ICA Presentation: Big Data and Public Opinion

Last week, I was lucky enough to go to Seattle to present a paper at the International Communications Association annual conference. This was my first ICA, and I enjoyed the experience greatly. I featured on a wonderful panel entitled Really Useful Analytics and the Good Life with my colleague Nick Couldry, as well as Helen Kennedy and Giles Moss from Leeds University, and Caroline Basset from Sussex University.

The slides from my presentation are available here, but in this blog entry, I just wanted to outline the core shape of my argument, which will hopefully provide a framework for future work.

The first thing to say is that this paper was rather different to the work I have previously done in this area. With Ben’Loughlin, I have written a lot about what we have termed semantic polling (Anstead and O'Loughlin, Forthcoming). In these pieces, we worked to both understand and theorize about new research techniques that harvest vast amounts of data from social media (normally Twitter) to understand how the public are reacting to specific events or politicians. In those earlier papers, Ben and I tried to think about different understandings of public opinion – outside the dominant opinion polling paradigm established in the 1930s – and thought about how they problematized the arguments related to semantic polling.

The datasets used by semantic pollsters are certainly big, maybe running into many millions of tweets. However, for the paper at ICA, I wanted to draw a distinction between big data (defined simply through the size of the dataset or number of data points being worked with) and Big Data. The latter is distinct because it employs a fundamentally different epistemological framework to traditional social science research methods. This argument is clearly put in a couple of places. Most famously (or infamously, depending on perspective) is Chris Anderson’s claim that theory is now irrelevant.

“Out with every theory of human behaviour, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves”(Anderson, 2008).

More recently Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier have argued that:

“The era of big data challenges the way we live and interact with the world. Most strikingly, society will need to shed some of its obsession for causality in exchange for simple correlations: not knowing why but only what” (Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier, 2013).

Such arguments have proved to be very divisive for obvious reasons (Couldry, 2013), yet there ramifications are certainly worth considering. Clearly government, political parties and other civic organisations have a great interest in big data and what it can tell them about the public. At the same time, traditional methods for understanding public opinion are, for various reasons that I detail below, struggling or at least evolving rapidly. So the question is: do we need a new theory of public opinion to cope with these developments?

As noted by Herbert Blumer as far back the as the 1940s (1948), public opinion research has always been rather adverse to theory, instead focusing its energies on practical methodological issues. However, one rather useful historically grounded theoretical framework has been outlined by the American academic Susan Herbst. Employing the idea of what she terms infrastructrues of public opinion, Herbst argues two things: first, that the definition of public opinion varies across time and place; and second that the definition actually has three components. These are shown, with historical examples, in Table 1 below (derived from Herbst and Beniger, 1994, Herbst, 2001).       

Two previous examples of public opinion infrastructures, derived from the work of Susan Herbst

Two previous examples of public opinion infrastructures, derived from the work of Susan Herbst

An infrastructure of public opinion therefore consists of a method for measuring public opinion; an understanding of politics which shapes that public and how it is conceived; and forums in which public opinion is discussed. This tripartite model has taken quite distinctive forms in different historical periods and geographies, as the comparison between pre-revolutionary France and the mid-twentieth century United States in the table indicates.  

Before discussing how we might fit the development of Big Data research into this model, it is also worth noting something about more traditional techniques and understandings of public opinion. In many ways, the mid-twentieth century US paradigm described above persists, at least in the way we talk about public opinion. However, there are a number of reasons to suggest that this infrastructure of public opinion is in decline. These include:

  • The growing role for qualitative research. While opinion polling still plays a huge role in the development of political strategy, recent decades have seen growing prominence for qualitative researchers. While most researchers would claim that both techniques have to be combined for a rich understanding of public opinion, it is interesting to note that the most famous political researchers in the UK in recent decades have tended to be more associated with qualitative research than with polling, while the focus group has taken on a hugely important symbolic significance in contemporary politics (Gould, 2011, Mattinson, 2010, Schier, 2000).
  • Declining response rates to telephone surveys. This is a much considered problem, especially for American pollsters. It is now not uncommon to get response rates in the single digits, which is undermining traditional methodological approaches to public opinion research (Groves, 2011).
  • The development of internet panel surveys. The development of new online methods have challenged traditional telephone and face-to-face methods, and changed the market place for public opinion research (AAPOR, 2009).
  • The use of more complex statistical modelling techniques. Partially as a result of lower response rates and partially because of internet panel surveys, it can now be argued that pollsters have moved from sampling the population to modelling it. In short, the poorer quality of the raw data going-in (be this because of the inherent biases of online panel polls or lower response rates for telephone samples) means that more statistical jiggery-pokery is required to create representative numbers (Groves, 2011).
  • The rise of alternative metrics and predictors of public opinion. Opinion pollsters no longer have the field to themselves. Most famously Nate Silver employs Bayesian predictive modelling to predict US elections, while new social media research techniques have claimed reflect public opinion (Anstead and O'Loughlin, Forthcoming, Silver, 2012).   

If we want to bind many of these trends together in an over-arching narrative, it perhaps relates to the decline of mass society. Traditional opinion polling, certainly as conceived by George Gallup and his contemporaries (and characterised by Herbst), was focused on understanding the political nation, as a singular entity. However, as the political nation has become more complex and differentiated, this model has started to look a lot less applicable. Therefore, as we do start to sketch out an infrastructure of public opinion where Big Data is becoming more influential, it is also important to hold in mind that this is not wholly a revolutionary development but also in continuity with other, older changes in the measurement and use of public opinion.

So what might a Big Data infrastructure of public opinion look like? One thing to note is that it is not really clear yet – we are still in the very early stages of the use of Big Data. What follows therefore is a slightly speculative attempt to start to answer this question.

Perhaps the easiest place to start is with an epistemology of public opinion and Big Data. I made a few points in my presentation. These are perhaps the most important:

  • As outlined above, Big Data approaches are correlative, meaning they are more interested in "how" than "why" questions.
  • Opinion polling is technically probabilistic in nature (hence the focus on margin of error). However, probability becomes far more important with Big Datasets, especially when the aim of the activity is prediction. As such, the very nature of the output analysis that is presented to politicians and the public might be different (Silver, 2012).
  • Big Data is integrative. In particular, Big Data techniques often seek to use multiple datasets – both structured and unstructured – from a variety of sources. This represents a dramatic shift in the kind of information that can be processed and used to construct public opinion (Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier, 2013).
  • Another important consequence of Big Datasets is that they can be more effectively sub-divided. Recent years have seen a rise in the so-called super-poll (in the UK, this technique is most famously used by Lord Ashcroft) where a sample of 25,000 is taken. The reason for this is that sub-samples can be more easily extracted from the dataset, without greatly increasing the margin of error. This would not work with a traditional 1,000 person poll. Big Data is also immune from this problem, and can very easily be organised in a way that allows for specific groups to be studied.

What though of ontology? What idea of the public might be embedded in Big Data?

  • One optimistic reading of this turn of events is that measurement of public opinion will become more conversational, rather than being simply about atomised individual opinion. This may even have the consequence of decentralising power as the tools for measuring public opinion become more accessible.
  • More pessimistically, big data techniques may alienate citizens even more from public opinion collection by harvesting unconscious expressed preferences, drawing on what has been termed “data exhaust”.
  • So this raises a question: how would this model work with classic liberal democratic ideas? If citizens are engaging in democracy but don't know they are, what does this mean? Are they really citizens anymore? Certainly the liberal idea of participation as an educative moment, which embeds an individual more in the political system would not make sense any more.

Finally, in what forums might public opinion be discussed in a Big Data infrastructure of public opinion?

  • Big data is already starting to bleed over into mainstream political journalism (as Ben and I have detailed in our work), but is still something of a novelty. As yet, it is not as respected as more traditional public opinion research methods.
  • However, it is questionable how much big data analysis citizens will get access to, and how transparent its construction will be. This is especially true if we are talking about data held in the private sector, such as social networks or health companies.
  • So this suggests a potentially interesting double standard: the public might be given access to more frivolous analysis (what Big Data says about a reality TV show, for example), while important information is held by government and corporations (how Big Data is used to influence healthcare policy, for example).
  • But it is important not to suggest that government is a singular identity. Some parts of government are clearly interested in big data, but it is not clear the legitimacy that various policy actors attribute to it (for example whether the civil service, executive, MPs or local councils have a great interest in it). What interest will MPs have in Big Data, for example? Will they take it more seriously than half a dozen letters from constituents?

