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.
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.
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.
Wonderful to see a chapter by me, Frank Hangler, and Ginette Law, entitled ‘Broadening Conceptions of Mobile and Its Social Dynamics’ in Chan, J. M., and Lee, F. L. F. (2017), Advancing Comparative Media and Communication Research (London: Routledge), pp. 142-170. It arrived at my office today.
The volume evolved out of an international conference to mark the 50th anniversary of the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2015. But the paper’s origins date back to a project that I did during my last months at Oxford in 2014, and early in my tenure at MSU, as the Principal Investigator with Ginette and Frank, of a project called ‘The Social Shaping of Mobile Internet Developments and their Implications for Evolving Lifestyles’, supported by a contract from Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd to Oxford University Consulting. This led first to a working paper done jointly with colleagues from Oxford University and Huawei: Dutton, William H. and Law, Ginette and Groselj, Darja and Hangler, Frank and Vidan, Gili and Cheng, Lin and Lu, Xiaobin and Zhi, Hui and Zhao, Qiyong and Wang, Bin, Mobile Communication Today and Tomorrow (December 4, 2014). A Quello Policy Research Paper, Quello Center, Michigan State University.. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2534236 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2534236
The project moved me into a far better understanding and appreciation of the significance of mobile, but also its varied and evolving definitions. Before this paper, I was skeptical of academic work centered on mobile as I considered it one area of Internet studies. However, by the end of the project, I became convinced that mobile communication is a useful and complex area for research, policy and practice, complementary to Internet studies. In the working paper, we forecast the disappearance of the mobile phone device, which seemed far-fetched when we suggested this to Huawei, but is now becoming a popular conception. So look forward to a future in which that awkward scene of people walking along looking at their mobile will come to an end, in a good way.
This paper illustrates the often circuitous route of academic work from conception to publication, which is increasingly international and collaborative. So thanks to the editors, my co-authors, Oxford Consulting, and Huawei for your support and patience. Academic time is another world. But it was all worth doing and the wait.
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.
On my last trip to China, I was meeting with a former social science colleague at Tsinghua University, Professor JIN Jianbin, who received a new research grant to study public perspectives on science, such as around research on genetically modified crops. Our conversation about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) quickly touched on a variety of other issues, such as the public’s acceptance of research on climate change, on which sizeable proportions of the public in China, the US and other nations often dismiss, if not distrust, scientific opinion.
Of course, some level of public distrust of scientific authorities is not new. I recall some famous work by political scientists in the US who studied the politics of conspiracy theories around the fluoridation of water that was prominent across American communities since the 1950s, but which – surprisingly – carries on to this day. So while it is not new, distrust of the political motivations behind scientific opinion is arguably growing.
Some indicators have suggested that diffuse public support for scientific institutions is not declining. However, there is some limited and more recent evidence that universities and academics are being perceived as more partisan. And anecdotally, science is increasingly questioned as biased by researchers who are claimed to be in the pockets of the sponsors of their research, illustrated by controversies over pharmaceutical research.
Such assaults on the integrity of science have led universities and research institutions to place a higher priority on the prevention and detection of conflicts of interest rising in the conduct of research. Finally, symptoms of this growing distrust seem evident in the divisions over a rising number of issues, with GMOs, climate change, vaccinations, and evolution, being among the more prominent. Perhaps the controversies surrounding science simply reflect the many issues that have broad public implications, such as for the digital economy or public health, while issues such as the moon landing were more removed from immediate public impact on the redistribution of resources.
The bad news is that these controversies are likely to slow progress, such as on efforts to reduce man made climate change. In some cases these controversies are dangerous, such as in leading parents not to vaccinate their school children.
However, there might be some positive outcomes here, if not good news. One positive outcome of this developing problem might be that scientists will place a greater priority on better explaining their work to a wider public. Already, the study of science communication is a burgeoning field around the world, illustrated by new research being launched by my colleague JIN Jianbin, Professor of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University in Beijing. And an increasing number of research councils and foundations stress the importance of public outreach.
Of course, scientists explain their research findings and their implications as a matter of practice. Not to be forgotten or dismissed is perhaps the most effective albeit long-term form of science communication, which is teaching in colleges and universities. Yet there are questions about whether top scientists, whatever their field, are as closely involved in teaching as they could be. For example, my former university, the University of Southern California, placed a priority on putting top senior scholars into the entry level undergraduate courses, which I thought was brilliant, but which is exceptional.
But arguably, most communication about scientific issues remains focused on peer-to-peer rather than public facing communication. Peer-to-peer communication is conducted through journal publications and academic conferences and presentations. And when public facing, it is often limited to top-down or what I have called ‘trickle-down’ science, with scientists expecting their publications to be read and interpreted by others, and not themselves – the primary researchers.
