I found this review of Trump and the Media by Nicholas Carr in the LA Review of Books immensely thought-provoking. His focus is on the book’s historical contribution, contextualising the enthusiasm with which social media was greeted in terms of long term concerns about the centralisation of mass media. We can’t understand the ideal of a radically decentralised media without understanding the anxieties provoked by its initial centralisation:

Trump’s twitter stream may be without precedent, but the controversy surrounding social media’s political impact has a history stretching back nearly a century. During the 1930s, the spread of mass media was accompanied by the rise of fascism. To many observers at the time, the former helped explain the latter. By consolidating control over news and other information, radio networks, movie studios, and publishing houses enabled a single voice to address and even command the multitudes. The very structure of mass media seemed to reflect and reinforce the political structure of the authoritarian state.

It is against this backdrop that social scientists began to “imagine a decentralized, multimedia communication network that would encourage the development of a ‘democratic personality,’ providing a bulwark against fascist movements and their charismatic leaders”. Fred Turner traces these initial speculations from their originators, through the 1960s counterculture and the incipient computer industry, before it became an article of faith within present day Silicon Valley:

In the early years of this century, as the internet subsumed traditional media, the ideal became a pillar of Silicon Valley ideology. The founders of companies like Google and Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, promoted their networks as tools for overthrowing mass-media “gatekeepers” and giving individuals control over the exchange of information. They promised, as Turner writes, that social media would “allow us to present our authentic selves to one another” and connect those diverse selves into a more harmonious, pluralistic, and democratic society.

Carr frames Trump and the Media as “orbiting” around “the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy”. These are the terms in which I’ve recently tried to analyse ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’, as solutionist framings by technological, media and political elites which circumscribe a much broader set of transformations and shape likely responses to them. It’s often struck me that these represent a peculiarly populist form of reasoning in their own right: isolating an incoming element which is seen to undermine a previously stable system, whether this is ‘populism’ or ‘social media’ itself. In the process, the claims of populists and social media firms are taken at face value, vastly inflating the power they have:

One contentious question is whether social media in general and Twitter in particular actually changed the outcome of the vote. Keith N. Hampton, of Michigan State University, finds “no evidence” that any of the widely acknowledged malignancies of social media, from fake news to filter bubbles, “worked in favor of a particular presidential candidate.” Drawing on exit polls, he shows that most demographic groups voted pretty much the same in 2016 as they had in the Obama-Romney race of 2012. The one group that exhibited a large and possibly decisive shift from the Democratic to the Republican candidate were white voters without college degrees. Yet these voters, surveys reveal, are also the least likely to spend a lot of time online or to be active on social media. It’s unfair to blame Twitter or Facebook for Trump’s victory, Hampton suggests, if the swing voters weren’t on Twitter or Facebook.

This is not to say that social media doesn’t exercise influence, only to dispute the assumption that it works through one-to-many communication. The media elites bemoaning the rise of fake news and filter bubbles in the dawning post-truth age are themselves complicit in the dynamic they see as being ‘out there’:

What Hampton overlooks are the indirect effects of social media, particularly its influence on press coverage and public attention. As the University of Oxford’s Josh Cowls and Ralph Schroeder write, Trump’s Twitter account may have been monitored by only a small portion of the public, but it was followed, religiously, by journalists, pundits, and policymakers. The novelty and frequent abrasiveness of the tweets — they broke all the rules of decorum for presidential campaigns — mesmerized the chattering class throughout the primaries and the general election campaign, fueling a frenzy of retweets, replies, and hashtags. Social media’s biggest echo chamber turned out to be the traditional media elite.

What this short review suggested to me is the necessity of revisiting basic concepts (such as centralisation, gatekeepers, publics and influence) in response to the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy. We need a bleak social theory for bleak times and if it doesn’t begin by examining the assumptions inherited in core concepts, as well as their implications for making sense of the present conjuncture, it is unlikely to get very far.

I came across this extract on loc 1342-1360 of Frenemies, Ken Auletta’s new book about the declining fortunes of the advertising industry, detailing an intervention made by thought leader extraordinaire Rishad Tobaccowala, chief strategist at  Publicis groupe. It was in the context of a meeting between executives from a range of agencies and Bank of America to discuss the challenging climate facing the latter:

the thoughts of soft-spoken Rishad Tobaccowala, their principal outside strategist, who she privately describes as “the smartest guy in the room.” They appear to have very different personalities. She wears oversized eyeglasses and is capable of commanding a conversation. He wears round, frameless eyeglasses and his slight frame conveys an almost professorial air, which is enhanced because he sits, Buddha-like, and does not rush to speak. In a voice so soft people craned forward or sideways, as if it would help them hear, he cautioned: “We are at the beginning of this journey.” When the bank talks about its environmental deeds, for example, it is not “a targeted, one-on-one message. It is a narrative, and it relies on emotion. Lou is right: We will know, increasingly, what people want because of their behavior. But the struggle is what does the consumer want from Bank of America. Successful companies realize we outsource the work to the customer. We do the listening and the responding. The reason Amazon in its deterministic form—or Facebook—can tell you everything is because you are creating your own bundle of what you want.” But don’t confuse a single product or purchase with what consumers want from a brand. “What Americans are asking for is, ‘Who is on my side?’ Sanders and Trump built surprising support because the message sent is: ‘They are on my side.’ If you think about a bank’s purposes, no one is as close to aligning with them as you are.”

Has anyone encountered other instances of the advertising industry explicitly invoking populists in this way? I’d be really curious to see them if so.

I’ve long been drawn to accounts of the everyday lives of politicians. This isn’t so much a matter of biographical curiosity, as much as a preoccupation with temporality. It is not that the temporal character of our lives moulds us but rather that the things which do are always inflected through temporality.

I’m convinced you can learn a lot about why someone is the way that they are through understanding how time operates in their life. There’s a really rich description of the disjointed temporality encountered by senior American politicians in Joe Klein’s novel Primary Colours, a fictionalised account of Bill Clinton’s run for president in 1992. From pg 11:

Politicians work—they do their public work, that is—when civilians don’t: mealtimes, evenings, weekends. The rest of the time, down time, is spent indoors, in hotel suites, worrying the phones, dialing for dollars, fighting over the next moves, living outside time; there are no weekdays or weekends; there is sleep but not much rest. Sometimes, and always at the oddest hours, you may break free: an afternoon movie, a midnight dinner. And there are those other, fleeting moments when your mind drifts from him, from the podium, and you fix on the father and son tossing a ball out past the back of the crowd, out in the park, and you suddenly realize, Hey, it’s Saturday; or you glance out a hotel window and spot an elderly couple walking hand in hand, still alive in each other’s mind (as opposed to merely sharing space, waiting it out). The campaign—with all its talk of destiny, crisis and mission—falls away and you remember: Other people just have lives. Their normality can seem a reproach. It hurts your eyes, like walking out of a matinee into bright sunlight. Then it passes. He screws up a line, it’s Q& A time, it’s time to move.

What is it like to live like this? How would it shape you if large swathes of your life are lived in this way? How does it influence your sense of what is normal and what is not? It’s a fictionalised account, produced by a political journalist but imputing experiences on the basis of second hand experience, leaving it accuracy a rather ambiguous matter. But it such a rich description that it’s interesting to reflect on the significance of these experiences, if accurate.

Even if I wasn’t a supporter, I’d have been fascinated by Labour’s use of social media in the last election and how this built upon prior successes in successive leadership elections. The new book by Steve Howell, deputy director of strategy and communications during the election, contains many fascinating snippets about this that I hadn’t encountered anywhere else. Perhaps the most interesting is the Labour leadership’s embrace of social media outriders which I’d seen speculated about but never confirmed. From loc 818 of Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics:

But, if I was ever frustrated by some of those early discussions, one thing that would always lift my spirits was the irrepressible activity of what were known in LOTO as ‘Jeremy’s outriders.’ There were dozens of them on Twitter and Facebook who, day in and day out, were pumping out great material exposing the Tories and putting across many of our arguments. I include in this organised groups such as JeremyCorbyn4PM and Momentum, but mostly they were people acting on their own initiative out of sheer personal commitment. And some of them, such as @Rachael_Swindon and @ScouseGirlMedia, have suffered a fair bit of abuse and harassment for their trouble. The two outriders I had most contact with were Eoin Clark and Peter Stefanovic. Eoin will be known to many people for his @ToryFibs Twitter feed and its forensic rebuttal of Tory claims and attacks in detailed memes. Peter specialises in hard-hitting videos on the NHS, on the miners’ compensation, and in support of the WASPI campaign against the raising of the state pensionI  age for women born in the 1950s. When I suggested to Jeremy that we should invite Peter in for a chat, he was very enthusiastic. The meeting was one of the highlights of those early weeks. Peter’s passion for what he was doing was inspiring and infectious. He had given up his day job as a lawyer to spend a year campaigning and was eager to persuade the groups he was working with that a Corbyn-led government would address their issues. “That was an incredibly important meeting,” he told me recently. “We discussed what might be included in the manifesto and that allowed me to go back to WASPI, the miners, and the junior doctors to tell them what Labour would do.”

