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Data – a Critical Resource for Higher Ed

Also published on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/data-critical-resource-higher-ed-terri-givensdata

About a year ago, one of my deans was arguing for a new piece of software to help with one of our accreditation processes. I realized that we should probably try to coordinate any new software purchases that were data related with other parts of campus that were using similar data, i.e., HR, admissions, development and the registrar’s office. When we all sat down around the table, it was clear that our data needs overlapped, but it wasn’t clear how we could meet those needs without dealing with legacy software that would be expensive to update, and any direction we looked was going to cost a significant amount of money. As I have discussed these issues with others in higher ed and in industry, it’s clear that data and how to manage it is a difficult but critical issue that needs to be addressed on a variety of fronts.

When I decided to take the provost position at Menlo College three years ago, I was excited at the prospect of moving back to the San Francisco Bay area, and Silicon Valley, in particular. I had a particular interest in the ed tech ecosystem that was developing and new initiatives that were starting to change the face of education. What I have learned over the last three years is that one of the most important, yet underappreciated resources for academic administrators is the data that we can gather in our programs and how important that data is to the ability of our institutions to thrive in a changing environment. I am also starting to learn the role that ed tech, and Silicon Valley more broadly, is playing in the development of tools to deal with these issues. What I am finding is that there is a need for more collaboration with the players in tech, particularly from those of us in academic administration.

It’s clear that data is important for admissions, assessment, retention and tracking alumni, but what has become more clear to me, particularly over the last year, is the need for academic administrators to have a better understanding of the way that data and software are linked. I admit that until I started dealing in more detail with accreditation issues around assessment and collecting data for program learning outcomes, I was blissfully unaware of the potential and need for collecting data within academic affairs. I knew that syllabi had to let students know what we expected them to learn, and that we should be able to document what our students have learned by the time they graduate, but in the past year I have had to get into the granular details of what it means to actually design academic programs in a way that allows data to be collected, and ultimately for that data to be used for updating courses and making changes to curriculum.

I’m grateful to organizations like Salesforce.org who have had the foresight to bring together provosts and presidents to discuss innovation in higher ed in California. When I attended their Higher Ed Summit in Washington DC this past March, I learned a great deal about the wide range of uses of Salesforce and ways that it can be customized through apps. What surprised me was how few academic administrators were there who weren’t in IT, admissions, or development. Administrators who come from the faculty ranks rarely have expertise in data management or software, but given the need to provide our faculty with the tools they need, for assessment in particular, it’s important that we understand where data is coming from, and how it can be utilized from admissions all the way through the processing of alumni data. For example, how can we know if our students are learning what they need to know if we aren’t tracking our alumni and their job outcomes? We need to make sure we are getting feedback and then get that data to our faculty in a way that allows them to understand what is and isn’t working in the classroom.

Of course, we also need to provide more support and give more credit to faculty who are performing well and creating innovations in the classroom. I know many R1 institutions, including my former institution, the University of Texas at Austin, have provided major teaching awards and are doing more to recognize teaching, particularly at the undergraduate level. Small teaching institutions often lack resources to have the software and data management tools that would provide support for faculty, and it will be up to the innovators in ed tech and higher ed to work together to find ways to simplify and support new ways of connecting data, like workforce data, to learning outcomes, perhaps through learning managements systems like Blackboard or Canvas.

Finally, we administrators need to educate ourselves on the appropriate tools for our institutions, and I know this isn’t an easy thing in these lean times for higher ed. However, it is an important piece of the puzzle as we look to increase enrollment and retention of a more diverse student body. It will take collaboration, and I have seen many of these collaborations developing around the country, between colleges and universities, local and state governments, and the corporate sector. Foundations and the Department of Education are funding projects that support evidence based (i.e., data collection!) innovations in teaching and research that will help colleges and universities use data in ways that will fuel innovation in higher ed for the foreseeable future.

