Steven A. Peterson (September 10, 1947–December 10, 2021)

Loss of a Team Leading Pioneer in Politics and Public Policy: A Memoriam to Steven A. Peterson (September 10, 1947–December 10, 2021) by William H. Dutton

Steven A. Peterson died suddenly at home on December 10, 2021 at the age of 74. Steve Peterson and I were both born in 1947 and over half a century ago, in 1969, both of us entered graduate school in the department of political science at the University of Buffalo (then SUNY-Buffalo). For decades he has been my old graduate school colleague, but also a wonderful friend, and a seriously influential academic across a variety of fields in political science and policy studies.

In 1969, Steve graduated magna cum laude from Bradley University, a top ranked private university in Illinois, before moving on to graduate studies in political science at the University of Buffalo. He went from graduate school to Alfred University in 1973, where he rose through the ranks of promotion from Assistant to full Professor and for a time chaired the social sciences division of the university.

In 1997, after two decades of a successful career, Steve left Alfred University to accept a position of Professor of Politics and Public Affairs and Director of the School of Public Affairs at Pennsylvania State University Harrisburg, Penn’s ‘Capital College’. With over thirty faculty from multiple disciplines and located close to the capital of Pennsylvania, and not far from Washington DC, Penn State Harrisburg is an attractive location for teaching students for careers in public policy and administration at local and federal levels. Professor Peterson served as director for nearly two decades, until 2015, which is an impressive term for such a demanding role, returning to his professorial role. He retired a few years ago retaining his link to the university as an emeritus professor.

Steve Peterson at Penn State Harrisburg

While a graduate student, Steve began collaborating with Professor Al Somit on studies of biopolitics, a field for which he and Al Somit were arguably among the founding pioneers. Among their many publications in this area, their book, Darwinism, Domiance, and Democracy (1997) is an example of being ahead of the field. They were asking why democracies often seem to fare less well than autocracies, a question now being asked around the world. They found novel answers in the evolution of human nature, such as in possibly creating an affinity for hierarchy. This biopolitics thesis challenged most theorizing that relied more exclusively on cultural and institutional factors.

Biopolitics also provided Steve with a perspective on political behavior – another focus of his research – in ways that challenged and supplemented more conventional interpretations, such as those based on theories of political socialization and partisan identification. His 2012 book, entitled Political Behavior: Patterns in Everyday Life, continues to be well cited.

Another area of focus as a graduate student, was on state politics. Professor Peterson continued to research American political institutions, particularly at the state and local level, throughout his career. He not only taught courses in this area, but published innovative perspectives on public policy, such as a book with others entitled The World of the Policy Analyst, which went to three editions.

More generally, as an academic, Steve Peterson accumulated a remarkable track record of book and journal publications in his areas of research. I started counting his publications, and then moved to counting the pages of his list of publications. His stature in the field is also reflected in the colleagues he worked with, such as Albert Somit, who was not only a noted political philosopher, but also rose to become President of Southern Illinois University. He was one of Steve’s mentors and one of Steve’s fellow pioneers of bio-political studies. Other figures in political science who worked with Steve included Glendon Schubert, Robert Heineman, James Schubert, and Stephen Wasby. He also collaborated with colleagues in criminal justice (Shaun Gabbidon, Barbara Sims, and William Hall), Psychology (Robert Lawson), and Public Administration (Denise Thompson, Amy Brofcak, and Thomas Conlin).

With his move to Penn State Harrisburg, his work had to shift from research and teaching to more administrative and leadership roles within the School of Politics and Public Affairs. Nevertheless, Steve remained an active, innovative, and productive scholar and continued to teach one course per year because he wanted to stay connected to the students at his school and loved to teach. Reflecting on his leadership role at Penn State Harrisburg, the former Chancellor, Madlyn Hanes, captured it well, writing:

“Steve’s legacy, in addition to his outstanding scholarly accomplishments, most certainly include his contributions to academic leadership. Steve was a kind and thoughtful leader— patient and empathetic. He was especially considerate of colleagues beginning their academic careers as professors. Steve helped facilitate their upward trajectory, guiding them with care, and providing constructive feedback and mentorship to further their professional development. He set high standards for students and helped them successfully navigate higher education’s challenging learning environment. Steve was particularly proud of the quality of the programs offered by the School of Public Affairs — the School he led for nearly 20 years. He was moreover an engaging and insightful colleague, working collaboratively to advance the mission and vision of Penn State Harrisburg, the Capital College. Steve will be remembered fondly for all these attributes and achievements; but for those who knew him best, he will be remembered always as a good friend who was greatly admired.”

