Monday, March 20, 2017

Post-truth and how to combat fake news

Evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee 'Fake news' inquiry presented by members of the Centre for Politics & Media Research, Faculty for Media & Communication, Bournemouth University, UK.

Author: Darren G. Lilleker, Associate Professor of Political Communication
Contributors: Jenny Alexander, Dalia ElSheikh, David McQueen, Barry Richards and Einar Thorsen

The concept of fake news is problematic. It is a catch-all term with multiple definitions that has the capacity to undermine the role of media as the fourth estate as well as the civic attitudes that underpin democratic culture. Our report outlines the definitions and underlying practices captured by the term, demonstrating how fake news is used to confirm existing biases and beliefs. Our contention is, however, that confirmation bias can only be relied upon where facts, and the sources of facts, are contested and so lack credibility. In other words citizens will rely on their beliefs when they are unable to believe alternative accounts.
To combat the post-truth environment that nurtures fake news we propose four recommendations:
  1. Ensure the inclusion into education of a media literacy programme that can prepare people to be citizens of a digital world;
  2. Ensure that established media outlets adhere to the basic standards of journalism when constructing news;
  3. Put pressure on, through regulation if necessary, the major players in the digital environment to at a minimum accredit verified news providers;
  4. Challenge the use of the phrase fake news in order to create an environment that is more supportive of media.

As researchers with a track record for investigating the role of media within society and its importance for pluralist democracy, particularly given the rise of a post-truth, spin culture, we propose that the concept of fake news – terminologically and practically – is highly damaging. Our combined expertise offers an informed appraisal of the nature of the problem, its potential negative impacts but offer research-led solutions that can combat media distrust and an attendant reliance on fake stories designed to manipulate.

Understanding fake news, the nature of the problem and potential solutions

What is 'fake news'?
There are at least four definitions of "fake news" in contemporary public circulation:
1)     Deliberate falsehoods to attract visitors as clickbait;
2)     Satirical news that is designed to be humorous and overtly fake, and thus not intended to mislead as the first category is[1];
3)     Public relations, spin or biased reporting which exaggerates certain facts, obscuring others;
4)     The dismissal of reports as fake by an individual or organisation (such as Donald Trump or Emily Thornberry) because they present a challenge to their own or their party’s narrative.
The borders and boundaries between these four types are highly permeable. The notion of fake news is not new per se, as the extensive literature around propaganda and spin demonstrates; yet the problem is perhaps increasing and certainly the term has gained traction after President Trump’s frequent usage. Newspapers have a record for publishing stories with limited evidence and of questionable veracity[2]. Public awareness of dubious practices including the use of the infamous ‘fake sheikh’, the phone hacking scandal and various celebrities winning cases against news organisations must contribute to the low public perception of journalists; only 25% say they believe journalists tell the truth, a rating shared with estate agents, although they beat government ministers and politicians[3]. Arguably cynicism towards the media has also been cultivated by the long-standing academic critique of the media for their failures to ‘hold power to account’[4].  Media mistrust provides for an environment where truth, and trustworthiness, is perceptual and where information presented as fact is treated with cynicism: an environment characterised as being ‘post-truth’ but one that might lead to a diminution of, or ‘death’, of mainstream news[5].

The current anxiety about "fake news" in the UK appears to have been sparked in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and President Trump’s election in the US. In some senses this anxiety can be understood as a moral panic or at least as a crisis story about a much larger issue which is (in part) about fact-checking in the digital age. Such anxieties have mounted, particularly as some forms of "citizen journalism", "user generated content" and "new model" news websites, from The Canary to Breitbart, challenge the boundaries of the journalistic profession.

In order to develop a broad definition we argue that fake news is the deliberate spread of misinformation, be it via traditional news media or through social media. Often such news is generated with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically[6]. In some cases fake news employs eye-catching headlines or entirely fabricated news-stories in order to increase readership and online sharing. Profit is made in a similar fashion to ‘clickbait’ which relies on revenue from advertisers generated through clicks. People are encouraged to read or view a story in order to earn revenue for the host organisation through clicks regardless of the veracity of the published stories. Easy access to ad-revenue, increased political polarization and the ubiquity of social media, primarily the Facebook newsfeed, have been implicated in the spread of fake news. Anonymously hosted websites with no known publishers have also been implicated, particularly because they make it difficult to prosecute sources of fake news for libel or slander[7].

