Private Emails Are Not (Yet) a Thought Crime

Private Emails? A Personal Perspective on Politicizing Norms of Communication

In Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith opens himself up to accusations of thought crimes for walking onto a street with a shop where he could buy pen and paper. In 2021, politicians and even the UK’s Information Commissioner wonder if ministers are guilty of some criminal offense for using private email.[1] The ICO, charged with protecting our privacy, does not want to lose data critical to her surveillance of public officials! All in the name of ‘transparency’. 

Increasingly, accusations seem to fly around such issues as the security of public officials using personal email. While security, legal, and privacy issues are embedded in these criticisms of the practices of others, my concern is over the degree they lack common sense, any historical perspective, and politicize what is fundamentally a cultural difference that has risen over the decades across different kinds of Internet users. Moreover, technical advances are diminishing the distinctions being drawn. Let me explain on the basis of my experiences. 

Winston Smith, 1984

I began using email around 1974, when I had to call colleagues to tell them to look for an email sent from me. Otherwise, they would not check their inbox. Those were early days, when academics in universities could get an email address from their university if they were at one of the institutions that were early nodes on the ARPANET. 

At that time, in the early 1970s, I wrote most of my correspondence by hand, and it was typed up by a pool of typists. I would revise a draft and someone in the pool would revise it for me to mail or fax. A carbon copy of all my letters was (I discovered) put in a chronological file of all correspondence going out of our academic research unit and studiously read by one of our managers. He knew what was going on across the organization by reading all of our outgoing correspondence. This was part of a culture of administrative control, which I accepted, but did not like and was surprised to discover. That said, I was an employee of an organization and in that role, it is arguable that I did not have a true right to privacy within the organization. 

Presumably, even in those early days, an archive of all incoming and outgoing emails existed in the university so our manager might have had even better intelligence about our work, but most administrators were not email users. If a malicious user sent hate mail, for example, I would imagine it could be found in the archive, but then again, it is likely to have been sent under another user’s name. (Yes, it was a problem in very early days of email.)

By the early 1980s, one amusing (to me) concern in business and industry around email was its use for social purposes. Before email, most electronic communication was costly for organizations. The telegraph created a mindset in government and industry of every letter and word costing money, so electronic communication, reinforced by fax machines, was that it was considered costly compared to regular, physical mail – later called ‘snail mail’. 

So when employees in organizations began using email, managers were concerned about the cost and the potential waste of money if used for social purposes. Academics used university email for anything – teaching, research, or personal reasons – and lived in sort of a free culture, meaning free of control as well as cost. But this was not the case in business and government where the legacy of telegrams, faxes, and costly phone calls created a sense of email being expensive. 

One of my students in the early 1980s studied an aerospace company in Los Angeles and found the managers very concerned over the employees using email for personal or social purposes. Rather than counting the letters, they would embellish their business correspondence with a joke or questions or pleasantries about the family, etc. Even then, we defended the social uses of email at work as it would undoubtedly help executives and other employees to adopt this new communication system. Moreover, communication in the workplace has always been a blend of social and business uses, such as over the proverbial watercooler. Nevertheless, an administrative control structure still pervaded the use of communication at work. 

It was only when private email services arose, such as through CompuServe, from 1978, and one of the first commercial email services, MCI Mail, which was founded in 1989, that this mindset began to change. Google Mail, was launched in its Beta version from 2002, about the time MCI Mail folded. Private email services like Google Mail made it possible to escape this administrative control structure and the control culture of communication in organizations. 

In my own case, having changed universities many times, one of the only steady email addresses I have maintained has been my gmail account, established with the Beta version. I’ve never sensed it being any less secure than my university accounts, and I don’t have the feeling that an administrator is looking over my shoulder. It is free of charge and free of administrative surveillance. I give my data. My main concern is not burdening colleagues with unnecessary or too frivolous email messages. The last thing I want to do is audit myself to determine if my message to a particular person about a particular topic requires me to use my personal email or one of my academic email accounts. 