Madlyn Hanes, Senior Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses and Executive Chancellor Emerita at Penn State University, and former Chancellor of Penn State Harrisburg

Steve Peterson viewed himself as a generalist, such as by having taught forty-five different courses through his career. He is very broad and multidisciplinary also in the reach of his publications. He enjoyed focusing on the synthesis of work in a subject area, consciously seeking to avoid becoming siloed in a particular academic specialization. However, he became one of the most widely cited pioneers in biology and the social sciences, a field which has grown dramatically in recent years, such as in areas around the rise of neurosciences. Steve was there when the field was in a very nascent stage and helped shape its development.

While modest almost to a fault, Steve was a truly innovative, convivial, thoughtful, respected, and esteemed political scientist who could work across multiple disciplines, such as the life sciences. His edited book with Somit, entitled Biopolicy: The Life Sciences and Public Policy (Emerald 2012), is an example of his reach. In addition to books and published journal articles, Steve did it all. He always presented his work at conferences. He was a strong citizen within his profession and universities, but also in his community.

Steve’s colleague, Omit Ansary, found his death to be a tragic loss for the School, saying that Steve was:

“… a true gentleman, a role model for his students, faculty and … administrators (like myself). He was a stellar and renown scholar, a superb human being, with a huge heart full of love and care for everyone, a humble individual, exceptionally calm under any situation, who treated everyone around him with the highest respect and professionalism, a person with high integrity, and a great friend and wonderful colleague that we will all deeply miss.” 

Omid Ansary, Ph.D., Sr. Associate Dean for Academic Affairs & Professor of Electrical Engineering, Penn State Harrisburg

In his profession, his universities, and communities – Steve created and led teams. I can remember Steve organising, coaching, and leading an intramural touch football team as a graduate student. I only mention this because you can see this initiative throughout his career. Steve was a founding member of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences. He was recognized as a hero in his community by being named an ‘Olympic Torch Bearer’ in 1996. He was an assistant scout leader. He coached little league. It is part of his ‘team-DNA’ to serve as a director of his school for nearly two decades.  

While students in Buffalo, Steve and I would go together every year to Chicago for the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. Most recently, from 2014-18, I directed a center at Michigan State University. Before I returned to my home in Oxford in July 2018, Steve and I met back in Chicago on a day trip. I came from East Lansing, and Steve from his home in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania.

During our conversation in Chicago, I convinced him that he should be sharing more of this thinking online, such as on social media. He had a lot to say about any topic, and he took me up on this and started posting on Twitter and created a blog on WordPress. He had posted online less than an hour before he passed away.

It was a sentimental journey and the last time we were together. I am so glad we found the time to meet when we could. Many of his colleagues have told me what I already knew: Steve was not just a strong academic. He was also a very kind, sociable, and trusted friend to those fortunate enough to have known Professor Peterson.

Steve Peterson and Bill Dutton in Chicago, July 2018

A family obituary for Steven A. Peterson is available online here:

https://www.hooverfuneralhome.com/obituaries/Steven-Ames-Peterson?obId=23418367

Hobbesian World of TV News in Britain

The Hobbesian World of Broadcast TV News in Britain

As an American, I often find broadcast TV news in Britain to be completely out of character with my expectations. For example, as I would expect, BBC World Service is almost always polite, civilized, correct, and informative, while also entertaining. In contrast, all too often, BBC One TV news broadcasts fall into shockingly nasty, brutish, self-righteous, and mean-spirited coverage.  