Yet theoretically any individual or organisation can create fake news. Cultures of spin and public relations, which accentuate positives and bury bad news, have been pervasive within the political and corporate world over the last two decades[8], with many public institutions generating news items which are instantly published with little editorial scrutiny[9]. While we might not wish to classify every piece of public relations, created by a state, corporation, government, political party or campaign organisation as fake news, there are key elements of public relations which elide with the concept of fake news. Public relations practices produce news that is generated in order to influence the reader, shape their attitudes and behaviours, and so advantage the source; news outlets equally accentuate elements of stories in order to fit an ideological bias. In both these cases there might be elements of truth but exaggeration is used to cause an emotional response from the reader. The ordinary citizen is therefore free to decide what to believe and what to discount, but may not have the information or capacity to arrive at an informed answer. In extremis they may also choose to ignore news they understand to be fake or inaccurate, since their faith in the source is greater than that who attacks them for being fake. Therefore, at the heart of the ‘fake news’ problem is the challenge that is posed to democratic citizenship when decisions are taken based upon emotional responses engendered by inaccurate information.

Confirmation bias: why fake news gains traction
An investigation by Craig Silverman and Lawrence Alexander found over 100 sites purporting to provide news of US politics were in fact hosted by a number of individuals residing within the Macedonian town of Veles. Each news site had a Facebook page with thousands of followers[10]. The individuals creating these sites had experimented with content, discovering pro-Trump news earned the most in click-thru revenue. These sites all provided fake stories, ‘revealing’ proof Obama was not American, ‘providing’ exclusive footage from Bill Clinton sex tapes and ‘quoting’ Hilary Clinton saying Trump was ‘honest and can’t be bought’. Despite being untrue, they were read and shared via the Facebook newsfeed, maybe appearing true to many readers.

Aside from the eye-catching style of headlines, the stories also have plausibility to their intended audience. Humans tend to seek information that fits with their existing belief systems[11]. They like to hear negative news about people they do not like and vice versa. The above stories confirmed anti-Obama and anti-Clinton biases, some particularly reinforcing the ‘crooked Hillary’ narrative; others confirmed the honesty and accuracy of Trump’s take on the world. Pro-Clinton or pro-Sanders narratives gained were less attractive for clickbait sites, but they were no less prevalent. This was echoed in another investigation by Silverman, exposing how two opposing so-called ‘hyperpartisan’ news websites were both owned by the same company[12]. Moreover, their news copy was in places near identical – with adjectives and hyperbole adjusted to suit the respective liberal or conservative audiences. Thus truth became blurred and contested, a feature of many election campaigns.

In a pluralist media system fake news is contested and challenged. However research on media habits show that many people choose not to enjoy a pluralist diet of information. News sources are chosen because they confirm existing biases and beliefs. This phenomenon is particularly problematic within the online environment. Cass Sunstein observed the construction of filter systems, whereby news feeds, sources of news and information and online social networks becoming increasing homogenous ideologically[13]. Put simply some people are most likely to connect with peers or organisations with whom they agree already, filtering out information that they disagree with or that challenges their existing biases or beliefs. Moreover the majority of people who do not use anti-tracking software, cookie data which allows websites such as Google and Facebook to know what other sites are visited, what products are viewed etc., are likely to have products and viewpoints tailored according to their interests[14]. A person who scours Amazon and LiveNation (a concert promoter) for heavy metal music, may only see promotions for more heavy metal music; a person who likes pro-Trump news stories may only see further pro-Trump news stories. The filter bubbles created through algorithms based on online behavioural patterns may have even further implications for those who seek out, read and like more extremist or anti-democratic political views. There is conflicting evidence on how hermetically sealed these filter bubbles created by social media users or algorithms are, but arguably they can present significant problems even if the majority of sources exposed to offer a one-sided narrative around a more emotionally resonant message[15].

Confirmation bias may not be seen as a huge problem, as it suggests that the only people reached and affected are those with an existing propensity to believe a particular story. However there are two important ramifications for democratic society.

Firstly there are degrees of bias. Having a latent bias against a particular social group can be nurtured and made more extreme through exposure to fake news, due to the emotive arguments made, particularly when similar peers share that news with their own supportive, emotionally engaging, comment[16]. The more that peers support a given viewpoint or perspective, the more likely an individual will absorb that into their belief system[17] due to the emotional connection to the peers, their strength of feelings and the perceived veracity of the argument. Greater exposure to fake news that reinforces a particular set of beliefs is found to have a particularly powerful impact on those who consume little ‘real’ news and rely heavily on information discovered through their social networks[18]. Hence fake news can be a force for increased emotional and extreme attachments to an idea, both of which can translate into extreme, emotionally-driven behaviour.

