Improv Everywhere: Culture Jamming and the Allure of Consumerism


Since 2001, Improv Everywhere, a prank collective based in New York, have pranked their way into the media spotlight, by riding the subway without pants, hacking the public’s reality with clandestine performances in the streets, parks, and subways of the city, and flash mobbing public and commercial spaces (Improv Everywhere, 2012g).  The comedy troupe’s missions grew popular on You Tube, but have increasingly become a staple of New York culture and the mainstream media.  Indeed, the troupe’s pranks occupy a unique place in New York culture, owing to how their pranks challenge popular conceptions of the use of public space and consumerism at large using culture jamming techniques (Rodriguez, 2010).  In this paper, the author traces the evolution of Improv Everywhere, from a small group of pranksters to a media phenomenon, to examine how media technology influences the creation of counter-cultural media products that are ultimately co-opted by the economic logic of commercialism.  The author’s analysis will proceed in four parts.  Part I will provide an overview of Improv Everywhere and their missions, and provide a detailed analysis of the Best Buy Uniform prank.  Part II describes how the Best Buy Uniform prank demonstrates culture-jamming techniques that challenge the dominant ideology of consumerism through alternative conceptions of the public’s use of time and space.  Part III analyzes the influence of media technology and economic processes in the evolution and rise of Improv Everywhere.  Finally, in Part IV the author provides a critical analysis of Improv Everywhere’s success and argues that the comedy troupe has evolved into a paragon of the very ideology they criticize, yet remains an important social phenomenon, offering an opposing voice in contrast to the allure of consumerism.

Part I: Improv Everywhere and the Best Buy Mission

According to Improv Everywhere (2012b), their mission is to cause scenes of chaos and joy for the entertainment of participants and audiences.  Indeed, the collective has staged more than one hundred missions since 2001 that have been viewed on You Tube nearly 250 million times (Improv Everywhere, 2012e).   Agents, the term for participants that are in on the prank, perform each mission, in front of an unsuspecting public audience, typically in a public or commercial space, like parks, subways, streets, and stores in New York City.  The number of agents can range from several to several thousand depending upon the prank.  In addition, some pranks, like the No Pants Subway Rides, are replicated in dozens of cities around the world.  While each prank is unique in terms of setting, participants, and approach, this author as identified several commonalities.  First, the group conducts the pranks in public space, conceiving of public or commercial space as a venue for performance and play.  Second, the performers include agents aware of the pranks, and an unsuspecting public.  Third, agents record the mission with numerous digital video cameras from a variety of vantage points, and distribute the video to the audience on You Tube.  Moreover, there appears to be three distinct styles of mission, including a) flash mobs, b) clandestine performances by agents, and c) audience performances where the audience members are the actors.  Of the missions conducted between 2006 and 2012, more than fifty-four percent were flash mobs, forty-one percent were clandestine performances, and a mere five percent were crowd performances (Rock, 2012).   Given the majority of missions use flash mobs, this author chose a flash mob mission for detailed analysis.

The media text for the Best Buy Uniform prank on Improv Everywhere’s website, includes a produced video, a text narrative, and agent reports (Improv Everywhere, 2012a).  Simply stated, the mission was to organize a flash mob of eighty agents dressed in an approximation of the uniform worn by Best Buy employees, and have them descend upon a Best Buy store in Manhattan, while four agents not in uniform captured the scene on digital video (Improv Everywhere, 2012a).  The agents were instructed to enter the store one or two at a time, disperse into different sections, and face away from store merchandise (Improv Everywhere, 2012a).  In addition, the organizers instructed agents to be helpful when approached by customers, and to state they were waiting for a friend and disavow knowledge of the other agents when confronted by store employees (Improv Everywhere, 2012a).   The video footage begins by showing the agents entering Best Buy, loitering in different store locations, and even straightening up disorganized merchandise (Improv Everywhere, 2012a).  However, the footage quickly shifted to the reaction from store employees.  While some employees appeared bemused by the spectacle, others were clearly alarmed.  In particular, store security and managers, in black and yellow shirts respectively, were concerned that the flash mob represented a sophisticated heist of some sort, and called 911 (Improv Everywhere, 2012a).  The next scene captures the arrival of the irritated policemen as they tell store managers that they cannot arrest people for wearing khakis and blue shorts, and that the only thing the store can do is ask them to leave (Improv Everywhere, 2012a).  Finally, the video shows the agents leaving the premises.

It is worth noting, that the music accompanying the video sounds like the MIDI-style sounds from video games of earlier decades, giving the video a sense of playfulness that was clearly not universally shared during the experience (Improv Everywhere, 2012a).  It appears the music selection is oriented to highlight the playfulness of the scene, rather than the tension.  Indeed, emphasizing play is a notable tactic of culture jammers.

Part II: Culture Jamming at Best Buy

According to Dery (2010), cultural jamming was first introduced to the public in 1984 by the band Negativland, notable for their criticism of media, politics, and society.  Jamming, originates from the illegal practice of interfering with the transmission of citizen band radios, whereas “culture jamming, by extension, is artistic ‘terrorism’ directed against the information society in which we live” (Dery, 1990, p. 1), an information society dominated by consumer ideology and brand images.  Moreover, Harold (2004) suggests culture jamming “usually implies an interruption, a sabotage, hoax, prank, banditry, or blockage of what are seen as the monolithic power structures governing cultural life” (p. 192).  For certain, as the Best Buy Uniform prank demonstrates, Improv Everywhere used the prank to interrupt or block the routine employee and consumer behavior at Best Buy.  Moreover, the video recording of the prank is itself, a critique of the power structures governing consumerism, demonstrating how the police and commercial interests work in concert when social norms of consumer behavior are broken.  Accordingly, Improv Everywhere agents demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of culture jamming tactics, given they were able to accomplish their mission without repercussion.  What specific tactics did Improv Everywhere use during the prank to navigate the boundaries between critique and protest?

Some scholars and observers of culture jammers suggest their ideas and tactics have origins in the French Situationist movement of the 1960s (Dery, 1990; Goldstein, 2003; Harold, 2007).  The Situationist movement built upon critical culture theory, concerning itself with how cultural products were commoditized, providing “illusory notions of our place in the world, often resulting in the obscuration of the real structure of society and our subordination in it” (McQuail, 2010).  In short, the Situationist movement decried the Spectacle, the subjugation of social life to mediated consumerism, where “the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life [where] the relation to the commodity is not only visible, but one no longer sees anything but it” (Debord, 1994, p. para. 42).  Of importance to the discussion of Improv Everywhere’s culture jamming techniques, is their similarity to the two tactics used by Situationists to bring about a postmodern world, détournement, and dérive.

Détournement is the French word for rerouting, diversion, or hijacking (Wiktionary, 2012).  Debord described détournement as the language of anti-ideology and used it to describe the technique of rerouting expressions of capitalist media culture to subvert their meaning, and thus reclaim them (Harold, 2007).  According to Harold (2007), examples of the détournement technique include:

Rewording conversations between popular comic-strip characters, reworking the sign on a storefront, making subversive collages out of familiar advertising images, and ‘hijacking’ a public sermon, where a Situationist dressed as a priest declares that ‘God is dead’.  (p. 8)

Of course, there is a distinct similarity between Harold’s examples of détournement and the Best Buy prank, given Improv Everywhere agents dressed as Best Buy employees and faced away from the merchandise in a subtle alteration of typical norms associated with consumerism.

The second tactic of Situationists was dérive, a behavior where one or more persons would stop work or leisure activity and drift through urban terrains in search of experiences afforded by the city (Harold, 2007).  In addition, Lasn (2000) suggests “the Situationists believed the dérive could largely replace the old twin occupations of work and entertainment, and become a model for the ‘playful creation’ of a new way of life” (p. 103).  In this sense, the dérive was a rejection of capitalist and consumerist notions of work and entertainment, offering an alternative for the creation of happiness.  Again, there are similarities between the Situationists’ use of dérive and the techniques employed by Improv Everywhere.  As noted earlier, nearly every one of the group’s mission conceive public space as a place of performance and play, rather than consumption.  Indeed, spontaneous musicals erupt in grocery stores and malls, subways are transformed into art galleries and theatres, and the streets, parks, and stores of Manhattan become places for flash mobs to experiment and play (Improv Everywhere, 2012g).  Moreover, all of these diversions occur without participants exchanging money for happiness.

It is clear that Improv Everywhere uses the techniques of détournement and dérive in their pranks.  Moreover, culture jammers typically use these tools to help people question the assumed, but not discussed, norms, roles, and constraints of consumerist ideology.  For instance, is it safe for this author to go into a Best Buy with khaki pants and blue shirt?  On the other hand, can this author go into a store, face away from the merchandise, and not buy anything?

It is important to note that Improv Everywhere makes no claim to be part of a counter-culture or social movement of any kind, rather they distance themselves from such notions (Improv Everywhere, 2012b).  Nor does the comedy group link their pranks to the Situationist movement.  Indeed, according to Improv Everywhere founder Charlie Todd, “There is no point and…there doesn’t have to be a point.  We don’t need a reason.  As long as it’s fun” (TedxBloomington, 2011).  However, their emphasis on joy, happiness, and fun belie their sophisticated use of détournement, and derive.  Indeed, it is difficult to ascertain whether the group is operating meta-prank intended to further subvert consumerism through greater media popularity, or whether they are simply out to have fun.  Perhaps a third option is an economic motive.

