MSc Masterclass 29 November 2017 -- Leninfall: Reframing the Symbols of 1917 in Ukraine

A statue of Lenin is pulled down in Kharkiv, Eastern Ukraine. (Wikipedia)

A statue of Lenin is pulled down in Kharkiv, Eastern Ukraine. (Wikipedia)

Next Wednesday sees the first special masterclass for our MSc MPPA students of 2017-18, on the topic of media, memory and Ukraine. It was the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution this month and how this is being remembered in Ukraine is very contentious. Some Ukrainians have made efforts to wipe out any physical sign that Ukraine was ever part of the USSR -- destroying signs, renaming roads, and pulling down statues of Lenin with extreme joyfulness -- also part of 'de-communization' or wiping out communism. Others object to this, feeling loyalty to Soviet symbols if not to Russia itself. Media are central to these expressions. We are delighted that Anastasya Pshenychnykh will introduce a series of recent films reflecting on how national memories become a battleground for the politics of the present. Please see the summary below.

Time: 12 noon, 29 November; Place: Boilerhouse 0-07.

Leninfall: Reframing the Symbols of 1917 in Ukraine

Anastasiya Pshenychnykh, Associate Professor, V.N. Karazin National University, Kharkiv

This seminar explores the phenomenon of de-communization as a reframing that is both strategic and inevitable in a revolution – destroying, replacing, and transferring objects symbolizing the Russian Revolution in the Ukrainian material landscape and mentality in the context of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. The symbolic gesture of physically cleaning Ukrainian statue-pedestals of the idols of 1917, and Ukrainian streets and maps from names related to Communism, is triggered by shifts in the ideological, historical and political frame. The first monument to Lenin falls with the fall of the Soviet Union and, with each statue toppled, it turns into Lenin’s fall, or ‘Leninfall’ (in Ukrainian like autumn’s falling leaves) being an everyday event during the years of Euromaidan. This phenomenon of forgetting the past by removing and substituting symbols is widely covered in Ukrainian media, becoming a leading topic of news, TV and film documentaries (Lenin fall by O. Ovsharov, Lenin fall by S. Shymko, Decomunization.UA by DOC Emotion, War and City by D. Konovalov, 70 Streets by M. Lyzhov et al). The seminar examines Ukrainians’ perspectives on the process of removing the symbols of the Russian Revolution in search of their identity. These meanings include breaking from the common Russian past, “victory” over the previous political “regime”, and distancing from the “epoch” associated with totalitarianism and anti-humanism.

Dr. Anastasiya Pschenychnykh is part of the Crisis, Conflict and Critical Diplomacy (C3EU) project funded by the Jean Monnet Network, in collaboration with Royal Holloway, University of London and several other European universities. 

You and the Autonomous Vehicle

Modern technology has a long relationship with political failure. In 1945, George Orwell was already lamenting the failures of radio to live up the expectations that it would “promote international understanding and co-operation”. Europe’s push to embrace diesel in the 1980s has been hugely problematic, so much so that less than 40 years later it is being phased put again. And of course, the internet – as incredible as it is – continues to demonstrate the lesson that as much as you may want to pin progressive politics onto technology, its development will always end up being more complicated. 

There is no reason that autonomous vehicles will be any different. But listening to Waymo, you might think autonomous vehicles were already a success. There’s just one problem: you. Last month, Waymo launched a public education campaign aimed at raising awareness around their self-defined ‘self-driving cars’. The details of this public education campaign are thin. There’s a sparsely utilised hashtag: #letstalkselfdriving, a promise of website resources, and planned public trial. “There is a lot to talk about when it comes to self-driving cars. As with any new technology, there’s great enthusiasm and curiosity about self-driving cars — and there’s some confusion, too”, reads their announcement on Medium. And here’s what Waymo thinks a person confused about their cars sounds like: ““Is that a self-driving car?” “How does it know what to do?” “Are they safe?” “When can I ride in one myself?””. 

