Monday, September 17, 2018

Does Democracy Only Work When It Gives Educated People The Results They Want?

"The reason I am beginning to question democracy is that it is producing results I profoundly dislike." Matthew Parris, Spectator, 12 November 2016

John Stuart Mill back in the 1800s argued the educated should have more power in political decision making as they had more knowledge, or at least what he considered the right form of knowledge. He was opposed to equal voting rights for fear the uneducated would outvote the educated. This debate continues today but takes the form that we may have too much democracy. That we need to find better ways to mediate and limit the impact of the uneducated on decision making.

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Diversity of News Sources Shared on Twitter: Immigration Case Study

In January 2018 Pew Research published the results of a study reviewing the sources shared and linked to by 11.5m tweets on the topic of immigration. The study highlights the dominant role of news organisations as news sources, 75% of the tweets linked to content from these organisations.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Role of Search Engines in Politics

In his book Off The Network, Ulises Ali Mejias, argues that search engine results present an incomplete picture of the world. They select what to index and what to return in your search results. How does this selectivity shape political opinion, if at all? Research set out in a 2017 working paper by the Quello Center found "search does indeed play a major role in shaping opinion – but it is not deterministic."

The working paper argues that while search engines are important, as they are one of the first places people go for trusted information, they are just one part of a diverse range of media sources people consult. The paper concludes that fears about filter bubbles, echo chambers, and fake news do not appear to be supported by the empirical evidence in this study of Internet users.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

10 Podcasts for Political Scientists

"What politics podcasts would you recommend?" This was one of the questions asked in my MSc Facebook Messenger group this week. As I scrolled through my podcast library I realised I now have over 20 political and media podcasts that I listen to regularly. I do love the podcast format, as I can listen while walking, driving or working out in the gym. Many also have an intimacy that make you feel part of the conversation.

Here are ten political podcasts that I can recommend based on many hundreds of hours of personal listening.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Social Media: The Ideal Platform for Populist Campaigns? Trump Case Study

A new research paper 'The Technological Performance of Populism' by Jessica Baldwin-Philippi explores how digital tools provide new ways to signal populism. The paper specifically examines how the Trump campaign leveraged this ability.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Review: Communication Power

"Power is primarily exercised by the construction of meaning in the human mind through processes of communication enacted in global/local multimedia networks of mass communication." Manuel Castells, Communication Power, 2011.

In the introduction to this book Castells outlines his attempts as a young student to engage citizens in Barcelona by leaving poorly printed leaflets in cinemas. I can emphasise with this, as a radical young student, I used a Gestetner duplicating machine to produce inky leaflets that I would distribute eagerly. Like Castells I knew communication was important and his personal introduction inspired me to dive deeper and understand more.


Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Polarisation May Be Caused By Opposing Views Rather Than 'Echo Chambers'

Polarisation has been an issue attracting much attention recently. The RSA has devoted a whole podcast series to the topic. One of the potential explanations put forward for increasing polarisation is the presence of 'echo chambers' on social media. It was therefore interesting to read recent research which found the reverse to be the case, namely that exposure to opposing views on social media can increase political polarisation.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Facebook Political Advertising in the 2017 UK Election: New Research

I was one of the people that took part in a research project Who Targets Me in 2017. I voluntarily installed a browser plug-in that allowed the project to track all adverts, including political adverts, that appeared in my Facebook feed. I was therefore very interested to read a first draft of the research findings from an LSE team led by Nick Anstead. The data set has limitations but the research provides some insights into UK political advertising on Facebook including:
  • the topics and messages of the adverts
  • the degree of focus on the leaders of the parties
  • the level of negativity in the adverts
  • the targeting of specific constituencies
  • how they used Facebook adverts to mobilise supporters

Monday, September 03, 2018

Review: The Internet and Democratic Citizenship

In their book 'The Internet and Democratic Citizenship' (2009) Stephen Coleman and Jay G. Blumler argue that for democratic participation to be meaningful and shape political outcomes, there needs to be "a new space for consequential interaction between citizens and their elected representatives". They propose establishing a new civic commons on the internet that will encourage deliberation among citizens, as well as between citizens and governmental decision makers. 


The book has three main arguments, namely: 

  1. The relations between members of the public and holders of political authority are in a period of transformative flux and there is a crisis of disengagement. 
  2. There is a relentless deterioration of mainstream political communication taking place and a deficit in political deliberation.  
  3. The internet has what the authors describe as 'the vulnerable potential' to improve public communications and enrich democracy


25 Political Scientists to Follow on Twitter

I admit it, I am a curmudgeon when it comes to Twitter. I like my feed to be informative, something that keeps me updated and informed, that provokes new ideas and makes me reflect. Holiday pictures? Put them on Instagram. Entertaining videos? Share them on Facebook. For me Twitter is a learning tool. So I wanted a Twitter list of political scientists who primarily share interesting content and not pictures of the view from their hotel room.