Secondly there are degrees of untruth. In 2016 it may not have mattered how many Americans believed Obama was also an American citizen. An anonymously-produced and widely-circulated map of incidents of crimes purportedly committed by refugees in Germany may have far-reaching implications for the forthcoming election in that nation. Despite this being contested by one independent online website as being based on inaccurate data, and being hosted by a Russian exponent of alt-right (the new far right) propaganda, Germany’s Bild newspaper and UK Daily Mail both used the map to attack Merkel’s policy on refugees[19]. The map hosted by XYE, the challenge by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, or both could be fake[20]. Once in the public consciousness it is immaterial, German citizens with latent concerns regarding absorbing a refugee community will become more concerned, and possibly encouraged to vote a particular way; pro-refugee groups will be forced to be refugee crime deniers; society becomes polarised over perceptions of truth.

Contestations of fact can therefore have important ramifications that go beyond questions of how well-informed people are, they can also inform a range of behavioural choices from how to vote to whether to participate in actions which exacerbate social tensions; so explaining the rise of hate crimes. The impact of fake news has already resulted in Edgar Welsh attempting to ‘do the right thing’ by firing an assault rifle in a Washington Pizzeria believing the story that it was the headquarters of a child-sex ring patronised by Clinton’s campaign chief John Podesta; the evidence being that certain topping styles were code words. One concerned citizen believed a fake news story sufficiently, and had sufficient concern for the welfare of children, to take the law into their own hands. While one extreme and isolated correlation between fake news and violent action, the fact there were up to ten attacks against migrants in Germany during 2016 may relate to the increase in anti-migrant news stories by domestic and international alt-right groups[21]. It is therefore important to consider viable means by which to combat the spread and acceptance of fake news.

Combating fake news
Critiques of the media have proved vulnerable to appropriation. Donald Trump’s presidential brand as the ‘outsider’ allows him to reinforce the perception that in the age of      social media electoral popularity does not have to rest on support from a substantial section of mainstream media. The term is becoming more widely popularised, not only by news sites which claim ‘independence’, combat the alt-right, and expose ‘fake news’, but by any politician who wishes to challenge the veracity of news reports[22]. While reactions to the term will vary across different audience segments, an underlying and widespread effect is likely to be a still deeper and broader suspicion of any ‘news’ sources which challenge the existing views of an audience. Unchecked, this process will undermine the kind of public sphere – a space for rational dialogue – on which democratic politics depends. The collapse of a national public into a number of different and polarised truth-tribes is becoming an imaginable scenario. Thus we propose four ways by which this should be arrested.

Media Literacy
Firstly we recommend a renewed focus on media literacy in schools, particularly around emotional self-management and digital ‘emotional self-care’. While applied mostly to the work of activists or researchers[23], the ability to distance oneself emotionally from material online, personal or political is important in constructing a better understanding of how to be a good digital citizen. Simple lessons relating to thinking before liking or sharing, how to avoid filter bubbles and understanding the threats posed by exposure to information are required now from a young age. Media literacy also needs to provide a basis for assessing the validity of sources, source bias, the role of journalism in society and how to differentiate between different forms of journalism: investigative, editorial or propagandistic. These are issues that predate and transcend fake news, but are no less important because of that.

Media standards
Media literacy must also work in tandem with better regulation of the standards of news production and the pluralism of views. A starting point would be admission that the phenomenon of fake news has its roots in mainstream media failure. Issues of partisanship and bias, ethical standards in journalism, and unhealthy levels of ownership concentration have created an environment in which trust in journalists is at an all-time low. The concern here is that well documented and long-term public distrust in sections of the news media (typically tabloid journalists in the UK) will become contagious, and citizens will begin to see all of their news as of questionable veracity (which Trump is actively encouraging in the US);  an environment in which real and fake become indistinguishable. It is therefore incumbent on our news media to raise journalistic standards and to reform. But reform is something the newspaper press has for decades proven itself incapable of, and thus the onus on leading this process must lie with government. Therefore the implementation of the recommendations of the Leveson enquiry remains crucial. Implementation would help improve ethical standards of journalism, yet ownership concentration remains a problem, and regulation should be pursued that prevents monopoly ownership of news organisations which make them susceptible to disseminating a single ideological argument.