Moreover, today, more individuals are moving to private conferencing (e.g., Zoom, Teams, Skype) and private messaging services (e.g., WhatsApp, WeChat, Telegram, Signal, Slack, or others) rather than email for interpersonal communication. If you are in government or business or academia, you want your colleagues to be exploring and innovating and using those information and communication services that support their work. Don’t dictate what those are. Let them decide in the spirit of bottom-up innovation within your organization. But this is exactly the worry of the ICO and politicians who fear they will not have access to every word written by a public servant. 

But will private services undermine security? Increasingly, public organizations from universities to governments are moving more of their services, such as email, to the cloud. That is, they are not running their own home-grown institutional services, but outsourcing to private cloud service providers, which offer pretty good security protection. This is how private gmail is provided as well. So, no, it will not undermine security.

To me, those who discuss email use from such an administrative control perspective are simply administrative control types – in a prerogative sense of that term. I for one do not want to be told what email account or what information or communication services to use for each and every purpose. I am not at the extreme of the ‘free software’ movement of Richard Stallman, but sufficiently supportive of civil liberties that I find these almost Orwellian efforts to police our communication to be a huge mistake.    

Some politicians and administrators live in a control culture rather than a free digital culture. However, interpersonal communication is good to support, particularly in these times of incivility and toxic politics. Let’s encourage it and not politicize email or the use of private messaging on any account. 

Reference

Richard M. Stallman (2002, 2015), Free Software, Free Society, Third Edition. Boston, MA: Free Software Foundation. 


[1] https://news.yahoo.com/information-watchdog-launches-investigation-health-194714162.html

Flawed Economics Behind Online Harms Regulation

The Flawed Economics of Online Harms Regulation

I am not an economist,  but even I can see the huge flaws in a recently published “cost/benefit analysis of the UK’s online safety bill”.[1] My immediate reactions:

The author, Sam Wood, of ‘The Economics of Online Harms Regulation’ in InterMEDIA, begins with an argument that the pandemic ‘[feuled] concerns about harmful content and behaviour encountered online’. Quite the contrary, I think it is arguable that the Internet and related online media became a lifeline for households in the UK and across the world during this period of lockdowns and working from home. The impetus for the online harms [now called ‘safety’] bill was fueled by the demonization of social media in the years before the pandemic. So, from the very introduction to this piece, I worried about the credibility of the economic analysis it promises. 

I was not disappointed. It is jaw-dropping. Even enumerating some of the many online harms to be addressed and outlining some of the ‘challenges’ in quantifying them, the piece proceeds to do exactly that. Using Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sports (DCMS) estimates, the author argues that the estimated costs of seven types of harm, the greatest being cyberstalking – at £2,176m over ten years beginning in 2023, is much greater than the costs of implementing the bill, the greatest cost being ‘content moderation’ estimated to be £1,700m over the same ten years in the future. 

Pulling the costs of regulation out of a hat?

Of course, the costs of implementing this bill are not simply captured by the activities enumerated: awareness campaigns, creating reporting mechanisms, updating terms of service, producing risk assessments, content moderation, and transparency reports. What has the analysis left out?

Well, what about reductions in freedom of expression and commensurate reductions in the value and use of the Internet and related social media for the public good? This will be the major impact of the disproportionate incentivisation of censorship by tech platforms in order for platforms to avoid huge the potentially huge costs to be imposed by government regulators.

The duty of care solution is the problem that will have major negative impacts on what has been the lifeline for households, educators, healthcare professionals and all government departments at all times, but made so visible by the pandemic. The duty of care mechanism will incentivise censorship and surveillance of users and push the tech platforms to act like newspapers in performing ever stronger editorial roles, such as determining what is ‘disinformation’.

One could ask: Would not an economist need to list all the benefits of social media and related activities, and not just the costs?

This is not a neutral, critical analysis, but seems to be a political stitch up to support the proposed regulation. That said, such a flawed analysis might well make a better case for opposing than supporting this bill. Read it, consider its flaws, and oppose this misguided effort to address particular grievances by introducing a terrible policy. The proposed bill will do unmeasured damage to one of the most critical infrastructures available here and now for enabling enhanced means for communication and information for every age group in the UK and worldwide. 