Friday, August 31, 2018

The News Media Transformation Has Only Just Started


"We are at the beginning of this transition, for all that we have seen, we are at the beginning."

This is the view of Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Rasmus argues, correctly in my view, that as news consumers we have never had access to better journalism from a wide range of sources. We have never had the opportunity to be better informed. The key question though is who is going to pay for this journalism?

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Review: Media and Political Engagement. The Role of Identity


"It is the engagement of citizens that gives democracy its legitimacy as well as its vitality."  Peter Dahlgren.

The social, cultural, political and technological conditions that underpin democracy are in transition. Dahlgren's book Media and Political Engagement provides a useful overview of the changes taking place. It also sets out a framework for understanding how the media influences and shapes political engagement.

By taking a culturalist approach Dahlgren highlights the role of identity and emotion in political engagement. This contrasts with the vision of Habermas, and the advocates of deliberative democracy, where political deliberation is rational with impartial reasoning.

In Dahlgren's view "to be engaged in something signals not just just cognitive engagement but affective investment. Engagement in politics involves some kind of passion." (p83).  This focus on identity and emotionality can provide insights into events such as Brexit that cannot be gained from more traditional democratic theory, with its emphasis on rationality and formal reason.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Early Planning can Make or Break a Political Campaign: Vote Leave Case Study

"You can't fatten a pig on market day"  Lynton Crosby

Tim Shipman's definitive account of the Brexit campaign 'All Out War' provides many lessons for political campaigners. One of the key lessons I took away from the book was the importance of early preparation and planning.

Over a year before the referendum Steve Baker of Vote Leave identified five early battles the campaign had to win. He also developed detailed action plans for each of these areas. This planning, and the early actions taken in 2015, were possibly decisive in winning the referendum.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Want To Reach Young Adults? Snapchat Passes Ageing Facebook

In the 2017 UK General Election the Labour Party made the decision to deploy Snapchat to get the message out to younger voters. It reported that 7.3m individuals viewed their communications on Snapchat. The latest data shows that 90% of 18-24 year olds in the UK, some 5m people, use Snapchat.

In August 2017 eMarketer reported that Snapchat had overtaken Facebook in popularity among both 12-17 year olds and 18-24 year olds in the US.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

What I Learned From An Analysis of 1.3 Million Articles About Brexit

The UK's vote to leave the European Union in 2016 led not only to intense debate and discussion, it also prompted over one million articles to be written about Brexit. In a fit of summer madness I decided to analyse these articles. These are my key findings:
  • nearly half of all social engagement with Brexit articles was with articles from just three websites
  • partisan content drives higher social engagements
  • Brexit articles that get tens of thousands of social engagements are outliers
  • most social engagements with Brexit articles take place on Facebook
  • the Facebook posts about Brexit that gain most engagement are humorous 

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Is Identity Politics Driving Polarisation and Fragmentation? Fukuyama and Identity


"Identity politics has become a master concept that explains much of what is going on in global affairs."

Francis Fukuyama's forthcoming book on Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition (4th October 2018) will lay a lot of the blame for the current polarisation of society at the door of identity politics. Fukuyama makes his position clear in an essay published this week: Against Identity Politics. He argues that identity politics threatens the possibility of deliberation and collective action by society. This new tribalism may lead to a crisis of democracy, state breakdown and, ultimately, failure.

I suspect there will be quite a backlash against some of Fukuyama's ideas. Already people are arguing on Twitter that Fukuyama sees 'identity politics' as what discriminated against minorities do and 'politics' as what white men do. His book and ideas though will add to the debate around global politics, polarisation and the role of identity politics.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Review: The New Working Class: What Is Going On?

The most shared article on Harvard Business Review in the last five years was not about business strategy or leadership techniques. It was What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class. The post published immediately after the 2016 election of Donald Trump received over 750,000 likes and shares on Facebook. This was more than four times as much engagement as any other post on HBR (BuzzSumo). Many Americans could not understand why 68 million people had voted for Trump and were suddenly very interested in what was happening beyond their metropolitan, progressive neighbourhoods.

The reaction was similar following the Brexit vote in the UK. How did Hampstead and Hull, who both shared political allegiance to the Labour Party, fracture so badly over Brexit? Three quarters of people voting in Hampstead backed Remain while two thirds of people in Hull backed Leave. In the following 2017 election just a third of working class voters backed Labour.

The political shifts taking place have prompted new research into the working class and the publication of new books such as David Goodhart's 'The Road To Somewhere', Joan Williams's 'White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America', Amy Goldstein's 'Janesville' and Claire Ainsley's 'The New Working Class'

Friday, August 17, 2018

You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet: How Smartphones And Social Technology Will Transform Political Communication

It can be difficult to imagine that just seven short years ago the majority of the US population did not own a smartphone or use Facebook. In 2010 only 27% of Americans had subscribed to Facebook (World Internet Stats), even less used messaging apps. Perhaps more surprisingly in 2011 only 35% of Americans owned a smartphone (Pew Research).

