Tag Archives: political polarization

Opinion: For those in favor of saving the Republic, here are some ideas

In my Social Engineering class we have been studying Russian and other foreign cyber attacks on the USA, Germany, France, Great Britain, Ukraine, and elsewhere. One of our recent assignments was to read the following reports:

The IRA, Social Media and Political Polarization in the United States, 2012-2018

The Tactics & Tropes of the Internet Research Agency

Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence United States Senate on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election: Volume 2: Russia’s Use of Social Media, with Additional Views

After reading these reports, we were to consider the tactics in “On War” by Carl von Clausewitz and then answer the following question:

“So, what should the United States do about it? Think about the political, economic, and military weapons of war (Clausewitz) and share your thoughts about how to combat the Russian SE attacks.”

“I considered Clausewitz’s lessons of war (summarized by Pietersen) to see how they could help me create a strategy that makes sense.

Just the first step, Identify, I see as a huge challenge. I’m under the impression that most people who are angry about attempted Russian interference in recent elections are angry because their preferred candidate didn’t win, not because our Constitution and the Republic are under attack and hanging by a thread. A lot of people accept the premise that unethical and illegal acts are permissible if it helps your side. They may not be informed about the seriousness of the threat, or are informed and are rooting for the Constitution and the Republic to fall. This would be a good way for intelligence to precede operations. Do enough people even want the Republic saved to make it worth the effort to fight for it? The goal will have to be changed if there aren’t enough people on board. I’m going to write the rest of this assuming that there is enough support.

The decisive point: “Save the Constitution” would be my mission statement, at least internally. I’m not sure how to frame the campaign to get the support of enough of the public for success. It used to be considered self-evident in our culture that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were good things, but there are a lot of people who have been conditioned and trained to deny those rights to others that they think are beneath them and sometimes even to themselves – they don’t think they deserve it.

Concentrate: This includes physical resources as well as hearts and minds. I understand that the reports we read were based on a subset of all the existing information. The tech companies didn’t give everything they had to the Senate, and we don’t know if the Senate gave all of what they had to the analysts who wrote the reports. Nevertheless, the reports do contain enough information to have some idea of what might help on the technology side.

I would like consumers to have more choices of viable communications platforms so that they freely choose the ones they feel protect their rights and reflect their values the best. That probably means breaking up monopolies and holding corporations accountable for tortious business practices or unfair competition practices such as collusion or violations of the immunity clause in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. As others have pointed out in our discussion, communications companies sometimes have an incentive to allow content that harms their users but helps them financially. They’d be able to get away with this less if there were more choices.

I advocate re-instating the media based consumer protections that have been removed from our body of law such as the Fairness Doctrine, the personal attack rule and the political editorial rule, and I’d like to see them extended to online publishing and social media companies as well as broadcast and print. As I’ve stated before, I think it’s a human rights abuse to restrict information from people in order to control them. Can a “Right to Information” be added to our Constitution? I don’t know but that’s how important I think it is.

I would like to see all media companies compelled to run media literacy education content as a consumer protection measure.

I advocate media literacy training as a vital life skill in all levels of education.

Devote as least as many resources to the promotion of the Constitution and Democratic self-rule as the enemies do to undermining it.

US Consumers should have the choice to purchase physical products, software, and have access to technology platforms that are manufactured in the US and accountable to US consumers.

Resources that are vital to the security of the United States, such as medical supplies and media companies, should not be owned or controlled by foreigners.

Hold all levels of government to high standards of transparency and accountability to their constituents.

Remove: I would not want to see a repeat of excesses from the past such as McCarthy-style witch hunts or loyalty tests. I believe the most rational ideas will prevail if people are allowed to hear them and exercise their constitutional rights to assembly, free speech, freedom of the press and others. I also think internment camps for re-education or any other purpose should be off the table.

Ignore: I believe it’s important not to over-react to all the distractions that will be tried.”

I don’t consider my above suggestions as complete or comprehensive, but I think they’d be a good start. I welcome comments on this blog, pro and con, I think this is a discussion we need to have, openly and rationally, because, after all, this is war.

Works Cited

DiResta, Renee, Kris Shaffer, Becky Ruppel, David Sullivan, Robert Matney, Ryan Fox, Jonathan Albright, Ben Johnson. “The Tactics & Tropes of the Internet Research Agency”, New Knowledge, 2019, digitalcommons.unl.edu/senatedocs/2/. Accessed 11 April 2021.

Howard, Phillip N., Bharath Ganesh, Dimitria Liotsiou, John Kelly, Camille François. “The IRA, Social Media and Political Polarization in the United States, 2012-2018”, Computational Propaganda Research Project, University of Oxford, 2019, digitalcommons.unl.edu/senatedocs/1/. Accessed 11 April 2021.

Pietersen, Willie. “Von Clausewitz on War: Six Lessons for the Modern Strategist.” Columbia University, www8.gsb.columbia.edu/articles/ideas-work/von-clausewitz-war-six-lessons-modern-strategist. Accessed 12 April 2021.

Select Committee on Intelligence, United States Senate. “Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence United States Senate on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election: Volume 2: Russia’s Use of Social Media, with Additional Views”, 2019, digitalcommons.unl.edu/senatedocs/4/. Accessed 11 April 2021.

The Spiral of Silence Theory

DISCLAIMER: The following is graduate student work. I’m uploading it after grading from the Professor but no corrections were made.

The Spiral of Silence Theory

In 1963, Bernard Cohen identified a mass media phenomenon called agenda-setting, a theory which posits that the media has an influence over what topics people think are important even if it has limited control over the content of those thoughts (Baran and Davis 264). Research in 1972 by Maxwell E. McCombs and Donald Shaw appeared to confirm the theory while later researchers expanded on the nature of agenda-setting and amount of interchange between the media and the intended audience (Baran and Davis 264-268). Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann originated the spiral-of-silence theory which argues that people will be more reluctant to express their views if they believe those views are in the minority. This self-censorship results in views that are perceived as less popular gradually disappearing from public debate (Baran and Davis 268).

In 1973, Noelle-Neumann examined what caused the media to possess this agenda-setting power. In her view, one factor is that the media is readily available for consumption. Another reason is that there is a cumulative effect – the messages cross content formats and types of media and are repeated over time. Thirdly, there is a lack of diversity among the opinions of journalists that tends to lead to homogeneity of topics presented to the public (Baran and Davis 268-269). Other researchers have continued to criticize, test and analyze the spiral of silence theory (Baran and Davis 269).

During the 20th Century, information tended to flow in a top-down manner from the elites to the masses. In the present time, we still use legacy media such as printed materials and electronic media. The category of actors that would have relied on such “old media” to distribute their messages, such as activist groups, governments, organizations and companies, are still using those legacy channels along with the newer decentralized web-based platforms. Additionally, we are producing user-generated content in the form of blogs and social media posts that compete for time and attention alongside the more elite content sources (Poulakidakos 373). The line between production and consumption has been considerably blurred (Poulakidakos 377).

Individual media users make decisions to determine when it is safe or desirable to express an opinion in the public sphere (Poulakidakos 374). Users do monitor whether their opinion is in the majority or minority and take the effect on their online and real-life relationships into consideration before deciding what to share (Poulakidakos 374). A 2011 study by Andrew Hayes and associates examined the effect of opinion polls and found that they do have a greater influence on people who suffer more fear of social isolation (Baran and Davis 269). There is a tendency for some individuals polled to tell the researchers what they think they want to hear rather than their true opinion (Gearhart and Zhgang 38). This behavior suggests that some people who think they are conforming to their fellow citizens to gain social acceptance are really conforming to the perceived opinions of the poll takers instead.

What factors make people more willing to take the risk of expressing their opinion? Awareness of a wider variety of opinions helps – with more diverse points of view available for consumption, there is less fear of social exclusion for expressing an opinion, helping to break the spiral of silence effect (Poulakidakos 375). Minority opinion holders are more willing to speak out on issues that they hold very firmly and believe are of high importance (Gearhart and Zhgang 39). People are more willing to express their true opinions in forums where they are not required to reveal their real-life identity (Gearhart and Zhgang 39). Less popular opinions are more likely to be expressed when people perceive that their view is gaining momentum (Gearhart and Zhgang 48).

Research by Gerarhart and Zhang shows that the perception that the media is in line with the user’s opinions has only a limited effect on the willingness of people to post truthfully about their thoughts. The perceived opinion of other members of the person’s nation had very little effect (Gearhart and Zhgang 44-46). In other words, the opinions of real-life friends and family carry a lot more weight with individuals than the media or the general public (Gearhart and Zhgang 50).

