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.
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?
Almond, G. A., and Verba, S. (1963), The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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.
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 new department of Emerging Media at Peking University, Beijing, China, held a conference on 15 September 2017 on its subject, ‘Emerging Media’, subtitled Connection, Innovation, Transformation. Peking University is at the top of universities across China, so its establishment of this department about four years ago is reminiscent of Oxford University establishing the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) in 2001. I expect that this new department will have an even larger impact on the development of the field of Internet and new media studies across China and around the world. It was an honor to give one of the keynotes around our research on the political implications of search.
My thanks to the Dean, Professor XIE Xinzhou, and his colleagues at Peking University, including Professors WANG Xiuli (Charlene), Professor LI Wei and TIAN Lily, from Peking Un, and many helpful students, such as Rita Ji, who helped me throughout my stay. Their team pulled together colleagues from around the world, including James Katz (Boston College), S. Shyam Sundar (Penn State), Leopoldina Fortunati (Un of Udine), ZHOU Baohua (Fudan), WEI Ran (Un of South Carolina), Erik P. Bucy (Texas Tech), WANG Xiaoguang (Wuhan Un), ZHANNG Hongzhong (Beijing Normal Un), Kuang WenBo (Renmin Un), HAN Gang (Iowa State Un), Gil De Zoniga Homero (a former OII SDP student, now chaired professor at Un of Vienna), Eriko Uematsu (Musashino Gakuin Un), Neta Kligler-Vilenchik (Hebrew Un of Jerusalem), YU Nan (Un of Central Florida), and my former colleague while visiting the OII, Professor JIN Jianbain (Tsinghua Un).
They organized an engaging several days of talks and visits, such as to the Headquarters of Sina Weibo, giving all of us a personal sense of current developments around the Internet and social media in China.
Pack journalism is not only alive and well in the digital age, it is arguably more prominent than it could ever be in the analogue era of print journalism. There is clearly a need for multi-disciplinary research on the sociology and politics of digitally enabled pack journalism.
The concept of pack journalism was coined in the midst of the Nixon-McGovern election campaigns of 1972 through observations made of journalists riding on the campaign buses, leading to the book entitled The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse (Random House 1973).
It is not difficult to imagine how reporters travelling together on a campaign bus would interact in ways that shaped the definition of the story and undermine the diversity of viewpoints that might otherwise emerge from multiple reporters covering the same campaign. Recall Kurt and Gladys Lang’s classic, Television and Politics, which demonstrated how different people watching the same parade or demonstration would have very different perspectives from different vantage points, such as being there in person versus watching it on television. Despite blogging and Tweets galore, the news is likely to present one perspective on a demonstration, as well as most other political events, as journalists are more networked – not just on the bus, but – nationally and globally, than ever before possible.
Pack journalism was seen as a problem as it created a more homogeneous coverage of stories, but it also homogenizes the news agenda, every paper covering the same story in similar ways. This is dangerous in creating a sense of THE news agenda and THE truth about a story, rather than a healthier view of multiple perspectives on the news. It is important to remember that TV is still king, and sets the agenda for most other media.
The driving forces behind networked pack journalism are not simply technical, but also economic and socio-political. As news organizations are more financially stressed, in part due to the rise of online and the decline of revenues for traditional media outlets, then reporters are more likely to rely more than ever on other journalists. This is not only a recipe for more reliance on press releases, what has been called ‘churnalism’ rather than original reporting, but also for reliance on the increasingly networked pack of journalistic reporting. It saves money and time. News organizations are also increasingly operating in a highly partisan setting in which journalists might well be increasingly concerned with how their stories are politically categorized. It is safe to travel in the company of other journalists, creating another incentive to stick with the pack, or packs, as in the polarized news political news coverage of today.
Good journalists are alert to the value of diversity in reporting, but it is possible for even good journalists to drift into pack journalism without being aware of the degree there interaction with their peers is homogenizing the news. So beware of pack journalism in the digital age. The ‘boys on the bus’ are an anachronism, but pack journalism is not, and could well be an even greater problem in the digital age of networking.
In this respect, I would argue a need for more multidisciplinary research on the networking of journalists. This requires sociologists, academics in Internet studies, political scientists, and others to study how journalists use networks and with what effect on the diversity or homogeneity of the news. With all the attention being directed on how Internet users are networked into echo chambers, or filter bubbles, it is surprising indeed that journalists are not a stronger focus of critical research.
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.
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.
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