In 2012 the Obama campaign was lauded as one of the most sophisticated ever because of the way it used new technology, data and social networks. In retrospect it was just the beginning. Smartphones had not become the ubiquitous device that they are today. It was difficult to anticipate how smartphones, social media and messaging apps would turn the world of news media and political communication upside down.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Trust in News Media and Trust In Parliament: Latest Research Reveals A Strong Correlation


The latest Pew Research study of European trust in news media contains some good news and some bad news. It also demonstrates very clearly a strong correlation between trust in news media and trust in parliament.

On the positive side the overwhelming majority of people believe that news media is important. In countries such as Sweden and Germany over 60% believe it is very important. This is encouraging given the role of the media in liberal democracies, and particularly in political communication such as informing and educating citizens, and providing a platform for public political discourse.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Victory Lab: The Secret Science Of Winning Political Campaigns

Winning elections is not just about persuading people to your point of view, to win elections you need to ensure:
  1. the people that support you register to vote, and
  2. your supporters actually get to the polling booth and vote

Increasing the turnout of your supporters by just a few percent can be the difference between winning and losing an election. It can actually be more significant and critical than trying to persuade people about your policies. A meta-study in 2017 looked at 49 field experiments and concluded that campaign efforts to win over opposing supporters and undecided voters were largely unsuccessful. However, they found campaigns can mobilise your own supporters.

In the The Victory Lab (2013) Sasha Issenberg reveals the thousands of experiments that have been conducted by political parties over the last 50 years to improve registration and turnout. This is an important area that has been under-reported by the media. Only the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal has prompted any significant coverage of experiments to increase turnout and target voters. Thus it is useful to look in some detail at the secret science of political campaigns.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Review: Consumer Democracy: The Marketing of Politics


Does political marketing enhance or diminish democracy?

This is one of the key questions that arises from Margaret Scammell's book: Consumer Democracy: The Marketing of Politics.

Elections are a zero sum game, where the aim of a campaign is to win and it is this competitive element that drives political marketing according to Scammell. Such marketing may be good for democracy for example by developing a deeper understanding of citizen concerns, improving the quality of information, increasing public knowledge, encouraging greater engagement and ensuring the responsiveness of politicians. Equally there are dangers such as manipulating emotions through the use of fear and negative messaging, distortion and misinformation, tribal polarisation and ruthless targeting which can reduce transparency and ignore large sections of the electorate.

Scammell argues our task is to identify and promote political marketing that enhances democracy. She sets out a useful set of democratic dimensions against which we can assess and judge political marketing campaigns.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Review: Ctrl Alt Delete: How Politics and the Media Crashed Our Democracy

Tom Baldwin nails his colours to the mast with the sub-title of his new book Ctrl Alt Delete: How Politics and the Media Crashed Our Democracy.

The basic premise of the book is that changes in politics and the media over recent years have led to "three severe shocks" namely the Brexit vote, Trump's election and Corbyn's 2017 election performance. According to Baldwin these three shocks have "left democracy itself hanging off its hinges." (p218)

Baldwin's view is shared by many in the broadsheet press and at universities. For example Carole Cadwaller's article in the Guardian 'The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked.'  Another example is this 30th July 2019 post on the Journalism and Society Facebook page of the London School of Economics reviewing Baldwin's book.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Labour Take The Lead: Significant Poll Shift After Chequers Agreement

The political context appears to have changed since the Prime Minister's Chequers proposal on Brexit was approved by the cabinet. There were two cabinet minister resignations on Monday 9th July 2018 over the proposal. The opinion polling that has taken place since those resignations reveals a significant shift in party support.

In three polls conducted since the 10th July Conservative support has fallen and UKIP support risen, resulting in a Labour lead.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

What People Fail To Understand About Opinion Polls

This summer I have been reading Factfulness by Hans Rosling. In this best selling book Rosling sets out ten reasons why we are wrong about the world and pursues his mission to educate us about facts and statistics. This resonated with me when I read an article on the limitations of opinion polls. People simply fail to understand the margins of error on opinion polls and the potential impact.

Polls in the UK general often have a sample size of 1,200 to 2,200 people. For polls with 1,200 people the margin of error is roughly 3 percent, for polls with 2,200 people the margin of error is closer to 2 per cent. This margin applies equally to each party's vote share.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

What The FT Summer Books List Reveals About Politics And Populism

I was browsing through the Financial Times summer reading list this weekend when I was struck by a common political theme. All six books below highlight, in one way or another, the risk of global capitalism undermining national democratic accountability and giving rise to nationalist populist forces.


The Populist Temptation: Economic Grievance and Political Reaction in the Modern Era, by Barry Eichengreen

The FT says this is a lucid book on the contemporary threat of populism, defined as “a political movement with anti-elite, authoritarian and nativist tendencies” which threatens both the US and Europe. The US because there is no effective political response to the unbridled free market. The EU 'because nationalism feeds on hostility to the constraints imposed by a technocratic EU.'