Robyn Caplan is one of ten 2015 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar. Their posts highlight critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2015 Seminar. In this blog post, the evolving relationships between social and traditional media and between politics and information policy regimes are reviewed.
In the last year, questions about the roles that both non-traditional and traditional media play in the filtering of geopolitical events and policy have begun to increase. Though traditional sources such as The New York Times retain their influence, social media platforms and other online information sources are becoming the main channels through which news and information is produced and circulated. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Weibo, and other micro-blogging services bring the news directly to the people. According to a study by Parse.ly, the era of searching for information is ending—fewer referrals to news sites are coming from Google, with the difference in traffic made up by social media networks (McGee, 2014; Napoli, 2014).
It isn’t just news organizations that are finding greater success online. Heads of state—most famously President Obama—have used social networks to reach a younger generation that has moved away from traditional media. This shift, which began as a gradual adoption by state and public officials over the last several years, is quickly gaining speed. Iranian politicians, such as President Rouhani, have also taken to Twitter, a medium still banned in their own country. The low barriers to entry and high potential return make social media an ideal space for geopolitical actors to experiment with their communications strategies. ISIS, for example, has developed a skillful social media strategy over the last few years, building up a large following (which emerged out of both shock and awe) with whom they can now communicate directly (Morgan, 2015, p. 2). As more information is disseminated through these platforms, considering the role that technological and algorithmic design has on geopolitics is increasingly important.
Individuals who believe in conspiracy theories are often disregarded as 'paranoid' and 'irrational', but social science research indicates that they engage in psychological processes that we all do. The difference lies their unusual distrust of authority.
Conspiracy theories abound! Rumors are whispered, discrepancies in a story are seized upon, and the official version of events is discredited. Then, an alternate explanation is proposed and evidence is gathered to support it.
While there is no formal, generally-accepted understanding of a ‘conspiracy theory’, they are usually considered to be an explanation for an event that is not the most plausible account and which postulates unusually sinister and competent conspirators carrying out the conspiracy. Conspiracy theories are usually based on weak evidence, are self-insulating from fact, and sensationalize the actors or the implications of the event.
Contrary to what we might think, many of the people who follow conspiracies aren’t crazy. They are actually skeptics, they just happen to be selective with their doubt. According to research, individuals that believe in conspiracy theories tend to favor a worldview in which people are prone to misbehave (or behave downright evil) and in which elites exercise omnipotence.
In our eagerness to be constructive, we who work for accountable governance from our comfort zones in the global north sometimes forget what it’s like to live with a deeply unaccountable state. I don’t just mean finding that the party we voted for has since done a U-turn on a pre-election policy promise (a sensitive issue in the UK this week as the hotly contested general elections loom). I mean being a citizen within a state that has a history of torturing and massacring its citizens. For instance, how does it sound to a Guatemalan indigenous community when an international agency urges it to hold its state to account through ‘constructive engagement’?
At IDS on 30 April, Making All Voices Count’s Research, Evidence and Learning component hosted the third workshop in a series focused on accountability, organised jointly with the Transparency & Accountability Initiative and the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability. We chose as a theme The Quest for citizen-led accountability: Looking inside the state. Libraries overflowing with literature on the state and its institutions haven’t proven very useable for social actors who see the state within an ‘accountability politics’ frame, and come at it in campaigning mode. This event brought together some of the scholars who’ve written that literature with some of those social actors who lead and support those rights-claiming processes, to unpack the state in ways that might help citizen-led accountability struggles gain purchase.
Sharing the most politically nuanced analysis of accountability that has ever been developed under World Bank auspices, Anu Joshi (IDS) and Helene Grandvoinnet (Lead Social Development Specialist, World Bank) offered a series of reflections, insights and devices for digging down inside of “context” so as to understand what makes state actors tick. Their work points to what can be learnt by applying to state actors – individual and collective – what we already know about citizen actors – individual and collective. Among these are the notion that power relations are at work not only between citizens and the state, but between one state actor and another; and that for governance to become more responsive and accountable, state officials may need to be empowered or mobilized at least as much as they need to be informed. Here was ‘the state’ viewed on the inside, and from the inside looking out.
In some areas of development policy, deep-rooted assumptions are extremely hard to dislodge. Like science-fiction androids or the many-headed Hydra, these are monsters that can sustain any number of mortal blows and still regenerate. Capable researchers armed with overwhelming evidence are no threat to them.
The importance of good governance for development is one such assumption. Take last month’s enquiry report on Parliamentary Strengthening by the International Development Committee of the UK parliament. It references the UN High Level Panel’s opinion that ‘good governance and effective institutions’ should be among the goals for ending global poverty by 2030. It would have done better to reference the evidence in 2012’s rigorously researched UN publication Is Good Governance Good for Development?
