A Research Agenda for Digital Politics

My edited book within the Elgar Research Agendas Series will be out shortly. Its entitled A Research Agenda for Digital Politics, and aims to stimulate innovative research on the role of digital media and communication in the study of politics.

“This Elgar Research Agenda showcases insights from leading researchers on the charged issues and questions that lie ahead in the multidisciplinary field of digital politics. Covering the political implications of the Internet, social media, datafication and computational analytics, it looks to the future of how research might address the political challenges of the digital age and maps the key emerging trends in this field.”

I hope you can recommend the book to your librarian or research unit and consider this volume for your courses. Those with a serious interest in the political implications of digital and social media will find it valuable in considering their own directions for future research.

Contributors include Nick Anstead at the LSE, Jay G. Blumler at Leeds, Andrew Chadwick at Loughborough, Stephen Coleman at Leeds, Alexi Drew at King’s College London, Elizabeth Dubois at Ottawa, Leah Fernandez at Michigan State University, Heather Ford at UT Sydney, M. I. Franklin at Goldsmiths, Paolo Gerbaudo at King’s College London, Dave Karpf at George Washington University, Leah Lievrouw at UCLA, Wan-Ying LIN at City University of Hong Kong, Florian Martin-Bariteau at Ottawa, Declan McDowell-Naylor at Cardiff University, Giles Moss at Leeds, Ben O’Loughlin at Royal Holloway, Patricia Rossini at Un of Liverpool, Volker Schneider at University of Konstanz, Lone Sorensen at Huddersfield, Scott Wright at University of Melbourne, and Xinzhi ZHANG at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Jettison the Digital Nanny State: Digitally Augment Users

My last blog argued that the UK should stop moving along the road of a duty of care regime, as this will lead Britain to become what might be called a ‘Digital Nanny State’, undermining the privacy and freedom of expression of all users. A promising number of readers agreed with my concerns, but some asked whether there was an alternative solution.

Before offering my suggestions, I must say that I do not see any solutions outlined by the duty of care regime. Essentially, a ‘duty of care’ approach[1], as outlined in the Cyber Harms White Paper would delegate solutions to the big tech companies, threatening top executives with huge fines or criminal charges if they fail to stop or address them.[2] That said, I assume that any ‘solutions’ would involve major breaches of the privacy and freedom of expression of Internet users across Britain given that surveillance and content controls would be the most likely necessity of their approach. The remedy would be draconian and worse that the problems to be addressed.[3]

Nevertheless, it is fair to ask how the problems raised by the lists of cyber harms could be addressed. Let me outline elements of a more viable approach. 

Move Away from the Concept of Cyber Harms

Under the umbrella of cyber harms are lumped a wide range of problems that have little in common beyond being potential problems for some Internet users. Looked at with any care it is impossible to see them as that similar in origin or solution. For example, disinformation is quite different from sexting. They involve different kinds of problems, to different people, imposed by different actors. Trolling is a fundamentally different set of issues than the promotion of female genital mutilation (FGM). The only common denominator is that any of these actions might result is some harm at some level for some individuals or groups – but they are so different that they violate common sense and logic to put them into the same scheme. 

Moreover, any of the problems are not harms per se, but actions that could be harmful – maybe even lead to many harms at many different levels, from psychological to physical.  Step one in any reasonable approach would be to decompose this list of cyber harms into specific problems in order to think through how each problem could be addressed. Graham Smith captures this problem in noting that the mishmash of cyber harms might be better labelled ‘users behaving badly’.[4] The authors of the White Paper did not want a ‘fragmented’ array of problems, but the reality is that there are distinctly different problems that need to be addressed in different ways in different contexts by different people. For example, others have argued for looking at cyber harms from the perspective of human rights law. But each problem needs to be addressed on its own terms.