With apologies to the journal editors, but if the BBC or public service broadcasting were subject to such a flawed analysis, I am sure that InterMEDIA would not have even considered publishing such a piece. Then again, this bill seems to enjoy widespread support and specifically advertises its intent to protect freedom of expression. Yet how often do the intentions of regulation end up in failure and the unintended collateral damage overwhelm any positive outcomes. I’m afraid we are about to see this happen when this bill undermines an open and global Internet and free expression, and privacy is further eroded in order to enforce tech’s duty of care.

Progress on the pandemic is allowing the UK to talk about moving back to a new normal. In that spirit, may the UK apply a level of common sense and closer parliamentary and public scrutiny to the online safety bill – a level of care that such an important piece of media regulation would normally receive.


[1] Sam Wood, ‘The Economics of Online Harms Regulation’, InterMEDIA, 49(2): 31-34. 

Society and the Internet

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven the Internet and related social media and digital technologies to the forefront of societies across the globe. Whether in supporting social distancing, working at home, or online courses, people are increasingly dependent on online media for everyday life and work. If you are teaching courses on the social aspects of the Internet, social media, and life or work in the digital age, you might want to consider a reader that covers many of the key technical and social issues.

Please take a look at the contents of the 2nd Edition of Society and the Internet (OUP 2019), which is available in paperback and electronic editions. Information about the book is available online here.

Whether you are considering readings for your Fall/Autumn courses, or simply have an interest in the many social issues surrounding digital media, you may find this book of value. From Manuel Castells’ Foreword to Vint Cerf’s concluding chapter, you find a diverse mix of contributions that show how students and faculty can study the social shaping and societal implications of digital media.

In addition to Manuel Castells and Vint Cerf along with the editors, our contributors include: Maria Bada, Grant Blank, Samantha Bradshaw, David Bray, Antonio A. Casilli, Sadie Creese, Matthew David, Laura DeNardis, Martin Dittus, Elizabeth Dubois, Laleah Fernandez, Sandra González-Bailón, Scott Hale, Eszter Hargittai, Philip N. Howard, Peter John, Silvia Majó Vázquez, Helen Margetts, Marina Micheli, Christopher Millard, Lisa Nakamura, Victoria Nash, Gina Neff, Eli Noam, Sanna Ojanperä, Julian Posada, Anabel Quan-Hasse, Jack Linchuan, Lee Raine, Bianca Reisdorf, Ralph Schroeder, Limor Shifman, Ruth Shillair, Greg Taylor, Hua Wang, Barry Wellman, and Renwen Zhang. Together, these authors offer one of the most useful and engaging collections on the social aspects of the Internet and related digital media available for teaching.

Thanks for your own work in this field, at an incredible period of time for Internet and new media studies of communication and technology.

More information here: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/society-and-the-internet-9780198843498?cc=gb&lang=en&

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). 

Publication of A Research Agenda for Digital Politics

A Research Agenda for Digital Politics 

The publication of my most recent edited book, A Research Agenda for Digital Politics, is available in hardback and electronic forms at: https://www.e-elgar.com/shop/gbp/a-research-agenda-for-digital-politics-9781789903089.html From this site you can look inside the book to review the preface, list of contributors, the table of contents, and my introduction, which includes an outline of the book. In addition, the first chapter by Professor Andrew Chadwick, entitled ‘Four Challenges for the Future of Digital Politics Research’, is free to read on the digital platform Elgaronline, where you will also find the books’ DOI: https://www.elgaronline.com/view/edcoll/9781789903089/9781789903089.xml

Finally, a short leaflet is available on the site, with comments on the book from Professors W. Lance Bennett, Michael X. Delli Carpini, and Laura DeNardis. I was not aware of these comments, with one exception, until today – so I am truly grateful to such stellar figures in the field for contributing their views on this volume.  

Digital politics has been a burgeoning field for years, but with the approach of elections in the US and around the world in the context of a pandemic, Brexit, and breaking cold wars, it could not be more pertinent than today. If you are considering texts for your (online) courses in political communication, media and politics, Internet studies, or digital politics, do take a look at the range and quality of perspectives offered by the contributors to this new book. Provide yourself and your students with valuable insights on issues framed for high quality research. 