Part III:  Media Technology and Production Economics of Improv Everywhere

Charlie Todd founded Improv Everywhere in 2001 after he and a friend pretended he was Ben Folds, of the Ben Folds Five musical group at a Manhattan bar (Plummer, 2011).   Beginning with that first mission, this author catalogued the collective’s rise and evolution based on information available on the Internet.  In addition, this author analyzed each mission, tracing the collective’s evolution from obscure beginnings characterized by simple pranks, to a media darling using increasingly inventive and unique pranks.  The analysis is useful to identify major inflection points, and begin to infer how the group operates, produces, distributes, and generates revenue from their pranks.

To identify major inflection points and trends in the group’s evolution, this author created a chronological sequence of events in Figure 2 in the appendix, that includes substantive changes in prank techniques, production and distribution changes, media appearances, notable pranks, and commercial ventures.  The first major inflection point occurred in 2003 with the introduction of the first flash mob for the No Pants Subway Ride 2K3, where a team of 40 agents rode the subway in their underwear.  The next inflection point occurs when the media begins to focus on the group, beginning in 2004.  By 2006, Improv Everywhere began posting videos of their missions on You Tube, and by 2008, the Frozen Grand Central mission had gone viral with more than thirty-one million views.  The period between 2007 and 2012 demonstrated increased commercialization with joint ventures and corporate sponsorship of the MP3 experiment project.  Furthermore, increased national media coverage is coincident with greater commercial success.  In addition, it appears that the use of flash mobs, coupled with the use of You Tube as a distribution channel, caused many of the pranks to go viral, which in turn, caused the national media to take notice.  Indeed, according to Juno, Vale, and Ballard (1987):

The media can never deny coverage to a good spectacle.  No matter how ridiculous, absurd, insane or illogical something is, if it achieves a certain identity as a spectacle, the media has to deal with it.  They have no choice.  They’re hamstrung by their own needs.  (p. 14)

While the rise in commercialization of Improv Everywhere appears to go hand-in-hand with the growing media spectacle, there is little evidence to suggest the group’s goals turned exclusively commercial.  In fact, the group draws a distinction between Improv Everywhere projects and commercial efforts, however the members are open to appearances, conference bookings, media consulting, and other ventures (Improv Everywhere, 2012b).  Despite the lack of public information on the group’s finances, it is possible to infer the major elements of the business model using publicly available information.  This author built a process model showing the production, distribution, and monetization of Improv Everywhere content outline in Figure 1 below:

Figure 1.

Process model of the production, distribution, and monetization of Improv Everywhere content.

Business Model

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1.  Business process model for the production, distribution, and monetization of Improv Everywhere content.

Production and Distribution

As Figure 2 outlines, Improv Everywhere conceives, produces, and organizes each mission, although it should be noted that ideas for missions are occasionally crowd sourced.  During the organization of the mission, Improv Everywhere recruits agents to participate.  Agent recruitment is enabled by electronic communication.  Agents record the mission using digital video and still cameras, where both agents and an unsuspecting public are the subject of the work.  In fact, this author’s analysis of the missions, show that in more than twenty percent of missions, authority figures are the subject.

Improv Everywhere edit and post the video to You Tube, after the mission is completed.  In addition, the video, a mission overview, digital photographs, and agent notes are distributed on the group’s website (Improv Everywhere, 2012g).   It appears that You Tube is the primary distribution vehicle for Improv Everywhere content, although the group also has a Facebook page and Twitter account that are used to connect and update audiences (O’Neill, 2010).  In fact, Improv Everywhere has almost one million subscribers on You Tube, while only two-hundred and eighty thousand Facebook likes, and thirty thousand Twitter followers, demonstrating the importance of You Tube to the group success (Improv Everywhere, 2012c, 2012d, 2012e).  Founder, Charlie Todd acknowledged the importance of You Tube during an interview (O’Neill, 2010):

YouTube has been incredible for us– it’s enabled us to reach an international audience of millions.  YouTube has enabled us to communicate directly with our audience without the need of a television network.  If we had been doing these projects in the 1990s our only option for exposure would have been the greenlight from an executive at somewhere like MTV or Comedy Central.  (p. 1)

Indeed, without the availability of digital recording and production technology, or distribution channels like You Tube, it appears unlikely that Improv Everywhere would have become so popular.  In fact, their entire business model is predicated upon the use of social media.

Monetization

While there is no public data on the group’s finances, their revenue sources are apparent to a casual observer.  First, each audience click of the You Tube video triggers an advertisement, and You Tube shows additional advertisements while the video plays.  In fact, one of the commercials that aired frequently during the author’s analysis was a Trident commercial that mimicked Improv Everywhere, showing riders in subway car spontaneously bursting into song.  In addition, the group sells merchandise, books, and DVDs on their website (Improv Everywhere, 2012f), and solicits public appearances, event engagements, and corporate sponsorship for missions (Improv Everywhere, 2012b).  Furthermore, the group raised more than $125,000 to develop a documentary film scheduled to be released in June 2013 (Matt & Andrew, 2012).  On the surface, the group appears to operate as a marketing collective that benefits the top tier of performers, although it is unclear whether the producers share the proceeds with the agents.  Of course, the business model leads to an important ethical question related to the use or abuse of free labor.  To what extent is Improv Everywhere harnessing the free labor of others for private profit?  According to Croteau, Hoynes, and Milan (2012), business models dependent on the free labor of individuals “undermine the integrity of the individual by emphasizing a ‘hive’ mentality in which independent thought and achievement is neglected and undervalued in favor of the faceless—and easily replaceable—micro-contributions of many” (p. 314).  In truth, agents are easily replaceable with virtually anyone, as is the unsuspecting crowd that is the primary subject of the mission videos.  It is doubtful that Improv Everywhere shares profits with the agents, and nigh impossible for them to share profits with the subjects of the videos.

In short, Improv Everywhere is dependent upon media technology for the production, distribution, and monetizing of their work.  In addition, like most media concerns, the group generates revenue by selling their audience to advertisers, in addition to selling their media products directly to audiences.  Moreover, the group has a symbiotic relationship with the mainstream media, providing them with a spectacle in exchange for coverage that creates awareness for their content, which in turn creates revenues.  Of course, the ethics of Improv Everywhere’s business model are concerning, insofar as the producers of the content appear to accrue the majority of the benefit, even though the content requires the labor of the crowd.  However, in the use of the crowd, the group’s business model is little different from most modern media concerns.

Part IV: Critical Analysis

There is little question that Improv Everywhere’s missions have tremendous popular appeal.  The group created a media spectacle with more than 250 million views on You Tube, replicated around the world, and commercialized by traditional media outlets.  In addition, the group has enjoyed considerable commercial success with their media products, generating revenue from a variety of sources, including media products, merchandise, and advertising.  Of course, there is one critical question that remains unanswered; what are the intentions of the group?  Are the members of the group ideologues seeking to lift the veil of consumer ideology, using Situationist techniques, to help the public glimpse the possibility of a life beyond the false consciousness of consumerism?  Is the group simply using the tools of culture jammers to create commercial success?  Alternatively, should the public take the group at face value, assuming the group is intent on making the public happy by creating scenes of joy and chaos?

The first proposition argues that the group is operating in the tradition of Situationists, seeking to show the public a glimpse of the possibilities of a postmodern era not dominated by consumerism, where happiness is a function of play rather than consumption.  Certainly, the group appears to use Situationist techniques, but differs from Situationists and even other culture jammers like Adbusters, insofar as they have not made public any desire for social change.  In fact, the group largely disavows such notions, instead opting to emphasize play.  On the other hand, is there a possibility that the entire public view of the group is a meta-prank, designed to use their growing popularity to expose consumer ideology to the largest possible audience.  While there is no evidence to suggest this is the case, the idea is consistent with Situationist thought.  According to Harold (2007), the Situationists were ever concerned with the Spectacle’s sophisticated ability to appropriate the rhetoric of revolution and repackage it for consumers as image.  Indeed, Harold (2007) criticized détournement precisely because the use of consumerist conventions also confirms those same conventions.

Is this the reason that Improv Everywhere never includes a reveal moment in their missions, instead opting to let the audience wonder at the experience, in effect, continuing the prank indefinitely, and resisting the appropriation of its form?  Might the larger prank simply be the purposeful withholding of Situationist-like aims?  Alternatively, is Improv Everywhere’s use of Situationist techniques a demonstration of the worst fear of Situationist thought, that their rhetoric was appropriated for consumer ends?  In absence of a reveal moment, the public may never know.  However, this author believes that the commercial logic of Improv Everywhere’s business model is an alluring motive.

Of course, the domination of commercial logic in the public sphere makes economic motives perhaps the easiest to understand.  It is clear that Improv Everywhere is generating revenue, although the amount of revenue and its distribution are not clear.  Furthermore, irrespective of the amount of revenue generated, the business model socializes labor costs, while privatizing profits.  While companies the world over have similar business models, most do not have the dilemma of filming an unsuspecting public as they grapple with the fear and uncertainty of mob behavior.  Indeed, despite the joy created by Improv Everywhere’s missions, they each carry a darker side, insofar as their missions use the public’s emotions as the fodder that feeds their business model.  In addition to ethical concerns, equally, this author has moral concerns.  To what extent is it moral to appropriate détournement and dérive for purely commercial concerns given their origin?

