Category: Featured (page 1 of 138)

Oh Say Can You Say

You never know when IR is going to bite you in the ass. One minute you are reading a children’s nursery rhyme and the other you realize that the spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry Ms. Zakharova read it too, but decided to use it in foreign policy discourse. The rhyme in question is by a Soviet children’s writer Samuel Marshak, a Soviet Dr. Seuss, if you will:

Don’t you stand too close to me

I’m a tiger, not a pussy

Yes, pussy has the same Russian translation and it has both meanings, the one that Marshak used back in the day denoted just a cat, but Ms. Zakharova built a whole Facebook post around the double entendre. The photograph above featured Ms. Zakharova in boxing gloves and the headline read “Don’t you stand too close to me, I’m a boxer, not only pussy”.  The comments to the post ranged between “yes, show those stupid Americans what we are made out of” to pearl-clutching about the use of the word “pussy” to questions whether Ms. Zakharova would attend the protests in Moscow “with the people”. Just so you know, she was planning to stay at home “with the people”.

It’s not the first time that Ms. Zakharova posted something controversial. As a woman in a very male dominated profession (at least, in Russia), her posts and statements often feature metaphors that are not always deemed becoming of a diplomatic protocol – at least not something that I was taught to be appropriate at the same university Ms. Zakharova attended. Back in the day, professors at Moscow State Institute for International Relations (happy birthday, alma mater!), the Soviet and Russian diplomatic talent hotbed, would praise the eloquence and adherence to etiquette of the Russian civil servant upper class. Boys would be sent back home if they were not clean-shaven or didn’t wear a tie and a suit for some classes. And girls… well, we were told at the chair for diplomacy that future ambassadors need educated wives so why the hell not let women study here.

Enter Ms. Zakharova, one of the most high-ranking female diplomats in the Russian Foreign Ministry. She is obviously good at her job of “showing the Americans what we are made out of” and she can dance a fire “Kalinka” away. She is quick on her feet rebutting foreign press at Foreign Ministry Press briefings and has a killer emoji game on social media. Her whataboutist rhetoric is perfection and she can offer it in multiple languages, including Chinese. So, what if Ms. Zakharova talks about meetings that never happened and dabbles in anti-Semitism? In this day and age, who doesn’t?

After all, in the era of diplomatic communication a la “my button is bigger” and “don’t be a fool!”, who can blame Russia for a couple of smudges on the decorum.

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Duck podcast episode 1: Jelena Subotić

The promised reanimation of the Duck of Minerva podcast is now a reality. The incomparable Jelena Subotić stars in our first episode, discussing her forthcoming book Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance after Communism. The podcast will hopefully be available on iTunes and Google Play shortly. If you want to listen now, head to https://duckofminerva.podbean.com/e/episode-1-jelena-subotic/ and if you are into RSS feeds, well, here’s that too: https://feed.podbean.com/duckofminerva/feed.xml

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Shaming without naming: Why is the international community not calling out human rights violators?

This is a guest post by Theresa Squatrito, Assistant Professor at the London School of Economics, Magnus Lundgren, Postdoctoral Researcher at Stockholm University, and Thomas Sommerer, Associate Professor at Stockholm University.

On May 6, 2019, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, accused world leaders for failing in their defense of human rights.  World leaders, he claimed, are “weak, short-sighted and mediocre” and remain silent in response to some of today’s worst human rights violators. Given the prominence of human rights in contemporary multilateralism, Zeid’s remarks – if they are correct – would suggest a glaring mismatch between the ambitions and performance of multilateral organizations.

But is he right—do leaders fail to condemn actors for their wrongdoings? Our research which records every instance of public condemnation by 27 international organizations (IOs) between 1980 and 2015, sheds light on this important and pressing question.

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Climate change and the mission of higher education

On October 2, I sat in the audience of the first of six public events in what appears to be MIT’s semester of climate change. Introducing the great and good of climate science, MIT president Rafael Reif made a comment that struck me. To paraphrase, he argued (or at least I think he did, I was grading at the same time) that in an era of diminished federal and state funding for research, it is incumbent on universities to seek out funds to support climate research from private actors. Hard to argue with this statement, and yet…it seems to narrow the agency of universities to figuring out the best places to get money. In the aftermath of the Epstein mess, the perils of such a course are obvious.

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Want to fix peer review? Standardize appeals

It’s happened to all of us. You get that email “Decision on Manuscript…,” open it with a bit of trepidation, just to find a (hopefully) politely worded rejection from the editor. Sometimes this is justified. Other times, however, the rejection is due to the legendary “Reviewer #2,” a cranky, ill-informed, hastily written rant against your paper that is not at all fair. The details can vary–they don’t like your theoretical approach, don’t understand the methods, are annoyed you didn’t cite them–but the result is the same: thanks to a random draw from the editor’s reviewers list you’ve got to move on.

We all seem to agree this is a problem. Peer review is finicky, and often relies on gate-keepers who can fail to objectively assess work. The pressure to publish for junior faculty and grad students is immense. And editors are over-worked and overwhelmed. Dan Nexon provided a great service recently by writing a series of posts on his experience at International Studies Quarterly. This gave a lot of insight into this often opaque process, and got me thinking about what to do with the above situation.

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A rabbit hole of links on Impeachment

This post will be quick for me to write, but may suck up the rest of your morning. caveat lector.

Rachel Navarre—my friend from grad school, who works at Bridgewater State—compiled what was then an up to date collection of links on Impeachment. As she notes, keeping up with the latest developments is a full time job, and most of us already have full time jobs. But she has links to background as well as some of the most recent developments.

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The Decision Letter, Part II

Public Domain

The basic principles that should guide letters and their RFDs hold across every kind of decisions. However, we need to recognize important differences between, say, a rejection and an R&R. In this post, I lay out my thoughts about letters for the types of decisions that we made at ISQ. Not all journals use the same categories or mean the same thing. For instance, a (rare) “reject and resubmit” at ISQ meant that we would consider a revised version of the paper as an entirely new submission; at some journals, a “reject and resubmit” is equivalent to “major revisions” R&R.

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The Decision Letter, Part I

Public Domain — From Pixabay

For caveats and background, see my introductory post.

Editors write a lot of decision letters. At high-volume journals, editors write so many decision letters that it can become a tedious grind. For authors, though, the information communicated in decision letters matters enormously. It can affect their job prospects, salaries, and chances of advancement. Of course, authors, especially in the moment, overestimate the significance of any single journal decision. But receiving a rejection, revise-and-resubmit invitation, or an acceptance can certainly feel like a defining event. This is especially the case for graduate students and junior academics, who are less experienced in, and more vulnerable to, the vagaries of the review process.

This makes decision letters the single most consequential way that editors communicate with authors. The same is true for referees. We don’t spend a lot of time teaching academics how to craft referees reports. There is, at best, limited consensus about what makes for a good review. So decision letters also become an important way to send cues to referees about the quality of their reports.

If you think about it, all of this places a heavy burden on editors. That burden only seems heavier when we consider how arbitrary and capricious the peer-review process can be

Yeah. Okay. I’m being a bit melodramatic. Editors don’t perform literal surgery. They don’t design airplanes. The stakes are what they are. But I stand by the underlying sentiment: editors have a responsibility to take decision letters very seriously.

In this post, I’ll focus on general issues. In Part II, I’ll elaborate on them in the context of the specific kinds of decision letters.

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Scary Dragon or Cuddly Panda? Why Role Change Matters for Hegemony in Asia

The following is a guest post by Dr. Daniel Nicholls. Daniel Nicholls is an adjunct professor of IR at ESADE and the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. His research looks at the interplay between relational structures, roles and hierarchy.  

In an interesting piece on the Japan-South Korea spat in Foreign Affairs, Bonnie S. Glaser and Oriana Skylar Mastro argue that by failing to mediate the dispute between the keystones of its Asian alliance system, the US risks losing regional influence to a fast-moving and wily China. In short, if Washington doesn’t jump in as a relationship counselor, then China will. Whilst the arguments are couched in terms of diplomacy and strategy rather than IR theory, it doesn’t take an elbow-patched journal editor to spot the clear theoretical subtext of political influence as a consequence of relational ties and role-structures.

In line with network approaches, if China can intensify relational ties around itself, it will pull US allies towards it, leaving the US relationally isolated, at least in relative terms, and this will affect Washington’s scope for influence. It is, after all, difficult to convince people of your worth when they’re all listening to someone else, and by buddying up with its East Asian neighbors, China will be more involved in decisions on who does what in the region. US security guarantees are still highly coveted, so nobody is likely to start turning down dinner invitations from their neighborhood security guarantor just yet. But Asian states do find it increasingly difficult to square their desire for US security with their quest for Chinese market access, and Washington’s aloof approach to intra-regional dynamics may generate switching effects which nudge its dazed allies a bit further down the road towards China’s embrace.

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What Is . . . and Isn’t . . . a Norm?

The Norm Concept

This post, part of the Bridging the Gap channel at the Duck, comes from Michelle Jurkovich, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is a 2019-2020 Public Engagement Fellow with Bridging the Gap and an alumna of BTG’s International Policy Summer Institute. During 2017-2018, she was an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology fellow working in the Office of Food for Peace at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

We talk about norms a great deal in international relations (IR) scholarship — but what are the edges of this crucial concept? In a recent article in International Studies Review (“What isn’t a norm?” – ungated until September 21), I argue that in using the term in increasingly flexible ways, scholars have blurred important differences between norms, supererogatory standards, moral principles, and formal law.

Understanding differences among these concepts enables us to better analyze the social and normative environment in which important international actors are working. Enhancing the conceptual toolkit we use to make sense of the social world to encompass more than just the “norm” also helps to highlight potential areas of conceptual stretching, which, as Sartori (1970) warned, may lead to false equivalence. 

The article is a conceptual piece, but it was driven by a desire to understand some important real world challenges. Why is it so difficult to effectively use shaming strategies around some global problems (like hunger or homelessness) that everyone agrees are morally repugnant? While many human rights are codified in law, are all human rights codified in law also governed by norms? And if they aren’t, how can we make sense of the social environment around them? (My forthcoming book Feeding the Hungry: Blame Diffusion in International Anti-Hunger Advocacy with Cornell University Press tackles these issues with greater depth.)

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Early lessons from a survey on bias in family formation in academia

The following is a guest post by Leah C. Windsor and Kerry F. Crawford. Windsor is a Research Assistant Professor in the Institute for Intelligent Systems at The University of Memphis. Crawford is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at James Madison University. To take their survey, visit: https://tinyurl.com/drparentsurvey

This is the first in the series on changing the field of international relations. #IRChange

Academic families – especially dual-career spouses – with young children are struggling in more specific and remediable ways than we thought when we first launched our “Bias in Family Formation in Academia” survey last year. As parents of young children ourselves, we have a front row seat to competing demands of the early career and early childhood years.

We vastly underestimated the pervasiveness and ubiquity of obstacles, and the repetitive nature of the stories other academic parents wrote. We kept encountering the same problems: departmental and institutional refusal to accommodate legally-mandated family leave requests; hostile and toxic work environments for parents, especially mothers; and the unobservable emotional and physical toll of becoming parents, like fertility challenges, tough pregnancies and post-partum phases, and complicated adoptions.

The survey is part of a larger book project that recounts personal narratives of parents – mostly mothers – in their full-time roles as doctor and mom. Much has been written on the “leaky pipeline” whereby women exit the profession at higher rates than men, and on the “work-life balance” with competing suggestions of leaning in, tenure time-outs, and the (in)ability of women to “have it all.” We think of the pipeline as more of a “chutes and ladders” board game, where benefits of mentorship and supportive institutions can improve gender parity in the profession, elevating parents up the tenure-track ladder.

While there is good reason to believe that overall the situation is improving, what we find is that too many of the solutions focus on individual-level fixes, rather than addressing the systemic origins of the problems. Policies about family formation should be ubiquitously, transparently, and equitably communicated to faculty, and FMLA provisions should be considered the bare minimum in order to achieve a culture change of supporting academic families.

The following are themes and lessons – generally about U.S.-based institutions – we have identified through the 100-question survey of academic parents:

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Ranking Tenure Candidates? No Thanks

Sunday mornings are for tenure reviews.  Huh?  I am reading stuff to evaluate a scholar for whether he/she is worthy of tenure.  This is a standard part of the tenure process–to have outside scholars read a bunch of a candidate’s work and then indicate whether they have made a significant contribution and whether they are likely to continue to do so.  As I have written elsewhere, this is a fair amount of work, almost always unpaid.  So, I have gotten a bit cranky when I do it these days.

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Moscow in the Meddle

Between the burning Amazon and burning Siberia, Brexit clustercoitus and Hurricane Dorian, there is still some space in the tired news cycle for the tear gas in Hong Kong and broken limbs in Moscow protests. Elections to the local parliament in Moscow have proved unexpectedly difficult for the ruling vertical: by refusing to register oppositional candidates for made-up reasons, the election committee and the Mayor’s office drastically underestimated mobilisation capabilities of the opposition. Result: over a month and a half of “unsanctioned” protests in the city center, police brutality, several high-profile arrests and mass prosecution of random bystanders who happened to be in the melee. 

The protests in Moscow are a very local thing, but they are also indicative of a growing dissatisfaction among the Russian population that has manifested in region-specific unsanctioned protests that usually start with seemingly unpolitical issues: landfills in Arkhangelsk and Moscow region, a mall fire in Kemerovo, church construction in Yekaterinburg. Unlike the 2011-2012 protest wave that spread all over Russia, or the more recent pension reform outcry or anti-corruption rally against Prime-Minister Medvedev in 2017, these protests are about several oppositional candidates to the local Moscow parliament – a body with relatively little clout. Moscow electoral committee consistently refused to register oppositional candidates citing allegedly falsified citizen signatures, while the ensued brutal crackdown of the protests only added fuel to the fire. 

Live footage of violent arrests, an absolute insane number of police forces and National Guard that most likely outnumbered the protesters in spades, repressive measures by the universities (!) whose students were arrested for the rally organization, did not make Moscow or Russia look good. Moreover, there is an important difference between Hong Kong and Moscow: Russian protesters are consciously trying not to block public transportation routes and the work of governmental buildings or shops, so the accusation of “mass riots” and property damage that is supposed to justify the “yellow vest” level of police brutality is especially galling. 

What do Russian media cry? They cry wolf. I mean, West. For starters, the American Embassy allegedly published the protesters’ route and thus was involved in the organization of the rally. The provocateurs obviously strived for a “brutal and striking image” for domestic audience and for the politicians in the West. And most protesters are “not registered in Moscow” anyway, “were educated in the American young leader program” and were “controlled by their curators in social media”, “many from Ukraine” in order to organize a “Maidan” in Russia. Also, didn’t you know that you have similar protest legislation in Sweden and the UK?!

The problem with this narrative is that it is quickly falling apart. Some arrested protesters were let go. Some independent candidates got registered. Even some of Putin’s allies are saying that not letting real opposition run in the Moscow election is dangerous, which probably means that the cliques in Putin’s circle haven’t agreed on one course of action in the face of growing popular discontent.  There are no burnt cars or smashed shop windows, but there are distraught parents of arrested students standing in one-person pickets in front of the Mayor’s Office. And that’s one brutal and striking image. 

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Pompeo’s New Commission on Unalienable Rights Falls Short, But Represents a Real Opportunity

The following is a guest post by Dr. Ryan M. Welch. Dr. Welch is Assistant Professor at the University of Tampa who specializes in human rights institutions and is a former member of the Maricopa County Human Rights Committee.

Recently, the State Department created a human rights commission called the Commission on Unalienable Rights (hereinafter: the Commission).  Like an oil industry lobbyist heading the Department of Interior, a climate skeptic atop the EPA, and a charter school advocate running the public education department, most believe this another cynical instance of an institution being used to dismantle its own raison d’être .  Pompeo’s statements and the appointed chair’s research agenda suggest those worries are well-founded.  Specifically, most worry that the Commission will be used to redefine rights through a natural law lens that will limit LGBTQ+, reproductive, social, and economic rights.  I tend to agree.  Given the adminstration’s relatively poor human rights record, it is incumbent upon them to prove us wrong.  If it wishes to do so, the current Commission can do what other domestic human rights institutions do when they are serious about human rights – comply with the Paris Principles.   Doing so would not only better protect human rights, but also enhance the U.S. international standing.  Below I outline how the Commission as currently conceived stacks up to the Principles.

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Thoughts on making the most of APSA for the alt-ac attendee

Graduation Cap and Diploma on White with Soft Shadow.

C/o Bluestocking, 2008 Uyen Le

APSA is nearly upon us again, and I thought I should write something profession-related as I got back into blogging. My first thought was to make fun of annoying questions, but I already did that (six years ago…but still relevant). And there is a lot of advice floating around for grad students or others on the market. Instead, I thought I’d focus on an area where my experience is more unique: navigating academic conferences while working outside academia (or alt-ac*) and–in my case–trying to get back in.

For just a little context, I am currently in a tenure-track job but had always been on the policy-academia border. I worked in the defense industry in DC before grad school, and continued working part-time after I started (as I attended school in DC). I then switched to the think tank world (working part-time with the Pew Research Center). After graduating, I went on the academic job market but ended up getting policy jobs–first with the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Responses to Terrorism (START) and then full-time with Pew. After a few years out, I decided to try the academic job market again, and got my current job.

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The Enemy’s Gate is Down

During my ten days this past summer on the El Paso border, some of the most interesting conversations I had were with the gate guards at a notorious detention facility, Paso del Norte.

These conversations reminded me of something I read as a teenager in a famous science fiction novel. In Orson Scott Card’s famous book Ender Game, in which squads of young boys are trained for battle in zero gravity arenas, protagonist Ender Wiggin realizes that fighting in a new situation (zero gravity) using conventional spatial perspectives could only confuse and disorient. Instead, Ender’s “army” takes advantage of others’ disorientation to achieve a tactical advantage. He has his men shift their perspective to think of “down” as wherever the enemy gate is. They launch from their own gate into the zero gravity arena feet forward instead of face forward, offering smaller targets. But more importantly, this shift helps them adopt a mental perspective of always owning the high ground.

Citizens aiming to combat Trump concentration camp policy need a similar shift in perspective to augment the many ways we already resist. First, much like a zero-gravity situation, the Trump administration has deliberately sought to disorient any resistance and knock the American public off balance, wondering how to resist. By creating and then constantly changing the rules and regulations, Trump makes it difficult for immigration attorneys to help their clients. By establishing and then abruptly closing facilities, Trump makes it difficult to track where detainees are. By unrolling a slew of human-rights-violating policies in drips and drabs, rather than all at once, they keep the opposition off balance.

Because Americans who believe in the rule of law are defending our Constitution in zero gravity, our standard rules of engagement are no longer enough. A combination of adversarial protests and court proceedings are important, and we all must keep calling our congress-people daily. But these strategies also maintain a safe distance from the guards – the actual foot-soldiers in Trumps concentration-camp-industrial complex. The ones whose resignation or refusal to carry out orders may be the one thing that could truly gum up the gears of Trump’s concentration-camp-industrial complex. Americans need to think about expanding our repertoire of direct actions.  

In my travels at the border this summer I found lots of efforts are taking place. But one thing I don’t see citizens doing enough is actually approaching these detention facilities and politely asking the guards to explain and justify themselves. In my new article in The American Prospect, I talk more about what happened when I did just this.

I discovered their definition of a “refugee” is a bit different from what’s codified in the Refugee Convention. “These people’s countries are not at war, so they’re not refugees,” one guard told me. “Maybe they’re fleeing ‘violence’ but there is violence everywhere. You could get murdered in your own community.” Most of all I learned what mattered to these guards: To be seen as upholding an oath to protect the nation, to be able to convince themselves and hopefully all Americans that they were on the right side of history.

Americans can engage these guards and remind them of the Nuremberg principles. We can remind them they are vulnerable to prosecution if they follow orders, but have power—and moral courage—when they resist. Activists can laud heroes like former CPB agent-turned-activist Jenn Budd, who resigned her post due to the cruelty she witnessed and has been speaking out ever since. Citizens can consider the other kinds of assistance that would make it easier for people working in these places to speak out—or turn in their badges— rather than remain loyal to a regime bent on violating the human rights of civilians fleeing conflicts in their home countries.

The simple surprising truth is that these enemies of the people have their gates down. It’s disarming to them when people show up to talk respectfully, rather than protest. What you hear is that they want to be seen as law-abiding citizens, and that gives ordinary citizens room to maneuver.

“We’re just enforcing the law,” they might say.

 “Are you familiar with the Refugee Convention that the United States signed?” I asked. “Are you familiar with Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, that you swore to uphold, which says treaties are the supreme law of the land?” 

“That’s for Congress to decide. Our job is to follow orders,” one of them might say.

“My brother is a US Marine serving in a combat zone in Africa. He would resign or go to prison before obeying an unlawful order to violate a civilian’s human rights. I know you’re as brave as he is. I think you just didn’t know the law before. Am I right?”

“Well, I’ll admit I don’t have Article 6 of the Constitution memorized…”

“Well, I know you’ll check it out once I’m gone.”

This strategy of engaging gate guards, like Ender’s change of tactics in zero gravity, can use a change in perspective to create a tactical advantage. It seizes the moral high ground by turning their role as law enforcers back on them, reminding them they are also bound by law. Showing up for interpersonal dialogue rather than in a mass with cameras shrinks one’s targets space – like entering an arena feet-forward – making it harder for them to fire or arrest and easier for them to disarm. One guard said to me, “It’s pretty innocuous when you come in here with no camera and can just have a conversation as two human beings without yelling and screaming.”  

But when they lie, as I describe at TAP, it leads them into traps.

Above all, interpersonal dialogue with perpetrators works. It reminds them that America is a nation of immigrants who by and large wish to welcome refugees, whose grandfathers bled to defeat the Nazis. That even individual foot-soldiers have legal and moral responsibility. And that so long as there are concentration camps on our land, we will keep asking questions and insisting the law be followed. We’ll keep walking through the gate. 

Read the whole article here.

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Using Pop Culture in the Classroom: Footloose FTW!

I love this tweet as it puts the usual dynamics on their head:

Tip for students going off to college: study 80s/90s pop culture. Particularly Ferris Beuller, Princess Bride, Simpsons seasons 2-5. Your gen x/early millennial profs will try to connect with you through these, and will be confused/sad when you stare blankly at them. Not joking.

— David Mimno (@dmimno) August 2, 2019

Each summer, profs are reminded how much younger the students are and then the onus is on them to update their references.  This tweet nicely makes fun of profs by suggesting the reverse.

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Resistance in an Age of Concentration Camps

Erica Chenoweth et al had a great article in the Monkey Cage yesterday about the Lights For Liberty protests. On June 12, Americans turned out in nearly 700 cities to protest the complex of detention camps along the souther border in which migrants, many of them asylum-seekers from the most dangerous countries on Earth, are being arbitrarily detained without due process and in inhumane, over-crowded facilities, with children illegally separated from caregivers and held in deliberately traumatizing conditions perhaps indefinitely, in violation of both the Constitution and international refugee and human rights law.

As Chenoweth et al note, this movement is only likely to get stronger between now and the election. In fact, it continues apace: in El Paso just last weekend another major inter-faith protest occurred, led by Reverend William Barber, a man sometimes compared to Martin Luther King Jr, and leader of the Moral Mondays movement to spotlight poverty and other great causes. This past Monday Barber lent his voice and inter-faith convening power to the cause of these concentration camps, with a sermon delivered at First Christian Church in El Paso, a peaceful march / direct action at a local detention camp, and a powerful video calling others to the cause:

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Embargo My Eggo!

Today, I learned that I am out of touch. Ok, that is old news. I got into a twitter conversation about embargoed dissertations. A friend was trying to access and then cite a dissertation that has been out for a few years, and she could not because the dissertation was embargoed. I then raised this on twitter, and got a whole lot of push back. So, let’s take a look at this.

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A War On … Something?

This is a guest post by Linda Monsees who works as a Post-Doctoral Researcher at Goethe University Frankfurt and is the author of Crypto-Politics.

After wars on drugs, Christmas and everything in between, it seems that we people tend to call everything a war – everything despite a real war. But really, we are now in a ‘war on truth’? Politicians, companies, and countries start disinformation campaigns and lots of stories are shared that do not qualify as journalism.  And this spread of fake news got us in a ‘war’? I get it, we are still in the process of overcoming the shocks of certain elections that did not end the way many of us would have liked. Combine this shock with a natural technology-angst and this thing called fake news becomes a real threat.

But isn’t the task of a social scientist to take some distance, anaylse, explain and – dare I say? – even give guidance? So what about the ancient wisdom of ‘Don’t Panic’? I get the feeling that much of the academic debate reproduces assumptions about the impact on fake news rather than investigating them. A closer look at empirical research shows that the impact of fake news isn’t that big – fake news do not really seem to change people’s voting behaviour. And well, do I need to tell you that spreading false information for political or economic gains isn’t such a new phenomenon either? If you think about it, fake news are a form of propaganda. Of course, networked technology makes it possible that these news items spread faster than ever before. I am not denying that fake news are a thing, the public discourse might just overrate its impact. So, fake news are widely shared and it certainly shapes current political debates – but maybe not in the way most people think? 

Research on fake news has shown that people really do not seem to care too much about the veracity of the stories that they share. In the UK, more than a third of people sharing news admit sharing inaccurate or false news, an insight corobroated by other sociological research. While it surely is a problem when people (and I include myself here) cannot distinguish between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ news, people seem also be fine with sharing non-true stories. Acknowledging these insights then also means that ‘media literacy’ is not really a solution to the problem. danah boyd actually made this argument in a much nicer way, so check out her article over here. Focusing on media literacy does not acknowledge the underlying political and social problems that might be the source for the spread of fake news. Media literacy is considered to be the right tool to educate people about which kind of news they need to read. But this focus on education makes the problem of fake news one of young and uneducated people. According to this view, media literacy will help people who cannot distinguish between fake and non-fake news to become more educated.  Fake news is thus only a problem of ‘them’  – the young and uneducated. The underlying political economy, the importance of clickbait and legitimate political protest are covered up by such a focus on media literacy.

Fake news, post-truth, disinformation will probably just become part of our political vocabulary. This reflects changes in technology and the media culture and even though we feel uncomfortable about this we should maybe listen more to people who have actually done empirical research on this rather than repeating panicked judgements. 

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