What does this mean in practice? It’s hard to say but it seemingly reflects the most prominent examples of a much broader spectrum of engagement, extending as far as Howell having regular exchanges via DM with independent activists who provided on the ground perspectives of unfolding events which couldn’t be reached through the party machine. The importance of this could be overstated but I’m interested in how it strengthened their conviction to drop or downplay tactical aspects of political communication which were held as certainties by those within the party organisation. It’s also easy to imagine this activity being seized upon in the event of a poor result as an example of the leadership’s willing embrace of a filter bubble.

These notes are for the fifth and final week of the CPGJ platform capitalism intensive reading group. One of the themes running through the readings over the five weeks has been the political valence of platforms and its relationship to our analysis of them. My own instinct is that valorising platforms in an a priori way impedes our analysis of them but that an a political framing of platform capitalism is neither possible nor desirable. Rather than being an outright contradiction, I believe this leaves a small space for analysis which I hoped the readings for this week would help open up. The essay by Helen Margetts takes issue with the gloomy interpretations of recent developments with social media, contrasting to the now antiquated sense of excitement with which they were once greeted. As she put it in a lecture in Cambridge I helped organise in November, “social media have had a bad press recently”:

They are held responsible for pollution of the democratic environment through fake news, junk science, computational propaganda and aggressive micro-targeting. In turn, these phenomena have been blamed for the rise of populism, political polarization, far-right extremism and radicalisation, waves of hate against women and minorities, post-truth, the end of representative democracy, fake democracy and ultimately, the death of democracy. It feels like the tirade of relatives of the deceased at the trial of the murderer. It is extraordinary how much of this litany is taken almost as given, the most gloomy prognoses as certain visions of the future.

Her point is not to reassert tech-utopianism but simply to stress that “we know rather little about the relationship between social media and democracy”. After ten years in which the internet has challenged our previous assumptions about democracy, it is imperative that we do not rush to judgement in lieu of understanding how social media have “injected volatility and instability into political systems, bringing a continual cast of unpredictable events”. There is barely a feature of political life that has been untouched by these changes, posing profound questions for our conceptual, empirical and normative understanding of democracy. But as much as these platforms generate transactional data which could in principle help us to understand these changes, in reality “Most of this data is proprietary and inaccessible to researchers –  the revolution in big data and data science has passed by democracy research”.

Her essay responds to this epistemic void by laying out a concise thought systematic account of what we _do_ know about social media and its relationship to politics. The positive part of this account rests on the value of what she terms “tiny acts” such as “Following, liking, tweeting, retweeting, sharing text or images relating to a political issue or signing up to a digital campaign” which have no equivalent prior to social media and extend “below the bottom rung of the ladder of participation, which stretches from small acts such as signing a petition, through voting, to attending a political meeting, and donating money to a political cause, right up to political violence or armed struggle”. These tiny acts bring new people into politics but the same characteristics which enable political activity to take place outside of organised groups render the ensuing actions unstable and unpredictable. The resulting pattern is akin to that of earthquakes, argues Margetts, with many trivial eruptions and a few enormous ones. These patterns of engagement challenge two democratic features (political identity and institutions) and render politics more unpredictable than ever before. Drawing an analogy with the stages of grief, Margetts identifies Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression and Resistance as stages of response to the profound change which has been brought about in democratic politics. This includes the interesting contradiction that ‘clicktavism’ is disdained while social media is also claimed to have massive pathological effects upon organised politics. Which is it? The final stage of acceptance entails the recognition that social media are here to stay and the ensuing difficult work of institutionalising them:

There is an alternative response to the role of social media in politics – to accept that they are part of our democratic system, the political weather, and that political systems must accommodate the change, through a process of institutional catch up. Most social media platforms did not exist 10 years ago, and they have been at the heart of our political systems for far less than that. So it is understandable that political institutions have failed to adjust, and the new institutions of democracy – social media corporations – have proceeded unchecked and unregulated, particularly given the power of the original cyber-utopian dream.

We have been using the terminology of ‘platforms’ through this reading group but have we paid enough attention to the implications of this? A number of the readings we have used make a strong case about the analytical value of the term, identifying it as a mode of organisation with ramifications for capitalism as a whole. But what should we make of the readiness with which companies adopt the terminology to describe their own services. Should this make us suspicious? This is the argument Tarleton Gillespie makes in the politics of platforms. This is a term which, as Gillespie puts it, is “increasingly familiar term in the description of the online services of content intermediaries, both in their self- characterizations and in the broader public discourse of users, the press, and commentators”. Understood as a discursive strategy, it is a crucial part of how these firms “establish a long-term position in a fluctuating economic and cultural terrain”. Gillespie insists we must unpack these strategic considerations, in order to analyse how firms seek “to position themselves both to pursue current and future profits, to strike a regulatory sweet spot between legislative protections that benefit them and obligations that do not, and to lay out a cultural imaginary within which their service makes sense”. To put it crudely: it is part of the self-branding of platforms and this should surely give us pause for thought. Nonetheless, analysing this self-positioning can help us make sense of the how these firms understanding themselves, what they see as their interests and how they intend to develop their businesses over the coming years.

Platform is a structural metaphor akin to ‘network,’ ‘broadcast,’ or ‘channel’ which “depends on a semantic richness that, though it may go unnoticed by the casual listener or even the speaker, gives the term discursive resonance”. Gillespie identifies four senses in which the term platform is used, expressed through fifteen entries in the dictionary: computational (providing an infrastructure), architectural (surfaces upon which people can stand), figurative (a foundation upon which we can build) and political (a body of commitments upon which a party and/or individual seeks election). These sense intermingle, such that “being raised, level, and accessible are ideological features as much as physical ones” conveying certain qualities in the system or entity which is designated as a platform. The computational meaning of platform precedes the current preoccupation with social media. This tracks a shift in the meaning, such that the quality of being a platform is identified “not necessarily because they allow code to be written or run, but because they afford an opportunity to communicate, interact, or sell”. Reflecting on the case of YouTube, Gillespie explains how the increasingly dominant sense of platform uses the discursive force of the trope to politicisation the facilitation of user generated content:

This more conceptual use of ‘platform’ leans on all of the term’s connotations: computational, something to build upon and innovate from; political, a place from which to speak and be heard; figurative, in that the opportunity is an abstract promise as much as a practical one; and architectural, in that YouTube is designed as an open-armed, egalitarian facilitation of expression, not an elitist gatekeeper with normative and technical restrictions. This fits neatly with the long-standing rhetoric about the democratizing potential of the Internet, and with the more recent enthusiasm for user-generated content (UGC), amateur expertise, popular creativity, peer-level social networking, and robust online commentary.

This positions YouTube as “unlike the mainstream broadcasters, film studios, and publishers” and rejecting the “role of gatekeeper, not even curators: they would be mere facilitators, supporters, hosts”. In spite of the prominence of their advertising model, much of the user-generated content cannot be paired with ads because concern of being paired with the wrong content is so widespread while YouTube itself is concerned about accidentally profiting from copyright infringement. YouTube have therefore sought commercial partnerships from the outset, dominating the platform in spite of being a minority of the content to be found on it. This entails a delicate balancing act and the terminology of the platform can help unify what might otherwise be competing accounts of YouTube and its role:

The business of being a cultural intermediary is a complex and fragile one, oriented as it is to at least three constituencies: end users, advertisers, and professional content producers. This is where the discursive work is most vital. Intermediaries like YouTube must present themselves strategically to each of these audiences, carve out a role and a set of expectations that is acceptable to each and also serves their own financial interests, while resolving or at least eliding the contradictions between them.