Regulating the digital environment
The response by Facebook to criticisms, the creation of a Journalism Project[24], may be seen as a small step in the right direction, in particular the pledge to collaborate with news corporations in order to produce a newsfeed that cannot be contaminated by less credible sources. However this does not prevent fake news outlets creating spaces within social media platforms, creating attractive fake news headlines, and encourage sharing of this content. At a minimum political pressure should be put upon on social media platforms to strengthen their actions in relation to combating hate speech, a component of some fake news. Platforms are currently struggling to deal with content that is reported as inappropriate[25], therefore this might present challenges despite the German government attempts to sanction Facebook if they do not comply. Perhaps a better solution, however, is stronger regulation of how news outlets are labelled (consider variations to the verified tick on Twitter). If they do not comply with recognised standards of journalism they must be classed as political, not news.

Creating an environment that supports media.
The above can go some way to ensuring citizens are able to make mature and reality-based judgments of who to trust while not being exposed to manipulation online. The final recommendation focuses on political actors. The argument being that they should always offer evidence and analysis based arguments, not simply negating arguments as fake if they do not agree or when reports challenge their narrative, and citizens need to be encouraged to judge their arguments on that basis. Moreover, the mainstream news media must be openly supported, by politicians and all other potential opinion-leaders, therefore retaining its position at the heart of democratic culture. The media cannot be protected from criticism, as there are significant problems with media production of fake news; however criticisms of news coverage should avoid using the phrase ‘fake news’ in a tit-for-tat fashion. Challenges to news must also be challenged, for their evidence base and their veracity, in order that citizens do not just seek validity through confirmation bias but can employ more informed judgment.

[1] Comedy shows such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (TDS) and The Colbert Report (TCR) have been referred to as “fake news” in the past, since they satirise news bulletins and indeed current affairs. Others include The Onion in the US, and News Thump or The Daily Mash in the UK.
[2] Independent academic studies include Martin Conboy, (2006). Tabloid Britain, Routledge or Kevin Williams, (2009). Get Me a Murder a Day!: A History of Media and Communication in Britain. A&C Black.
[4] Fore example see James Curran & Jean Seaton, (2009). Power without responsibility: press, broadcasting and the internet in Britain. Routledge.
[6]  Elle Hunt, (December 17, 2016). "What is fake news? How to spot it and what you can do to stop it". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077.
[7]  Jack Shafer, (22 November 2016). "The Cure for Fake News Is Worse Than the Disease". Politico.
[8] Aeron Davis, (2002). Public relations democracy: Politics, public relations and the mass media in Britain. Manchester University Press. Kevin Moloney, (2006). Rethinking public relations: PR, propaganda and democracy. Routledge.
[9] Justin Lewis, Andrew Williams & Bob Franklin, (2008). A compromised fourth estate? UK news journalism, public relations and news sources. Journalism studies, 9(1), 1-20.
[11] Philip E. Converse, (1962). The nature of belief systems in mass publics. Ann Arbor Press.
[13] Cass Sunstein, (2009). Republic. com 2.0. Princeton University Press.
[17] Elsie M. Botha, (2014). Contagious Communications: The role of emotion in viral marketing (Doctoral dissertation, KTH Royal Institute of Technology).
[18] Meital Balmas, (2014). When Fake News Becomes Real: Combined Exposure to Multiple News Sources and Political Attitudes of Inefficacy, Alienation, and Cynicism. Communication Research, 41(3), 430-454.
[20] There are a plethora of sites which claim to combat fake news, for example which have not more claim to veracity and credibility than the sites they attack exacerbating the polarisation of online discourse.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

When prejudice became acceptable

The 23rd June 2016 is not only the date when British citizens by a small majority voted for the UK to leave the European Union, it also marks the point when prejudice became mainstream. Prior to then any commentary on immigration had to be couched in the terms that it was not racist to talk of limits. But in the days following the referendum result there was a spike in reports of hate crimes. The tone of debate had fundamentally changed. What might have been appropriate to say quietly within small groups, or for certain political figures within UKIP to daub on a poster, was now openly said to those who would feel most threatened and violated. The atmosphere of prejudice which was symbolised by the signs 'No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs', signs only ended by the 1965 Race Relations Act, had returned.

One can understand how the living conditions many face, living near to or in poverty, on a minimum rather than a living wage, on part-time or zero-hours contracts, with families to feed, can lead them to seek someone to blame. Some can blame political elites for a lack of regulation, some the corporations for their greed and lack of corporate social responsibility, others can blame migrant workers. During the EU referendum campaign one strand of argument was that uncontrolled migration was the major factor in depressing wages, giving power to employers, and putting a strain on public services. In the many areas where de-industrialization has taken its toll this claim resonated and in large numbers those areas voted to leave. Or rather they voted for a better future for themselves and hoped their vote would make things better as they struggled to see their situations getting worse.