These are really just some provisional ideas which I hope to fashion into something more substantial in the next few months. But any comments or questions are very welcome indeed!


Bibliography

AAPOR 2009. AAPOR Report on Online Panels, Washington D.C., American Association of Public Opinion Researchers.

ANDERSON, C. 2008. The end of theory? [Online]. Available: http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/magazine/16-07/pb_theory [Accessed 27th June 2013].

ANSTEAD, N. & O'LOUGHLIN, B. Forthcoming. 1936 and all that: Can semantic polling dissolve the myth of two traditions of public opinion research? In: GIBSON, R. K., CANTIJOCH, M. & WARD, S. (eds.) Analyzing Social Media Data and Web Networks: New Methods for Political Science. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan.

BLUMER, H. 1948. Public opinion and public opinion polling. American Sociological Review, 13, 542-549.

COULDRY, N. 2013. A Necessary Disenchantment: Myth, Agency and Injustice in a Digital World. Inaugural Lecture, London School of Economics and Political Science. London: LSE.

GOULD, P. 2011. The Unfinished Revolution: How New Labour Changed British Politics for Ever, London, Abacus.

GROVES, R. M. 2011. Three Eras of Survey Research. Public Opinion Quarterly, 75, 861-71.

HERBST, S. 2001. Public Opinion Infrastructures: Meanings, Measures, Media. Political Communication, 18, 451-464.

HERBST, S. & BENIGER, J. R. 1994. The changing infrastructure of public opinion. Audience making: How the media create the audience, 95-114.

MATTINSON, D. 2010. Talking to a brick wall : how New Labour stopped listening to the voter and why we need a new politics, London, Biteback.

MAYER-SCHONBERGER, V. & CUKIER, K. 2013. Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live Work and Think, London, John Murray.

SCHIER, S. E. 2000. By invitation only : the rise of exclusive politics in the United States, Pittsburgh, Pa., University of Pittsburgh Press.

SILVER, N. 2012. The signal and the noise: Why so many predictions fail-but some don't, New York, Penguin.

A brief note on methods

I rarely do this, but it seemed worth preparing a brief methodological description of the data in my second Clegg verses Farage blog entry, which has just been published. I do this for two reasons. First, because it is good to be transparent when it comes to these kind of data. Second, because I am starting to work with some of these new techniques that allow for the analysis of bigger textual datasets. The Farage-Clegg dataset is reasonably small (approximately 30,000 words). In theory however, the same techniques could be scaled quite effectively for much larger datasets running into millions of words. So watch this space!  

Constructing the dataset

For the PSA blog post, I was interested in examining how post-debate coverage presented the performance of the two men. In order to do this, I first used Lexis Nexis to gather a sample of all British newspaper articles that made major mentions of Clegg, Farage and debate between 27th March 2014 (the day after the first debate) and 4th April 2014 (two days after the second debate). You can find the results of this search in this document. In total, it includes approximately 480 articles or 178,000 words.

Generating the tag cloud

In an attempt to have a first look at the data, I entered it into the tag cloud generation site TagCrowd. I then cleaned it, removing any words that had been artificially created by Lexis Nexis, for example.

This generates quite an astehtically pleasing tag cloud, but its usefulness for this kind of exercise is actually quite limited. Why is this? Two reasons, really. First, the tag cloud chews through the whole document. It tells us about how often words appear in the coverage, but tells us little about how these words relate to each other. Second, the impression given by the tag cloud can be quite artificial. One obvious point to make: the size of the word reflects not just the number of appearances a word makes, but also the length of the word.  

Cleaning the dataset to generate Clegg and Farage specific sentences

I particular, I wanted to examine what qualities were attributed to the two men’s performance by the media after the debates. So I now turned to two text analysis tools called QDA Miner and WordStat. In the first instance, I used QDA Miner to search for any sentences in the corpus that featured Clegg or Farage, and auto-coded them accordingly. I then exported these to Wordstat, where I could analyse the make-up of these two datasets, and most interestingly compare them.

It should be noticed that some sentences may feature twice in the dataset, as they could have featured both Clegg and Farage’s names. There is an option to exclude these double references, but since this was just quite a quick and dirty analysis, I let them appear twice.

I used Wordstat to pull out the 250 most used words. These appeared most frequently as a percentage across the whole dataset. The tables below show the calculations used to rank the words. The most distinctive Farage word is “PUTIN”. This is because it featured in 0.30 per cent of the words in the Farage dataset but only 0.18 per cent of the words in the Clegg dataset. Hence the difference was 0.12 per cent.


Shouting across each other: post-debate coverage of the Clegg and Farage broadcasts

This post was originally published on the Political Science Association's Insight blog, prior to the Clegg-Farage debates.

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A couple of weeks ago, I blogged on the insight blog about the incentives for both the Liberal Democrats and the United Kingdom Independence Party to take part in the two-way Nick Clegg vs. Nigel Farage debates. Broadly, the argument was that – as the two parties were not really competing for the same base of voters – the debate would ultimately serve the interests of both parties.

It is too early to say yet whether that prediction is true. Post-broadcast polls following both debates suggested that, in the eyes of the audience at least, Farage had won a comfortable victory over Clegg (see here for public reaction to the first debate, and here for reaction to the second debate). Broadly, we should not be surprised that Clegg came off worse in these snap polls. As he himself knows from his 2010 debate experience, novelty is a powerful weapon, at least in the short term.

However, despite the heavy coverage they received in the immediate aftermath, the televised debates still seem to have had little impact on the polls. Most surveys conducted after debate, whether asking about potential general election voting intention or European parliament preferences, showed no real discernible change in the support level for the two parties (the one exception being a Sunday Times / YouGov poll which had the Liberal Democrats down two points, and UKIP up by five).

However, and as importantly for how politics is going to play out in the future, the debates did make very evident some of the rhetorical dividing lines that currently exist in British politics. In order to better understand this, I conducted a very quick study of post-debate media coverage.* Broadly, the sample I worked with was newspaper coverage of the debate published between 27th March 2014 (the day after the first debate) and 4th April 2014 (two days after the second debate). You can find the results of this search in this document. In total, it includes approximately 480 articles, containing some 178,000 words.

A very simple way of visualising this is a tag cloud. With this method, the size of the word equates with how frequently it occurs in the text. A tag cloud of all the newspaper articles text is shown below. This diagram tells us a few things about post-debate discussion. Certainly, questions of identity were heavily emphasised (English, Britain, British, Europe, European etc.). Additionally, what political scientists Frank Esser and Paul D’Angelo term meta-coverage seems to at the forefront of media reporting. This is when political reporters focus on who has won or lost, and the political strategies that have led to these outcomes (so in this tag cloud, words such as per cent and polls might represent meta-coverage. References to the other absent party leaders might also fit into this category). While they do feature, words like immigrations and jobs are surprisingly small.  

Figure 1: Tag cloud of 100 words most frequently used words in post-debate newspaper coverage

Figure 1: Tag cloud of 100 words most frequently used words in post-debate newspaper coverage

However, it should be noted that, as a method to understand large bodies of text, tag clouds have a number of important limitations. The first issue is a simple presentational point. The size of words reflects not only the frequency of their use, but also the length of the word (so in the above example, the size of Debate and Mr reflects a similar number of uses, even though the former is far more prominent). Additionally, tag clouds only tell us how often words were used in a piece of text, but fail to tell us much about the relationships that exist between words.

Table 1: Most distinctive words in Clegg and Farage focused sentences

Table 1: Most distinctive words in Clegg and Farage focused sentences

In order to overcome this difficult, I deployed a second method using the text analysis software package QDA Miner / Wordstat. First, I extracted every sentence in the dataset that referenced Farage or Clegg. I then had two datasets which I could compare. There are a number of things that can be done with this kind of data, but a simple and quick way of examining it is simply to look for the largest discrepancies between them i.e. words that appear a lot more in one dataset than the other. I did this for both politicians. The findings are presented in Table 1.

This offers us a few insights that are not available from the tag cloud. In particular, it suggests that there were two quite different debates going on, with Clegg and Farage talking across each other. Ironically, considering he was facing the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, it is Clegg who is most frequently referenced in conjunction with the EU, European, membership, and Britain. In other words, the Deputy Prime Minister’s performance in the debate does seem to have been reported through the prism of Europe. In contrast, the are two distinct strands to the coverage of Farage’s performance: first, a focus on his comments about Russia, the Ukraine and Vladimir Putin (Putin, admire, president and Russia); and second, more populist political issues (immigration, white and working).     

This divergence is interesting. Recent research, notably Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin’s Revolt on the Right, argues that the success of UKIP has very little to do with popular feeling about the European Union, and much more to do with economic insecurity and a broader alienation from the political class. Therefore to make UKIP all about Europe – and also to try to argue against them on those terms – is never going to work. In this context even the attacks on Farage about his alleged support for Putin will likely have little impact, with voters interpreting them as being either highly abstract, or an attempt to smear the party by a combination of established politicians and the mainstream media.

It should be noted there are huge limitations to the “quick and dirty” method I have employed here. The dataset does not examine what the candidates actually said, but instead only media coverage of the debates. Sadly, there is not full transcript of the debates available at the moment. Furthermore the analysis excludes social media commentary (although the think tank Demos had an excellent go at doing some of this kind of analysis on the debate night itself). The method I have used is also relatively crude, and could be improved by either more rigorous quantitative significance testing or more qualitative human engagement with the raw data.

Nonetheless, the results do point towards something interesting. Arguably the reason that Clegg lost both the debates was not because the British public disagree with him on Europe. In fact, polling evidence would suggest a majority of them more closely identify with his position than with UKIP’s (even if they do regard Europe as being a relatively insignificant issue). In fact, Clegg seems to have lost the debates because he was perceived to be the representative of the political class against Farage’s plucky everyman. Breaking this dynamic is the real challenge for mainstream politicians.    

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*So not to disrupt the flow of this blog post, I have produced a separate and much more detailed methodological discussion of my analysis on my own blog here. You will also find a more complete explanation of the Clegg and Farage specific word lists and how they were generated in this post.

Nick Clegg vs. Nigel Farage. Whose interest does it serve and what might it mean?

This post was originally published on the Political Science Association's Insight blog, prior to the Clegg-Farage debates.

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The run up to the European Parliamentary elections on 22nd May will see two live debates between leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg and leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party Nigel Farage. The first debate will be broadcast on LBC Radio on 26th March, with the follow-up content appearing on BBC television on 2nd April. The original idea for the debates came when Clegg challenged Farage to a joint appearance in February. After a few days consideration, UKIP accepted the proposal, with the parties ultimately agreeing on the two debate format.

Why was the proposal made and accepted? By way of explanation, a few general points should first be made. First – and fairly obviously – politicians only ever agree to take part in live debates when they feel they have something to gain from them. However, the cost-benefit calculation is complicated by the high stakes at play in live debating. Simply put, when politicians put themselves in this situation a lot more can go wrong than can go right. It was for this reason that American political scientist Alan Schroeder called his history of American Presidential debates Fifty Years of High Risk Television.  

In practice, the politician with the greatest incentive to debate is likely to be trailing in the polls. After all, they stand to benefit from shaking the contest up with a good performance and also have little to lose in the event of a bad performance. However, since a debate requires at least two participants, the poll-leader is likely to face exactly the opposite equitation (i.e. since they are already winning they have little to gain from a good performance, while a bad performance could really undermine their chances). As such, they are likely to veto any debate proposals. This is one of the reasons why it took so long for the United Kingdom to have pre-election Prime Ministerial debates. While numerous invitations were offered over the years by the parties playing catch-up, the idea was always nixed by the party that was leading in the polls, and thus had less to gain. Similarly, while vast quantities of ink has been spilt creating the mythology of the 1960 American Presidential debates, it is worth noting that there was not a repeat performance until the Carter-Ford contest of 1976, precisely because the 1960 debate became so linked to Nixon’s defeat.        

Figure 1: Liberal Democrat poll rating vs. Others in ICM polls, General Election 2010 - March 2014

Figure 1: Liberal Democrat poll rating vs. Others in ICM polls, General Election 2010 - March 2014

The Clegg-Farage agreement to debate reflects this basic logic, at least to some extent. This is most obvious in the case of Nick Clegg. Ever since the early months of the coalition government, the Liberal Democrats poll ratings have struggled, while UKIP’s rise has regularly placed the Liberal Democrats in forth position, trailing the anti-European Union party. This is shown in Figure One, which based on ICM polling data from the start of the 2010 election until the present (the raw data for the graph is available from The Guardian. Note that the ICM dataset does not actually include the polling share for UKIP, but only the three major parties and “others”. However, the vast bulk of this group indicates support for UKIP).

UKIP too have an incentive to agree to the debate. While their poll ratings are buoyant and suggest a good performance in the European election, they still remain a fringe party in British politics. As such, they have a lot to gain from the exposure offered by prime time media coverage.

There is also an additional factor in play which may have also encouraged both parties to agree to the debate. In reality, they are not in direct competition with each other. Realistically, there are very few voters who are going to the spend the next few weeks weighing up the relative merits of a vote for the Liberal Democrat or UKIP. According to research done by YouGov for Prospect Magazine only 15 per cent of citizens saying they currently support UKIP claim to have voted Liberal Democrat at the last election. By challenging Farage so directly, Clegg seems to be trying to cast himself as the authoritative voice of British Euro-enthusiasm – the politician who is unafraid to take on the little Englander tendency. While such a position might not be very popular with many among the electorate, a full-throated attack on Farage might pull a few points back to the Liberal Democrats (especially when both David Cameron and Ed Miliband are struggling to clearly articulate their positions on Europe). Similarly, Clegg would seem to be the perfect target for Farage’s strongest rhetorical device – an attack on a self-interested political class disconnected from the concerns and values of ordinary voters. So debate might be a rare win-win scenario for both parties.

What does the broadcast of this debate mean for the future? There may be some interesting ramifications for any potential 2015 election televised debate. In 2010, the debate was restricted to the three major parties. Obviously, this approach does create certain problems in a parliamentary democracy with a complex party system. For example, nationalist parties are excluded even though they might be major parties or even parties of government in their region. Whether to include UKIP in 2015 could present an even bigger problem. On the one hand, the party will likely still have no seats in Westminster. However, it might – if it finishes top of the polls in May – have won a nationwide election, and could continue to score highly in opinion polls. It will likely also be fielding candidates across the country. At the very least, the negotiation process will be a lot more complex than the discussions in the past month, as the Conservatives and Labour will also be involved, and bring a much more complex tapestry of interests to the table. 

The public sphere, imagination and the nationalism: some thoughts

One of the wonderful things about working at the LSE are the fantastic guest speakers we are able to get to come and visit us. It really is a great privilege. Yesterday was an especially exciting day, as political theorist Professor Nancy Fraser came and spent the afternoon at a symposium organised by my colleague Professor Nick Couldry along with colleagues at Goldsmiths.

Professor Fraser is perhaps best known – among many great achievements, it should be said – for her critical perspective on Jurgen Habermas’s work. In particular, Fraser’s famously argued that Habermas’s original historically grounded construction of the public sphere articulated in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962 / 1989 in English translation) was highly exclusive in nature, excluding many people, especially women.

The event concluded with remarks from Professor Craig Calhoun, the Director of the LSE, responding to Fraser and the comments made by other speakers over the course of the afternoon. Craig’s remarks were interesting for a number of reasons, but one particular comment he made stuck with me (in fact, to the point that I asked a question about it in the subsequent Q and A). This was about the idea of political imagination, and in particular the failure of political imagination in the public sphere. This is an interesting comment in its own right, but actually seems to echo concerns I have encountered from other quarters in different ways in the past few months. My co-author on many pieces of work, Professor Ben O’Loughlin of Royal Holloway, spent a significant proportion of his inaugural professorial lecture last year talking about the death of imagination (you can watch a video of the lecture here). Ben’s argument was slightly different – that our obsession with recording the present is undermining our ability to think about the future, so we struggle to dream of a different and better world, but many of the ramifications are the same. Similarly, Professor Justin Lewis of Cardiff University has just published a new book entitled Beyond Consumer Capitalism: Media and the Limits to Imagination, dealing with many of these themes.

All this got me thinking: what role does imagination play in contemporary politics? Well, one thing to note is that politicians and political communication does still seem to rely to a great extent on imagination, just not of the optimistic kind. Many of the most famous American political ads – such as Daisy, the infamous Willy Horton spot, or Wolves – rely on tapping into fears that voters might have about the future. But what is much harder to find is a positive visions or the articulation of alternatives. So imagination is used to promote inertia rather than alternatives.

But it does strike me that there is one place in British politics today where imagination is central to an important debate, and this is the discussion surrounding the Scottish referendum on independence. Now the idea that discussions about nationalism lend themselves to imagination is hardly news. Benedict Anderson famously argued that nationality was constructed around imagined communities. That argument is about creating a shared past retrospectively. But what nationalism also does is offers a chance to dream, to imagine a future where a different kind of society can be built. Nationalist projects also allow for radically divergent visions of future societies to be bed fellows, while differences can be effectively papered over, in a manner in which normal politics does not allow.

There are of course very substantive issues involved in the independence debate. Indeed, one reading of last week’s debate about European Union membership and currency arrangements was that the debate had suddenly been elevated to include some very practical and important aspects of the independence question. Politically, the pro-Yes campaign has tried to walk a tight rope during the campaign, arguing for the dramatic change of independence but also stressing continuity (Scotland will enter into a currency union with the UK, European Union membership is unaffected, the Queen stays as Head of State for example). The tactics of the Better Together campaign in the past few days seems to have been to push the Yes Campaign off their tight rope.

In theory, makes sound tactical political sense to try to highlight the weaknesses of your opponent’s position. But the evidence we have seems to suggest that this approach is not working, thus far at least. While making judgements with certainty based on the polling data published since the aggressive push back from the no campaign is difficult because of some methodological issues, respected psephologist Professor John Curtice has argued that, on the available evidence, this more aggressive strategy has “backfired”.

And maybe political imagination offers one explanation for this. The no campaign has long been termed (allegedly because of an internal nickname) as Project Fear.  In contrast, the yes campaign has licence to be unrelentingly positive about a new Scottish future, painted in broad and non-alienating strokes. The national project has broken the log-jam of the positive political imagination allowing people to, rightly or wrongly, conceptualise the future in a different way.

While a positive political imagination is clearly a good thing, two important observations follow from this. The first is that, while nationalism might promote optimistic visions of the future, it is still not necessarily a good thing. The classic argument against nationalism is that it is a distraction from other political projects and visions of society, as it based on exclusion rather than solidarity. The second point is perhaps more directly significant to the debate around independence in Scotland. Why is that the yes campaign have a monopoly on optimism and the future? Part of the problem is that the no campaign has completely failed to articulate a positive vision of what the United Kingdom might look like in the future, why the British project is worth continuing with and how the union might evolve to meet the concerns of those who now have doubts about it. In other words, they have had a failure of political imagination, and only seem able to offer arguments based on why an independent Scotland would be a bad thing. If Scotland does vote for independence – and it should be said that the odds remain that it will not – this might end up being one of the major reasons why.

Staging the constitution: LSE research dialogue, 21st November 2013

Last week, I spoke at the Media and Communication Department research dialogue on the subject of Image. I was a last minute addition to the programme, so decided to take the opportunity to flesh out an idea I had been pondering for a while. I was very struck a few months ago when it occurred to me that London's theatres simultaneously contained two plays that offered a take on how Britain is governed, and in particular how our institutions cope with change and crisis. At the National Theatre, This House dealt with the tumultuous politics of the mid-to-late 1970s, and the struggle between the Labour and Conservative's Whip's office as James Callaghan's majority dwindled, then vanished. On the other side of the river in the West End, Helen Mirren was reprising the role she won as Oscar for in The Queen, this time in the The Audience, a play which focused on the weekly (and highly confidential) meetings between the Monarch and Premier in Buckingham Palace.

The argument in the paper - which I outline in more depth below - is that both plays reflect classic thinking and questions on the British constitutional settlement. The Audience though offers a more Whiggish reading of the system, strongly echoing ideas espoused by the Victorian constitutionalist Walter Bagehot about the role of the dignified elements of the constitution. In contrast, This House is more ambiguous its message, but engages with the debate - most famously articulated by Edmund Burke in 1790 - between government based on human nature and government based on human rationality. While the play text articulates arguments for both positions, my reading is that it ultimately highlights the weaknesses of government based human nature, and thus offers a space for opposing the Victorian constitution fetishised in The Audience.

You can listen to a podcast of my talk below, or alternatively watch the video which has audio and slides. A PDF of the slides is also available here.

The first thing to say is that is that I do not think it is a coincidence that these plays have been so successful, both critically and in terms of drawing an audience, at this moment in time. If one thinks of the Scottish Independence debate, the potential EU-exit referendum, the failure of the electoral system to create governing majorities, and the fracturing of the party system most evident in the rise of UKIP, it quickly becomes clear that the British political system is in a state of extreme flux. Constitutional scholar Anthony King has recently gone as far as to talk of the British constitution in its current state as being "a mess" and it is hard to disagree with him. Couple this with political institutions' inability to cope with the financial crisis, and it is unsurprising that people are looking back to the economic and political dislocation of the 1970s with interest.

So what do these plays attempt to tell us or ask about our political institutions? The first thing to note is that they both share a trick in common - they take us to places that we are not normally permitted to enter, either the party Whip's office or the audience between Queen and Prime Minister. This actually draws on a long-established idea that the British constitution has its secret elements. In his English Constitution, Bagehot talks a lot about the secrets and mystery of the constitution, while more recently scholar Peter Hennesey wrote a book on what he termed the “hidden wiring” of the British system.

But our role as the audience is slightly different in the two plays. In the original run of This House in the Cotteslow Theatre at the NT, the whole auditorium was rebuilt as a replica House of Commons. Audience members were sitting on the green benches and even interacting with the cast. As such, they complicit in the processes ongoing in the play. In contrast, in The Audience, the audience is positioned much more as an intruder, and possibly even an unwelcome one, a point made clear when the young Princess Elizabeth (who appears in a spectre-like fashion at various points during the play to interact with her older self) appears to look towards then audience and then recoils with a fear of being seen. This difference would suggest that the plays have quite a different attitude to hierarchy and social ordering.

Perhaps the clearest indication of constitutional doctrine is found in the conclusion of The Audience though, in a monologue delivered by Elizabeth.

“No matter how old-fashioned, expensive or unjustifiable we are, we will still be preferable to a elected president meddling in what they [Prime Ministers] do. Which is why they always dive into rescue us every time we make a mess of things. If you want to know how it is that the monarchy in this country has survived as long as it has – don’t look to its monarchs, look to its Prime Ministers” (Morgan, 2013: 88).

This directly echoes Bagehot's claim that the purpose of monarchy and other ceremonial aspects of the constitution is to act as a disguise for the real business of politics and, as such, it serves a useful function for the political class, who have a vested interest in preserving it. Thus the way through crisis presented in The Audience is essentially conservative: it relies on service, order and long-established precedents.

In contrast, This House offers a far more ambiguous reading of the constitutional settlement. It enters into a debate that has been going on a very long-time, perhaps most famously articulated by Edmund Burke who argued that constitutions must be based “not on human reason, but on human nature” (1790). At it heart, this debate comes down to the question of whether constitutions can be designed (in other words, be a product of reason) or whether they should be arrived at through shared memory, experience and values (and thus be the product of human nature).