In the case of YouTube, it allows them to “make a bid to be the new television, convincing media producers to provide their valuable content and advertisers to buy valuable consumer attention, on the back of user-generated content and all its democratic, egalitarian connotations, offered to them as television’s antidote“. 
These discursive strategies have a legal as well as marketing component. As Gillespie observe, “what we call such things, what precedents we see as most analogous, and how we characterize its technical workings drives how we set conditions for it”. Firms seek “a regulatory paradigm that gives them the most leeway to conduct their business, imposes the fewest restrictions on their service provision, protects them from liability for things they hope not to be liable for, and paints them in the best light in terms of the public interest” with self-characterisation being a potent means through which this can be pursued. He deftly illustrates how the terminology of the platform can be used to avoid responsibility by defining themselves as technical companies rather than publishers. This has crucial significance within US law because under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act as “long as you are a neutral distributor of information and are not aware of specific violations, you are not liable for the violations of users”. He draws an important comparison to the regulatory environment which the telephone companies used to be subject to:

For instance, before their deregulation the telephone companies were bound by two obligations: first, they must act as a ‘common carrier,’ agreeing to provide service to the entire public without discrimination. Second, they can avoid liability for the information activities of their users, to the extent that they serve as ‘conduit,’ rather than as producers of content themselves. Both metaphors, common carrier and conduit, make a similar (but not identical) semantic claim as does platform. Both suggest that the role of distributing information is a neutral one, where the function is merely the passage of any and all content without discrimination.

The business model of YouTube doesn’t leave them with the traditional interests of publishers but it does leave them with interests in what they publish. They unavoidably make choices which shape the production, circulation and reception of material accessible through the service and these choices have implications beyond the scope of the service itself. The terminology of platform obfuscates in the face of this responsibility and this is why we must recognises the strategic conduct underpinning it:

A term like ‘platform’ does not drop from the sky, or emerge in some organic, unfettered way from the public discussion. It is drawn from the available cultural vocabulary by stakeholders with specific aims, and carefully massaged so as to have particular resonance for particular audiences inside of particular discourses. These are efforts not only to sell, convince, persuade, protect, triumph, or condemn, but to make claims about what these technologies are and are not, and what should and should not be expected of them. In other words, they represent an attempt to establish the very criteria by which these technologies will be judged, built directly into the terms by which we know them.

If we do this, it becomes easier to recognise the similarities between platform businesses and traditional media, as well as the interest they have in obscuring this commonality. Gillespie’s argument is that the discourse of ‘platform’ actively works against us in trying to analyse their position and how they represent their actions.

#DQComm2018 The Deliberative Quality of Communication Conference 2018
Citizens, Media and Politics in Challenging Times: Perspectives on the
Deliberative Quality of Communication

November 8 – 9, 2018
Mannheim Centre for European Social Research (MZES), Mannheim, Germany

Keynote Speaker: Kaisa Herne (University of Tampere)

Roundtable on the Future of Deliberation Research with:
André Bächtiger (University of Stuttgart)
Céline Colombo (University of Zürich)
Christiane Eilders (University of Düsseldorf)
Hartmut Wessler (University of Mannheim)

Call for abstracts

Western democracies nowadays face a number of challenges induced by
political developments. These challenges have been affecting the way in
which citizens, the media and political elites communicate about politics.
Critical observers witness a deteriorating quality of political
conversations between ordinary citizens. It appears no longer possible to
discuss politics normally. A high-choice media environment facilitated by
online and in particular social media enables citizens to refrain from
exposing themselves to counter-attitudinal information and engaging in
cross-cutting political talk. The polarization of opinions within society
is promoted by increasingly fragmented media systems and a reporting style
that favors sensational and scandalous over a balanced and multifaceted
reporting. Rapid media cycles shorten time for balanced and thorough
argumentation and media outlets are steadily confronted with the accusation
of producing fake news. Political actors adapt to the media logic by
employing ever more simplified and emotionally arousing communication.
Instead of deliberating publicly on complex problems and finding
compromises or solutions, political elites rather prefer to communicate
through short soundbites and populist messages to promote their positions
and eventually attract voters at election time. Overall, these dynamics
indicate a deteriorating deliberative quality of political communication
among and between citizens, the media and political elites. While this
phenomenon has caused concern among scholars from both political and
communication science, it still needs further empirical substantiation and
demand a reflection on extant theories.

This conference aims at addressing the deliberative quality of
communication among and between citizens, media and political elites.
Within this research context, we welcome both theoretical, empirical and
methodological contributions focusing on the deliberative quality of
communication. The proposals can address – but are not limited – to the
following questions:

* To which extent does ordinary citizens’ talk about politics come close to
the genuine type of deliberation? Who participates in political talk, who
does not and why? Do citizens talk to those with viewpoints that conflict
with their own? What are the underlying motives and condition that give
rise to homogenous or heterogeneous talk about politics? Which variables
affect the quality of informal civic discussions? Do citizens’ daily
exchanges resemble reasoned and well-argued debates or harsh fights at the
expense of proper justification?

* To which extent does the online sphere of political communication promote
respectively impede deliberation? Are platform interventions (e.g.,
Facebook’s proposed policy of removing hate speech and fake news) a panacea
to improve the quality of online deliberation and to save deliberative

* To which extent do different features of the media systems influence
mediated deliberation? How does the increased polarization and
fragmentation of media environments translate into the deliberative quality
of the media? How deliberative is the media system as a whole? How
deliberative are individual media types, formats, or programs?

* How do political, national and cultural climates shape deliberation? To
which extent do different types of the political system affect the
deliberative quality within the public sphere? How does the increased
polarization of the political environments affect formal deliberation? How
do political elites engage with populist actors who decline to engage in
reasoned and constructive dialogue?

* Which opportunities and challenges do big data offer for the analysis of
deliberation? What are the methodological challenges and pitfalls when
measuring deliberation? To which extent, and if so how, may computational
methods help in identifying the criteria for deliberation?

Submissions are due by June 15, 2018 (23:59 CET) and must be submitted via
this Google Form.


Abstracts must not be longer than 500 words (excluding title and
references). A committee composed of communication and political science
experts in deliberation will review each abstract. Only one proposal per
first author can be accepted. Notifications of acceptance will be issued in
July 2018. Limited funds are available to cover accommodation and travel
expenses of conference presenters. In order to host a family-friendly
conference, the parent and child room of the University of Mannheim can be
used for self-provided childcare.

Further questions, please visit the website

or contact the organizers directly: dqcomm2018@mzes.uni-mannheim.de

Christiane Grill, Anne Schäfer, Charlotte Löb and Chung-hong Chan
Organizing Committee of The Deliberative Quality of Communication
Conference 2018

The first of what seems likely to be many books about the June 2017 general election was released earlier this week. Betting the House, by Tim Ross and Tom McTague, tells the story of the election through contrasting accounts of the Conservative and Labour campaigns. There’s much more detail about the former, seemingly reflecting both the interests of the authors and the potential for access to political figures keen to settle scores after being involved in such a car crash.

One of the most interesting things is how clearly the failures of political research methods (viz polling and modelling) played a role in the outcome. On loc 1857 they describe how the speed with which sentiment changes within the electorate undermine expectations formed on the basis of political polling:

Pollsters take their raw research findings and then ‘weight’ them against the likelihood of different respondents to turn out on polling day and vote the way they say they will. It was these calculations that led to variations between the pollsters during the campaign. One of the key questions was how likely they believed young people who said they would vote Labour were to make it to a polling station and cast a ballot on 8 June. Then there was the speed of the changes in support for Corbyn. It was a fast-moving phenomenon which took off at a time when campaigning had to be stopped twice because of terrorism. The sharp tightening in the polls came largely after the launch of the Tory manifesto, which proved to be one of the most influential policy documents in recent election history. The effect of that manifesto, and the U-turn that followed, on the Conservative lead was like a gust of wind on a house of cards.