Theresa May's vision for "creating a fairer, more equal society" took shape this week, and in doing so played directly to prejudice. While her conference speech did not say that immigrants are to blame for all societal ills, it can be interpreted that way. The following phrasing is important here:

"And if you’re one of those people who lost their job, who stayed in work but on reduced hours, took a pay cut as household bills rocketed, or – and I know a lot of people don’t like to admit this – someone who finds themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration, life simply doesn’t seem fair".

The phrasing contains an important caveat, 'if''. But whether the 'if' is heard is a question. The line that "someone who finds themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration" finds life unfair will resonate. But more importantly it plays to a prejudice that exists, that same prejudice that emerged on June 23rd. Her words may be a ploy to undermine support for Labour or UKIP among the working class, but it is also very divisive. Britain today, like many countries, is made up of myriad groups. Some may descend from immigration from Normandy or Scandinavia, some from the Commonwealth, others from the European Union; Britain is literally a nation of immigrants. But immigration is now becoming a reference point for societies ills. May's speech says that low-skilled immigration is bad and must stop, one must therefore wonder what she meant by community and citizenship when a few minutes later she called Britain "a country built on the bonds of family, community, citizenship". What is the community, what makes a citizen and who does this exclude? And in the new Conservative vision it is not just low-skilled immigration that is under fire.

One must inquire what it really means to develop policy to "put the interests of the British people first". Home Secretary Amber Rudd's speech said much that was laudable. But the way that the terms immigration and immigrants was used reinforces a stereotype that these are people who exploit loopholes to gain, among other things, student visas, taxi licences, bank accounts. How British people should view immigrants is perhaps made clear in the statement "I also come here today with a warning to those that simply oppose any steps to reduce net migration: this Government will not waver in its commitment to put the interests of the British people first." The message here is clear: migration is not in the interests of British people and must be restricted. Britain, it would seem, is to be only for the British - whatever that means.

What either May or Rudd really meant is not important. Some will cry racism, others will cry realism; but it is the perception of what is meant that matters. Those who have xenophobic views will have found much succour in these speeches. Furthermore they may feel able to make practical steps in working towards achieving government policy by making those they think might be immigrants (independent of their place of birth, their reason for being in the country or the length of their tenure) unwelcome. I find this profoundly worrying, hence the return to blogging after almost three years. The language and argumentation suggests that all those coming from outside of the country attack the interests of the British. It does not differentiate between the pimp, the drug runner, the dentist, the refugee, the plumber or the surgeon - they are one, they are the immigrant. It also may give permission to the racist fringe of society to target anyone, based on skin colour or accent, as the outsider, the threat to British interests. Is that what British values are now, have we become a nation of prejudice? If government policy is a reflection of national sentiment we have taken a giant leap towards being more prejudiced and more xenophobic, rolling back the tide of the last fifty years.

Friday, December 06, 2013

The passing of a political giant: reflections on Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela, a man whose life’s journey took him from activist to prisoner to President to global icon, has passed away. While it has been expected perhaps for some time, it does not make it any less sad. His passing led me to reflect on the impact of the man, not just in terms of politics but on global society and opinions.
I was sixteen, with the usual cares of a sixteen-year old boy, with some interest in history and politics but limited. Apartheid was a word that was known and I remember happily signing petitions against it, I also remember Barclays being known as the fascist bank due to investments in South Africa. There was also a campaign of pressure upon British PM Margaret Thatcher to push for a global campaign against the white supremacist regime. But these mostly failed to have impact, not just on the regime but also cognitively on many people.
It struck me how the name of Mandela probably entered the wider consciousness in Britain due to Jerry Dammers and his band The Specials AKA. The Two Tone scene had long shown that cultural fusion worked, and it had always had a political edge. Looking back I wonder how many children of largely conservative families, often those who would enjoy the racist jokes prevailing in the working men’s clubs, variety shows and on television of the time, who wouldn’t want their daughter to ‘marry one’, suddenly found themselves singing this catchy little song about a man with an exotic name. I do remember reading the story of Nelson Mandela in a piece that explained the song to the masses in a popular music magazine. Suddenly apartheid had a human face, one deserving of interest, of support, and the campaign had a cracking theme tune.
His release six years later was part of the new dawning of democracy, of freedom. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the Eastern European dictatorships that ruled in the name of communism had collapsed, and Nelson Mandela walked free from 27 years of imprisonment. That could have been the end of a story but it wasn’t. He might also, perhaps justifiably, have left prison intent on revenge. But he showed the world a very important lesson. It is not revenge but reconciliation that rebuilds a society; his path to power was not on the back of civil war but a desire for civil society.
The long road to freedom was indeed long but the journey he embarked upon is not over. South Africa has come a long way from the days of Apartheid but there are still deep social and economic divisions. Equally, while a man of colour might reside in the White House, there remains currents of racism across the globe. Nelson Mandela’s rightful legacy should be the eradication of inequalities based on colour, race or any other irrational and illogical mechanism that allows one group to be superior over another. While he has the absolute right to rest in peace those that follow the wisdom of his words and deeds need to continue his journey, he drew the map let us all follow.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