The most recent example is coverage this week of the so-called ‘partygate’ scandal in which the PM is accused of knowing about and permitting a party at Number 10 Downing Street during last year’s Christmas season, that breached his own lockdown restrictions. It resurfaced when a video was leaked of his former press secretary being amused, laughing, last year while rehearsing how to answer questions about these accusations. The point is one of hypocrisy, fair enough, but the coverage this past week has been extraordinary.

2 minutes hate from Orwell’s 1984

Each BBC anchor and presenter took turns attacking the PM and the former press secretary, even after she resigned. And most journalists interviewed aggrieved members of the public who were enraged by the banter or the breach of the rules. (Apparently, if a member of the government risks their health and safety in violating rules, then we all should be able to put our lives at risk.) And if someone laughs at a rehearsal, there are no other explanations for it – not stress, struggling for words, or other human reasons for banter – than being disrespectable of those in the public who have suffered from COVID. No one in the broadcast studio seemed to miss an opportunity to kick the victims while they were down. I was reminded of mob and vigilante behaviour, where everyone must demonstrate anger for others to witness their virtue.

A saw a post by a professor who said no one will trust the government in the wake of this scandal. That is the conventional story. Perhaps it is a minority opinion, but I wonder if anyone will respect the press after this disproportionate trashing of public officials.

Why were they treated in such a nasty and self-righteous way? Maybe it was personal. Many of the press elite know the people in this saga, so maybe they just have grudges or personal animosities to vent. Is it what broadcasters must do to please and gain an audience?  Maybe it is a model of accepted professional practice in a rather unrestrained Hobbesian world of UK TV broadcasting.

From my perspective as a viewer, the degree that the TV anchors and journalists worked to build up anger towards the culprits of this scandal reminded me of Orwell’s two minutes hate in 1984. Extreme, yes, I accept that, Orwell did work at the BBC during the war, and I find it fascinating that he captured this cathartic behavior. It is not a world away from what I saw the anchors and journalists orchestrating on BBC One.

The COVID 19 pandemic has been a worldwide catastrophe and people are angry about how their normal lives have been undermined by this epidemic. Given this inevitable frustration, I would think all of us – particularly journalists and TV anchors – would be wise not to provoke and anger others. Spending a huge proportion of time whipping up anger over a petty scandal while neglecting major developments in Afghanistan, Ukraine, China, and other news hot spots around the world just seems nuts and potentially dangerous.

The Democratic Value of the Filibuster

The Democratic Value of the Filibuster

The filibuster was not invented to serve some lasting and critical role in democratic governance, but unintentionally, it does perform that function.  The filibuster is a structure – one rule of the game in American politics – that plays a powerful role in supporting more stable democracy. And it is particularly critical in times of deep polarization in politics. 

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on Capitol Hill on June 8. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Critics of the filibuster tend to take one of two overly simplistic positions on this device. 

One is that the mechanism of the filibuster is simply antithetical to majority rule by allowing a minority of Senators to delay and thereby often block bills in the US Senate despite a majority in support. This position ignores key realities of democratic political processes, such as the importance of intense minorities, the pluralist nature of democracy. 

Democratic systems are rightly respectful of intense minority opinion, such as the respect normally accorded to protests that gain strong support, but by no means a majority. It is likely that, overtime, intense minorities have fought for the status quo, and thereby have a conservative bias. However, there have been intense minorities for change in many cases, from anti-war protestors to climate change advocates. Democracies ignore intense minorities at their peril. 

More generally, in a pluralist democracy, like that of the US and many other liberal democratic nations, policy is shaped by specialized sets of individuals who care about and have expertise in particular issues, what has been called a polyarchy (Dahl 1971). Those who govern education are different from those who govern defense or healthcare. You want this kind of pluralistic, polyarchical form of governance to insure a division of labor that supports greater competence and focus. Even when legislative or parliamentary bodies meet, each member does not understand every issue – they could not even read every bill that comes before them. They rely on committees, specialized experts and policy makers, and then take cues from their partisans on the committee reporting the bill. They take cues as a necessary short cut (Stimson 1975). So, minorities are making policy that is endorsed or rejected by majority voting.

In short, majority rule is an oversimplification of the democratic process even in leading liberal democratic nations. 