From Jews to Syrians, America’s Long History of Rejecting Refugees

Essay by Terri E. Givens, Menlo College

First published in ISSF Policy Roundtable 1-8: Immigration and Refugee Policy in Donald Trump’s America, April 22, 2017

https://networks.h-net.org/node/28443/discussions/176382/issf-policy-roundtable-1-8-immigration-and-refugee-policy-donald

The Trump administration’s Executive Order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into The United States,” raised fears about acts of discrimination and potential violence against Muslim migrants and even citizens in the U.S. The first version of the Order, issued in late January 2017, banned Syrian refugees indefinitely.[2] This led to intense criticism, because barring civilians from fleeing a warzone seemed to be a shocking betrayal of America’s moral responsibility, not least because U.S. military efforts in the Middle East were partially responsible for the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the breakdown in regional security. The initial order also ran afoul of U.S. and international law by discriminating between Christian and Muslim refugees. A Federal District Court judge quickly issued a temporary restraining order that blocked implementation, which was subsequently upheld by a panel from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The administration responded by issuing a new order in early March that removed the exemptions for Christians and changed the status of Syrian refugees, who would face a 120-day suspension rather than an indefinite ban.[3] But these changes have not convinced critics, many of whom suspect that the order is broadly aimed at Muslims, and federal judges blocked the revision as well.

Unfortunately, there are many historical precedents for discriminatory immigration restrictions that focus on particular ethnic, racial, and religious minorities. Immigration flows into the U.S. were relatively open, particularly those coming from Western Europe, until the late nineteenth century. Between the Civil War and WWI, the United States shifted from a relatively open country of immigration, to one with restrictions, particularly on immigrants from countries that were considered undesirable.  Immigration policy shifted from the state level to the federal level, making national level politics paramount in determining the direction of policy. In New York and the East Coast the focus was on Irish, and Southern and Eastern European immigrants.  However, the main impetus for immigration restriction would truly begin on the West Coast of the United States.  California became the focal point for immigration restrictions as Chinese immigrant laborers came to fill jobs in the gold fields and mines, as well as building the Trans-continental railway. A coalition of unions, Southern Democrats, exclusionists (i.e., nativists) like the Anti-coolie clubs, and pragmatic Republicans supported Chinese exclusion.  After many years of political wrangling and rewriting of the Burlingame treaty[4] with China, the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882,1888, and 1892 effectively suspended the flow of Chinese immigrants, consolidated federal control of policy (particularly through the Immigration Act of 1875), and would ultimately lead to broader restrictions at the beginning of the twentieth century.[5]

Nativism was also growing beyond the West coast. Increased flows from Southern and Eastern Europe raised concerns that these immigrants from mostly Catholic backgrounds were less intelligent and would be difficult to assimilate. Many of these immigrants were considered to be of ethnic stock that was not desirable, hallmarks of early 1900s eugenicist thought that there was a hierarchy of races.  Similar efforts occurred to restrict the number of Asian immigrants to California. Nativist groups fought for literacy tests and other restrictions that would keep these immigrants from being able to enter the country.[6]

After World War I, a war weary and isolationist Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1921 and the Reed-Johnson Act of 1924, which established a system of quotas based on national origins. The 1921 Act created quotas based on the 1910 census that limited immigration to 3% per year of each European nationality already residing in the U.S. Some felt that this still allowed too many Southern and Eastern Europeans. The 1924 Act limited immigration to 2% per year of each nationality, based on a decades-old census conducted at a time when there were fewer immigrants coming from Southern and Eastern Europe. The predictable effect was a sharp reduction in the number of new entries from targeted countries. The annual ceiling from the 1921 act of 387,803 was reduced to 186,437. This was a huge reduction in levels of immigration, which previously stood at approximately 700,000 per year. By 1925, Japanese exclusion was also phased in along with the already existing Chinese exclusion policies[7]

These decisions institutionalized racial bias in U.S. immigration policy, which had a major impact on refugees, particularly Jewish refugees, during World War II. The refugee issue became a particularly poignant one for the U.S. during the early years of WWII. As the Nazi government began to persecute Jews in Germany, many tried to escape to other countries, including the United States. Unfortunately, the restrictive policies implemented during the 1920s and anti-Semitic personnel in the State Department kept many Jews from getting the papers they needed to leave Germany and other parts of occupied Europe.  As Daniel Gross recently noted, “Most notoriously, in June 1939, the German ocean liner St. Louis and its 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, were turned away from the port of Miami, forcing the ship to return to Europe; more than a quarter died in the Holocaust.”[8]These refugees were not only turned away by the U.S., however. Other countries also turned away Jewish refugees, many of whom perished in concentration camps during the Holocaust [9]

It is important to note that the U.S. diplomatic corps was a key player in keeping Jews from gaining visas to leave Germany. After an investigation by Treasury officials in 1943, the “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government to the Murder of the Jews” found “the State Department guilty of ‘willful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler’.”[10] Even these highly trained professionals allowed their own racial biases to taint their role in processing visa applications. Today, airlines and border officials play a role along with diplomats in the processes which allow or limit the movement of immigrants into the country. As more people become involved in these processes, particularly airline employees who may not be trained to read the appropriate documents, it is possible that there will be greater reliance on racial and ethnic profiling as people travel across international borders. In fact, the Executive Order may encourage that profiling by targeting specific countries and groups.