Do you sound like this? Maybe you do. But maybe you’re not confused at all. Maybe you have an established and well-informed view on autonomous vehicles, or more generally, automation. It’s notable, and entirely transparent, that the transformations that Waymo wants to educate and inform you on are all positive. Increased safety. Increased mobility. Increased freedom. But, what if you have concerns? 

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Waymo want to talk business– not politics. So, it’s no surprise that the potential complications that come with autonomous vehicles – job losses, ownership inequality, cyber security – are brushed aside in their public education pitch. Sure, a public education campaign sounds great, at first, but it’s an old-fashioned way of engaging citizens with a new technology. It implicitly casts potential users of the vehicles as poor citizens, who are badly informed, confused, and pliant. 

This is perhaps harsh on Waymo, who, after all, are developing something of extraordinary technical complexity. However, technical achievement doesn’t automatically equate with social progress. Pew Research shows that American are about twice as likely to express concern (72%) than enthusiasm (33%) about automation in the future. 76% expect greater levels of economic inequality. With driverless vehicles in particular, 81% of the respondents expect there will be job losses among those who drive for a living, while 64% expect that it will increase feelings of isolation among the elderly. People have not simply plucked these ideas out of thin air: many have serious vested interests in the potential transformations brought about by self-driving cars. The view that you simply need to ‘educate’ these people is naïve, bordering on insulting. 

Screen Shot 2017-11-20 at 13.19.08.png

Nonetheless, autonomous vehicles now have a firmly established social imaginary. The self-driving car has already been mediatised. Exotic representations, like Elon Musk’s latest stage trick, powerfully shape how we think about these vehicles. It especially awes eager technology journalists, who have their own duties to fulfil in all this. But as Tesla’s current production figures show, the reality is more complicated. However, so powerfully have these vehicles become couched in socially progressive discourses that sceptics of their development are easily cast as technophobes or luddites. In other words, being concerned about Waymo’s or Tesla’s vision of self-driving cars means being against autonomous vehicles themselves. This isn’t right – it stifles democratic deliberation and the range of valid concerns citizens have. And what that comes down to is the way we conceive of the public in relation to the development of autonomous vehicles – which is where my research in the UK focuses.

You will have a relationship with autonomous vehicles. So, how do we meaningfully communicate about autonomous vehicles? The first thing we need to start tackling an entrenched problem: Waymo, like most tech companies, have terrible conceptions of citizenship. This is a problem exacerbated by the concerning lack of transparency that clouds the role of large tech companies in the democratic process. This needs to change.

So then, consider a different perspective: perhaps it is Waymo that needs educating, not you. 

Twitter and Nuclear Armageddon - What are the Chances? New post by O'Loughlin

The following piece is cross-posted from the LSE's Global Policy blog.

Nuclear Policy Remains a Strategic Decision, Despite Tactical Tail-Twisting on Twitter

Ben O'Loughlin, 14 November 2017


Despite fears a war of words on Twitter could trigger nuclear annihilation, a brief look at nuclear policy and social media shows Twitter can be used to reinforce strategic narratives that bring nuclear agreement – as the Iran deal showed.

The escalating war of words on social media in the summer of 2017 between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un led many to question whether Twitter would nudge us into nuclear Armageddon. The speed of reaction and counter-reaction, the potential role of misinformation to drive public opinion or executive decision-making, and the sheer level of vitriol and personal humiliation exchanged as the two national leaders twisted each other’s tails – all were factors enable by social media, and Twitter in particular. In the US, a conference explored whether we were ‘Three Tweets to Midnight’, evoking the Doomsday Clock, the device used by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to indicate how close humanity is to nuclear annihilation. Attention has moved on, but the question is instructive for understanding how media infrastructures shape both the tactical and strategic aspects of decision-making in international affairs. At the crux of the debate lies a new media infrastructure that alters how information and emotion move in global politics. If information and emotion are critical to how leaders make decisions, and information and emotion are subject to new dynamics, then those dynamics might alter decision-making.