Remember that Technologies have Dual Effects

Ithiel de Sola Pool pointed out how almost any negative impact of the telephone could be said to have exactly the opposite impact as well – ‘dual effects’.[5] For example, a telephone in one’s home could undermine your privacy by interrupting the peace and quiet of the household, but it could also provide more privacy compared to people coming to your door. A computer could be used to enhance the efficiency of an organization, but if poorly designed and implemented, the same technology could undermine its efficiency. In short, technologies do not have inherent, deterministic effects, as their implications can be shaped by how we design, use and govern them in particular contexts. 

This is important here because the discussion of cyber harms is occurring is a dystopian climate of opinion. Journalists, politicians, and academics are jumping on a dystopian bandwagon that is as misleading as the utopian bandwagon of the Arab Spring when all thought the Internet would democratize the world. Both the utopian and dystopian perspectives are misleading, deterministic viewpoints that are unhelpful for policy and practice. 

Recognise: Cyber Space is not the Wild West

Many of the cyber harms listed in the White Paper are activities that are illegal. It seems silly to remind the Home Office in the UK that what is illegal in the physical world is also illegal online in so-called cyber space or our virtual world. Given that financial fraud or selling drugs is illegal, then it is illegal online, and is a matter for law enforcement. The difference is that activities online do not always respect the same boundaries as activities in the real world of jurisdictions, law enforcement, and the courts. But this does not make the activities any less illegal, only more jurisdictionally complex to police and enforce. This does not require new law but better approaches to connecting and coordinating law enforcement across geography of spaces and places. Law enforcement agencies can request information from Internet platforms, but they probably should not outsource law enforcement, as suggested by the cyber harms framework. Cyber space is not the “Wild West” and never was.

Legal, but Potentially Harmful, Activities Can be Managed

The White Paper lists many activities that are not necessarily illegal – in fact some actions are not illegal, but potentially harmful. Cyberbullying is one example. Someone bullying another person is potentially harmful, but not necessarily. It is sometimes possible to ignore or standup to a bully and find that this actually could raise one’s self-esteem and sense of efficacy. A bully on the playground can be stopped by a person standing up to him or her, or another person intervening, or a supervisor on the playground calling a stop to it. If an individual repeatedly bullies, or actually harms another person, then they face penalties in the context of that activity, such as the school or workplace. In many ways, the act of cyberbullying can be useful in proving that a particular actor bullied another person. 

Many other examples could be developed to show how each problem has unique aspects and requires different networks of actors to be involved in managing or mitigating any harms. Many problems do not involve malicious actors, but some do. Many occur in households, others in schools, and workplaces, and anywhere at any time. The actors, problems, and contexts matter, and need to be considered in addressing these issues. 

Augment User Intelligence to Move Regulation Closer to Home

Many are beginning to address the hype surrounding artificial intelligence (AI) as a technological fix.[6] But in the spirit of Douglas Englebart in the 1950s, computers and the Internet can be designed to ‘augment’ human intelligence, and AI along with other tools have the potential to augment the choices of Internet users, as so widely experience in the use of search. While technically and socially challenging, it is possible and an innovative challenge to develop approaches to using digital technology to move regulation closer to the users: with content regulation, for example, being enabled by networked individuals, households, schools, businesses, and governmental organizations, as opposed to moving regulation up to big tech companies or governmental regulators. 

Efforts in the 1990s to develop a violence-chip (V-chip) for televisions provides an early example of this approach. It was designed to allow parents to set controls to prevent young children from watching adult programming. It would move content controls closer to the viewers and, theoretically, parents. [Children were often the only members of the household who knew how to use the V-chip.] The idea was good, its implementation limited. 

Cable television services often enable the use of a child lock for reducing access by children to adult programming. Video streaming services and age verification systems have had problems but remain ways to potentially enable a household to create services safer for children. Mobile Internet and video streaming services have apps for kids. Increasingly, it should be possible to design more ways to control access to content by users and households in ways that can address many of the problems raised by the cyber harms framework, such as access to violent content, that can be filtered by users.

With emerging approaches of AI, for example, it could be possible to not simply have warning flags, but information that could be used by users to decide whether to block or filter online content, such as unfriending a social media user. With respect to email, while such tools are in their infancy, there is the potential for AI to be used to identify emails that reflect bullying behavior. So Internet users will be increasingly able to detect individuals or messages that are toxic or malicious before they even see them, much like SPAM and junk mail can disappear before ever being seen by the user.[7] Mobile apps, digital media, intelligent home hubs and routers, and computer software generally could be designed and used to enable users to address their personal and household concerns. 

One drawback might be the ways in which digital divides and skills could enable the most digitally empowered households to have more sophisticated control over content and services. This will create a need for public services to help households without the skills ‘inhouse’ to grapple with emerging technology. However, this could be a major aspect of educational and awareness training that is one valuable recommendation of the Cyber Harms White Paper. Some households might create a personalized and unique set of controls over content, while others might simply choose from a number of set profiles that can be constantly up-dated, much like anti-virus software and SPAM filters that permit users to adjust the severity of filtering. In the future, it may be as easy to avoid unwanted content as it now is to avoid SPAM and junk mail. 

Disinformation provides another example of a problem that can be addressed by existing technologies, like the use of multiple media sources and search technologies. Our own research found that most Internet users consulted four our more sources of information about politics, for example, and online (one source), they would consult an average of four different sources.[8] These patterns of search meant that very few users are likely to be trapped in a filter bubble or echo chamber, albeit still subject to the selective perception bias that no technology can cure. 


My basic argument is to not to panic in this dystopian climate of opinion and consider the following:

  • Jettison the duty of care regime. It will create problems that are disproportionately greater than the problems to be addressed.
  • Jettison the artificial category of cyber harms. It puts apples and oranges in the same basket in very unhelpful ways, mixing legal and illegal activities, and activities that are inherently harmful promotion of FMG, with activities that can be handled by a variety of actors and mitigating actions. 
  • Augment the intelligence of users. Push regulation down to users – enable them to regulate content seen by themselves or for their children. 

If we get rid of this cyber harm umbrella and look at each ‘harm’ as a unique problem, with different actors, contexts, and solutions, then they can each be dealt with through more uniquely appropriate mechanisms. 

That would be my suggestion. Not as simple as asking others to just ‘take care of this’ or ‘stop this’ but there simply is no magic wand or silver bullet that the big tech companies have at their command to accomplish this. Sooner or later, each problem needs to be addressed by often different but appropriate sets of actors, ranging from children, parents, and Internet users to schools, business and governmental organizations, law enforcement, and Internet platforms. The silver lining might be that as the Internet and its benefits become ever more embedded in everyday life and work. And as digital media become more critical that we routinely consider the potential problems as well as the benefits of every innovation made in the design, use, and governance of the Internet in your life and work. All should aim to further empower users to use, and control, and network with others to control the Internet and related digital media, and not to be controlled by a nanny state.  

Further Reading

Useful and broad overviews of the problems with the cyber harms White Paper are available by Gian Volpicelli in Wired[9] and Graham Smith[10] along with many contributions to the Cyber Harms White Paper consultation.


[1] A solicitor, Graham Smith, has argued quite authoritatively that the White Paper actually “abandons the principles underpinning existing duties of care”, see his paper, ‘Online Harms White Paper Consultation – Response to Consultation’, 28 June 2019, posted on his Twitter feed:  https://www.cyberleagle.com/2019/06/speech-is-not-tripping-hazard-response.html

[2] https://www.bmmagazine.co.uk/news/tech-bosses-could-face-criminal-proceedings-if-they-fail-to-protect-users/

[3] Here I found agreement with the views of Paul Barron’s blog, ‘Response to Online Harms White Paper’, 3 July 2019: https://paulbernal.wordpress.com/2019/07/03/response-to-online-harms-white-paper/ Also, see his book, The Internet, Warts and AllCambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

[4] https://inforrm.org/2019/04/30/users-behaving-badly-the-online-harms-white-paper-graham-smith/

[5] Ithiel de Sola Pool (1983), Forecasting the Telephone: A Retrospective Technology Assessment. Norwood, NJ: Ablex. 

