Month: November 2016

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Changing our political culture: how to make politics great (again)

Drawing on some of the factors that led to support for Brexit and Trump – outcomes many would have considered impossible a few months back –  Sylvia Merler and Giuseppe Porcaro offer their views on how politicians, voters, and institutions must redefine and rebuild politics. This article was originally published by the London School of Economics Blog on Politics & Policy.

If there’s just one sure thing about 2016 is that we will remember it for a long time. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are two events that a majority of people would have previously dismissed as impossible – yet they happened, and societies have to cope with the consequences. One obvious message stemming from these events is that our framework for identifying what is “thinkable” needs major revision. Our current reference framework failed to predict these developments because we were at the same time failing to understand the underlying reasons of discontent, as well as the potential for mobilisation they carried.

Populism is by no means a 2016 phenomenon: even without considering historical populist waves, the political forces that we identify as “populist” today have been at work at least since the 2008 financial crisis. They have since had the time to perfection their appeal, to become entrenched and grow. For example, in Italy the 5 Star Movement scored more than 25.5 per cent of votes at its first national electoral appearance in 2013. Golden Dawn in Greece started with a mere 0.6 per cent in 1996 and ranked as the third political force in the last two general elections. And UKIP has been a shaping force in most of recent political events in the UK.

It would be wrong to say that nobody was paying attention, but too many dismissed new populism as a niche phenomenon that would resonate with a majority of people. Again, this was “unthinkable” before 2016. So blaming it on “populism” without acknowledging the shortcomings of its critics would be as inconclusive as it would be hypocritical.

We instead sketch a rough roadmap to restore faith in politics and democracy.

Tear down echo chambers

What often happens on both sides of a debate – be it in the media, in parliament, in public forums – is the creation of echo chambers. We no longer see a proper exchange of ideas, but rather a solidification of one’s already formed mindset. One consequence of this is that extremist positions can thrive more easily than they used to. The preferred source of information and communication for many people exacerbates this polarisation: the substitutions of personal with virtual interaction have allowed a radicalisation in the tone of discourse, with news and debates on social networks aimed at matching, rather than challenging the users’ views.

We need to rebuild the political ground and acknowledge that it is now composed of discordant voices. The idea that the ‘annihilation’ of the other as the desired outcome of political competition is simply not working. This does not mean that we should consider all positions as equally acceptable. It means that we should give them equal intellectual standing. By dismissing it as irrelevant, we relegate populism into a sort of intellectually isolated ghetto. If our aim is to demystify with facts the most extremist position, then we need to first allow it into a common space of discussion where it can be intellectually challenged in a serious way.

unity-1767680_1920Regain trust by bringing evidence to the ground

One key lesson from both Brexit and the recent US election is that facts do not seem to matter to voters. There is not just one single reason for this. Statistics are a flexible tool: slightly changing the definition or the computation of something can produce very different conclusions. This creates confusion and makes people doubt facts, because it really looks like facts are “fluid”. In this sense, facts are no more trustworthy than claims. And since anything can be claimed, anything can be believed.

Another reason why facts are losing importance is that the incredible amount of data that we have access to forces us to choose what facts to present. In a world where information is instantaneous – and so is the attention span of the reader – most will probably opt for more impactful, attention-grabbing headlines, which are not necessarily true.

Often the way facts and evidence have been put together has not been satisfactory for non-specialists. As far as economics is concerned, this is very clear in the contrast between the macro picture and its micro implication. Voters in the American rust belt or in some areas of Britain probably don’t grasp why in a local community people are losing jobs while “the economy” is doing better. Similarly, individual voters may fail to understand what the benefits of our EU membership are when the institutional processes concerned are obscure.

Analysis of macro aggregates falls in a “fallacy of the average”: it tells us what is going on “on average” but this average fails to resonate with individuals, and it’s these individuals who vote. This is much deeper than just a communication issue: analysts and researchers should refocus their attention on how the macro affects the micro sphere. Geography should be king; territorial effects should be priority for policy action, not just a fixed effects of statistical models. There is currently a vacuum in explaining all this accurately and accessibly, and in providing policy solutions that work in practice. Populist promises have been filling this vacuum.

Nurture democracy

Politics should be the space where the battle of ideas allows dialectics between different political positions. We saw in the past years the rise of identity politics as a simplistic answer to complex problems. But there is more to offer. It is important to start crafting new and competing political projects. Citizens have seen a constant convergence in policies implemented by politically opposing coalitions. A return to politics means also the possibility to offer more viable policy alternatives for citizens to chose from – rooted in sound and factual analysis.

Appeal emotionally by creating a vision

Until the early 1990s, the post-war period had been strongly ideological. The end of the war left a marked division between two ideological spheres that were forced to co-exist in a Cold War. By the 21st century, this ideological division disappeared and the world seems to have become ideologically flat.

The actual concept of ideology has become a taboo for political discussion. Unfortunately, it seemed that the death of ideology also corresponded to the death of idealism. The problem with this became clear when the economic crisis hit the economic prosperity that was taken for granted until 2008, and the only thing left appeared to be a disillusionment towards the future.

If we can’t imagine a better future in these cynical times, how do we expect to build one? We propose to consider utopias as a methodological tool, rather than end-goals. In the political sphere, the success of most of the populist and neo-nationalist movements comes from the emotional appeal they have on citizens that are disillusioned about the future and they find the only grip in the promise of a past that was never really true, neither great. Let’s project politics in the future again.

Organise for action

The above is a set of theoretical steps. Organisation is key to realising them. We believe that one of the most flawed ideas of the past thirty years has been that citizens did not need to organise, as they could be reached directly by policymakers.

It’s true, new forms of organisation are needed. The old way of setting up and running a party is no longer adequate. But the demise of public support to intermediary bodies and civil society organisations has led to an ever-increasing weakness of citizens’ initiative. What populists have understood well before others, is that the model of citizens as consumers of politics should be replaced with a model of citizens as producersof politics. This should become an institutional priority, by providing necessary resources to breed independent movements. Reinvest in strengthening associations, collective grassroots initiatives, but also a clear support for political participation, starting with its prioritisation within the education system.

To conclude, the Brexit vote and the Trump vote should warrant a reflection on the nature and modalities of politics, with the aim of fighting the extremist and populist views in a constructive way. We highlighted five pillars around which this should be done.

Our call for increased idealism would be void if not met by action. This reflection also has important implications for how we envision the policy-making process. Policy-making tends to be an incremental process. As a result, progress can sometimes be so marginally small, hence hard for citizens to appreciate. To regain trust, policymakers should act accordingly. It’s not a time for marginal improvements, but a time for positive policy shock.

The specific fields of urgent action will differ across countries. As far as the EU is concerned, urgent action is needed to rebuild trust in the effectiveness of economic policy-making. The economic crisis has changed the meaning of the EU in the eyes of its citizens, with more and more people associating the EU with unemployment and bureaucracy. Rebuilding a positive and idealistic meaning for the European project in the eyes of Europeans will be vital.

What needs to be shown now is that traditional institutions – which so many voters see as a negative “establishment” – are still able to be courageous and make major steps forward, both in terms of visions and policies.

Tweeting Brexit: Narrative building and sentiment analysis

This article was co-authored with  and originally published by Bruegel

Public discourse on social media was already in favour of Brexit by early summer 2015, and stayed that way until the referendum. An analysis of more than 890 000 tweets posted since 2012 reveals clear trends in the mood of online discussion. Our new methodology captures something that betting odds and opinion polls were not able to reveal – but will it be useful in future elections?

On 7 May 2015 David Cameron was re-elected on a platform that included a promise to hold a referendum on the UK’s EU membership. A few weeks later, at the European Summit of 25-26 June, Cameron set out his EU renegotiation aims at a meeting dominated by the Greek debt and refugee crises.