The good news, however, is that U.S. allies have not yet followed the U.S. example. Germany has taken the lead in welcoming Syrian refugees in Europe, and Canada has continued to accept Syrian refugees. Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have urged continued support of those fleeing violence in the states covered in Trump’s Executive Order, and from other parts of the world. Apparently the lessons of history have not been lost on all countries, even if the United States is suffering from temporary amnesia.

Even after the devastating terror attack on 9/11, the country did not turn its back on its Muslim citizens and allies. More recently it welcomed Syrian refugees, though in comparatively smaller numbers. These individuals have not been a source of terrorism; U.S. vetting processes have so far proven to be robust. In order to avoid potential negative impacts on the security of the United States it is imperative that the U.S. maintains strong relations with its Muslim allies. Doing so will reduce opportunities for groups like ISIS to recruit new followers. It is thus a security interest and a humanitarian imperative that we avoid the mistakes of the past.

2] Donald J. Trump, “Executive Order: Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 27 January 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/27/executive-order-protecting-nation-foreign-terrorist-entry-united-states.

[3] Donald J. Trump, “Executive Order Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 6 March 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/03/06/executive-order-protecting-nation-foreign-terrorist-entry-united-states.

[4]A treaty which ensured a flow of low-wage workers while protecting China from external influence. See State Department, Office of the Historian, “The Burlingame-Seward Treaty, 1868,” n.d., https://history.state.gov/milestones/1866-1898/burlingame-seward-treaty.

[5] Daniel J. Tichenor, Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[6] Tichenor, 2002. See also, Aristide Zolberg. A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (New York: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[7] Tichenor, 145.

[8] Daniel A. Gross, “The U.S. Government Turned Away Thousands of Jewish Refugees, Fearing That They Were Nazi Spies,” Smithsonian Magazine, 18 November 2015; http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/us-government-turned-away-thousands-jewish-refugees-fearing-they-were-nazi-spies-180957324/#62sLBayG6F63ExTh.99.

[9] See David S. Wyman, 1984. Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945 (New York, Pantheon Books), see also Tichenor, 2002.

[10] Quoted in Tichenot 2002, 167, see also David Wyman, ed., 1990, America and the Holocaust: Showdown in Wasington (New York: Garland).

From Wakanda to Gettysburg

The CrisisSince I saw Black Panther (twice), I have been ruminating on Killmonger’s final words “Nah, bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.” When I heard this quote for the first time, I was nearly sobbing. It gave me a great sadness to think of my ancestors who clearly did not jump into the ocean, or else I wouldn’t be here. It brought to mind the great weight of slavery that those of us still bear, generations later.

And yet…the more I thought about it, the angrier I became. Killmonger’s ancestors didn’t jump into the ocean, or else he wouldn’t be alive. Most African-Americans are here because our ancestors didn’t or couldn’t jump into the ocean, and those who did weren’t any braver than our actual ancestors who bore the brunt of slavery. We can’t possibly know what our ancestors did upon enslavement, how they may have fought, or tried to run away from their captors. We do know they survived, and that we are a testament to their ability to make their way through a horror that we can only imagine.

There is much to unpack in the movie Black Panther and the many emotions it evokes in those who feel an attachment to Africa or are just happy to finally have a movie that features mostly black/African characters in a positive light. Africans who can call white characters “colonizers” and who have built a society mostly untouched by European values around beauty and culture.

By chance, I also happened to read the book Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, right after seeing Black Panther. The book evoked a whole new set of emotions in me, as I was pulled into the stories of two families of Africa, divided by an ocean, and ultimately reunited in the present day. I felt that I could finally grasp some of the rationale behind the slave trade for the Africans who were involved – and that understanding was deepened by a recent visit to the African-American Heritage Museum (AAHM) at the Smithsonian. While the colleagues I was with went for an overview of the museum, I spend most of the two hours I had there on the first level, engrossed in the stories of the European and African sides of the slave trade. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn – how race became defined, and slavery justified, then turned into a lifelong sentence not only for the initial person enslaved, but for their offspring.

