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.

Saving this interesting CfP for later look up


Contributors are invited to submit abstracts (about 200 words) toward our
new edited collection entitled: *Social Media and the Production and Spread
of Spurious Deceptive Contents,* to be published by IGI Global (Hershey,
PA), under the series: *Advances in Digital Crime, Forensics, and Cyber
Terrorism* (ADCFCT)

Topics being covered include:

·         *History, literature, perspectives and the prevalence of online

·         *Methods, techniques and approaches to researching digital

·         *Fake news, disinformation/misinformation and misleading reports
on Facebook and Twitter             (case studies are encouraged here)*

·         *Defamation and character assassination (case studies are
encouraged here)*

·         *Phishing *

·         *Business falsehood, employment scam and commercial lies*

·         *Investment/financial scam; Ponzi/Pyramid schemes*

·         *Deceptive online dating, romance scam and fake marriage *

·         *Religious deception and political lies (case studies are
encouraged here)*

·         *Deceptive contents by extremist and terrorist groups (other
online platforms are inclusive here)*

·         *Deception detection and behavioral control methods.*

·         *Etc.*

All proposals are to be submitted through the *eEditorial
Discovery®TM online* submission Manager. Please click on this link to
submit an abstract and for full description of the CFP:

*Important Dates*

*June 30, 2018:* Proposal Submission Deadline
*October 31, 2018:* Full Chapter Submission

*Inquiries can be forwarded to:*

Sergei Samoilenko

George Mason University, Virginia, USA


There’s a fascinating passage on pg 164-165 of The Unwinding by George Packer, talking about the evolution of lobbying in the United States:

Quinn and Gillespie considered themselves the smart guys in the business. Lobbying was no longer about opening one door for a client—power in Washington had become too diffuse for that. It was about waging a broad strategic campaign, hitting different audiences through different channels, shaping the media’s view of an issue, building pressure on legislators in their home districts. Quinn Gillespie was expert at forming temporary “grasstop” coalitions—enlisting local citizens in a cause as if there had been organic grassroots support. The firm didn’t flinch from controversy. When Quinn’s legal client Marc Rich, a billionaire fugitive living in Switzerland, received a presidential pardon on Clinton’s last day in office, the uproar consumed Quinn for weeks. But an alternative view of the affair was available: Quinn had gotten a tough thing done for a client. Old Washington—the press, the social establishment, the upholders of high standards—pretended that its moral sensibilities had been scandalized. New Washington understood that the Marc Rich pardon was good for business.

What I’d like to understand is how these changes map onto the expansion of the sector ($1.25 billion was spent on lobbying in 1997 and this tripled by 2009). Furthermore, what’s the relationship between power in Washington becoming diffuse and lobbyists developing new strategies and tactics? How does the multiplication of ‘broad strategic companies’ impact upon the likelihood of any one campaign succeeding in its objective? Does this in turn drive further ‘innovation’, as lobbyists compete with each other to find new ways of pursuing the interests of their clients?

In other words, might developments of the sort invoked in this extract be driven at least in part by the sheer numbers operating in the established ways? How do the unintended consequences of lobbying accumulate and what does this mean for the practice of lobbyists? I don’t recall having read any political memoirs which address this transformation and I would like to. I’m curious about the everyday changes this gives rise to in the lives of politicians and those running their offices. I find it hard not to wonder if a sort of attentional fortification becomes necessary, even amongst those eagerly embracing corporate sponsors, as well as what the consequences of this are for how they manage their political activities and ongoing careers.

In TroubleMakers, Leslie Berlin summarises the notion of Class 1 and Class 2 disputes propounded by Bob Taylor, founder and manager of Xerox PARC’s famous Computer Science Laboratory. Part of his renowned capacity to build community within the lab involved turning what might have been destructive disputes into constructive ones. On pg 105 Berlin explains how:

Taylor distinguished between what he called “Class 1 and Class 2 disputes.” In the first, the two sides are so estranged that they cannot even hear, much less understand, what the other is saying. In Class 2 disputes, the two sides disagree but understand each other. Taylor’s goal was to move all Class 1 disagreements to Class 2, even if resolution was not possible.

What would this look like on social media? I can conceive of particular instances where thoughtful interventions, with the right timing, might succeed in shifting disagreements from Class 1 to Class 2. Having said this, I struggle to think of any concrete examples but perhaps these are events likely to fly beneath the radar unless you are party to them yourself. Nonetheless, any instance I can imagine seems intensely particularistic, rather than representing a general category. I can imagine Taylor being able to offer general strategies, as well as specific tactics through which one might seek to shift Class 1 disputes into Class 2 disputes. We could also imagine generalisations about the conditions under which such a shift is likely to be possible. But I struggle to imagine any comparable strategy or tactics for disputes which occur through social media, as opposed to situational responses which might contingently work. Furthermore, I find it difficult to imagine how we might build up a body of knowledge about the conditions under which such a shift is likely to be possible because the dynamics are liable to be so specific to the interaction between the parties.

Am I being too bleak? This certainly seems like a gloomy conclusion to draw. But in a context like the lab, it’s possible to make all sorts of assumptions which would obviously be mistaken on social media, concerning factors such as the motivations of parties and their description of the situation. Social media has the propensity to throw people together, with the most minimal relation between them, inciting interaction in the absence of many of the cues which ensure orderly conduct in everyday life. Not only are Class 1 disputes likely on social media, a potential shift to Class 2 disputes becomes less likely with time because continued interaction multiplies the possibility for interpretive failure. The dialogue becomes self-referential, as internal cues come to substitute for the external stabilising influence that would often kick in were the same interaction to unfold in an offline setting.

