Do Electronic Communications Contribute to Political Gridlock?

Gallup released today a poll showing that 65% of Americans say the U.S. Senate should have passed the measure on April 17 that would have expanded background checks for gun purchases. The poll also showed that only 29% agree with the Senate’s failure to pass the measure. How do background checks for gun purchases get killed in the Senate when two thirds of Americans want them?

A close friend observed that widespread, instant awareness which electronic communications foster may contribute to Congressional gridlock. Her theory goes something like this.

Politicians used to posture to their supporters in public, then go into “smoke-filled back rooms” – where compromises were reached in private – and do what they thought was right. Today, the harsh and constant glare of media attention makes that more difficult. A reporter, blogger, or special interest group is always waiting somewhere with a camera, ready to remind the world that “during your campaign, you said…”

I buy her theory and would add to it by saying:

  • Media proliferation and competition has intensified the spotlight that makes compromise difficult.
  • Special interest groups have changed the media landscape. They now have the power to reach wide audiences through self-published web sites whose authorship may be disguised.
    • They intensify that spotlight even more because they are unfettered by the need for balance, they often blur the distinction between reportage and advocacy.
    • As advocates, they can and often do paint issues as black and white rather than recognize shades of gray.
    • When advocates have a horse in the race, they tend to see compromise as a loss rather than a partial win.
  • Instant awareness can instantly mobilize opposition forces against any compromise on the table.

Of course, cultural and philosophical factors also exist that contribute to Congress’ inability to reach compromise on important issues. Nevertheless, I am stunned that our political leaders can’t even agree on something that two out of three voters want.

The background check issue is just symptomatic of a bigger issue facing Congress – gridlock. Another Gallup poll shows that only 15% of Americans approve of the job congress is doing. This approval rating is less than half the average for the last four decades – 33 percent.

Impact of Live TV Coverage on Conflict Management and Relief Efforts

CNN EffectAlmost two decades ago, UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali warned, “Television has become part of the event it covers. It has changed the way the world reacts to crises.” He was referring to television broadcasts from war zones like Bosnia and Somalia. Real-time satellite coverage (often referred to as the CNN Effect) had essentially changed the role of journalists from reporters to participants.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali was arguing that instantaneous, global broadcasts of atrocities put pressure on governments “to do something quickly.”

Nik Gowing writing in the UK-based The Independent raised the question, “But is this true? Does television really influence foreign policy?” For four months, he stepped back from the daily pressures of TV news reporting. He interviewed more than 100 diplomatic, military, and foreign-policy decision makers in the U.S. and Europe to test the conventional wisdom that images transmitted ‘live from the battlefield’ drive foreign policy decisions.

When he began the project, he felt that television coverage did drive foreign policy. After the interviews, he wasn’t so sure. He concluded that:

“Television’s new power should not be misread. It can highlight problems and help to put them on the policy agenda, but when governments are determined to keep to minimalist, low-risk, low-cost strategies, television reporting does not force them to become more engaged.”

Walter Strobel, a White House Correspondent for the Washington Times, like Gow, interviewed many foreign policy makers and military leaders. He published his findings in an article for the American Journalism Review. Like Gow, he concluded that “The CNN Effect is narrower and far more complex than the conventional wisdom holds.” He continues:

“To say that CNN changes governance, shrinks decision making time and opens up military operations to public scrutiny is not the same as saying that it determines policy. Information indeed has become central to international affairs, but whether officials use this or are used by it depends largely on them.”

The controversy over the CNN Effect continued for several years. In 2000, Peter Jakobsun from the University of Copenhagen’s Institute of Political Science studied the phenomenon and published his findings in the Journal of Peace Research. He titled the study, “Focus on the CNN Effect Misses the Point: The Real Media Impact on Conflict Management is Invisible and Indirect.” Jakubsen analyzed media coverage before, during and after violent conflicts. He concluded that:

“The media ignores most conflicts most of the time. The coverage of the pre- and post-violence phases is negligible at best and only a few armed conflicts are covered in the violence phase. As focus and funds follow the cameras, the 1990s have witnessed a transfer of resources from more cost-effective, long-term efforts directed at preventing violent conflict and rebuilding war-torn societies to short-term emergency relief. Selective media coverage also contributes to an irrational allocation of short-term emergency relief because coverage is determined by factors other than humanitarian need. This invisible and indirect media impact on Western conflict management is far greater than the direct impact on intervention and withdrawal decisions that the debate over the CNN effect focuses on.”

Jakubsen felt that real-time, satellite media coverage of conflicts contributes to “an irrational allocation of resources.” He observed that  resources are channeled from long-term development and regeneration projects to short-term emergency relief by media-inspired demands that funds be given to emergency ‘X’ one month and emergency ‘Y’ the next. During his study:

  • Official development assistance provided by The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) fell by more than 20% in constant dollars, and reached its lowest point in 45 years when measured as a percent of members’ gross domestic product.
  • By contrast, the funds provided for humanitarian relief by OECD members rose more than five fold.
  • Statistics from the UN Consolidated Inter-agency Humanitarian Assistance Appeals showed that appeals for emergencies covered by the media were far more successful than appeals for forgotten emergencies.

My Take

Live 24-hour news coverage of international crises seems to have had little effect on public policy. The biggest impact, according to Jakubsen is that more effort seems to be focused on dealing with the results of conflicts than preventing them in the first place.

New technologies always have unintended consequences. This seems to be one of the less foreseeable. But decades later, little has changed. Less than three months ago, a mass shooting of elementary schoolchildren in Newtown, CT, riveted the nation’s attention. Now, the cameras have moved on and so has the debate over how to prevent the next mass shooting. The lead story on tonight’s national news was the weather.

Communities Now Defined by Interests as Much as Geography

We live in a transitional age. Perhaps for the first time in human history, communities are now defined as much by interests as they are by geography.

Of course, interest groups existed before digital media. Scientists, clergy, physicians, industrialists, government leaders and other elites formed interest groups that transcended local communities. But for the average person, communities were defined by geography, or at least had roots in geography. Cultures, customs, dress, sports, taxes, voting,  language, transportation, markets and more all depended on “where.”

We identified ourselves by city, state and (more recently) country. Survival and civilization depended on binding ourselves together with those physically close to us. Usually, the first questions asked after meeting someone were:

  • Where are you from?
  • Where do you live?
  • Where do you work?

But the advent of the Internet began to change that. Now the first question asked is likely to be: What are you interested in?

The rapid rise of electronic forums, special interest groups, chat-rooms, social networks, dating sites, and more enabled people to reach out to others around the world who shared unique interests – regardless of geography.

Shared interests form a more powerful bond than mere proximity.

BlackManWorldMapI have a reclusive neighbor that I’ve seen twice in twenty years. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure I would recognize him if I met him on the street. However, I correspond daily with people all over the world who share my interests. I have more fun with them than most of my neighbors. I have deeper discussions. I feel for them. I share their pain in the same way that members of a church support each other in times of need.

Rather rapidly, humans are beginning to re-align themselves. Interests can now easily transcend geographic boundaries. We can easily reach out to like minded people on almost any topic, regardless of where they live in the world. The implications for government are profound.

  • Individuals who share narrow or unique interests can quickly find each other, form groups and gain recognition. This could have a splintering effect on political systems.
  • Those dissatisfied with unjust regimes can coordinate large protests and even bring down governments, as we have recently seen in Africa and the Middle East.
  • More people are becoming world citizens with global awareness. Nation states could be replaced by something larger, just as city states were replaced hundreds of years ago by nation states.
  • An electoral process based on geographic representation could become obsolete.

Should we apportion congressional seats on a non-geographic basis to ensure representation for gays, pacifists, and a woman’s right to choose?

This idea seems far-fetched, but 50 years ago, so did the idea of gerrymandering congressional and city council districts to ensure representation for Blacks and Latinos. Thanks to the awareness brought about by mass media, we’re already apportioning representatives according to interests, not just geography, on a limited basis. How much further will this trend go with digital media?

Ramifications of Decline of Trust in Media

SkepticJournalists have historically performed a watchdog function over the three main branches of government. The executive, judicial and legislative branches check the power of each other. Journalists watch over them all on behalf of the public and provide an additional check … or so the theory goes.

A 2012 poll by Gallup, Media Use and Evaluation, showed that trust and confidence in the mass media to report the news fully, fairly and accurately has reached an all time low. It peaked  in 1976, the year after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency following the Washington Post investigation into the Watergate Scandal, but as the Gallup chart below shows, trust has been declining since then.

Gallup concluded:

“This is particularly consequential at a time when Americans need to rely on the media to learn about the platforms and perspectives of the two candidates vying to lead the country for the next four years.”

“Americans’ high level of distrust in the media poses a challenge to democracy and to creating a fully engaged citizenry. Media sources must clearly do more to earn the trust of Americans, the majority of whom see the media as biased one way or the other.”

In this second, separate survey that you can see by following the link above, Gallup also  found that 60 percent of Americans see the media as biased, with 47% saying the media are too liberal and 13% saying they are too conservative. Republicans trust news media least, but curiously, Gallup found that they pay the most attention to national news.

My Take

For the moment, the lack of trust in news media seems to have caused people to become more vigilant rather than less engaged. However, one wonders when the switch will flip.

When people start to tune out, we are on the most slippery of slopes. We will lose the ultimate check-and-balance in society – an informed electorate.

Erosion of Trust in Information Fosters Polarization in Politics

A familiar thread running through many of these posts is trust. A good friend who is a very successful businessman once told me that “If you don’t have trust, you don’t have a business.” I have come to believe that saying with all my heart and soul. I think every copywriter, reporter and CEO should have it tattooed on his or her navel.

Trust is the currency of communication.

TrustWhen we don’t trust the information someone is sending us, we don’t trust him, her or them. This merely seeks to divide us. We may win elections or business deals with bad information, but we lose something larger – the relationships upon which long-term success is built.

Recent surveys indicate that the credibility of advertising and media (Pew, Gallup, Neiesen, Lab42 studies) is severely eroding. Both have fallen to about 25 percent. Said another way, three in four people automatically discount what they read, see or hear through the media, whether it’s programming, news, or advertising. By the way, that also is roughly the same percentage of people who falsify information on social media profiles.

How can we restore trust?

A good place to start is over in that far corner of the ring called truth and fairness. If you don’t believe “truth” is obtainable because it is too subjective, then let’s strive for fairness and balance.

I asked several friends, “what would you do to restore trust in the sources of information?” Here are some of the suggestions:

  1. Stop exaggerating to make your point. Yes, exaggeration sometimes gets attention. But it undermines acceptance.
  2. Acknowledge limitations of your information or knowledge.
  3. Be honest, open and fair. Don’t try to twist the facts to make a point. Selective regurgitation is not the way to get the gist of something right.
  4. Don’t withhold information that materially changes the meaning of something.
  5. Support your case with specifics. But don’t misrepresent their meaning to suit your ends. We’ve all seen too many election ads that take quotes out of context to twist the true meaning of what someone said. We’ve all seen too many people waving documents that purport to prove something is true when it is false.
  6. Cite original sources. Do your research. Don’t repeat rumors. And don’t just trust what a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend said. By the time something is filtered through a newspaper reporter who is quoted in a blog which is reposted in a tweet and then distributed in an email rant, the original meaning may have been lost. I had a conversation with my barber before the last election in which he claimed “Obama is a known communist.” Hmmmm. I thought he was a Democrat. So I asked the barber what made him think that. “Somebody wrote a book about it. Everyone knows it.” “What’s the name of the book?”  “I can’t remember.” “Well, can you tell me one thing he’s done that is communistic?” No response.
  7. Make it clear what is fact and what is your opinion of the facts.
  8. Acknowledge different sides of an argument and hold all sides to the same standard of truthfulness. Try to illuminate, not obfuscate. Nothing is more frustrating than when someone doesn’t acknowledge your point of view, but keeps spouting sound bites to make his or her point of view. This does nothing to advance the discussion, but leads to isolationism and gridlock.
  9. Don’t repeat falsehoods, even in jest. A surprising number of people get their news these days from “comedy news shows” that blur the distinction between fact and fantasy.
  10. Be suspicious of ad hominem attacks and avoid generalizations. Treat the other side with respect.

Counterfeiting the Currency of Communication

The partisan pursuit of self-interest often gets in the way of these principles. Unfortunately, when people cross these ethical lines, they undermine the trust that binds people together. People begin to trust only those that share their world view. Compromise is victimized. Politics become polarized. Winning arguments by counterfeiting the currency of communication is a prescription for disaster. The government won’t let people counterfeit its currency. Why do so many human beings willingly counterfeit their own?

Beyond Web 2.0: Proposed Specs to Foster Truth in Elections

Web 2.0 was all about personalizing the web experience. It was great in some ways. I found friends on social networks that owed me money from 40 years ago.

But frankly, in the last election, Web 2.0 failed me. All the attack ads made me wish the web offered a way to tell when someone was:Bullshit

  • Distorting an opponent’s stance
  • Exaggerating egregiously
  • Misrepresenting facts
  • Quoting out of context
  • Putting true facts in a false light
  • Withholding information that changed meaning
  • Embarking on flights of unrestrained falsity.

So I went down to the local bar, cranked up the karaoke machine, sang a chorus of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and mapped out the future of the Internet on the back of a napkin. Below, my personal wish list:

Web 2.1 would have Bullshit Daemons. (In Geek-speak, a daemon is a background process that handles user requests.) I’d like to be able to cursor over suspicious claims like “Obamacare calls for death panels” and have the daemon:

  • Figure out that Obamacare was actually H.R. 3962 from the first session of the 111th Congress
  • Locate the text of the original bill
  • Scan all 1990 pages of it for any phrases related to “death panel” such as “medical review board”
  • Determine (if found) whether such a board had the power to refuse funding for life-saving medical procedures
  • Send me the results and supporting documentation, and if the claim is false…
  • Put a big flashing red “Bullshit” warning across my screen.

Web 2.2 would have Blabber Daemons that would automatically:

  • Tag all references to false and misleading information with the aforementioned  Bullshit (BS) warning
  • Filter BS out of my searches
  • Email my contacts what I found
  • Post the findings on social networks

Web 2.3 would feature Zippo Daemons that would find all images of the biggest fibber each day on the Web. It would then retouch the images to make pants (or skirts) appear  on fire.

Web 2.4 would have an Elementary Education Daemon. It would let me highlight phrases like “Guns don’t kill people, people do.” The daemon would then:

  • Go to the FBI web site
  • Examine the latest Uniform Crime Report
  • Calculate the number of Americans who die from gunshots every day
  • Obtain autopsy photos of each victim
  • Email them to the entire NRA mailing list

Web 2.5 would feature a “What’s That On Your Shoe?” Daemon. This daemon would sniff out the consequences of lies used to justify ill-advised public policies, wars, boondoggles, and massive tax expenditures. It would then send out reminders to all registered voters before the first Tuesday in November.

Web 2.6 would introduce a “Get Real” Daemon that would highlight false flattery and pious platitudes, i.e., when someone calls America a “peace-loving nation.” The daemon would search the Internet for all wars waged in the user’s lifetime, list them by nation, rank order the list and present it to the user. When I ran this search, I found that we’ve been in some kind of war for the last 66 years straight: The Cold War (1947-92), The Korean War (1953-55), The Vietnam War (1955-75), The Contra Wars (1979-80), Grenada (1983), Star Wars (1984-93),  Panama (1989), The War on Drugs (1972 to present), Gulf War I (1990-91), Gulf War II (2003 – present), The War in Afghanistan (2001-present), The War on Terror (2001-present) plus covert wars. Let’s get real; Switzerland is peace loving.

Web 2.7 would have a Roto-Rooter Daemon because campaigning has become such a cesspool. This daemon would attach a Scarlet L to search results on all candidates who misrepresent the truth.

Web 2.8 would feature a Black-Hole Daemon that explained where my tax dollars went. This proposal may not be technically feasible.

Web 2.9 would introduce the Give-It-A-Rest Daemon. After a hard day of trying to figure out campaign claims, this daemon would program a personal robot to massage the pain in my neck, sooth my hyperactive grumble gland, and fetch a cold beer.

That last part sounds more rewarding. Maybe we should just skip from 2.0 to 2.9.