[6] See, for example, Michael Veale, ‘A Critical Take on the Policy Recommendations of the EU High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence’, October 2019, forthcoming in the European Journal of Risk Regulation, available at: https://osf.io/preprints/lawarxiv/dvx4f/

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/jan/03/metoobots-scientists-develop-ai-detect-harassment

[8] See Dutton, W. H. and Fernandez, L., ‘How Susceptible are Internet Users‘, Intermedia, Vol 46 No 4 December/January 2019

[9] https://www.wired.co.uk/article/online-harms-white-paper-uk-analysis

[10] https://inforrm.org/2019/04/30/users-behaving-badly-the-online-harms-white-paper-graham-smith/

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/

A Valuable International Initiative: MESO

My congratulations to the team behind the Center for the Study of Media and Society in Argentina (MESO). I received a short overview of the work of this joint venture between Argentina’s University of San Andrés and Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, outside Chicago, and wanted to applaud their work – or more specifically – their idea. 

Too often we think of international collaboration as necessarily a global network of many nodes, but MESO seems to have taken advantage of specific faculty connections between two universities to create a focused collaboration that is a win-win for both institutions. 

As you can see from their 2019 Annual Report, they are making progress on a number of fronts, including publications, outreach, and networking that are impressive. You don’t have to be global to internationalise an institution, and MESO shows you how. It just takes two core units with support from a larger community of institutions, such as on their advisory board.

Obviously, there is a cost to international collaboration. It takes time and energy from other activities. But those with a commitment to comparative and international research generally see the payoffs of this collaboration to justify the costs. Congratulations to the co-directors of MESO, Eugenia Mitchelstein and Pablo J. Boczkowski for providing such a coherent and innovative example for others in communication and really any field that benefits from international collaboration.

 

A MESO team photo from the 2019 Annual Report

Brexit as an Ecology of Games

There is a growing sense of hopelessness among people in Britain in the face of over three years of non-decision making over whether the UK will leave the EU. Why, for example, after the 2016 EU membership referendum with a vote of 51.9 percent of voters in Britain chose to ‘leave’ the EU, has there still been no decision? Too many, this delay and prevarication is irrational, but when it appears that people are not behaving in a politically rational way, it is often because they are not playing the ‘game’ you think they are playing. 

Think for a moment of politics as being analogous to a game, such as a football match. E. E. Schattschneider (1960) made this analogy between politics and a sporting match, arguing that they both have individuals cooperating and competing to win, under a set of rules, but that in politics – in contrast to sports – the rules of the game can be more flexible and even allow the spectators to come onto the field. That means that politics is often focused therefore on actions that keep people off the field, bring them on the field, or encourage them to change sides. That is often how a side wins in politics. 

But a more realistic analogy for politics is what has been called an ‘ecology of games’ (EoG), a perspective introduced by Norton Long (Long 1958) to emphasize the degree that politics often involves the interaction of multiple actors involved in a variety of ‘games’. From this perspective, the dynamics of the Brexit debate is the evolving outcome of the interactions of multiple players within separate but sometimes overlapping games that define the rules and objectives of the various actors (Dutton et al. 2002). The outcome of these interactions of interdependent games will define Brexit. 

The EoG could provide a useful framework to study the complex dynamics of decision-making processes of Brexit. I’ve defined the ‘ecology of games’ as a system of action composed of two or more separate but interdependent games, where each game identifies an arena for competition structured by a set of rules and assumptions about how to achieve a particular set of objectives. Generally, each game has several key characteristics: a set of interacting players that might compete or cooperate to achieve; a set of goals or objectives; that lead to a set of prizes; and are governed by a set of rules shaping the strategies (moves) open to players, albeit the rules of the game can be changed. 

If we can identify the actors and the games shaping Brexit, we might begin to understand how to go beyond non-decision making. 

Simply from following the news, like others, it is easy to identify some of the more prominent games being played. So with no pretence to being complete, consider the following types and examples of games shaping the Brexit debate:

PARTISAN POLITICS

Political parties seek to win support for their approach to the referendum: remain, leave, and other options in order to maintain and enhance their constituencies, such as by appealing to the courts, press, or directly to the public. 

