Publication of A Research Agenda for Digital Politics

A Research Agenda for Digital Politics 

The publication of my most recent edited book, A Research Agenda for Digital Politics, is available in hardback and electronic forms at: https://www.e-elgar.com/shop/gbp/a-research-agenda-for-digital-politics-9781789903089.html From this site you can look inside the book to review the preface, list of contributors, the table of contents, and my introduction, which includes an outline of the book. In addition, the first chapter by Professor Andrew Chadwick, entitled ‘Four Challenges for the Future of Digital Politics Research’, is free to read on the digital platform Elgaronline, where you will also find the books’ DOI: https://www.elgaronline.com/view/edcoll/9781789903089/9781789903089.xml

Finally, a short leaflet is available on the site, with comments on the book from Professors W. Lance Bennett, Michael X. Delli Carpini, and Laura DeNardis. I was not aware of these comments, with one exception, until today – so I am truly grateful to such stellar figures in the field for contributing their views on this volume.  

Digital politics has been a burgeoning field for years, but with the approach of elections in the US and around the world in the context of a pandemic, Brexit, and breaking cold wars, it could not be more pertinent than today. If you are considering texts for your (online) courses in political communication, media and politics, Internet studies, or digital politics, do take a look at the range and quality of perspectives offered by the contributors to this new book. Provide yourself and your students with valuable insights on issues framed for high quality research. 

List of Contributors:

Nick Anstead, London School of Economics and Political Science; Jay G. Blumler, University of Leeds and University of Maryland; Andrew Chadwick, Loughborough University; Stephen Coleman, University of Leeds; Alexi Drew, King’s College London and Charles University, Prague; Elizabeth Dubois, University of Ottawa; Laleah Fernandez, Michigan State University; Heather Ford, University of Technology Sydney; M. I. Franklin, Goldsmiths, University of London; Paolo Gerbaudo, King’s College London; Dave Karpf, George Washington University;  Leah Lievrouw, University of California, Los Angeles; Wan-Ying Lin, City University of Hong Kong; Florian Martin-Bariteau, University of Ottawa; Declan McDowell-Naylor, Cardiff University; Giles Moss, University of Leeds; Ben O’Loughlin, Royal Holloway, University of London; Patrícia Rossini, University of Liverpool; Volker Schneider, University of Konstanz; Lone Sorensen, University of Huddersfield; Scott Wright, University of Melbourne; Xinzhi Zhang, Hong Kong Baptist University. 

How People Look for Information about Politics

The following lists papers and work in progress flowing from our research, which began at MSU, and was funded by Google Inc., on how people get access to information about politics. It was launched when I was director of the Quello Center at Michigan State University, but continues with me and colleagues at Quello and other universities in the US, UK and Canada. Funding covered the cost of the surveys – online surveys of 14000 Internet users in seven nations, but yielded a broad set of outputs. Your comments, criticisms, are welcomed. It was called the Quello Search Project.

Quello Search Project Papers

6 May 2020

Opinion and Outreach Papers to Wider Audiences

Dutton, W. H. (2017), ‘Fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles: Underresearched and overhyped’, The Conversation, 5 May: https://theconversation.com/fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-underresearched-and-overhyped-76688

This post was republished on a variety of platforms, including Salon, Inforrm.org, mediablasfactcheck, BillDutton.me, Observer.com, Quello.msu.com, USAToday.com, Techniamerica, pubexec

Dutton, W. H. (2017), Bubblebusters: Countering Fake News, Filter Bubbles and Echo Chambers, NESTA.org.uk, 15 June. 

This post was republished on the Nesta site and readie.eu. Bill plans to update and repost this blog on his own site.  

Dubois, E., and Blank, G. (2018), The Myth of the Echo Chamber, The Conversation, March: https://theconversation.com/the-myth-of-the-echo-chamber-92544

Presentations of the Project Report

The project report has been presented at a wide variety of venues. A blog about Bill’s presentations is available here: http://quello.msu.edu/the-director-presents-in-europe-on-our-quello-search-project/Presentations include:

  • Summaries of our report/project were presented to academic, industry and policy communities in Britain (London, Oxford); Germany (Hamburg, Berlin, Munich); Italy (Rome); Belgium (Brussels); Spain (Madrid); China (Beijing); and the US (Arlington, Boston), and most recently in Mexico (Mexico City).
  • An overview of our Report was part of a three-hour workshop on research around echo chambers, filter bubbles and social media organized for a preconference workshop for the Social Media and Society Conference, Toronto, Canada https://socialmediaandsociety.org/ July 28-30, 2017. It included Bill, Elizabeth, and Craig.  