Secondly, critics of the filibuster ignore the central importance of democratic stability, perhaps the most important issue, by focusing on the issue of the day. 

In the aftermath of the second world war, a seminal study of the cultures of democracies (the US, UK, Germany, Mexico, and Italy) identified the US as being relatively more stable due to its ‘civic culture’ (Almond and Verba 1963).[1] In contrast, in the period prior to the second world war, Germany had democratic regimes that were notoriously unstable. Stability in the US was attributed to a political culture that supported consensus, enabled diversity of opinion and moderated change. Arguably, the US has lost its civic culture as its politics is typified more by polarization, tribalism, and distrust – none of which are compatible with consensus and moderation. 

However, the filibuster can incentivize moderation and compromise to find a consensus that goes beyond the tyranny of majority rule. It is true that the use of a filibuster has caused many politicians to dig in their heels even further and say the fight has only begun, but a small but growing number of promising politicians have seen the value of the filibuster in supporting compromises that promote greater stability in policy and in democratic structures. 

Most recently, US Senator Kyrsten Sinema helped lead a bipartisan compromise that resulted [if enacted] in support for a $1trillion package of measures to upgrade declining infrastructures across the nation. She herself expressed support for the filibuster before her election and before this bill in a wonderful opinion piece in The Washington Post, which countered conventional wisdom to argue that ‘we have more to lose than gain by ending the filibuster’, arguing that it ‘compels moderation’ and counters ‘instability, partisanship, and tribalism that continue to infect our politics’.[2]

This rising star of the US Senate also warned against changing democratic rules of the game based on the policy issues of the day. As a Democrat in the senate, she reminded her colleagues that the filibuster was used by them in defeating some major Republican efforts, when Republicans were in the majority. Her opinion piece is must-reading for those who oppose the filibuster, but have an open mind in considering a serious issue for the future of American politics. 

References

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

Dahl, Robert A. (1971), Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Stimson, James A. (1975), ‘Five Propositions About Congressional Decision-Making: An Examination of Behavioral Inferences from Computer Simulation’, Political Methodology 2 (4): 415–36.


[1] Some critics of the time argued that Almond and Verba were simply describing American politics and ascribing the attribute of stability to it, rather than having a clear causal argument. But even if only descriptive of the era, that kind of civic culture is arguably absent in most cases of American politics today. 

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/06/21/kyrsten-sinema-filibuster-for-the-people-act/

Social Media Could Have Prevented the UK’s Post Office Scandal

Over seven hundred  (736) ‘sub-postmasters’ were charged – many if not most unjustly – with criminal offenses from 2000-2013 because of discrepancies in their accounts, leading to charges of theft, fraud, and false accounting (Meddings 2021). Had they been siphoning money from their accounts?

We have learned that many of these discrepancies were due to the faults in an IT system, called Horizon, that had been in place for over twenty years (Croft 2021) – enough time to find and correct an problems! Thirty-nine sub-postmasters ‘were convicted of stealing money, with some imprisoned, after the Post Office installed the Horizon computer system in branches’ (Peachey 2021). Many convictions have been reversed recently, following six other convictions that were overturned in December 2020 (Peachey 2021).

In Britain, small branches of the Post Office are called Sub-Post Offices and are headed by a Sub-Postmaster or Sub-Postmistress. They serve as agents of the Post Office but the heads are self-employed. Many offices are based in convenience stores, or in small shops in the center of villages – all sorts of locations – and they and their postmasters become one of the centerpieces of many communities. 

A Generic Sub-Post Office

In an interview on the BBC World Service with one of the sub-postmasters whose conviction was overturned, it was clear that law enforcement led each to believe that they alone were being charged. It was only their office in which accounts showed discrepancies. If only they had been socially networked. The post office knew of the faults as did some public officials, but the problems were not disclosed to the subpostmasters, led to believe they alone were at fault (Meddings 2021).

Facebook had not been launched until 2004 but imagine if these sub-postmasters were on a social network, whether a group on Facebook, WhatsApp, or another network that would enable them to ask if only they were charged with these offences. One query but one post master could have unravelled this scandal.