Factions within the parties seek to influence the party’s stance, such as in remain Conservatives seeking to prevent a no-deal Brexit, or the Conservative Party deselecting members who did not support the party’s position. Factional politics is one major explanation for non-decision making within the Labour Party.

POLITICS OF NORTHERN IRELAND

Politicians and constituencies of different factions within Northern Ireland and its unique history seek to advance their vision of the future.

EU POLITICS

27/8 nations of the EU seek to maximize national interests through compromise and negotiation over EU policy and regulation, including Brexit.

Ireland and the EU nations seek to maintain and enhance Ireland’s position within the EU in the aftermath of Brexit. 

IDENTITY POLITICS

Parliamentarians and the public seek to support approaches to Brexit that reinforce their identity as European, British, English, Scottish, Welsh, and representatives of Northern Ireland. In England, there is also some identity politics across the regions as well as the nations, such as the Northeast versus the Southeast.

DISTRIBUTIVE POLITICS

Parliamentarians and the public seek to maintain and enhance the allocation of resources to Britain, their constituencies, or their nation or region, as illustrated by debates of the economic impact of Brexit options.

One could go on, and you might easily identify other games being played, but the point is that there are multiple games being played simultaneously that involve different but sometimes overlapping sets of players. This makes any rational extrapolation from one’s position in a particular game difficult very problematic. But it is far more complicated than this.  

Setting and Changing Rules of the Games

These games are also being played out under different rules, often set by the institutional context of each game, and which can change overtime. Most are set within the UK Parliament and following its rules of procedure, voting, and courtesy. But even in this setting, the rules can change, such as when the Speaker of the House of Commons resurrects an ancient tradition to support a procedural ruling, what some have called ‘parliamentary parlour tricks’. Yet, some of the games are occurring in the EU context, and many involve interactions between decisions of the EU and UK, such as discussions of the timing of any delay to Brexit. 

Strategies

Finally, it is possible to consider many other aspects of Brexit within the EoG, such as the behaviour of actors, as political strategies for changing who joins what positions on which issues. These can range from personal attacks to the parliamentary parlour tricks noted above. Accusations of misinformation, bias, and more are added to more substantive debates over the issues. Appeals to the will of the public are strategic efforts to gain legitimacy, whether in referencing the outcome of the referendum, recent polls, or as many note, referring to groups they have spoken with. Press commentators often use unnamed EU and UK politicians and administrators as sources to support their viewpoints on developments. 

Conclusion

The ecology of games provides a simple way of understanding the complexity of the processes shaping Brexit. Until this ecology of games can align sufficient numbers for leave or remain, it will continue to evolve and potentially lead to unanticipated and unintended consequences. It seems clear that no single actor can control the full ecology of games across different and changing institutional settings. However, understanding this ecology is a first step in succeeding within it and understanding why what appear to be irrational actions are rational within the respective game being prioritised by particular actors.

References

Dutton, W. H. (1992), ‘The Ecology of Games Shaping Telecommunications Policy,’ Communication Theory, 2 (4), 303-28. 

Long, N. E. (1958), ‘The Local Community as an Ecology of Games’, The American Journal of Sociology 64: 251-61.

Schattschneider, E. E. (1960), The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 

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. 

Email Crisis

With everyone focused on handwringing issues surrounding social media, such as ‘disinformation’, and the rising tide of regulatory initiatives, most have forgotten about one of the earliest forms of Internet communication – email, and the real problems this medium is facing. I am not referring to spam email, one of the early crises facing Internet users, which has been generally mitigated by increasingly effective spam filters. I am trying to understand a more basic issue of – let me call it – bad emails. Bad emails are those that no one reads, or no one continues to read beyond the first few lines. 

It is not simply due to the declining attention span of Internet users. I’ve written about how much I’ve noticed that when people respond to my emails they most often respond only to the first point, as if no email has more than one point or one question. Maybe many people are too rushed and harried to go beyond the first point they can respond to and be done with it. But I think it is more basic than this. 