Papers Completed or in Progress

The following is a list of papers that further develop and deepen particular themes and issues of our project report. They have been completed or are in progress, categorized here by the indicative list of paper topics promised by the team: 

  1. Overview: A critical overview of the project findings for a policy journal, such as the Internet Policy Review, or Information Communication and Society

Dutton, W. H., Reisdorf, B. C., Blank, G., Dubois, E., and Fernandez, L. (2019), ‘The Internet and Access to Information About Politics: Searching Through Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Disinformation’, pp. 228-247 in Graham, M., and Dutton, W. H. (eds), Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing our Lives, 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Earlier version: Dutton, W.H., Reisdorf, B.C., Blank, G., and Dubois, E. (2017), ‘Search and Politics: A Cross-National Survey’, paper presented at the TPRC #45 held at George Mason University in Arlington Virginia, September 7-9, 2017.

Dubois, E., and Blank, G. (2018). ‘The echo chamber is overstated: the moderating effect of political interest and diverse media’. Information, Communication & Society, 21(5), 729-745. 

Dutton, W. H. (2018), ‘Networked Publics: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives on Big Policy Issues’, Internet Policy Review, 15 May: https://policyreview.info/articles/analysis/networked-publics-multi-disciplinary-perspectives-big-policy-issues   

  • Vulnerables: Work identifying the Internet users most vulnerable to fake news and echo chambers. This paper would build on the findings to suggest interventions, such as around digital media literacy to address these risks.

Dutton, W. H., and Fernandez, L. (2018/19), ‘How Susceptible Are Internet Users?’, InterMEDIA, December/January 2018/19 46(4): 36-40. 

Earlier version: Dutton, W. H., and Fernandez, L. (2018), ‘Fake News, Echo Chambers, and Filter Bubbles: Nudging the Vulnerable’, presentation at the International Communication Association meeting in Prague, Czech Republic on 24 May 2018.

Reisdorf, B. presented work on ‘Skills, Usage Types and political opinion formation’, an invited talk at Harvard Kennedy School, Oct 19, 2017 [Bibi (presenting) work with Grant]

Blank, G., and Reisdorf, B. (2018), ‘Internet Activity, Skills, and Political Opinion Formation: A New Public Sphere?’, presentation at the International Communication Association meeting in Prague, Czech Republic on 24 May 2018.

  • Trust: A study focused on trust in different sources of information about politics and policy for a political communication journal, such as the International Journal of Communication.

Cotter, K.  & Reisdorf, B.C. (2020). Algorithmic knowledge gaps: Education and experience as co-determinants. International Journal of Communication, 14(1). Online First.

Dubois, E., Minaeian, S., Paquet-Labelle, A. and Beaudry, S. (2020), Who to Trust on Social Media: How Opinion Leaders and Seekers Avoid Disinformation and Echo Chambers, Social Media + Society, April-June: 1-13. 

Reisdorf, B.C. & Blank, G. (forthcoming). Algorithmic Literacy and Platform Trust, pp. forthcoming in Hargittai, E. (Ed.). Handbook of Digital Inequality. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Previously presented: Reisdorf, B.C. & Blank, G. (2018), ‘Algorithmic literacy and platform trust’, paper to be presented at the 2018 American Sociological Association annual meeting, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 11 August.

  • Cross-national Comparison: A cross-national comparative analysis of search, seeking to explain cross-national differences, for an Internet and society journal, such as Information, Communication and Society (iCS), or New Media and Society

Blank, G., Dubois, E., Dutton, W.H., Fernandez, L., and Reisdorf, B.C. presented a panel entitled ‘Personalization, Politics, and Policy: Cross-National Perspectives’ at ICA Conference 2018 in Prague, Czech Republic.

Dubois, E. (forthcoming), ‘Spiral of Silence/Two Step Flow: How Social Support/Pressure and Political Opinion’, under preparation for a journal.

  • Search: A study of the role of search in our evolving media ecology. One of the unique strengths of this project is that it contextualized search in the environment of the entire range of media. The dataset asks respondents about activity on six offline and seven online media, including search, plus nine social media. What is the role of search in this broad ecology of online and offline media? Are people who have complex media habits less likely to fall into echo chambers? 

Robertson, C. (2017), ‘Are all search results created equal? An exploration of filter bubbles and source diversity in Google search results’, presented at a symposium entitled Journalism and the Search for Truth in an Age of Social Media at Boston University, April 23-25.

Blank, G. (2017), ‘Search and politics: The uses and impacts of search in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the United States’. Presentation at the Google display at the Almadalen conference in Sweden on 3 July.

Blank, G. and Dubois, E. (2017), ‘Echo chambers and media engagement with politics’, presentation at the Social Informatics 2017 conference in Oxford on 13 September.