On loc 1874 they give an overview of the modelling activity which the parties engaged in, as well as the data sources upon which they drew to undertake this:

This is where the mysterious wizardry known as ‘modelling’ comes in. There is a wealth of information available to political parties –some free, much paid for –which they can use to identify the swing voters they are most likely to win over. These are the voters who decide elections. They may have voted a different way at the last election but ‘modelling’ helps parties understand which arguments will be most likely to persuade them. The exercise is highly complex, meaning it can go wrong. All mainstream parties model their potential voter types; it is simply sensible market research. They use a combination of data from Facebook, the electoral roll and the credit checking agency Experian. This information reveals what specific voters in specific target seats are like. Reliable polling evidence, broken down by age, social class, gender, education level and other factors, can then suggest how people with particular characteristics might vote.

The underlying assumption here is that past behaviour can be an adequate basis upon which to make predictions about future actions. In many cases, it can be, in spite of the many extrinsic factors which can impinge upon the replication of the past. However, if we are seeing an increase in the speed at which changes in the electorate occur then modelling is going to represent a decreasingly reliable basis upon which to assign limited resources within a campaign. This is something which, as the authors point out on loc 1899, the tactics of Momentum were not vulnerable to:

The one organisation which did not use micro-targeting was Momentum. They simply bombarded their target seats with activists in the hope of persuading people to vote for Corbyn. In doing so, they knocked on doors none of the main parties were bothering with. Even internal Tory modelling experts now question the value of what they were doing. ‘Maybe Corbyn’s plan to build a big groundswell of support, ignoring the seat-by-seat numbers etc., is the right way to go,’ says one. ‘How do you ever factor in for that? This is what happened with Trump, this is what happened with Brexit. People voted who you never expected to vote. How do you work out a way to tackle that?’

This is a complex issue which I’ve barely scratched the surface of. The core question is straight-forward though: are some political tactics more adaptable to intensified social change than others? What does this mean for broader questions of political strategy?

Social media is often accused of being an echo chamber, but has it played a role in empowering marginalised people and elevating their voices?

It has and it’s important that we don’t lose sight of this when we focus on the problems which social media is creating for politics. In recent years, cyber-utopianism has been discredited and that’s a good thing, if we hope to realistically appraise the political consequences of these technologies. It’s much less common now to find people making the case that digital media will empower individuals, undermine hierarchy and usher in a brave new world. This utopianism was rooted in a particular time and place, providing a technological equivalent to the breathless rhetoric of figures like Anthony Giddens and Tony Blair who claimed we were moving ‘beyond left and right’.

But an increasing scrutiny of the darker sides of digital media, particularly post-Trump, too often obscures the continued positive capacities of these technologies to bring people together and articulate a collective claim on the world. These positive and negative aspects co-exist: the risk of the echo-chamber is an unfortunate byproduct of the mechanisms through which social media allows new collectives to form. Nonetheless, we need to remember that this isn’t an inexorable consequence of the technology itself. Some of the unfortunate features of online political culture are as much a reflection of long-term political disengagement, particularly the decline in trade union and political party membership, as they are the influence of the technology itself. We can and should reclaim a positive vision of the capacity of social media to empower marginalised people and elevate their voice, while being realistic about some of the risks inherent in doing this.

Is activism through social media effective?

It depends what you mean by ‘effective’. It can demonstrably be an extremely powerful way of gathering people together in a particular place at a specific time. Furthermore, it can do so in a way which extends beyond existing networks, reducing the reliance of mobilisations on the more traditional forms of engagement such as stalls, leafletting and canvassing, seen most prominently during national elections. However there are important questions to be asked about whether this is necessarily a good thing. It might be easier to assemble people together but what do they once they are there? Can you keep them together after the initial assembly? The sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has convincingly argued that networked protests don’t develop organisational capacities because of precisely this ease of assembly. They may be able to draw people out in large numbers but they’re ill-equipped for articulating demands or developing strategies, leaving them easily outmanoeuvred by more traditional political organisations. Social media offer powerful tools for movements but they also create problems.

Social media has been talked about a lot with regards to democracy after Trump’s win. Do you think there’s really any understanding of just how well social media can be used to campaign? It feels as though politicians may not have even scratched the surface, at least that we know of.

There’s a lot of hype surrounding social media and elections, much of which is indistinguishable from marketing material for the companies involved. Cambridge Analytica is the most prominent example of this, held up by some critics on the left as a terrifying exemplar of the coming digital authoritarianism in which elections are won by whoever can employ the most data scientists. Coincidentally, these claims about their influence match those made by the company itself, albeit without the critical spin. We need to be careful about blindly reproducing claims made concerning the role of social media in elections by companies whose raison d’etre is to help exploit social media data (alongside other sources) for electoral gain. Nonetheless, there clearly are changes underway. The role of technology in politics has never been static. There’s no reason to believe social media would be any less significant for electoral politics than radio and television were, as well as many reasons to suspect they might prove to be more so. It’s just important that we remain critical of the vested interests of those who are already playing this game.

Online harassment has not really been tackled and marginalised people are especially at risk (shown best perhaps by ‘Gamergate’). Is it a risk that social media is empowering the wrong voices and shutting down democratic debate?

It’s not so much that social media empowers the ‘wrong’ voices, as that the incentives for democratic debate aren’t there. Meaningful dialogue is a slow, difficult process which is particularly difficult when it takes place between those who lack trust in the good-will of those they are talking to. This would be difficult under the best of circumstances but it’s close to impossible within the environments of most social media platforms. For all the participatory rhetoric which surrounds them, the underlying economy is one of visibility and this is something accrued through generating a reaction. It might be that this reaction is praise for slowly and carefully seeking to understand the position of a person you are debating with. But it’s much more likely to be a witty quip that appeals to the lowest common denominator of potential viewers.

This is the problem on a micro-scale. Now what happens when millions of these interactions feed into each other over years? We have increasingly toxic cultures, driven by expectations of behaviour, within which harassment thrives. Only the most naive person could claim social media had created the hate we can see in so many corners of the internet. We live in a racist, classist, sexist, ableist, homophobic and transphobic world. But social media has created an environment in which this hate can be leveraged for visibility as far too many aggressively people compete to be seen to the exclusion of the dialogical and relational powers of these technologies. I’m not a pessimist about social media but I am increasingly a pessimist about people.

In today’s Guardian, Neal Lawson offers a cautious reading of Corbyn’s Labour, accepting the ascendancy of the left within the party but urging it to look outwards. I’m sympathetic to many of the substantive points Lawson makes in the article but there’s a rich vein of problematic assumption running through their articulation which needs to be challenged. I’m pretty sure that in Lawson’s case, the peculiar style of fin de siècle social theorising once dominant within British sociology, about which I wrote a PhD thesis, played a crucial in consolidating this outlook.

However, the problem extends beyond those who have taken Giddens, Beck and Bauman’s diagnosis of late modernity a little too seriously. In fact, I’d suggest the popularity of the aforementioned authors was in part due to their reflecting an emerging common sense, rather than being the originators of these influential ideas and motifs. In recent years, we’ve seen this transmute into what I increasingly think of as the ideology of platform capitalism: disruption has become the last refuge of the third way

I recognise that Lawson is as far on the left of this movement as it is possible to be, though he so uncritically reproduces some of its core axioms that it would be a mistake to identify his core ideological home as anywhere else. The combination of business and activism, profit and principle, found in his own biography is a striking expression of the ethos of New Labour. There are two core assumptions underlying his article which need to be pulled out, analysed in their own right and dispensed with:

  1. Social democracy “lost its power” because “a lack of responsiveness and heavy doses of paternalism made state socialism unpopular” while “the idea of free markets chimed with a more individualistic age”. It is a purely cultural reading of an epochal shift, with one idea ‘losing its power’ while another becomes dominant because it ‘chimes’ with the spirit of an (assumed) new age. The historical variability of how centre-left parties have struggled in recent decades, something which can’t meaningfully be considered in abstraction from the ‘modernising’ strands dominant within so many of them, finds itself reduced by Lawson to the (empirical) decline of a particular phase in the existence of a single welfare state. Explanation of this trend is replaced by a woolly historical narrative, in which one set of ideas loses to another because of a vaguely specified epochal shift. It’s pure Giddens: the collective gives way to the individual, the traditional to the modern, the secure to the flexible. It’s neither explanatory nor descriptive in any straightforward sense.
  2. The spirit of the age is “networked and collaborative” and “21st-century socialism will be participatory”. After all, “things move fast and nowhere is this truer than in politics” where, warns Lawson, we see a “swarm” which “can and will keep shifting”. The conceptual structure of this is analogous to the ‘cult’ accusations made by the Labour right: a nascent movement is reduced into a behavioural compulsion gripping a mass, driven in this case by the affordances of digital media and the susceptibility of millennials to be swept along. It’s a refusal to engage with the reality of the events taking place, reducing them into an epochal schema in order to advance a prior set of axioms about how ‘progressive’ political ends ought to be pursued. It is already decided by the analyst that the actors at what Filip Vostal terms ‘mega-forces’ (globalisation, technology, acceleration, digital media) so the empirical actors are reduced to manifestations of these forces.

