CCCE founder W. Lance Bennett and long-time collaborator Steven Livingston have an Op-Ed in the Boston Globe on Russian interference in the US election process and the complicity of a discord-hungry US population.
Excerpted from the piece:
Investigations by news organizations, US intelligence agencies, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, and of course by special prosecutor Robert Mueller, all reached the same conclusion: The Russian government meddled in the 2016 presidential elections. Some observers have gone so far as to conclude that Russia’s machinations were essential to Trump’s victory. By taking advantage of social media’s tendency to aggregate and deepen political passions, Russia gave vital assistance to Donald Trump’s campaign.
Now fast forward to 2020. In February, intelligence officials warned House lawmakers that Russia was at it again, to help President Trump win reelection. The Russians are clearly hell-bent on undermining American democratic institutions.
No matter how cunning the trolls or relentless the bots, Russia could not reasonably expect to achieve meaningful results in the absence of an already receptive audience.
Read the article here.
The world of media has transformed so rapidly that many traditional ways of studying the relationships between media and society may no longer suffice. Even the questions scholars typically ask, such as how journalism affects the public sphere, might not make as much sense as they once did; what is journalism if anyone can be a journalist and any website can count as a journal?
In Rethinking Media Research for Changing Societies, an edited volume by CCCE co-directors Matthew Powers and Adrienne Russell, some of the world’s leading theorists propose what each considers the single most pressing question for scholars concerned with media and public life. Then each suggests a research approach that could address the question, with attention to real world action.
The proposed questions touch on some of the issues of greatest concern to lay and scholastic publics alike, including what is happening to journalism, how corporate use of big data affects our lives, whether new media technologies have made the world more or less inclusive, and what purpose academics can serve going forward. The editors hope that the book will foster new approaches and ideas for scholars as they grapple with evolving communication problems. Because these issues interest many people outside academia, the book is written to be accessible to lay audiences. It is also suitable to college students of all levels.
The book is divided into five topical sections. The first deals with the implications of the increasing use of data. How might we make sense of corporate goals for the use of data, and what can be learned from the data collected for commercial use? The second section considers the state of journalism, including the meaning of press freedom and the ongoing relevance of traditional news values. Powers and co-author Sandra Vera-Zambrano ask, “what are journalists for today?” The answer, they suggest, may be to reinforce existing arrangements of power.
Part Three focuses on whether changing media practices and technologies are inclusive. Are counter-hegemonic communication efforts successful? Does new technology bring about greater equality, or reinforce existing racial hierarchies of power? Are new journalism practices resulting in better representation of marginalized people? The answers, the three authors in the section suggest, may be cause for dismay. The fourth section asks how communication across ever-deepening political divides might be improved. Finally, Part Five addresses the role of scholars as the world of media and public life continues to change. How can communication research be relevant? How should we think of the function of communication? What, if anything, are communication scholars fighting for?
The book concludes with a call for a deeper engagement with the goals of research and a greater clarity and focus on how scholarship can bring about change. In the epilogue, Silvio Waisbord, professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, argues that media scholars should commit to some normative ideas of the good, for “outlining desirable elements of media and public life is necessary to clarify the analytical benchmarks that help us discern contemporary problems and outline possible solutions.” The question for Waisbord is, then, what media is needed for what public life?
Waisbord’s question will require a shift in thinking, one that the book is positioned to foster. Old ideas of a single public sphere must be shed in favor of recognition of the public as chaotic, multitudinous, splintered, and polarized. The long-accepted normative ideals of public communication need to be reevaluated considering the observable efficacy of expressions of emotions of grief and fury under conditions of oppression. And it is time to recognize that there is no common political project. Rather, the most fundamental tenets of society are contested, including what counts as knowledge, how to resolve dissent, what it means to belong to a collective national identity, and what the ideal society looks like.
Is it even possible to bring about justice in the current media moment? When the book’s authors gathered at a University of Washington conference on the “shifting landscape of public communication,” all concurred that we are experiencing a crisis. In fact, some said the landscape of public communication was better described as “crumbling beneath our feet.” In this book, which arose from that conference, the authors propose a range of approaches and thoughts on how to engage with publics in the service of fostering justice, but all agree that scholars need new ways of thinking about media and public life. The book, the editors believe, is a promising place to start.