What matters: the means or the end?

By coincidence, in a discussion with my Politics & Media students and reading Shopping for Votes the idea of what matters in politics came up. Susan Delacourt argues that people shop and vote for ideas citing an advertising executive who argued no-one goes out to by a half-inch drill bit they want a half-inch hole. Perhaps more accurately they want is what the half-inch hole provides, a bracket for a shelf on which to put family pictures, trophies, books etc. What this suggests is that parties and candidates offer, and voters select, an outcome but care little about the means. 

But is that really true? People may want crime reduced but would they support capital measures like, for example, chopping off the hand of a thief? Sure the ultimate capital punishment may be supported for certain crimes but most people would stop short in other cases. What about in other cases?

Most people want a strong economy, with stable economic growth and all that brings. But what about the means? Who wins and who loses within the restructured economy may not be to everyone's liking, not even the majority's liking. Not everyone may support the myriad enterprises that will be running public services at a profit. Political outcomes are often presented as a product but the means to that end are often played down. Yet the real choice in politics is more likely to be around means rather than ends. It is hard to imagine any party serious about government not offering economic restructuring, it is how that separates them. Does this also separate voters? Does the end always justify the means, more importantly is the means supported to achieve the end, or are voters just happy that they do not have to make the decision themselves? 

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The UK 2015 General Election campaign started today

The speech of a Prime Minister to their party conference is little more than a media event in the modern age. The purpose is about the image, the impression and the brand. David Cameron's speech fitted that mold perfectly and demonstrated exactly where he is focusing energy: 2015. As with much of the conference the focus appears to be on the next election, fighting off the threat from Ed Miliband's Labour and gaining sufficient seats to govern alone. Certainly there was a mixture of pleas, as the BBC's Nick Robinson points out, Cameron asked to be allowed to finish the job fifteen times. Robinson also notes how Ed Miliband or Labour were awarded twenty-five references.

But this detracts from the core message, Cameron invokes a wide range of heuristic devices when talking of the land of opportunity for all. Possibly an early launch of a campaign slogan, but not without substance. A land that is debt free, where business flourishes, and where citizens are enabled to flourish also. Or at least that was the grand statement. 

But how is the land of hope that is Tory to be delivered. Detail was slender, talking of investment and training, or rewarding hard working people is fine; they are good priorities. But for a government there should be detail, what is the seven year plan to achieve this land of opportunity? It was thus an odd speech. Great for a opposition leader who wishes to re-organize priorities once elected. But for a prime minister there was perhaps too much vision, too many expectations, but insufficient amounts of detail. Where is the Policy + Outcome = Prosperity equation in it all? 

Which all makes one wonder what to expect for the next two years (give or take a few months), or if the Conservatives win in 2015 the next seven. The vision is one no sensible person could disagree with largely. So the real question after all is said and done is whether Cameron is the man to lead his team to deliver on that vision. In essence maybe that was the real purpose of the speech, the lay out a vision, to appear to possess the qualities to deliver on the vision, and the attack the opposition after every opportunity to ensure not too many waver. 

Monday, February 04, 2013

Will the next Democrat hopefuls do an Obama?

Having completed analysis of the use of the Internet by Obama in 2008 and 2012, and compared his community building and interactivity to his rivals, in a chapter that will be published in the Sage Handbook of US Political Marketing we speculated whether this was an Obama model of campaigning, a Democrat candidate model, or a new model for campaigning that everyone would eventually lock on to.  The launch of the Hillary Clinton campaign, by the Ready for Hillary Political Action Committee suggests the answer is that it was an Obama thing. 
Drawing on a number of theories for Internet use and campaigning we proposed four functions for websites, social media platforms and the various tools and spaces that a campaign might utilize. They are informing, mobilizing  harvesting data and interacting. 