This is only a brief attempt in response to an article I largely agreed with on a practical level. But the hunch I’m increasingly driven by is that ‘networked socialism’ is a re-articulation of ‘social markets’: it’s an ideological vehicle which, though sometimes correct on substantive issues, imports the conceptual structure of the ‘third way’ into debates about the future of the left.

What do Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump have in common? On the face of it, two people could not be more dissimilar but I’m curious about what might be their analogous position in relation to mainstream political culture. After all, in a sense Corbyn came from outside party politics, albeit not in the way Trump did, being a life-long back bencher and consummate constituency MP who never sought power in any sense. Both reject the common sense of party politics and have in different ways benefitted from a media which is superficially hostile to them.

Perhaps we can make sense of their commonality in terms of their political brands, both of which have formed quickly in a way that floats free of the manifold pressures which shape self-presentation by those who spent years seeking power through steady ascent of within a political party. Neither learned to walk the walk and talk the talk in the way needed to gain respect and cultivate influence amongst their peers, perhaps avoiding the deformation professionelle to which these colleagues are subject to as a result. They don’t assume that political correspondents are all powerful because they haven’t spent their professional lives seeking coverage from them, as well as being judged by their peers on their success or otherwise in doing so.

This is what Naomi Klein says of Trump’s political brand on pg 33 of her new book No Is Not Enough:

It’s also why no labor scandal is ever going to stick to him. In the world he has created, he’s just acting like a “winner”; if someone gets stepped on, they are obviously a loser. And this doesn’t only apply to labor scandals—virtually every traditional political scandal bounces off Trump. That’s because Trump didn’t just enter politics as a so-called outsider, somebody who doesn’t play by the rules. He entered politics playing by a completely different set of rules—the rules of branding. According to those rules, you don’t need to be objectively good or decent; you only need to be true and consistent to the brand you have created. That’s why brand managers are so obsessed with discipline and repetition: once you have identified what your core brand is, your only job is to embody that brand, project that brand, and repeat its message. If you stay focused, very little can touch you.

This opens up the possibility that what is seen as electabilitystrong leadership and plausibility might actually be little more than weakness in the face of the media. If you’ve built your political brand on performing in a way that wins the media’s favour, you are inevitably subject to their whims. You are constitutively tied to the cluster of journalists, much as they are in turn tied to you through their need for access, leaving politics as a deformed game of intellectual twister taking place on the parliamentary estate. But to be a new brand, emerging quickly in a way external to these dynamics, involves near complete freedom from such influences if you can only ‘stay focused’. Brand Corbyn and Brand Trump couldn’t be more different but there are deep similarities in how and why the media struggle to touch them.

One of the most interesting issues raised by the rise of data science in party politics is how to untangle corporate rhetoric from social reality. I have much time for the argument that we risk taking the claims of a company like Cambridge Analytica too seriously, accepting at face value what are simply marketing exercises. But the parallel risk is that we fail to take them seriously enough, dismissing important changes in how elections are fought as marketing hype propounded by digital charlatans.

Perhaps we need to focus more on the data scientists themselves. As much as there is something of the Bond villain about Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, it’s important that we don’t become preoccupied with corporate leaders. Who are the rank-and-file data scientists working on campaigns? What motivates them? How do they conceive of the work they do? There were interesting hints about this in the recent book Shattered, looking at Hilary Clinton’s failed election campaign. Much as was the case with Jeb Bush’s near entirely stalled campaign, there had been much investment in data analytics, with buy-in right from the top of the campaign. From pg 228-229:

These young data warriors, most of whom had grown up in politics during the Obama era, behaved as though the Democratic Party had come up with an inviolable formula for winning presidential elections. It started with the “blue wall”—eighteen states, plus the District of Columbia, that had voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in every election since 1992. They accounted for 242 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. From there, you expanded the playing field of battleground states to provide as many “paths” as possible to get the remaining 28 electoral votes. Adding to their perceived advantage, Democrats believed they’d demonstrated in Obama’s two elections that they were much more sophisticated in bringing data to bear to get their voters to the polls. For all the talk of models and algorithms, the basic thrust of campaign analytics was pretty straightforward when it came to figuring out how to move voters to the polls. The data team would collect as much information as possible about potential voters, including age, race, ethnicity, voting history, and magazine subscriptions, among other things. Each person was given a score, ranging from zero to one hundred, in each of three categories: probability of voting, probability of voting for Hillary, and probability, if they were undecided, that they could be persuaded to vote for her. These scores determined which voters got contacted by the campaign and in which manner—a television spot, an ad on their favorite website, a knock on their door, or a piece of direct mail. “It’s a grayscale,” said a campaign aide familiar with the operation. “You start with the people who are the best targets and go down until you run out of resources.”

Understanding these ‘data warriors’ and the data practices they engage in is crucial to understanding how data science  is changing party politics. Perhaps it’s even more important than understanding high profile consultancies and the presentations of their corporate leaders.

Much of the reaction to Labour’s election success last week has been framed in terms of their ‘rewriting the rules’. One particularly explicit example of this can be seen in an article by Jonathan Freedland, an enthusiastic critic of Corbyn, pontificating that Corbyn took “the traditional political rulebook” and “put it through the shedder”. What are these rules that had formerly seemed so influential?

  1. Young people don’t vote. Any enthusiasm you create with them will come to nothing because they won’t turn out on election day.
  2. UKIP voters are Tories. If UKIP ceases to be viable then most would switch to the Conservatives.
  3. Divided parties never win elections. Unless a party can pull together at the local and national level, it can’t achieve success.
  4. Economic credibility is crucial. If a party is not perceived as being economically competent then there is no chance voters will trust it.

There are certainly more rules like this. The conventional rulebook wouldn’t have proved so influential if it only had four points in it. But where do these rules come from? How is this conventional wisdom formed? How does it become so influential that the metaphor of the ‘rulebook’, adhered to by all ‘serious’ commentators and operators, can be taken seriously?

Part of the answer lies in the fixation on the ‘political centre ground’ which is embedded in the dominant wisdom of Labour modernisers. The first cohort fought and won against the Labour left in the 1980s. The second cohort grew up in the Labour establishment moulded by these predecessors. The internal struggles of the 1980s cast a long shadow over them all, a fight to drag the party to a political location and then keep it there. As Alex Nunns describes it on loc 4468 of The Candidate:

The political centre ground, in this view, appears as a clearing in a forest—a fixed location—and politics is a simple orienteering exercise where the parties are given a map and a compass and told to go and find it. Occasionally they inexplicably wander off into the woods and have to be scolded by journalists until they take their navigation task seriously again. The great, unpredictable social and economic forces that constantly sculpt new historical terrain are, in this Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme version of politics, merely gusts of wind that must not blow the parties off course. Nothing changes.

Despite this professed concerned for ‘what works’, adherents of the political rulebook often display a remarkable lack of empirical interest in the political world. This can produce odd juxtapositions, such as the Blairite candidate Liz Kendall being backed by supporters who saw “understanding what it takes to win an election” as the most important characteristic of being a leader while all the available data suggested her chosen tactics for winning the leadership election were heralding no success whatsoever. The invocation of ‘what works’, the celebration of oneself as pragmatist foregoing childish moral indulgence in pursuit of success, licenses a weird disregard for how the world works. This is I think because it’s not pragmatism in any meaningful sense but ideology. The political centre ground is a theory of politics. Furthermore, it’s a painfully simplistic theory of politics unable to adapt to changing circumstances. As Nunns goes on to write on loc 4484,

The trouble with such a static, ahistorical view is that it is unable to account for new phenomena, much less understand people’s motivations for acting in unexpected ways. So when hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously decided they had other priorities than hopelessly trudging around looking for a centre ground that, mysteriously, kept moving further away, these professional political pundits could only dismiss them as either insane or self-indulgent.