Instead, they were isolated in their post office, and not informed about similar problems occurring in many other cases. Admittedly, there are a number of ifs, ands, and buts. That said, if many who were charged with stealing from their accounts were aware of similar accusations at many other sub-post offices, they would have been more likely to put two and two together, tie them to an IT system they shared and raised alarms that would have prevented this scandal from happening – one that literally ruined the careers and lives of many of those charged. Sabah Meddings (2021) referred to this as an ‘industrial scale failure of justice’. Sadly, it could have been avoided if they would have been enabled to communicate with others if sub-postmasters offices were on a social network, where they could seek advice, ask questions, raise issues and more. 

Many other occupations have social networks that are particularly valuable for those in relatively isolated offices. For example, Sermo is a social network of physicians, which enables any physician to ask questions of other physicians. If something similar to Sermo had been available to the sub-posts, the likelihood of such an injustice would have been greatly reduced. For all the demonization of social media, it is sometimes easy to forget how valuable they can be to networked individuals. 

Afterword

Government compensation will be coming to sub-postmasters wrongly convicted. Again, this would not have mushroomed over such a long period had social media been prominent in 2000 (Dempsey 2021).

References

Croft, Jane (2021), ‘Sub-postmasters clear their names in court after grave miscarriage of justice’, Financial Times, 24 April, p. 1. 

Depsey, Harry (2021), ‘Sub-Postmasters in line for £100,000 interim payments’, Financial Times, 23 July, p. 2.

Meddings, Sabah (2021), ‘Post Office scandal was an industrial scale failure of justice’, The Sunday Times, 25 April: p. 23.

Peachey, Kevin (2021), ‘Convicted Post Office workers have names cleared’, BBC News, 24 April: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-56859357

American Hubris on the UK and Northern Ireland

This morning’s Financial Times (17 March 2021) notes that the ‘US fires warning shot at Johnson on Northern Ireland’. President Joe Biden is said to be preparing to hold St. Patrick’s day talks with Irish premier Micheál Martin. President Biden reminds the world that he is Irish and will oppose any US-UK trade deal unless UK negotiations with the EU uphold terms of the Good Friday peace agreement. 

I am an American, and generally support President Biden, who has had remarkable accomplishments in his early days in office. But I have lived and worked in the UK, and England specifically, since 2002. I have long warned my colleagues in Britain – even though they already know this – that when Americans come to the UK, they start giving advice the moment they get off the plane. Joe Biden has not even gotten off a plane and – even before he was elected – has been giving advice or one might say orders to the UK on how to resolve trade issues with the EU. 

Puck’s “The Bull in the China Shop” 1898

There is something endearing about American hubris to think they can advise nations on matters on which they know far too little. I’ve yet to hear any responsible voice in the UK opposed to the Good Friday peace agreement. However, the complexity of the relationships between multiple stakeholders in the UK, and the nation of Northern Island and other nations and regions of the UK, and the EU and its member states, and Ireland in particular, are seriously difficult to resolve. For any US public official to make such facile statements that specifically threaten the UK is simply foolish. 

President Biden and the US State Department need to be a bit more modest, better informed and more balanced before weighing in on this issue. Joe Biden may think he is Irish, but is acting like a proverbial bull in a china shop. Could he ask what the US can do to help ensure that these negotiations are resolved in a way that is fair – if not a win-win – to all parties and preserves the peace agreement? 

Addendum

Press coverage following President Biden’s meeting with Ireland’s PM suggested that the US took a more balanced approach, arguing that “the UK and the EU must ‘move forward with a positive relationship’ on the Northern Irish protocol” (Williams, A., and Noonan, L., ‘Irish Premier Tells Biden EU and UK Must Back Good Friday Pact’, Financial Times, 18 March 2021: 4). This sounds like a more modest request.

Afterword

Later, coverage of President Biden’s administration seemed to have thrown gasoline on the fires in Northern Ireland by furthering the impression that ‘the Irish’ Biden and events were favouring the nationalists v the unionists. Later the administration said they ‘join the British, Irish and Northern Irish leaders in their calls for calm.’ My hope is they keep that message front and centre and stop interfering with a situation they do not seem to understand. Do no harm.

