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.

Truths to be told

[This blog has been picked up by Inside Higher Ed and posts can be found there]

The news that my friend and colleague Mark Sawyer was gone made me feel like all of the air had left the room. I was suddenly pulled back into memories from over 20 years ago when we were grad students attending conferences, competing to see who would land the top jobs, and supporting each other in our choice to study comparative, rather than “just” American politics. As fate would have it, Mark would start his job at UCLA as I was leaving to start my first job at University of Washington. Over the years our paths would cross, and I could understand the challenges Mark faced in his new department, given that I had so recently worked with many of his colleagues and was truly impressed with his commitment to starting the subfield of Race, Ethnicity and Politics in the department and ultimately UCLA’s African-American studies department. He brought in and mentored students creating a supportive environment that I hadn’t know many years before.

When I started graduate school in UCLA’s poli-sci department in 1993 there were very few black students, including my good friends Vince Hutchings and Maria Niles. Maria moved on to Chicago, where she became friends with Mark, and it’s likely that she was responsible for connecting us when we were still graduate students (my memory of that time is a bit hazy). We created a community of friends who supported each other through the program as we struggled, married, moved to new locations and a few of us finished and got jobs. Vince went to Michigan in 1997 and at that time there was a dearth of black scholars in top poli-sci programs. I always knew I would be an anomaly as a black Europeanist, in any case. We didn’t really remark on it at the time, it’s just the way things were.

We have all faced many stresses and challenges in our careers, whether as academics or other professions. As I have reflected on my experiences, I have wondered how much of my outward success reflects the unseen struggles I have faced as a black woman in a world that wasn’t made for me. In light of Mark’s struggles and his ultimate passing, is it helpful for those who have “made it” to talk about how we have dealt with anxiety, disappointment, department politics, etc.? Not everyone is in a position to share these types of issues and now that I am a provost, I don’t have to worry about department politics. Also, as my friend Josh Busby recently wrote in a blog post “Ideas and understanding the way the world works and how it could be are a noble service. I’m no longer as sanguine that the arc of the moral universe moves in the ways that I want it to, but I’m not going to stop trying from making a contribution. That is the only way to live.” (http://duckofminerva.com/2017/04/lets-talk-about-mental-health.html) – let this be a small contribution…although this is only a very small part of the story.

A quick look at my CV would indicate a very successful career. Books with Cambridge and Oxford university presses, articles in the top comparative politics journals, edited volumes and students who have gotten tenure track jobs. In 2003 I helped start a Center for European Studies at UT Austin and became director in 2004. I worked with my department chair and the Center for African and African-American Studies to recruit new faculty and for a short period of time we had 6 black faculty. I was able to help recruit one black student, Ernest McGowen, who is now a tenured professor at University of Richmond.

In 2006, my first year in rank as an associate professor, I was named Vice Provost for Undergraduate Curriculum and International Affairs. I stepped down from that position in 2009 with the blessing of my dean, department chair and the provost so that I could focus on getting promoted to full professor – and they all pledged their support in that endeavor.  I was given a year of sabbatical which allowed me to focus on my research, but it was also the last year of my mother’s life and the year that my brother-in-law was diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer. In 2010 my mother passed away, my dean told me that I was losing my research support and couldn’t get it back without an outside offer, and the university began facing a series of budget cuts that would lead to no raises for those of us already in the higher salary ranges, meaning 6 years of no raises for me.

It was at that point that I knew the research I was completing would be my last. As I was working to finish my book and other research with my students I explored the possibility of staying in Austin but working in the community. I joined nonprofit boards, started my own organization and explored the business world, but I hit many “cement” ceilings in Austin (my friend Ellen Sweets captures much of what I won’t miss about Austin here). The possibility for other faculty jobs was limited with a weak job market and a CV that made me a prime candidate for a quick move into an admin position. I worked hard to complete my book so that I could be promoted to full professor (and I should note that I’m pretty sure I was the first black person to get tenure and full professor in the Government dept. at UT) – despite the skepticism of my departmental colleagues who wanted me to wait (for what?). In the end my only goal was to get promoted so I could get out.

Part of my desire to move on was the fact that I was tired of the “hamster wheel” of having to constantly work on that next book or article and never feeling like you had the time to develop long-term projects. I decided I might as well go back into admin where there were leadership opportunities and the possibility of a raise for the first time in many years. My husband didn’t really want to move, so I consulted with my former provost, dean and other mentors and all agreed that my best opportunities were going to be anywhere but Austin. It was telling to me that when I was promoted to Vice Provost in 2006 there were at least 9 black women in leadership positions at UT Austin. When I left there was 1.

I felt like I was pushed out of poli-sci, and had few options outside of administration for furthering my career, despite my accomplishments in the study of European politics, immigration and populism. However, I’m living where I want to live, in a job that I love, and I’m present with my family. I don’t miss the rat-race of research, or the departmental politics, where the work that I did wasn’t valued.

More to come…