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.

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/

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/

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.

Fake News Nation – a new book by Aspray and Cortada is out!

I’d like to recommend to you a new book, entitled Fake News Nation: The Long History of Lies and Misinterpretations in America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). Information about the book is at: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781538131107/Fake-News-Nation-The-Long-History-of-Lies-and-Misinterpretations-in-America

As I noted in my endorsement of this book: “James W. Cortada and Willam Aspray’s brilliantly selected and crafted case studies are must-reads because they bring historical insight to issues of fake news, disinformation, and conspiracy theories of our digital age.”

 

The Internecine Politics Undermining the Civility of Political Discourse?


Brexit has spawned a form of internecine politics in the UK that is a lose-lose for all – the politicians, parties, and the nations, and very likely, the public interest. Conservatives have referred to ‘blue on blue’ attacks on one’s own party members, but not as in military parlance, accidental. These are really intentional efforts to destroy other members of the parliament, and often in one’s own political party.

This blue-on-blue warfare was mentioned in the debate on 9 July 2019 between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, but that is but one example of a daily dose of hyper-personal, destructive, political, hatchet jobs that leaves everyone diminished. Today, the former PM John Major threatened to take the next UK PM to court if he were to try to force a no-deal Brexit. He did not simply express his view on a ‘no deal’ Brexit, but threatened the next PM.

Of course, politics in the USA is as vicious, if not more so – consider the warfare between the late John McCain and Donald Trump. All are diminished in such exchanges.

Has politics become more hyper-personal, vicious and internecine, or has the media and social media, as claimed by some, not only a cause of this dysfunctional communication, but is it also or primarily making normal politics more visible?

Optimistically, maybe it is the latter. Perhaps politics has always be as personal and corrosive, and what we see is a social media example of what was called by Joshua Meyrowitz a ‘no sense of place‘ of the mass media. Every insult, threat, or attack is immediately tweeted, blogged, leaked, and/or reported on the mainstream 24-hour news channels. No politician can escape the constant gaze of the media (often via social media) today. A positive outcome, arguably, is that we know too much to hold any politician on a pedestal. Politicians are very human with many faults.

So maybe it is the latter n – a media impact. That might mean there is hope that politicians, the press, and media can learn to hold their fire in the public interest. But the search for followers, likes, ratings, and viewers make this unlikely.

While this is unlikely, given that such internecine conflicts generate listeners, readers, and viewers, it is also in the self-interest of any politician to not indulge in, or try their best to avoid, these political attacks. So it may be down to the politicians to address this problem.

In earlier times, one was advised to go ahead and write the angry memo to your boss or colleague to get your grievance off your chest, but then put it in your desk drawer, and read it the next day. In the light of the next day, the logic goes, the overly vituperous memos or letters would be shredded and forgotten. Well, memos are rare today, as are desk drawers, and tweets work best in live action, so restraint will be more difficult in these times. But this is possible. Draft a tweet on any other media than Twitter, and then send it the next day!

All parties need to realise that clicks, views, and news coverage are not indicators of agreement or support of a comment. This member of the public is becoming exhausted and disappointed by these internecine, hyper-personal political hatcket jobs. Sadly, they alienate many of others among the public. Surely it may seem naive, but in everyone’s interest to be more civil, less personal, more restrained, and more empathetic. Politics is the art of compromise, and not war carried on by other means.

Coda

I was pleased to see some aspects of my concerns reflected in what might have been PM Teresa May’s last major speech as Prime Minister. She spoke about the decline of public discourse, talking about what she called the “coarsening [of] our public debate”, noting that “Some are losing the ability to disagree without demeaning the views of others.” While she attributes some aspects of this to online media, she did not put all the blame on digital or social media, but on an increasing factionalism and what she called an ‘absolutism’, which for example is so apparent in debates over Brexit. I find support in her voicing some of my concerns with public discourse albeit she has put these points across much better and to a far larger audience. 

Getting to No: Name-calling Politics

Every morning it seems I am stunned by any given political actor (celebrity, politician, journalist) in the UK or the USA calling another politician an idiot, a fascist, a communist, a liar, a populist, nationalist, …. the list goes on. What are they thinking?

You don’t need to have read Roger Fisher and William Ury’s Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement Without Giving In (Random House, first edition 1981) to realise that name-calling in politics is likely to end badly. It is blindingly obvious that this is not a route to agreement. So as Fisher and Ury argue, among other rules, you should focus on the problem versus the personalities involved in the dispute. Name-calling focuses everyone on the personalities in the dispute.

In the 1980s, I found that urban development conflicts were often facilitated by modeling – at that time the use of computer models of the fiscal impact of alternative development strategies (Dutton, W. H. and Kraemer, K. L. Modeling as Negotiating: The Political Dynamics of Computer Models in the Policy Process, Ablex Publishing, 1985). The modelling process focused the attention of contenting actors on the assumptions and data relevant to the model – the modelling process. In some cities this worked, but not all, but when it worked, it was a classic validation of Fisher and Ury.

With respect to Brexit, there have been attempts to focus on a process, such as a referendum, then a second referendum, or general election, to resolve the conflict between the leave versus remain alternatives. So arguably, the referendum did not resolve the issue, but actually has been blamed by many for the intractable position that the UK finds itself. But what about this idea of a citizen’s jury, which has been put forward by Rory Stewart?

My view is that it would be a potentially useful input to the process, but not a route to resolving the issue of Brexit. As one of a number of efforts to get to a yes, it could surface new ideas. However, if it is consider as the way to resolve the issue, it would be too politicised to be credible.

So a focus on any particular process rather than the personalities is not a panacea. It is important to find a process that garners support, that representatives of all aspects of the issue can actually participate in, and have sufficient transparency for the public and officials to ensure that it is accountable to members of the parliament, government, and the public at large. It that respect, the suggestion of a citizen’s jury is moving in the right direction: away from name-calling and towards a focus on a process for resolving disagreement.

Maybe everyone knows how commonsensical this advice might be. So what should we think of those who insist on name-calling? Generally, when it looks like someone is behaving irrationally, it often turns out that they are focusing on a different objective. For example, they may not be trying to find a solution or resolution to a negotiation. They may be simply trying to enhance their visibility to their supporters. My impression is exactly this. The name-callers among journalists, politicians, and celebrities are primarily seeking to be liked by like-minded people in their own self-interest, and not to solve a problem in the public interest.

Modelling Creating a Process for Getting to Yes