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.