This House acknowledges the Burkean tradition, with it being noted that the origins of various practices - such as pairing the House of Commons - are not really understood. The problem though with a system of government based on human nature is that human beings are very frail, a point illustrated by the gradual wasting away of Callaghan's slim majority between 1976 and 1979. The system is so reliant on its human parts that this sets off a form of contagious rot within the whole body politic, reflected in various metaphors about the Thames being diseased and the (historically accurate) breakdown of Parliament's clock tower containing Big Ben in 1976.

This House asks us to empathise with MPs. In the post-expenses scandal world, this certainly seems like quite an unusual thing to to do. But far more importantly, This House seems to question a fundamental idea embedded in British constitutional thinking - namely, that shared values and established practices are, by themselves, enough to get through any period of crisis? As such, it is rather different to the far more conservative The Audience, and certainly a play for our times, as much as a play about an important period of political history.

Some further reactions to George Lakoff at the LSE

I live blogged Professor Lakoff's discussion at the LSE yesterday. There can be no doubting the importance of his body of work, and the huge influence it has had on politics generally and American politics in particular. Certainly, the study of metaphors and their seeming power poses a huge challenge to more rational perspectives on political life and debate, and I mean that both in the Antony Downs and Jurgen Habermas sense of the term rational.

Indeed, for me Professor Lakoff's view of emotion in politics was perhaps the most striking idea he offered last night, in that it amounted to almost a post-revisionist perspective on the relationship between rationality and emotion. As you can see from the liveblog, Lakoff was highly critical of enlightenment views of rationality. This is not a wholly unique perspective. Many scholars focusing on deliberation (such as John Dryzek, for example) have argued that an overly prescriptive definition of "good" deliberation, which excludes emotions such as anger and humour is not very helpful. But where Lakoff took this a step further was in drawing on research from the field of neuro-science, and in particular arguing that because of the way the human brain is wired, the distinction between rationality and emotion is false. Put another way: if you take away people's emotion, they do not become wholly rational. In reality, rationality and emotion are wholly symbiotic. This is a very challenging insight for political scientist used to arguing about the relative merits of rational and emotional debate.

I was left with more questions on the relationship between metaphor and ideology. Perhaps Professor Lakoff's most famous idea is derived from two models of the family and how they relate to political world views. There is the nurturing family, where the assumption is that parents are equals and seek to bring out the best traits in their offspring, who they assume to be inherently good. This view is equated with progressive and liberal thought. Alternatively, there is the family model based on the strong and domineering father-figure, who commands his children, assuming them to be unruly and misguided. Only if they follow his instructions they can then be reformed. If they do not, they are guilty of a moral failing and the family's moral responsibility ceases. This metaphor is associated with a conservative political worldview.

But there is a great tension in these metaphors and their political ramifications, I felt. On the one hand, Professor Lakoff was keen to stress the permanent and geographically non-limited spread of metaphors (the examples given in the lecture were the link between increase and up, and affection and warmth). The reason is that metaphors are grounded in lived experiences, constantly creating and solidifying those neural-networks. In contrast though, the ideological consequences of the family metaphors are clearly grounded in the recent American experience of the past thirty years or so. These metaphors become far more problematic if we consider different strands of conservative thought, for example. How, for instance, would we think of Bismark? A stern father-figure, certainly, but also the founder of the modern welfare state model. Harold Macmillan presents another interesting challenge, as his ideology was the very model of conservative paternalism, but has no relationship to harshness of the contemporary US right. Even Richard Nixon, who might be regarded as the founder of the modern US conservative movement is a problematic figure. His administration fits well with the model in someways, but also attempted to expand healthcare greatly.

This leads to a broader question about the family metaphor and ideology: what is in the service of what? Put another way, does the metaphor shape the ideology, or does the ideology employ the metaphor, or are both these processes occurring at once?

The two David Camerons

It has taken a long time to get here, but at last David Cameron has delivered his big Europe speech. Judging by the generally broad grins of Tory Eurosceptics being wheeled out on rolling news channels, he at least seems to have been successful in appeasing elements of his party. Whether Cameron's strategy is ultimately successful though - and how it will influence his page in the history books - is an entirely different matter.

It has now become very apparent that there are two very distinct David Camerons. What is interesting about today's events is that both of them were prominently on display. The first is an idealist, a man who sees himself as the visionary leader of a one nation party rooted in the liberal-conservative centre of British politics. This version of Cameron thrives on big gesture politics, and has been most evident during the 2006 leadership campaign, and then again when making the coalition offer to the Liberal Democrats in 2010. In contrast, the second David Cameron is more instinctively conservative, risk-averse and focused on relatively short term electoral and partisan calculations. This version of David Cameron has perhaps been most evident in his dealings with his own party.

That both David Camerons played a role today is evident in the rather prescient comment made in The Guardian liveblog on the speech that while this was probably the most Eurosceptic speech ever made by a British Prime Minister, it was also probably the most pro-European speech made by David Cameron. And while short-term electoral and partisan calculation are clearly involved in what Cameron has argued, there is also a more idealistic idea being articulated as well - namely the desire to win an in-out referendum (after a successful renegotiation process, obviously), in the process laying to rest the most virulent strand of Tory Euroscepticism that has dogged Conservative leaders for a quarter of a century, and settling the European question for at least a generation.

What is already very clear though is that this is a massive gamble for Cameron and for Britain. European leaders and foreign ministers are queuing up to say that what Cameron suggested today is unacceptable. One interesting insight into the potential pitfalls faced by Cameron now is found in David Marquand's Britain Since 1918, an excellent history of the British constitution that I have just finished reading. Marquand's arguments are instructive on two levels as to how this situation might develop.

First, Marquand notes that British diplomacy has traditionally failed in Europe because it has not appreciated the weakness of its position. This goes back as far as the original European Coal and Steel Community, and Britain's refusal to join, followed by subsequent attempts to join the EEC under Macmillan. The error made here was to attempt negotiations from ground up, with Britain's equal status assumed. This neglected the fact that other members of the EEC had already been through an extended process of negotiation while Britain stood aloof. It is no coincidence Marquand argues that the British application was only successful when Heath took a new approach - broadly accepting the rules of the club as fixed in order to win admission.

But Marquand also offers a possible course of action for Cameron. After all, we have been here before. Prior to the two election of 1974, Harold Wilson's Labour Party promised a renegotiation of Britain's membership of the EEC if elected, followed by a referendum on the outcome. Much like Cameron, Wilson claimed to be pro-European, and took this stance to appease the ideologues in his own party. In practice though, Wilson's renegotiation amended tiny details of the Britain's relationship with the EEC (tariff exceptions for the import of New Zealand butter and suchlike), yet was haled as a massive coup by Wilson. Whether Cameron could pull a similar trick is open to question, but this might be one possible course of action open to the Conservatives after a 2015 election.

But this is a dangerous game of political brinkmanship. And indeed, this may prove to be the supreme irony of Cameron's premiership. Writing about recent history, Marquand reminds us just what a constitutionally radical government Labour offered, especially between 1997 and 2001, when devolution occurred and House of Lords reform took place. This constitutional reform was far from perfect; indeed, in some ways it was downright flawed - the West Lothian question rumbles on, unaddressed, and House of Lords reform remains a half finished work-in-progress. Yet, in broad terms, Labour undoubtedly achieved what it set out to do.

Labour were followed in office by Cameron, the self-confessed constitutional conservative. Yet, thanks to one referendum, he might be the unionist who oversees the dissolution of the union, and thanks to another referendum, he might be the premier who, while doubtless a sceptic, claims to be in favour of Britain's membership of the European Union, but leads Britain out of the EU. It is one thing to achieve constitutional goals with and leave some mess behind, as Labour did. It is quite another to make a mark on the history of the British constitution wholly through unintended consequences.

Can we talk about this?