If the public takes the group at face value, meaning commercial success is not the primary motive, rather the group chooses to create spectacles of chaos and joy for the public good, moral, and ethical questions remain, because the pranks have been commercialized.  Therefore, irrespective of the group’s motives, the simple fact remains that their pranks have been co-opted by commercial logic.  As such, the group has become a paragon of the very consumerist ideology criticized in their missions.

However, when all arguments are considered, and the group is viewed in equal parts as cultural critics, merry pranksters, and a commercial success, perhaps that is enough.  Perhaps it is enough to critique the system from within the system, while allowing commercial success to fund the ongoing critique.  Perhaps, when viewed through the lens of an ongoing contrast between the Spectacle and the joy of dérive, the movement remains a viable alternative to consumerism in the public’s consciousness, avoiding the fate of earlier revolutions, simply by remaining present as an oppositional force.

Conclusion

            Retracing the journey presented in this paper, the author has detailed how Improv Everywhere has captured the public eye with pranks that are a relevant counterforce to consumerism.  Indeed, using Situationist techniques, Improv Everywhere helps the public find joy and happiness outside of the twin occupation of work and leisure.  In addition, without digital media technology, and the socioeconomic structures of the media industry, it is highly unlikely that Improv Everywhere would have the reach and durability they enjoy today.  Despite being co-opted by commercial logic, Improv Everywhere remains an important social phenomenon, offering an opposing voice in contrast to the allure of consumerism.

References

Croteau, D., Hoynes, W., & Milan, S. (2012). Media/society : Industries, images, and audiences (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Debord, G. (1994). The society of the spectacle. New York: Zone Books.

Dery, M. (1990). The Merry Pranksters And the Art of the Hoax. Arts. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1990/12/23/arts/the-merry-pranksters-and-the-art-of-the-hoax.html

Dery, M. (2010). Culture Jamming:  Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs.  Retrieved from http://markdery.com/?page_id=154

Goldstein, L. (2003). The mob rules. Time, 176.

Harold, C. (2004). Pranking Rhetoric: “Culture Jamming” as Media Activism. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 21(3), 189-211.

Harold, C. (2007). OurSpace : resisting the corporate control of culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Improv Everywhere. (2012a). Best Buy | Improve Everywhere. Retrieved from http://improveverywhere.com/2006/04/23/best-buy/

Improv Everywhere. (2012b). FAQ | Improve Everywhere. Retrieved from http://improveverywhere.com/faq/

Improv Everywhere. (2012c). Improv Everywhere. Retrieved from http://www.facebook.com/improv.everywhere

Improv Everywhere. (2012d). Improv Everywhere (ImprovEvery) on Twitter. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/ImprovEvery

Improv Everywhere. (2012e). Improv Everywhere | You Tube. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/user/ImprovEverywhere?feature=g-all-u

Improv Everywhere. (2012f). Merch | Improve Everywhere. Retrieved from http://improveverywhere.com/merch/

Improv Everywhere. (2012g). Missions | Improve Everywhere. Retrieved from http://improveverywhere.com/missions/

Juno, A., Vale, V., & Ballard, J. G. (1987). Pranks! San Francisco, CA: Re/Search Publications.

Lasn, K. (2000). Culture jam: The uncooling of America. New York: Quill.

Matt & Andrew. (2012). Improv Everywhere Film. Retrieved from http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/improveverywherefilm/improv-everywhere-film?ref=live

McQuail, D. (2010). Mcquail’s mass communication theory (6th ed.). London; Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

O’Neill, M. (2010). Interview: Prankster Charlie Todd on YouTube & The Success Of Improv Everywhere. Retrieved from http://socialtimes.com/interview-prankster-charlie-todd-on-youtube-the-success-of-improv-everywhere_b18037

Plummer, W. (2011). Charlie Todd of Improv Everywhere Tells Us About His Latest Experiment, Favorite Pranks, and Future Plans.  Retrieved from http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2011/07/charlie_todd_improv_everywhere.php

Rock, R. (2012). Improv Everywhere Analysis. Retrieved https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B5nQSd5ycZwGOTFzQWpmVm9KLUE

Rodriguez, A. (2010). Performing in the public sphere: Flash mobs and their participants. University of North Texas, Denton Texas. Retrieved from http://web3.unt.edu/honors/eaglefeather/wp-content/2010/08/Rodriguez-Atilano-081210-SE.pdf

TedxBloomington (Producer). (2011). Charlie Todd: The shared experience of absurdity. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/charlie_todd_the_shared_experience_of_absurdity.html

Wiktionary. (2012). détournement – Wiktionary. Retrieved from http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/d%C3%A9tournement

 

 

 

 

Figure 2.

The evolution of Improve Everywhere between 2001 and 2012.

Timeline

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 2.  This figure charts the substantive events that characterize the evolution of Improv Everywhere between 2001 and 2012, including changes in approach, notable pranks, media coverage, and commercialization.

Advertisements

Facebook and the Value of Free Data


The information technology market is undergoing a major shift towards cloud computing.  While cloud computing only represents 2.8% of the $3.6 trillion information technology market today, analysts expect it to more than double over the next two years (Cantu, 2011).   Moreover, the economics of the cloud are so compelling this author thinks that all compute services will be delivered via the cloud in the decades to come.  Given the clear shift to the cloud, it is worthwhile to explore what cloud computing is, how it works, and potential implications of the cloud for Internet consumers and producers of content.  However, an overarching analysis of the cloud is overly ambitious given the size and scope of the market, therefore, this author will analyze the cloud using the narrow confines of a case study on Facebook, the largest social Internet application in the world.  Therefore, this author compared Facebook to the cloud market in general, and specifically explored the implications of content usage, labor, and privacy in a cloud application, like Facebook.   This author found that Facebook has remarkably similar issues with cloud vendors, and profits from user-generated data while providing only limited privacy protections, in exchange for the use value of the application.

What is Cloud Computing?

            Cloud computing is the result of advances in information technology over the last forty years, and specifically is the result of the Internet architecture.  Whereas, in the era before the network, computing power was largely in the hands of government and large corporations, the coincident revolutions of personal computers and private networks, led to a client server architecture, where application processing occurred on a client computer, and data was stored on a network server.  With the development of the Internet, a global computing network, came the possibility of a new architecture, where every layer of the architecture is centralized, including the application logic, and the network end-points are simply dumb terminals in essence.  While this description is necessarily an oversimplification, it is generally correct.

            As the Internet architecture has matured, increasingly corporations are seeking ways to improve efficiency and reduce the costs of doing business over the network.  Indeed, cost and efficiency gains have led to the advancements necessary to make cloud computing possible.  Important advancements in the shift to cloud computing include autonomic computing, service-oriented architecture, web services, virtualization, and grid computing (Cantu, 2011).  These technologies allow technology professionals to deliver each compute layer as a service, including storage, database, middleware, and applications.  Moreover, as the cloud market has matured, so has the definition.  The National Institute of Standards and Technology (2011) recently released the final draft of the cloud computing definition, conceived of as:

A model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction. (p. 1)

In the strictest sense, an application like Facebook cannot be conceived of as cloud computing, because the application is not provisioned for different entities, rather it is simply an application that is available for end users.  While admittedly, the distinction is minor, it remains important.  However, Facebook is similar enough to a cloud application to warrant further analysis.  Specifically, the application logic, the infrastructure, user credentials, user information, user-generated content, and user relationship data are centralized behind Facebook’s corporate firewall.  This architecture gives rise to a number of important questions for both cloud applications and Internet applications.  For instance, what are the implications for user generated content?  Whose data is it?  Who profits from the data?  Who is both responsible and liable for data protection and privacy?  It is these questions that this author will attempt to address in the rest of the paper.

Whose Data Is It?

            When a user registers for a Facebook account, the user is required to load their name, email address, birthday, and gender (Facebook, 2012a).  No other information is required.  However, the application is of limited value without providing additional data.  Typically, users will add personally identifiable information, relationship data, preference data, status updates, location data, photos, and videos to make the application valuable.  Legally, each user is the owner of their data in the application, however the matter is complicated by the social nature of the application (Facebook, 2012b).  For example, if one user posts a photo of another user, the data is owned by the user that posted the photo, an important implication for those concerned about privacy (Facebook, 2012a).   Moreover, through the terms of agreement between Facebook and a user, users assign Facebook a “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content [posted] on or in connection with Facebook” (Facebook, 2012b, p. 1).  Therefore, while users own the data, Facebook has the right to profit from it.

Of course, the problem with storing user data in Facebook is that like most cloud applications, the application is analogous to a roach motel, it is easy to check data in, but much tougher to check it out.  While Facebook provides a number of application programming interfaces to retrieve data (Facebook, 2012c), it requires technical expertise to access the data through anything but the native Facebook application interface.  Therefore, outside the confines of Facebook, the data is of limited use.  Moreover, the limitations of the application interface make it difficult for non-technical users to substantially transform the data to produce new works. In effect, the structure serves to constrain people from profiting from their data.

Who Profits from User Data on Facebook?

