Pluralist Empowerment versus Populism or Democratic Elitism

A rising discourse on the dangers of ‘populism’ seems to be expanding the concept in ways that literally demonise the empowerment of citizens – the people. There is evidence of a rise of populist parties, but that is being used as a hammer to bash a more general empowerment of individuals or citizens and networks among the public as dangerous.

This may be a consequence of too simplistic of a dichotomy being drawn between the empowerment of individual citizens and the empowerment of democratic institutions, such as elected and appointed officials, or a tradeoff between the ‘people’ versus ‘elites’. Instead, the role of the Internet and social media in helping individuals to be more informed and better able to hold politicians, business and government more accountable is also an element in the increasing vitality of democratic pluralism.

To make my case, it is useful to go back to some of the key terms in describing different forms of democratic control? So let me try, and ask others to correct me if I don’t get this right.

Pluralistic forms of democracy emerged inductively from studies of power structures. It conveys the degree that ideal forms of democracy are an impossible dream, but one feasible approximation of democratic control in practice is through governance by a pluralistic set of elites. While the few who are active, knowledgeable and committed to an issue are likely to govern the many, in the sense of Michel’s (1915) ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’, elite empowerment in modern liberal democratic states is relatively democratic in that it is specialised across separate sets of elites. Elites influential in education, are not influential in defence, and so on. We have separate and pluralistic elites, including politicians and public officials, and this pluralistic control is more democratic than influence being concentrated in a single set of elites. The concept of pluralistic democracy is linked to many, but perhaps most often to Robert Dahl and his classic, Who Governs? (Yale Un Press, 1961), which described the power structure of New Haven, Connecticut.

Pluralism is most often contrasted with elite control, which generally assumes that power is concentrated in a relative small set of economic elites. While government most often held formal symbolic power in cities and nations, real, informal power was lodged primarily in the hands of a so-called ‘power elite’ of those with the wealth and institutional resources to control public affairs. This concept has been linked to the work of Floyd Hunter’s Community Power Structure (Un of North Carolina Press, 1969), as case study of Atlanta, Georgia, and before this, to C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (Oxford University Press, 1956).

Compared to an elite power structure, pluralism was good news. Economic elites might be powerful with respect to some issues, some of the time, but others are powerful as well, including public officials, the press, educators, and so forth in their particular areas of expertise and focus. But an interesting normative twist on the value of pluralistic democracy was the notion that this is not only the most feasible form of democratic control in practice, but also the most desirable. This is because, according to those adhering to what has been called ‘democratic elitism’, it is only the elites in society that will protect democratic institutions and processes. This and other elite theories basically assume that:

‘the masses are inherently incompetent’ … and ‘at best, pliable inert stuff or, at worst, aroused, unruly creatures possessing an insatiable proclivity to undermine both culture and liberty.’

Peter Bachrach, The Theory. of Democratic Elitism: A Critique (Little, Brown and Company, 1967: 2)

Citizen therefore should rely on a pluralistic set of elites to govern, as they have the expertise and judgement, honed by democratic values, to rule. For example, while Americans might agree with freedom of expression as a basic human right in the US, they are unlikely to protect freedom of expression in particular, concrete circumstances, such as by not allowing an extremist to speak in one’s community or online. So those who adhere to the concept of democratic elitism generally support pluralistic elite rule as not only feasible but also desirable, given that the public at large is by and large too fragmented, unorganised, and ill-informed to govern, except in limited respects, such as voting for elected officials (also E. E. Schattschneider, 1960).

In the digital age, the rise of the Internet, social media and related information and communication technologies, such as mobile Internet, has been associated with the empowerment of individuals and networks of citizens, what I have called the rise of a Fifth Estate (Dutton 2009). Put in the most simple terms, the idea of the Fifth Estate is that use of the Internet and social media can enabled digital citizens to get access to information and network in ways that can enhance their communicative power relative to others and enable them to hold governing elites more accountable. The empowerment of individuals does not mean that these digital citizens are antagonistic to elites, but that they realise that intelligence is widely distributed and that the Internet enables them to get access to information and networks more easily and effectively than ever before.