Of course it is early days for team Hillary, but as the screenshot shows it seems priority number one is harvesting email addresses, through a sign-up mechanism that is the totality of the Ready for Hillary website, and data from the Facebook group which already has over 32,000 members - that is a lot of data already about the lives of those who do (and so also data on those who might be convinced to) support the Hillary campaign. However, the imagery is Hillary beckoning the visitor in. Is it a sign that this will become a community? Will Hillary develop an interactive campaign? Research suggests that female representatives are far more likely to be conversationalists and interactive than their male counterparts. Or will this indicate that the next contest will be back to a more Web 1.5 approach (between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0), looking interactive but really all about persuading?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Cameron’s European gamble: a brilliant move?

David Cameron’s long awaited and long delayed speech on Europe finally arrived and many have described it as a ‘pivotal’, ‘epoch-defining’ speech. It may or may not be that – we will have to wait a few years to know for sure. But I sense it will be. It appears to have achieved two things immediately. The text of the speech seems to appeal to both the pro-European and anti-European factions within his party by calling for an in-out referendum whilst signalling a strong desire to stay within a ‘reformed European Union’. In fact the message will make the pro-European conservatives very nervous about a ‘gamble’ that the electorate will want to stay in under any circumstances when opinion polls suggest a majority want out. But they are likely to be a lot quieter than the rowdy Euro-sceptics have been in recent months. The Lib Dems are clearly unhappy about Cameron’s speech and you only have to watch Nick Clegg’s face in the House of Commons today to see that.

The wild cheering by the bank-bench Tories in Prime Minister’s Questions shows that you underestimate Cameron at your cost. He has, in a matter of hours, re-energised his party, put off the many thorny issues of Europe to a date after the next election, shown Labour and the Lib Dems to be out of touch with the UK voting public and made UKIP look faintly irrelevant. It’s an astonishing move – a high wire balancing act that may come unstuck, but after yesterday's PMQs – it looks as if he has pulled it off.

Ed Miliband put on a brave face and landed a few well aimed digs: ‘He’s been driven to it not by the national interest, but been dragged to it by his party’. However, you sense Cameron’s confidence rising as fires back: ‘We want to reset that relationship. He hasn’t got a clue what he’d do.’ Worst of all, Milband seemed skewered by the simple choice Cameron gave him: ‘The most basic question of all is do you want a referendum? Yes or no? I do, does he?’ To which Miliband replied: ‘My position is no, we don’t want a referendum’.

If George Osborne is competent enough to put a little life (and investment) back in the economy before 2015 the Tories could be riding high on Cameron’s promise of ‘a renegotiation and then a referendum’. While the exact details of that renegotiation are only hinted at it’s clear that Cameron favours a more ‘market-friendly’ Europe. In PMQs he shouted above the yells of approval from his party: ‘We’ve been very clear about what we want to see - change. In a whole series of areas social legislation, employment legislation, environmental legislation where Europe has gone far too far.’ So the negotiation would seek an end to 48 hour maximum working week, an end to talk of a Financial Transaction Tax (something that could reduce speculation and raise much needed revenues), an end to some of the basic environmental protections that have been passed in Brussels. He is also holding out the promise of an end to ‘meddling’ by the European Court of Human Rights. All red meat to conservative Daily Mail reading voters. Not so great for those looking for a more progressive European Union.

There’s a long way to go yet – the German-French axis may upset Cameron’s plans where Labour and the LibDems cannot. Voters may decide that Europe is a distraction from the real issues.There are many ifs and buts and winning the 2015 election (the condition for any changes to existing European treaties) is the biggest ‘if’ of all. But I suspect Clegg knows that the Lib Dem’s are a busted flush now. Cameron has used them to prop up an unpopular round of savage austerity cuts and to triple the cost of university fees (against Clegg’s signed pledge not to increase them). This may seem like yesterday’s news now but wait for the election when voters are reminded constantly of it. The I’m sorry spoof video viewed by over 2 million people will almost certainly be playing on Nick Clegg’s political gravestone in 2015. But it may just be that in an adjoining plot Cameron’s speech on Europe will be playing on another headstone – that of Ed Miliband.

Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg – your move.

David McQueen

Programme Leader: BA Politics and Media

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Cameron's speech: a message to his critics or British or EU leaders?