            As made clear in the previous section, while users own their data, Facebook has both the right and the architecture to assure that they are in a position to profit from user data.  In fact, the data only has value when considered in the aggregate.  For example, few would care to pay this author for knowing of a recent ski vacation.  However, a skiing manufacturer might pay a considerable sum to target active adult skiers across the country with targeted advertising for a new line of high performance skis.  Thus, Facebook profits from the free labor of 800 million users.  Indeed, with Facebook’s recent initial public offering, their finances came under intense scrutiny from the investment community.  In 2011, Facebook generated more than $3.7 billion in revenue, 82% of which came from advertising (Boorstin, 2012).  With more than 500 million monthly active users, and 125 billion friend connections, Facebook provides advertisers a platform with reach, relevance, and most importantly, a social context for product recommendations (Boorstin, 2012).  For example, if this author creates a post highlighting the purchase of a set of high-performance skis, the ski manufacturer might send targeted advertising to other skiers in the author’s network.

Croteau, Hoynes, and Milan (2012) point out that firms like Facebook “harvest and harness the free labor of others to generate profits for themselves” (p. 314).  However, that perspective includes only one side of the transaction.  Facebook simply enables a transaction to occur, where users providing content receive a use value, while Facebook creates exchange value from the commodification of users.  In this sense, Facebook is simply following the business model of traditional mass media who provided television content for consumers, in exchange for commodification of consumers into an audience to bring in advertising revenue; new media indeed.  Therefore, in the case of Facebook, is there really exploitation of free labor?  Or are Facebook users receiving value from the use of the application?  This author thinks it is the latter.  In what other way can people stay connected and share their lives with friends and family as efficiently as on Facebook?  Therein lies Facebook’s use value for users.  While the exchange relationship between Facebook users, the company, and advertisers captures the essence of the business model, the business model itself raises significant concerns over the security and privacy of the data that fuels Facebook’s revenue.

Debates over data security and privacy have raged over the last two decades as society has attempted to come to terms with the implications of the growing amount of data.  Facebook in particular, has come under intense public scrutiny for a series of data privacy policy changes over the last six years that erode data privacy for users (Electronic Privacy Information Center, 2012).  Moreover, Facebook recently stands accused of matching Facebook data with data from Datalogix to improve ad targeting, in potential violation of a recent privacy settlement with the FTC (Electronic Privacy Information Center, 2012).  In fact, Facebook no longer has a privacy policy, rather they express their point of view in a data use policy (Facebook, 2012a).  While Facebook has taken steps to improve data security by adopting HTTPS as an optional user setting, the company increasingly is altering their data use policy to introduce new capabilities that grow revenue at the expense of user privacy (Electronic Privacy Information Center, 2012).  In short, until users decide that costs, in the form of privacy loss, outweigh the use value, it is unlikely Facebook will change their data use policy in a way that favors improved privacy protection.


 

Conclusion

            Technology companies like Facebook have an amazing business model.  The company has figured out how to generate immense revenues from the data that people provide about themselves, their friends, and their family, in exchange for a more efficient way to keep in touch.  By locking the user data into the Facebook application, Facebook assures that the data is only useful to Facebook.  Moreover, given the legal terms associated with use of the application, users readily grant Facebook the license to profit from the invasion of their privacy.  Future research should explore whether the development of open standards for social relationship data portability could spur the company to provide greater privacy protection based on the threat of customer churn, in much the same way that cell phone number portability enabled greater choice and competition in the wireless industry.

References

Boorstin, J. (2012). Inside Facebook’s money machine. Techbiz.  Retrieved from http://money.msn.com/technology-investment/post.aspx?post=869a1b6c-0bb7-47b3-ac0a-25d10f6a5404

Cantu, A. (2011). The History and Future of Cloud Computing. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/dell/2011/12/20/the-history-and-future-of-cloud-computing/2/

Croteau, D., Hoynes, W., & Milan, S. (2012). Media/society : Industries, images, and audiences (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Electronic Privacy Information Center. (2012). Facebook Privacy. Retreived from http://epic.org/privacy/facebook/

Facebook. (2012a). Data Use Policy. Retrieved from http://www.facebook.com/about/privacy/your-info

Facebook. (2012b). Facebook Terms. Retrieved from http://www.facebook.com/legal/terms

Facebook. (2012c). Graph API – Facebook Developers. Retrieved from http://developers.facebook.com/docs/reference/api/

National Institute of Standards and Technology. (2011). Final Version of NIST Cloud Computing Definition Published. Retrieved from http://www.nist.gov/itl/csd/cloud-102511.cfm


Emotional intelligence: Value and limitations in leadership communication


Presentation on the use of Emotional Intelligence instruments for leadership development.

ORG423 Week 7 Critical Thinking Richard Rock


Preventing Network Discrimination


In the last decade, and coincident with the advent of broadband Internet technology, Internet regulation has been the subject of intense public debate over network neutrality, a legislative concept designed to provide Internet consumer/producers the right to open and non-discriminatory access to the network.  At the heart of the debate is the determination of whether the Internet constitutes a commons, and if so, whether the commons needs to be regulated to protect equal and anti-discriminatory access in what is now, a largely privatized network.  Of course, the Internet is not the first privatized network that engendered the commons debate.  Arguably, while the Internet is a unique infrastructure in many respects, it also has significant similarities to earlier networks, such as roads, railroads, the telegraph, telephone networks, radio networks, and television networks (Blondheim, 2004).  Indeed, many of these networks created positive network externalities that constituted public goods, and as such were considered commons subjected to common carriage law, a form of regulating the network infrastructure to protect the public good.  Therefore, examining the Internet network neutrality debate through the lens of common carriage, while not new, is useful insofar as it centers the discussion on the firm foundation of historical precedent, and captures the essence of what is at stake.  As such, this paper will cover a brief historical background of common carriage, describe the application of common carriage principles in the early Internet, compare and contrast proposed network neutrality legislation with common carriage principles, and conclude with a considered recommendation advocating for network neutrality legislation.

Common Carriage Background

            Common carriage is a legal principle that intends “to guarantee that no customer seeking service upon reasonable demand, willing and able to pay the established price, however set, would be denied lawful use of the service or would otherwise be discriminated against (Noam, 1994, p. 436).  The origins of common carriage law predate English law and whose precursors “go back to the Roman Empire and the legal obligations of shipowners, innkeepers and stable keepers” (Noam, 1994, p. 437).  English common law supports the notion of common carriage, beginning with the 1701 case, Lane versus Cotton, in which Justice Holt asserted “that one in the public employment can not refuse the duty incumbent upon him and that there would thus be causes of action for a postmaster refusing a letter, inn keeper refusing a guest or blacksmith refusing to shoe a horse” (Moglen, 2009, p. 1).  As such, common carriage’s core principal is that of anti-discrimination.

Common carriage was applied in the United States initially as common law, most notably to regulate the activity of the railroads, in absence of specific congressional legislation governing interstate commerce (“Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Call Pub. Co.,” 1901).  In addition, common carriage was applied to the first U.S. telecommunications infrastructure, the telegraph network, as a result of discriminatory behavior by Western Union (“Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Call Pub. Co.,” 1901).  Western Union’s discriminatory practices extended far beyond choosing winners and losers in the open market; the company went so far as to practice censorship by choosing political sides and only offering the perspectives of candidates whose policies favored Western Union (Rock, 2012; Wu, 2006a).  As a result of this and other corporate abuses of monopoly power over the telecommunications network, common carriage over telecommunications was codified into law with Title II of the 1934 Communications Act (Noam, 1994).  Since then, regulated telephone companies have been generally referred to as ‘common carriers’ and as such, have the obligation to provide non-discriminatory access to telephone service across the nation, and in exchange are not held liable for the content of traffic across the network.

The Internet and Common Carriage

            To say that the Internet was created as a result of the common carriage principle of non-discrimination is not an overstatement.  There was a time, prior to the 1980s, when consumers had to purchase their telephones from a Bell company and were not allowed to attach any other device to their phone line (Wu, 2006b).  However, a series of court decisions, including the Hush-A-Phone and Carterfone decisions, led to the FCC to enact “a strong non-discrimination rule for consumer network equipment, and even blocked the regional Bell operating companies from offering such equipment” (Wu, 2006b, p. 33).  The rule sparked a new wave of commercial innovations that saw the development of fax machines and modems, antecedents of modern networking.

Moreover, principles of non-discrimination were built into the very architecture of the Internet.  According to Lessig and Lemley (2001), the design of both the Internet and it’s predecessor ARPANET were based on the end-to-end design principle which organizes the placement of intelligence at the ends, while making the communications protocols simple. “One consequence of this design is a principle of non-discrimination among applications” (Lessig & Lemley, 2001, p. 927).  In essence, the network is a highly sophisticated set of dumb pipes, in the sense that any network or device can interconnect to the Internet by following the basic communication protocols.  Of course, the last thing that cable and DSL providers want to be are ‘dumb pipes’ and therefore, many use a variety of strategies, including discrimination, to avoid becoming a commodity (Knowledge@Wharton, 2009).  Indeed, there is little to prevent broadband providers from using their monopoly power over the network to introduce discriminatory behaviors that favor their commercial interests.