On Saturday, I went to the National Theatre to see what The Telegraph had termed the riskiest piece of theatre of the year, DV8’s Can We Talk About This? The performance occupies an unusual genre, halfway between theatre and dance (what is normally termed physical theatre), but also taps into the recent trend towards verbatim performances (such as London Road and The Colour of Justice), which have on interviews or transcripts of public hearings. In this case, this approach is used to dramatise an historical narrative going back to 1985. The various examples offered construct a polemic - seemingly - arguing that liberalism (or perhaps more accurately, liberals) has failed to respond effectively to the challenge posed by radical Islam. Instead, in the UK, state-multiculturalism has led only to hand wringing and an inability to respond directly to a challenge posed to fundamental rights, notably freedom of speech.

The play has generally got quite good reviews.[1] I can certainly understand the critics' admiration of the performers' skills - there is something truly remarkable about watching some of the movement that they undertake, while retaining the modulation and tone of an interview with, for example, Ann Cryer MP. The embedded videos give am indication as to the kind of feats the actors achieve.

But the good reviews are not just about the artistic merits of the piece. A number of reviewers have suggested that the piece is politically hugely important. When the piece opened in Sydney, for example, the city's edition of Time Out branded it "[O]ne of the most important works of our age".[2] Certainly, Lloyd Newson, the Artistic Director of DV8 sees the play's purpose as political, judging by interviews he has given on the subject.

Here though, I think I would have to contest the position of many of the reviewers, and offer the counter opinion that Can We Talk About?, struck me as being - at best - deeply politically deeply flawed, and - at worst - dangerous to the very liberalism it claims to espouse.

There are a few problems. First, the central conceit of the play - that it is saying the unsayable - seems overstated and not really related to reality. In fact, the arguments in the play actually feel a bit dated. Journalists such as Nick Cohen and the late Christopher Hitchens adopted similar positions a number of years ago.[3] So it is certainly not a radically new position intellectually. More importantly, state multiculturalism has now been attacked by David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel.[4] It is rather harder to claim to be radical and liberal when your position is also backed up by the three most powerful leaders in Europe, who also happen to be the three most powerful conservative politicians in the world. Certainly, it should come as no surprise that the biggest cheer leaders for Can We Talk About This? in the British press were the Telegraph and the Mail.[5. Indeed, the arguments made by the play have some far more extreme fellow travellers, as the liberal values vs. Islam clash is now a staple element of rhetoric for Europe's far right, including the BNP in the UK, Le Front National in France and the various far-right Dutch factions that have been electorally successful since 2000. The lack of sophistication and nuance in the way the play handles its topic can only provide succour to such groups, and seems perhaps the most irresponsible thing about the whole enterprise.]

All that said, there are still important questions to be asked about the future of liberalism, and there certainly is space for thoughtful consideration of these issues. Sadly, we do not get that from this play. The narrative structure that is offered draws together distinct events, creating a false synchronicity between them. This is perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the play. Can we really link a debate about education in 1985, abandoned plans to show Geert Wilder's far right short film Fitna at the House of Lords, the Pakistani government's stance at the UN, and forced marriage in contemporary Britain? All are distinct issues, yet are shown with a moral equivalence (expressed symbolically through writing words and phrases on a wall at the back of the stage), placed into a broader thesis about the failure of British policy to cope with radical Islam. What is perhaps most disturbing about this is that it binds the various actors - Muslim parents in Bradford, Muslim members of the House of Lords, the Pakistan government etc - together, casting Islam as a conspiratorial ideology, an enemy within. There is little or no acknowledgement of nuance or complexity, and certainly no reference to the Arab Spring, which may yet lead to the most significant challenge to radical politicised Islam. As such, the Islam portrayed in Can We Talk About This? is monolithic and only contested internally in a limited (and brutally repressed) fashion. As such, Safraz Manzoor is right to note that it becomes a bit like an all-dance version of Melanie Phillip's Londonistan, all paranoia and generalisation.[5]

These content issues are deeply troubling, placing the play closer to the forces of reaction than of liberalism. But suppose we take Newson at is word when he claims he is seeking to defend liberalism? Measured in those terms, is the play likely to be successful? Not really, I would contest, because it fails to systematically address the complexities of liberalism, either historically or theoretically. Historically, the liberal bargain has always been a balancing act, integrating seemingly mutually exclusive groups and beliefs. As such, liberalism is always work in progress, being redefined to meet the needs of each age.[6] But one would not get this sense from DV8's work. Instead, liberalism would seem as monolithic and fixed as Islam. This historical misrepresentation heightens the idea embedded in the narrative that Islam is somehow alien or incompatible with innate western values, making this a Huntingtonesque piece of work.[7]

Even theoretically, I am not sure if the model of liberalism Can We Talk About This? inevitably leads one to is very attractive. It bares a close resemblance to what scholar Christian Joppk  has termed "repressive liberalism".[8] This model of liberalism, now an important element of western debate, is more muscular and combative.

Crucially, repressive liberalism sees no contradiction in using illiberal laws to defend liberalism. The classic example of such a measure is the French government's ban on burqas and niqabs. This measure was defended on the grounds that dress of this kind was used to repress women. Liberal philosopher Will Kymlica has pointed out the flaw in this argument, however: such laws are inherently illiberal, as they remove the right of a woman to choose to wear particular forms of Islamic dress in public. Essentially, one illiberal arrangement (familial power forcing women to wear certain clothes) is replaced with another (the state using the full force of its legal authority to prevent people wearing certain clothes). Neither arrangement is liberal. Instead, the challenge for a liberal society is to ensure that everyone has the autonomous freedom to choose what to wear. The whole Clash of Civilisations narrative promulgated in Can We Talk About This? moves debate away from that outcome, not towards it.

[1] See The Telegraph, The Evening Standard, The Mail, 13/03/2012
[2] Time Out, 25/08/2011
[3] See Hitchens, C. 2001. Of Sin, the Left & Islamic Fascism, The Nation, 09/01; Cohen, N. 2007. What's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way. Fourth Estate: London
[4] David Cameron's speech to the Munich Security Conference in February 2011 is probably the most powerful example of the three]
[5] Phillips, M. 2006. Londonistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within. Gibson Square Books Ltd: London
[6] For some of my earlier thoughts on this issue, see this blog entry on secularism
[7] Huntington, S.P. 1997. The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. Simon Schuster: New York.
[8] Joppke, C. 2007. “Beyond national models: civic integration policies for immigrants in Western Europe”, West European Politics 30(1), 1-22.
[9] For a succinct overview of Kymlica's thoughts in this area, see this 2008 article.

The rhetoric of tough talk

Politicians love to appear tough. Sometimes, this means saying things that we don’t want to hear, dealing in hard truths. Or so they claim at least.

There have been two prominent examples of such rhetoric in recent weeks. In the UK, Labour leader Ed Miliband was booed (although perhaps not as much as the media would have us believe) at the TUC conference. What bought about this reaction? This passage from Miliband’s speech drew particular ire:

I fully understand why millions of decent public sector workers feel angry. But while negotiations were going on, I do believe it was a mistake for strikes to happen. I continue to believe that. But what we need now is meaningful negotiation to prevent further confrontation over the autumn.

In trade union baiting of this kind, Miliband was following a well-trodden path. Tony Blair never seemed more comfortable than when lecturing the Labour Party, his brothers and sisters in the international social democratic family, or the union movement on the need to modernize or die.

Compare this with the second example of a tough talking politician. As noted in Slate Rick Perry clearly likes to shoot from the hip. In the Republican Presidential nomination debate in Tampa, Florida, when quizzed on some of his more acerbic comments, he replied:

There may be someone who is an established Republican who circulates in the cocktail circuit that would find some of my rhetoric to be inflammatory or what have you, but I’m really talking to the American citizen out there… I think American citizens are just tired of this political correctness and politicians who are tiptoeing around important issues. They want a decisive leader.

Both politicians claim to be straight talking, delivering unpalatable truths. Yet there is a world of difference in the political strategies they are pursuing. Miliband seems to be deliberately provoking his (actual) audience, in order to disseminate a message to the wider public – alienating his party base to reach out to floating voters. In contrast, Perry’s version of the truth seems to be pandering to rather than challenging the ideologues in his party.