Notes for week 2 of the CPGJ Platform Capitalism reading group 

Both readings for this week treat utopian hopes of the internet bolstering democracy as anachronistic relics, looking in different ways to the murky reality of the politics which platform capitalism is giving rise to. Tufekci accepts some of the claims made about the affordances of digital technology while stressing the new inequalities which come with these developments, as we operate within a “data–analytic environment that favors the powerful, data–rich incumbents, and the technologically adept”. This is what Mark Andrejevic has elsewhere described as the ‘big-data divide‘. New strategies take advantage of this divide, entrenching it in the process through the collection of data and the development of techniques, giving rise to “more effective — and less transparent — “engineering of consent” (Bernays, 1947) in the public sphere”. This is neatly conceptualised by Tufekci as  computational politics:

As a normative (but contested) ideal, the public sphere is envisioned by Habermas (1989) as the location and place in which rational arguments about matters concerning the public, especially regarding issues of governance and the civics can take place, freed from constraints of status and identity. The public sphere should be considered at once a “normative ideal” as well as an institutional analysis of historical practice (Calhoun, 1993). As actual practice, the public sphere pertains to “places” — intersections and commons — where these civic interactions take place, and which are increasingly online. This shift to a partially online public sphere, which has brought about the ability to observe, surveil and collect these interactions in large datasets, has given rise to computational politics, the focus of this paper.

Computational politics refers applying computational methods to large datasets derived from online and off–line data sources for conducting outreach, persuasion and mobilization in the service of electing, furthering or opposing a candidate, a policy or legislation. Computational politics is informed by behavioral sciences and refined using experimental approaches, including online experiments, and is often used to profile people, sometimes in the aggregate but especially at the individual level, and to develop methods of persuasion and mobilization which, too, can be individualized. Thus, computational politics is a set of practices the rise of which depends on, but is not solely defined by, the existence of big data and accompanying analytic tools and is defined by the significant information asymmetry — those holding the data know a lot about individuals while people don’t know what the data practitioners know about them (U.S. Federal Trade Commission, 2014).

Tufekci is careful to note that the use of ‘big data’ for politics and marketing predates the internet. But her concern is digital data facilitates “significantly more individualized profiling and modeling, much greater data depth, and can be collected in an invisible, latent manner and delivered individually”. The possibilities for interacting individually, privately and asymmetrically increase enormously, leading to a qualitative change in how public the public sphere will tend to be. Engineering consent is not a new ambition but the tools now available to undertake this are radically different to what has come before:

  1. availability of big data
  2. shift to individual targeting
  3. the potential and opacity of modeling
  4. the rise of behavioral science in the service of persuasion
  5. dynamic experimentation
  6. and the growth of new power brokers on the Internet who control the data and algorithms

I suggested Kate Crawford’s essay for this week because it highlights public understanding of computational politics. What happens when there is direct and indirect awareness of this? We might hope this will take the form of organised political action but her suggestion we will see cultural response is deeply plausible. What other reactions can we imagine? How might recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica contribute to this? I haven’t got time to write proper notes about her essay now but I’ve written about it in the past, albeit briefly.

  1. Will computational politics necessarily erode the public sphere? What action can we take to prevent this? Will technocratic solutions to problems defined as ‘fake news’ and ‘computational propaganda’ help the situation or make the problem worse?  Is there any way to put computational politics back in the box? Can we have platform capitalism without computational politics?
  2. Tufekci wrote in 2014 that “there has been fairly little conceptual theory–building especially about the political and civic consequences of big data” and mainstream media “rarely goes beyond exploring big data as a hot, new topic and an exciting new tool, and rarely consider issues of power”. Is this still the case? What would such work look like? Is it ‘remastering’ existing concepts to make them digitally adequate or developing new ones?
  3. Is a coherent public understanding of computational politics taking shape? What are the consequences of this? What’s the relationship between cultural responses to computational politics and political responses to it?

Minitrack: Collective Intelligence and Crowds

HICSS 52 http://hicss.hawaii.edu/ Track: Digital and Social Media

January 8-11, 2019, Maui, Hawaii, USA

This minitrack is open to analysis of collective intelligence, knowledge creation, and crowdsourcing. We think that assemblages of people and machines are making new forms of organization possible, and we are interested in research that explores these new forms of organization. The minitrack invites papers that look at crowd sourcing, at idea generation, at remixing communities, and hybrid organizations in which learning machines plays a strong role.

We live surrounded by socially constructed identities – organizations, nations, websites – all of which are constituted through a complex interplay of interactions, a kind of distributed cognition. These Internet platforms allow people to aggregate knowledge from socially distant areas. They also allow diverse groups of people – and maybe autonomous learning machines – to negotiate identities. With these socio-technical configurations we can build collective intelligences that themselves will steer the quest for knowledge. These collectives can be self-catalyzing, deciding individually or collaboratively what to do next, out of which novel and practical ideas emerge.
While these open design collectives rely on organic growth and slow embedding of members in the network, alternative structures based on crowds can be assembled more rapidly. Between the two extremes are a host of different organizational and social structures, in which committed members of a community create, improve, and share ideas. The output of these socio-technical systems often takes the form of digital media, and their traces are varied, ranging from ephemeral short messages to curated collaborative knowledge repositories.

We are interested in 1) papers that observe, analyze, or visualize these socio-technical structures and their outputs: for example, analyses of open design and open source collectives 2) papers that analyze the phenomena of crowdsourcing, collective intelligence and collaborative mass knowledge production; 3) design research that creates and evaluates new tools and processes for crowds and communities; and 4) papers that simulate the production processes and outcomes through software.