The long awaited and long-trailed speech by David Cameron to map out Britain's future relationship with the European Union has taken place. It can be interpreted in two ways. Firstly as a call for reform of the political settlement that binds EU member states. Secondly as a mechanism for silencing opponents of Britain's membership in his own party and the UK Independence Party who threaten to take votes from the Conservatives at next year's European Parliamentary Election. So what was this all about fundamentally?

Cameron started on the attack but finished defending the European Union, but it is the role of the EU in maintaining our, and its other member's, prosperity that he focused on defending. He argued that EU membership is a means to an end: prosperity. The EU is not a means in itself. He argued that the EU is facing three crises:
  1. a Eurozone crisis which needs governance 
  2. low competitiveness due to failing to allow full access to a single market and while it produces 25% of global GDP, it also is responsible for 50% of social spending
  3. democratic accountability and the gap between citizens and EU institutions
But, he argued the greatest danger facing the EU is the rejection of new thinking. More of the same is not tenable. This was not purely about highlighting the deficit in governance, economic competitiveness and accountability. Cameron also presented a vision around five principles:
  1. Competitiveness
  2. Flexibility - celebrating diversity as a single market not a single currency and polity
  3. Power flowing to member states not away - repatriation of power
  4. Democratic accountability and a stronger role for national parliaments
  5. Fairness for all nations in and out of the Eurozone
He made sweeping claims about British people being disillusioned with the EU, wanting a common market not a political union, over which they have had no say; this a direct attack on predecessors who shrank away from a referendum. Cameron wants to confront the issue, but not now.

Cameron argued that what is needed is a new settlement for the EU, and that this may be inevitable when the EU emerges from the Eurozone crisis. He wants to negotiate for a new settlement based on his principles, and in that he is not alone as an EU leader. Following those negotiations and redrafting an image of the future of the Union will be presented to the British people at which point an simple in or out choice will be given in a referendum.

So does it matter. Some European leaders will agree and may well work with Cameron to support his five principles. There is much truth in his critique of the workings of the EU, and many agree that reform may be needed and may now be inevitable. But these are only principles, broad brush statements about the future, there is no detail on how these would be instituted. So could this shape the EU, probably not, it will be down to future negotiations among all the leaders of the EU member states. But, Conservative MPs seem favourable and that maybe the more important aspect of the speech. He promised a referendum, delivered a very conservative and neo-liberal critique of the EU, he called for a return to economic not political union: he wore the clothes of the Eurosceptic throughout. But he seems also to have assuaged calls for a referendum now. His defence of the union, and plausible case for why not now may have won the day. So perhaps the internal and domestic political ramifications are more important than the more global impact.

But there is now uncertainty. Sometime, possibly in the next five years there could be a referendum. Possibly Cameron will push for a yes to staying a member but, if the negotiations fail, he may push for a no. How will that uncertainty impact upon our relations within the EU, the relations for pan-European business partnerships? The wider implications are as uncertain as Cameron's proposals and the future relationship between Britain and the European Union

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Can Cameron's speech pull the Tories from the Euro swamp?

As David Cameron prepares to make what may be the most important speech of his political career it looks like the Conservative Party are marching back into the fetid political swamp that is Europe all over again. Margaret Thatcher, the Tories greatest twentieth century star (after Winston Churchill) was swallowed by this swamp as was her unlucky successor John Major. 

Now it seems David Cameron is being dragged under as Europhiles and Europhobes within his party have allowed their self-destructive impulses to resurface. This is hardly surprising given the dreadful state of the Euro and the European project generally in the post-2007 financial crisis era. Voters are increasingly wary of further involvement in a European Union that is prepared to beggar the people of Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland to save the ill-conceived vanity project that is the Euro. The rise and rise of UKIP in recent years  is a clear sign that a large section of the public want as little as possible to do with the continent, its open borders, austerity plans and loss of sovereignty. With UKIP actually ahead of the Tories in one recent ComRes poll for European elections old divisions within the Conservative Party have widened dramatically as members worry that UKIP will do to the party what the SDP did to Labour in the 1980s. 
Nigel Farage toasts the Euro quagmire

The prospect of splitting the Tory vote has actually increased splits within the party as those for and against Europe begin a fight to the death. In the meantime Labour and UKIP are quietly chuckling on the sidelines as Cameron tries to navigate a middle way between the warring factions in his party that will keep both sides happy. Whatever the speech contains it is most likely to spell the beginning of the end for the increasingly fragile ConDem alliance.

David McQueen
Programme Leader: Politics and Media

Post-Leveson Conference 8th February, Bournemouth University: