Season 5 Wrap Up
Season: 5 Episode: 7 [download this episode (MP3, 7.5MB)]
In this final episode, our host Elizabeth reflects on the six episodes of Season 5, which dug into tech, politics, and policy with guests from the Berkman Klein Centre at Harvard and Center for Information Technology and Public Life (CITAP) at UNC-Chapel Hill. She recaps highlights of each episode, looks at what they had in common, and where we need to dig a little deeper.
Here are direct links to this season’s episodes, including show notes and annotated transcripts:
Episode 2: Image Manipulation with Juliana Castro-Varón
Episode 3: Meta Oversight Board with Julie Owono
Episode 6: Antitrust and Big Tech with Matt Perault
Episode Transcript: Season 5 Wrap Up
Read the transcript below or download a copy in the language of your choice:
Elizabeth: [00:00:04] Welcome to Wonks and War Rooms, where political communication theory meets on-the-ground strategy. I'm your host Elizabeth Dubois. I'm an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and fellow at the Berkman Klein Center. My pronouns are she/her.
[00:00:17] Today's episode is unique. Instead of picking a specific concept or theory from political communication and chatting with a practitioner like a journalist or campaigner, as I normally would, I'm going to reflect on the six episodes that made up this season. I'll try to pull together some common threads, point to the places we need to know more, and maybe convince you to go back and have a listen to an episode you missed.
[00:00:38] This season, we dove into tech, politics, and policy. I've been chatting with guests from the communities at the Berkman Klein Center ["BKC"] at Harvard and the Center for Information Technology and Public Life (CITAP) at UNC-Chapel Hill. I've spoken with campaigners, public policy managers, people connected to big tech companies, [and] civil society folks. We've been talking about how technology policy is shaped, how technology is used in political campaigns, and what that means for political communication research and practice.
[00:01:07] Long time listeners will remember I created this podcast as a learning resource for students in my pol[itical] comm[unication] course. I started making episodes to replace Zoom time and give folks a different way to interact with academic ideas. I like to think it's a fun way to get a general sense of some of the theories and concepts that are fundamental to political communication research; a way to learn how to tease out what makes sense and what doesn't, where the pain points are, [and] what to do about them. I think it also helps us develop better channels of communication between public policy makers, practitioners, civil society groups, journalists, and academics. I think this is really important because so many of the tech and society challenges and opportunities that we talk about in episodes in this podcast really do require a whole bunch of stakeholders at the table. And I hope Wonks and War Rooms can help us develop a little bit of shared language around those issues.
[00:01:58] In our first episode of the season, I chatted with a BKC fellow, Petra Molnar, about knowledge mobilization for policy impact. It was important for me to start with this one because so many of the issues we face when we think about how to integrate technology and politics, and how to develop policy around technology, move incredibly quickly and... academic theory doesn't. We move thoughtfully and slowly and intentionally - and we need to. Society needs academic rigour, and that takes time. But we also need to recognize that our work can have pretty major impacts on people's daily lives, especially through interventions in technology policy. Petra and I talked about why thinking about knowledge mobilization is important, how to have an impact in different policy spaces, and some of the ethical concerns that come along with getting academic research out into the hands of practitioners.
[00:02:55] Next is another BKC fellow, Juliana Castro-Varón. She and I talked about the history of image manipulation, and I'll give a shout out to her website Are Images Real?, which she talked about in her episode but wasn't available yet. It's up now and you can go explore. She creates this history of image manipulation, showing how different technologies over time have shaped our understanding of what should and should not be considered questionable when it comes to images. She talks a lot about digital literacy and our understanding of how technology works as impacting our understanding of what should and shouldn't happen in terms of content development.
[00:03:38] It can be really easy to get excited and sometimes frightened by all the potential of new technologies. And in political communication studies, researchers have observed campaign after campaign, experimenting with new technology, trying to get an edge over the opponent. What I really love about Juli[ana]'s work is that she really beautifully articulates that it's not brand new. We've always needed to learn to question images. We always need to learn to question how technology works. I think a lot more of our conversations about how technology can and should be governed, what literacy in a digital age should consist of, and how technology can or should be integrated into campaigns would benefit from thinking about the history of our communication channels and how people have learned to interact with those tools over time.