We are open to papers that explore unusual ways of modeling emergent organizations: models that demonstrate or reflect the influence of social systems on user behaviors, models that consider the multiple connections between people, technology, and institutions, models of technological and social affordances, models that break personal identity into sub-relations, models that examine the emergence of roles, identity, and institutions, as well as socio-technical models of deviance and disruption. We are particularly interested in papers that apply the foundational ideas of James Coleman, James March, Herb Simon, Mark Granovetter, Harrison White, Charles Tilly and related scholars to modern information systems. We are open to papers concerned with how to visualize large scale social phenomena. And papers that analyze the role machine algorithms and human processes play in our politics and our personal interactions.
In sum, the content of the minitrack is open to analysis of collective intelligence, new sociotechnical configuration of knowledge creation, and crowdsourcing. Included also is the analysis of social interaction as a way of describing underlying social structure. Thus, the track is open to a wide range of content areas that lend themselves to the analysis of relations between people, collectives, and machines, as well as the products produced as a result of these relations.


– April 15: Paper submission begins
– June 15: Paper submissions deadline
– August 17: Notification of Acceptance/Rejection
– September 22: Deadline for authors to submit final manuscript for publication
– October 1: Deadline for at least one author to register for HICSS-52

Conference Website: http://hicss.hawaii.edu/
Author Guidelines:  http://hicss.hawaii.edu/tracks-and-minitracks/authors/

CALL FOR PAPERS: 52nd HICSS 2019, Maui, Hawaii
January 8-11, 2019 – Maui, Hawaii

in the Digital and Social Media Track
URL: http://hicss.hawaii.edu/tracks-52/digital-and-social-media/

Submission Deadline: June 15, 2018 | 11:59 pm HST
Notification of Acceptance/Rejection: August 17, 2018

CfP HICSS-52 (2019) minitrack:

This minitrack focuses on three main themes: 1) theorizing about information systems through the study of collective action and social movement phenomena, 2) the application of collective action and social movement theory toward understanding technology phenomena, and 3) methodological advances that can help us better understand research topics at the intersection of social movements, collective action and social technologies. Our hope is to engage scholars and practitioners from diverse fields and generate cross-disciplinary dialogue.

We welcome submissions from authors conducting empirical and conceptual research along with practitioner reports and case studies. Potential topics include:

*   The role of digitization in shaping the nature of organization and collaboration
*   Platform design implications for message / frame diffusion
*   Why and how collective action dilemmas arise or resolve
*   Innovation through collective action
*   Cross-level (e.g., individual to societal) impacts of social technologies
*   Brand hijacking movements targeting corporate competitors
*   Implications of cyberactivism and hacktivism
*   Fake news movements and propaganda diffusion
*   Effectiveness of hashtag activism or clicktivism
*   Corporate strategy / involvement in social movements to shape public policy
*   Botivists (web bots programmed for activism), online petitions, and other tools for digital protest
*   Viral marketing of ideas and social agendas
*   Social media capabilities and facilitation of echo chambers
*   Financing of social agendas through crowdfunding or bitcoin exchanges
*   Any application of social movement or collective action concepts (e.g., frames and tactics, organization, claim making, etc.) toward understanding of social technology phenomenon (e.g., crowdsourcing, large group collaboration, social media use, etc.)

Minitrack Co-Chairs:

Amber Young (Primary Contact)
University of Massachusetts Amherst

Jama Summers
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Constantinos Coursaris
Michigan State University

One of the most interesting arguments in Kill All Normie by Angela Nagle was her claim that transgression has been decoupled from its contingent association with the left, being taken up by the alt-right in a profoundly reactionary way. I’ve been thinking back to this while reading Fire & Fury by Michael Wolff. Trump seems to embody this process, even if he doesn’t necessarily understand it. From loc 458:

Trump’s understanding of his own essential nature was even more precise. Once, coming back on his plane with a billionaire friend who had brought along a foreign model, Trump, trying to move in on his friend’s date, urged a stop in Atlantic City. He would provide a tour of his casino. His friend assured the model that there was nothing to recommend Atlantic City. It was a place overrun by white trash. “What is this ‘white trash’?” asked the model. “They’re people just like me,” said Trump, “only they’re poor.” He looked for a license not to conform, not to be respectable. It was something of an outlaw prescription for winning—and winning, however you won, was what it was all about. Or, as his friends would observe, mindful themselves not to be taken in, he simply had no scruples. He was a rebel, a disruptor, and, living outside the rules, contemptuous of them.

The evidence would suggest I’m not alone in being somewhat gripped by Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury. One of the central themes of the book is how no one, including the candidate himself, expected Trump would win and what we have seen since then has been a rapid adaptation, self-serving and bewildered in equal measured, as the apparatus around him tried to make sense of a situation in which they never expected to find themselves. From this standpoint, the ‘post-truth’ character of Trump’s administration with their ‘alternative facts’, comes to look like a pragmatic adaption to a chronically incapable candidate rather than anything more sinister. From loc 873:

The media, adopting a “shocked, shocked” morality, could not fathom how being factually wrong was not an absolute ending in itself. How could this not utterly shame him? How could his staff defend him? The facts were the facts! Defying them, or ignoring them, or subverting them, made you a liar—intending to deceive, bearing false witness. (A minor journalism controversy broke out about whether these untruths should be called inaccuracies or lies.) In Bannon’s view: (1) Trump was never going to change; (2) trying to get him to change would surely cramp his style; (3) it didn’t matter to Trump supporters; (4) the media wasn’t going to like him anyway; (5) it was better to play against the media than to the media; (6) the media’s claim to be the protector of factual probity and accuracy was itself a sham; (7) the Trump revolution was an attack on conventional assumptions and expertise, so better to embrace Trump’s behavior than try to curb it or cure it. The problem was that, for all he was never going to stick to a script (“ his mind just doesn’t work that way” was one of the internal rationalizations), Trump craved media approval. But, as Bannon emphasized, he was never going to get the facts right, nor was he ever going to acknowledge that he got them wrong, so therefore he was not going to get that approval. This meant, next best thing, that he had to be aggressively defended against the media’s disapproval.

This isn’t just a matter of gossip about political leaders or a corrective to the excessive abstraction pouring forth from an intellectual class on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It allows us to recast politics in micro-social terms involving absence, failure and incapacity rather than simply telling stories of the powerful exercising that power in pursuit of their established projects. Fire and Fury tells a vivid story of how the Whitehouse revolves around managing the incapacities of Trump, as the staff struggle to come to terms with their willingness to play this role (in a manner which can just as readily be cast in terms of incapacity). From loc 1989:

Here was, arguably, the central issue of the Trump presidency, informing every aspect of Trumpian policy and leadership: he didn’t process information in any conventional sense—or, in a way, he didn’t process it at all. Trump didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate. (There was some argument about this, because he could read headlines and articles about himself, or at least headlines on articles about himself, and the gossip squibs on the New York Post’s Page Six.) Some thought him dyslexic; certainly his comprehension was limited. Others concluded that he didn’t read because he just didn’t have to, and that in fact this was one of his key attributes as a populist. He was postliterate—total television. But not only didn’t he read, he didn’t listen. He preferred to be the person talking. And he trusted his own expertise—no matter how paltry or irrelevant—more than anyone else’s. What’s more, he had an extremely short attention span, even when he thought you were worthy of attention. The organization therefore needed a set of internal rationalizations that would allow it to trust a man who, while he knew little, was entirely confident of his own gut instincts and reflexive opinions, however frequently they might change.

However the incapacities of others provide a valuable object for one’s own strategic capacities. The point is not to counterpoise a strategic and agentive analysis to a non-strategic and non-agentive one. This misses the obvious ways in which absence, failure and incapacity structure the field of opportunities to which agents strategically respond. As Wolff recounts on loc 2009:

It was during Trump’s early intelligence briefings, held soon after he captured the nomination, that alarm signals first went off among his new campaign staff: he seemed to lack the ability to take in third-party information. Or maybe he lacked the interest; whichever, he seemed almost phobic about having formal demands on his attention. He stonewalled every written page and balked at every explanation. “He’s a guy who really hated school,” said Bannon. “And he’s not going to start liking it now.” However alarming, Trump’s way of operating also presented an opportunity to the people in closest proximity to him: by understanding him, by observing the kind of habits and reflexive responses that his business opponents had long learned to use to their advantage, they might be able to game him, to move him. Still, while he might be moved today, nobody underestimated the complexities of continuing to move him in the same direction tomorrow.

As he writes on loc 2046, “If Trump cared about something, he usually already had a fixed view based on limited information. If he didn’t care, he had no view and no information”. This created openings for all the senior figures in their pursuit of power and influence. Bannon styled himself as the high priest of Trumpism, exercising power over the President and others through becoming deeply conversant with his writing and speeches, able to quote back Trump’s intentions in a way which cast him in the role of a consistent and strategic actor. Wolff’s description of this is particularly resonant:

Bannon’s unique ability—partly through becoming more familiar with the president’s own words than the president was himself, and partly through a cunning self-effacement (upended by his bursts of self-promotion)—was to egg the president on by convincing him that Bannon’s own views were entirely derived from the president’s views. Bannon didn’t promote internal debate, provide policy rationale, or deliver Power-Point presentations; instead, he was the equivalent of Trump’s personal talk radio. Trump could turn him on at any moment, and it pleased him that Bannon’s pronouncements and views would consistently be fully formed and ever available, a bracing, unified-field narrative. As well, he could turn him off, and Bannon would be tactically quiet until turned on again.

Meanwhile Priebus was able to offer endorsement from the political establishment which has previously loathed him, while Kushner brought the prestige of the business elite who had never taken Trump seriously. The president seemingly wanted all of these, representing an important vector through which chaos ensued within the Whitehouse, alongside many others at all levels of the organisation. Reading these accounts, it’s hard not to be sceptical of accounts of ‘post-truth’ et al as overly abstract and epochal accounts which obscure a messy all-too-human reality, albeit one that could ultimately produce outcomes of epochal significance.

In his recently released book Collusion, Luke Harding briefly discusses the media cooperation taking place behind the scenes, as media organisations grappled with a rapidly changing landscape. On loc 898 he writes:

At the Guardian we were pursuing leads from both sides of the Atlantic. Among them, how UK spy agencies had first picked up suspicious interactions between the Russians and the Trump campaign and the role played by Deutsche Bank, Trump’s principal lender. We made an investigative pod—Harding, Hopkins, Borger, and Stephanie Kirchgaessner, a talented former Washington correspondent, now based in Rome. We built up a portfolio of sources. There was healthy competition still, but reporters on different titles began working together on some stories. There were formal press consortiums and ad hoc conversations between one-time rivals. I talked to the New York Times, the Post, the Financial Times in London, Reuters, Mother Jones, the Daily Beast, CNN, and others. Such conversations took place in New York, Washington, London, Munich, and Sarajevo. Some happened in glossy conference rooms, others in the corners of pubs over warm ale. Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times, argued that the “gravity of the matter” called for a change in the press’s behaviour. Trump meant a new era. And new post-tribal thinking. Abramson wrote: “Reputable news organizations that have committed resources to original reporting on the Russia story should not compete with one another, they should co-operate and pool information.”