List of Contributors:

Nick Anstead, London School of Economics and Political Science; Jay G. Blumler, University of Leeds and University of Maryland; Andrew Chadwick, Loughborough University; Stephen Coleman, University of Leeds; Alexi Drew, King’s College London and Charles University, Prague; Elizabeth Dubois, University of Ottawa; Laleah Fernandez, Michigan State University; Heather Ford, University of Technology Sydney; M. I. Franklin, Goldsmiths, University of London; Paolo Gerbaudo, King’s College London; Dave Karpf, George Washington University;  Leah Lievrouw, University of California, Los Angeles; Wan-Ying Lin, City University of Hong Kong; Florian Martin-Bariteau, University of Ottawa; Declan McDowell-Naylor, Cardiff University; Giles Moss, University of Leeds; Ben O’Loughlin, Royal Holloway, University of London; Patrícia Rossini, University of Liverpool; Volker Schneider, University of Konstanz; Lone Sorensen, University of Huddersfield; Scott Wright, University of Melbourne; Xinzhi Zhang, Hong Kong Baptist University. 

How People Look for Information about Politics

The following lists papers and work in progress flowing from our research, which began at MSU, and was funded by Google Inc., on how people get access to information about politics. It was launched when I was director of the Quello Center at Michigan State University, but continues with me and colleagues at Quello and other universities in the US, UK and Canada. Funding covered the cost of the surveys – online surveys of 14000 Internet users in seven nations, but yielded a broad set of outputs. Your comments, criticisms, are welcomed. It was called the Quello Search Project.

Quello Search Project Papers

6 May 2020

Opinion and Outreach Papers to Wider Audiences

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

This post was republished on a variety of platforms, including Salon, Inforrm.org, mediablasfactcheck, BillDutton.me, Observer.com, Quello.msu.com, USAToday.com, Techniamerica, pubexec

Dutton, W. H. (2017), Bubblebusters: Countering Fake News, Filter Bubbles and Echo Chambers, NESTA.org.uk, 15 June. 

This post was republished on the Nesta site and readie.eu. Bill plans to update and repost this blog on his own site.  

Dubois, E., and Blank, G. (2018), The Myth of the Echo Chamber, The Conversation, March: https://theconversation.com/the-myth-of-the-echo-chamber-92544

Presentations of the Project Report

The project report has been presented at a wide variety of venues. A blog about Bill’s presentations is available here: http://quello.msu.edu/the-director-presents-in-europe-on-our-quello-search-project/Presentations include:

  • Summaries of our report/project were presented to academic, industry and policy communities in Britain (London, Oxford); Germany (Hamburg, Berlin, Munich); Italy (Rome); Belgium (Brussels); Spain (Madrid); China (Beijing); and the US (Arlington, Boston), and most recently in Mexico (Mexico City).
  • An overview of our Report was part of a three-hour workshop on research around echo chambers, filter bubbles and social media organized for a preconference workshop for the Social Media and Society Conference, Toronto, Canada https://socialmediaandsociety.org/ July 28-30, 2017. It included Bill, Elizabeth, and Craig.  

Papers Completed or in Progress

The following is a list of papers that further develop and deepen particular themes and issues of our project report. They have been completed or are in progress, categorized here by the indicative list of paper topics promised by the team: 

  1. Overview: A critical overview of the project findings for a policy journal, such as the Internet Policy Review, or Information Communication and Society

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. 

Earlier version: Dutton, W.H., Reisdorf, B.C., Blank, G., and Dubois, E. (2017), ‘Search and Politics: A Cross-National Survey’, paper presented at the TPRC #45 held at George Mason University in Arlington Virginia, September 7-9, 2017.

Dubois, E., and Blank, G. (2018). ‘The echo chamber is overstated: the moderating effect of political interest and diverse media’. Information, Communication & Society, 21(5), 729-745. 

Dutton, W. H. (2018), ‘Networked Publics: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives on Big Policy Issues’, Internet Policy Review, 15 May: https://policyreview.info/articles/analysis/networked-publics-multi-disciplinary-perspectives-big-policy-issues   

  • Vulnerables: Work identifying the Internet users most vulnerable to fake news and echo chambers. This paper would build on the findings to suggest interventions, such as around digital media literacy to address these risks.