For example, when a patient goes to a doctor, they might search for information about the problem diagnosed by the physician to learn more about what problem they have and how it is treated. This does not mean that they quit going to a doctor, but that they can have a more informed discussion with their doctor, such as by being able to ask intelligent questions. In other words, information and expertise is more distributed, less concentrated in the physician.

In contrast, populism tends to view elites self-interested or corrupt to the point that they do not trust such elites as elected officials or scientists. This is the problem as populists may fail to listen to experts and authorities in particular matters because they don’t trust elites in general. The reaction to rising signs of populism has been an increasing reification of democratic institutions and processes, and a demonisation of the people – a return to democratic elitism but in the digital age.

I’m an inductivist and see pluralist democracy as achievable and desirable, and more pluralism as a positive step for democratic control. The empowerment of digital citizens, such as suggested by the rise of a Fifth Estate, is therefore a contribution to the ideals behind democratic control. A fear of the people gaining more influence generated by the rise of populism is feuling the return of a democratic elitism unfit for the digital age. Just as populists are wrong to dismiss experts and authorities, it is wrong for elites to dismiss the people as a modern day digital mob.

 Trust in the Public
Trust in Elite InstitutionsLowHigh
HighDemocratic ElitismPluralist Democracy
LowBroken DemocracyPopulism

Democratic pluralism suggests that we use the Internet and related ICTs to inform, educate, and empower digital citizens, not to distrust them as incapable or unruly and dangerous. Likewise, it suggests that digital citizens retain a learned level of trust in elites and institutions, while being comfortable with maintaining a level of scepticism in any given pronouncement, opinion piece, or policy, because they are equipped with the tools to discover information and participate in networks of individuals that can inform and empower their understanding of policy and practice.

The Fifth Estate can broaden democratic processes at every level, from the household or neighbourhood to globe, but only if digital citizens respect the role of other actors, including experts, as sources of information and learn how to distinguish the valid arguments from deluded conspiracies.

References

Bachrach, Peter. (1967), The Theory of Democratic Elitism: A Critique. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company).

Dahl, Robert A. (1961) Who Governs? New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Dutton, William H. (2009), ‘The Fifth Estate Emerging through the Network of Networks’, Prometheus, Vol. 27, No. 1, March: pp. 1-15.

Dutton, William H. (2015), ‘The Internet’s Gift to Democratic Governance: The Fifth Estate’, pp. 164-73 in S., Moss, G., and Parry, K. (eds),Can the Media Save Democracy? Essays in Honour of Jay G. Blumler. London, Abington: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Michels, Robert (1959), Political Parties, trans. by Eden & Cedar Paul. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Mills, C. Wright (1951), The Power Elite. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schattschneider, E. E. (1960), The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston).

Learning from Disasters: 30 Years After the USS Vincennes

Thirty years ago, on 3 July 1988, the USS Vincennes shot down an ascending domestic airliner, Iran Air Flight 655, mistaking it for a military aircraft descending toward the aircraft carrier group. My colleagues and I group this information disaster with a number of others with the hope of learning lessons from such incidents. Time has passed since our 1995 paper and the forum it was based on, but I call your attention to this again as it illustrates the need to study and learn from mistakes. Our analysis of these information disasters is available online is entitled Computer Power and Human Limits: Learning from IT and Telecommunication Disasters, and is available here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3103433 

A revised and published version of this paper is available: Peltu, M., MacKenzie, D., Shapiro, S., and Dutton, W. H. (1996), ‘Computer Power and Human Limits,’ in Dutton. W. H. (ed.), Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 177-195.

Polarization is Not the Problem: A Post-Civic Culture

Increasingly, the dilemmas facing politics in the United States if not worldwide are being portrayed as outcomes of polarization. It is an attractive topic for discussion, because there is undeniably a great deal of polarization, if defined as wildly different (polar opposite) viewpoints on one or more issues. Moreover, it seems to be tied to popular conceptions of the role of the Internet in enabling individuals to find support for their views online, even if extreme. Conceptions of echo chambers and filter bubbles are tied to this perspective. While I have argued that echo chambers and filter bubbles have been over hyped and under researched, I also can’t believe that polarization has not been prominent throughout the history of American politics.

So what is the problem? What has changed?

Perhaps it is the degree that proponents of different viewpoints have begun to take more ideological, righteous, or even sectarian positions. Their opponents are not wrong, they are seen and portrayed as bad if not evil.

What is surprising about this in the context of American politics is our history of being the model of a so-called ‘civic culture’ (Almond and Versa 1963: 8), defined by a culture based on “communication” and “consensus” in which diverse opinions are moderated by the structures and process of the political system, such as the two-party system and our system of checks and balances. This view was roundly criticized as simply a description of American politics post-World War II, as contrasted with less stable democratic systems leading up to the second world war, such as the Weimar Republic. However, there has been some face validity to this civic culture notion, at least up to the divisions surrounding the Vietnam War. Today, the idea of a civic culture seem ludicrous. 

So I don’t think we should be as focused on the dynamics of polarization, or a diversity of opinions, but more on the dynamics of this politically sectarian righteousness. Maybe it is the nature of the issues being considered, such as the right to life, the environment, and immigration, that have connections with deep ethical or religious principles. But the search for answers to this question will lead in different directions than the search for the dynamics of polarization on the issues of the day.

There is a thoughtful letter to the editor of USA Today by David Engen of Spokane, Washington, that focuses on the decline of civil discourse. I find myself in agreement with him and others who are focusing on the decline of civility in American politics as absolutely central to fixing or mitigating what seems to be a decline of our political processes. Yet even the discussion of civility in American politics has been steeped in claims that one or another sectarian group is to blame, such as a recent story about whether voters see the Democrats or President Trump as more responsible for a decline in civility (Wise 2018).

Are we lost in what I would call a post-civic culture?

References

Almond, G. A., and Verba, S. (1963), The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dutton, W. H. (2017), Fake News, Echo Chambers and Filter Bubbles: Underresearched and Overhyped, The Conversation, 5 May: https://theconversation.com/fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-underresearched-and-overhyped-76688

Engen, D. (2018), ‘We’re all Americans. Let’s be civil, please.’, Your Say section of USA Today, 2 July: page 5A.

Wise, J. (2018), ‘Poll: More Voters Blame Trump than Dems for Lack of Civility’, The Hill, 3 July: http://thehill.com/homenews/395371-poll-more-voters-blame-trump-than-dems-for-lack-of-civility

ICA Award for Applied Research Went to …

Since 1992, Peter Clarke, my former dean at USC, and Susan Evans, a Research Scientist at the Annenberg School for Communication, have been conducting a systematic program of applied research to bring massive quantities of healthy food onto the plates of hungry and malnourished adults and children. Their work is evidence-based throughout, and is exemplary of the potential for applied research in communication to address a pressing human need, promoting food practices that build physical health and wellbeing, and that are the bedrock of strong communities.

Their team had a clear and strong case for the applied research award. Before this occasion, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture named their project a “Hero of Food Recovery”, and the UPS Foundation recognized Clarke and Evans with its Distinguished Services Award for their accomplishments. So it is timely and wonderful for the ICA to acknowledge their research through its Applied Research Award for 2018. Their decades of focused collaboration have really raised the bar for this award. 

Below is a photo of Peter and Susan at ICA with a winner of the best paper award, and former Annenberg student, Professor Arvind Singhal, the Samuel Shirley and Edna Holt Marston Endowed Professor and Director of the Social Justice Initiative in the Department of Communication, University of Texas – El Paso. And another photo tied to their research on the use of a mobile app that helps people receiving vegetables to find good healthy recipes. Here is a link to a 15-minute demonstration of the app’s features. My own research on the use of the Internet in Detroit illuminated the degree of mobile dependence in distressed urban areas, which makes this innovation particularly relevant. This app is available in both Android and iOS platforms, and has been subjected to a randomized controlled field trial among nearly 300 families who patronize 15 pantries.

Congratulations!

 

Source: news.usc.edu

Networked publics: multi-disciplinary perspectives on big policy issues

https://policyreview.info/articles/analysis/networked-publics-multi-disciplinary-perspectives-big-policy-issues

The editors of the Internet Policy Review are pleased to announce the publication of our newest special issue, bringing together the best policy-oriented papers presented at the 2017 annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) in Tartu, Estonia. The issue – on the broad theme of networked publics – was edited by guest editor William H. Dutton, Professor of media and information policy at Michigan State University.