And then a seminal moment in American history – Gettysburg. Where so many died over this “peculiar institution.” President Lincoln’s short, yet influential address is often the first thought that comes to mind, and I was reminded of the following words from the address:

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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I also couldn’t help but think of the individuals who fought on these fields, and lost their lives, some to save the union, others to maintain a system of chattel slavery that supported an agricultural economy that was destined to fail.

The occasion for my visit to the AAHM and Gettysburg was my son’s 8th grade spring break trip to Washington, D.C. I didn’t expect it to have such an impact on my own journey of discovery. After our visit to the battlefield, we went to a nearby historic tavern, that had been a stop on the underground railroad. The students were entertained by a very talented actor, impersonating President Lincoln. I was particularly impressed with his very clear statement that the cause of the civil war was slavery – with no equivocation. Being at a battlefield where so many had died for this cause, dining at a stop on the underground railroad, and hearing such a clear statement on the cause of the war left me deep in thought.

Particularly over the past year, I feel that I have gained a more spiritual connection to my African ancestors, those who were enslaved in the American south (Louisiana, Virginia and Georgia, best I can tell), my own parents and the trials they must have experienced being born during the Depression era. There are so many stories…including my own, that tell of a world that is much more complicated and dangerous than what I want for my sons.

So I dive deep into the history, trying to find some answers to the hate that I see on display. The brutal beatings and murders that still happen in the America of the 21st century. We dream of a Wakanda where we can be safe, but even Wakanda isn’t safe. Internal strife can divide us, as it did in the America of the 1860s. Of course, it all comes down to power, but slavery and racism is a deep, bitter poison that is still infecting the bodies politic of both sides of the Atlantic today. It is the casual institutional racism that leads to the burnout of an academic. It is the brutal system of incarceration that preys on brown bodies, attempting to maintain the racial hierarchy that fueled industry and the growth of this country for centuries.

I cannot forget Gettysburg – so many dead. The will to keep this country united. The desire of so many abolitionists to fight for the rights of my ancestors. The blood of both white and black bodies that cry out from the soil, asking if their deaths were in vain. Those of us who are still in the fight carry a heavy burden. I dream of Wakanda, but I know that I live in the country that is still bearing a burden that cannot be cast down until we truly come to grips with what we fought for and continue to fight for – what so many continue to lose their lives for. And I must find a way to go on, for my sons, and for those future generations who deserve so much more…and with so many retiring, it will be with new voices in these halls after this November where change must continue…

capitol and cherry blossoms

College access: Improving the odds

Also posted on LinkedIn

As I toured the USC campus with my son Andrew, I couldn’t help but be excited for the opportunities that he would have as he entered college. Andrew is a junior in high school, and we began our college visits at one of his top choices. It didn’t disappoint. He was impressed with the resources, the interdisciplinary programs (he’s interested in majoring in History and Film) and the research support available to even first year students. But it was our tour guide who impressed Andrew with her enthusiasm and love of the school. The other schools we visited on that trip were also impressive, and Andrew found much to like in our tour of Los Angeles area schools.

Although I had been telling Andrew for the last year that he would love USC, it was still difficult for me, a Stanford and UCLA grad, to be on that campus. But I hope he continues to do well in school this year and gets into one of his top choices. I’m not worried, I know he will do well no matter where he goes, but as his mother, I want the best for him. I also know that he is getting the benefit of parents who are college graduates, including a mother who is a college administrator. We have gotten a head start on his college visits, we are making sure he is staying on top of all the deadlines for SAT testing, AP tests, and summer classes to show that he is college ready.

As my career has developed, I have become more concerned with issues of access and inclusion in the education arena, particularly here in Silicon Valley where issues of diversity are a constant concern. I feel like my son’s high school is a microcosm of the disparities that plague the area. My son is an example of the advantage that privilege gives on the path to college. It is not necessarily wealth that is a determining factor, but there is a difference in schools and parental knowledge that can impact the choices that students have. Many organizations are working to change the odds for students from less-privileged backgrounds. It has become clear to me that Higher Ed and K-12 need to work more closely together to help bridge the gaps and support all who want and need post-secondary education. Just as important, we need to support those students when they get in, so that they can succeed after they get in to college.