This has been one of many such collaborations. The most prominent have been the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers but others have taken place without receiving such prominent coverage. I’d like to understand the process by which (potential) competitors become (actual) collaborators and how this is enacted through day-to-day processes of collaboration. Does anyone know of first-person accounts of working on these projects?

The formation of the International Consortium of Investigate Journalists has been a central part of this process, with media partners and supporters from around the world. This is how they describe their organisational mission:

The need for such an organization has never been greater. Globalization and development have placed extraordinary pressures on human societies, posing unprecedented threats from polluting industries, transnational crime networks, rogue states, and the actions of powerful figures in business and government.

The news media, hobbled by short attention spans and lack of resources, are even less of a match for those who would harm the public interest. Broadcast networks and major newspapers have closed foreign bureaus, cut travel budgets, and disbanded investigative teams. We are losing our eyes and ears around the world precisely when we need them most.

Our aim is to bring journalists from different countries together in teams – eliminating rivalry and promoting collaboration. Together, we aim to be the world’s best cross-border investigative team.

Their work relies on a complex ecosystem of organisations, teams, media partners, co-researchers and supporters, including possibly unexpected elements such as analytical support from Palantir. They have published their methodology and workflow for one of their investigations, providing a fascinating level of transparency. Is this a worthy project which sits at the periphery of journalism? Or can we see in it the lineament of what journalism will look like in the future?

One of the most obvious ways to read Donald Trump’s rise to power in the United States is as the emergence of a neoliberal populism. The popular backlash against a socio-economic system unable to provide an acceptable quality of life for the majority of its citizens is harnessed by entrenched elites, with the intention of leveraging this uprising to support an intensification of precisely the conditions it is a response to. We can see this through the near wholesale adoption of the Ryan policy platform by the Trump administration, as well as the rapprochement with elite donors facilitated through the Pence vice-presidency:

On Election Night, the dissonance between Trump’s populist supporters and Pence’s billionaire sponsors was quietly evident. When Trump gave his acceptance speech, in the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan, he vowed to serve “the forgotten men and women of our country,” and promised to “rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, and hospitals.” Upstairs, in a room reserved for Party élites, several of the richest and most conservative donors, all of whom support drastic reductions in government spending, were celebrating. Doug Deason, a Texas businessman and a political donor, recalled to me, “It was amazing. In the V.I.P. reception area, there was an even more V.I.P. room, and I counted at least eight or nine billionaires.”


Despite the superficial civil war taking place in the Republican party, the political topology of its near future can be seen as in many ways as a continuation of what came previously. This ideological alchemy is rendered possible by market populism, skillfully analysed by Thomas Frank over many years, framing the expansion of ‘economic liberty’ as the extension of democracy. The subordination of democracy to capital is coded as democratisation against the wishes of cultural and political elites, allowing a deeply reactionary movement to style itself as a radical insurgency acting on behalf of ‘the people’.

However, the role of the far-right in Trumpist populism potentially complicates this analysis. This is a genuine uprising, pulled towards the Republican party by elite donors (or rather their strategists) and pushed towards it by the quasi-Leninist vanguard within the far-right (supported by the cultural shock troops of the online armies they influence). It is a combustible mix, inherently unpredictable in its outcomes. But it doesn’t exhaust neoliberal populism per se. In fact, it’s deeply shaped by the American political scene, not least of all the idiosyncratic figurehead around which these trends have coalesced.

We can expect that neoliberal populism in Europe will take a different form. Enter the figure of Emmanuel Macron, described by Selim Nadi in a recent Salvage essay:

Macron, rather than breaking with the established trend toward more racist authoritarianism, is leading us into a new kind of authoritarian populism that fits perfectly with the neo-liberal reform he wants to pursue in France. Indeed, Macron is reorganizing France precisely so as to secure the neo-liberal hegemony which has had such disastrous effects for the whole French working class, and especially for those workers originating from France’s former colonies.

Moreover, instead of ending the state of emergency, Macron seems intent on creating a legalized permanent state of emergency, which will not be the exception anymore, but rather the rule—and whose effect will be to repress any attempts coming from the Left to organize against Macron’s reforms.


This ultra-insider, whose has cultivated power and influence with astonishing effectiveness since his teens, styles himself as an outsider: leading the doers, the sayers, the actors of France in an uprising against the sclerosis that has gripped their country. It’s easy to be sceptical of the crowds surrounding him but I’ve become convinced the more I’ve read, watched and listened that En Marche! is very much a movement. It has drawn its strategy from the mainstream ‘centre-left’: David Plouffe, Jim Mesina, Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell all advised the campaign. The consultancy specialising in ‘grassroots campaigns’ which planned their strategy was founded by three Harvard-educated French former Obama volunteers (pg 200-201). But these strategies changed by being pursued outside the shell of an existing political party, producing energising scenes of the would-be Jupiterian screaming at a crowd hungry for change:

If we take their claim to have produced a movement seriously, it raises important questions about the sectors of society who have been mobilised in this way and the potential outcomes of this mobilisation. How will their nascent politics be shaped by the likely conflicts arising from Macron’s contested economic agenda? My hunch is that there’s a reactionary politics lurking behind the superficially optimistic rhetoric of grassroots democracy and start-up culture. En Marche! and the Tea Party strand of Trumpism could not be more different but this is because the French bourgeoisie and the reactionary part of the American bourgeoisie could not be more dissimilar. The underlying class composition of these movements seem to have some commonalities, as Nadi hints at here:

Hence, Macron really appears as a new embodiment of the different sections of the French bourgeoisie — dispensing with the artificial boundary between the Socialist Party, the Center and the right-wing Les Républicains. Macron’s bourgeois bloc managed to unify some sections of the traditional right-wing, a section of social democracy, and even some elements of ‘civil society.’ The mythical division between state and ‘civil society’ is a very important source of legitimacy for Macron. By assembling politicians who are not members of established political parties, he created a sort of contemporary Third Estate in order to secure the political hegemony of the French bourgeoisie.


His authoritarian intentions are (arguably) a matter of record, as he has spoken at length about the French longing for a Napoleonic figurehead and his intention to fill this perceived gap. His apparently liberal stances are belied by his commitment to normalising the state of emergency, as Nadi describes:

While Macron seems to want to end the formal ‘state of emergency’, his proposal is in effect to legalize it, to include it in the common law. Hence it will no longer be a state of ‘emergency’ but just the regular state under which France will exist. As a matter of fact, his current draft legislation, entitled ‘law for the reinforcement of the fight against terrorism and for the reinforcement of homeland security,’ legalises many of the tools of the state of emergency. These include home-search, house arrest, closing of places of worship (obviously, this will mainly target Muslims), monitoring private communications, and so on.


His government could pave the way for far-right rule in the future, as Phil BC pointed out immediately after his election. However, I’m increasingly wondering whether sections of his base might themselves transmute into organic supporters of the far-right in the unfolding of the social conflicts which pursuing his agenda will inevitably aggravate. Much as we shouldn’t assume fascism in America will come in the form of jackboots, we shouldn’t assume neoliberal populism in western Europe will come in the form of a reactionary reality television star.

The important argument I took from Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies is that the ‘alt-right’ reflect transgression detaching from progressivism. The idea that an act that goes against a law, rule, or code of conduct is inherently progressive ceases to be tenable when progressive movements have institutionalised laws, rules and codes that serve progressive ends. Under these circumstances, transgressing against ‘political correctness’ or ‘cultural marxism’ can easily cast itself as authentic rebellion against received wisdom, with all this entails for its capacity to recruit.

There’s a passage in the forward to Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism which sheds light on how we got here. From xxvii:

The paradox is that “heterodoxy” itself has become conformist in liberal circles, and exercises that conformity under the banner of an antinomian flag. It is a prescription, in its confusions, for the dissolution of a shared moral order.

But that confused prescription was the progenitor of a new orthodoxy, something which Bell cautions is never “the guardian of an existent order, but is itself a judgement on the adequacy and moral character of beliefs”. The social victories of progressivism institutionalised a confusion about its character, perpetually valorising transgression even when the old orthodoxy it transgressed against had long since eroded. This is the aporia which the alt-right have (organically) exploited and perhaps why this strand of nascent right-populism has proved so baffling to orthodox liberals and leftists alike.

Towards the end of Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle discusses the chilling effect liable to ensue from the online harassment which journalists critical of the alt-right often now find themselves subject to. From pg 118:

Multiple journalists and citizens have described in horrifying detail the attacks and threats against those who criticize Trump or figures of the online Trumpian right, especially if the critic is female, black or Jewish, but also if they’re a ‘cuckservative’. They now have the ability to send thousands of the most obsessed, unhinged and angry people on the Internet after someone if they dare to speak against the president or his prominent alt-light and alt-right fans. Although the mainstream media is still quite anti-Trump, it would be naïve to think this isn’t going to result in a chilling of critical thought and speech in the coming years, as fewer and fewer may have the stomach for it.

Perhaps I’m being a pedant but I found myself frustrated by the phrase “ability to send” here. I’m not denying this possibility, in fact I’m fascinated by what I’ve come to think of as ‘shadow mobilisation‘, but it’s not obvious to me this is what happens here. There clearly isn’t anything approaching a command-and-control dynamic, something which I think Nagle wouldn’t dispute, hence we need to be careful about how we characterise the co-ordination and coercion which operates in different cases. I’ve rarely encountered an issue for which empirical research seemed so politically urgent.

In an important essay earlier this year, Jan-Werner Müller identifies a dangerous tendency for leftist critics to take the claims of right-populist demagogues at face value. Suddenly vindicated in their struggle with the ‘third way’ that has dominated the centre-left, the claims of nascent populists to speak for a ‘left behind’ majority, created by the neoliberalism which has consumed mainstream social democratic parties, has imbued many leftists with a newfound self-confidence.

This risks simplifying events with a complex array of causes, like the vote for Brexit and Trump’s election, imputing them to the quasi-magical capacity of populists to speak directly to the people. In doing so, it hinders the detailed analysis of these events which we so urgently need: see for instance this important essay by Mike Davis which discusses the American conservative movement’s massive investment in political infrastructure across every state in the country.

However it also lends credence to the populist right, supporting claims of speaking for those left behind which belie the naked class hatred which some of these figures exhibited in the recent past. This is what Angela Nagle argues in her important book Kill All Normies. From pg 101:

Ann Coulter had long drawn upon the elite fear of the hysterical and easily led crowd. In her book Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America explaining how ‘the liberal mob is destroying America’ she drew upon Gustave LeBon, the misanthropists’ favorite theorist of the masses. Her writing on overbreeding, overcrowding swarms of immigrants is a direct continuation of this theme, which has been consistent in elite circles since the beginning of industrialized urbanized mass society, first applied to their multiplying native proletariat and later to new waves of immigrants. Before the ‘ordinary people’ narrative became suddenly ubiquitous on the new online right after the election results, Milo could be seen in photo shoots wearing a ‘Stop Being Poor’ T-shirt, a quote from the heiress Paris Hilton, one of his idols. After the election results he was giving talks about the white working class. The hard alt-right had also rejected the idea that the masses were their naturally traditionalist allies any longer, as the conservative establishment had typically believed. Instead, they had argued that the great mass of society had been tainted and indoctrinated by liberal feminist multiculturalism, and were close to beyond redemption. It was no longer ‘five minutes to midnight’ as the anti-immigration right had long claimed but well past midnight. While the Trumpians are busy quickly rewriting history, it is important to remember that behind the ‘populist’ president, the rhetoric of his young online far-right vanguard had long been characterized by an extreme subcultural snobbishness toward the masses and mass culture.

I wonder if Graham Turner’s distinction between the demotic and the democratic, made in the context of reality television, might be useful here. One could be said to involve foregrounding ‘the people’ as an imagined construct, the other involves empowering people as a social reality. The populist right is demotic, not democratic. This is what the leftist critique of mainstream social democracy, which I’m otherwise entirely in agreement with, risks obscuring.

In the last few years, I’ve become interested in what I think of as shadow mobilisation: assembling people under false pretences and/or in a way intended to create a misleading impressions of the mobilisation. This is often framed in terms of astroturfing – fake grass roots – however it appears to me to extend beyond this. It would be a mistake to see it as a new thing but it might be out present conditions are making it easier and more likely.

It implies a relationship between the instigators and those mobilised, either through manipulation or reimbursement, which is fundamentally asymmetrical. One group has the capacity to plan, enact and reflect on these mobilisations while the other is a mereaggregate, induced to action on an individual-by-individual basis, furthering an agenda which might cohere with their own individual concerns but has no basis in collective concerns. In this sense, shadow mobilisations are a facimale of collectivity. 

If we accept the adequacy of this concept, it raises many questions. Foremost amongst them though is how widespread such shadow mobilisations are, as well as the conditions which facilitate this. I’ve come across examples in many sectors and I wish I’d been recording these systematically. The most recent comes in Anna Minton’s Big Capital, an illuminating study of how global capital is transforming London. From loc 1281-1297:

In a House of Commons debate in 2013, Labour MP Thomas Docherty, a former lobbyist, shared with Parliament some of the techniques of his former colleagues, recounting stories of lobbyists being planted in public meetings to heckle people who opposed their clients’ schemes. His stories chime with a wealth of anecdotal evidence of dirty tricks, including fake letter-writing campaigns and even actors attending planning meetings. Martyn, a film maker from Brighton, described to me how he had been offered ‘cash in brown envelopes’ to attend a planning meeting and pose as a supporter of Frank Gehry’s controversial plans for an iconic new development of 750 luxury apartments on the seafront. He remembers how ‘at least five of us’ from the drama school where he was studying were approached by an events company and asked if they’d like to participate. ‘We were told to go there and shout down the local opposition to the development. A couple of people were pointed out to us –residents, leaders of the local opposition –and we were told to be louder than them and be positive about the development. We were paid on exit, cash in hand, I think it was £50 or £100. I was there and I’m not proud of it. It is something that horrifies me,’ he said. 36 In Parliament, Docherty described dirty tricks as ‘utterly unacceptable’, although ‘not a crime’.

While each particular case of this manipulation of the planning process occurs on a small scale, it reflects an asymmetry we can see in other cases of shadow mobilisation. Residents who coordinate their action, potentially constituting an organised collective in the process, confront organisations which deploy their resources towards drowning this nascent collectivity through a shadow mobilisation. As Minton points out, such activity sometimes occurs alongside organised harassment, suggesting the ethical climate in which shadow mobilisation is seen as a viable strategy by those pursuing private profit.

In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself using the term ‘playbook’ in a number of contexts. It’s typically defined as “a book containing a sports team’s strategies and plays, especially in American football” but I’m not quite sure where I picked up the phrase from as someone who hasn’t had much interest in sport for a long time. 

It’s been on my mind since reading Merchants of Doubt, an incisive historical exploration of a dangerous corporate tendency towards the deliberate cultivation of doubt in relation to pressing issues such as nuclear winter, acid rain, DDT and climate change. As I suggested in a post a couple of weeks ago, we can talk meaningfully of a ‘playbook for merchandising doubt’. In fact something akin to this was once explicitly published, as the authors of Merchants of Doubt summarise on pg 144-145:

Bad Science: A Resource Book was a how-to handbook for fact fighters. It contained over two hundred pages of snappy quotes and reprinted editorials, articles, and op-ed pieces that challenged the authority and integrity of science, building to a crescendo in the attack on the EPA’s work on secondhand smoke. It also included a list of experts with scientific credentials available to comment on any issue about which a think tank or corporation needed a negative sound bite. 42 Bad Science was a virtual self-help book for regulated industries, and it began with a set of emphatic sound-bite-sized “MESSAGES”:

1. Too often science is manipulated to fulfill a political agenda.

 2. Government agencies … betray the public trust by violating principles of good science in a desire to achieve a political goal. 

3. No agency is more guilty of adjusting science to support preconceived public policy prescriptions than the Environmental Protection Agency. 

4. Public policy decisions that are based on bad science impose enormous economic costs on all aspects of society. 

5. Like many studies before it, EPA’s recent report concerning environmental tobacco smoke allows political objectives to guide scientific research. 