The seven papers in the special issue span topics concerning whether and how technology and policy are reshaping access to information, perspectives on privacy and security online, and social and legal perspectives on informed consent of internet users. As explained in the editorial to this issue, taken together, the papers reflect the rise of new policy, regulatory and governance issues around the internet and social media, an ascendance of disciplinary perspectives in what is arguably an interdisciplinary field, and the value that theoretical perspectives from cultural studies, law and the social sciences can bring to internet policy research.

This special issue is the first major release of Internet Policy Review in its fifth anniversary year. The open access journal on internet regulation is a high-quality publication put out by four leading European internet research institutions: The Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG), Berlin; the Centre for Creativity, Regulation, Enterprise and Technology (CREATe), Glasgow; the Institut des sciences de la communication (ISCC-CNRS), Paris; the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), Barcelona.

The release of this special issue officially kicks off the Internet Policy Review anniversary series of activities, including both an Open Access Minigolf during the Long Night of the Sciences (Berlin) and the IAMCR conference (Eugene, Oregon) in June, a Grand anniversary celebration (Berlin) in September and a participation in the AoIR2018 conference in October (Montreal). For up-to-date information on our planned activities, please kindly access: https://policyreview.info/5years

Papers in this Special Issue of Internet Policy Review

Editorial: Networked publics: multi-disciplinary perspectives on big policy issues
William H. Dutton, Michigan State University

Political topic-communities and their framing practices in the Dutch Twittersphere
Maranke Wieringa, Utrecht University
Daniela van Geenen, University of Applied Sciences Utrecht
Mirko Tobias Schäfer, Utrecht University
Ludo Gorzeman, Utrecht University

Big crisis data: generality-singularity tensions
Karolin Eva Kappler, University of Hagen

Cryptographic imaginaries and the networked public
Sarah Myers West, University of Southern California

Not just one, but many ‘Rights to be Forgotten’
Geert Van Calster, KU Leuven
Alejandro Gonzalez Arreaza, KU Leuven
Elsemiek Apers, Conseil International du Notariat Belge

What kind of cyber security? Theorising cyber security and mapping approaches
Laura Fichtner, University of Hamburg

Algorithmic governance and the need for consumer empowerment in data-driven markets
Stefan Larsson, Lund University

Standard form contracts and a smart contract future
Kristin B. Cornelius, University of California, Los Angeles

Link to Special Issue
https://policyreview.info/articles/analysis/networked-publics-multi-disciplinary-perspectives-big-policy-issues

Frédéric Dubois | Managing editor, Internet Policy Review
 Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society

 Französische Strasse 9 · 10117 Berlin · Germany · hiig.de ·

Vint Cerf at MSU on 10 May at 3:30PM: Join Us!

Vint Cerf speaking for the Quello Center at MSU in Communication Arts & Sciences Rm 147, 3:30PM

Vint Cerf is internationally recognized as “an Internet pioneer” – one of the “fathers of the Internet” – in light of his work with Bob Kahn in co-inventing Internet protocol (TCP/IP). He will be in East Lansing, Michigan, giving a Quello Lecture in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the Quello Center. The Center was founded at MSU in 1998 to recognize the importance of James H. Quello’s contributions as one of the longest serving and most distinguished Commissioners of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). 

Arguably, over the first twenty years of the Quello Center’s existence, there has been no greater development shaping media and information technology, policy, and practice than the rise of the Internet and related information and communication technologies such as the Web, social media, and mobile Internet. But will the Internet play as central a role over the next twenty years?

To stimulate and inform debate around this question, we’ve asked Vint Cerf to provide his perspective on the Internet’s role in shaping media and information over the past twenty years, and in the coming decades. It is difficult to imagine another person who could provide such an authoritative perspective on twenty years in Internet time.

His lecture will be followed by questions and discussion as well as a reception. Join us on May 10thto celebrate and reflect on the most significant development shaping communication, media, and information over the life of the Quello Center, and also welcome Google’s Internet Evangelist to MSU.

 

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

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

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

caption
Palace Foz (Lisbon)

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

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

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