Going forward, I will be expanding on my work with organizations and companies in the area to try to tackle some of the issues that I have raised here. Much needs to be done, and it will take support from educators, non-profit organizations, industry and our political representatives to find answers that will help our students succeed in this very competitive environment. In the meantime, I will also continue to support my son in his college choices, even if it ends up being USC.

See also: OPINION: Changing the ‘narrow and sometimes elitist image of higher education’

What 2017 meant to me – the foot story

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NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED

This post goes out to my many friends who have had physical challenges this year. As a political scientist, I spend way too much time talking/writing/reading about the train wreck that is our current political situation, so I’m definitely NOT going to spend the waning hours of 2017 giving my take on the politics of the past year. Instead, I will focus on a more personal challenge that dominated my year. For those who don’t want to read to the end, the punchline is that even if you are doing everything right, sometimes you just have to be patient. There will be setbacks and new, unexpected injuries that become part of the healing process. Image may contain: one or more people

I started 2017 with my foot in a boot after having surgery on it in early December. I had learned in September of 2016 that I was born with an extra bone in my foot, and that I had accessory navicular syndrome. The extra bone had to be removed, and I also had a few other things going on, specifically, posterior tibial tendinitis and a tear of the left plantar calcaneonavicular ligament – here’s a nice animation of the second part of the surgery that repaired the spring ligament and left me with a new arch.  After being a competitive athlete most of my life, this was the first time (except for right after giving birth to my two boys) that I was completely unable to work out for a significant period of time. Even when I was having major issues with my back in my late 20s, I found alternatives to running for a while, until I was able to get back into it seriously after my second son was born in 2003. My last serious running event was in January of 2016, a 10k, and I won a medal for my age group, something I was used to doing on a regular basis.

Although I recovered well from the surgery, and graduated from physical therapy in a

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Walking the ramparts of Saint Malo in July

timely manner, I have learned over the past year that a foot injury isn’t something that goes away quickly, even if you do everything right. I did all my foot strengthening exercises, and my podiatrist was impressed with my recovery. I was able to walk all over London, Normandy and Paris with my boys this summer. I even ran/walked a 5k for my son Brandon’s school in September. I was very cautious about returning to running, mostly walking, but the general foot pain I was having began to get more specific, and eventually I could tell I was getting swelling in one of the joints close to where the bone had been removed. My left hip had begun to bother me as well, as my limp became more pronounced. A trip to the podiatrist determined that the bones in my foot were healing well, but I was having some soft tissue issues – so back to physical therapy, almost exactly a year after foot surgery.

So I have been spending the last month doing my PT exercises, walking, cycling and I just got a new rowing machine for Christmas. I have gained weight, but hope to get back into a serious nutrition routine to match my fitness routine with the start of the new year. This has been a very unusual year for me, and I’m still processing what it has meant to go from being a serious athlete to being in recovery. I know others deal with much more difficult struggles, and I count my blessings. I wonder what I should expect from myself now that I am over 50, and I can’t do many of the things that I did even in my 40s (i.e., 4 marathons, too many half marathons to keep track of, 10ks, 5ks). To what extent did the competition help define who I am?  All I know is that I will continue to pursue excellence in every aspect of my life. I will be patient with myself as I recover both physically and emotionally from a challenging year.  After all, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Neverthelessshe persisted.” (In the end I couldn’t completely keep politics out of it 😊)

 

 

 

What next?

A year ago, reeling from an election that had gone horribly wrong, many of us were looking for ways to resist the impending storm. Things have gone as badly as expected. We await an inquiry with the hope that those who are guilty of wrongdoing will be held to account, but what will follow? I heard David Brooks on NPR today make the comment that he hoped that the current breaking of of norms would lead to a renewed push for civility, ethics and adhering to common norms again in politics. I’m skeptical, but we must continue to resist, and push for a politics that embraces all. It feels as if we are careening towards a future that excludes all but the one percenters. That cannot be a lasting equilibrium, and the kleptocratic leadership must know that – but the focus on short-term gains seems to eclipse any acknowledgement of long-term realities.