What are the features of this new media infrastructure?

Amid the hype around Twitter’s potential ushering-in of doomsday, it is vital to understand that social media and mainstream media work together. Trump uses Twitter in ways that gain television and press coverage, and uses TV appearances to stir social media debate. Success in mainstream media means being visual, powerful, and being willing to work with journalists; success on social media means producing content that is controversial, shareable, and re-mix-able. When a politician gets these two ‘logics’ to mesh, we have what Andrew Chadwick calls the ‘hybrid media system’ in action. Simply focusing on Twitter misses how communication really works. It may be that Russian posts reached 126m Facebook users during the 2016 US presidential election but we don’t know how many of those 126m users were themselves bots. Either way, that only constituted 0.004 percent of content in users’ news feeds and most people’s daily news diet remains a mixture of television, radio, press and social media. How information on Twitter reinforces or unsettles ideas we get from other media, and from talking to people, remains little understood – and that applies both for members of the public and political leaders.

Nevertheless there are distinct features that social media and digital environments bring. Some are negative. The business model of social media companies depends on reshaping and sensationalising headlines to fit condensed formats and grab attention. Personalised media content makes us subject to ‘micro-targeted’ ads. Social media companies’ business model also forbids the simple removal of bots, since this would radically reduce the volume of activity on their platforms and risk frightening the advertisers. Social media logics also tend to create the impression of an angry-looking ‘public opinion’ that can be amplified by journalists seeking a two-sided, vox-pop driven story and drive the impression of antagonism. This might create the impression for leaders that public opinion as a whole is ‘angry’ even when only a small segment of citizens feel that way. And if the verification of public opinion can be distorted, so too can the verification of the source and authenticity of much information. This is the case for ordinary citizens as well as for journalists. We live in a digital infrastructure in which it is possible to create a composite Barak Obama and make him say whatever you want. In short, it is not difficult to see why political leaders worry about the quality of information shaping public opinion and whether the public has in many senses been radicalised.

There are also positives. First, there is little evidence that public opinion has been radicalised or enflamed by social media. A meta-review of internet use and political polarization found that, across nine recent studies, polarization has grown most in recent years among the over-75s – the cohort least exposed to or using the internet. However, they and other cohorts are exposed to television and newspapers who relay online content. Our own research has shown that around contentious events in global politics like the #PrayforParis debate, communication remains largely constructive, with antagonistic communication an outlier. Second, the quality of information reaching publics can also be enhanced. Digital environments allow some previously hidden sides of foreign policy to come into the open, and this could apply to nuclear policy too. The availability of open-source intelligence has allowed ‘forensic architecture’ researchers to reconstruct the flight path of missiles and hold authorities to account for violent actions. The ability of citizens to translate civil defence warnings in real time allows open source intelligence communities to piece together the likely landing site of missiles not long after they have been launched (though open source can go wrong). Remote sensing technologies can allow non-governmental seismologists to feed information into the public sphere about suspected nuclear tests.


How does this affect tactics and strategy around nuclear policy?

Public communication on nuclear policy could also allow de-escalation. Yes, Kim called Trump a ‘dotard’ and Trump repeatedly labelled Kim ‘rocket man’. If a leader spends her or his time glued to social media in a reactive posture then they could be more likely to fall back upon cognitive biases. We know from experimental research that priming with information can lead individuals to see the same phenomenon in radically different ways, and from what we know from cognitive approaches to nuclear decision-making, there certainly seems a risk of leaders struggling to handle both complexity and speed.

Escalation seems a danger, then. However, social media could be used for public bargaining that has de-escalating effects. “If they did this, we’ll do that.” Such a de-escalation tactic would bring credibility because the declaration and offer is made in public. It can be done on social media faster than going to a TV station to do it. It might pressure the opponent to respond publicly too. In short, public bargaining is credible, quick, and compels the adversary to respond.