6. Proposals that seek to improve indoor air quality by singling out tobacco smoke only enable bad science to become a poor excuse for enacting new laws and jeopardizing individual liberties.

Has anyone encountered comparable documents to this? The scale and organisation of doubt merchandising surely means they have been produced. But perhaps there’s a broader category to be explored here: the explicit articulation of surreptitious tactics

It highlights how coordination presupposes communication, suggesting that even the most duplicitous strategies of the powerful will tend to leave a paper trail. Where we see what appears to be organisation, even if the actors involved deny this, do we have reason to believe there may somewhere exist a ‘playbook’ or something akin to it? I would  tentatively define this as the formal articulation of a tactical repertoire that can be drawn upon in informal contests, even if the definition of these elements may be obscured behind a thick veneer of technocratic distance. By ‘informal contests’ I mean those where rules are not defined or a contest actually declared. The existence of a playbook reveals how advantages in organisational capacity might translate to a practical advantage in competition.

I’d be intrigued to know if these ruminations resonate with anyone, particularly those who might be able to furnish further examples 

I’m currently reading Merchants of Doubt, a fascinating study of the tobacco industry’s deployment of academic experts to cast doubt on the harm caused by cigarettes. Being in the mood to read the book in an ultra-cynical way, here’s my playbook for merchandising doubt, derived from reading these cases through the lens of critical realism:

  1. Exploit multiple causation to maximum effect: it might be that X reliably brings about harmful outcomes for society but so do A, B and C. Focusing on these alternate pathways to personal and social pathologies helps relativise the harm caused by X, as well as highlighting the uncertain relationship between it and those outcomes which everyone agrees are undesirable.
  2. Attack inferences from populations to individuals: exploit the difficulty of apply population level generalisations to individual cases. Highlight these cases, promote them and promulgate them as emphatically as possible. These cases are your friend! The public don’t think in terms of statistical knowledge, but rather in terms of individuals. The more you can focus on individuals, the easier it will be to discredit statistical claims. Exploiting folk theories of causation and correlation will be key to using this tactic effectively.
  3. You need facts to counter facts: it won’t work to simply dismiss research that harms your interests. It’s necessary to find ‘alternative facts’: claims about reality with enough evidence to make them hard to dismiss, but which encourage alternative framings of an issue that might otherwise be a matter of scientific consensus. Even if experts might question the salience of these facts, journalists will feel the need to report ‘both sides’ in interests of fairness or even highlight the novelty of the new framings your alternative facts open up. Plus the more facts the better, at least in so far as you’re trying to encourage the public to withdraw from intellectual engagement with these debates.
  4. Create a debate and then swamp your enemysuch alternative facts and their playing out in the media can be a powerful way to create a debate out of something which is actually a matter of scientific consensus. Once this happens, it’s important that you outspend your opponents to the greatest possible extent. Scientists are rarely versed in public engagement, lacking both the disposition and expertise. The platforms they have access to in disseminating their facts are dwarfed by the platforms you have access to if you’re willing to spend. Find experts at communicating your message and provide them with all the resources they need. Activist groups are slightly better equipped for this communication, but you’ll always be able to out spend them. It’s even better if you can create your own activist groups!
  5. Always stress the vested interests of your enemies: behind their protestations of disinterested rationality, scientists are people with careers, employers and aspirations. By definition, their interests are served when they do their job in the way they are expected e.g. by producing knowledge. If you stress the way this work serves their interests, it obscures their cognitive commitment to the production of knowledge. This is even easier with activist groups who are vocal about their ideological commitments: in their case, their failure to perform the disinterestedness of scientists can be used to dismiss them as zealots!
  6. Hack science through manipulating the burden of proof: most people don’t understand the way science progresses and uncertainty about peripheral issues can be exploited to cast doubt on what is largely settled. The complications which arise through new studies are your friend! Such a tactic will work even more effectively if you can find scientists prone to scientism, an obsessive commitment to countering claims that are seen to involve ‘over-reaching’, whose zealotry coupled with authority can help make your case.
  7. If all else fails, attack the proposals: once the battle is lost, don’t waste time continuing to defend your case. Move on to the consequences of what your enemy advocates: what is the evidence for their proposals? How much will they cost? Will the cost be worth it? Question the evidence, smear it as non-scientific, fund your own counter studies to discredit it. If their evidence is unimpeachable, invoke the slippery slope and attack the possible consequences of what they are advocating. Invoke democracy: who are they to say what we can or cannot do? Who gave them the right to shape policy? Who is controlling their agenda?

What does public sociology have to say about sociologists who are ‘merchants of doubt’? This is the question I’m slightly obsessing over after discovering that Peter Berger, famous for his work on social construction and the sociology of religion, worked as a consultant for the tobacco industry. As Source Watch details, he was tasked with establishing that “anti-smoking activists have a special agenda which serves their own purposes, but not necessarily the majority of nonsmokers”:

He served as a Tobacco Institute consultant. While at Boston College, Berger, (as quoted in tobacco industry newsletter “The Tobacco Observer,”) described tobacco control proponents as “fanatical.”[1] Berger attended Philip Morris executive meetings [2] and participated in the multinational tobacco industry’s Social Costs/Social Values Project, created to refute the social costs theory of smoking and to help reverse declining social acceptability of smoking. He was a contributing author to the industry-financed book Smoking and Society, edited by another tobacco industry consultant, Robert Tollison.


This is critical sociology deployed on behalf of the powerful: pulling back the veil on a group pursuing an ideational agenda and claiming they act out of sectional interests. What other examples are there of prominent sociologists acting in this capacity? How should these cases inform our conception of public sociology?

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.