Commentary by A. Michael Noll on Robots

REIN IN THE CLOUD

REJOICE IN THE ROBOTS

[The following commentary is authored by A. Michael Noll, and posted with the permission of the author. It illustrates the disagreement among experts on the social implications of new technologies, such as robotics, AI, cloud computing, and the Internet, demonstrating the value of continued research on the actual implications across different contexts and applications.]

The article “Rein In The Robots” by Kate Crawford (TIME, Vol.198, Nos.7-8, Aug.23-30, 2001, p.95) advocates “protection against the unchecked growth of artificial intelligence.” There is nothing new in her position. There have always been those who oppose any new technology or medium.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is decades old, and today has become a buzzword wrapping itself around such old concepts as computerization, pattern recognition, automation, robotics, and machine learning. It is hard to know what to fear when AI seems to encompass nearly everything.

A. Michael Noll

Robots are machines. Robots do not have feelings, and thus it is tempting to attack them with headlines like “Rein In The Robots.” Actually, robots perform the heavy and tiresome work that humans are not equipped to perform. Robots clean floors tirelessly. Robots help the elderly overcome isolation. Robots entertain children. But they also scare us, such as the robot in the classic movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

People fear what they do not understand. I made sure that my students understood the process of converting a signal to a digital representation. That way my students did not fear the digital revolution – they understood digitization and were not prey to all the hype. AI is a lot of hype – and that leads to fear and misunderstanding – and conspiracy theories.

Crawford mentions a “small, homogenous group of very wealthy people based in a handful of cities without any real accountability” as those driving the growth of AI. In expressing her conspiracy theory, she fails to accept that she, as an employee of Microsoft, is one of those people.

The real threat, in my opinion, is to computer security and our privacy from information stored centrally in computerized files – what today is called “the cloud.” Unknowingly, and willingly, all the information on our smart phones and computers is stored in the cloud, where it has the risk of being accessed and analyzed without our knowledge or approval and used against us by governments and others.

John R. Pierce (the father of communication satellites) liked to espouse that he was more concerned, not with artificial intelligence, but the natural stupidity of humans! Indeed, it is the latter we need to fear.

Way back in 1961, my article “Electronic Computer – Friend or Foe” expressed the dangers that might occur when “the computer is used to make logical decisions.” I suggested caution “before the axe and sledgehammer” becomes the only remedy. I guess little has changed – be ready to pull the plug!

August 16, 2021

A. Michael Noll is Professor Emeritus at USC Annenberg. John R. Pierce and he are the authors of SIGNALS: The Science of Telecommunication.

Participating in an Advisory Board: Five Principles

Having created and served on advisory boards in a number of organisations and countries, I’ve begun to see some principles that can guide others serving on an advisory board. I am not a management consultant nor an expert on advisory boards, but as I try to think through my own experiences on boards, I thought it would be fun to write about my views on what could be key principles. These have been learned the hard way, by seeing the reactions of organisations and other members of boards to my interventions – efforts to give advice and support organisations, mainly those involved in academic research.

Any organization, such as an academic unit, can get too insulated or too loosely connected to a multitude of important stakeholders, ranging from other academics to policy and practitioner communities and any audiences it seeks to reach. They may ask themselves: Is our work meeting the high expectations set for the organisation? Are we doing our work in ways that are recognised as best practice in relevant communities? How can we excel further on any number of criteria? Are we missing important topics or areas of work? Are there new and promising sources of funding? To answer such questions, it can be helpful to set up a group of individuals who are trusted to be constructive but also have a critical perspective that can inform the unit moving forward.

Given such questions, the organization often sets up an advisory board to review the unit’s work on a periodic basis and give them feedback on notable strengths and any weaknesses that could be addressed. A report or multiple documents are assembled for the board members to review and provide feedback during a short but substantively rich meeting of the board. So what principles might help board members in contributing to their next board meeting? I apologise in advance for keeping this simple, but I often forget them in the process of meeting.