Even if the intended effect is not very significant, some appear to feel that any advantage is worth pursuing when the stakes are high, such as they are in the case of a major election. It is estimated that 1.4 billion USD was spent on digital advertising in the 2016 US Presidential election (Madrigal). A Pew research study shows that with over a year to go before the next Presidential election, 46% of social media users are already fatigued by the amount of political content they are exposed to (Anderson and Quinn). Our current culture is increasingly tolerant of incivility and some of the political content and behavior goes beyond mere propaganda, taking the form of online shaming, bullying and offline terrorism. Vitriol is not only directed at candidates but also their supporters (Gordon). On our own Webster University Campus in 2019, wearing a candidate’s t-shirt or having a candidate’s bumper sticker on a car has resulted in attempted property damage, vituperative verbal insults, and physical assault (Farrah). It is possible to be attacked even when not engaging in public political speech based solely on identity (Gordon). In 2015, a man was allegedly beaten on public transportation in St. Louis for declining to state a political opinion when asked (Associated Press). The Southern Poverty Law Center reported in 2016 that there were 10 active hate groups in the St. Louis area that “target others based on perceived membership in a class of people” (Moffit).

Studies cited earlier in this paper have found that the opinion climate in a particular environment does have some effect on open opinion expression. In the case of political views, can the majority consensus in a social media platform, such as Facebook, accurately predict voting behavior? According to a study by Mihee Kim, if an individual is not strongly committed to a political point of view, not only is such a person unlikely to express an opinion in a hostile environment, that person is less likely to vote at all. People strongly partisan to a certain point of view were also less forthcoming with opinions in a hostile environment, but rather than reducing political participation in the real world as the less committed did, they increased their activities in a direction opposite of what they perceived as the majority view (Kim 700). As a result, those actors attempting to sway voters in their preferred political direction by making it seem as though the voters’ own opinions are unpopular are likely to get the opposite outcome than was intended.

The nature of new media results in users having more choices of what content to consume and more individualized control over what they prefer to consume (Poulakidakos 374). If our nation has lost its’ tolerance for the open debate that allows ideas to be heard and judged on their merits, then we will continue to make important decisions about the future of our country with only the opinions from our own self-selected sphere of influence to guide us (Poulakidakos 374).

Works Cited

Anderson, Monica and Dennis Quinn. “46% of U.S. social media users say they are ‘worn out’ by political posts and discussions.” Pew Research Center, 2019, www.pewresearch.org/…/46-of-u-s-social-media-users…/. Accessed 4 October 2019.

Associated Press. “FBI investigates possible hate crime cases in St. Louis.” CBS Interactive Inc., 2015, www.cbsnews.com/…/fbi-begins-investigations-into…/. Accessed 4 October 2019.

Baran, Stanley J. and Dennis K. Davis. Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. Seventh Edition. CENGAGE Learning, 2015.

Farrah, Kristen. “Republicans fear prejudice on campus.” Webster Journal, 2019, websterjournal.com/…/republicans-fear-prejudice-on…/. Accessed 4 October 2019.

Gearhart, Sherice, and Weiwu Zhang. “Same Spiral, Different Day? Testing the Spiral of Silence across Issue Types.” Communication Research, vol. 45, no. 1, Feb. 2018, pp. 34-54. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1177/0093650215616456. Accessed 2 October 2019.

Gordon, Sherri. “How to Handle Political Bullying on Facebook.” Dotdash, 2019, www.verywellmind.com/how-to-handle-political-bullying…. Accessed 4 October 2019.

Kim, Mihee. “Facebook’s Spiral of Silence and Participation: The Role of Political Expression on Facebook and Partisan Strength in Political Participation.” CyberPsychology, Behavior & Social Networking, vol. 19, no. 12, Dec. 2016, pp. 696-702. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1089/cyber.2016.0137. Accessed 2 October 2019.

Madrigal, Alexis C. “What Facebook Did to American Democracy And why it was so hard to see it coming.” The Atlantic, 2017, www.theatlantic.com/…/2017/10/what-facebook-did/542502/. Accessed 4 October 2019.

Moffit, Kelly. “10 hate groups in the St. Louis area: Defining and discussing what they stand for today.” St. Louis Public Radio, 2016, https://news.stlpublicradio.org/…/10-hate-groups-st…. Accessed 4 October 2019.

Poulakidakos, Stamatis, et al. “Post-Truth, Propaganda and the Transformation of the Spiral of Silence.” International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, vol. 14, no. 3, Sept. 2018, pp. 367-382. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1386/macp.14.3.367_1. Accessed 2 October 2019.

Further reading: Here are some links to things I didn’t use or cite but might be interesting to read if you like this topic!

Democracy vs. Republic

The Power to Influence

12 Devious Tricks People Use To Manipulate You

Facebook Says it Doesn’t Try to Influence How People Vote

“Feminazis,” “libtards,” “snowflakes,” and “racists”: Trolling and the Spiral of Silence effect in women, LGBTQIA communities, and disability populations before and after the 2016 election

Effects of the “Spiral of Silence” in Digital Media

Spiral of Silence, and the Election Half of us Saw Coming

The only true winners of this election are trolls

A Comparison Between Emotional Abuse and Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals”