Thursday, March 26, 2020

What Kind of Problem is the Coronavirus?

"All problems can be stated as problems of communication." So wrote the philosopher Richard McKeon in a classic essay, "Communication, Truth, and Society" (1957). Notice he didn't claim that all problems ARE problems of communication, only that they "can be stated" as such. Without using the word, in the current jargon of communication theory he was referring to how we "frame" problems, what aspects we select and emphasize as we think and talk about them.

For McKeon, you frame a communication problem by considering "what is said and how what is meant might be influenced by communication." That is, you begin with what people are saying about a situation from their different perspectives and engage them in a deliberative discussion to seek agreement on what is going on and what needs to be done. The communication frame is really a meta-frame because it acknowledges the conflicts among different ways that people are framing a complex problem and the need to resolve those conflicts through communication in order to move forward together.

The current crisis certainly fits that description. The COVID-19 pandemic is a complex problem, really a multitude of problems that that become apparent as you consider the situation from different points of view. In a biological frame, the problem is a new virus that causes illness and death, and to solve that problem we need effective vaccines and medical treatments. In a public health frame, which relates microbiology to social behavior, the more urgent problem is that the virus transmits easily and can only be contained by practices such as social distancing and disinfectant cleaning. By now we've all learned that "flattening the curve" of disease transmission by these means is necessary to prevent the medical system from being overwhelmed--a frame that shifts the focus to problems like equipment shortages and overstretched health care providers, and from there to systemic failures that have caused the shortages and left us unprepared for an emergency the medical and public health systems should have anticipated. Shortsighted political leadership let it all happen.

And then ... all the other problems! Cries of pain arise from everywhere. Sick people who can't be tested for the virus because tests are unavailable. "Essential" workers who risk exposure. Homeless people especially vulnerable. Parents needing to self-isolate or work remotely with kids home from school. Kids who can't play with their friends. Slow or no internet. #zoomfails. No carrots or toilet paper at the supermarket. Neighbors worried about joggers who breathe too hard, spewing who-knows-what as they run through the neighborhood (really). Disorientation, anxiety, loneliness, domestic conflict and abuse. Stock markets tanking. Businesses and nonprofits facing ruin. Millions thrown out of work and without health insurance. All of these problems causing still other problems, and so it goes.

"What is said" includes all of that and more. How can we put it together? Meta-frames compete to dominate the discourse. Right now, the public health frame is clearly on top. In that frame, regardless of all other problems, the first thing we must do is to flatten the curve. On the advice of public health experts, governments invoke emergency powers, ordering businesses to shut down and everyone who can to "shelter in place."

Rising to compete with public health is an economic frame in which you can argue that the public health "cure" will be worse than the pandemic disease if it leads to economic collapse, as many fear it will. In a right wing version of this frame, public health solutions carry unacceptable costs in personal and economic freedom, and liberals are using the pandemic--essentially just a really bad flu season that we could weather--as an excuse to expand government regulatory power and social entitlements like universal health care. (The argument strongly resembles right wing climate change skepticism, with public health experts standing in for climate scientists in the role of liberal tools.)

More mainstream versions of the economic frame admit the need for strong public health measures (COVID-19 is NOT the flu!) but look for ways to limit the economic damage. Public health arguments compare short term economic shutdown to cancer chemotherapy or medically induced coma--harsh measures unfortunately necessary to save the live of a patient who will hopefully recover as a result. In the economic frame you worry that short term economic shutdown will impoverish a generation and you look for some compromise to minimize the damage.

Interestingly, it seems to be this moderate economic position that most often pivots to the communication meta-frame: We need to talk about this problem. Public health measures are necessary but we can't let them go too far. We need to find some compromise that saves the economy. This argument is perhaps necessitated by a power equation. Right now, the public health frame rules the discourse. When you don't have the power to dictate a result, you call for "communication." As I write, the United States Congress has communicated in its own peculiar way and come up with a compromise in the form of a huge economic stimulus package that leaves harsh public health measures untouched but answers many economic cries of pain--though not all and probably not very equitably.

The communication meta-frame has some power insofar as it is embedded in democratic political institutions and the culture at large. McKeon noted a cultural shift that was becoming apparent as he wrote in the 1950's, more than six decades ago: a growing tendency to see the problems that we face as problems of communication. McKeon speculated that society's awareness of communication problems had grown "as a result of the invention of instruments of communication and the massive extension of their use" -- a process that has only accelerated in recent times. He argued that we should state our problems as problems of communication in a pluralistic, democratic society that wants to solve problems without suppressing the diversity of viewpoints, and that we need to cultivate the art of deliberative rhetoric as a means to that end.

The alternative would be an authoritarian system that knows the one, officially "right" truth and does the one "right" thing, without discussion. It may be hard to hold on to the communication frame at a time when the one right thing to do seems obvious, as determined by experts, and in truth, problems are not always best stated as problems of communication. We don't need to communicate about a simple math problem. Some problems are like that. Other problems, including most of the real problems that we face, are complex and involve multiple conflicting interests, values and technical capabilities. Those problems need to be stated as problems of communication and we need better ways of talking about them.

Further Reading

McKeon, R. (1957). Communication, truth, and society. Ethics, 67, 89-99.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Social Distancing, Technology, and Loneliness

Public health measures being implemented to limit transmission of the pandemic COVID-19 coronavirus are creating a surreal moment across the US and in many places around the world. This global event implicates communication in several ways. A communicable disease is bringing us all together, much of the world, in battle against a common enemy (ah, those war metaphors), even while it divides us with travel bans, restrictions on social gatherings, and panic that fuels antisocial behaviors ranging from stealing face masks to hoarding toilet paper

Right now the situation is profoundly ambiguous and the solution to that problem of uncertainty is universally acknowledged in principle (if not always in practice) to be information -- clear, accurate, reliable, transparent, uncontaminated by rumor, disinformation, conspiracy theories. My inbox is flooded with messages from organizations all professing their deep concern for my health and well being, apologizing for their disrupted services, and offering advice. Information is getting out, to be sure. but the uncertainty remains. How long will this go on? How dangerous is it, really? What should I do?

