

It was a real honour today to speak with some of the alumni (a new word for Oxford) of the Oxford Internet Institute’s DPhil programme. A number came together to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the DPhil. It began four seemingly long years after I became the OII’s founding director in 2002. So while I have retired from Oxford, it was wonderful to return virtually to congratulate these graduates on their degrees.

The programme, like the OII itself, was hatched through four years of discussions around how the Institute (which is a department at Oxford University) should move into teaching. Immediately after my arrival we began organizing the OII’s Summer Doctoral Programme (SDP), which was an instant success and continues to draw top doctoral students from across the world who want to hone their thesis through an intensive summer programme with other doctoral students focused on Internet studies. The positive experience we had with this programme led us to move quickly to set up the DPhil – and four years is relatively quick in Oxford time.

As I told our alumni, the quality of our doctoral students has been largely responsible for the esteem the OII was able to gain across the university and colleges of Oxford. That and the international visibility of the OII enabled the department to later develop our Masters programme, and continue to attract excellent faculty and students from around the world. th-1

I am certain the OII DPhil programme has and will continue to progress since I left Oxford in 2014, such as in adding such strong faculty as Phil Howard and Gina Neff. However, I believe its early success was supported by four key principles that were part of our founding mission:

First, it was anchored in the social sciences. The OII is a department within the Division of Social Sciences at Oxford, which includes the Law Faculty. In 2002, but even since, this made us relatively unique given that so many universities, particular in the USA, viewed study of the Internet as an aspect of computer sciences and engineering. It is increasingly clear that Internet issues are multidisciplinary, and need a strong social science component that the social sciences should be well equipped to contribute. Many social sciences faculty are moving into Internet studies, which has become a burgeoning field, but the OII planted Internet studies squarely in the social sciences.

Secondly, our DPhil emphasized methods from the beginning. We needed to focus on methods to be respected across the social sciences in Oxford. But also we knew that the OII could actually move the social sciences forward in such areas as online research, later digital social science, and big data analytics as applied to the study of society. The OII did indeed help move the methods in the social sciences at Oxford into the digital age, such as through its work on e-Science and digital social research.

Thirdly, while it is somewhat of a cliché that research and teaching can complement each other, this was always the vision for the OII DPhil programme. And it happened in ways more valuable than we anticipated.

Finally, because Oxford was a green field in the areas of media, information and communication studies, with no legacy departments vying to own Internet studies, we could innovate around Internet studies from a multi-disciplinary perspective. And we found that many of the best students applying to the OII were multidisciplinary in their training even before they arrived, and understood the value of multidisciplinary, problem-focused research and teaching.

As you can see, I found the discussion today to be very stimulating. My 12 years at Oxford remains one of the highlights of my career, but it is so much enhanced by seeing our alumni continue to be engaged with the institute. So many thanks to Dame Stephanie Shirley for endowing the OII, and the many scholars across Oxford University and its Colleges, such as Andrew Graham and Colin Lucas, for their confidence and vision in establishing the OII and making the DPhil programme possible.

Remember, the OII was founded in 2001, shortly after the dotcom bubble burst and at a university that is inherently skeptical of new fields. Today the Internet faces a new wave of criticisms ranging from online bullying to global cyber security, including heightened threats to freedom of expression and privacy online. With politicians worldwide ratcheting up attacks on whistleblowers and social media, claiming undue political influence, threats to the Internet are escalating. This new wave of panic around the Internet and social media will make the OII and other departments focused on Internet studies even more critical in the coming years.

 

 

Just Pick Up the Phone

Can You Pick Up the Phone?

I’ve written about the lost art of writing with a pen. Now I feel like there is a need to explain in plain English that when you are having difficulties communicating via email or other electronic messaging systems that you can use the telephone, what you may know as your mobile.

Seriously, people never use their landline phones. And people increasingly do not use their mobile phone as a phone. Years ago, I had a speaker from Seattle, Washington, giving a talk in Oxford, and she told everyone to leave their phones on. Her argument was that no one would actually call during her talk, because people are using their phones for texting and for accessing the Internet and social media – not for talking to other people. And no one called.

This is a telephone
This is a telephone

This trend raises its head in a number of ways. For example, I keep receiving emails from colleagues, particularly administrators, who raise issues I want to discuss with them. Well, as you might guess, they do not list their phone numbers on their email, not to mention their office location. They cannot imagine that someone would want to call them, or visit their office to speak face-to-face, or they do not want to encourage such behavior. I managed to get the phone number of an administrator that practices this art of hiding from the phone and found that he not only fails to answer his phone, but also has no message on his answering service – so I do not even know if I have called the right person or phone.

Email is great. Don’t misunderstand me. I started emailing in 1974, and then we had to call a person to tell them we just sent them an email. I guess now we have to email someone to say we plan to call them. But when email fails, such as in trying to choose a restaurant or organize a meeting, think about actually talking to your colleague. It is easier and will save multiple emails.

So here is my advice, whether or not it has been solicited:

First, put your phone details on your email and blog or Web site. Be accessible.

Second, leave a message for those who call you when you are unavailable.

Third, when communication is not working, just pick up the phone.

In conclusion, it is important to remember that no media is always superior. You need to choose the right medium for the occasion. That will need to be the topic for another blog.

Ways of Being in the Digital Age: A New ESRC Project

Delighted to be on the Advisory Board of a new ESRC Project, entitled ‘Ways of Being in a Digital Age: A Systematic Review’.

The project is led by the Institute of Cultural Capital at the University of Liverpool in collaboration with 17 other partner Universities and organizations. It is a scoping review designed to inform potential future ESRC initiatives in this area.

This scoping review will focus on how digital technology mediates our lives, and of the way technological and social change co-evolve and impact on each other. The project will undertake: a Delphi review of expert opinion; a systematic literature review; and an overall synthesis to identify gaps in current research. The project will also run a programme of events to build and extend networks among the academic community, other stakeholders and potential funding partners. The project pulls together an impressive interdisciplinary research team with experience in running digital projects with partners across the social sciences, arts and humanities, engineering, physical sciences and health, representing 16 universities from the UK, EU, USA and Singapore. The core team of co-investigators from eight UK universities will provide expertise across a range of social science, arts, engineering and science backgrounds. The team also includes a broader international steering group, of which I am a member.  th-1

Its initial plans are to focus on seven domains:

  1. Citizenship and politics
  2. Communities and identities
  3. Communication and relationships
  4. Health and wellbeing
  5. Economy and sustainability
  6. Data and representation
  7. Governance and securityth

For each domain the project will undertake:

  • A Delphi panel review of international experts’ opinions on the state of the art in digital facing social research.
  • A ‘concept mapping’ of identified literature using digital humanities tools
  • A systematic review of a sample of the literature
  • Engagement events with non-academic stakeholders from the public and private sectors
  • An assessment of the theory and methods applied in each domain

The project will also conduct a feedback questionnaire on the findings, run workshops throughout, and hold sessions at a number of international conferences. The project will conclude with a symposium to feedback the findings and to discuss the future of digital research in the social sciences.

More details on the project are available online at: http://www.esrc.ac.uk/files/funding/funding-opportunities/ways-of-being-in-a-digital-age-scoping-review-specification/  But as time passes, just search for Ways of Being in the Digital Age, as we do.