26 September 2011

Welcome to the Echo Chamber #nlpoli #nlvotes

Pretty simple idea, really.

Opinions, beliefs and ideas move around among like minded people in what is an essentially closed space. 

The effect can be amazingly powerful just as it can be amazingly deceptive and distorting.

President Barack Obama talked about the echo chamber in American political coverage in early 2010 during a meeting with Senate Democrats:

"Do you know what I think would actually make a difference.... If everybody here — excuse all the members of the press who are here — if everybody turned off your CNN, your Fox, just turn off the TV, MSNBC, blogs, and just go talk to folks out there, instead of being in this echo chamber where the topic is constantly politics. The topic is politics."

In the United States, the problem Obama is pointing out is not just the idea of people from different political perspectives focusing on politics exclusively all the time. 

This isn’t the Permanent Campaign* as all-consuming.

It’s about political polarization in the 100 channel universe. People chose what they want to pay attention to and, increasingly, that seems to be a matter of picking only the information  - websites, radio stations and television news programs  - that reinforce their existing beliefs.

Princeton University professor Cass Sunstein describes it this way in the 2001 digital book Echo Chambers:  Bush v Gore, Impeachment and Beyond,

Many of these vices involve the risk of fragmentation, as the increased power of individual choice allows people to sort themselves into innumerable homogeneous groups, which often results in amplifying their pre[-]existing views. Although millions of people are using the Internet to expand their horizons, many people are doing the opposite, creating a Daily Me that is specifically tailored to their own interests and prejudices. Whatever the exact numbers, it is important to realize that a well-functioning democracy—a republic—depends not just on freedom from censorship, but also on a set of common experiences and on unsought, unanticipated, and even unwanted exposures to diverse topics, people, and ideas. A system of “gated communities” is as unhealthy for cyberspace as it is for the real world.

Slightly north of the great republic, and in a much smaller place, there’s another kind of echo chamber.  The way it works may be slightly different but the concept is still the same.

The provincial government makes the noise.  Other provincial opinion leaders – other politicians, key interest groups and news media – reflect the noise back. 

The political parties themselves are semi-closed organizations dominated by self-selecting elites. The rules on who can get into the elites and how aren’t written down.  Sure both the Conservative and Liberal parties have constitutions that set out rules about how they are supposed to work.

But as first the Conservatives and the Liberals showed in 2011, their constitutions are fictions.  First the Conservatives twisted and turned before finally rejecting as illegitimate a candidate for leader of the party who followed exactly the same rules the party bosses themselves used.  Then the Liberals switched leaders.  The party executive may have created the process that ended with Kevin Aylward as leader, but what happened in the five weeks before that – secret offers to this one and that one – could only take place in a group where the written rules and the real rules are two different things.

And lest anyone thing the NDP is different consider the special role given to unions in its constitution.  A party with the word “democratic” in its name was hardly democratic at all.

To see how all this works, consider a couple of examples.

Start with the fishery in the current election to see insiders talking among themselves.

Earlier this year, CBC released the results of an opinion poll they commissioned from Corporate Research Associates. CBC found that:

… 60 per cent of the province believes the fishery should be concentrated in fewer locations to be more efficient.

Only 23 per cent say it is well managed and doesn't need change.

The majority opinion is that a smaller leaner fishery would be more profitable.

That isn’t as surprising as it would have been even five years ago. Times have really changed in the industry. And such a poll result isn’t surprising given that the industry leaders themselves agreed that they have to reduce the number of people and plants in the province.

What is surprising is that – even though a clear majority of people in the province support downsizing and the industry representatives themselves seem to agree - both the provincial Conservatives and Liberals want to create a new version of the Fisheries Loan Board in order to get more people into the industry. Both the Liberals and the Conservatives mentioned that this idea came from the union that represents plant workers and fishermen, incidentally.

Amazing, though, this fisheries policy might be, Muskrat Falls remains the finest example of the echo chamber of local politics and the interconnections among the groups inside the chamber that help to reinforce the messages.

Over the past 18 months, poll after poll done for the provincial government showed that only three or four percent of respondents thought it was the most urgent issue for the province.

Health care was at the top of peoples’ list of major issues, across the province hands down.  The economy and jobs came in second.

Nonetheless, Muskrat Falls has dominated provincial politics since Danny Williams announced his retirement deal in November 2010.

Muskrat Falls is the centre piece of the Conservatives’ re-election campaign.

The Liberals have a section of their platform devoted to hydro-electric development issues.

The New Democrats include it as well, although their comments are much more vague that the other two parties’ commitments.

A St. John’s Board of Trade panel selected the Lower Churchill overwhelmingly as the major issue for the election.

And lastly, a poll released last week shows that Muskrat Falls was a major issue for 13% of respondents.

But hang on a second.

As it turns out, the poll came from the firm that polls for the provincial government’s energy corporation. 

And that Board of Trade thingy.  Well, the panel had only four people on it.  While the BOT didn’t release the names of the panel members, M5 was so proud that Craig Tucker had made the cut, they tweeted about his work on the Board’s panel that put together some comments for the election.

Yes, gang, that Craig Tucker.  Co-chair of the 2003 Tory election campaign, former Tory-appointed director of Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro after 2003 and now the guy whose advertising firm is the agency of record for Nalcor.

Meanwhile, the CBC uses Nalcor’s lobbyist as an election commentator alongside their own provincial affairs reporter, as if the two were the same sort of independent political observers.  They didn’t even bother mention that the guy is Nalcor’s lobbyist in Ottawa.

What’s most amazing about CBC and those who reported the poll last week without noticing the Nalcor connections is that they didn’t feel the need to notice the Nalcor connections.

For people inside the echo chamber, that sort of detail might be so well known they didn’t feel like it was an issue.

But outside the circle of au courante types, out among the audience?

Not so much information that they’d readily have those details or even that they’d feel the need to go check. They trust the news media to give their all the relevant information, after all.

More than two decades ago, political scientist Susan McCorquodale wrote about the relationship between the media and politicians in this province.  She described it as '”symbiotic”, a close and long-term relationship that works to the benefit of both.

“News originates with the press release, the press conference or the daily sitting of the House of Assembly,” she wrote.  These days she might have added twitter, e-mail or the Blackberry message from a political source feeding tidbits to reporters.

McCorquodale noted the lack of investigative reporting, something else that remains little change these days.   And she also noted the “tendency of reporters to end up in comfortable PR jobs with government.”

What she could not have foreseen was the day when the president of the major commercial radio broadcasting firm would sit as a political appointee on the board of one of the provincial government’s energy companies.

Nor could McCorquodale have expected that this same fellow, so tight with the pols the could receive a patronage appointment, would call his own station to complain about media coverage of his patron’s health problems.

Politics in Newfoundland and Labrador occurs inside a large echo chamber.  While in the United States, there are separate political echo chambers for people with differing political views, in newfoundland and Labrador, the echo chamber tends to separates the opinion elites from the majority of society.

To see it work, you only have to look at the general election campaign.


- srbp -