Dutton, W. H., and Fernandez, L. (2018/19), ‘How Susceptible Are Internet Users?’, InterMEDIA, December/January 2018/19 46(4): 36-40. 

Earlier version: Dutton, W. H., and Fernandez, L. (2018), ‘Fake News, Echo Chambers, and Filter Bubbles: Nudging the Vulnerable’, presentation at the International Communication Association meeting in Prague, Czech Republic on 24 May 2018.

Reisdorf, B. presented work on ‘Skills, Usage Types and political opinion formation’, an invited talk at Harvard Kennedy School, Oct 19, 2017 [Bibi (presenting) work with Grant]

Blank, G., and Reisdorf, B. (2018), ‘Internet Activity, Skills, and Political Opinion Formation: A New Public Sphere?’, presentation at the International Communication Association meeting in Prague, Czech Republic on 24 May 2018.

  • Trust: A study focused on trust in different sources of information about politics and policy for a political communication journal, such as the International Journal of Communication.

Cotter, K.  & Reisdorf, B.C. (2020). Algorithmic knowledge gaps: Education and experience as co-determinants. International Journal of Communication, 14(1). Online First.

Dubois, E., Minaeian, S., Paquet-Labelle, A. and Beaudry, S. (2020), Who to Trust on Social Media: How Opinion Leaders and Seekers Avoid Disinformation and Echo Chambers, Social Media + Society, April-June: 1-13. 

Reisdorf, B.C. & Blank, G. (forthcoming). Algorithmic Literacy and Platform Trust, pp. forthcoming in Hargittai, E. (Ed.). Handbook of Digital Inequality. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Previously presented: Reisdorf, B.C. & Blank, G. (2018), ‘Algorithmic literacy and platform trust’, paper to be presented at the 2018 American Sociological Association annual meeting, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 11 August.

  • Cross-national Comparison: A cross-national comparative analysis of search, seeking to explain cross-national differences, for an Internet and society journal, such as Information, Communication and Society (iCS), or New Media and Society

Blank, G., Dubois, E., Dutton, W.H., Fernandez, L., and Reisdorf, B.C. presented a panel entitled ‘Personalization, Politics, and Policy: Cross-National Perspectives’ at ICA Conference 2018 in Prague, Czech Republic.

Dubois, E. (forthcoming), ‘Spiral of Silence/Two Step Flow: How Social Support/Pressure and Political Opinion’, under preparation for a journal.

  • Search: A study of the role of search in our evolving media ecology. One of the unique strengths of this project is that it contextualized search in the environment of the entire range of media. The dataset asks respondents about activity on six offline and seven online media, including search, plus nine social media. What is the role of search in this broad ecology of online and offline media? Are people who have complex media habits less likely to fall into echo chambers? 

Robertson, C. (2017), ‘Are all search results created equal? An exploration of filter bubbles and source diversity in Google search results’, presented at a symposium entitled Journalism and the Search for Truth in an Age of Social Media at Boston University, April 23-25.

Blank, G. (2017), ‘Search and politics: The uses and impacts of search in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the United States’. Presentation at the Google display at the Almadalen conference in Sweden on 3 July.

Blank, G. and Dubois, E. (2017), ‘Echo chambers and media engagement with politics’, presentation at the Social Informatics 2017 conference in Oxford on 13 September.

Blank, G. and Dubois, E. (2018), ‘Echo Chambers and the Impact of Media Diversity: Political Opinion Formation and Government Policy’, paper presented at the General Online Research Conference, Düsseldorf, Germany on 1 March.

Blank, G., and Dubois, E. (2018), ‘Is the echo chamber overstated? Findings from seven countries’, presentation at the Düsseldorf University, Institute for Internet and Democracy Conference, Düsseldorf, Germany on 5 July. 

  • Populism: An analysis of the role of search and the Internet in populist attitudes. How is populism related to search? Is the Internet and search supporting the rise of individuals with more confidence in their knowledge of policy, and supportive of more popular control? Are populists more likely to be in an echo chamber than those less in line with populist viewpoints?

Dutton, W. H. and Robertson, C. T. (forthcoming), ‘The Role of Filter Bubbles and Echo Chambers in the Rise of Populism: Disentangling Polarization and Civic Empowerment in the Digital Age’ in Howard Tumber and Silvio Waisbord (eds), The Routledge Companion to Media Misinformation and Populism. New York: Routledge, pp. forthcoming.