Within this short time-span the amount of tweets on Brexit-related subjects jumped from around 1000 per week to 5000, which reached 10 000 if we consider retweets.

The number of related hashtags continued to rise during the following month, reaching more than 15 000 during the hot month of the refugee crisis (figure 1).

Figure 1 – Counts over time: 2015


That peak was not just a momentary event, but set the tone for the rest of the time leading up to the referendum. The flow of Brexit-related Twitter activity remained strong until the vote, with clear jumps at the announcement of the referendum on 20 February 2016 and the launch of the official campaigns on 15 April 2016.

Activity then increased steadily in the final two months of the campaign, with over 100 000 Tweets per week by the end of May 2016 (figure 2).

Figure 2 – Counts over time: 2016 without June


Sentiment analysis and mood switches

Using the extracted tweets, we performed a sentiment analysis in cooperation with the Dortmund Center for data-based Media Analysis (DoCMA).

Sentiment analysis applies natural language processing, text analysis and computational linguistics to identify and extract subjective information in a corpus of source material. Generally speaking, sentiment analysis aims to determine the attitude of a speaker or a writer with respect to some topic, or the overall stance of a document.

This attitude may be the speaker’s/writer’s judgment or evaluation, affective state, or the intended emotional communication. Assessing a statement as positive or negative requires analysis of the words and phrases used, as well as their grammatical and discursive context. This measurement is known as contextual polarity.

In this case, we applied a novel three-stage approach developed at DoCMA. First, two human coders carried out a traditional sentiment analysis coding a sample of 1500 Tweets. In a second step, a list of sentiment words was extracted from this sample to calibrate a sentiment-metering algorithm which was consequently applied to the vast majority of the Tweets.

This semiautomatic approach is an innovative work-in-progress, whose reliability needs further clarification. Therefore, the sentiment analysis of these Brexit tweets needs to be treated with a certain degree of caution. In-depth results are due to be published in the coming months. However, initial results are promising and our findings concerning the Brexit debate appear convincing.

Figure 3 – Mean sentiment scores by week


Figure 3 depicts the results by showing the overall mood in the “Twittersphere” over time. Values of zero represent a balanced view where tweets containing a predominantly pro-Brexit (positive values) and a pro-Remain stance (negative values) offset each other.

Most of the first half of 2015 was characterized by a slight bias towards the Remain position (negative values). The results change drastically in the summer of 2015, when the trend shifts considerably towards exiting the EU (positive territory in the graph). This is then where the values stay throughout the period until the referendum in June 2016.

Let’s consider two key-findings briefly.

First, the swing is associated with the refugee crisis that started grabbing the public’s attention in the summer of 2015. This was one of the most important issue driving the Brexit debate. Immigration had been a hotly debated issue in the UK before, with conservative politicians pushing for the imposition of a limit to the influx of foreigners, even from EU countries. The severity of the refugee crisis, which set in motion more than a million refugees from war-torn countries such as Syria and Afghanistan, aggravated an already sceptical public opinion. The Twitter analysis supports the hypothesis that the immigration issue fired up the debate on whether or not to leave the EU.

Second, once the overall mood has moved into pro-Brexit territory, it stays there for the remaining period. Even though values decline from an initial peak in July 2015, the high level of persistence of overall sentiment is remarkable. A predominately Brexit-favouring mood seems to be reinforced by the dynamics of social media. In particular, key Brexit activists who were highly visible on Twitter gathered ever-higher levels of attention. Sentiment in the Twittersphere proves to be enduring, a result we have encountered in other debates as well. Therefore, social media seems to reproduce (rather than disrupt) a hierarchical public discourse sphere.

The other story: Betting odds and opinion polls

Betting odds and opinion polls clearly did not catch the amplitude of the mood switch visible in the sentiment analysis. Until the very last moment, these traditional political predictors were consistently showing a tendency to remain, albeit with some fluctuation. At the most, they envisaged the possibility of a very tight result, but the fairly strong result for leave was a genuine shock.

Figure 4 – Probability of Brexit according to betting odds


This indicator tracks the average implied probability of the event ‘UK Leaving the EU’, based on bookmaker quotes available on the Oddschecker website.

Figure 5 – UK EU Referendum Voter Intention


The Bloomberg Composite Indicator of UK EU Referendum Voter Intention Surveys takes the average of polls data from various surveys including BMG, ComRes, ICM, Ipsos MORI, ORB, Survation and YouGov.

Classic polling has proved rather incorrect in other recent cases as well. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections was not foreseen by the vast majority of polls. However, his huge social media presence, most notably on Twitter, told a different story.

Conclusions – What do we learn?

Twitter can be considered a novel type of elite media that enables agenda setters to communicate directly with other agenda setters and a politically active part of the public (Boynton & Richardson 2016).

Whoever gets sufficient attention in the Twittersphere can count on his or her messages being taken up by traditional media, thereby boosting the senders’ reach and potentially influencing public opinion on a broader scale.

Emotionality, negativity and occasionally breaking taboos help to raise attention in social media environments.Donald Trump and the Brexiteers can serve as paragons for this transmission channel. If their views dominate the public debate, they may have a significant influence on voting behaviour.

They can especially prime those voters who have not come to a definitive decision on who or what to vote for – or even whether to vote at all – until shortly before election day. In elections or referenda where large parts of the electorate remain undecided, or unsure if to vote at all, polls may not suffice to capture the public’s mood.

It is therefore not far-fetched to argue that sentiment analyses of tweets may offer useful new early indicators for public opinion. In particular, this should be the case when debates entail clearly distinct poles. If decisions are to be taken either for or against a certain policy, or if candidates represent the wings of a bipolar political system, Twitter analysis should be of particular value.

In traditional parliamentary elections, however, where parties compete through complex programs on a wide range of policies, social media analysis in this form looks less promising for the prediction of election outcomes.

The authors would like to thank Gerret von Nordheim of TU Dortmund University/Dortmund Center for data-based Media Analysis for his highly valuable support in conducting the Twitter analysis.

Democracy in the age of the Internet of Things

This article was published originally by techcrunch 

With the release of Swipe the Vote in spring 2016, Tinder, the ultimate hook-up app, broke new ground in the United States by claiming to be able to match young voters with their dream-perfect presidential candidate. The matchmaking app tries to make voting sexy by employing to representative politics its same cut-to-the-chase dating method.

Who wants to read up on candidates’ policies, attend rallies or even watch a debate? You just want to jump into the bed of democracy with the one who turns you on politically, right? Who would bother to vote in the future if a set of sophisticated algorithms just identified, by trawling your data mine, your ideal candidate?

Once upon a time there was a www…

In the past two decades, we have observed how the web has evolved from an oddity to a tool used in different phases of electoral strategies.

The first U.S. presidential campaign website, for example, went online in 1995. It was a modest website consisting of a few photos and statements, ordering instructions for campaign merchandise and an email link for interested voters to contact the campaign. The Democratic primary candidate Pat Paulsen made it, running against Bill Clinton. The use of the new technology did not particularly help the underdog candidate to rise up in the competition.

In 2004, another Democratic candidate, Howard Dean, used the internet more effectively. He pioneered internet-based fundraising and grassroots organizing. The strategy was centered on mass appeal to small donors and was more cost-efficient than the more expensive method of contacting fewer potential larger donors. Dean also promoted active participatory democracy among the general public through online outreach.

…but the www might become a wtf

As was the case with the early rise of the internet, the emergence of the so-called Internet of Things is set to become a game changer. And young people are likely to be the main target audience, as is the case with the Tinder widget for the upcoming U.S. presidential elections.

