Notes to Pundits of the Trump-Russia Stories: If you were my students …

Sorry if this sounds patronizing, as you are stellar journalists and politicians, but if you were my students, writing a paper for a college class, what would I say?

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teaching commons.stanford.edu

I would definitely give you points for effort, and creativity, but would mark your work down on its analytical precision. Happy for you to come in during an office hour, but briefly, let me give you a few examples of my concerns. Apologies in advance for these quick notes.

First, take your vague attributions, which change over time. Who is responsible for meddling with the 2016 US Presidential election? Is it hackers in Russia, Russian oligarchs, Russian nationals, Russians, government hackers, agent’s of the government, the government, the highest levels of government, or President Putin? Your essays keep veering across these various actors. You must see that it makes a difference, so you must be more precise to be credible.

Likewise, what did they do – what was the meddling? Did they hack into email of the DNC, RNC, John Podesta, or others; gain access to county voter registration files; change voter registration files; meet with members of the campaign; loan money (at some point in the past) to members of the campaign; compromise members of the campaign; pass material to WikiLeaks, or one or more of the above? Your discussions keep shifting from one to another accusation as if this were a shell game.

When did this happen? Was it during the 2016 elections, happening now, or is it something that is likely to happen in the future? When you sometimes veer toward the future, it undermines your case.

Where is the evidence? Is it simply based on authority, the intelligence agencies, all of whom happen to agree, even when they seldom or ever confirm or deny anything? Is there evidence beyond hearsay? [By the way, you should not equate the heads of intelligence agencies with scientists, or doubts over Russian interference with climate change denial, as the analogy so flawed that it further undermines your credibility.]

Finally, in line with a major problem with undergraduate writing today, is it something that you often just feel is right? As you would have heard me say in class time and again, your feelings don’t count.

So you can see that given all the possible permutations of who did what, when and where, and all without strong evidence, the essays end up in an analytical muddle. You’ve constructed a wicked problem out of a set of vague accusations that are not critically assessed.

This would be funny if your work did not have such serious consequences. [I should add you do get high marks for impact.] And the impact will last decades and shape governmental institutions in the US in major ways, such as with respect to the role of Congress in foreign policy.

Finally, it would have been good to focus on some things that could be done to avoid the risks you identify, such as shoring up cyber security in all aspects of campaigns and elections, and not moving to electronic voting – a plea that has been made for well over a decade. [See Barbara Simons’ work, for example, who has been warning people about the difficulties of securing electronic voting systems for decades.] You might also reinforce the wisdom of how decentralized voting systems are in the US, meaning that there is no one system, even in a single state, and the need to keep it that way.

That said, great effort, well written, and convincingly spoken, but I regret to say that I cannot give you high marks on your work. And apologies for not addressing every individual journalist and politician talking about the Trump-Russia story, as that would not be possible given the number of you that chose this topic. Nevertheless, as a group, try to focus on developing a more analytically rigorous argument, and ensure that your evidence drives your conclusions rather than the opposite.

 

Fake and More Categories of Bad News

There is the ideal and reality of high quality news and journalism, and then there are many categories of news that undermine the quality of information available in print or online. Much has been said lately about ‘fake news’ – a popular but increasingly broad – overly broad – concept. But ‘fake news’ fails to capture the many variants of low quality, weak or dysfunctional news offered to the public. [Also see piece by David Mikkelson.] While not necessarily comprehensive, consider the following categories, which I will try to differentiate, and invite others to refine and build on:

Fake News: purposively fabricated stories designed to generate clicks and advertising revenue

Inaccurate News: news that has factual inaccuracies in reporting

Uncovered News: stories that are unreported, not covered, often for unintentional but systematic reasons, such as murders that are so frequent that they are not considered news

Suppressed News: unlike uncovered news, there is news that is purposively not reported, such as when an institution fails to report security problems, fraud, or offenses that might harm its reputation  th

Rumors, Gossip: hearsay or gossip that at one point would not have been reported, but which the Internet and social media has brought to the public

Patriotic News: news that is exaggerated or influenced by patriotic feelings in the midst of threats, such as during war or after a terrorist incident [I attribute this category to Avshalom Ginosar]

Propaganda: most often state sponsored falsification, advertising, or selection of good news designed to build support for a particular state, political actor, or political cause

Partisan News: selective reporting or biased news that is designed purposively or unconsciously to support a party or political movement in opposition to other parties or movements

Surrogate News: journalists reporting on or covering other journalists rather than actors in the news

Misinformation: stories that purposively veer from the facts or actual events in order to achieve some objective, but distinct from fake news in that it is not focused on generating revenue

Otherizing News: treatments of news that turns another person, group or nation into an ‘alien other’ – he’s a New Yorker, that is a red state, etc – in ways similar to stereotyping*

Wars on Information: efforts to cloud or confuse the treatment of real or high quality news with contradictory reports and denials, such as around Russian involvement in Eastern Ukraine

Newspeak: Orwell’s use of this term in 1984 to refer to the use of words that mean the opposite of their normal definition, such as truth meaning propaganda, as in the Department of Truth

Personalized News: news designed for a particular individual rather than a broad public – a possible future of news, for better or worse

Excluded Middle: weakness of many cable news shows in creating a debate between extremes and excluding the expression or even the existence of a middle position*

 

What am I forgetting? Other categories? I’m sure we could go on, but please let’s stop calling every story we don’t like ‘fake news’.

*Added with thanks to peteybee for comments below.

 

Should Tweeting Politicians be able to Block Users?

An interesting debate has been opened up by lawyers who have argued that President Trump should not block Twitter users from posting on Twitter. I assume this issue concerns his account @realDonaldTrump (32M followers) but the same issue would arise over his newer and official account as President @realDonaldTrump (almost 19M followers).

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Apparently, the President has blocked users who may have made rude or critical comments to one or more of his Twitter posts. Regardless of the specifics of Donald Trump’s tweets, and specific individuals blocked, the general question is: Should any American politician who tweets be able to block any user without violating the user’s first amendment rights? I would say, yes, but others, including the lawyers posing this question, would disagree.

I would think that any user has a right to block any other user, particularly if they appear to be a malicious user, bot, or simply obnoxious. I’d argue this on the basis that these are the affordances of Twitter, and the rules of the site are – or should be – known by users. Moreover, the potential for blocking is a means of maintaining some level of civility on one’s social media. Having rude or obnoxious users posting harassing comments could frighten other users off the site, and thereby undermine a space for dialogue and the provision of information. If there is no way for a social media site to moderate its users, its very survival is at risk.

I actually argued this in the mid-1990s, when the issue surrounded electronic bulletin boards, and some of the first public forums, such as Santa Monica, California’s Public Electronic Network (PEN).* Essentially, I maintained that any democratic forum is governed by rules, such as Robert’s Rules of Order for many face-to-face meetings. Such rules evolved in response to difficulties in conducting meeting without rules. Some people will speak too long and not take turns. Some will insult or talk over the speaker. Democratic communication requires some rules, even thought this may sound somewhat ironic. As long as participants know the rules in advance, rules of order seem legitimate to enabling expression. Any rule suppresses some expression in order to enable more equitable, democratic access to a meeting. Obviously, limiting a tweet to 140 characters is a restriction on speech, but it has fostered a rich medium for political communication.

In this sense, blocking a Twitter user is a means for moderation, and if known in advance, and not used in an arbitrary or discriminatory way, it should be permitted. That said, I will post a Twitter poll and let you know what respondents believe. Bryan M. Sullivan (2017), an attorney, seems to argue a very different position in his Forbes article.** I respectively disagree, but wonder what the Twitter community thinks, while it is easy to guess that they will be on the side of not being blocked. But please think about it, before you decide.

Reference

*Dutton, W. H. (1996), ‘Network Rules of Order: Regulating Speech in Public Electronic Fora,’ Media, Culture, and Society, 18 (2), 269-90. Reprinted in David, M., and Millward, P. (2014) (eds), Researching Society Online. (London: Sage), pp. 269-90.

**Sullivan, B. (2017), ‘Blocked by the President: Are Trump’s Twitter Practices Violating Free Speech?’, Forbes, available here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/legalentertainment/2017/06/08/blocked-by-the-president-are-trumps-twitter-practices-violating-free-speech/#40fe73043d57

The Ascendance of Symbolic Politics: An Explanation and Consequence of Gridlock

Politicians in American and world politics are finding themselves in gridlocks over real policy change. Unable to make decisions on fundamental policies shaping the reallocation of resources, whether it be in the US Senate or the UN Security Council. This gridlock in real policy decisions makes symbolic politics the one and only game to play, leading politicians to make symbolic appeals to their bases of support through a variety of gestures that have no likely outcome on policy change. In fact, these symbolic appeals further undermine the potential for real change.

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Source: mtviewmirror.com

Increasingly, this appears to be a vicious cycle that is in part a consequence of policy gridlock, and in part an explanation of this gridlock. How can this vicious cycle be broken? Let me explain and give a couple of current examples.