  • Fact Checking: Checking Information via Search: Who, When, Why? Between 41 percent (UK) and 57 percent (Italy) of respondents say they check information using search “often” or “very often”. Who are those who double-check sources?

Robertson, C.T. (under review). Who checks? Identifying predictors of online verification behaviors in the United States and Europe.

  • Democracy: An analysis of democratic digital inequalities that would examine how education and motivation are related to searching for and sharing political news. Is there a gap in the way that people from different educational backgrounds search for and share political news, and if so, does this affect how they shape their political opinions?

Dutton, W. H. (2020 forthcoming) (ed), Digital Politics. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Dutton, W. H. (In Progress), The Fifth Estate: The Political Dynamics of Empowering Networked Individuals. Book under contract with OUP, New York: Oxford University Press, with 1-2 chapters on QSP. 

Blank, G. (2018), ‘Democracy and Technology’, Grant will spoke at the Google display at the SuomiAreena conference on 16 July in Pori, Finland.

Reisdorf, B. C., Blank, G., and Dutton, W. H. (2019), ‘Internet Cultures and Digital Inequalities’, pp. 80-95 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. 

Previously presented: Blank, G., Reisdorf, B., and Dutton, W. H. (2018), ‘Internet Cultures and Digital Inequalities’, presentation at the Digital Inclusion Policy and Research Conference, London, 21-22 June.

Addressing the Quality of Broadcast Coverage of Politics in Britain

As an American living in the UK, who is not a journalist, I’ve long looked at broadcast journalism in Britain as a model for the US to emulate. Over time, however, my confidence in the UK’s coverage has declined. Rather than simply complain, let me offer a few observations and suggestions. Most recently, after weeks of watching broadcast coverage of the 2019 election in the UK, my concern over the state of ‘quality journalism’ was reinforced.

Partisan Coverage

A common rant over highly partisan news coverage is one aspect of the problem, as illustrated by Fox News and CNN in the US. But through much of this last UK election, it seemed both Conservative and Labour Party supporters, along with politicians from the minor parties, were accusing broadcasters of overly partisan favoritism. For example, Channel 4’s Jon Snow has been accused of having a liberal bias in anchoring their news coverage.[1] But partisan bias aside, which is even more evident in the US, partisan coverage is not my primary concern in the British case.

More importantly, broadcast news in the UK seems to be facing problems of quality coverage in several related ways that cumulatively contribute to polarizing the political process and undermining the civility of political discourse. I’ll provide a few problematic patterns.

Over-Simplify and Over-Exaggerate

First, we increasingly hear less from the mouths of politicians and candidates for office and more from journalists and the members of the public at large. While not a bad turn in itself, it has had negative consequences.

When journalists provide their summary synthesis of a candidate or campaign, it is inevitably very brief and dramatic. One could say this has long been guidance to even quality print news reporters: simplify and then exaggerate. This surely distorts news coverage, but broadcast journalism is particularly vulnerable due to the tremendous pressure to be exceedingly brief and conclusive – ending with a catchy theme. So leading journalists are led to over-simplify and over exaggerate and in the process, seldom allow politicians and candidates to speak for themselves. Perhaps news producers see politicians as too nuanced and long winded for live television news coverage, and more difficult to access and interview that their journalistic surrogates. But the resulting simplification and exaggeration can be misleading and polarizing.

Dramatically Contrasting Competing Points of View

A popular format for 2019 election coverage was moving a broadcasting crew across the UK to visit cities, towns, and villages that ‘represented’ leave, remain, or divided opinions on the Britain’s future in the EU. And during each stop, the team would broadcast short snippets of interviews with people on the street, in the pub, or in their homes. The idea of getting the views from the street was good, but these interviews sought out diverse, colorful, and often caustic viewpoints. One would call a candidate for office a liar, another would call a candidate a racist, and so on. Often, the interviews would end with concluding that the voters were forced to choose the lesser of various evils.