  1. The organization knows far more than the board about its activities and practices.

One positive role of a board meeting is that it should force or at least incentivise the organisation to pull together a clear overview of its activities and the issues it is facing. In the process of pulling this information together and communicating it to the board, a large proportion of the work of the advisory board is accomplished. The managers and leadership of the organisation updates its sense of who has done what and with what impact over the last period of time. In the course of doing so, the organisation develops a better understanding of its strengths and weaknesses, and how they can or cannot be addressed, before the board even meets.

An obvious corollary of this point is that outside advisory boards really can’t possibly understand internal personnel and management issues. They might need to know they exist but without knowing the individuals and circumstances in detail, they have no basic grounding for advising an organisation. Keep the board focused on the work of the organisation and its implications. At the same time, I’ve been impressed when an organisation does not hesitate to note that it is facing some interpersonal, management, or leadership issues as one aspect of conveying the factors facilitating or limiting its work.

2. Advice is not likely to be the only – or even primary – objective of meeting with the board.

An advisory board can help progress a number of objectives with advice being only one and not necessarily the primary reason for its existence. As noted above, it creates an occasion for self-reflection by the organisation. In addition, it can help the unit reach out to other stakeholders and constituencies – by incorporating influential individuals across these different targets for outreach and providing them with information about the organisation. It can provide support to the organisation, endorsing its activities and practices. The status and diversity of individuals on the board can communicate something about the importance and diversity of the organisation. The board in a reflection of the organization.

3. There is limited time for advice.

It seems inevitable that there is limited time a board can be expected to spend reading material before a meeting, and meetings are generally limited to one or at most a few hours. Once board members reintroduce themselves to one another and the organisation presents information to remind the board about its activities and accomplishments and any new developments then little time is left for real feedback or discussion. Organisations should and usually do try to ensure there is ample time for discussion, but often over-program meetings in ways that little time is actually left for feedback. It doesn’t help to send a questionnaire or email soliciting further feedback, as the organisation will only hear what there is time to communicate during the meeting.

This is one reason why online meetings do not work nearly as well as personal face-to-face meetings of a board. Recent experience during the pandemic suggests that more advisors can attend an online meeting, which is one of the best features of meeting online. However, most in person meetings are able to embed meaningful but informal communication around the event, such as a dinner or site visits. These occasions enable individuals to clarify their assessments, time for people to get over their differences of opinion and ‘makeup’, and for the group to gain a better sense of its value to and support by the organisation.

4. Advice is difficult to give and to receive.

It is common for board members to provide very general feedback that recognises the accomplishments documented by the material communicated to the members and validating the challenges the organisation has identified. In 1995, I put together a document for the Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT) that I directed which was entitled a “A Profile of Research and Publications 1995”. My key aim in compiling this was to communicate the incredible range and quality of research projects and publications that the PICT centres had completed. I was delighted when the board noted that we had done a great deal over the span of the project – they were impressed as they had not seen this pulled together until this report. It was 120 pages jammed packed with information about our work and its impact. So the members simply acknowledging the productivity and quality of the programme was exactly the feedback I had hoped for. Very simple.

Too often, as a member of a board, I can get carried away with a perceived need to provide advice, partly, I am sure, as a reflection of commonly being asked to review books, articles, or proposals, when critical comment is genuinely requested. But an organisation probably does not want a review of its report to the board and most advice we could give is already known by the organisation. As above, they know more than the board about the strengths and weaknesses of their organisation. So I try to prioritise what I have to offer in case I have a very limited time to speak – what would be my one idea.

Nevertheless, organisations need to listen and accept that they have asked for advice in creating an advisory board. So do not be surprised if you get advice you don’t want to hear. There is no need to take the advice. More than likely it is something that should have been considered before, but it is always worth understanding what the advisor is seeing and saying, and asking why particular advice was given and whether it is an idea for the leadership to kill, further discuss, develop, or possibly better deal with in your communication about the organisation’s project(s).

5. Advise and forget.

Finally, despite all I have said above, it is entirely fair and appropriate for any member of an advisory board to give any feedback that seems useful for the board member to convey. In my opinion, as a board member, you really should not worry about how it is received or whether it will be well received. Some may regard your advice as simplistic, wrong, old-fashioned, patronising, ill-informed, or in any other way, unhelpful. But that is not your problem. You are simply responding to what you’ve read and heard and think important to communicate. That is what you volunteered your time to do, so board members really can’t afford to second guess whether to communicate what they’ve gathered from the material. It is the option of the organisation to take or leave your advice. If your feedback is unhelpful, such as in misunderstanding what the organisation has done, then they need to do a better job in communicating their work or in selecting advisors.