One of the most powerful tools to keep democracy alive can be tucked into the back pocket of your jeans. The ways that digital technology can be used to pursue political solutions was the focus of discussion at “Pocket Democracy,” a pop-up Seattle conference last month that included remarks by Black Lives Matter cofounder Opal Tometi, CCCE founding director Lance Bennett, and others, and included via video link participants and speakers in Berlin. The conference was sponsored by The Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles and the Goethe Institute Seattle pop-up. Also collaborating on the event were STATE Berlin, World Affairs Council Seattle, the UW Center for West European Studies, and the UW European Union Center.
The Oct. 24-25 event included seminars and workshops on the political implications of digital communication and strategies for developing new modes of engagement. Participants discussed the risks associated with technology, such as the spread of disinformation and the manipulation of images and videos, as well as possibilities for such pro-democracy uses as supporting free and fair elections and automating detection of false news and altered images.
Keynote speaker Tometi talked about how activists used digital technologies to coordinate protests in the wake the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old who was shot in Ferguson, Mississippi, by a police officer.
“Righteous, beautiful, courageous people were protesting,” she said. “We used social media to mobilize people across the country to go to Ferguson. In two weeks, we organized 500 people to go to Ferguson so they knew they were not alone.”
Digital communication is important for social and political change, but it is not enough by itself, she cautioned.
In response to a question from a participant in Berlin, Tometi said that social media is best used as a tool for mobilization, but that there is a limit to its power to facilitate persuasion.
“Changing hearts and minds requires face-to face-interaction,” she said.
Following Tometi’s remarks, CCCE founding director Lance Bennett gave a sobering talk on threats to democracies around the world that is due in part, he said, to a very successful far-right strategy of using digital technology to spread disinformation, propaganda, and conspiracy theories.
“There is an organized production of disinformation around the world,” he said. “What it adds up to is an attack on liberal democracy.”
The goal of the far right, Bennett said, is to bring about ethnic nationalist systems of government that exclude ethnic and religious minorities and immigrants, attack the press, and block action on climate change.
Technology, including social media, is deeply implicated in the spread of disinformation and hate speech, he noted, adding that those problems can be very difficult to address. For example, a number of parliament members in Sweden have been targets of death threats on social media, but since those threats are made in the form of cartoons and jokes, they are hard to control. Algorithms cannot accurately screen for cartoons and humor, and perpetrators can insist that they are within their rights to “joke.”
But more could be done, Bennett said.
One problem that social media companies could at least try to address is the use of fake accounts to spread disinformation or artificially inflate the appearance of popular support for a person or movement.
Estimates from different audits suggest that as many as a quarter of Donald Trump’s Twitter followers are fake, Bennett said. And a study showed that substantial numbers of the Facebook followers of the far right group Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) were not located in Germany and appeared to be managed accounts.
Facebook has the capacity to test solutions to the use of its platform to undermine democracy, but remains resistant, Bennett said. Indeed, when media companies remove suspect accounts, political factions often complain of partisanship. The regulatory problems are important to address, but are likely to become caught up in the partisan politics of many nations.
Like Tometi, Bennett noted that some of the most important measures to protect democracy extend beyond technology. Democracy is undermined when governments no longer produce solutions to the problems of their citizens, he said.
Workshops at the conference focused on the potential irrelevance of political parties should they fail to use digital technologies to engage citizens, as well threats to democracy arising from election-season disinformation campaigns and what technical and political solutions might be available. The conference concluded Friday afternoon with a session on cybersecurity and elections.
What are the most pressing climate-crisis-related issues facing the Pacific Northwest?
That was the kickoff question at the “Communicating Climate Change in the Pacific Northwest” discussion hosted May 20 by the CCCE.
Panelists included Eve Andrews, associate editor at Grist and the author the magazine’s ‘Ask Umbra‘ environmental advice column; Evan Bush, reporter at the Seattle Times; Heidi Roop, lead scientist for science communication at the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington; and Kamna Shastri, independent journalist and Seattle Globalist’s “Community Journalist of the Year.”
“The most pressing problem is the inaccessibility of our cities,” said Andrews. “They need to be reformed in a way that houses and transports people in better [more efficient] ways.”
“Water is the through-line on climate change; it connects everything,” said Bush. “You have too much when you don’t want it and too little when you do.”
“I think you have to look at who will be impacted the most [by the climate crisis],” said Shastri. “It’s communities of color and poor communities — and the impacts on those communities are going to increase as climate change takes hold… You have to involve those communities in coming up with solutions and putting them into practice.”