But of course, choosing four or five caustic or colorful interviewees off the street of any city is not truly representative, much less a systematic or scientific sampling of opinion. Rather than sampling opinions, the broadcasts showcase entertaining or jaw dropping insults, which convey a clear message: it is okay to insult the candidates for public office. This is cheap and quick and possibly entertaining, but it contributes to the toxicity and polarization of politics. Perhaps it is too costly to actually sample public opinion, but journalists should refrain from suggesting they are genuinely sampling opinion.

The Leading Question with No Such Thing as a Non-Opinion

An added element of interviews with the public is the prevalence of leading questions. With the journalist asking: “So you can’t really trust any of these candidates, can you?” What can you expect Joe or Joan public to say? Maybe the journalist discussed their views ahead of time, and simply want to push the interviewee to get to the point, but while going on air with a leading question might speed things up, it also leads journalists to over-simplify and exaggerate the public’s views. It may even create opinions when there are none. It is very common for members of the public to not have an opinion about many issues. Asking leading questions forces them to make up an opinion on the spot. This has been a well studied problem in survey research, when respondents are asked to respond to a question that they have no opinion about. It is also a problem for journalism that needs more study.

The Proverbial Horse Race

Finally, the public love a horse race encourages broadcasters to find a way to make any election into a horse race if at all possible. The weeks leading up to the 2019 UK election consistently showed a gap in the voting intentions in favor of the Conservative Party. But in the week and days before the election, pundits nervously claimed that there were signs of a narrowing of the polls, and a very real possibility of an upset. It not only didn’t happen, but post hoc, there seemed to be little sign of this narrowing, yet losers were more crushed than they might have otherwise been, and the winners were pleasantly surprised.

These are just a few examples of the ways in which journalistic practices might have gone wrong in ways that might well contribute to the toxicity of public discourse, and the polarization of public life. Perhaps this is not new. The old adage is that: If it bleeds, it leads. Notwithstanding, we are not just talking about car crashes but the coverage of candidates and elections for public office. People love to joke about politics and politicians. But journalistic coverage has gone beyond jokes to publicly cutting and insulting remarks that would come close to hate speech in another context.

Why?

This may well be a symptom of a decline of broadcast journalism that is driven by a raft of factors. More competition for the attention of viewers? Declining revenues and financing relative to demands? More focus on street reporting and immediacy, than on thoughtful synthesis? Efforts to entertain rather than to report? Whatever the causes, the problems may need to be recognized and agreed upon — that a problem exists and that there is a need to focus attention on higher quality journalism. There is a looming debate ahead over the future of public service broadcasting and that debate needs to address perceived risks to high quality broadcast journalism, and not become another example of sensational or exaggerated coverage.

[1] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/28/jon-snow-criticised-mid-interview-panelist-tells-not-everyone/

Managing the Shift to Next Generation Television

Columbia University’s Professor Eli Noam was in Oxford yesterday, 17 October 2019, speaking at Green Templeton College about two of his most recent books, entitled ‘Managing Media and Digital Organizations’ and ‘Digital and Media Management’: https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783319712871. The title of his talk was ‘Does Digital Management Exist? Challenges for the Next Generation of TV’. Several departments collaborated with Green Templeton College in supporting this event, including the Oxford Internet Institute, Saïd Business School, the Blavatnik School of Government, and Voices from Oxford

Green Templeton College Lecture Hall

Professor Noam has focused attention on what seems like a benign and economically rational technical shift from linear TV to online video. Most people have some experience with streaming video services, for example. But the longer term prospects of this shift could be major (we haven’t seen anything yet) and have serious social implications that drive regulatory change, and also challenge those charged with managing the media. What is the next generation of digital television? Can it be managed? Are the principles of business management applicable to new digital organizations? 

The Principal of Green Templeton College, Professor Denise Lievesley opened the session and introduced the speaker, and two discussants: Professor Mari Sako, from the Saïd Business School, and Damian Tambini, from the Department of Media and Communication at LSE, and a former director of Oxford’s Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy (PCMLP). Following Eli Noam’s overview of several of the key themes developed in his books, and the responses of the discussants, the speakers fielded a strong set of questions from other participants. Overall, the talk and discussion focused less on the management issues, and more on the potential social implications of this shift and the concerns they raised. 