The Internet and Net Neutrality

            The advent of the Internet has ushered in new era of debate over non-discrimination on the network, partly because with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC designated cable and DSL as ‘information services’, rather than telecommunications (United States. Congress., 1996), and as such, they are not designated as common carriers.  Moreover, freed from constraint, telecommunications providers have used their network power to discriminate against perceived threats.  For example, Telus Corporation blocked subscriber access to a Union website critical of their labor practices (CBC News, 2005).  In addition, Madison River Communications, a DSL provider, blocked subscriber access to Vonage, a company with voice-over-IP technology that allows subscribers to place calls over the Internet, rather than paying for traditional phone service (Sandvig, 2007).  Finally, Comcast Corporation intentionally blocked subscriber access to Bit Torrent, a popular peer-to-peer file sharing protocol (Weiser, 2009).  Nor is the discrimination likely to end any time soon.

For example, former AT&T Chairman and CEO Whitacre (BusinessWeek, 2005) described the motivation for AT&T to discriminate against Internet upstarts like Google, Vonage, and MSN, noting:

Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there’s going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they’re using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes? (p. 1)

It is not surprising, that when freed from the constraint of common carrier classification, broadband providers use discriminatory practices to create and sustain competitive advantage; it is in their nature to do so.

However, the Federal Communications Commission (2010) recently passed a set of Open Internet rules to address broadband discriminatory practices.  The Open Internet rules force broadband providers to be transparent about their network management practices, prevent the blocking of legal content, applications, services, or devices, and prevent unreasonable network discrimination (Federal Communications Commission, 2010).  While the rules appear to provide a basis for the FCC to deal with discriminatory practices, there are several problems worth exploring.

First, the FCC treats fixed broadband and wireless broadband differently, providing far more leeway for cellular providers to discriminate, particularly against competing services.  Second, there remains considerable question as to whether the FCC has the legal authority to enforce such rules, particularly given the FCC’s original classification of broadband as an ‘information service’.  In fact, the DC Court of Appeals, ruling on the Comcast and BitTorrent FCC decision, recently “struck down a federal rule that required broadband providers to keep their networks open” (Puzzanghera & Guynn, 2010, p. 1).  Furthermore, Senate Republicans recently attempted to put a bill on the floor to overturn the FCC’s Open Internet rules, however the bill was narrowly rejected (Puzzanghera, 2011).   It appears likely that the FCC Open Internet rules will continue to be challenged in the legislature and the judiciary until the Internet is treated legally as a commons.

Of course, the critical issue with the Open Internet rules is the lack of legal recognition of the Internet as a commons.  Instead, the emphasis is on the Internet is as an important commercial platform for innovation and growth that must be protected with administrative rules rather than law.  While the Open Internet rules are an important step in anti-discrimination, they fall short of common carriage law insofar as they fail to treat the Internet as a legal commons that produces a public good.  Moreover, the Open Internet rules are not a legislative solution and remain dependent on the support of the FCC.  This author suggests that the anti-discrimination principles inherent in network neutrality proposals come largely from the common carriage principles of earlier legislation.  Moreover, the current Open Internet rules contain important anti-discrimination principles, but lack the force of law.  This author recognizes that despite the progress inherent in the FCC rules, net neutrality legislation is required to assure a lasting solution that recognizes the importance of the Internet to public good.

Conclusion

            From the telegraph to the Internet, each new communication technology creates a similar debate.  To what degree does the network constitute a public good and require regulation as a commons?  In the past, common carriage laws have been used to assure that corporations are unable to use their network ownership to discriminate.  However, the recent net neutrality rules enacted by the FCC, while providing an administrative basis to prevent the worst forms of discrimination, falls far short of common carriage legislation of the past, and continues to be challenged by lawmakers and the judiciary.  Therefore, this author suggests that the fight against network discrimination has only just begun, until such a time where anti-discrimination law for the Internet is a reality.

 

 

 

References

Blondheim, M. (2004). Rehearsal for media regulation: Congress versus the telegraph-news monopoly, 1866-1900. Federal Communications Law Journal, 56(2), 300-328.

BusinessWeek, B. (2005). Online Extra: At SBC, It’s All About “Scale and Scope”, from http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2005-11-06/online-extra-at-sbc-its-all-about-scale-and-scope

CBC News. (2005, July 24). Telus cuts subscriber access to pro-union website, from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2005/07/24/telus-sites050724.html

Federal Communications Commission. (2010). Report and Order: In the Matter of Preserving the Open Internet Broadband Indusrty Practices.  Washington, DC: FCC, Retrieved from http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-10-201A1_Rcd.pdf.

Knowledge@Wharton. (2009, December 9). Comcast-NBC Universal: Will the Marriage of Cable and Content Work?  , from http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2401

Lessig, L., & Lemley, M. (2001). The end of end-to-end: Preserving the architecture of the Internet in the broadband era. UCLA Law Review, 48, 925-987.

Moglen, E. (2009, February 2). Lane v. Cotton, from http://moglen.law.columbia.edu/twiki/bin/view/EngLegalHist/LanevCotton

Noam, E. M. (1994). Beyond liberalization II: The impending doom of common carriage. Telecommunications Policy, 18(6), 435-452.

Puzzanghera, J. (2011). Senate rejects attempt to overturn FCC’s net neutrality, from http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/technology/2011/11/senate-net-neutrality-vote-.html

Puzzanghera, J., & Guynn, J. (2010). Appeals court overturns FCC rule on net neutrality, from http://articles.latimes.com/2010/apr/07/business/la-fi-fcc-comcast7-2010apr07

Rock, R. (2012). What Hath God Wrought: Commonality Between the Telegraph and the Internet [1-6]. Essay Retrieved from https://journey24pointoh.com/2012/09/05/what-hath-god-wrought-commonality-between-the-telegraph-and-the-internet/

Sandvig, C. (2007). Network neutrality is the new common carriage. info, 9(2/3), 136-147.

United States. Congress. (1996). Telecommunications Act of 1996. (0160534887). Washington DC: U.S. G.P.O. : For sale by the U.S. G.P.O., Supt. of Docs., Congressional Sales Office Retrieved from http://transition.fcc.gov/Reports/tcom1996.pdf.

Weiser, P. J. (2009). The future of Internet regulation. University of California, Davis Law Review, 43, 529-590.

Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Call Pub. Co., No. 181 U.S. 92  (U.S. Supreme Court 1901).

Network neutrality: Competition, innovation, and nondiscriminatory access, United States Congress 1-7 (2006a).

Wu, T. (2006b). Why have telecommunications law? Anti-discrimination norms in communications. Journal on Telecom and High Tech, 5(7), 15-46.

 

 


Agency and Structure at Work in Municipal Wireless Broadband Adoption


Community owned and operated wireless broadband is one of the fronts in a widespread battle over the future what Benkler (2006) considers the ‘institutional ecology’ of the Internet, or all of the social, political, and economic constitutive choices faced by society as it grapples with the implications of the network.  In essence, the series of choices and decisions will determine the extent of agency and constraint, as described by Croteau, Hoynes, and Milan (2012), provided or imposed over various public and private stakeholders in institutional ecology of the network.  The future of municipal wireless broadband represents one such choice faced by society with important implications for the future of network access.

According to the FCC (2011), “broadband is a foundation
for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life” (p. xi).  Yet, the FCC (2011) also notes that more than 100 million Americans lack broadband access at home, roughly a third of the country.  Benkler (2006) describes the problem as a last mile problem, meaning the last mile to the home is often the most expensive mile for infrastructure providers, particularly in rural areas, or urban areas that lack an economically attractive demographic for private industry.  Moreover, Benkler (2006) advocates the buildout of municipal wireless broadband because of the positive externalities that municipalities have to gain, such as increased economic growth, improved healthcare, or lower unemployment.  Indeed, Ferree (2011), investigated the impact of broadband adoption on employment rates and unemployment, finding that  “broadband adoption has a positive impact on a county’s employment growth rate and a negative impact on a county’s unemployment rate” (p. 34).  In addition, Kolko (2006) found significant evidence of a persistent digital divide, particularly in low-income urban areas.  Moreover, Kolko’s (2006) study suggested strong evidence that increased urban broadband use translated to users seeking healthcare information online.  Thus, municipal wireless broadband can be a particularly attractive solution for both urban and rural areas suffering from the digital divide, and can create positive externalities for municipalities seeking to improve their communities.  What stands in the way?

In The National Broadband Plan, the FCC (2011) acknowledges the challenge in municipal broadband wireless deployments as a policy issue, resolving to “clarify the congressional mandate allowing state and local entities to provide broadband in their communities and do so in ways that use public resources more effectively” (p. xii).   The congressional mandate referenced is none other than the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which states that “no State or local statute or regulation, or other State or local legal requirement, may prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the ability of any entity to provide any interstate or intrastate telecommunications service” (United States. Congress., 1996, Section 253).  Despite the clarity of the law, municipalities seeking to implement municipal broadband networks, have faced intense political and legal challenges from telecommunications industry actors.  The city of Abilene, Texas sought to implement a broadband network, however was prevented from doing so, given Southwestern Bell “persuaded the Texas legislature to pass a law that prohibited local governments from providing high-speed Internet access” (Benkler, 2006, p. 407).  After appeal, the Federal Appeals Court in Washington D.C. ruled that ‘any’ did not mean municipalities and the city was prevented from moving forward (Benkler, 2006).  This is but one example of the constraints faced by municipalities in seeking the derive the positive externalities of broadband by implementing their own network in the face of tension from corporate interests.

Of course, telecommunications corporations do not want to see the rise of municipal broadband because of the challenge to their oligopoly.  Therefore, there are intense efforts at lobbying underway.  Comcast Corporation, one of the largest broadband providers in the nation, is also one of the nations largest lobbying spenders, spending nearly $20M in 2011 alone (OpenSecrets.org, 2012).  Moreover, Comcast sits on the Communications and Technology Board of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative, free market bill mill that produces draft bills for federal and state legislators (sourcewatch.org, 2012).  ALEC’s position on municipal broadband favors the telecommunication’s industry arguing that municipal broadband networks could negatively affect free markets and “erode consumer choice by making markets less attractive to competition because of the government’s expanded role as a service provider (ALEC, 2012, p. 1).  However, Sadowski and De Pender (2009) found that the presence of municipal broadband actually increased competition.  It appears to this author that the arguments against municipal broadband by telecommunications providers are more oriented towards preserving their interests rather than serving the public interest, which is exactly what a publicly-owned corporation should do.  In fact, the reason the digital divide exists, is because telecommunications providers have serviced the segment of the population that can afford broadband, a behavior that is expected.  However, their desire to constrain the agency of municipalities that are not being served is both self-serving and an obstruction of social and economic progress.

References

ALEC. (2012). Communications and Technology  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from http://www.alec.org/task-forces/telecommunications-and-information-technology/

Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks : how social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven Conn.: Yale University Press.

Croteau, D., Hoynes, W., & Milan, S. (2012). Media/society : industries, images, and audiences (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE.

FCC. (2011). Connecting American: The National Broadband Plan.  Washington DC: FCC Retrieved from http://download.broadband.gov/plan/national-broadband-plan.pdf.

Ferree, P. E. (2011). The effect of broadband Internet adoption on local labor markets. Master Public Policy in Public Policy, Georgetown University, Georgetown. Retrieved from https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/bitstream/handle/10822/553724/ferreePaul.pdf?sequence=1

Kolko, J. (2006). Why should cities provide wireless broadband access? Paper presented at the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2104394

OpenSecrets.org. (2012). Lobbying Spending Database: Top Spenders  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/top.php?showYear=2011&indexType=s

Sadowski, B. M., & De Pender, M. (2009). Do municipal broadband networks foster network competition?: Case study evidence from the Netherlands. Paper presented at the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1999842

sourcewatch.org. (2012). Comcast Corporation – SourceWatch  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Comcast

United States. Congress. (1996). Telecommunications Act of 1996. (0160534887). Washington DC: U.S. G.P.O. : For sale by the U.S. G.P.O., Supt. of Docs., Congressional Sales Office Retrieved from http://transition.fcc.gov/Reports/tcom1996.pdf.


Sport, Politics, and the Media: A Defining Moment at the 1968 Olympics


The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City was the setting of one of the most dramatic symbolic protests in Olympics history.  Set during the turbulent 1960s, within the backdrop of the civil rights, feminism, and anti-war movements in the United States, U.S. track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, winners of the Gold and Bronze medal in the 200M, used the Olympic podium in symbolic protest against structural social inequality in the U.S. and abroad (Bass, 2002).  Their raised fists and shoeless feet represented the unfinished business of the civil rights movement and defied the dominant narrative of U.S. democracy, highlighting the continued need for structural change in the social and economic institutions of the United States.  As a result, there was an immediate backlash as powerful forces discredited the legitimacy and relevance of the act (Zirin, 2008).  While Smith and Carlos are largely revered in the popular media discourse today (Brown, 2012) for their courage and prominence in the civil rights movement, their symbolic act had serious economic and social consequences for the athletes (Small & Zirin, 2008).  Moreover, structural inequality remains a pervasive social issue in the United States.  Examination of the social, political, economic, and cultural circumstances, leading up to and following the protest have explanatory power to address important questions about the use of the Olympic media event as a force for social change.  What was the role of media as a force for change?  What forces shaped the symbolic moment and how do those forces apply today?  Finally, do the Olympics remain a platform for change by activist athletes?  Examining these questions using a critical cultural lens, this author contends that while the Olympics remain an attractive media platform for protest, the consequences of protest by activist athletes are higher than ever, with strong inducements to assure that the Olympic stage is preserved for state and commercial actors and their dominant narratives.

Background

            The now-famous black power salute on the Olympic podium was not a spontaneous event, but rather a carefully planned and orchestrated protest with roots in the Black Freedom movement, heavily influenced by civil rights leaders and sociologist Harry Edwards, a professor at San Jose State University (Bass, 2002; Small & Zirin, 2008).  Both Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos were track stars at San Jose State University, where they became radicalized by Harry Edwards and became involved in black militant groups (Small & Zirin, 2008).  Influenced heavily by Muhammad Ali’s use of sport as a platform for civil rights, chance remarks by Tommie Smith may have precipitated events by postulating the possibility of an Olympic boycott by black athletes during an interview at the World University Games in Tokyo (BBC, 2012).  This pseudo-event caused significant media controversy that played out over subsequent months, leading to the formation of Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organized effort advocating the boycott of the 1968 by U.S. black athletes (Bass, 2002).

The proposed boycott received considerable media attention, usually expressed in terms of national outrage, drawing the criticism and ire of Avery Brundage, head of the International Olympic committee (Hartmann, 1996).   In contrast, the proposed boycott received the endorsement and support of notable blacks athletes and civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., Lew Alcindor, Louie Lomax, Jacky Robinson, Stokely Carmichael, and Muhammad Ali (Bass, 2002; Earp, 2011; Hartmann, 1996).  With the support of the civil rights movement, the OPHR published a list of demands that included the restoration of Muhammad Ali’s boxing title, the removal of Brundage as head of the IOC, the exclusion of apartheid countries from the 1968 Olympics, desegregation of the New York City Athletic Club, and the placement of black coaches and administrators onto the U.S. Olympic Committee (Hartmann, 1996).  While the boycott and the subsequent demands attracted a great deal of media coverage and public outcry, the proposed boycott failed to receive the needed support from African American Olympic athletes and never materialized (Bass, 2002).  The reason that loomed largest “was that athletes who had trained their whole lives for their Olympic moment quite understandably didn’t want to give it up” (Zirin, 2008)  However, the stage had been set for the Olympic protest.

On October 16, 1968, Tommie Smith won Olympic gold in the 200M sprint and John Carlos won the bronze.  The athletes stepped up to the podium, in front of a global audience of nearly 400 million people wearing “black stockings but no shoes, a black glove on one hand, and Smith had a black scarf around his neck…as the Star-Spangled Banner began, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and simultaneously raised a black-gloved fist” (Bass, 2002, p. 240).  The pair received immediate condemnation from the crowd as the audience began to boo and hiss (Bass, 2002).  During an interview with Howard Cosell (1968), Smith would later comment on the symbology of the moment, explaining:

The right glove that I wore on my right hand signified the power within black America.  The left glove my teammate John Carlos wore on his left hand made an arc with my right hand and his left hand also to signify black unity.  The scarf that was worn around my neck signified blackness.  John Carlos and me wore socks, black socks, without shoes, to also signify our poverty.

Within two days, the IOC expelled the two athletes from the Olympic village and banned them from further Olympic competition.

Upon return to the United States, the athletes were greeted as heroes by San Jose State University and members of the black militant movement, but were largely condemned by the national press, and specifically sports journalists (Hartmann, 1996).  For example, Brent Musburger, a sports columnist for the Chicago American wrote (Zirin, 2008):

One gets a little tired of having the United States run down by athletes who are enjoying themselves at the expense of their country.  Protesting and working constructively against racism in the United States is one thing, but airing one’s dirty clothing before the entire world during a fun-and-games tournament was no more than a juvenile gesture by a couple of athletes who should have known better. (p. 1)

Moreover, Musburger described the pair as “a couple of dark-skinned stormtroopers” (Zirin, 2008, p. 1).  The near universal condemnation of the protest had severe social and economic repercussions for the athletes, as former job offers and career prospects evaporated (Small & Zirin, 2008).  According to Small and Zirin (2008), “Their athletic careers were ruined. For years, they received death threats and were treated like traitors to their country. They couldn’t find good jobs” (p. 1).  As a result of their protest, Smith and Carlos were to lead their lives without the cultural or economic capital typified by most successful Olympic athletes.

The Possibilities of the Olympic Stage

            The Olympics have long been an attractive venue for political statements and protests since the first modern Olympics were held in Athens (Cotrell & Nelson, 2010).  The venues attractiveness stems from of the high-profile nature of the global event, the events accessibility, the availability of transnational allies or supporters, and the “symbolic meaning that facilitates collective claim-making and widens political opportunity” (Cotrell & Nelson, 2010, p. 5).  As such, the Olympics of 1968 must have been a near irresistible opportunity for actors in the civil rights movement.  In particular, the list of OPHR demands suggests the activist organization was well aware of the opportunity, given their linkage of the U.S. civil rights movement and international apartheid.  Moreover, OPHR was likely well aware of the power of the Olympic stage, given lessons learned from the early civil rights movement in the South.