Panel moderator Adrienne Russell, CCCE associate director and professor of communications, has written about societal and professional structures that can impede efforts to move publics to work for change. She asked the panelists to talk about the challenges they face in communicating to the public on climate change and how they would address those challenges if they could.
The main challenge is to secure greater resources, they all said. They would use increased funding to hire more reporters to do a greater number and variety of more-deeply reported stories on a wider number of topics in a larger number of communities around the region and across the country.
The panelists said they’re inspired by the fact that they’re all seeing a spike in public interest in news and information about the climate crisis.
Watch this space for a video link to the event.
On April 23rd, CCCE hosted “Seattle Journalism’s Possible Futures,” a panel discussion featuring local journalists steering innovative projects at the crossroads of news media’s past and future: Joy Resmovits is education editor at the Seattle Times; Jill Jackson, news director at KUOW; Florangela Davila, managing editor at Crosscut; and Anika Anand, cofounder of the Evergrey.
The aim of the discussion, according to CCCE Associate Director Matt Powers who served as panel moderator, was to consider the energized if rocky journalism present with an eye to ways journalists might seize future opportunities to better fuel civic engagement and serve the public interest.
Panel members, in conversation with audience members, discussed citizen-generated “micro” journalism initiatives, Amazon.com podcasts, the growing journalism newsletter space, integrating community into reporting decision making and news-agenda setting, and the increasing awareness of the ways bias and algorithms and consolidation are shaping the media landscape and the work journalists do.
PhD Candidate Yunkang Kang joined colleagues from the University of Canberra, Purdue University, and the University of Texas at the American Political Science Association Conference in Boston for a panel on “Fake News and Trust in News Media in the U.S.” Kang presented a paper which investigated the logic of so-called “hyper-partisan” media on the political right such as Breitbart.
Funded, supported, and managed by the sprawling networks of right-wing donors, activists, think tanks, politicians, and Astroturf organizations, these media outlets tend to blend partisan news of the early Fox News variety with propaganda tactics and engage in a wide range of political operations such as opposition research and disinformation to advance tangible political goals at strategic moments.
While right-wing media are clearly not all run by the same political interests or operating under any central command, Kang’s research demonstrates that they display an impressive degree of coherence that resemble that of political organization. They join in amplifications of narratives at strategic moments, reaching very large audiences and accomplishing common political goals; they also at times de-align themselves as they attack each other and promote conflicting narratives that fragment their audiences’ attention when their interests diverge. You can read the whole paper here.
Lance Bennett has been appointed Senior Fellow at the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society (the German Internet Institute) in Berlin. He is working with the research group on “Digitalization and the Transnational Public Sphere” headed by Professor Barbara Pfetsch of Free University Berlin. He also delivered the Weizenbaum public lecture on the topic: “Looking Left and Right in the Digital Age: Three Challenges for Democracy,” which provided an overview of his current research and his work at the Institute, which looks at four major challenges many democracies face today:
1) radical right movements and parties that threaten civil rights, press freedoms, and the postwar international order;
2) a fragmented left that is turning away from parties and elections in favor of direct democracy and protest politics;
3) public communication spheres divided between traditional journalism that largely reports official information; and
4) a growing online communication sphere that invites citizens to share and believe what they want.
These trends can be traced to a combination of factors: economic policies that create widespread insecurity that erodes trust in institutions, the failure of mainstream political parties to offer voters new ideas, and divergent uses of digital media by the left and the right. The fate of democracy depends on reshaping institutions and communication processes to engage a broader spectrum of citizens with pressing problems from climate change to economic and political inequality.
CCCE Director Lance Bennett has joined the Advisory Committee of the Social Science Research Council program on Media & Democracy. This program seeks to understand the evolving relationship between media, technology, and democratic life. By building bridges across disciplines and industries, the program works to consolidate an otherwise variegated field of scholars and practitioners. He has also co-organized (with Steven Livingston of George Washington University) workshop series on “A Modern History of the Disinformation Age: Communication, Technology and Democracy in Transition.” Workshop participants are engaged in discussion of three related areas of research with the goal of producing a book to chart a course for this emerging field:
In conjunction with the first workshop meeting in December, 2018, a roundtable interview with Yochai Benkler (Harvard), Paul Starr (Princeton), Naomi Oreskes (Harvard), and Jane Mayer (The New Yorker) was filmed at the George Washington University School of Media & Public Affairs.