The basic idea behind the Internet of Things is that any device with an on-and-off switch can be connected to the internet. Forecasts indicate that 6.4 billion connected devices will be in use worldwide by the end of 2016, up 30 percent from 2015, and will reach 20.8 billion by 2020. These figures show how massive this technological change is going to be. Deeper changes will happen, however, for the entire political industry. The availability of a wealth of data will create a new ground for how decisions will be made by democratically accountable politicians.

A set of sophisticated algorithms could automatically calculate, through data coming from our own objects and wearable devices, our supposed political preferences.

Electoral campaigns will look dramatically different in 10 or 20 years. We could, for example, imagine the institutionalization of apps that simplify citizens’ participation. The electorate might officially express opinions on policy issues on their own devices, swiping to register “likes” and “dislikes.” That would be the next level of “Tinderpolitics,” where the swipes would not just have an indicative value, but become binding. It would be interesting to be able to forecast what this would mean for policy making, and whether all policy issues would be reduced to these kinds of binary decisions.

Going further, a set of sophisticated algorithms could automatically calculate, through data coming from our own objects and wearable devices, our supposed political preferences. These data could be sent to decision makers seamlessly, making voting obsolete. Such sets of algorithms could potentially even have unlimited access to the physical activity and the things that any given citizen would own.

To complete this imaginary dystopian scenario, a massive big data processor could then calculate the optimal mix of policies ranked according to the behaviors and choices of people everyday.

What would be governments’ reactions?

Plausibly to dismiss all elected officials. Act via spokespersons with simple job descriptions. To announce daily the results of the calculations of the algorithm. To dispatch them to the director generals of ministries. To smile at cameras. To look good.

Could this be the case of our governance systems in, let’s say, 20 years?

Wait, what?

This makes me think again about the early 1990s. We truly thought then, at some point, that we would have been flooded by MiniDiscs and Digital Compact Cassettes. But we weren’t.

In the same fashion, many political analysts at that time were predicting an end of representative democracy caused by deliberative democracy through the internet. But we never really saw that happen. And it would be hard to predict or prove that this new wave of technological progress will lead to a dramatic change in political organization.

We have seen dystopian societies run by men and not by machines many times in history.

The reasons for this go beyond technical matters. There are broader risks in having the general electorate involved in every political decision, as opposed to delegation, as well costs for the public related to obtaining enough information to constructively contribute to every decision — not to mention the risk of having ill-founded and populist decisions.

However, some political formations have grown around this concept. The Five Stars Movement became the second largest group in Parliament in Italy after the national elections in 2013. The Pirate Party in Germany is promoting the concept of “liquid democracy,” with some success, as a hybrid system whereby an electorate vests voting power in delegates rather than in representatives.

And that’s when youth should get up

Young activists involved in these matters will have to keep these changes in mind in order to retain their influence over the way policies will be drafted, decided, implemented and evaluated in the future. They will have to cope with the tension between the risk of a technocratic and dystopian future, the promise of a dream-like utopia or tech-enhanced business as usual. Often reality has proven to lie in between.

Dystopian futures could become real, even if humans keep control of policy making. We have seen dystopian societies run by men and not by machines many times in history. It is a reminder that politics is a human responsibility, without stigmatizing industrial and technological development. The society imagined by Samuel Butler in 1872 in “Erewhon” was no worse, in some aspects, even if it totally banned the machines for fear that they would take over following Darwinian evolution.

In the case of the Industrial Internet, the political discourse and narratives will shape its further development and goals. Young activists play a pivotal role in shaping such discourse. The most important mission they have is to transmit such goals and discourses in an understandable way, in order to keep their fellow peers and all the citizens aware of the consequences of the changes that are happening so we can ultimately keep a transparent and democratic oversight over the future of society.

This article supports #YouthUp, a Pan-European campaign to crowdsource the best ideas for a more youth-inclusive politics. It draws on reflections made by the author in the chapter “Policy and Politics in the Era of Industrial Internet” included in the volume Out-thinking Organizational Communications: The Impact of Digital Transformation published by Springer.