[00:04:27] All right. With some scene setting done, episode three jumped into one of the most challenging platform governance issues of the moment: content moderation. I chatted with Julie Owono, who is the executive director of Internet Sans Frontières (Internet Without Borders), and a member of the Meta Oversight Board. We talked about the relationship the Oversight Board has to Facebook and Instagram, to the wider governance structures, and to the users of Facebook and Instagram. We also talked about the Oversight Board and what it actually does - how it tackles some of the big questions about content moderation, like who gets to be involved and what voices get to be heard and which don't. It's a really tricky conversation, and while we focused on content moderation, it goes beyond that. When we're thinking about the power that these big tech companies have, and the struggles that they have trying to decide how to create a community that people want to engage in, but also that makes them money, there's a lot of difficult questions to be asked - and we don't always have answers.
[00:05:33] So in episode four, we took on another major platform governance concern: political advertising online. But this time we took a political strategy perspective, and I spoke with Becca Rinkevic, the director of the Institute for Rebooting Social Media at Harvard and formerly the deputy director of digital strategy at the White House under President Biden. We talked about how major political party campaigns interact with big tech platforms, how those interactions have evolved over time, and what some of the gaps might be today.
[00:06:04] I thought it was particularly interesting in this conversation that Becca was able to reflect on how it has evolved from campaign to campaign. Those relationships between major political parties and major tech companies have had to shift as the needs have shifted for each of those players and as government and regulation have come in and started making new requirements (like advertisement registries, for example). So this episode offers a nice historical point, but also really underscores how important it is for us to think about the relationship between these different major kinds of political actors as we're trying to figure out some of these really tricky problems.
[00:06:45] Next up, episode five tackled political uses of artificial intelligence ["AI"] - which we define pretty broadly - with a special live recording. I hosted a roundtable discussion with Samantha Bradshaw of American University, Wendy Chun at Simon Fraser University, Suzie Dunn at Dalhousie University, Fenwick McKelvey at Concordia University, and Wendy H. Wong at the University of British Columbia. AI is one of those ill-defined topics that generates a lot of excitement and also a lot of fear. There are many calls for regulation and governance, but we can't do that well without clear definitions, [and] better information about what's actually happening and what could actually be possible. We need better ways of communicating and evaluating opportunities and risks. And so in this one hour conversation, we barely scratched the surface.
[00:07:39] In the fall, we're going to be sharing a public-facing report on the topic of how AI is used in Canadian politics. And I feel pretty certain a lot of folks interested in the intersection of political communication and technology are going to be spending a lot more time thinking about these issues as we move forward. We need to make our terms and definitions more precise. We need to develop nuanced language and measures, and we need to push back on fear mongering while highlighting extremely problem[atic] ethical concerns.
[00:08:09] In this one hour conversation, we really went over a wide range of potential concerns and opportunities, and I hope you'll go back and have a listen if you haven't already.
[00:08:21] Lastly, we ended the season chatting with Matt Perault, the director of the Center on Technology Policy at UNC Chapel Hill. He previously worked at Facebook as the head of the Global Policy Development Team. We talked about antitrust, monopolistic behaviour, And big tech. This one seems a bit far from political communication and it is - that's actually exactly why I picked the topic. When we think about what's next for political communication and technology studies and practice, the thing I inevitably come back to is this: none of this can stand independently. There's no single political actor who has, should, or could have complete control. There is no one policy area, no one department, no one academic discipline. These are interdisciplinary and multi-stakeholder problems and opportunities, and we need to think beyond our normal boxes.
[00:09:12] So antitrust is an economic and legal concept or theory, but the repercussions of these kinds of policies have major impacts on the shape of our information environments, which make it really important for political communication researchers to understand. Political communication experts need to be thinking about what the information environment looks like and what it might pivot to next. Antitrust is, of course, just one example of the kinds of theories from outside political communication that I think we need to be engaging with.
[00:09:44] I hope you'll subscribe, rate, and review Wonks and War Rooms to hear next season when we're going to dive into a few more of these kinds of examples.
[00:09:52] For now, thank you so much for listening and I hope you enjoyed this season. As always, you can find an annotated transcript in English and French over at polcommtech.ca and you can find a bunch of resources linked in the show notes.