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.



Note the post opines not just that democracy is diminished but that "the world has gone mad."

In reality were Brexit, Trump and Corbyn "severe shocks", were they "mad" decisions which prove as Baldwin argues that "resonance beat reason" (p209) and demonstrate that democracy is under threat?

These three events may have been a shock from a liberal metropolitan perspective but if we take a wider view they were not so shocking or surprising.

1) Brexit

The 1975 referendum did not settle the issue of European membership as we can see from Ipsos-Mori polling. In 1979, just four years later, a poll found a large degree of regret and 60% said they would vote to leave in a new referendum with only 32% supporting staying in. A year later in 1980 the gap had widened to 65% to 26% in favour of leaving. After Thatcher had negotiated various opt outs opinion shifted and by 1987 there was a 47% to 39% majority in favour of staying in.

By 1999 there was still a narrow majority for staying in. But there was no majority for closer union, in the 16 years from 1991 to 2007 there was never a majority for joining the single currency. In September 2000 under Blair there was a 46% to 43% majority in favour of leave. In September 2007 there was a 51% majority for remain. In 2012 there was a 48% to 44% majority in favour of leave.

In the two years from 2014 to February 2016 there were stable majorities for remain of 50%-53% to 36%-39%. However, once referendum campaigning got under way the polls narrowed. Of the 20 polls conducted from 10th June to the 22nd June 2016, 10 had leave ahead and 10 had remain ahead. Most polls either way were within the margin of error.

Given this history was Brexit really such a shock?

2) Trump

In the case of Trump the opinion polls in the run up to the election typically had Clinton 2% to 5% ahead. In the final nationwide vote she finished 2.1% ahead. The real surprise was not the nationwide vote share but that Trump won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which had not gone Republican since the 1980s. Winning these states along with the swing states of Florida and Ohio meant Trump won the majority of the electoral college votes despite a lower nationwide vote.

This was not the first time the Democrats had won the nationwide vote but lost in the electoral college. In 2000 Gore won 500,000 votes more than Bush nationwide but lost by 5 seats in the electoral college.

For the 'rust belt' states, and many others, the Obama years were a period of austerity, job loss and of falling pay in particular. Unemployment in all three states more or less doubled around 2008 and though it recovered slowly, secure employment was often replaced by more insecure and lower paid jobs. This is documented well by Amy Goldstein in Janesville. In 2007 the real median household income in the US was $58,149, this fell consistently to $53,331 by 2012 and only recovered to $57,230 by 2015. Thus median wages were still lower than they were eight years previously. Only in 2016 did real median household income get back to the level of 2007. Source FRED economic data.

In this context was it so shocking that, despite Trump as a candidate, many people in these 'rust belt' states voted for something different? What was possibly more shocking was that the Clinton campaign took these states for granted. For example, Clinton did not make a single campaign visit to Wisconsin.

3) Corbyn

Tim Shipman's account of the 2017 UK election in his book 'Fallout' reveals in detail the disastrous campaign of Theresa May and how the Conservative vote collapsed after the publication of their manifesto.

By contrast Corbyn's manifesto policies on issues such as tuition fees, nationalisation and the health service were more aligned with those of the British public. For example, on Corbyn's proposed nationalisation of the railways, the public is 60% in favour and only 25% opposed. Source: YouGov

Despite a better campaign and core policies aligned with public feeling, Corbyn still failed to win. He performed much better than many political commentators, academics and journalists anticipated but given the circumstances was it a really shock he did so well?

Living in an Echo Chamber?

Why were the three events (Brexit, Trump and Corbyn) such a shock to so many commentators? In his book WTF Robert Peston acknowledges that commentators in liberal metropolitan areas probably didn't fully understand what was happening in other parts of the country.  He says "It wasn’t just me, ... my entire circle were out of touch with millions of British people." Steve Bannon put it more bluntly saying the media is "just a circle of people talking to themselves who have no fucking idea what is going on." (Ctrl Alt Delete P228).

Failing democracy?

What about democracy? Is it 'hanging off the hinges' as Baldwin suggests.

McNair defines democracy as requiring constitutionality (a set of rules), participation and rational choice. In terms of participation at least, democracy seems in good health.

Turnout in the EU referendum was 72.2% of those registered to vote. This was higher than the 64.6% turnout in the 1975 EU referendum. The 33.5m people that voted in 2016 was also the highest number of people for any election or referendum in the UK.

In the US 2016 presidential election Pew Research reported that a record number of 137.5 million Americans voted. Overall voter turnout as a percentage was similar to 2012, lower than 2008 but it was similar or higher than turnout in presidential elections from 1972 to 2004.

In the UK 2017 general election the percentage of registered voters who actually voted was 68.7%. The highest for 20 years.

This is not to say there is not a crisis of liberal democracy. I believe there is a real crisis but it is not found in the issues raised by Baldwin which I cover below. Political legitimacy relies on consent which is elicited by a shared belief in representative democracy.  This belief in representative democracy is being called into question. Surveys from across the world show that citizens do not feel represented by their government. This gives rise to a potential crisis of political legitimacy.

Where there is direct democracy, such as a referendum, the gap between citizens and the political and economic leaders becomes very apparent. In some cases the leaders may have to resort to imposing their view which undermines their legitimacy and further calls into question the political system and its legitimacy. Ironically if Baldwin is successful in his campaign for a second referendum, or political leaders impose their view that the UK should remain in the EU, this may further undermine the belief and trust of citizens in the mechanisms of representation.

Baldwin's Issues of Concern

In terms of engagement and participation, democracy appears on the surface to be strong. However,  Baldwin identifies many key issues of concern in relation to the constitutionality, regulation and rational choice based on knowledge. Some of the major concerns identified by the book are as follows.

Regulation

In the UK Baldwin questions why political parties are banned from paid-for advertising on TV and radio but not on social media. This is more than a quaint anachronism, it is a major ommission and one which the latest DCMS select committee report starts to address.

Social media is a forum for political debate and it does influence political views. A Pew Research study in 2016 found 20 percent of respondents admitted that they had changed their minds about a political issue or candidate after seeing the issue or candidate discussed on social media.

Transparency

The nature of social media or search engine advertising is very different from traditional posters or even TV advertising. Adverts can be targeted so they only appear for specific audiences, known as micro-targeting. The Obama presidential campaigns were the first to really move from targeting general demographic groups to micro-targeting individual voters based on profile data. (The Victory Lab).

Micro-targeting raises a transparency issue as for example, no one can see the adverts that are being published to individuals or specific audiences. It is also not always transparent which ads on social media are from political parties or organisations. Facebook did make available to the DCMS select committee example ads used by the Leave micro-targeting campaign, such as the one below.


The committee's report recommends a ban on micro-targeting of adverts based on similar audiences i.e. Facebook ads that allow you to target similar audiences to the profiles you upload.

Polarisation

The rise of social media and the internet may have contributed to the increasing polarisation of views. Sunstein in 2001 reported on the tendency for group polarisation on the internet and Noam in 2002 argued that political arguments become more 'distorted, shrill and simplistic' to get attention in a noisy world of online content.

Robert Peston acknowledges in his book WTF that emotional posts generate far more engagement in terms of shares, likes and comments than more neutral post updates. Social media marketers have been aware of this for some time. Emotional hooks in headlines create more engagement. Tribal content also gets more engagement as people share to show they are part of a tribe and to support their tribe.

The more tribal the content the more people share. Baldwin covers in detail the development of alt right sites such as Breitbart and also alt left sites such as the Canary or Skwawkbox. Jim Waterson, when he was at BuzzFeed, also highlighted how traditional media lost its monopoly on the political news agenda to these new tribal content sites.

It may be the case that mainstream newspapers are creating more emotional tribal content to keep up in the hunt for online engagement and visitors. What is clear is the new alt sites create highly emotional and tribal content which encourages a lack of respect for the other side in a political dialogue. Combined with social media this may have increased the coarseness of debate and the outright abuse of those with alternative political views. Baldwin does a good job of highlighting the rise in online abuse of politicians and others.

Misinformation

One of the themes of the book is that misinformation or fake news has damaged democracy by making it harder to have a well informed public that can make reasoned decisions. Baldwin accepts that traditional media outlets may have played their part in this initially by creating stories that stretched the truth.

A study by Princeton's Andrew Guess, Dartmouth University's Brendan Nyhan, and the University of Exeter's Jason Reifler found that those on social media were most likely to see fake news. Their study found the more someone used social networks, and Facebook in particular, the more they were likely to see fake news.

The study by Guess et al found that a small proportion of people account for a large number of visits to fake news sites. It also found that people are more likely to believe fake news stories that ideologically align with their own views.

This is consistent with a Stanford Study on fake news. Commenting on the study's findings Neil Irwin in the New York Times says: "It may be less that false information from dubious news sources is shaping their view of the world. Rather, some people (about 8 percent of the adult population, if we take the survey data at face value) are willing to believe anything that sounds plausible and fits their preconceptions about the heroes and villains in politics."

This might suggest that fake news or misinformation is reinforcing the views of the ideologically committed rather than changing the views of people i.e. confirmation bias.

Trust in the media

Baldwin highlights how we are living in a low trust world. Below are the latest 2018 Edelman trust findings for the UK which show low level of trust in government and the media.


There has been no dramatic decline in recent years though the media remains the least trusted institution. The good news, as Baldwin notes, is that trust has actually started to rise in traditional media. In a world of content overload and fake news stories it does appear that people are reacting with higher levels of trust in traditional media and have very low levels of trust in social media as we can see below.


Facebook has been shaken by the allegations that it contributed to Trump's election victory, that it promotes fake news, by the very low levels of trust in social media and by more recent data privacy scandals. In an attempt to rebuild this trust Facebook has launched a major campaign to highlight what it is doing to combat fake news and has changed its newsfeed algorithm to ensure it promotes what it views as quality content. This campaign has been received very cynically by some, witness John Oliver's alternative Facebook video.

Trust is also related to your personal experience and world view. If newspapers adopt a more tribal, polemical and campaigning approach on issues they may be less trusted by those with different views and experiences. In the US newspapers such as the Washington Post and New York Times have taken a strong stance against the Trump presidency. In the UK The Independent has started actively campaigning for a second EU referendum.

The relationship between trust and tribal politics is reflected in the numbers. Baldwin reports a Gallup poll in 2016 (p229) which found that 72% of Democrats have confidence in the news media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly. However, that fell to just 14% amongst Republicans. I suspect Brexiters would equally have low trust in content from The Independent or Guardian as would Remainers have low trust in the Daily Mail.

The power of the platforms

The big platforms such as Google and facebook have unprecedented political access and influence. Baldwin points out that Google visited the White House more than once a week during Obama's eight years. Baldwin also highlights the number of senior people that move between government and the major tech platforms in both directions.

The power of the platforms though does not just arise from political access and influence but from the fact they mediate what people see and read. Google decides what content is returned for any search and Facebook increasingly tightly controls the content you see in your newsfeed.

When Facebook says it is promoting quality content in the newsfeed it is Facebook's interpretation of quality. There have been complaints from anti-abortion sites that their content is becoming invisible on Facebook. Nigel Farage and other eurosceptics have argued that Facebook's algorithm changes on quality content have reduced their traffic from Facebook by over 25%. Many may applaud these changes but a major concern to any democracy should be the power of the platforms to determine what users see and read, and more importantly what they censor or lower in the results or newsfeeds so the content becomes invisible.

It was recently reported that Google has agreed to build a Chinese search engine which will block certain search terms and not show content as requested by the Chinese government.

Summary

Baldwin raises many valid issues for all of us concerned about the future health of democracy and politics. We live in an imperfect world of information and knowledge, low trust, polarisation and concentrated power in the hands of unaccountable platforms.

The reveals the shock and dismay felt by many metropolitan liberals and the way they have reached for explanations such as misinformation to rationalise what in their view are 'mad' or 'unreasoned' decisions. The real shock might be that the Brexit, Trump and Corbyn results are actually the result of democracy in action.

In recent years political parties for various reasons have lost control over how their leaders are appointed. For example, Trump winning the Republican nomination despite not being a Republican or Corbyn winning the Labour Party leadership. Where individual members make decisions we see more populist leaders winning and the traditional mechanisms of representative democracy come under strain.

There is a crisis of liberal democracy as I mentioned above but it is quite a different crisis to that outlined by Baldwin. Traditionally political parties gave legitimacy and stability to liberal democracy by being part of the processes of formal participation and through representatives that bridge and moderate the gap between citizens and the establishment in its various forms. These mechanisms of representative democracy are being called into question which potentially threatens to undermine political legitimacy.