Blank, G. and Dubois, E. (2018), ‘Echo Chambers and the Impact of Media Diversity: Political Opinion Formation and Government Policy’, paper presented at the General Online Research Conference, Düsseldorf, Germany on 1 March.

Blank, G., and Dubois, E. (2018), ‘Is the echo chamber overstated? Findings from seven countries’, presentation at the Düsseldorf University, Institute for Internet and Democracy Conference, Düsseldorf, Germany on 5 July. 

  • Populism: An analysis of the role of search and the Internet in populist attitudes. How is populism related to search? Is the Internet and search supporting the rise of individuals with more confidence in their knowledge of policy, and supportive of more popular control? Are populists more likely to be in an echo chamber than those less in line with populist viewpoints?

Dutton, W. H. and Robertson, C. T. (forthcoming), ‘The Role of Filter Bubbles and Echo Chambers in the Rise of Populism: Disentangling Polarization and Civic Empowerment in the Digital Age’ in Howard Tumber and Silvio Waisbord (eds), The Routledge Companion to Media Misinformation and Populism. New York: Routledge, pp. forthcoming.

  • Fact Checking: Checking Information via Search: Who, When, Why? Between 41 percent (UK) and 57 percent (Italy) of respondents say they check information using search “often” or “very often”. Who are those who double-check sources?

Robertson, C.T. (under review). Who checks? Identifying predictors of online verification behaviors in the United States and Europe.

  • Democracy: An analysis of democratic digital inequalities that would examine how education and motivation are related to searching for and sharing political news. Is there a gap in the way that people from different educational backgrounds search for and share political news, and if so, does this affect how they shape their political opinions?

Dutton, W. H. (2020 forthcoming) (ed), Digital Politics. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Dutton, W. H. (In Progress), The Fifth Estate: The Political Dynamics of Empowering Networked Individuals. Book under contract with OUP, New York: Oxford University Press, with 1-2 chapters on QSP. 

Blank, G. (2018), ‘Democracy and Technology’, Grant will spoke at the Google display at the SuomiAreena conference on 16 July in Pori, Finland.

Reisdorf, B. C., Blank, G., and Dutton, W. H. (2019), ‘Internet Cultures and Digital Inequalities’, pp. 80-95 in Graham, M., and Dutton, W. H. (eds), Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing our Lives, 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Previously presented: Blank, G., Reisdorf, B., and Dutton, W. H. (2018), ‘Internet Cultures and Digital Inequalities’, presentation at the Digital Inclusion Policy and Research Conference, London, 21-22 June.

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.

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/

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.

The Internecine Politics Undermining the Civility of Political Discourse?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coda

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

Getting to No: Name-calling Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modelling Creating a Process for Getting to Yes

Pluralist Empowerment versus Populism or Democratic Elitism

A rising discourse on the dangers of ‘populism’ seems to be expanding the concept in ways that literally demonise the empowerment of citizens – the people. There is evidence of a rise of populist parties, but that is being used as a hammer to bash a more general empowerment of individuals or citizens and networks among the public as dangerous.

This may be a consequence of too simplistic of a dichotomy being drawn between the empowerment of individual citizens and the empowerment of democratic institutions, such as elected and appointed officials, or a tradeoff between the ‘people’ versus ‘elites’. Instead, the role of the Internet and social media in helping individuals to be more informed and better able to hold politicians, business and government more accountable is also an element in the increasing vitality of democratic pluralism.

To make my case, it is useful to go back to some of the key terms in describing different forms of democratic control? So let me try, and ask others to correct me if I don’t get this right.

Pluralistic forms of democracy emerged inductively from studies of power structures. It conveys the degree that ideal forms of democracy are an impossible dream, but one feasible approximation of democratic control in practice is through governance by a pluralistic set of elites. While the few who are active, knowledgeable and committed to an issue are likely to govern the many, in the sense of Michel’s (1915) ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’, elite empowerment in modern liberal democratic states is relatively democratic in that it is specialised across separate sets of elites. Elites influential in education, are not influential in defence, and so on. We have separate and pluralistic elites, including politicians and public officials, and this pluralistic control is more democratic than influence being concentrated in a single set of elites. The concept of pluralistic democracy is linked to many, but perhaps most often to Robert Dahl and his classic, Who Governs? (Yale Un Press, 1961), which described the power structure of New Haven, Connecticut.

Pluralism is most often contrasted with elite control, which generally assumes that power is concentrated in a relative small set of economic elites. While government most often held formal symbolic power in cities and nations, real, informal power was lodged primarily in the hands of a so-called ‘power elite’ of those with the wealth and institutional resources to control public affairs. This concept has been linked to the work of Floyd Hunter’s Community Power Structure (Un of North Carolina Press, 1969), as case study of Atlanta, Georgia, and before this, to C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (Oxford University Press, 1956).