Update: Here he goes again: an editorial following Biden’s comments around the G7 Conference in Cornwall in The Telegraph that also makes this point about his lack of understanding of the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland politics: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/06/10/joe-biden-doesnt-understand-northern-ireland/?li_source=LI&li_medium=liftigniter-onward-journey&fbclid=IwAR0_RAluAGuiQ2joGKZw6LSC5WGrwaFfNTMcEEw7er6tXJ4j7S7M5qBDp8U

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


					

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.

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/

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). 

The Fragile Beauty of Democracy: The Iowa Caucuses

I watched the Iowa caucuses on Monday, February 3, 2020, from the UK. Good coverage came from a remote caucus in Florida – one of Iowa’s 87 satellite caucuses – in addition to 1,678 precinct caucuses. In that particular satellite caucus, Iowa voters, sunbirds residing during the winter months in Florida, seemed to be in a gymnasium. Each individual participant moved to a particular corner or location depending on the candidate they wished to support. If their candidate did not have a sufficient percentage of supporters, then they could move to one of the groups that did. Those in the more populated groups could not move, but there was obviously much discussion and toing and froing among the voters as they were urged to join with others. 

npr.org

Journalists were singing praises for the Iowa caucuses as nothing less that democracy in action. Watching volunteers and citizens debating and sorting themselves by their preferred candidate was inspiring. It was beautiful. Citizens were not simply rolling over on their couch to vote for a candidate but committing themselves in public and debating about the choice before them. Of course, not everyone can come to a caucus, but more caucuses were held and some after working hours to maximize access. Likewise, the satellites enabled citizens to vote even if not currently in Iowa. 

But suddenly, just as the preliminary tallies were expected to be shown, and with media pundits anxious to discuss the meaning of the early returns, it was not to happen. Unexplained delays, followed by notification of problems reconciling the numbers across the different methods used to tally all the caucuses, and problems with the new ap being used to support these tallies, and finally partial returns. 

Days later, the votes were counted and despite a close race between Bernie Sanders, the popular vote winner, and Pete Buttigieg, who edged out as the delegate winner (13-12), criticism focused on the delays and not on the overall shape of the final results. 

But a torrent of criticism focused on early discrepancies, errors, and discrepanies in the tallies, which led to delay in reporting, and the process, which was slammed as unacceptable. Nathan Robinson in The Guardian called it a mess, a debacle, and a ‘blow to American faith in democracy.’[1] These problems have been the focus of much good journalism, but did they forget the major story? Instantly, a beautiful display of democratic practice was turned into an American debacle. 

Commentators — as soon as on the very night of the caucuses — were posing sanctions on Iowa’s Democratic Party, saying that they should not be allowed to hold caucuses again, and that Iowa should no longer be the first primary in the election season. Iowa was going to pay for this screw-up for the candidates and the media. 

Personally, I have not seen many if any candidate or media pundit go to the defense of Iowa. This is a shame. Discussion focused on whom to blame for the problems. Should it be the state party, the national party apparatus, the ap developer, the ap, the volunteers who couldn’t use it effectively, or some conspiracy. I did find a wonderful letter from Julie Riggs, a contributor to Iowa View in the Des Moines Register, days after the crisis, which claimed that the ‘Iowa caucuses are an American treasure’.[2] She exclaimed:  ‘Don’t take our caucus away!’. I completely agree. 

Somehow, the media lost the plot when their expectations were not met, and they were left stammering in front of the camera with nothing to report. Flipping the story to the cause of the delays could have real damage to the democratic process. Democracy should be more important than efficiency, and real democrats should not surrender control to the media. As Julie Riggs said in her piece, through participating in the cut and thrust of debate in the caucus, she had a ‘palpable feeling’ that ‘the people hold the power’. You do. So don’t give that up. The media and the candidates can just wait a few hours or days on the volunteers and citizens making sure they get this right. Democracy is inefficient. The media need to get over it. 


[1] See: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/07/the-iowa-caucuses-only-reinforced-the-idea-that-democracy-is-a-joke

[2] https://eu.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2020/02/16/iowa-caucuses-american-treasure-republican-first-time-experience/4754985002/