It’s not just about race, or women, or LGBTQ people. It’s about basic human decency. It’s about people being able to find housing, have access to decent healthcare without going bankrupt, about having access to education and technology. It’s about every one of us taking responsibility – it’s not a situation in which some of us can decide we don’t care about politics. Politics is life in this country – we don’t have the luxury for anyone to say they don’t care…

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The Intersection of Populism and Tech: Going Beyond the Algorithms

In an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 27th, Janine Zachariah writes:

“The hijacking of social media is now primarily a national security story, and one that should matter to any American who cares about the integrity of our democracy. Congress is right to demand answers from Silicon Valley executives and then, perhaps, yes, subject them to regulations just like any other industry from food to medicine to banking. If the companies find this all too onerous, then perhaps there will be a market for new social networking sites that are up to the task.”

Fallout from the 2016 general election has generated a watershed moment for tech companies like Facebook and Twitter. Russian “bots” and fake accounts had an impact on the news (mainly fake news) that may have tipped the election in Donald Trump’s favor, and definitely exposed millions of Americans to misleading information. What responsibility do these tech companies have to monitor fake accounts? What counts as abuse? When well-known alt-right activist Roger Stone’s account was recently suspended on Twitter, many felt that it was overdue, due to his previous abusive behavior.

As Senator Dianne Feinstein has declared, “What we’re talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyber warfare. What we’re talking about is a major foreign power with the sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over this country.” It is time for these companies to rely more heavily on the expertise of those in the social sciences who conduct research on politics and “warfare” of all kinds to help them chart a path through these turbulent waters.

Russian interference may also have been at play in Europe, influencing the vote to leave the European Union in the UK (Brexit vote); populist parties in France, the Netherlands, Germany and other countries may also have been beneficiaries of Russian interference. Social media is playing a role in bringing together supporters of these parties, and allowing them to express their grievances in new ways. For example, the German AfD (Alternative for Germany) shifted its focus from the Euro currency to immigration, tapping into the concerns many felt regarding the surge of Muslim refugees into the country in the last few years. In the September 2017 election to the Federal Bundestag, the AfD won 12.6% of the vote, the first far-right party to enter the parliament since World War II.

Far right, alt-right, and populist parties have been taking advantage of social media for many years. What has changed with the most recent elections is that they have been able to take advantage of targeted ads and the “bubbles” that have been created when social media users limit their media consumption to those who are most like them (see the BoingBoing site that compares liberal and conservative media side-by-side). Russian agents were able to take advantage of this, creating fake news that influenced people’s attitudes toward political candidates, particularly Hilary Clinton. Mainstream media was also impacted, as evidenced by their focus on Hillary Clinton’s emails despite even more egregious actions being taken by the Trump campaign and his associates.

Voting radical right

In my book on the radical right, I noted that mainstream parties often fight the radical right by convincing voters that they will not form coalitions with far-right parties. This strategy is often referred to as creating a “cordon sanitaire” or buffer between themselves and the parties in question. This has kept many of these parties out of parliaments as well as out of government. However, social media is changing these calculations; the buffer is no longer keeping the far right out of power. For example, Marine Le Pen’s National Front party in France won the most seats ever in the French legislative election in June of 2017. In elections across Europe, social democratic parties have received some of the lowest percentages of the vote in recent memory. As party allegiances shift away from traditional parties, it is difficult for mainstream politicians to stigmatize the far right.

 

Until recently, social media companies like Facebook and Twitter were able to stand on the sidelines while their algorithms did the work of creating online communities. Populist politicians were early adopters, starting with web pages then moving on to Facebook pages and Twitter feeds where their supporters could find others of a like mind.

These companies need to get ahead of the political situation and be proactive in their monitoring of the political climate. Facebook is now trying to identify fake news or recommend a Snopes story when someone shares fake news. Twitter has dedicated its staff to rooting out Russian manipulation. This is only part of what needs to be done to avoid these problems. Many social scientists are already doing some of the work that would have called attention to the problem at Twitter. As noted in a Bloomberg article, in 2015 scholars at UC Berkeley found numerous fake Twitter accounts, including many registered in Russia and Ukraine.

Social scientists, particularly political scientists can help these companies develop a better understanding of the political context they are functioning in. Many political scientists are already doing this work; cooperation between tech companies and academics can produce even more helpful information. For example, international relations and comparative politics specialists who work on Russia and its political behavior could help these companies to develop strategies to help identify potential problems as political conditions change and new technologies enter the scene. This type of research is as important as the software engineers who devise the algorithms – and will be necessary for exploring the impact of those algorithms. Facebook and Twitter have the data. It’s time to share expertise.