Such a theory of politics resists falsification. It in its original context, it reflected a degree of engagement with the world around its progenitors. In a important sense, New Labour started as a psephological analysis of a changing electorate and a tactical case about engagement with the media. Over time, it became folk wisdom, espoused by all ‘serious’ people as a way to demonstrate their seriousness, increasingly cutting it off from any meaningful analysis of the circumstances in which their serious business was being conducted. It might resist falsification but its advocates greedily seized upon confirmation. As Nunns points out, Labour’s continued rightward shift yielded little success at two elections, but the eventual victory of 1997 was taken as a sign that the moderniser’s case was correct all along. They had vanquished their foes on the left and, what is more, no ‘serious’ person could doubt they were right to do so. Perhaps there’s a risk that this hubris be repeated by the Labour left today. Everything I say below stands in my mind as a caution about what is to come, as well as an account of what has passed.

This analysis had become a folk theory, so obviously correct that repudiations of it could no longer be taken seriously. The culmination of this process was the ascendency of Cameron, the heir to Blair, who made the same case in relation to his own party, albeit primarily with regards to social issues rather than economic ones. Much like the Labour modernisers, what become an article of faith originally began as a psephological analysis, developed through the polling of Lord Ashcroft, appointed Deputy Chairman of the Conservatives under David Cameron. The intellectual case these originators assented to became a point of division and contention within the party, as people flocked to join their cause or lashed out against it. What interests me are the subtle changes that occur as groups are led to defend or attack reflective arguments and how this changes how people relate to such arguments. My contention is that a theory of politics that was already relatively immune to falsification becomes a guarded axiom unable to be seriously considered or any longer reflected upon.

This was the process by which a reflective analysis of political change transmuted into a folk theory and ossified even further into the political rule book. How was this reinforced by media commentators? After all, it’s their discursive power which is so crucial to accepted/acceptable accounts of ‘how things are’ in politics. At one level, it can be explained in terms of the patronage networks that exist between senior politicians and senior journalists. As Nunns writes of Andrew Rawnsley’s contempt for Corbny on loc 4406, “Suddenly, the centre of gravity was moving away from the Labour elite to which he had unparalleled access, and from which he had mined the raw materials needed to fashion—with considerable skill—the books and journalism that had won him acclaim”. But there’s a broader process at work, insightfully captured by Phil BC in this post. I’ve quoted the relevant section at length here but please do read the whole thing in full:

Firstly, consider what mainstream commentators observe. They watch the comings and goings, the toings and doings of senior politicians. They see how MPs club together in the Commons, formulate policy, take legislation through the House and involve themselves in massive rows with one another. This, more or less, forms the basis of copy that comes to thousands of hours of broadcasting and millions of words year in, year out. And this is politics. What happens in the chamber matters simply because that’s what appears to matter – it’s where policy is brought forward and enacted into law. What goes on in politics outside, like local council and devolved administration stuff simply isn’t on the radar, because they don’t see it. Likewise, movements that occupy the streets or, indeed, transforming a political party are curiosities but unworthy of real analysis and understanding. It’s all such a sideshow to Parliament’s main event.

A similar sort of process is at work with our professional Westminster watchers, but is ramped up to a higher degree. Firstly, consider what mainstream commentators observe. They watch the comings and goings, the toings and doings of senior politicians. They see how MPs club together in the Commons, formulate policy, take legislation through the House and involve themselves in massive rows with one another. This, more or less, forms the basis of copy that comes to thousands of hours of broadcasting and millions of words year in, year out. And this is politics. What happens in the chamber matters simply because that’s what appears to matter – it’s where policy is brought forward and enacted into law. What goes on in politics outside, like local council and devolved administration stuff simply isn’t on the radar, because they don’t see it. Likewise, movements that occupy the streets or, indeed, transforming a political party are curiosities but unworthy of real analysis and understanding. It’s all such a sideshow to Parliament’s main event.

This focus is also bounded by the media the commentators produce. Famously, the BBC take its lead for what the hot politics stories are from the front pages of the broadsheets. Likewise, hacks in other operations parasite off the BBC and each other to fill the schedules, put stuff out, and meet the insatiable appetite for hot takes. The result is little time for thinking, a scramble for a story or an original angle, and a tendency toward herding thanks to the recursive universe generated from the quantum foam of chatter. It produces a mode of thought that is based entirely on appearance without trying to understand what may lie behind what immediately presents itself. For instance, the Tories are the new party of the working class because minimum wage rises. Labour’s members have foisted the disaster onto the party because atomised members of the public tell focus groups. There is no sense of movement, little idea that parties as expressions of interest evolve and move, nor that the people who support them, actively or passively, have connections with multitudes of normal people that can pull, persuade, cajole masses of them and transform them into a collective that starts making its own history. As none of them regularly go on the doors outside of the capital, they have to rely on what the pollsters tell them and, as we saw last night, only two of the established firms come out of the election with any sort of credit.


Thus we have the ‘political rulebook’, the framework within which political reality is interpreted, adhered to by all serious political figures and commentators. It’s empiricism of a particularly stupid sort, oblivious to its own theoretical underpinnings and all the more dangerous for it. It maps the most superficial contours of political life in order to better navigate one’s way towards the mythical centre ground and for no other purpose. In the next post of this series, I’m going to consider what it is about opinion polling that lends itself to such uses, what the consequences are for political leadership and how economic depoliticisation plays a role in propping the whole thing up.

If this is an accurate account, it’s remarkable that he seemingly remains devoid of bitterness about this treatment. From The Candidate, by Alex Nunns, loc 6251:

“You are not fit to be prime minister,” the widely unknown Bridget Phillipson tells Corbyn. “It’s time to be honest with yourself. You’re not a leader. You need to go for the sake of the party,” remarks Ivan Lewis. “You are a critical threat to the future of the Labour Party,” chimes in Jamie Reed. “You’re not uniting the party. You’ve got no vision. The only person who can break this logjam is you by resigning,” pronounces Chris Bryant. “You’re not just letting the party down, but the whole country,” declares Labour’s only Scottish representative, Ian Murray. When he claims—without evidence—that his staff in Edinburgh have been “intimidated” by members of Momentum, another MP shouts “Scumbags!” Murray tells Corbyn to “call off the dogs.”

It’s conventional wisdom that Corbyn’s leadership campaign was the target of brutal coverage by the media. I was interested to learn in The Candidate, by Alex Nunns, that this wasn’t quite how the campaign itself saw the situation. Understanding why can help elucidate the surprise that was #Election2017. From loc 4591-4556:

Ask some of Corbyn’s allies about the press coverage they received during the leadership contest and a surprising response comes back. “There are very few campaigns on the left that I’ve been involved in where we’ve had good press,” says Jon Lansman, “but this is one of them.” His definition of “good press” is unconventional, a variation on ‘all publicity is good publicity.’ Of course there was hostility, but the campaign managed to connect with its intended Labour audience in spite of it. “We always made the agenda. The others didn’t get a look in. We were the story throughout.” It was all about Corbyn. Because of the scale of interest, the campaign’s press officers found that along with the dross came greater opportunities to place their stories in the media than would normally be afforded to a left candidate. “The majority of things we tried to land landed, and in the ways we wanted them to land,” says James Mills, who was seconded to the press team from CWU. Whatever was being thrown at them, Team Corbyn pushed on with scheduled policy announcements, getting out a positive message that Mills believes cut through.

This dynamic within the print media played out in turn within the broadcast media. Not only were the campaign setting the agenda, with journalists responding in ever greater numbers to the issues they were raising, it led to increasing television coverage which highlighted the mismatch between the construction of Corbyn as a dangerous radical and the nice beardy chap who no one could really take much of a personal dislike to. From loc 4530:

Broadcast media followed a journalistic agenda that was still largely set by newspapers, despite the precipitous decline in their circulation. But broadcast had an inbuilt corrective missing from print—viewers and listeners could see and hear Corbyn for themselves. “They threw everything at Jeremy and it was so over the top that when he came on TV you expected him to be a combination of all sorts of villains,” says McDonnell. “When he came across as just a nice bloke answering questions honestly, that was it.”

