Ben O'Loughlin has been visiting V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University in Ukraine this week, one of the partner universities in our Jean Monnet project on EU Diplomacy in Conflict Regions. Ben met film-maker and TV host Lidia Starodubtseva, Head of the School of Media and Communication. He talked to her students about why Ukraine is of interest to researchers in Western Europe, how they as young people can further the democratisation of Ukraine, and addressed their concerns about whether Islamic State pose a threat to cities in Ukraine. Today he will present to the School of Foreign Languages on the topic, 'Forging the World: Strategic Narratives and the Power of Language'.
This episode of NPC Wired features two doctoral researchers from the New Political Communication Unit, Amber Macintyre and Declan McDowell-Naylor. Their timely research and discussion considers the use of ethnography in their research, data privacy, and autonomous vehicles.
Amber is a current NPC PhD candidate at Royal Holloway. Her research examines the use of personal data in political organisations, exploring the tension between the benefits for campaigning and the ethical concerns. The project is inspired by her previous work as Digital Activism Officer at Amnesty International which involved training activists how to be safe online while using the same technologies to campaign effectively. Follow her on Twitter @Silktor.
Declan McDowell-Naylor is a doctoral researcher in the New Political Unit at the Department of Politics and International Relations, Royal Holloway University of London. He is also a visiting tutor, teaching on both political theory and British democracy. He is currently writing up his PhD thesis on autonomous vehicle development in the United Kingdom, with an emphasis on the role of public participation. Declan has previously worked as a research assistant on different research projects with the New Political Communication Unit. His Twitter handle is @declan_djmn1. Follow his work on his website here.
Ben O'Loughlin and colleagues have published a new report for the British Council comparing how Germany and the UK approach cultural relations. The report stems from comparative research looking at how the British Council and Goethe Institute use cultural relations in Ukraine and Egypt to create social change. The new report provides the historical reasons why each country differs in their approach - how Germany and the UK each engage with the world is part of a much longer set of political histories. This report contextualises the ongoing research project, 'The Cultural Value Project: Cultural Relations in Societies in Transition', funded by the British Council and Goethe Institute. In the next year, the team will publish findings about how cultural programmes lead to different forms of social change in hot political climates. It also reveals the unexpected consequences and tensions that emerge when a society decides whose culture it values.
Read a summary of the report and download the PDF here. Thanks to co-authors Marie Gillespie, Eva Nieto McAvoy and Malte Berneaud-Kötz.
The second episode of NPC Wired features Dr Anna Feigenbaum, Principal Academic in Digital Storytelling at Bournemouth University. Speaking with Professor Ben O'Loughlin and Dr Elinor Carmi, she discusses her current research (she is presently writing The Data Storytelling Workbook for Routledge, which will be coming out in 2019), draws on practitioners’ experiences and research to investigate how the rise in big and open data can be put to use to tell better data stories for social change. They also talk about the barriers various practitioners face when analysing data, and the fetishisation of data visualisation, among other things.
Dr. Joanna Szostek has published a new research article in Geopolitics entitled, The Mass Media and Russia’s “Sphere of Interests”: Mechanisms of Regional Hegemony in Belarus and Ukraine. In it, she argues why Russia is becoming more reliant on coercion to secure its regional ambitions, based on analysis in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. A full abstract is below. Congratulations Joanna!
Read the article here.
The Mass Media and Russia’s “Sphere of Interests”: Mechanisms of Regional Hegemony in Belarus and Ukraine
As conduits for ideas, values and geographical knowledge, the mass media contribute to the construction of regional order. Moscow-based media organisations with audiences in post-Soviet republics have been described as ‘soft power tools’ or ‘information weapons’ which aid the Russian state in its pursuit of regional dominance. However, a heavy focus on the agency of the Russian state obscures the important role that local actors and their motives often play in delivering Russian media content to large audiences in neighbouring countries. This article examines several major news providers which export content from Russia to Belarus and Ukraine, reaching large audiences thanks to partnerships that serve particular local interests and accommodate some local sensitivities. These news providers resemble mechanisms of neo-Gramscian regional hegemony, where actors in the ‘periphery’ are involved in perpetuating norms from the ‘centre’. The article argues that Russia’s political leadership, despite promoting consensual hegemony as its preferred regional order, has in fact undermined the type of media mechanisms that might have helped to sustain such an order. As the Russian state has projected narratives without regard for negative local reactions, it has made itself more reliant on coercive means to secure its declared ‘sphere of interests’ across formerly Soviet territory.
Written by: Rebecca Curley MSc MPPA.
Big Data. To what extent is it impacting our lives? That is the big debate on Big Data. For Dr Jennifer Pybus it means she is being haunted by a Made.com sofa every click she makes on her tablet and laptop. For Donald Trump it means the once laughable Simpson plot became a reality. Big Data took him all the way to the White House.