Murray Edelman (1967, 1986) wrote a seminal book, entitled The Symbolic Uses of Politics, in which he clarified the differences between what he called “symbolic” versus the politics of real, tangible change. As he put it (1986: 4): “… the most cherished forms of popular participation in government are largely symbolic, …”, in that they do not confer any tangible benefits, such as allocating resources.

In contemporary terms, symbolic politics would cover appeals to ‘make America great again’ (Donald Trump). Real politics would entail tangible changes in budgets, law or policy that would accomplish such goals, such as programs to build new infrastructure. From the other side of the aisle, since the 2016 election, symbolic politics is reflected to appeals to ‘resist’ the Trump Administration, while real politics would be more focused on achieving Democratic Party goals. One might think that the symbolic and real are complementary, but not in today’s political context.

Take one recent example: the politics of confirming Neil Gorsuch for the US Supreme Court on April 7, 2017. From the announcement of Neil Gorsuch’s nomination on January 31st to the day of the nomination, Democrats in the Senate opposed his confirmation, in part in response to the earlier opposition to President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, and in part in response to expectations that Gorsuch would take conservative position on critical cases before the court. Nevertheless, the partisan arithmetic of the Senate made it clear that Gorsuch would be nominated with or without the support of the Democratic Party, given the potential to change the rules in the Senate that required 60 percent of the Senate to confirm a nominee to the court. Rather than compromise, and allow a number of Senators to vote for the nomination, and preserve the rules of the Senate, the party held firm, leading the Republicans to vote the rule change and confirm Neil Gorsuch. The battle had not real impact on the outcome – Gorsuch would have been nominated in any case, but the strategy allowed members of the Democratic Party to tell their constituents that they opposed the confirmation. This was a symbolic appeal.

A more general example is the focus on personalities versus policy. Real politics requires negotiation and horse trading over legislative or executive actions. To accomplish aims in real politics, you need to be able to work with the opposition. The art of negotiation does not lead negotiators to attack individuals personally, only to critique their policies, not their personal character. The degree that politics is all about personal attacks on individuals is another symptom of the move towards symbolic politics. Playing symbolic politics you win support by attacking the right people, but this makes working with these individuals less likely, thereby undermining real political bargaining and negotiation. Again, symbolic politics is becoming the enemy of real political negotiation and compromise.

The Tea Party movement in the Republic Party seemed to be all about symbolic politics as it had little likelihood of effecting real policy change beyond the potential to block any change at all. If you thought the ascendance of the Republican Party might have led to real political compromises among Republicans and Democrats on policy, it was perhaps discouraging to see the “Resist” movement arising among the Democrats, poised to oppose any Presidential initiative of the Trump Administration.

In both cases, when unable to effect real policy change in line with the Tea Party or Resist, the organizers chose to make symbolic appeals to their base of voters, contributors, and other supporters by symbolically opposing the opposition. The question is whether these symbolic stances actually fuel gridlock on real policy choices.

Symbolic appeals do not need a legislative majority. At the end of the day, however, the voters appear willing to support candidates who trade in symbolic politics. They are not throwing the rascals out for not accomplishing legislative or policy agendas. They are punishing – or are seen to punish – candidates who do not stay on message. So symbolic politics and the gridlock it reinforces must be put right at the feet of voters to tolerate this new pattern of do nothing, say anything, politics.

What can be done? Stop supporting those who don’t deliver on real policy agendas. Don’t give contributions to groups making appeals on symbolic initiatives.

References

http://mtviewmirror.com/animal-farm-symbolic-politics/

Murray Edelman (1967, 1985), The Symbolic Uses of Politics. Indiana: University of Illinois Press. 

Watching How the EU Treats the UK

Sovereignty is one of the issues that led some politicians in Britain to vote for leaving. Since the vote for Brexit, the UK has been struggling with how to leave in a way that respects the vote, but also creates as positive of an outcome as possible for the UK and the EU. They are looking for a win-win solution. I know that many believe this is impossible, but I truly believe that is a motivation of many, whether or not it is realistic.

However, as I watch this process unfolding, it appears perfectly clear that the EU is not minded to negotiate at all. It is telling the world that it will determine the terms of the divorce, and will not negotiate related matters, such as trade until the divorce arrangements are settled. The EU wants to make an example of the UK, punish it, and show other nations what is in store for them if they do not tow the line. This is exactly the strategy the EU followed in dealing with Greece on their financial crisis.

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Source: TunesOnline.Net

Surely I am not the only person who sees this pattern as support for the position that the EU is over-reaching its authority and that sovereignty is indeed a really genuine issue for all the nations of the EU. Maybe this bullying is part of the EU negotiating strategy, but I’m afraid it is indicative of the bureaucratic machine that has been created, and adds credibility to the choice to exit.