Compared to an elite power structure, pluralism was good news. Economic elites might be powerful with respect to some issues, some of the time, but others are powerful as well, including public officials, the press, educators, and so forth in their particular areas of expertise and focus. But an interesting normative twist on the value of pluralistic democracy was the notion that this is not only the most feasible form of democratic control in practice, but also the most desirable. This is because, according to those adhering to what has been called ‘democratic elitism’, it is only the elites in society that will protect democratic institutions and processes. This and other elite theories basically assume that:

‘the masses are inherently incompetent’ … and ‘at best, pliable inert stuff or, at worst, aroused, unruly creatures possessing an insatiable proclivity to undermine both culture and liberty.’

Peter Bachrach, The Theory. of Democratic Elitism: A Critique (Little, Brown and Company, 1967: 2)

Citizen therefore should rely on a pluralistic set of elites to govern, as they have the expertise and judgement, honed by democratic values, to rule. For example, while Americans might agree with freedom of expression as a basic human right in the US, they are unlikely to protect freedom of expression in particular, concrete circumstances, such as by not allowing an extremist to speak in one’s community or online. So those who adhere to the concept of democratic elitism generally support pluralistic elite rule as not only feasible but also desirable, given that the public at large is by and large too fragmented, unorganised, and ill-informed to govern, except in limited respects, such as voting for elected officials (also E. E. Schattschneider, 1960).

In the digital age, the rise of the Internet, social media and related information and communication technologies, such as mobile Internet, has been associated with the empowerment of individuals and networks of citizens, what I have called the rise of a Fifth Estate (Dutton 2009). Put in the most simple terms, the idea of the Fifth Estate is that use of the Internet and social media can enabled digital citizens to get access to information and network in ways that can enhance their communicative power relative to others and enable them to hold governing elites more accountable. The empowerment of individuals does not mean that these digital citizens are antagonistic to elites, but that they realise that intelligence is widely distributed and that the Internet enables them to get access to information and networks more easily and effectively than ever before.

For example, when a patient goes to a doctor, they might search for information about the problem diagnosed by the physician to learn more about what problem they have and how it is treated. This does not mean that they quit going to a doctor, but that they can have a more informed discussion with their doctor, such as by being able to ask intelligent questions. In other words, information and expertise is more distributed, less concentrated in the physician.

In contrast, populism tends to view elites self-interested or corrupt to the point that they do not trust such elites as elected officials or scientists. This is the problem as populists may fail to listen to experts and authorities in particular matters because they don’t trust elites in general. The reaction to rising signs of populism has been an increasing reification of democratic institutions and processes, and a demonisation of the people – a return to democratic elitism but in the digital age.

I’m an inductivist and see pluralist democracy as achievable and desirable, and more pluralism as a positive step for democratic control. The empowerment of digital citizens, such as suggested by the rise of a Fifth Estate, is therefore a contribution to the ideals behind democratic control. A fear of the people gaining more influence generated by the rise of populism is feuling the return of a democratic elitism unfit for the digital age. Just as populists are wrong to dismiss experts and authorities, it is wrong for elites to dismiss the people as a modern day digital mob.

 Trust in the Public
Trust in Elite InstitutionsLowHigh
HighDemocratic ElitismPluralist Democracy
LowBroken DemocracyPopulism

Democratic pluralism suggests that we use the Internet and related ICTs to inform, educate, and empower digital citizens, not to distrust them as incapable or unruly and dangerous. Likewise, it suggests that digital citizens retain a learned level of trust in elites and institutions, while being comfortable with maintaining a level of scepticism in any given pronouncement, opinion piece, or policy, because they are equipped with the tools to discover information and participate in networks of individuals that can inform and empower their understanding of policy and practice.

The Fifth Estate can broaden democratic processes at every level, from the household or neighbourhood to globe, but only if digital citizens respect the role of other actors, including experts, as sources of information and learn how to distinguish the valid arguments from deluded conspiracies.

References

Bachrach, Peter. (1967), The Theory of Democratic Elitism: A Critique. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company).

Dahl, Robert A. (1961) Who Governs? New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Dutton, William H. (2009), ‘The Fifth Estate Emerging through the Network of Networks’, Prometheus, Vol. 27, No. 1, March: pp. 1-15.

Dutton, William H. (2015), ‘The Internet’s Gift to Democratic Governance: The Fifth Estate’, pp. 164-73 in S., Moss, G., and Parry, K. (eds),Can the Media Save Democracy? Essays in Honour of Jay G. Blumler. London, Abington: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Michels, Robert (1959), Political Parties, trans. by Eden & Cedar Paul. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Mills, C. Wright (1951), The Power Elite. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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