I am reading a collection of letters by the prolific German-America author Charles Bukowski, entitled On Writing, edited by Abel Debritto (New York: Harper Collins, 2015). I did not agree with many of the lessons conveyed by Bukowski’s letters. For example, he did not make carbon copies, and generally did not keep copies of what he wrote, often sending his original work to editors without even tracking to whom he sent what. I save my handwritten notes, and everything I do online is copied and copied.

Charles Bukowski via Wikipedia

However, I very much enjoyed his criticism of much writing, from poetry to the news, as too often stale and formulaic – unoriginal. His letters are distinctively his, and he cares deeply about what he reads. As he puts it: ‘A man’s soul or lack of it will be evident with what he can carve upon a white sheet of paper’ (p. 25). 

As I carried on with examples of his writing, and his thoughts on writing, my mind went straight to the tragic condition of most email that most people receive. Most of us have long since stopped writing ‘letters’. But they have not exactly been replaced by email without a great loss in quality and diversity.

Possibly due to the numbers of email we receive, one quickly categorizes each to determine its quick disposition – delete, scan, read, save, or even print to guard, read later, and more. Hundreds of emails can be efficiently disposed of in minutes. But the more serious problem, and why it is so easy to process email, is that most is so stale and formulaic. An appeal for donations. An invitation to a seminar. A notice of a meeting. … The variations are most often trivial, such as a colourful drawing or logo, but the same basic script. 

Bukowski’s letters were personal and always told a story, whether about what he was doing, or how he was feeling, or what rejection he received, etc. I will never have his talent, or write or draw such interesting letters, but he inspired me to think more carefully about every letter – email – that I write. Why should anyone read beyond the first point, if that far, unless the message is personal and tells a story? Reading your given name in the salutation is not enough in the days of computer-assisted mail merges.

So the crisis of email is that it has become artificial, prepackaged, and unimaginative. How much more fun to try and make every email a story you would enjoy telling the recipient letter (Internet) ‘user’. The question becomes: Will I do this? Can I?

At the very least, I will make sure I keep his letters in sight as a reminder of my ambition. May I recommend that others spend time reading the letters of someone whom they regard as a great letter writer, if only to remind themselves of the potential of the letter as a story, and address the bad email crisis?

Quello Center Advisory Board

Great first meeting as a new member of the Quello Center Advisory Board, 9 May 2019.  It was a great opportunity to thank Gary Reid, who is retiring, for his contributions to the Center, and to see members of the Board, who continue to contribute to the Center’s success.

Merit Innovation Award to the Quello Center at MSU

Wonderful to see the growing range of research activities, anchored in some major projects, including the award winning ‘Michigan Moon Shot Project’ being conducted with Merit Network. This project began when I was still at the Center, but it has surpassed all expectations in overcoming the challenges of academic-practitioner collaboration in developing such a large scale project. I’ll post a photo of the award, which is well deserved and fun. The Center is also continuing a set of lectures and roundtables, bringing in a number of absolutely major authorities, such as Professor Laura DeNardis, a member of our Quello Advisory Board. 

The second half of the meeting was anchored around a roundtable discussion of emerging issues. Not surprisingly, key technical innovations seemed to draw the greatest attention, including advances in AI, IoT, and 5G, but members of the Board were refreshingly skeptical of much of the hype, such as that surrounding 5G. Discussion also moved to the growing focus on ethical questions about what should be done with AI and related technologies, and how to grapple with the so-called ‘techlash’ that has replaced the euphoria over the Internet and related ICTs. 

My sense was that the rise of new regulatory initiatives, driven largely by this techlash, will bring debate right to the heart of the Quello Center – which was born around the discussion of policy and regulation. 

Congratulations to Professors Johannes Bauer, the new Director, Laleah Fernandez, Assistant Director, and Keith Hampton, Research Director, for sustaining and building on the strength of the Quello Center.