There is an obvious explanation for this difference, of course. Perry is now competing in a party-based primary election. He has to win that vote in order to go before the national electorate, so it is hardly surprising his definition of truth telling is inline with party doctrine. Miliband has essentially gone beyond that stage, winning the Labour leadership in September 2010. Now he needs to talk to a national electorate.

But maybe there is also a more interesting story here, and other patterns could emerge with a bigger sample of tough talking politicians. It would be interesting, for example, to note whether left-wing politicians are more prone to attacking their own parties than those on the right (maybe because of some internalised version of Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment)? If this were the case, it would not be very surprising.

The past thirty years have seen neo-liberal ideologies created on the centre-right becoming political orthodoxy across much of the western world. Parties of the left have thus found it far more necessary to overtly reject their historic ideologies, which seemed the antithesis of the so-called centre ground. It is possible that this pattern, if it existed, represents a reversal of previous patterns of “truth telling” in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when collectivist ideologies were more dominant, and it would have been politicians on the right who were required to attack their political positions.

But one thing is certain – beware of politicians claiming to tell hard truths. They almost certainly have an agenda.

The emergence of semantic polling

Originally posted on the LSE Politics and Policy blog.

While journalists speculated about whether the 2010 UK General Election was the country’s ”first Internet election”, semantic polling (using algorithms to read social media data) was under-examined. Nick Anstead and Ben O’Loughlin explore the role of semantic polling in the 2010 election and argue that it will become even more important in the future.

We have recently studied how the public reacts to offline events (especially mediated events) using social media. Our first work in this area related to the now infamous appearance of BNP leader Nick Griffin BBC Question Time in October 2009. The second piece focused on social media reactions to opinion polls published in the aftermath of the 2010 UK election Leaders’ Debates.

These papers were general in tone, simply trying to document and theorise an emerging phenomeon. However, this got us thinking – would it be possible to extract social media data and make meaningful statements about public opinion from it, in a manner similar to opinion polls or a focus group?

As we soon discovered though, this was not a wholly original idea. Dotted through 2010 election coverage were allusions to the idea that social media did indeed reflect public opinion. Post-debates, Newsnight ran segments on reactions on Twitter, while the BBC’s technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones wrote a number of blog entries about social media and public opinion. Channel 4 and national newspapers also published this information.

Data from social media in these stories was used in a number of ways. At the simplest level, individual tweets were cited as a sort of e-vox pop. Slightly more systematically, quantative data was used to indicate a high or low level of public engagement with the election, or to show the support for specific politicians through the trending of hashtags such as #IAgreeWithNick or, most famously, #NickCleggsFault.

Most interestingly though, 2010 saw the emergence of a group of firms that engaged in semantic analysis of Twitter. This semantic polling involves using algorithms to “read” tens of thousands of social media items and then coding them according to their content. The data gathered by three firms related to the Leaders’ Debate is included in the figure below.

Figure 1: Traditional pollsters and semantic researchers compared, UK General Election debates, 2010

For sake of comparison, we have also included polling numbers from three traditional pollsters (we should also add the caveat at this point that this is just a selection of the semantic data published during the election). Of course, this data and the method used to gather it is subject to a number of criticisms. As some commentators noticed at the time, Twitter was an irreverant place in comparison with the starchy seriousness of the debates (and their non-laughing audiences). But can natural language algorithms really cope with irony and sarcasm?

However, perhaps the most obvious issue relates to the type of people who use Twitter. After all, we know they are disproportionately middle class, young, educated and technology literate. Ever since Gallup predicted the results of 1936 US Presidential election, the holy grail fo public opinion research has been representativeness. Is Twitter just a Literary Digest for the modern age?

In the future, that will depend on how semantic research techniques develop. There are three possibilities. The first is that social media data breaks the polling paradigm established by Gallup, and becomes a method more akin to the mass observation, most famously used in the 1940s. As such, representativeness might become less prized and insight into the nuances of how people reason and think could become valued. Second, the passage of time (leading to the normalising of social media use and a population shift) makes social media data more representative. This is, of course, a long term process, although there is some evidence that Twitter is already more representative than it was three or four years ago.

Third is the interesting idea of seeking to apply population segmentation techniques to social media data. The key idea here is interlocking multiple pieces of data. This process is already a big part of the political and commercial world, including pollsters scaling their data to make it representative of the populations a whole and political parties paying a fortune for access to databases such as Mosaic to engage in postcode-based targeting. Think for a second about how much information people put onto social networks – who their friends are, where they work, what they read, and what films, television and music they like (as well as, increasingly, geolocational information). In other words, everything you need to build a complete picture of who they are and where they fit into the national population. If this data could be harvested and overlaid with overtly political information, analysed by natural language processing techniques, it might become possible to create far more sophisticated models of public opinion at given moments.

So we might see 2010 as the embryonic election for this kind of analysis. Indeed, retrospectively, it could seem very innocent, like Harold MacMillan struggling with television (note how he clearly forgets which camera he should be looking at about 1.25 in, and then only realizes after a few seconds). Indeed, if things were to develop along the lines of the third scenario, then a whole host of questions are raised. Do the public really understand what might be happening to information they post online, and the type of picture it could be used to create of them personally? Given that Twitter, Facebook and whatever follows them are corporate actors, what obligations do they have? How open to manipulation is the online space, given that in 2010, many political parties saw it as a battleground to be won, rather than as a method for understanding the public? Who should regulate the way the data is gathered and presented? At the moment, pollsters engage in self-regulation through the British Polling Council. No such body exists for social media analysis.

We are now continuing with the second strand of our research, which involves interviewing a number of political actors from the data campaign of 2010 – party campaign managers, journalists, data consultants, traditional pollsters and election regulators. Our preliminary prediction is this: social media data generated through
semantic analysis will be big in the 2012 US election, and integrated in to public opinion studies by the (likely) UK election of 2015.

Part rejection, part reflection

Thanks for a friend linking to it on Facebook, I was able to find the best article I have read on the London riots so far.

The argument it makes is simultaneously very simple, but also far less reductionist than the two positions (or rather caricatures of positions) we are seeing in the media. The first of these discourses – by far the dominant one, as pretty much every national politician is pushing it out – is that this is an example of mindless violence or simple criminality (for example David Cameron’s speech in the House of Commons today or this Telegraph leader column). The second – certainly less popular, but also present narrative – is to talk about the social backdrop to the riots (as occurs in this article).

Yet neither of these positions seems particularly plausible when carefully considered, since they both deprive the rioters of agency. Mindless violence is, by definition, an ill-considered act, while social explanations prioritise structure over agency. In both cases the end result is depressingly the same: inevitability, either because the rioters are simply a bad lot, or because (to employ a cliché that is in truth beyond parody) society made them do it.

An important consequence of taking either of these arguments to their logical conclusion (also raised in the blog post) is that it necessarily the deprives the events of the past few days of any meaningful politics. If we were looking for the politics of what has gone on in London and elsewhere, we come up against another simplistic duality. On the one hand, the "simple criminality" approach argues that there is no politics in this, since it is simple thuggery. The counter position is to see rioters as some kind of vanguard street movement for a broader political ideology, hell-bent on attacking capital and property, and taking on the forces law and order (or repression, depending on perspective). However, this latter position requires us to project far too much on to the rioters. There is no evidence that they have even a proto-ideology (although, to be fair, I have seen very little attempt by the media to actually try to talk to any of them, which, as this tweet on the Wikileaks feed points out, is quite strange). Crucially, I would suggest that there is no rejection of property or the consumer society to be found in the riots. Instead, the fruits of this regime seem to be coveted. Also, unlike some previous examples of civil disturbance – notably in Northern Ireland, but also in Brixton and Toxteth in 1981 – rioters, at least in the latter days of the riots, seem far less keen to want to fight with police, but instead avoid them (this is ironic, given that the original spark for the event).