In answer to what I should do, today's keyword is social distancing -- stay at home, avoid crowds, keep your distance to avoid catching the virus or passing it to others. No hugs or handshakes allowed. Suddenly everyone is working from home, teaching online with course management and videoconferencing systems, "zooming in" or "skyping in" to meetings. The Zoom videoconferencing app has reached #1 in the Apple App Store. Large organizations like the International Communication Association are moving their annual conferences with thousands of participants to online virtual conferencing systems.

In addition to concerns about the persistent "digital divides" that inequitably limit access to these various online systems, it's easy to imagine that the systems themselves will soon be overwhelmed and start crashing, but it doesn't seem to be happening yet. If these systems largely all keep working through the crisis, we will have crossed a huge threshold. The technical possibility having been proven, the question will be how users evaluate the experience. Will we all "go green," avoiding unnecessary travel by shifting to remote work and virtual conferencing, or will we recoil from all this social distancing, more convinced than ever that there's no substitute for face to face communication?

As a term for communication, "social distancing" is ambivalent at best. It may be what we have to do at the moment but it's not generally a happy thing. The term doesn't have a long history. It's not in the Oxford dictionary. A Google Ngram search shows it originated in the 1950's as a term used by social psychologists to describe people's psychological sense of distance from others as well as their physical spacing in social situations. The usage curve rose steeply in the 1970's (the heyday of "intimacy" and "closeness" as terms for good communication) and again since the early 2000's, when it seems to have entered the medical and public health fields in its current sense of a method to prevent disease transmission. Suddenly it is everywhere. In a Lexis-Nexis search I found "social distancing" in 1,209 news articles in February 2020 compared to just 8 articles in February 2019. A Google web search returned almost 59 million hits for "social distancing" (in quotes).

The newer, disease prevention sense of social distancing collides with its older sense of psychological separation between people. One Twitter user quips, "It’s good to know I wasn’t unpopular in high school... everyone around me was just practicing #SocialDistancing really early." Adding "loneliness" to the Google search with "social distancing" gets more than 97,000 hits. Some of the highest ranked results address the likelihood that the current public health measures may be damaging our mental health even as they protect our physical health. And the physical protection can be self-defeating because a lot of people are lonely nowadays, and loneliness can make us sick. Writing in The New York Times, Abdullah Shihipar describes this as the "Isolation Paradox" and argues we need creative solutions, including the use of communication technologies, to protect vulnerable people from the effects of isolation:
For solutions, we can look to countries where people have been dealing with coronavirus for some time. As the BBC reported, people in China are turning to creative means to stay connected. Some are streaming concerts and gym classes. Others are organizing virtual book-club meetings. In Wuhan, people gathered at their windows to shout “Wuhan, jiayou!” which translates to “Keep fighting, Wuhan!” A business owner packed 200 meals for medical workers, while a villager in a neighboring province donated 15,000 masks to those in need. 
For those of us who know people, especially elderly people, who may be isolated, get connected. Check in daily and look for ways to spend time together, either through a FaceTime or WhatsApp call, through collaborative gaming or just by using the telephone.
A Scientific American article advises, "[w]hether you are quarantined, working remotely or just being cautious, now is the perfect time to practice using technology in socially healthy ways" and goes on to offer "a few suggestions for how to connect without contact." Among the suggestions are video chatting, liking social media posts, and using various apps to connect with friends and loved ones.

Los Angeles Times columnist Nita Lelyveld raises a question: "We text and order food on apps. Why does coronavirus social distancing feel different?" In response she points to the difference between voluntary and involuntary isolation and expresses her hope that the current enforced isolation will rekindle our appreciation for the pleasures of human contact:
It’s one thing to work from home because you feel like it and you can. It’s another to be told that you cannot go spend the day with your co-workers in the office. It’s one thing to stream a movie by choice or to choose to watch a basketball game on TV. It’s another to be told that you should not go to a movie theater, that you can’t go to a basketball game, that concerts have been called off. 
It’s one thing to order in food because you want to put on your comfy clothes and curl up on the couch. It’s another to be told by the experts that it might be best not even to see or greet your delivery person but to have your order left at the front door. 
It’s so different to know that you can step out into a crowd again whenever you’re tired of the couch and of texting. Now that crowds are canceled, I am longing for them. 
Right now, already, I want nothing more than to go out to eat with friends, to hug a neighbor, to hold a hand. Instead my neighbor stands on the sidewalk and I stay on the porch and we wish each other well from a safe distance. 
I’m hoping we get to the other side of this without large-scale tragedy. There’s no way of knowing yet if we will. 
But if we do, I’m hoping that the experience of social distancing gives us pause and makes us realize how much we have missed company, not just the company of those we know and love but of strangers.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

How Opinion Writers Frame Political Campaign Communication


We're in the thick of the 2020 Democratic Party primary campaign for US president and the media commentary has been full of metadiscourse about the candidates' communication. In this post I look at some of the different ways political communication is being framed in media commentary. I'm not reporting systematic research or claiming anything definitive. My "data" comes from casual browsing, mostly in The New York Times opinion section. Still, if we look carefully at how these largely mainstream liberal opinion writers frame their descriptions of campaign communication, we can notice important differences. This is a first excursion into a topic that needs to be explored more deeply, and I welcome your suggestions and critical comments.

A word first on framing and why it is important. Communicating about anything involves "framing" in the sense of selecting aspects of the thing to talk about from some point of view. Plenty of research has shown, for example, that how an issue is framed in the news can influence how audiences perceive the issue: what the problem is, who or what is to blame for it, and what should be done about it. You can frame a drug addition crisis by focusing on the bad choices of users, the greedy depredations of suppliers, or the root social causes of substance abuse, each frame promoting a different attitude and practical approach to the problem.

On a meta-level, we frame the communication process itself by focusing attention on certain aspects of communication, and that meta-framing too can have practical consequences. As I noted in an earlier post, criticism of war metaphors in public discourse tends to assumes that constant exposure to images of war and violence can actually make our communication practices more warlike. While some of that criticism may be overblown, in general it's reasonable to think that how we frame communication in metadiscourse constructs, in effect, conceptual models of communication that can shape our practices in better or worse ways. That's a good reason to look carefully at how media commentators are framing political campaign communication. Here are some examples.

War (or Fight)

We are indeed bombarded with war metaphors, pummeled with boxing metaphors. Even the word "campaign" has a military origin. Candidate debates are especially likely to be framed in images of violent conflict, recalling the conceptual metaphor, ARGUMENT IS WAR. Consider the following quotes by several New York Times writers about the February 19, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate debate in Las Vegas, in a special feature titled (of course) "Winners  and Losers of the Democratic Debate":
The gloves came off and she slayed. Warren sliced Bloomberg’s Achilles before he could get off the line, silenced him with his own non-disclosure agreements, and then rained hell on the rest of the field with a combination of vision, policy acumen and biting wit.
She came bloodthirsty and walked away sated, having repeatedly laid waste to Bloomberg and Buttigieg. 
Liz knew she was fighting for her life, and she brought her brass knuckles, nunchucks, chainsaw, multiple shivs and a big honking baseball bat. Bloomberg took the worst of it, but only Bernie escaped a serious beatdown. 
She dropped a nuclear bomb on Mike Bloomberg.  
She ground her heel into Bloomberg’s trachea from the first minute. 
Sanders won this debate because no one benefited more from the bloody dogpile on Bloomberg. Sanders gave as good as he got every time someone attacked him. Warren stole the show, but Sanders emerges unscathed and poised to maintain his momentum.
Her weakest debate, with tougher moderator questions and a war with Buttigieg that was more of a vicious, petty stalemate than the victory she needed.
Bloomberg might have bled out onstage if he hadn’t been so bloodless.  
He stammered and stumbled in the face of withering attacks from his rivals. 
This violent mode of description may be all in good fun, but it doesn't tell us much about the issue-relevant content of what was actually said in the debate. Instead of learning what Warren's "vision" and "policy acumen" consisted of, we learn that she "rained hell on the rest of the field" with them. Not all of the comments in the article are quite so content-free, but even the more substantive ones seldom entirely escape the war-fight frame. For example, here is columnist Maureen Dowd on candidate Joe Biden:
When he hammered Bloomberg for not letting women give their accounts of sexual harassment, he seemed to forget his own role in stifling accusers of Clarence Thomas.
It's a good point, but of course Biden didn't just "criticize" Bloomberg, according to Dowd, he "hammered" him.

Horse Race

Probably still the most common way of writing about election campaigns is the Horse Race frame. The campaign is a "race," the candidate's are "running," the most popular candidate at any moment is "the front runner," other candidates are "gaining momentum" or "falling behind" and eventually "exit the race," or more tragically may "collapse" on the track. In this frame there is a heavy emphasis on campaign strategy and organization, fundraising, opinion polls, and other quantitative indicators of popularity and, again, relatively little attention to policy-oriented discourse on issues.

This "horse race journalism" has been extensively studied and heavily criticized for a long time. The prevalence of this frame has been linked to such undesirable outcomes as voter cynicism and apathy, and low levels of issue-relevant knowledge. Some journalists, perhaps, have been listening to this criticism.

Policy Argument

In extreme contrast to the War-Fight and Horse Race frames, some commentary on campaign discourse entirely ignores the political contest and focuses instead on criticism of the candidates' arguments for their policy proposals. For example, here is Fareed Zakaria on Bernie Sanders in a recent Washington Post column"Bernie Sanders’s Scandinavian fantasy":
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) says that his proposals “are not radical,” pointing again and again to countries in Northern Europe such as Denmark, Sweden and Norway as examples of the kind of economic system he wants to bring to the United States. The image he conjures up is of a warm and fuzzy social democracy in which market economics are kept on a tight leash through regulation, the rich are heavily taxed and the social safety net is generous. That is, however, an inaccurate and highly misleading description of those Northern European countries today.
Zakaria goes on to show in detail that Northern European countries have changed in recent decades and now have proportionately more billionaires, less progressive taxation, and less regulated markets than the US, despite their generous social safety nets. The point is that Sanders' case for his policy proposals rests on an outdated image that ignores the compelling reasons why those countries no longer exemplify much of his agenda.

The Policy Argument frame is substantive in ways that critics of horse race journalism have called for, but it fails to capture the dynamics of campaign communication. For one thing, it ignores the voters.

Rhetorical Appeal

Consider the contrast between Zakaria's policy-focused criticism of Sanders and David Leonhardt's
argument why "Bernie Sanders Is Making a Big Mistake":
The art of peeling off voters — those in the middle or those who aren’t ideological — may be the most important skill in politics. It doesn’t require a mushy centrist policy agenda, either. Trump has made that clear. So, in earlier eras, did Ronald Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
How? By understanding that politics is inescapably performative. Voters respond to signals. They respond to gestures of respect from politicians who are willing to say, in effect: We may not agree on everything, but I see you and understand what matters to you.
The newly energetic American left has largely rejected this approach, choosing instead to believe a comforting myth about swing voters being extinct and turnout being a cure-all. It’s a big mistake.
This is not horse race coverage, nor does it focus on policy argument, but it doesn't ignore issues. In this rhetorical frame, communication is the art of appealing to an audience, and  politics is the art of building coalitions by appealing to groups of voters. Leonhardt's criticism is not that Sanders makes bad arguments for his policies but that he is failing to build the broad coalition he will need to win the presidency by appealing to groups of voters who may not align closely with his political ideology.