Roland Rosner, Eli Noam, Bill Dutton, Mari Sako, Damian Tambini

The social implications are wide ranging, including a shift towards more individualized, active, emersive, and global media. There will be some of the ‘same old same old’, but also ‘much more’ that brings many perspectives on the future of television into households. The concerns raised by these shifts include threats to privacy and security to even shorter attention spans – can real life compete with sensational emersion in online video? Perhaps the central concern of the discussion focused around media concentration, and not only in cloud services, such as offered by the big tech companies, but also in national infrastructures, content, and devices. 

This led to a discussion of the policy implications arising from such concerns, particularly in the aftermath of 2016 elections, mainly around the efforts to introduce governmental regulation of the global online companies and governmental pressures on platforms to censor their own content. This surfaced some debate over the cross-national and regional differences in approaches to freedom of expression and media regulation. While there were differences of opinion on the need and nature of greater regulation, there did seem to be little disagreement with Eli’s argument that many academics seem to have moved from being cheerleaders to fear mongering, when we should all seek to be ‘thought leaders’ in this space, given that academics should have the independence from government and the media, and an understanding informed by systematic research versus conventional wisdom across the world. 

Eli Noam presenting his lecture on Digital Media Management

Eli is one of the world’s leading scholars on digital media and management, and his latest books demonstrate his command of this area. One of the speakers referred to his latest tome as an MBA in a box. The text has a version for undergraduate and graduate courses, but every serious university library should have them in their collection. 

Bill and Eli with Susanne, a former Columbia Un student of Eli’s, now at the OII and Green Templeton College, holding Eli’s new books

Notes: 

Eli Noam has been Professor of Economics and Finance at the Columbia Business School since 1976 and its Garrett Professor of Public Policy and Business Responsibility. He has been the Director of the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information, and one of the key advisors to the Oxford Internet Institute, having served on its Advisory Board since its founding in 2001 through the Institute’s first decade. 

His new books on digital media and organizations have been praised by a range of digital and media luminaries, from Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, to the former CEO of Time Warner, Gerald Levin and former CTO of HBO, Robert Zitter. 

An interview with Eli Noam will be available soon via Voices from Oxford.

The Politics of Language

The language of day-to-day politics in the news and in legislative bodies, such as the UK parliament, has been so vitriolic, such as around the Brexit debate from 2016, that many have been stopped listening. It can be toxic to some, while energising to others. I should add that I would single out no one, as this has been a phenomenon that crosses political parties, nations, and individuals. It seems like a trend in the use and abuse of language in politics. Why?

There are many possible explanations. There is the give and take of debate in which aggressive or insulting words evoke equivalent or ratchet up replies in a vicious cycle. There is the potential for inflammatory language to capture media attention. There are many possible reasons, but one seems to best capture for me the dynamics of what we are seeing unfold across Europe and North America – one that was long ago best characterised by an American political scientist, E. E. Schattschneider, in his short but wonderful book entitled, The Semi-Sovereign People.*

The essential notion of Schattschneider’s work is to compare politics with a spectator sport, but one in which there are major differences. Players can change the rules, for example, but even more dynamic is the potential and commonality of players switching sides. More significantly, perhaps, is the notion that spectators can come on the field and join one of the teams.

Considering these possibilities, it is obvious that if you are winning the game, you don’t want to change the rules, and you don’t want spectators to jump onto the field. Best to leave things alone if you are winning. And if two teams are in opposition, such as in parliament, it would be best to keep a low profile if both teams are winning through compromise, for example.

Alternatively, if you are losing, then there is an incentive to change the rules, which is most difficult if you are losing, or to get change the composition of the teams by getting players to switch sides, or getting spectators to come onto the field. It is risky, but you are losing anyway, and changing the teams on the field could tilt the game in your favour.

So what happens when – as in the case of Brexit debates in the UK – that no team is clearly winning. Every position is a minority position. Every team will have an incentive to change the rules, and to bring spectators onto the field. They are already losing, so each party is attempting to shake things up and change the dynamics of the politics in a way that might shift in their favour.

This seems to me to be a rational explanation of the apparently irrational politics of Brexit that is causing a national nervous breakdown in the UK.

*E. E. Schattschneider, (1960), The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. Wadsworth.