Of greater importance is how the current media infrastructure shapes nuclear strategy and broader foreign policy. From the moment of decision, here we move instead ‘upstream’ to the context within which decisions are made over a longer period. We see examples of Trump actively weakening US force projection through his use of social media. At a recent event in London (1), the Russia scholar Ellen Mickiewicz noted that her ongoing research in Kazakhstan shows young Kazakhs believe that Russia is more powerful than the United States because they keep hearing Trump on the news talking of US decline. US (and European) media headlines circulated on social media declaring a ‘new Cold War’ present the possibility of a balance of power between Russia and the West. Social media can be used to shape the climate within which the power of states is considered. This has implications for what becomes appropriate strategic behaviour for those states; to be a great power or a declining power comes with assumptions about how one’s state should act in the world. Trump’s narrative of national decline may bring tactical advantages by harnessing the votes of disaffected domestic voters, but in terms of its external function Trump’s is a damaging strategic narrative. Equally, Trump’s use of social media could destabilise alliances with European, Asian or Latin American countries. This in turn would create new challenges for the containment of nuclear proliferation.

Communication through social media can also be able to create space for agreement. My forthcoming book with Alister Miskimmon on the 2015 Iran Deal is an example. Leaders in the US and Iran tacitly coordinated their communications to ensure they could appeal to public opinion in both countries. Leaders on each side recognized what ‘hardline’ messages the other needed to say in order to prevent strong opposition at home. They allowed each other leniency to be aggressive at certain moments. They used Twitter to visually portray progress in diplomatic negotiations and used press briefings to allow journalists to feel ‘inside’ the deal – that they were getting the big story, on the frontline of history. Note this was a hybrid media campaign, promoting content in different mediums that would ripple across digital and traditional media together. In short, the US and Iran shared a methodology to bridge the antagonism between their cultures. They could develop a common narrative across the two countries about where they wished to head in the future, a narrative that emphasized common values and interests and minimized points of contention. This made space for the details of a deal to be worked out.

Social media can be used to project one’s broader nuclear containment strategy, then. The point is: it requires craft, confidence, and commitment to a foreign policy strategy.


Be wary of the shock of the new

Attempts at tactical distraction and disinformation are not unique to a digital world. British propaganda helped lure the United States towards participating in World War II. And as Ilan Manor points out, when it comes to panic about the power of media over foreign policy, we have been here before. The arrival of transnational television in the 1990s led journalists and political leaders to panic about the ‘CNN effect’: the notion that live pictures of distant suffering or atrocities would stir public opinion into emotive surges that would pressure weak political leaders into foreign interventions they would come to regret. This notion was largely debunked. It emerged that foreign policymakers were committing troops to situations and TV reporters would arrive weeks later to proclaim an emergency in ignorance of their government’s ongoing intervention. Leaders also realised they could use the ‘CNN effect’ as an excuse to intervene and deflect responsibility when in fact their minds were already made up. The CNN effect debate simply reiterated that all new communications technologies present risks and opportunities for decision-makers and that strong, forward-thinking leaders already had foreign policy strategies in place. Each new media infrastructure triggers claims about speed and chaos that echo claims made when the last new infrastructure arrived. It remains to be seen whether the enhanced speed and chaos of the infrastructure of 2017 has brought about a genuinely qualitative shift in how information and emotion bear on decision-making. The likelihood is slim.

Nevertheless, the psychology of decision-making at the highest level of government remains fascinating. Trump has triggered debate in the US and wider afield about whether a president should have sole authority over nuclear strikes and, in turn, opened up debate about what nuclear weapons are for and how decision-making should work. I hope to have made clear that it is when social media use is brought into line with a committed nuclear strategy that foreign policymakers can shape the environment within which decision-making occurs. Tactics are mere tools at the service of broader foreign policy strategies, and it is strategy where our attention should focus.


(1) Reframing Russia: From Cold War to Information War? The Frontline Club, 12 October 2017.