Is Persuasion Science Getting Dangerously Ahead of Political Science?


Sad fact:  the wrong politics can get you killed in many places in the world.  Sam Ford, Vice President at Univison’s Fusion Media Group  and Head of the Group’s Center for Innovation and Engagement mentioned at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology presentation recently that he was surprised to find that so many of the reporters at Univision and Fusion had been personally threatened with guns.  Ford seemed confident that the unabashedly political agenda of his company will produce good outcomes but I left the presentation wondering whether academic media studies are looking at the political applications of their work through too rosy a lens

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“Innovation” and “Engagement”: Experiments with What Industry Buzzwords Can Mean in Practice was the title of the colloquium held under the auspices of the Comparative Media Studies|Writing program at MIT of which Ford is an alum (link to podcast).  Univision’s Fusion Media Group (not the Saudi mall branding company with the same name) is a portfolio of media companies which includes Fusion, Univision Digital, Univision Music, The Root, Flama, The Onion, A.V. Club, Clickhole, Starwipe, El Rey  and as of August 2016, what is left of Gawker Media.

spreadable.jpgFord’s eclectic academic work at the nexus of the media and marketing industries and media studies lead to his position at Fusion.  He is co-author of the 2013 book Spreadable Media, editor of a book on soap operas, and author of many articles.  He attracted a full room of faculty and students to his talk at MIT.  What had attracted me was the media–marketing connection. I have long wondered whether “new media” buzzwords mask a continuum between practices in modern digital media and what used to be termed “direct marketing.”   As I listened however, I found the more provocative connections were political.

Ford seemed confident about a causal connection between engagement with good information and good politics.  He and his colleague Federico Rodriguez Tarditi spoke about their experiments in increasing audience engagement around stories on topics like the Panama papers, gerrymandering, youth incarceration, and Fentanyl addiction using innovative technologies and creative casting decisions such as using a professional wrestling star and a porn star to explain otherwise dry topics.  Awareness and interest created by harnessing the latest developments in persuasion science and information technology, they seem to assume, must relate to positive change.

The Gerrymandering issue can perhaps illustrate some pitfalls.  As part of the engagement effort supporting a soon to be release documentary on the topic, Ford helped arrange for one of the Fusions brands and an interactive agency, Hitcents, to develop a computer game called Rigged which allows users to play with voter data and district boundaries the same way that legislators and redistricting commissioners do.  If such engagement induces constructive understanding in the target audience, it could result increased positive political engagement and eventually in political improvements.  Conversely, if the audience concludes that their government is illegitimate and their own participation fruitless, it could increase the audience’s responsiveness to populist demagoguery that promises to replace a “rigged system” with a person or party mystically embodying  the interests of the people.

A just democratic republic is a deliberately rigged system of government.  It is necessarily full of restraints that function like a car’s seat belts to reduce injury in accidents and full of compromises like a car’s suspension, which dampens bumps but reduces steering response.  Our own United States constitution notoriously counted slaves as 3/5th of a person for purposes of representation in congress and for purposes of apportioning the cost of government through taxation.  This provision achieved a compromise between the Southern position that their large slave populations should accrue to Southern benefit in representation and the Northern positon that only free populations should factor in representation. It also restrained the incentive to falsify population counts by levying a cost in taxation for each person counted.  Such imperfect rigging is the real stuff of our government right alongside the foundational principles that all people are created equal and endowed with equal individual rights.

Political science or more broadly, Political-Economics, is complex because political-economic phenomena involve multidimensional interactions of beliefs, productive benefits and destructive threatsPersuasion science, focusing on belief systems, is advancing rapidly because people’s use of computer communication has made vast repositories of data available for analysis and provided a means to test and track information variables.  Commercial advertising and political persuasion is increasing driven by such science. The sciences of Productive systems are highly developed and are increasingly linked to our understanding of belief systems by the field of behavioral economics, using new measurement tools.  However, the understanding of coercive systems including government systems employing force (the force of law, etc.), seems to be lagging and for many people, including scholars of persuasion and economics, coercive systems remain a domain of romance, faith and ideology rather that science. 

Ford did not seem to resist an audience member’s characterization of Fusion as involved in “Social Justice Journalism.” He resisted my characterization of Fusion as involved in “Partisan Journalism” which is understandable given the pejorative connotation of partisan but he also seemed to downplay the parallel between FOX and Univsion.  He correctly observed that objective fact and science are not politically neutral and that neutrality is not necessarily factual or objective.  But one of his slides referred to “bridging between news and activism.”  It safe to say that activism in this context is not an objective measure of political activity but a subjective assessment of advocating for the right things.  He seems confident that he and Fusion are on the good side.

Those on the cutting edge of media innovation today, looking at media’s future political connections, can benefit from looking back to other periods of innovation and experimentation.  In its original form, positioning a media outlet as nonpartisan (which was an innovative postion at the time) did not mean it had to be without opinion or passion.  The founders of the New York Times promised, in 1851, to “endeavor so to conduct all our discussions of public affairs, as to leave no one in doubt as to the principles we espouse, or the measures we advocate.” The founders continued, “We do not mean to write as if we were in a passion, unless that shall really be the case…”

reid_with_caption.pngNor did partisan media in all cases mean party-controlled media.  Whitelaw Reid, editor of the New York Tribune, a leading Republican Partisan paper, spoke in 1879, of an editor’s proper regard for party, ”He will understand that a party is not an end, but a means; will use it if it lead to his end, -- will use some other if that serve better, but will never commit the folly of attempting to reach the end without the means.”

Reid had earlier in his speech admitted that while he had been one of the apostles of independent journalism, “It never occurred to me that in refusing to obey blindly every behest of a party it was necessary to keep entirely aloof from party – to shut off one’s self from the sole agency which, among a free people, lasting political results can be attained.”

Even if you share many of Fords values, as I probably do, you should wonder about the effect of producing political engagement as a by-product of a for-profit media enterprise without a deliberate connection to an agency for lasting political results.  Engagement with advertising pays the bills at Univision and Fusion.  The FOX version of this model has proven very profitable and politically influential but not, in my view, politically constructive.

We are emerging from a peculiar phase of American journalistic norms when government-regulated broadcast media, government-supported public broadcast media, and blandly positioned mass circulation print media dominated civic information.  It was in the interest of the media elites working in these outlets to claim to be unbiased, fair and balanced, objective and nonpartisan etc.  We are returning to a much more dynamic, hotly competitive, low margin, and openly partisan media market place, still advertising-driven as has been true through most of our history but now employing a much more complicated mix of information technologies.  The impacts on our democratic republic are uncertain at best.

Meanwhile our parties have atrophied, losing much of their capacity for internal governance and deliberation.  Isn’t it worth considering how new technology and science could be applied directly to the functions of parties and explicitly to their connections with media?  Isn’t it worth considering how persuasion is converted into real coercive power in government before feeding the increasing persuasive power of extra-national, undemocratically governed, for-profit media enterprises?

Political-economic systems don’t automatically protect you from gun play, even when you are on the good side.  People have to engineer political-economic structures to protect you.   Isn’t it worth rationally and scientifically studying how to best rig our systems so those systems protect us all


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