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

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

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teaching commons.stanford.edu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Talks in Europe on Quello Center’s Search and Politics Project

I had a fascinating and challenging week in Europe speaking about the Quello Center’s work on search and politics. The findings of our project, called ‘The Part Played by Search in Shaping Public Opinion’, suggested that concerns over fake news, echo chambers, and filter bubbles is ‘overhyped and underresearched’. The project was supported by Google, and the findings and methodology are publicly available online (see references), along with the slides I adapted for each of the particular talks. The slides are posted here: https://www.slideshare.net/WHDutton/search-and-politics-fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-july2017

In Paris, on the 10th and 11th, I was able to speak at a UNESCO Knowledge Café for a seminar chaired by the Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Guy Berger, for UNESCO staff, which included UNESCO’s Xianhong Hu. I then met with members of the French Audio Visual Regulator, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA); and then members of the Ministère de la Culture (Ministry of Culture); and gave a lecture at Sciences Po, which was jointly organized by Thierry Vedel for the MediaLab and CEVIPOF. I was also able to meet over lunch with a former colleague in the President’s office at the French National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL), which is central to data protection in France.

On the 12th, I was in Rome, where I first spoke at a roundtable over a wonderful lunch at the Centro Studi Americani – the Center for American Studies. That evening, I spoke on the Terrazza dei Cesari with members of YouTrend, an organization of political communicators in Italy, which was picked up by over a thousand on a Facebook Live video stream. The talk was sandwiched by an aperitif and dinner, and sequentially translated.

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Centro Studi Americani

My last stop was in Berlin, where I was able to meet at the Ministry for Culture with representatives of the state media authorities, representing the German Lander. I finished my talks with a roundtable at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute für Internet und Gesellschaft (HIIG – Germany’s first Internet Institute), chaired by Professor Dr. Wolfgang Schulz and joined by Professor Dr. Dr. Ingolf Pernice. As a member of HIIG’s Advisory Committee, it was great to end my trip with a sense of the quality and diversity of faculty, fellows and visitors at the Institute.

This week was an incredible opportunity for me to convey the results of our research. I want to thank all of those who helped organize and attended these events; thank my colleagues on the project, including Grant Blank, Elizabeth Dubois, and Bibi Reisdorf, along with our graduate assistants, Sabrina Ahmed and Craig Robertson; and thank our colleagues at Google for their confidence in our project.

I must say that I was unable to convince many of those involved in these talks that the panics over fake news, filter bubbles and echo chambers have been overhyped. Despite evidence on the many ways that Internet users are likely to mitigate these problems, such as in consulting multiple sources of information about politics, many politicians, regulators and scholars remain very concerned.

I spoke to each group about the ways evidence can fail to change views on these issues as an example of how many divisions in society are not due to filtered or biased information, but to real divisions in opinion. These panics are powerful for several reasons, including the attraction of technologically deterministic perspectives, the role of a confirmatory self-selection or dismissal of evidence, and the role of the third-person effect – I’m okay, but others are likely to be fooled.

References

Dutton, W. H. Talking Points that Formed the Basis for the Talks in Europe: https://www.slideshare.net/WHDutton/search-and-politics-fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-july2017

Dutton, W.H., Reisdorf, B.C., Dubois, E., and Blank, G. (2017), Search and Politics: The Uses and Impacts of Search in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the United States, Quello Center Working Paper available on SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2960697

Dutton, W.H. (2017), ‘Fake News, Echo Chambers, and Filter Bubbles: Underresearched and Overhyped’: https://theconversation.com/fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-underresearched-and-overhyped-76688

Dutton, W. H. (2017), ‘Bubblebusters’, NESTA. http://readie.eu/bubblebusters-countering-fake-news-filter-bubbles-and-echo-chambers/

 

Evidence of Benefits from Opening the White House Press Briefings via Skype Seats

I’ve argued on this blog that the idea of enabling the press to ask questions from outside the White House Press Office, in fact, outside the Washington DC Beltway, was a good idea. Some anecdotal evidence is being reported that the strategy is working. USA Today reported that over 13 White House press briefings, Sean Spicer has taken questions ‘from 32 outside-the-Beltway outlets’. This is a great example of using the Internet to enable more distributed participation. The Washington press is obviously defensive when people complain about the ‘media bubble’ in the briefing room, but the potential for what was once called ‘pack journalism’ is real, and location matters. Geographically distributing contributions is symbolically and materially opening the briefings up to more diversity of viewpoints and issues. th-1

Inevitably, more voices means more competition among the journalists in asking questions. But there are already too many in the room, and why it is fair to give more access to the outlets that can afford to station staff in Washington DC is not clear to me. That said, the Skype seats will always be the cheap seats, and be less likely to get their turn in the question and answer sessions.

My earlier post is here.

Twitter Diplomacy Not Going Away: Taiwan Joins the Twittersphere

I’ve written/blogged about the inevitable rise of digital diplomacy, and the need to adapt to it. President Donald Trumps’ use of Twitter is testing the patience of the foreign policy community in particular, setting many against the wisdom of his use of Twitter, and the value of digital diplomacy in general.

However, this morning’s New York Times piece about the use of Twitter by the President of Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen, is an illustration of its significance, and likely growth. As Taiwan is working against efforts to marginalize the country and even ‘muffle’ news and information about the nation, Twitter is offering the President a means to go global with tweets in English to reach foreign journalists and others within and beyond Taiwan’s borders, including Chinese netizens around the world. th

Interestingly, despite the legends of politicians ranting about President Trump using Twitter, most of those complaining – it seems – tweet!

*See Chris Horton (2017), “Muffled by China, Taiwan’s President Employs Twitter as a Megaphone“, New York Times, 7 July: A6.

My Endorsement of ‘Sharing: Crime Against Capitalism’ by Matthew David

‘Through a remarkably broad cross-industry synthesis, Matthew David demonstrates how information industries could benefit by adjusting market mechanisms to support the vitality of sharing-based economies. Anyone with a serious interest in intellectual property policy and practice should read this provocative case for building business models around sharing.’
William H. Dutton, Quello Professor of Media and Information Policy, Michigan State University

Information about Matthew David’s new book, entitled Sharing: Crime Against Capitalism (Polity Press 2017) can be found here.

Fake and More Categories of Bad News

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

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

Inaccurate News: news that has factual inaccuracies in reporting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

*Added with thanks to peteybee for comments below.

 

Should Tweeting Politicians be able to Block Users?

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

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

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

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

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

Reference

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

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