A fair amount of campaign commentary uses some version of this Rhetorical Appeal frame, focusing on how the candidates present themselves, what they are saying, and how it resonates or not with important groups of voters.

The Rhetorical Appeal frame has a dark side at a time when "alternative facts are becoming a reality," and its avatar at the moment is Donald Trump. In "Trump Is Waiting and He Is Ready" New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall explains the rhetorical appeal of Trump's right wing populism:
There is an additional way to explain why so many voters are willing to tolerate Trump’s lies: that on the issues that matter intensely to Trump’s most loyal white supporters, Trump defies norms of political correctness by telling his backers what they firmly believe is the truth — their truth — about race, crime and immigration.
In this view, when Trump vilifies immigrants (as The Washington Post put it “Trump’s most insulting — and violent — language is often reserved for immigrants”) or calls Baltimore a “rodent infested mess,” he is the populist right’s truth teller, and in this scheme politically correct liberals who denounce his comments are the liars.
A 2019 study, “Tell it like it is: When politically incorrect language promotes authenticity,” found that “being politically incorrect makes communicators appear more authentic — specifically, less susceptible to external influence — albeit also less warm.”
Hi-Tech Sophistry

If the Rhetorical Appeal frames focus attention on campaign messages and audiences, what I'm calling the Hi-Tech Sophistry frame focuses on the Machiavellian strategy and organizational-technical apparatus that generates and disseminates those messages. In this most cynical frame, effective campaign communication depends on money, organization, technology -- "hacking" the electorate with data analytics and social media as well as traditional media -- and a laser focus on winning unhampered by moral scruple. The theme of "winning" can link this frame to War-Fight, Horse Race, or Rhetorical Appeal discourses but with a heavy emphasis on strategic and technical prowess.

For example, Charlie Warzel in The New York Times explains how "Mike Bloomberg Is Hacking Your Attention"
Mike Bloomberg and his presidential campaign respect the fundamental equation governing the modern internet: Shamelessness and conflict equal attention. And attention equals power ... Since declaring his campaign late last fall, the former New York City mayor has used his billions to outspend his competition in an attempt to hack the country’s attention. It seems to be working — this column is yet more proof  ... At the heart of these tactics is a genuine shamelessness that fits perfectly not just with politics but also the internet at large. Mr. Bloomberg is unapologetic about — and unafraid to hide — the money he’s spending ... That transactional approach is an excellent match for online influencer culture ... The strategy plays up controversy at every available opportunity to generate attention ... The whole thing sounds Trumpian because it is. The Trump campaign was unabashed in 2016 and beyond about its plan to “flood the zone” with garbage or ragebait. The strategy worked in part because it engaged and energized his base ... For Democrats whose prime interest is defeating Donald Trump at all costs, this is exciting. But the strategy is also deeply cynical, exhausting and potentially damaging for those of us left to consume it ... [It] leaves a sinking feeling that shameless memes, Twitter dunks and toxic screaming into the algorithmic void have become politics as usual ... Or maybe it’s always been this way. After all, what is politics if not a long, well-funded attempt at hacking people’s attention?
Warzel's concluding comment suggests that hi-tech sophistry is merely an up-to-date version of traditional politics. It is what authentic politicians do, nothing to be ashamed of. Bloomberg's campaign projects "genuine shamelessness," and is "unapologetic about" and "unafraid to hide" the money it is spending. Money buys attention, and attention is power. In a polarized situation, many voters are attracted to politicians who are strong and ruthless fighting for their side.

Donald Trump's ruthless pugnaciousness appeals to his supporters. If, for Bloomberg, the message that matters is "I can afford to buy this message," it is so because it projects power and competence. In this frame, it counts against Bloomberg that, as Warzel puts it, Trump is "unencumbered by either shame or decency" while "there are lines Mr. Bloomberg will most likely not cross."

Another important difference is that Trump's supporters clearly believe he is on their side but it is unclear at the moment whether any significant group of voters will come to believe that Bloomberg is on their side. A limitation of the Hi-Tech Sophistry frame is that it doesn't explain how voters come to feel that a politician is on their side. For that, we need something like the Rhetorical Appeal frame.

Further Reading

Cappella, J. N., & Jamieson, K. H. (1997). Spiral of cynicism: The press and the public good. New York: Oxford University Press.

Craig, R. T. (2020). Models of communication in and as metadiscourse. In M. Bergman, K. Kirtiklis & J. Siebers (Eds.), Models of communication: Theoretical and philosophical approaches (pp. 11-33). London: Routledge.

de, Vreese, C.H. and Lecheler, S. (2016). Framing Theory. In The International Encyclopedia of Political Communication, G. Mazzoleni (Ed.). doi:10.1002/9781118541555.wbiepc121

Entman, R. M. (1993). Framing: Toward Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm. Journal of Communication, 43(4), 51-58. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1993.tb01304.x

Ordway, Denise-Marie. (2019). The consequences of ‘horse race’ reporting: What the research says. Journalist's Resource: Research on Today's News Topics.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Brief Review: Public Engagement of Communication Scientists on Twitter

I've been working for many years on the concept of communication as a "practical discipline" -- an intellectual discipline (some would call it a science) that interacts with society to cultivate the practice of communication. How that interaction between an academic discipline and society actually happens and what it accomplishes are key questions.

The theme of this blog -- "{meta} discourses - communicating about communication in theory and practice" -- capsulizes my approach to the problem. Metadiscourse -- talk about communication -- goes on informally in society for practical reasons. More technical kinds of metadiscourse go on in the academic discipline of communication. Indeed, much of our main business as communication scholars consists of talking and writing about communication in careful, informed, and sometimes innovative ways. From this point of view, the problem of "cultivating" the practice of communication is how to engage those practical and academic metadiscourses with each other to develop a productive dialogue that enriches both.

Here and in my Twitter feed (@meta_d) I'm exploring that problem from from various angles. Ideally I'd like to participate in both practical and theoretical metadiscourses and to serve as a bridge between them, but how?

A study published in the current issue of New Media & Society speaks directly to that question. (This is an open access article, meaning it is free for anyone to download and read.) Two German researchers, Jakob Jünger and Birte Fähnrich, analyzed the Twitter activity of a sample of "communication scientists," defined as active users who follow the International Communication Association's Twitter feed (@icahdq) and whose profiles present them as scientists. (Apparently anyone who self-identifies as a communication scholar and follows ICA on Twitter counts as a "scientist." I might be in the sample.)

Especially helpful to me as I think about what I am trying to do here, Jünger and Fähnrich developed a category scheme for describing different forms of public engagement by scientists on Twitter. The scheme includes "scholarly communication directed at peers as well as science communication directed at lay publics" (p. 393). In addition to those "direction of engagement" (to peers or lay publics), the scheme distinguishes "topics of engagement" (scientific or nonscientific), and "modes of engagement" (content-centered or actor-centered).

Direction of engagement is determined by analyzing the profiles of each scientist's Twitter followers to count how many identify as peers (fellow scientists), as members of the lay public in business, media, or politics, or simply as individuals (personal). Topics of engagement are determined by categorizing the content of tweets as scientific topics (technical information about communication and media studies), personal topics, or public topics such politics, economy, and media. Finally, tweets that disseminate information have a topic-centered mode of engagement, while tweets that address users, for example to congratulate someone or to invite followers to join an event, have a actor-centered mode of engagement.

Based on these distinctions, the study identifies eight forms of engagement. Here they are with my own made-up examples:

(1) Reputational: Content-oriented messages on scientific topics that are received by peers (tweeting a technical comment about an academic article I just read, which builds my reputation in the field)

(2) Integrational: Actor-oriented messages on scientific topics that are received by peers (tweeting congratulations to a colleague on their new academic article, which builds my peer network)

(3) Informational: Content-oriented messages on scientific topics that are received by lay publics (tweeting as a communication expert in a non-technical style about the current research on a publicly relevant topic such as sexual harassment or Internet privacy)

(4) Participatory: Actor-oriented messages on scientific topics that are received by lay publics (tweeting as a communication expert in a non-technical style to comment on tweets posted by non-experts and invite further discussion of personal experiences in light of what the current research says about a publicly relevant topic such as sexual harassment or Internet privacy)

(5) Inspirational: Content-oriented messages on non-scientific topics that are received by peers (participating with other communication scholars in a Twitter thread in which we exchange observations on a current political campaign, which could inspire new, socially relevant research ideas among my peers)

(6) Activating: Actor-oriented messages on non-scientific topics that are received by peers (tweeting to urge other communication scholars to sign an online petition on a political issue, which can activate a sense of social responsibility among my peers)

(7) Intellectual: Content-oriented messages on non-scientific topics that are received by lay publics (tweeting as a communication expert to share information and express my personal opinion about a political candidate or a new movie)

(8) Communal: Actor-oriented messages on non-scientific topics that are received by lay publics (tweeting as a communication expert to urge my followers to volunteer or contribute to a political or charitable cause)

Well, that was quite an exercise, and I must admit some of my made-up examples feel a bit strained. However, the researchers in this study were able to place their sample of tweets into these categories with pretty good reliability, and their findings are interesting -- even somewhat encouraging.

What the findings show is that communication scientists engage in various ways with a pretty nice diversity of audiences on Twitter. About a third of their followers are scientists and about a third of their tweets concern academic research or teaching. However, only 10% of the followers identify as communication scientists, the rest of the scientific followers coming from other academic disciplines. So the the academic audience is refreshingly interdisciplinary. The lay audience is also quite diverse, about a quarter classified as "personal" and another quarter as "economic" (representing business and other non-scientific occupations). The followers include relatively few media people (8%) and political actors (4%).

Looking at topics of engagement, tweets on scientific topics (34%) personal topics (25%), and media topics (8%) closely match the proportions of followers in those categories. However, although 23% of tweets are on political topics, only 4% of the followers are in politics. While you might be tempted to interpret that difference as a discrepancy indicating a lack of political influence by communication scientists, there is no discrepancy. After all, the relevant audience for political discourse is the general public, not just politicians.

I've never broken down my own Twitter followers or tweets in this way, but I would guess my pattern of engagement is in the typical range of this study's findings. I tweet actively with varying frequency and my followers (719 at the moment) seem quite diverse. I don't tweet a lot on either personal topics or narrowly academic ones, nor do I often tweet polemically on political topics. My tweets are mostly content-oriented. I tweet on topics related to my interests in communication but usually in a non-technical style intended for a general audience. I sometimes get involved in discussion threads, though less often recently than in the past. (Note to self: Why not do more of that?)

I've only recently started blogging actively and this site doesn't have much of an audience yet, but I'd like to engage with an audience in this space as well as on social media. Who exactly am I writing for? That's a good question. The post you are now reading is a bit on the technical side and perhaps most relevant to other academics, but the writing is accessible and possibly engaging for general readers who have some interest in communication studies. Could the potential center of my audience be ... students?

Interestingly, the authors of this study never mention students as an audience, but education is probably the biggest area of institutional overlap where the academic discipline interacts with the rest of society. I would guess more than a few followers of @icahdq, and I know at least some my own Twitter followers, are students.

If you have thoughts on any of this, I would love to hear from you.

Further Reading

Craig, R. T. (2018). For a practical discipline. Journal of Communication, 68(2), 289-297. doi: 10.1093/joc/jqx013

Jünger, J., & Fähnrich, B. (2020). Does really no one care? Analyzing the public engagement of communication scientists on Twitter. New Media & Society, 22(3), 387-408. doi: 10.1177/1461444819863413

Friday, February 21, 2020

Conservative Whisper Networks?

To add a layer of context to my last post, what got me thinking about whisper networks and power this week was a column by the conservative (but anti-Trump) New York Times opinion writer, Bret Stephens, in which he describes people who are afraid to publicly express their support for Donald Trump for fear of reprisal from angry liberals as "Trump's whisper network."

Based on the number of "secret voters" who voted for Trump in 2016 but denied doing so to pollsters, Stephens anticipates that this "whisper network" could swing the 2020 presidential election to Trump again. He argues that the intolerant, angry condemnation by "snickering moralists" on the political left of anyone who expresses the slightest sympathy for Trump is only driving potential anti-Trump voters into "Trump's whisper network." He concludes that there is only one way for the Democrats to defeat Trump in 2020, that is:
By treating Trump voters with respect. By asking why so many of them wound up in his tent to begin with. By acknowledging that not everything that’s said in a hush is shameful, and that not everyone you disagree with is a bigot. By listening, not denouncing; empathizing, not ridiculing; understanding, not dismissing.
Whisper networks ought to have no place in the land of the free.
Implicitly, this is a ringing defense of "good communication" (acknowledging, listening, understanding) as against the abuse of cultural power by the intolerant left to silence and oppress Trump sympathizers, which not only is wrong (violates their freedom of speech) but also is ultimately self-defeating as it only feeds the growth of Trump's whisper network. Trump supporters, the victims of abuse by liberal "snickering moralists," just like the victims of workplace sexual harassment and abuse, are empowered by their whisper network, but ideally there would be no need for either oppressed group to resort to such a means of empowerment, Stephens implies.

To bridge the very wide gap in this analogy, Stephens opens his column with praise for the "honesty" and "courage" shown by the author, Katie Roiphe, in her 2018 Harper's Magazine article, "The Other Whisper Network: How Twitter feminism is bad for women." While she welcomes the #MeToo movement against workplace sexual harassment and abuse, Roiphe is critical of its excesses, including its vitriolic intolerance of anyone who questions those excesses. Women who voice criticisms of #MeToo are subjected to harsh condemnation by "Twitter feminists," with the result that many women with similar views are effectively silenced:
For years, women confined their complaints about sexual harassment to whisper networks for fear of reprisal from men. This is an ugly truth about our recent past that we are just now beginning to grapple with. But amid this welcome reckoning, it seems that many women still fear varieties of retribution (Twitter rage, damage to their reputations, professional repercussions, and vitriol from friends) for speaking out—this time, from other women. They are, in other words, inadvertently creating a new whisper network.
It would be naive to interpret these uses of "whisper network" as merely broadening the meaning of a term or innocently drawing an analogy. The rhetorical purpose in both cases is something like to pull moderates away from radicals on the left or in #MeToo by pricking the liberal conscience with accusations that the radicals are perpetrating a form of oppression not unlike the very forms of oppression that their movement ostensibly opposes. The issue resembles the disputes about tactics that often go on between movement radicals and moderates. In this regard, Roiphe's appeal to members of a movement she basically supports is considerably more credible than Stephens' pitch across the yawning left-right divide in US politics. Both, however, tend to dilute the meaning of "whisper network" by distracting from its primary pragmatic context, in effect, changing the subject.

Another context for Stephens' argument is the recent tendency of conservatives to challenge the power of the left on university campuses and elsewhere by appealing to liberal values of free speech and diversity, stretching the meaning of the latter term to include "intellectual diversity" and "political diversity." Using liberal arguments to empower conservatives. Nevertheless, they are sometimes good arguments.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Communication, Power, and the Whisper Network

We can think of communication and power as two opposite ways of getting things done with others. The way of communication is for people to talk about a situation, come to an understanding of what needs to happen, and voluntarily coordinate their efforts to get it done. The way of power is for those who have power to use it to get what they want by controlling the behavior of others, whether through force or threat, legitimate authority (owner, boss, judge, priest, parent), incentive (money, favors), or sheer personal charisma (rock star, guru, demagogue). (For now, we won't go into into theories of power, a vast subject.)

The distinction between communication and power is invoked when parents are advised to talk with their children, or bosses with their workers, or stronger nations with weaker ones, to work out problems instead of using their power to compel compliance. It's a useful distinction for promoting more peaceful, cooperative, humane ways of living together though communication. It's also an idealistic distinction that considerably oversimplifies the actual relations between communication and power. As usual, I don't propose to give up a valid ideal but do want to understand its limits and possibilities in a complex reality. Consider, for example, the whisper network.

The term "whisper network" refers to an old communication practice that recently has gained prominence and taken new forms in the context of the #MeToo movement. Here is a definition from Wikipedia:
whisper network is an informal chain of information passed privately between women. It is typically a list of powerful people in an industry alleged as being sexual harassers or abusers. The information is often shared between women by word of mouth or online in private communities, forums, spreadsheets, and crowd-sourced documents. The stated purpose of maintaining these lists is to warn potential victims of "people to avoid" in their industry. Whisper networks also purportedly help victims identify a common abuser and come forward together about a serial abuser. (, retrieved February 18, 2020)
Based on my research, I think this definition puts too much emphasis on the idea of circulating "lists" of abusers. That happens, of course, but the practice more broadly is to share information about abusers and provide social support for victims through informal networks that could also be described as gossip networks or "the grapevine."

I used Google and Twitter searches to learn something about the recent history of this concept. A Google Web search on "whisper network" (in quotes) produced about 160,000 hits, so we know it's out there in circulation. People are talking about it. Running the same search on Twitter year by year, moving backward from 2019 to 2010 revealed that "whisper network" was not used in its current sense much before 2014. I found no clear examples on Twitter before that year; and a Google Ngram search found no instance of the phrase in books published between 1800 and 2008. It is a new concept. The hashtag #WhisperNetwork has appeared only since 2018, mainly to promote a popular novel of that title by Chandler Baker; but "whisper network" (no hashtag) often appears in tweets with the hashtag #MeToo. It is a concept that has gained impetus from the burgeoning #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and abuse.

Much of the "whisper network" Twitter traffic in that first year of 2014 referred to "Workplace Harassment, Reporting, and the Whisper Network," an online article by Jennifer Wong in which she narrated her own experience with a serial workplace harasser named "Leon" whose behavior continued unpunished for years and victimized numerous women in a certain unnamed workplace. Wong explained the importance of the "whisper network" for combating this widespread problem:
The ‘whisper network’ – if you’ve worked in an office, you probably know it. There are two sides to that network. One is destructive and full of gossip, one is empathetic and fiercely protective. I’ll focus on the latter side and its importance in supporting those undermined in a working environment. The ‘whisper network’ creates a safe haven to discuss problems and prejudices experienced, warn others of harassers, and bolster camaraderie.
Even years beyond my experience of being harassed, anytime I divulge my story to coworkers (new or old), I find that they have their own stories of sexual harassment to share. The prevalence of sexual harassment in our workplaces constantly shocks me. However, the more women who are willing to share their experience, the bigger this ‘whisper network’ becomes. This can lead to a powerful, underground circle of empathy and safeguards.
As an aside, although I don't know how the term "whisper network" originated, I would hazard the guess that it was created as a play on "WhisperNet," a service introduced by Amazon in 2007 to provide internet access for downloading books on early versions of the Kindle e-reader. The phrase "Me Too," which went viral as #MeToo in 2017, appears to have been first used publicly on social media by the sexual harassment victim and activist Tamara Burke in 2006. As the #MeToo movement emerged, "WhisperNet" was available for coining a clever new name for one of its communication practices.

So, what does this have to do with communication and power? If communication and power are opposite ways of getting things done with others, then the whisper network is a great example of the communication way. It consists of women getting together to share information and support each other to address a shared problem. And, of course, the problem in question, sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, is an equally great example of the power way of getting things done as men abuse the power arising from their gender privilege and workplace status to get what they want by manipulating or coercing women.

Looking even just a little more closely, however, we see a more complex relationship between the whisper network and power. If communication is the whisper network's method, after all, power is its purpose: empowering women to combat an abuse of power. (A Google search on <"whisper network" and empower> returned 43,000 hits; while Chandler Baker's novel has been criticized for trivializing the #MeToo movement by turning it into "an empowerment fantasy.") 

More generally, getting things done with others through communication perhaps always occurs in some sort of power context where the "getting things done" part impinges on others or faces opposition. And the use of power, of course, typically involves some use of communication, for example for the purpose of "grooming" potential victims of sexual harassment or abuse.

One takeaway is that we can distinguish communication from power conceptually but perhaps can never entirely separate them in practice, even if we would want to do so, at least sometimes. I say "perhaps" to acknowledge that the point has been illustrated but not yet proven. We have barely scratched the surface of this issue.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Attack on War Metaphors!

Whether or not communication is really a kind of warfare by other means, we often talk casually as if it were. Take the title of this blog post, for example. My topic is literally criticism of the way we use war metaphors to talk about communication, but instead of titling this post "criticism of war metaphors" I did what many headline writers would do. I spiced it up by using a war metaphor ("attack") that calls up the conceptual metaphor, ARGUMENT IS WAR.

My use of a war metaphor to describe criticism of war metaphors was intended to be ironically funny (note the silly exclamation point!), but this feeble attempt at humor may be easy to miss.

Maybe that's partly because metaphors of war and violence are so common in everyday metatalk we hardly notice them. "He blew up the meeting!" "She shot down his plan!" "We'll battle it out!" Any situation that involves opposition or even exerting effort can be framed metaphorically as a war. Public discourse is full of war metaphors: "The war on cancer!" "The battle against climate change!" "We'll fight to the death for affordable health care!" "Trump lashes out at (fill in the blank)!"

Critics worry that as our image of communication is influenced by constant exposure to these violent metaphors, our communication actually becomes more vitriolic and warlike in general. This criticism of the overuse of war metaphors is nothing new. Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen's popular 1998 book on the subject was titled The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words. Tannen described "a pervasive warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight." She went on:
The argument culture urges us to approach the world--and the people in it--in an adversarial frame of mind. It rests on the assumption that opposition is the best way to get anything done: The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; the best way to cover news is to find spokespeople who express the most extreme, polarized views and present them as "both sides"; the best way to settle disputes is litigation that pits one party against the other; the best way to begin an essay is to attack someone; and the best way to show you're really thinking is to criticize. (pp. 3-4)
It can be hard to talk about argument without using war metaphors. In their book, Metaphors We Live By (1980), language theorists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson showed that our concept of ARGUMENT is systematically structured by the conceptual metaphor, ARGUMENT IS WAR. (By the way, the convention of writing metaphorical concepts in ALL CAPS comes from Lakoff and Johnson.) Noting everyday expressions like "your claims are indefensible," "I demolished his argument," and "I've never won an argument with him," Lakoff and Johnson claimed that these expressions are more than just a metaphorical way of speaking because the war metaphor literally structures the concept and practice of argument in our culture. As they wrote,
It is important to see that we don't just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war. (p. 4)
"Partially structured" is a key qualification. If our concept and practice of argument were totally structured by the concept of war, there would be no distinction at all between argument and physical combat, and there would be no way to talk, for example, about the logical difference between arguments from authority and arguments from personal experience. We can also use different metaphors to talk about argument. For example, we "construct" arguments and "buttress" them with evidence so they won't "fall apart." This is the conceptual metaphor, ARGUMENTS ARE BUILDINGS (Lakoff and Johnson, p. 46). We can also think of arguments as games, rituals, and other relatively peaceful sorts of things. However, the predominance of war metaphors is undeniable.