The impact of using Big Data for Trump’s 2016 election campaign team was monumental. Like an Urban Myth, teams from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica slogged it out using the data of over 220 million people to transform the election. It is not known how many were in the room, or how exactly they shared the data captured on Facebook, but one by one, certain individuals were targeted and persuaded to vote for the golf-loving genius. Through Facebook advertising and the quarks of the site, such as finding look-alikes, targeting people on ethnicity and gender, people were hand picked based on the data the Project Alamo collected.
Dr Pybus saw the result of the election, heard the one about the social media gurus and the data influencers and became suspicious. Just where is the use of Big Data taking us? During her lecture as part of the Rethinking Politics in Data Times on Monday (15th January, 2018), Dr Pybus shared what she has found in the quest for why politicians need our data and the impact resulting in Trump, the ‘First Facebook President’. Playing particular attention to the three challenges of the web set by Tim Berners-Lee last year, Dr Pybus looked at the loss of control of personal data, the concentration of ownership and algorithmic practices. Such big data practices are facilitating the intensification and spread of misinformation and the need for more accountability and regulation around political advertising. She then sought to see how this was shown through the Trump campaign by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.
The impact of the shock result and catastrophic ripple it sent through the world of campaigning, data sharing, data use and genius definition is being felt all over the world and on the internet. If it was that easy to influence the free world, imagine what companies like Facebook and Cambridge Analytica could do to the rest of it.
Dr Pybus, a lecturer in Digital Culture and Society at King’s College London, has researched the diverse ways our digital lives are being datafied and in this case, being used to persuade in politics. By looking at advertising platforms like Facebook and their work with companies like Cambridge Analytica, there is power in the use of data. Just like the cookies behind the Made.com sofa she desires (unlike the crumbs down the back of mine) data can track our thoughts, feelings and now our actions. Regulating this is a minefield. And not one that anyone seems to have mastered yet. And should it? Perhaps money spent looking at regulating should be spent on educating. If we wise up to how our data is being exploited then who has the power then?
Facebook and Cambridge Analytica were not the only weapon Trump’s team used to power their way to the top, but with millions of dollars pumped into Facebook advertising it was perhaps the most powerful. And in this digital age it is one tactic for campaigners that is only going to intensify.
The genius behind Trump is the use of the data to influence. But the morality behind any form of persuasive politics is questionable. Replace persuasion with education and strip advertising platforms like Facebook of the chance to influence and we can go back to ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ pics of furniture all we want without interference or trace.
Either that, or pay academics more so Dr Pybus can buy the sofa and be cyber-stalked by a different home interior. Trump’s team took a fresh approach to politics persuasion and it paid off. Trump’s presidency has meant politics has to catch up with what the digital age can do. As we rethink politics in the data age this is one lesson to definitely learn from. Because Big Data is out there and it’s up for grabs! Take note Oprah!
We are excited to announce the launch of the New Political Communication podcast NPC Wired.
The first episode, Examining the Middle East, spotlights on the various motivations and methodological approaches our doctoral researchers drew from in their doctoral work. Our guests are NPC alumni Dr Billur Aslan and Ibrahim Halawi from RHUL’s Centre for Islamic and West Asian Studies.
Ibrahim is a Visiting Lecturer in Contemporary Middle East Politics at the Department of Politics and International Relations, Royal Holloway University of London. He is currently writing up his PhD thesis on counterrevolution, with an emphasis on counterrevolution in the contemporary Middle East. Before starting his lectureship, Ibrahim was Commissioning Editor at the New Arab and columnist for the Middle East Eye. His book reviews and comments were published in E-IR, OpenDemocracy, Al-Jazeera, among others. His Twitter handle is @Ibrahimhalawi
Billur is currently a Visiting Lecturer in Media in Transition at the University of Bournemouth. She received her PhD from Royal Holloway, University of London in 2016, where she studied the impact of repertoires on the use of media technologies during the 2011 Egyptian and Syrian protests. Billur’s research has been published in the International Journal of Communication and Participations: Journal of Audience and Receptions Studies. She has previously worked as a research assistant in different research projects with the New Political Communication Unit of RHUL, Open University and Reuters Institute of Oxford University. Follow her on Twitter @billuraslan
New episodes will be uploaded every other Thursday of the month. Join the conversation @newpolcom
The faculty at the New Political Communication Unit have put together a short list of books we enjoyed in 2017, and point to a few we are looking forward to digesting in 2018. Take a look below.
Collins, Philip (2017). When They Go Low, We Go High: Speeches that shape the world - and why we need them. 4th Estate. 426pp
When They Go Low, We Go High presents a detailed analysis of the best public speeches that, to the judgment of the author, have been made in history. However, the book does much more than being an anthology. It presents the argument that rhetoric and democracy are intertwined. In current times, when anti-politics is the most potent political idea, the author makes a very good case to show that we need to attend to the integrity of the way we speak about politics and that good rhetoric is a tool to be used against the rise of populism and in defence of liberal democracy.