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In conclusion, and to be fair, the aim of any member of an advisory board is not simply to give advice. People join an advisory board because they have been asked, or because they want to keep up with the field, support an organisation, or meet other members of the board – network, or you name it. In commenting on this blog, a colleague put it this way: “In addition to giving advice, I see the board’s role as providing a web of professional networks that create an additional resource for the organisation. Advisory board members should use their networks for a variety of functions, such as raising visibility, distributing information about outputs or vacancies, and helping organizational leaders establish contacts.”

Given these potential payoffs, I’ve found every advisory board I’ve served on to have been beneficial in many ways, both personally and professionally.

Is there another principle I should add to this list?

TPRC49: the 49th Conference on Communications, Information, and Internet Policy

Please consider submitting your research to #TPRC49, the leading academic policy conference for communications, information, and internet policy. It will be held on Sept 24-25 in Wash, DC. At this time, it could be online, or a hybrid online/in person conference, depending on travel restrictions.

Screen Shot of Session at TPRC48

The organisers accept abstracts for papers, panels, and posters on critical policy issues. Selected papers presented at TPRC are in route to publication in top information policy journals along with a host of more disciplinary journals. A selected set of papers are presented to policy makers on the Hill, based on the theme selected for the year.

Let your students know that we offer a Student Paper Contest for a $1000 cash award and travel stipend.

Our event is a great place to advance papers for publication in top journals, gain visibility to policymakers, and network with policy scholars.

The full call for papers is available online at: http://www.tprcweb.com/tprc49-cfp.  Abstracts are due March 31; student papers for the contest are due by April 30.

Also consider signing up for the TPRC newsletter to get updates at: http://www.tprcweb.com/join-our-email-list.

I am a member of the TPRC Board of Directors, which has maintained this conference year by year in a way that is independent of any specific academic association or journal. It evolved from a focus on telecommunications policy to become a much broader group of academics, policy makers, and practitioners with a serious interest in the discussion of communications, information, and Internet policy. It is hard to think of an area that is gaining more significance in today’s communication landscape.

Thanks for your interest.

Understanding Conflicts in Ukraine

I recommend a 2015 – but still quite relevant – book on the international political situation in Ukraine by Menon and Rumer.* The authors provide a very accessible background on the history of Ukraine, and the evolution of contemporary relationships both within the country and internationally, with Russia, the US, and Germany, France, the UK and the EU. They help clarify a number of over-simplified views, such as any sharp East-West divide within the nation. They describe the recent crisis with Russia, in relation to Crimea and the Luhansk-Donetsk region in Eastern Ukraine, concluding that all of the supporters of Ukraine, such as the US and EU, see their own self-interest at stake in how this evolves, but not strongly enough to intervene or take a more active role, ‘leaving Ukraine to tackle its challenges largely on its own’ (p. 155). And that is where things stand today.

Ethnic majorities throughout Ukraine via Menon and Rumer, 2015

If you would like to better understand the political dynamics of this conflict in Ukraine, I recommend Menon and Rumer’s book. In hindsight, they were exactly right in their view of the prospects, and remain on target.

*Rajan Menon and Eugene Rumer, Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Research on Public Communication and the Pandemic

Public Communication Research on the Pandemic

I’m supporting a new project at the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds, entitled ‘Communicating the Pandemic: Improving Public Communication and Understanding‘. The principle investigator is Professor Stephen Coleman, and co-investigator is Dr Giles Moss, working with Savanta ComRes, a survey research organization, as well as with me. The project is supported by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

We are conducting weekly surveys of the general public in the UK. The questions address issues around how the public are using various media to understand the pandemic and the best approaches to protecting their health. I will add to this blog from time to time to up-date you on our progress, but I’d also invite anyone with a serious interest in this research to follow the project web site at: https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/communicating_the_pandemic

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.