However, and here I could be wrong, it seems that the worse possible development might be what I see as a trend toward scientific persuasion, often based on appeals to authority and scientific consensus or by lobbying, such as through petitions, rather than by effective communication of research. Any scientist is quick to dismiss or place less credibility in appeals to authority. Why should the public be different? Where is the evidence? And once scientists move into the role of a lobbyist, petitioner, or activist, they diminish their credibility as scientists or researchers. Surely this kind of context collapse, when a scientist becomes political, or a doctor runs for a political office, invites the public to view scientists and academics as partisan political actors rather than scientific actors, and see them in ways that parallel other political actors and lobbyists.
How can scientists explain their work to a larger public? First, they need to recognize the need and value of effectively communicating their work to a broader public. This aim is rising across academia, such as in research councils insisting on research including components on outreach, and academic quality being judged increasingly by its impact. Unfortunately, this can sometimes drift into a tick box exercise in budgeting for conferences and seminars involving business and industry and the government, while serious efforts to communicate to the general public with an interest in the topic needs to be tackled directly. Academics need to guard against this tick box mentality.
Another concern is that this need for public outreach might simply lead to a greater focus on media coverage, getting the press to pick up stories on a scientist’s research. There is nothing wrong with this, universities love such coverage, and it can be helpful, but news coverage is generally overly simplistic, too often misleading, and potentially adding to the problems confronting good scientific communication. Researchers need to hold journalists and the media more accountable, and address inaccuracies or overly simplified messages in the press, cable news shows, and mass media.
Another, and a possibly more effective and more recently practical approach, is to communicate directly to the public. Join the conversation. Write reports on your research findings that are understandable to those in the educated public that might be seriously interested in your work now or in the future. You can reach opinion leaders in your areas of research, and thereby foster effective two-step flows of communication to the general public. Don’t worry about a mass audience, but aim to reach a targeted audience of those with a serious interest in your topic. When they search online for information about your topic, make sure that accessible presentations of your research will be found.
Unfortunately, too many academics are taught not to join the conversation, and to avoid blogging or writing for a general audience. Instead, they are taught to focus more than ever on only reaching the top peer reviewed journals in their field and being read and cited by their peers. As noted above, this too often leads to a weak form of trickle down science, which is not in the long-term interest of the scientific enterprise.
We should question this conventional wisdom in academia. Personally, I don’t believe there is a necessary risk to scientific publishing by also trying to communicate to a more general audience. That is what teachers do, and when researchers try to teach and communicate with their students, they can find problems with their arguments, and ways to improve how they convey their ideas.
So – scientists – offer up your best ideas to the public, not as your peers, but as smart and educated individuals who do not know about your work – even why it is relevant. Some of my most meaningful experiences with communication about my research have been exactly when I – focused on Internet studies – sat next to a physicist or mathematician over a meal who asked me about my research and vice versa. What am I working on? Why is it important? If we can do this over lunch or dinner, we can do it for a larger public online.
Perhaps this is more difficult than it sounds, but we need to accept the challenge. Arguably, the scientific challenge of the 21st century is effective communication to the larger public.
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
Apparently, the President has blocked users who may have made rude or critical comments to one or more of his Twitter posts. Regardless of the specifics of Donald Trump’s tweets, and specific individuals blocked, the general question is: Should any American politician who tweets be able to block any user without violating the user’s first amendment rights? I would say, yes, but others, including the lawyers posing this question, would disagree.
I would think that any user has a right to block any other user, particularly if they appear to be a malicious user, bot, or simply obnoxious. I’d argue this on the basis that these are the affordances of Twitter, and the rules of the site are – or should be – known by users. Moreover, the potential for blocking is a means of maintaining some level of civility on one’s social media. Having rude or obnoxious users posting harassing comments could frighten other users off the site, and thereby undermine a space for dialogue and the provision of information. If there is no way for a social media site to moderate its users, its very survival is at risk.
I actually argued this in the mid-1990s, when the issue surrounded electronic bulletin boards, and some of the first public forums, such as Santa Monica, California’s Public Electronic Network (PEN).* Essentially, I maintained that any democratic forum is governed by rules, such as Robert’s Rules of Order for many face-to-face meetings. Such rules evolved in response to difficulties in conducting meeting without rules. Some people will speak too long and not take turns. Some will insult or talk over the speaker. Democratic communication requires some rules, even thought this may sound somewhat ironic. As long as participants know the rules in advance, rules of order seem legitimate to enabling expression. Any rule suppresses some expression in order to enable more equitable, democratic access to a meeting. Obviously, limiting a tweet to 140 characters is a restriction on speech, but it has fostered a rich medium for political communication.
In this sense, blocking a Twitter user is a means for moderation, and if known in advance, and not used in an arbitrary or discriminatory way, it should be permitted. That said, I will post a Twitter poll and let you know what respondents believe. Bryan M. Sullivan (2017), an attorney, seems to argue a very different position in his Forbes article.** I respectively disagree, but wonder what the Twitter community thinks, while it is easy to guess that they will be on the side of not being blocked. But please think about it, before you decide.
*Dutton, W. H. (1996), ‘Network Rules of Order: Regulating Speech in Public Electronic Fora,’ Media, Culture, and Society, 18 (2), 269-90. Reprinted in David, M., and Millward, P. (2014) (eds), Researching Society Online. (London: Sage), pp. 269-90.