The book is divided into five sections corresponding to different political virtues and each speech was selected based on its merit to defend them. The author dissects each textual element of the speech to explain what the great speakers meant and how they said it. I particularly liked that the author introduces every speech by presenting the historical context in which it took place and relevant biographical elements of the speaker. By doing this, the reader gets a sense of the importance of the speech and the speaker to modify the social reality of the time.
In times of disillusion with politics and cynicism, this is a book that gives hope and inspiration. It offers examples of how good rhetoric can re-shape reality and motivates the reader to be careful on the way we speak about politics. In summary, this book sends a clear message that politics is, after all, about the citizen’s rights, that politics is about persuasion rather than force and that only when politics prevails, we can aspire to live in peace.
Peters, Benjamin (2016). How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet. MIT Press.
Starting with the question 'what makes the same technology take shape differently in different contexts?', Benjamin Peters provides a fascinating journey to the untold history of the Soviet Union internet. But unlike the usual way of presenting the 'success' story of technology, Peters decides to show the failure. With How Not to Network a Nation, Peters
follows the footsteps of other science and technology scholars such as Janet Abbate, and shows the complex cultural and social contexts that made the All-State Automated System of Management (OGAS), fail. This is particularly interesting as its main developer, Viktor M. Glushkov, was inspired by the american approach - cybernetics.
Peters shows the rocky road the Russian scientists had trying to network the nation between 1959 to 1989, by building a computer network that would optimise the socialist project, and would be an early version of cloud computing (workers would be able to collectively access, upload and download information, all remotely and in a decentralised way). The difference between the OGAS and its North American counter part ARPANET, as Peters argues, was that the latter, “was designed to resemble a brain of the nation because its visionaries first imagined the nation as a single distributed brain of users. In the Soviet Union, the OGAS was designed to resemble a nervous system for the nation because its visionaries first imagined the nation as a single incorporated body of workers” (Peters, 2016, p. 120). The only thing that Glushkov and his fellow scientists did not consider was that unlike the cybernetic approach, some people did not want to delegate control to machines. Automation might seem like the efficient way to run a nation, but people, and especially politicians, do not want to give their power to competitors, whether humans or machines.
This story is particularly relevant in the overwhelming focus on the U.S.A version of networked technologies and services. It allows us to see that America was not always first, but crucially that the internet can be different. The book highlights how cultural values are 'baked' into technology design and reveals the complex politics behind such huge visionary projects.
Gürsel, Zeynep Devrim (2016). Images Brokers: Visualizing World News in the Age of Digital Circulation. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Image Brokers presents a decade of research including ethnographic fieldwork at news agencies in Paris and New York, at photographs schools and competition ceremonies on many continents, as well as textual analysis of news images and stories. This huge empirical contribution allows the reader to chart the time of digital transition in news journalism – a period of uncertainty and adaptation. It is a period marked by the broadening of the War on Terror and proliferation of conflict journalism around the world. It is also a time when doubts about the centrality of visual communication in news and politics were displaced. While others have depicted this period in terms of crisis, Gürsel identifies positive opportunities for the news industry. ‘As I watched what began as a war that had to be covered digitally become a digital war of images,’ Gürsel writes, ‘I grew increasingly convinced of the political potential of visual journalism’.
Gürsel offers an agenda. She writes, ‘The time is now to harness the explosion in photographic imagery and promote forms of journalism in which images are not merely illustrative but generate new kinds of investigations’ (italics added). Gürsel finds numerous examples that show alternatives to the traditional notion of solo-photographer-in-field-sends-stereotype-to-newsroom. Various forms of collaborative newsmaking, underpinned by mixed economy models and the diffusion of digital technology, show how audiences as well as professionals can use visual communication to explore issues they care about and present them in numerous ways. It is difficult to do justice to all of the people and groups she finds doing this at multiple sites over many years of fieldwork.
In the current zeitgeist of journalism in crisis and the need to ‘fix the news’, Gürsel finds hope in the ways many professional and non-professional photojournalists are adapting practices to renew the informative, truth-making, world-making functions of news that we depend on.
Eriksen, Thomas Hylland (2016). Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change. London: Pluto / Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Eriksen starts with the big picture and then offers an original diagnosis: the narrative of development in modernity has no meaning now that we have reached a time of permanent crises. There are no coherent ideologies that address contemporary problems, and the complex systems we inhabit only worsen risk and its effects. Few would disagree. However, Erikson goes on to argue that ‘the crises of globalization are not caused by malevolent intentions … [instead] we are confronted with a series of clashing scales’. To produce the necessary understanding of such clashing scales, Eriksen draws on a series of globally scattered ethnographic projects and in each location shows how scales clash by articulating concepts such as ‘the double bind’, ‘treadmill competition’ and ‘runaway processes’ that capture how people and technologies become bound into logics that obscure their grasp of their situation and compel them into outcomes that seem sensible but only lead to destruction or alienation. Eriksen identifies lags in time and pace between different groups and how these create pressure points that can resentment and conflict. Some digital diaspora whizz around the world at speed, between superdiverse cities, but they rely on slow, cheap labour and raw materials, creating waste and overheating the climate, while other diaspora remain stuck in camps, surrounded by host societies that feel growing unhappiness towards them. This is a world of clashing rhythms and boundaries. Perhaps we need large scale projects to regulate global finance, climate and security but past large scale projects have caused harm as well as good, often seen first at the local level before their systematic character is realised. Thus it is a world of clashing horizons – and scales – too.
It may not be necessary to agree with all of Eriksen’s analyses, but he is right in pointing to a generalized sense of a loss of control over our economic lives, our political identities, and our physical environment, and no shared narrative about what the global information society is coming to mean. Where Eriksen is particularly good is in alerting us to ways that narratives of progress in the past that seemed positive at the time now appear regressive or at least not so straightforward. For instance, if we accept we are living in the Anthropocene, then the narrative of industrialization and growth since the eighteenth century (here in the UK at least) is now reframed as a narrative of accidental global destruction. Eriksen’s wager is that reframing old stories might help us develop new lines of sight and action.
Books to look out for in 2018
Bucher, Taina. IF…THEN: Algorithmic power and politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
If you have conducted research or taught algorithms in the past few years there is no way you could avoid Bucher's work. With her innovative methods and mixed approach (not to mention fantastic writing skills which allow you to teach algorithms to undergraduates), Bucher provides interesting and inspiring way to examine these complex and opaque procedures.
Gehl, W. Robert. Weaving the Dark Web: Violence, Propriety, Authenticity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
With his fascination to alternative social media and being involved with The Torist (a literary journal hosted on Tor), Robert Gehl is taking this passion for the dark side to the next level. His critical view on media technologies and their standards was well crafted in his previous excellent book from 2014 Reverse Engineering Social Media, and in his new book Gehl will tackle the very notion of darkness of the web. The book is supposed to discuss the 'dark web' in a more nuanced and critical way, uncovering the moralistic and political incentives behind this binary categorisation.
Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press.
Following her influential work on the discrimination of black women by algorithms and co-editing one of the best edited collection books in 2016 - The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, and Culture Online, Safiya Noble will publish her anticipated book about data discrimination.
Parisi, David. Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Minnesota University Press.
In this book David Parisi will outline the history of how people engage with technology by focusing on touch. With more and more technologies become depended on touch as the main interface, this book looks timely and an important contribution to the research of senses and technology.
This term’s Research Seminar will be kicked off by Prof Ben O’Loughlin, professor of International Relations at Royal Holloway’s PIR and Director of the New Political Communication Unit. His publications include Forging the World: Strategic Narratives and International Relations (University of Michigan Press 2017), Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and the New World Order (Rouledge 2013), Radicalisation and Media: Connectivity and Terrorism in the New Media Ecology (Routledge 2011) and War and Media (Polity 2010). Prof O’Loughlin will talk about 'Winning hearts and minds in hot spots? Explaining the effects of EU strategic narratives in Ukraine, Israel and Palestine'.
The Research Seminar takes place this Wednesday, 10 January and starts at 4.30 pm in FW101.
The journal Critical Studies in Media and Communication has published a new article by Ben O'Loughlin, Deflating the iconoclash: shifting the focus from Islamic State’s iconoclasm to its realpolitik. This is part of a special issue, ISIS beyond the spectacle: communication media, networked publics, terrorism, edited by Mehdi Semati and Piotr M. Szpunar featuring an impressive range of contributors including Barbie Zelizer, Lilie Chouliaraki and Charlie Winters. Please find an abstract of Ben's paper below.
This article explores the tension between religious and political motivations in the strategy of Islamic State. It develops the Arendtian model of politics as a space of appearance through the work of Silverstone, Devji and Cavarero to consider how Islamic State exhibits itself in this space using religious modalities. This space is conceptualized as a global media ecology. Whilst no political actor can control how it is recognized within that ecology, religious and even ethical modalities grant Islamic State a compelling attention-grabbing and persuasive capacity. However, greater exposure of its pragmatic, realpolitik behavior might deflate that identity. The second half of the article sets out several examples of such behavior. The article concludes by suggesting that icons are something all societies live with but the news media that constitute the global space of appearance remain transfixed by iconic acts or icon-smashing. This leaves publics-cum-audiences adrift, uncertain and anxious about the nature, actions and threat of Islamic State.