Here are five governance myths about which the strong scientific consensus might – eventually – slay some monsters.
We came across this article that took a very unorthodox position against the axiom “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The “argument” (with a dose of ad hominem) states: “That’s BS on the face of it, because the vast majority of important things we manage at work aren’t measurable, from the quality of our new hires to the confidence we instill in a fledgling manager”. This was followed up by “The good news is that we manage these unmeasurables perfectly well without any need for yardsticks”. Had this been an article on a “clickbait” site, where an unorthodox position is often taken without support or forethought just to get the clicks, we could have just moved on. But this was Forbes.
We have put quotes around the term argument above because cogent arguments do not start with “That’s BS.” It also provides only two examples of unmeasurables: 1) “quality of our new hires” and 2) “confidence we instill in a fledgling manager” to convince readers that a majority has been demonstrated by the author. It is also incorrect to assume that most people “manage these unmeasurables perfectly well.” In fact, we posit most of us (with conscience) will have an extremely hard time making serious decisions (for example, promoting someone or cancelling a project) based on “unmeasurable” indicators.
Measurement of intangibles is hard to do. Even when it is done, such measurement would necessarily be a rough proxy of reality. There is no disagreement from us on this. None at all. However, to account for them would be vastly better than ignoring them completely because in the absence of measurements (even if they are fuzzy), fallacious rhetoric sneaks in and objectivity disappears. We go back to the Forbes article again to support this hypothesis: it uses the term “vast majority”,which can be easily replaced with a quantifiable term (e.g 80% of our managerial decisions).
These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
#Davosproblems: The financial crisis isn‘t over, and the inequality crisis is just beginning
The World Economic Forum’s annual meeting has kicked off in Davos, Switzerland under the banner of “The New Global Context.” Falling in the long shadow of the financial crisis, the WEF’s theme reflects as much hope as a creeping sense that economic turmoil is the new normal. Some seven years into the current crisis, the participants at Davos are acutely aware that the world economy still hasn’t recovered its past momentum.
The Power of Market Creation, How Innovation Can Spur Development
Most explanations of economic growth focus on conditions or incentives at the global or national level. They correlate prosperity with factors such as geography, demography, natural resources, political development, national culture, or official policy choices. Other explanations operate at the industry level, trying to explain why some sectors prosper more than others. At the end of the day, however, it is not societies, governments, or industries that create jobs but companies and their leaders. It is entrepreneurs and businesses that choose to spend or not, invest or not, hire or not.
When the World Bank investigates and sanctions a major corporation for corruption related to one of its project, the deterrent impact is readily apparent. However, not every case the World Bank investigates is a major corruption case. In the past year, the World Bank Integrity Vice Presidency (INT) received many complaints related to fraud, and it is important to demonstrate responsiveness to complainants who report credible allegations as well as fix the weaknesses identified. Sanctioning cases of fraud also sends a strong message about abiding by high integrity standards in World Bank-financed projects.
Left unchecked, fraud erodes development effectiveness. It often coincides with poor project implementation, which can result in collapsing infrastructure or the distribution of counterfeit drugs. It causes costly delays and can lead to direct financial losses for countries which cannot afford it. Fraud also fosters a negative enabling environment, creating opportunities for more serious and systemic misconduct to occur.
Poorly equipped schools, counterfeit medicine and elections decided by money are just some of the consequences of public sector corruption. Bribes and backroom deals don’t just steal resources from the most vulnerable – they undermine justice and economic development, and destroy public trust in government and leaders. Based on expert opinion from around the world, the Corruption Perceptions Index measures the perceived levels of public sector corruption worldwide, and it paints an alarming picture. Not one single country gets a perfect score and more than two-thirds score below 50, on a scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean).
The Fall of Facebook
Facebook has won this round of the Internet. Steadily, grindingly, it continues to take an ever greater share of our time and attention online. More than 800 million people use the site on an average day. Individuals are dependent on it to keep up not just with their friends but with their families. When a research company looked at how people use their phones, it found that they spend more time on Facebook than they do browsing the entire rest of the Web. Digital-media companies have grown reliant on Facebook’s powerful distribution capabilities. They are piglets at the sow, squealing amongst their siblings for sustenance, by which I mean readers.
If you are about to visit an organization engaged in international development assistance and are unsure of the reception you will receive, a surefire way exists to win over your hosts: tell them you believe that four principles are crucial for development—accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion. Your hosts will almost certainly nod enthusiastically and declare that their organization in fact prioritizes these very concepts. This holds true whether you are visiting a bilateral or multilateral aid agency, a foreign ministry engaged in development work, a transnational NGO, a private foundation, or any other type of group engaged in aid work. The ubiquity of these four concepts in the policy statements and program documents of the aid world is truly striking–they have become magic words of development.