This is something which the media themselves could be drawn into. As Phil BC insightfully pointed out some time ago, professional commentators are prone to confuse an absence of the presentational skills common amongst the political elite with a profound naïveté, as if Corbyn and McDonnell hadn’t spent their entire lives negotiating the political machine with some success from a position of marginality. As he asked in response to media astonishment at McDonnell’s apparent competence in his first speech at a Labour conference as Shadow Chancellor, “Were they really expecting him to commit Labour to a programme legislating for full communism?”

An escalating media campaign against Corbyn brought him endless ‘earned’ media, while offering an opportunity for the public to make up their own mind about the hyperbolic cliches in terms of which such media warfare was inevitably fought. If he got dragged into this, perhaps punching back against the onslaught, he likely would have been torn apart as self-defence would be cast as ‘gaffes’ and replayed endlessly. But by choosing to ignore media condemnation, in a way analogous to but different from Trump, it could be exploited for the benefit of the campaign. A similar effect was at work with denunciations from within the party. After Blair’s famous speech in which he attacked members drawn towards Corbyn as needing a heart transplant, the campaign saw an immediate influx of donations and volunteers.

I’d like to understand the mechanisms at work here: when do media attacks have their desired effect and when do they simply drive welcome coverage of a candidate? How does social media work to undermine the former and bring about he latter? One clear effect is that fighting back against this media onslaught can provide a way for followers to participate. There are legitimate issues which can be raised around ‘digital activism’ but I find it plausible that this social media activity helped the campaign consolidate, amplified its message and drew people into ‘offline’ participation. Though how, if at all, these effects worked to blunt media attacks is a more complex question. From loc 4530-4545:

Perhaps the most important factor explaining why the press onslaught backfired was the existence of social media. The old press no longer enjoyed a monopoly on having a voice. Through Facebook and Twitter ordinary people could critique and rebut journalists’ output directly. “Every time the mainstream media attacked Jeremy the social media shield would go up around him, bat it off, and get to the truth of the matter,” says Marshajane Thompson. Research carried out by YouGov in August 2015 found that 57 per cent of Corbyn supporters cited social media as “a main source of news,” compared to around 40 per cent for backers of the other candidates. 78 “Part of the reason why they were spending so much time on social media was because they didn’t trust the traditional media any more,” believes Ben Sellers. One of the main functions of the Corbyn For Leader social media operation run by Sellers and Thompson was to circumvent the press, both by publicising the explosion of activity happening all around the country, and by curating the mainstream media to pick out the half-decent reports (“sometimes that was a struggle,” Sellers quips).

There was an interesting finding before the election that there were more Labour tweeters who also tended to tweet more. There is a wide network, retweeting Labour candidates, with a larger and sustained focus on Corbyn than was the case with the Conservatives. Identifying what role this played in the general election will be central to understanding the rise of Corbyn. My suggestion is that the use of social media in the earlier leadership election would be a useful place to begin this inquiry.

The notion of relational authoriality, which consistency demands I acknowledge emerged in conversations with Jana Bacevic, conveys a relational realist perspective on the question of authorship. It rejects the notion of the liberal individual as the origin of a text while continuing to insist that there is a definite causal story to be told about the emergence of any text, encompassing individuals and the relations between them. Relational authoriality stresses how creative production happens through interaction, direct or mediated, between individuals who care about what they discuss. People debate, discuss and digress about things that matter to them. It’s this concern to enter into dialogue, sometimes with the parties involved changing as a result of the process, which provides the relational underpinning to creative production. It might be that a particular individual takes forward this raw material, running with it and placing their mark on it in a way which leads to it being recognised as theirs. But this simple wouldn’t be possible without these prior networks, acting as the creative ecology within which individual authorship becomes feasible. Every completed act of authorship has its own history of emergence and accurate accounts of it will lead back to individuals, interactions and relations.

I was led to think back to this line of thought when reading Shattered: Inside Hilary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. As is often the case, speeches and speech writing figure prominently in the book. I’ve read a lot of campaign books over the years and I’ve always been gripped by these details. In part this is because political speeches are such a crucial part of the politician’s craft, with their (perceived) success or failure being integral to the fluctuating fortunes of political careers. This isn’t simply an American phenomenon. Consider the acclaim which greeted David Cameron’s 2005 conference speech, delivered without a lectern or notes, widely seen to have tipped the leadership contest in his favour. We can see a parallel in Ed Milliband’s first conference speech as Labour leader. Much of the increasing ‘plausibility’ of Corbyn as a political leader, at least amongst the commentariat, rests on the increasingly polished way in which he delivers speeches.

Why does this matter so much? There are many reasons why accomplished delivery are valued in an age of media-saturated politics. But I wonder if a fetish of delivery reflects a denial of relational authoriality. In reality, all who have considered it must surely recognise that politicians do not straight-forwardly write their own speeches, allowing them to meaningfully claim ownership of them in an individualistic sense. These are team efforts, at best produced through careful collaboration between committed partners and at worst produced mechanically through committees. We can see the character of politicians, as well as the nature of the organisations they inhabit, reflected in how they approach these challenges. Contrast the dialogical collaboration between Obama and trusted aides with the byzantine, sometimes conflicting, structures which Clinton often established for speech writing. But these are subtle judgements, pointing to relational authoriality rather than individual authorship, which sit uneasily within the individualistic frame of ‘political leadership’. We fetishise delivery of speeches, as well as the perceived strength of the individuals who delivery them, as the spiralling complex of governance ever more outstrips the capacities of the ‘strong leaders’ we praise.

How do we explain the election of Donald Trump? Far too much of the media’s response to this question has been to take Trump’s account of his own powers at face value. This scion of the elite, who never felt at home amongst the elite into which he was born, imagines himself as able to work with kings yet not lose the common touch. His use of Twitter is integral to this fantasy, resting on the illusion of unmediated interaction with everyday Americans. But the biographies I’ve read of Trump in recent months make me wonder if it goes further than this, reflecting an identification he has cultivated since his early years as a young man who felt out of place, with endless meetings with ‘ordinary people’ facilitated by his work with his father. Either way, as Jan-Werner Müller cautions in this excellent essay, we need to avoid taking the account of figures like Trump at face value:

While disputing virtually every claim made by populists – especially their supposedly simplistic policy solutions – they buy without question the story that populists sell about their own successes. When Arron Banks proclaims that ‘Facts don’t work … You’ve got to connect with people emotionally,’ they just nod. But it isn’t true that ‘the masses’ are emotional basket-cases ready to be seduced by a charismatic demagogue. For a start, the neat distinction between reason and emotion is misleading. People are angry for a reason, and usually they can articulate that reason, as part of a larger story about what went wrong in their lives. Trump gained some trust as an outsider and, even more, as a credible exemplar of what it means to be unprofessional in politics. 

There are many features of our political context which remain obscure if we uncritically accept Trump’s narrative of his own success. This crucial essay by Mike Davis captures many of them: the results of Republican gerrymandering, voter suppression, flight of funders away from the Presidential race towards House and Senate, investment in state-focused political think tanks, the electoral peculiarity of the American system and the psephological particularity of the result. 

However the most important feature is perhaps the weakness of the Clinton campaign. As Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes report in their Shattered, the Clinton campaign deliberately sought to avoid substantive engagement with the working-class electorate, so long dormant within American politics, which Trump’s campaign successfully mobilised. From pg 193:

One of the lessons Mook and his allies took from Michigan was that Hillary was better off not getting into an all-out war with her opponent in states where non-college-educated whites could be the decisive demographic. In Michigan, they believed, Hillary’s hard campaigning had called attention to an election that many would-be voters weren’t paying attention to, and given Bernie a chance to show that his economic message was more in line with their views. So Mook’s clique looked at the elevation of the Michigan primary—poking the sleeping bear of the white working class—as a mistake that shouldn’t be repeated. “That was a takeaway that we tried to use in the general,” said one high-ranking campaign official.

Their analytics driven campaign was orientated towards tactical advantage in each state during the primaries, leaving them to ignore the large swathes of rural and/or working class voters whose disengagement rarely registered empirically in political models. From pg 130-131:

Bill’s time on the ground only encouraged his skepticism of Mook’s reluctance to send him outside population centers. Having grown up in Arkansas, Bill understood that a major political player—a senator, a governor, or a former president—could bridge ideological divides by just showing up in small towns that never got much attention from elected leaders. He liked to go to small towns in northern New Hampshire, Appalachia, and rural Florida because he believed, from experience, that going to them and acknowledging he knew how they lived their lives, and the way they made decisions, put points on the board. Mook wanted Bill in places where the most Hillary-inclined voters would see him. That meant talking to white liberals and minorities in cities and their close-in suburbs. That was one fault line of a massive generational divide between Bill and Mook that separated old-time political hustling from modern data-driven vote collecting. Bill was like the old manager putting in a pinch hitter he believed would come through in the clutch while the eggheaded general manager in the owner’s box furiously dialed the dugout phone to let him know there was an 82 percent chance that the batter would make an out this time. It’s not that Bill resisted data—he loved poring over political numbers—but he thought of it as both necessary and insufficient for understanding electoral politics.

What engagement took place was largely tone-deaf, reflecting the limitations of public opinion research, the insulated world of political operatives and the limitations of campaign structures which reinforced orthodoxy. Any account of the virtues of Trump’s campaign needs to be supplemented by an account of the weakness of Hilary Clinton’s.

Reading Shattered, an account of Hilary Clinton’s failed election campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, I’ve been struck by how limited political modelling has proved in recent elections. This had been in the case in the 2008 primary contest with Obama, in which the unprecedented character of his candidacy (as well as the candidate himself) repudiated the assumptions built into the campaign’s models. From pg 132:

By the time in 2008 that she realized Obama had a better strategy for racking up delegates by dominating her in low-turnout caucus states and among African American voters, it was way too late for her to reverse the cold mathematical reality of her defeat. In that year, African Americans had voted as a bloc in southern primaries, delivering massive delegate hauls to Obama.

We can see similar tendencies throughout the 2016 campaign. The primary challenge provided by Bernie Sanders confounded expectations, as can be in his mobilisation of first-time primary voters in Iowa. From pg 116:

Reading the data in the boiler room, members of the analytics team were surprised by the reports on new registrants. The overall number was a little more than they had expected. But they had also underestimated the margins for Bernie. The first-timers were breaking 90 percent to 10 percent in his favor. Running the data through their models, they could see why the race was so tight.

The subsequent developments are a good example of the practical implications of such changes. The campaign can overcome such failures but, through doing so, might fail to learn the lessons. From pg 116:

Hillary’s get-out-the-vote team on the ground, bolstered by a handful of talented veteran organizers, had been built with the expectation that Bernie wouldn’t do as well as he did. They overperformed, and their work had bailed out the analytics squad. That was good news in that Hillary had eluded defeat, but the outcome served to obscure flaws in Elan Kriegel’s modeling—namely, that it hadn’t correctly accounted for the number of new registrants or the degree to which they would break for Hillary—and Mook’s corresponding allocation of resources for in-person contact with caucus-goers. “The seeds of what we see across the campaign were present there,” said one person familiar with the campaign’s strategy and tactics. “It was a warning sign that they just barely scraped by, and I don’t think they took that seriously.”

If we rely on past and present data to predict future events, the weakness of the model we use will reside in its capacity to cope with genuine novelty. One response to this might be to account for such novelty as once-in-a-lifetime chance occurance. But one of the conclusions we might draw from the Centre for Social Ontology’s Social Morphogenesis project is that social novelty is being generated at an ever-increasing rate. In large part this is because novelty breeds more novelty: the unprecedented character of Obama’s candidacy generated novelty in ideological form, political constituency, electoral methodology and communications strategy. This novel campaign then provides the backdrop for Hilary’s failed campaign, transforming the inherited context to a much greater degree than any campaign did prior to Bill’s own.

This might seem like a unnecessarily abstract way of saying politics is becoming more unpredictable. But I think it’s important that we attempt to account for that unpredictability, its origins, character and consequences. The question which really fascinates me is who will be empowered if, as seems likely, these failures trend towards ubiquity. In light of this, it’s interesting to observe how closely Donald Trump’s instincts converged with Bill Clinton’s. From pg 128-129:

Neither a traditional poll nor Mook’s preferred analytics—voter-behavior models based on surveys and demographic data—were as finely tuned as his own sense of political winds, Bill thought. They were an important part of a modern campaign but not the only part. “You couldn’t place all of your eggs in the data/polling basket,” one of Bill’s confidants said of his thinking. “He had the ability to sort of figure out what’s going on around him, to sort of take everyone’s feedback and synthesize it and measure [it] along with his experience and then report back.” Bill had done this thing twice. His handle on politics was as natural as Jimi Hendrix’s feel for the guitar. Hillary couldn’t grasp the sentiment of the electorate, the resentfulness white working-and middle-class Americans felt watching the wealthy rebound quickly from the 2008 economic crisis while their families struggled through a slow recovery. Her team didn’t really get it, either.

And from pg 130-131:

Bill’s time on the ground only encouraged his skepticism of Mook’s reluctance to send him outside population centers. Having grown up in Arkansas, Bill understood that a major political player—a senator, a governor, or a former president—could bridge ideological divides by just showing up in small towns that never got much attention from elected leaders. He liked to go to small towns in northern New Hampshire, Appalachia, and rural Florida because he believed, from experience, that going to them and acknowledging he knew how they lived their lives, and the way they made decisions, put points on the board. Mook wanted Bill in places where the most Hillary-inclined voters would see him. That meant talking to white liberals and minorities in cities and their close-in suburbs. That was one fault line of a massive generational divide between Bill and Mook that separated old-time political hustling from modern data-driven vote collecting. Bill was like the old manager putting in a pinch hitter he believed would come through in the clutch while the eggheaded general manager in the owner’s box furiously dialed the dugout phone to let him know there was an 82 percent chance that the batter would make an out this time. It’s not that Bill resisted data—he loved poring over political numbers—but he thought of it as both necessary and insufficient for understanding electoral politics.

In his political memoir, Adults In The Room, Yanis Varoufakis recounts a meeting with Larry Summer which took place in April 2015. Only months into his tenure as Finance Minister, he looked to this architect of the neoliberal world order for support as hostilities with European leaders over Greece’s fiscal future rapidly intensified. Coming straight from a meeting at the IMF in Washington, Varoufakis was met with an immediate warning from Summers that he had “made a big mistake”. This began a long conversation which ended with a fascinating warning. From loc 1050:

Finally, after agreeing our next steps, and before the combined effects of fatigue and alcohol forced us to call it a night, Summers looked at me intensely and asked a question so well rehearsed that I suspected he had used it to test others before me. 

‘There are two kinds of politicians,’ he said: ‘insiders and outsiders. The outsiders prioritize their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price of their freedom is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions. The insiders, for their part, follow a sacrosanct rule: never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what insiders say or do. Their reward? Access to inside information and a chance, though no guarantee, of influencing powerful people and outcomes.’ With that Summers arrived at his question. ‘So, Yanis,’ he said, ‘which of the two are you?’

When reading of this exchange in a review of the memoir, I immediately thought back to a story Elizabeth Warren had told about an encounter with Summers in a Washington curry restaurant early in her move from academia to politics. Upon purchasing Varoufakis’s book, I found that I wasn’t the only person to notice this parallel and be fascinated by it. As he recounts in an end note to the book:

A few months after I had resigned the ministry, my good friend and academic colleague Tony Aspromourgos, upon hearing about my exchanges with Larry Summers, confirmed my suspicion when he sent me this quotation from Senator Elizabeth Warren, documented in 2014: 

Late in the evening, Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice … He teed it up this way: I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People –powerful people –listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: they don’t criticize other insiders. I had been warned. John Cassidy (2014), ‘Elizabeth Warren’s Moment’, New York Review of Books, Vol. 61 (no. 9), 22/ 5–4/ 6/ 14, pp. 4–8.

Could this be seen as the professional socialisation of technocratic elites? Does Summers engage in a particularly practiced and performative example of something which takes a cruder form elsewhere? Does he particularly focus on those like Varoufakis and Warren who have moved from the academy to politics? As he reflects on loc 156, the technocratic oath is something which transcends agreements of strategy and analysis:

We spoke the same economic language, despite different political ideologies, and had no difficulty reaching a quick agreement on what our aims and tactics ought to be. Nevertheless, my answer had clearly bothered him, even if he did not show it. He would have got into his taxi a much happier man, I felt, had I demonstrated some interest in becoming an insider. As this book’s publication confirms, that was never likely to happen.