Yet it seems wrong to suggest that there is no politics in what is happening across the country. The Disorder of Things blog post argues that there is value understanding them through the philosopher Guy Debord, and his work The Society of Spectacle. Debord argues that mass mediated society has destroyed meaningful social associations and left only superficial performance. Meera and Joe argue that, in the context of the riots, transgression:

"[I]s the deliberate, obscene transgression, the planned aggression, the fearless Fuck You, and above all, its enjoyment. It is the last bit which is the most indigestible and ugly, and therefore roundly ignored or bracketed, but also the most important in terms of what it means as a political statement: in short, we are not like you, we do not fear you, we have no stake in this place, we will take what we want, and we will enjoy it."

This is a valuable insight, and takes us beyond any of the reductionist understandings listed above. It also seems to be born out in the reaction of citizens to the riots, as reported by the media. The events have certainly shown the amazing resourcefulness of people, notably through the #riotscleanup hashtag. At these events, as Zoe Williams noted in The Guardian today, the language used has emphasised the difference between honest, hard-working folk (those who follow the rules of society) and the rioters (those who transgress). Crucially, the former group has done everything it can to emphasise the "otherness" of the latter. Think for example of the photograph of the women wearing a t-shirt proclaiming that "looters are scum" (which by definition means something that is separate) or the interview with the BBC, in which a local businesswomen described them as "feral rats".

However heartfelt though, I would argue that such sentiments are very dangerous (and in so doing, disagree with the Disorder of Things blog post in one respect). As well as being transgressive, it seems that the riots are also simultaneously a hyper extreme version of values and failings common in our own society, looking arrogantly, angrily back at us. I am reminded of the 1978 zombie film, The Dawn of the Dead directed by George Romero (IMDB details here). The premise is simple: a group of post-zombie apocalypse survivors hide out in a shopping mall as civilisation slowly collapses around them. The smartness of the film is to be found in the social satire, and the juxtaposition of the mindless zombies and mindless consumers. Simultaneously then, the zombie manages to be both an alien, transgressive monster but also a little bit too like us for comfort.

The same might be said of the rioters. Certainly, sometimes the most transgressive act can be to take values that we encounter (be it in politics, business, or just going about our own business everyday) – selfishness, isolation, aggression – and magnify them manifold and project them back at us. This is not to suggest a moral equivalence between the individual acts (and nor should any of this be taken as an apologia for the riots), but instead simply to point out there is a link. If one wants some examples of this, look no further than the solutions to the riots being advocated by citizens on Facebook, Twitter, and newspaper comment boards, including the deployment of the army, water cannons, plastic bullets and shoot to kill (actually, I should note that the latter idea is not just a social network fad, but actually advocated by one of our esteemed Members of the European Parliament). On top of this, there are a variety of "homebrew" solutions being advocated, which essentially amount to vigilantism. To be clear, the point I am making is not wholly about action (although there have been some disturbing reports emerging about mob justice, especially when stirred up by elements of the far right), but much more about rhetoric and tone. People have a right to defend them homes, businesses and family, and the police have a job to do. What is so disturbing about following the riots via social media is the relish and vitriol with which people are calling for violence against – as they see it – the other. It is almost as if they enjoy such violence.

Of course, in response to this, one might argue that there is a huge amount of difference between "saying" and "doing". And they of course would be right. But that does not mean that they cannot exist on the same scale, and in the same universe. When the dust has settled and politicians, policy-makers and citizens start to think about what these events mean for policy and what they say about our society, that is an idea that must not be lost.

 

Communicating the coalition

Cross-posted on the LSE Politics and Policy blog:

The combination of coalition government and the modern media is unprecedented in UK political history. Dr Nick Anstead considers the relationship between coalition government and the media since May 2010, looking back to Stanley Baldwins announcement coalition government of 1931, and to the present coalitions relationship with 24 hour news and online media.

When David Cameron and Nick Clegg brokered the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition agreement in early May 2010 they made history, as the UK has not had a formal peacetime coalition government formore than 70 years. British politics has changed in many ways since the 1930s, and it is certainly true that some of the most dramatic developments have taken place in the realm of political communication. In 1931, Stanley Baldwin explained the terms of the coalition through Pathé, whereas Cameron and Clegg gave their now famous (or infamous, depending on perspective) Rose Garden press conferencein the full glare of the 24 hour rolling news – and that’s not to mention the internet.

So at this junction, it seems like a good idea to ask how the media and coalition government as co-existing, and if any patterns are emerging.

The language of coalition remains contested

What gives a particular government a mandate to rule? In the past, this seemed an easy question – gaining a majority of MPs in the House of Commons (of course, this answer does neglect the matter of the popular vote). However, the 2010 results, and post-election negotiations raised important issues – had David Cameron “won” the election, and earned the right to form a government? Could Gordon Brown stay as Prime Minister despite Labour “losing” the election?

This contestation over language has continued, most notably in Labour spin doctor Tom Baldwin’s call that the media to refer to a “Conservative-led government” rather than a “coalition”. This request has gained some traction, as Figure 1 shows, with the term cropping up a couple of times. Interestingly, although perhaps predictably a significant division across the political spectrum emerged here, with The Mirror, The Guardian and The Morning Star being the dominant users of the term.

Figure 1

I was very struck by the BBC College of Journalism website page which offers guidance on reporting the coalition, touching on how to cover dissenting voices within parties and the idea of ‘division’. On the one hand, the very existence of this page points to something out of the ordinary which requires consideration. However, many of the videos and some of the guidance stress the need for journalists to concentrate on time-honoured values of the profession.

The Liberal Democrats are getting a lot of coverage

As the Figure 2 illustrates (constructed by searching five national newspapers for articles that reference his name more than three times), Nick Clegg is mentioned frequently in the media. I do not have comparative data, but I suspect that his name appears more than previous Liberal Democrat leaders in the first year of any new parliament. The bad news for Clegg though is that he gets far more coverage when things go wrong – such as the start of protests over cuts in October 2010, or following the AV defeat and local election losses in May 2011.

Figure 2

That said, I would be cautious about assuming all the coverage of the Liberal Democrats is bad news. Using the same search criteria, I pulled up newspaper articles for the week before the conference and put them in a tag cloud (Figure 3). Of course, without a proper comparison, we have no way of knowing if this is a typical week, but the words that I had expected to see – maybe “unpopular”, “disliked” etc – were not there. Instead, there is a picture painted of Clegg being at the heart of government and being written about as important to the various policy debates that are on-going.

Figure 3 – Tag cloud for news articles prior to the Liberal Democrat conference

The coalition is changing established political communication institutions

Following the election campaign, journalists regularly asked questions on policy items that were present in the party manifestoes but were then dropped from the coalition’s platform. There is a line of argument which suggests that such questioning is the product of a failure to understand coalition politics. However, it could be argued that the “but it was in your manifesto” question could be re-interpreted to make it relevant during a coalition administration.

Ultimately, the actual text of a manifesto is not what is important when the public make their judgements on politicians. What is rather more important is how politicians seek to communicate their political positions through sound bites and images. Essentially, we are dealing with mediatized manifestoes. To take an obvious example, Liberal Democrats may claim that they went into negotiations with the Tories aiming to achieve their four key manifesto goals (namely fair taxes; a fair chance for every child; a fair future, creating jobs by making Britain greener; and fair deal for you from politicians). By implication, issues to do with higher education funding are excluded from being a top priority in the discussions that led to the formation of the government. However, such an argument is tenuous, given the way in which the Liberal Democrats’ positions were presented by the media (with, it should be noted, the complicity of the party). I suspect far more of the public would have associated the Liberal Democrats with the pledge to end tuition fees than with any of their top four manifesto pledges, simply because of how the message was disseminated. This must be near the root of the party’s current problems.

A new form of questioning

What does all this mean in practical terms? In part, the style of questioning journalists adopt needs to change. Instead of saying that something was “in the manifesto” when policies are cut adrift, they should be asking politicians before an election which policies are non-negotiable. Afterwards, they should hold them accountable not just for the content of their manifesto, but also for the images and tone used to convey it. If – as I would suggest is likely – coalitions are going to become a more prominent part of our political landscape, then this is a form of questioning we will have to think about.