Is this really a problem? Can talking about communication in metaphors of war and violence actually make our world more warlike and violent? Tannen's description of the argument culture and Lakoff and Johnson's theory of conceptual metaphors both seem to suggest that war metaphors are a contributing factor. 

If violent language is part of the problem, then language reform might be part of the solution. Peace linguists like the Brazilian scholar Francisco Cardoso Gomes de Matos advocate "humanizing" language education--teaching ways of speaking that promote nonviolence and human dignity. 

Promoting peaceful language sounds like a good idea, but language reform efforts should be based on a realistic understanding of how metaphors work in communication. A recent review of the academic literature on war metaphors concludes that they can have positive as well as negative consequences depending on how they are used and in what context. Talking about a "war on climate change" or a "war on cancer" can be an effective, easily understood way to structure people's thinking and motivate action on an issue:  
We have argued that war metaphors are commonplace in public discourse in part because they tap into basic and widely shared schematic knowledge that efficiently structures our ability to reason about any situation involving opposing sides (at any level of abstraction). What’s more, the vivid emotional valence associated with war can quickly activate a sense of urgency and anxiety, which may motivate further action under some circumstances (at least in the short term). [...]
However ... there are potential dangers with the war framing. It may be ineffective or even harmful in some situations, for instance, for cancer patients with no hope of survival, or if framed in an overly negative way or emphasized over a long period of time. The war framing may also work well in some cultures but not in others. Therefore, our final suggestion is that communicators should be prepared to articulate the specific ways in which the target domain is like a war, and the ways in which it is not. If needed, they should be ready to replace the war frame with a different metaphoric message. (Flusberg, Matlock & Thibodeau, 2018, p. 11)
Although war metaphors can be ineffective or harmful in some situations, the available evidence doesn't show that the use of war metaphors is making society more violent or contentious in general.  To win the battle against communication that promote hatred, violence, and literal war, we must find the right targets to attack. We must hunt the devil.


Flusberg, S. J., Matlock, T., & Thibodeau, P. H. (2018). War metaphors in public discourse. Metaphor and Symbol, 33(1), 1-18. doi: 10.1080/10926488.2018.1407992

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tannen, D. (1998). The argument culture: Stopping America's war of words. New York: Random House.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Is Communication the Solution to War and Violence?

War between the US and Iran, which recently seemed imminent, has been averted for now. Longstanding tensions between the two countries recently escalated through a series of provocative acts by both sides, culminating in the January 3 assassination of an Iranian military leader, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, by a US drone strike near the Baghdad airport. Fears that this event would precipitate all-out warfare receded after January 8, when Iran's military response to the assassination turned out to be relatively mild (a nonlethal missile attack on US bases in Iraq) and the Trump administration chose not to retaliate. While the immediate threat of war has thus receded, the US-Iranian international conflict is far from resolved and will go on in various forms, including low-level violence that could easily escalate again. How to resolve the conflict remains an open question.

US public discourse during the crisis brought out classic pro-war (hawk) and anti-war (dove) positions among various more nuanced pragmatic assessments of policy, tactics, and the unfolding situation. Hawks believe that Iran must be prevented from obtaining nuclear weapons at all cost and only military force will do the job. Doves are opposed to war for various reasons including doctrinaire pacifism, anti-US-imperialism, and a pragmatic belief that the conflict can and therefore should be resolved diplomatically, rather than by force, to avoid a costly and destructive war.

My own sentiments are with the pragmatic doves, but my purpose here is not to defend a position on US policy toward Iran. As a communication theorist, I want to reflect on the metadiscourse that develops in this and similar situations for what it can tell us about the relationship between communication, war and violence in general. A commonplace belief among idealistic liberals is that communication is the better alternative to violent conflict. In this view, war and violence arise from breakdowns in communication and can be avoided by good communication. This is an attractive ideal but unfortunately very simplistic.

A realistic ideal of communication as an alternative to war and violence has to account for certain complexities, which I hope to take up in a series of posts. For example, the relationship between communication and violence is complex. As the New York Times columnist David Brooks pointed out during the recent crisis,
[Nations] use violence as a form of communication. A nation trying to maintain order will assassinate a terrorism leader or destroy a terrorism facility. The attack says: “Hey, we know we’re in a long-term conflict, but let’s not let it get out of hand. That’s not in either of our interests.” The attack is a way to seize control of the escalation process and set a boundary marker.
Violence can be used as a form of communication to avoid war. This may not be the kind of communication we ideally want, but it can work. Further troubling the distinction between communication and violence, some theorists have argued that communication is inherently violent and warlike, however much we might wish it otherwise. We'll take up this argument and related ideas about power, violence and communication in future posts.

Another complexity we'll need to address relates to the idea that to serve as an alternative to violence, communication must be clear and avoid "mixed messages." In the recent crisis, both the Trump administration and the Iranians were criticized for their "mixed messages," even though they succeeded in deescalating the situation, if only for the moment. Is the best communication in conflict situations always clear, or is there a legitimate role for ambiguity, paradox, or even misinformation?