Reflection on my Thesis Part Two: Agenda Setting

Agenda setting is confusing in the policy literature, and particularly so because technology can make us feel so close to the decision-making process. In a layperson’s sense of the term, agenda setting is about raising issues for governments to solve. Maybe someone notices that a particular crosswalk appears unsafe for pedestrians.  She calls the authorities and lets them know about it. If that doesn’t emit a response, then she goes to media. And if not media, then maybe she can drum up some concern on social media by creating a hashtag and posting some videos of dramatic close calls. That attention, we are to believe, tells politicians that they risk not winning the next election if they do not address the issue.

In policy theory, however, agenda setting is very different. Policy agenda setting is about what issues go on the agenda at an executive board meeting. Moreover, it implies something about the scope of those issues and their relative importance from the government perspective.

For example, dealing with societal problems one issue at a time creates problems of its own. Decisions on what constitutes an unsafe crosswalk and when they should be upgraded or replaced may be more relevant to government than any one crosswalk. Except this plan requires an understanding of the problem from a wide range of perspectives. Will it increase taxes? Who will we buy the new equipment from? Who will install the new systems? Will they obstruct traffic and does that matter if it saves lives? Then there will political arguments. “This city is involved in a war on cars” says a community group concerned about traffic. “People should feel safe in their communities without cars driving through them all the time.”  These groups may be determined to thwart policy no matter what, or just wanting to ensure that their voices are heard. And so on.

In short, policy agenda setting is a messy thing, potentially involving near limitless political conflict, economic & scientific evaluation of evidence, stakeholder input and pressure to both expand and contain the scope of the issue at hand. Take, for example, the role of the tragic deaths of Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons in the bringing about of legislation to prevent cyberbullying in Canada. The average Canadian will suggest that public outrage, facilitated through Twitter and Facebook were the reasons why the government had to respond to the cyberbullying issue. In reality, the federal ‘response’ was already decided a decade before these incidents during a European convention on Cybercrime in Budapest, Hungary. You see, to capture someone on the Internet sometimes or often requires international cooperation, which in turn requires agreements about the terms upon which such information can be exchanged — for example, how quickly police can and should respond to such information requests.

But wait — you may say — that is more about cyber-CRIME like international fraud schemes or child pornography rings. That goes way beyond the scope of the real issue, which is the mistreatment of young people by cyberbullies. Of course it does.  The point is that “setting the agenda” may have little or anything to do with what people get outraged by. In this case, the solution had much more to do with the giving power for police to do their jobs than the tragedy of the victims, other than to suggest that such an increase in police power would prevent cyberbullying.

On the other hand, to say the Twitter outrage played no role in agenda setting is not quite true either. In fact, social media was part of the reason the policy stalled in the early days as an anonymous privacy advocate posted court proceedings for then Public Safety Minister Vic Toews divorce proceedings. The public embarrassment demonstrated the dangers of privacy from Toews “you are with us, or with the child pornographers” perspective and the Conservative government backed down from the policy.  When nearly identical legislation passed after the Todd and Parsons tragedies, it was much less viable to argue the privacy line. Opponents could only argue that the government was passing a “Trojan Horse” law, promising to save young girls from heinous cyberbullies while undermining the privacy of ordinary citizens.

360 No Scope

In sum, I think agendas are determined largely ad hoc. There are many theories about the details of the ad hoc-ness of agenda setting, but largely people think about the issues and come up with solutions behind closed doors. Then they try to get them on the agenda in any way they can. Sometimes that means being quietly about it; sometimes reducing the scope and implementing piecemeal; sometimes finding a circumstance to demonstrate a broader policy principle; and sometimes by using an event as a window of opportunity to make a decision. I find that Twitter outrage plays a very limited role in policy development right now. In some ways, it may make one time dramatic displays of public resistance to seem rather mundane and ordinary. In much the same way that developing your own blog was seen as innovative and new in the turn of the millennium and now is boring; so goes the use of attention as an agenda setting device.  It’s not so special when anyone can make something go viral. More importantly, it’s not threatening to those in power. For those in a Democracy, we must question whether such actions increases or reduces the power of the people in the long run.

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Reflections on my PhD work — Part One Harold Innis

I have been studying Twitter for the past four years, following major controversies including Idle No More, Gamergate, Trump’s election campaign, Black Lives Matter and so on. Not all are mentioned in my dissertation, but I’ve been following them nonetheless. I want to know what online people think is important and how this connects (or does not connect) to what the state thinks. Can we speak about online and offline people as if they are two different things? If so, what are the differences?

Other scholars have thought about this question as well, usually under the umbrella term “agenda setting,” although philosophers like Jurgen Habermas and political economists like Harold Innis have considered it from the perspective of political discourse and empire respectively. Innis is probably the best start, because he is Canadian and my dissertation is about agenda setting in Canada.

Harold Innis

As a country wedged culturally and politically between Europe and the United States, Canada is a country that has historically been “cultured upon” more than it has influenced the global culture. Innis argues that this reality is first the result of Canada’s economy being historically relegated to staple goods (furs, fisheries, lumber etc.) for larger powers in France, the UK and the United States. More recently, the oil and gas  and other mining industries have been the major influences on Canada’s economy. In the digital age, one might also see Canada’s service sector as an extension of the staple thesis.

Innis’s second consideration about Canada’s “cultured upon” status is his theory of communication bias too often mistakenly seen as merely a precursor to Marshall McLuhan’s ideas about “hot” and “cold” media. The difference between McLuhan and Innis is that McLuhan is much more interested in the role of media in creating a global society. Innis is much more pragmatic — he argues that an empire must be able to communicate over time and space to survive.  That is, an empire must have sufficient political influence over geographic space (very important for Canada, a country with plenty of geography) and  a set of common or at least compatible identities that “stick” for a long period of time. Different media are biased towards one or the other of these necessary empire-sustaining ingredients. For example, a book is much more durable than a newspaper and thus has a time bias. People are much more likely to have read Pride and Prejudice than a newspaper from the early 19th century. This means that Pride and Prejudice has achieved its goal of extending the culture and values of the Anglo-Saxon empire to Canadians 200 years later. For example, the value of marrying for love rather than convenience (a major theme in the book) has much more resonance for modern Canadian society than does the use of marriage for power relations more common in Renaissance Italy.

On the other hand, why is it that of the 30 highest grossing films in Japan, only 9 were originally written in Japanese? Examining 19th Century Canada, Innis noticed the role of pulp paper and the invention of the rotary press making it much easier for the United State to convince Canadians to buy American products. The power of radio, television and now digital media to promote and distribute goods across long-distances shows the power of space-biased media. Twitter and Facebook exemplify space-biased media, but with one caveat: Innis has also argued that oral communication has an important role in time-bias, exemplified by the major influence of Socratic philosophy and Judeo-Christian religions. Is it possible that social media sustains both time and space bias and defies Innis’s theory?

Time and Space?

What I discovered is that issues may have continuity online when social groups do not. What this means is that ideas can go viral on the one hand, but the deepness of the idea does not necessarily carry across time periods. When I look at social network graphs, it is as if I am seeing a large group of people yelling comments at their television, except the comments remain even though minds have changed. Innis’s work definitely applies generally to social media, but there seems to be something incomplete about the analysis. What does it mean when ideas that have sudden but fleeting relevance to society are etched in digital stone for people to view 10, 20 or 30 years later? How will historians view this information? How will we use (or not use) these ideas to identify what matters to our nations? How will this kind of data influence the way we allocate resources for better or worse?

In the next installment, I will spend more time looking at what “agenda setting” is and what it means to media, society, and the state.