Indeed, the early civil rights movement was a brilliantly executed media campaign whose beginning coincided with the full penetration of network television and the rise of television news broadcasting (Bodroghkozy, 2008).  Television beamed dramatic images of racial injustice and civil unrest directly into the living rooms of most Americans, who hitherto had remained unaffected by the civil rights movement.  The non-violent direct action March from Selma to Montgomery serves as a case in point.  The event, labeled ‘Bloody Sunday’, with images of peaceful protesters being run down by armed troopers on horseback, spurred hundreds of individuals to head to Selma and prompted quick reaction by legislators (Lee, 2002).  Furthermore, the situation caused one network’s Washington news chief to remark, “Negroes are the architects, bricklayers, carpenters, and welders of this revolution. Television is their chosen instrument” (Monroe, 1967, p. 83).  In this sense, “television appears to put all aspects of social experience on show to all, without distinction” (McQuail, 2010, p. 125).  Undoubtedly, the new mass medium appeared to hold considerable power to raise awareness of the plight of African Americans and spur change, a lesson not lost on OPHR.

Forces Shaping the Symbolic Salute

            It is likely the OPHR was aware not only of the global audience reach of the Olympics, but also of the event’s symbolic power in the ideology of liberal democracy.  According the Olympic Charter, “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity” (International Olympic Committee, 2011, p. 10).  Despite the IOC charter, the IOC condemned the OPHR’s proposed boycott, arguing that there was no place for politics in the Olympics (Zirin, 2008).  Furthermore, the IOC used various tactics to shut down the boycott and silence OPHR, including sending Jesse Owens to attempt to discredit the organization. (Zirin, 2008).  Not only was the IOC a powerful organization, but in the eyes of the movement, a hypocritical organization.

In addition, the Olympics were an important symbolic event for the United States and African American athletes were an equally important part of the U.S. Olympic narrative (Earp, 2011).  However, Harry Edwards, OPHR’s leader, and both Smith and Carlos determined to undermine the hypocrisy of African American athletes being used to support a narrative that collided with their lived experience (Earp, 2011).   Moreover, the OPHR’s rejection of American Dream rhetoric was important in an international context, given 1968 was considered the height of the Cold War.  While both Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson were popular culture examples of the dominant narrative, OPHR challenged the narrative in their founding statement (Zirin, 2008):

We must no longer allow this country to use … a few “Negroes” to point out to the world how much progress she has made in solving her racial problems when the oppression of Afro-Americans is greater than it ever was. We must no longer allow the Sports World to pat itself on the back as a citadel of racial justice when the racial injustices of the sports industry are infamously legendary. (p. 1)

It is therefore, little surprise, that the protest took symbolic shape.

Bass (2002) described the protest in terms of symbolic violence, an action that “dislocated the normative staging of the nation as well as the sprinters’ own place as national subjects….it quickly became a powerful symbol that both inspired and intimidated and simultaneously acknowledged the lack of power of many more (p. 4).   However, the protest was made up of both powerful symbols, but brilliant staging.  For example, MacAloon (1982) notes that the Olympics hold no place to represent “subnational group identities of race, ethnicity, or ideology that are for many, the core of their beings” (MacAloon, 1982, p. 108).  It was into this gap, that Smith and Carlos were able to insert powerful cultural symbols, the raised fist juxtaposed over the playing of the ideological normative Star-Spangled Banner, forcing a global audience to consider the condition of U.S. African Americans for the entire length of the song.  It is little wonder the protest created such a backlash and yet, remains in collective consciousness more than forty-four years later.

Implications for Today

Despite the Olympics being notoriously political, the Olympic charter remains opposed to demonstration, ruling, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted” (International Olympic Committee, 2011).  Of course, the IOC’s stance is not surprising given the growing political and economic importance of the Olympic games.   As a case in point, the 2012 London Olympics had the largest global viewing audience for any event on record (CNN, 2012).  More importantly, the bulk of the IOC’s considerable revenue comes from the license of media rights; NBC for example, paid more than $1.2 billion for the exclusive right to broadcast the London Olympics in the U.S. market (Associated Press, 2008).  Cotrell and Nelson (2010) suggest that the scope and size of the modern Olympics has much to do with the IOC’s steadfast resistance to the politicization of the Olympics, noting:

Protecting the brand, some contend, is less about promoting the Olympic spirit and more about simply making money. From this perspective, the contemporary IOC acts as a corporate entity that is, in fact, very political — engaging in precisely the type of behavior that the Charter prohibits. (p. 16)

Viewed in the commercial sense, the IOC can be viewed as a corporate entity that has the exclusive right to commodify the Olympics and the associated international rivalry that plays out on the Olympic stage, the very commodification Smith and Carlos objected to.

Moreover, in the intervening years since 1968, the commercialization of sport in general has increased significantly (Earp, 2011).  In the post-Michael Jordon era, successful Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps can earn endorsement deals northwards of $100 million (Mackey, 2012).  That is 100 million reasons to be careful not to challenge the dominant narratives posited by the IOC or an athlete’s representative nation.  A great Olympic example of the power of the commercialization of sport over an athlete’s media behavior occurred during the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona with the media-savvy Michael Jordan.  As a Nike brand spokesman wearing an Olympic jersey made by Reebok, Jordan took care to mount the Olympic podium with an American Flag draped over the offending brand label, rather than risk the ire of Nike (Earp, 2011).  The contrast between Jordan’s symbolic gesture and Smith and Carlos’s black power salute testifies to the power of the commercialization of sport.

Of course, the growing audience and salience of the Olympics all but assure the venue will continue to be the target of protests.  Indeed, Cotrell and Nelson (2010) find that the incident of protests are rising, however, the character of the protests are changing from the nation versus nation boycotts typified during the Cold War, and protests seeking domestic policy change, like that of Smith and Carlos, to protest of transnational issues such as globalization or the environment.  In addition, while the IOC has maintained firm resistance against such activities, host nations are becoming more adept at managing protests by providing specific zones for activist to operate within (Cotrell & Nelson, 2010).  The changing nature of Olympic protest, the growing commercialization of sport, and the growing sophistication of protest management techniques, appear to negate the likelihood of a similarly powerful protest occurring in future Olympiads.  What does this say about the future of the tripartite public sphere that has emerged in sport, politics, and the media?

It seems the implications are grim for would-be activists that seek to use the Olympic stage as a platform for social change and participatory democracy.  The array of political and economic forces surrounding the Olympics, are oriented in such a way as to assure that the narratives remain shaped by commercial and state actors.  In this sense, there is little room for the collective action frames typified in the notion of participatory democracy, rather the environment is more suitable for the notion of limited citizenship (Gamson, 2001).  Even in the era of new media, this author wonders whether the networked public sphere enabled by new media can moderate the effects of the economic and political forces that shape Olympic discourse.  As a case in point, the most dramatic social media protest of the London Olympics had to do with the NBC broadcast and issues arising from their handling of time zones and web streaming of live events, (Deitsch, 2012); not exactly a call for sweeping social change.

However, despite the challenges of political demonstration at the Olympics, there is some reason for hope that Smith and Carlos’ legacy remains an example for others.  During the London Olympics, in the backdrop of the IOC’s refusal to permit a moment of silence for the victims of the Munich Olympic terrorist attacks, French swimmer, Fabien Gilot, sported a very visible Hebrew tattoo on his left arm in commemoration of his Jewish grandfather and Holocaust survivor, that said ‘I am nothing without them’ (Lebrecht, 2012).  While it is not known whether the tattoo was in direct response to the IOC refusal, the widespread coverage of the tattoo suggests that cultural symbols retain their power in an Olympic setting.

Source Evaluation

            While this author used a wide variety of sources from both the popular press and scholarly research, there were several scholarly sources whose inclusion informed the theoretical perspectives presented in this paper, and as such, warrant brief comment.  Bass’ (2002) work utilized a critical culturist perspective in examining the events leading up to and following the black power salute.  Likewise, Hartmann (1996) follows a similar path.  Bodroghkozy (2008) appears to examine the role of television in the civil rights movement using medium theory to illuminate how the specific attributes of network television supported the movement.  Finally, Zirin (2008), and the perspective Zirin shares in the documentaries by Small and Zirin (2008) and Earp (2011), are largely discussed from a social-culturist perspective in the examination of the media sport experience to identify the forces that affected Smith and Carlos.

Conclusion

                  The powerful symbol of Smith and Carlos’ defiant protest remains in the collective consciousness of U.S. culture even today.  While Smith and Carlos’ potent gesture during the 1968 Olympics was greeted with nearly universal condemnation by the American press, in the final analysis, the athletes were proven to be on the right side of history.  While the Olympics as a platform for protest is more attractive then ever, the economic and political consequences of such action are also more severe, particularly given the rising commercialization of sport.  This author wonders whether the courage of Smith and Carlos’ defining moment would be possible in the post-modern era?  It appears more likely that today’s would-be activist athletes would succumb to the forces that assure that the Olympic stage is preserved for state and commercial actors and their dominant narratives.

References

Associated Press. (2008, November 18, 2008). EBU urges IOC to stick with European broadcasters  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/wire?section=oly&id=3710990

Bass, A. (2002). Not the triumph but the struggle : the 1968 Olympics and the making of the Black athlete. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

BBC. (2012, August 14, 2012). London 2012 was ‘biggest ever US TV event’  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-19253273

Bodroghkozy, A. (2008). Television and the civil rights era. In T. Boyd (Ed.), African Americans and popular culture. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

Brown, O. (2012, July 12, 2012). London 2012 Olympics: Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ famous Black Power salute still resonates 44 years on  Retrieved September 1, 2012, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/9393260/London-2012-Olympics-Tommie-Smith-and-John-Carlos-famous-Black-Power-salute-still-resonates-44-years-on.html

CNN. (2012, August 13, 2012). Nielsen: 2012 Olympics most-watched event in U.S. TV history  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from http://marquee.blogs.cnn.com/2012/08/13/olympics-closing-ceremony-a-ratings-win/

Cosell, H. (Writer). (1968). Olympic Coverage, ABC Archives [Film].

Cotrell, M. P., & Nelson, T. (2010). Not just the games? Power, protest, and politics at the Olympics. European Journal of International Relations, 1-25.

Deitsch, R. (2012, August 10, 2012). Mark Lazarus responds to criticism. London 2012  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/olympics/2012/writers/richard_deitsch/08/10/NBCs-Mark-Lazarus-responds-to-criticism/3.html

Earp, J. (Writer). (2011). Not Just a Game: Power, Politics, & American Sport. In C. Boulton, J. Earp, S. Morris & J. Young (Producer): Media Education Foundation.

Gamson, W. A. (2001). Promoting political engagement. In W. L. Bennett & R. M. Entman (Eds.), Mediated politics : communication in the future of democracy (pp. xxvii, 489 p.). Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hartmann, D. (1996). The politics of race and sport: Resistance and domination in the 1968 African American Olympic protest movement. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 19(3), 548-566.

International Olympic Committee. (2011). Olympic Charter (pp. 1-103).

Lebrecht, N. (2012). French swimmer stuns Olympic Games with a silent tattoo.  Retrieved from http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2012/07/french-swimmer-stuns-olympic-games-with-a-silent-tattoo.html

Lee, T. (2002). Mobilizing public opinion : Black insurgency and racial attitudes in the civil rights era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

MacAloon, J. J. (1982). Double visions: Olympic games and American culture (Vol. 4, pp. 98): Kenyon Review.

Mackey, M. (2012, August 6, 2012). Michael Phelps by the Numbers: Worlds Top Olympian  Retrieved September 2, 2012, from http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Articles/2012/08/06/Michael-Phelps-by-the-Numbers-Worlds-Top-Olympian.aspx – page1

McQuail, D. (2010). Mcquail’s mass communication theory (6th ed.). London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Monroe, W. B., Jr. (1967). Television: The Chosen Instrument of the Revolution. New York,: Praeger.

Small, G., & Zirin, D. (Writers). (2008). Black Power Salute. In N. Dack (Producer). London UK: BBC.

Zirin, D. (2008). The explosive 1968 Olympics. International Socialist Review(61).


Framing Political Scandals: The Functioning of ‘Trial by Media’


The rise of mediated communication has fundamentally changed how the world is experienced by society, perhaps no more so than in the realm of politics.  In fact, “the media have become a main source of information and opinion for the public” (McQuail, 2010, p. 526).  As such, political actors have an increasing reliance on the media to shape their public image, set their political agenda, and to provide the arena with which political events are played out (McQuail, 2010).  While politic actors spend a great deal of time and energy using the media to provide “a basis of support for their power and policies…mediated visibility is a double-edged sword” (Thompson, 2005, p. 41), insofar as increased visibility also creates increased risk.  Of course, the most significant risk facing politicians is that of the political scandal, or ‘trial by media’.  Thompson (2000) describes a political scandal as a situation where previously invisible behaviors that violate social norms, become visible, are seen as contrary to the politician’s carefully crafted image, and are characterized by an ensuing public outcry or demand for justice.  Of course, Thompson’s (2000) definition of political scandal in a era of mediated visibility presumes that the media is the cause, in terms of increased scrutiny, visibility and construction of the scandal event, and also creates effects, in terms of audience reaction.  Arguably, Thompson (2005) does little to describe how the construction of the scandal event creates the effect on audiences.  However, recent empirical research by Kepplinger, Geiss, and Siebert (2012) describes how media-constructed frames of political scandals provide cues that determine how message recipients process the scandal information to draw conclusions and form behavioral intentions.  What follows is an analysis and critique of Kepplinger, et al.’s (2012) work to understand its explanatory power for how ‘trial by media’ affects audiences and discuss the implications of their findings.

Framing Scandals: Overview and Method

            Whereas the existing literature on framing effects infer a strong relationship between journalistic frames and audience influence, McQuail (2010) suggests that “it is not obvious how framing will work as an effect process” (p. 511).  To explore how media constructed scandal information influences the audience, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) used “three strands of research to develop a model of individual-level opinion formation in scandals: a) scandal research, b) framing theory, and c) appraisal theory” (p. 600).  The authors appear to use Scheufele’s (1999) process model of framing effects, whereby journalists construct the frames, the frames are transmitted to the audience, and the audience accepts certain frames “with consequences for their attitudes, outlook, and behavior” (McQuail, 2010, p. 511).  Moreover, the authors recognized that framing theory did not describe the link between specific media frames and the resulting inferences (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).  Therefore, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) ‘filled the gap’ with appraisal theory (Nerb & Spada, 2001) which identifies relevant cognitions that lead to the creation of opinion in negative events including five aspects, a) whether the damages are large or small, b) the degree to which the transgression was caused by human behavior, c) whether the people followed selfish or altruistic goals, d) whether they were aware of the consequences of their actions, and e) whether there was an opportunity to act differently.  These cognitions are understood to form the basis of people’s beliefs, and moreover, will influence an audience frame of guilt or excuse.  The author’s model integrating these theories were used to test how the type of frame, amount, and completeness of frames affected the audience to arrive at a guilt frame or an excuse frame (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).

With their model as the basis for the research, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) designed the research with the following hypotheses:

H1:  Media depict the cases using primarily fragmentary frames, blaming the public figure with regard to some components (e.g., selfish motives) but not with regard to all (e.g., prior knowledge).

H2:  Cognitive reactions of individuals result from a) learning from the media and b) conclusions of individuals, drawn from an overall impression.

H3:  Individuals will develop one of two polarized individual frames: a guilt frame or an excuse frame.

H4:  A person will call for more severe punishment if he or she a) believes the public figure is guilty and b) feels angry; an individual will call for milder punishment if he or she c) excuses the public figure and d) feel sad about the case.

H5:  Individuals will tend to develop a(n) (individual) guilt frame (a) the more complete guilt frames they receive and (b) the more fragmentary guilt frames they receive.

H6:  A model of opinion formation in scandals accounting for learning from the media and information processing of individuals will adequately model the relationships between cognitive reactions, emotional reactions, and calls for punishment. (pp. 662-663)

In order to test their hypotheses, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) conducted a content analysis of how the four political scandals were depicted by media according to the five aspects, damages, human agency, selfish goals, prior knowledge, and freedom of action, and combined them with individual survey data by calculating the individuals media input.  The combined data demonstrate the extent to which journalist frames influence audience information processing.

Framing Scandals: Findings

            Indeed, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) found support for much of their hypothesis.  Only rarely did the media portray complete frames across all five aspects, instead typically providing fragmentary guilt frames in one or more aspects, with human agency being the most dominant, resulting in support for H1 (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).  More importantly, the researchers found that learning accounted “for a low share of variance in cognitive reactions” (Kepplinger, et al., 2012, p. 671), whereas information processing to form a consistent impression explained as much as 92% of variance, suggesting that all five journalist frames positively and significantly influence the cognitive reaction, providing empirical support for H2.  In addition, the audience cognitions led to the formation of a guilt frame or excuse frame, depending of the audience perception of damages, which also influenced audience views on punishment, providing support for H3 (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).  The support for H4 was weaker, with some evidence of a relationship between the degree of perceived damage and calls for punishment, with cognitive variables accounting for 40% of calls for punishment, while emotional reactions of the audience did not significantly contribute to calls for punishment absent cognitions (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).

Moreover, the Kepplinger, et al. (2012) found the more guilt frames an audience received, the greater the tendency to develop their own guilt frame, with as much as 9% of the development of a guilt frame explained by guilt frames the audience received.  Furthermore, “although recipients received fragmentary frames, they complemented the picture and developed a coherent guilt frame by themselves” (Kepplinger, et al., 2012, p. 675), suggesting that audiences elaborate on fragmentary information to arrive at their own conclusions, providing support for H5.  Finally, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) were able to construct a structural equation model “spanning from media input, via cognitions and emotions, to behavioral intentions” (p. 675).

Implications

            Rather than supporting the notion of ‘trial by media’, whereby the media determine public perception of guilt during a scandal, Kepplinger, et al.’s (2012) findings suggest that the media provide fragmentary information, which is then elaborated on by an audience to create an impression of guilt or an impression that excuses the behavior.  These findings are therefore consistent with Petty and Cacioppo’s (1986) Elaboration Likelihood Model suggesting that people with will be motivated to achieve cognitive consistency drawing on both knowledge and experience, or ‘incidental cues’ to fill in information gaps.  In this sense, individuals as well as media are equally responsible for the formation of an individual guilt frame.

Insofar as the media operates on a 24-hour news cycle, scandal stories often begin with fragmentary information and are updated frequently as new information is discovered.  In such a setting, the audience is subjected to repeated fragmentary guilt frames increasing the likelihood that individual audience members will arrive at a guilt conclusion, despite the lack of a complete picture.  Therefore, in this sense, the 24-hour news cycle and associated journalistic business model contribute directly to the formation of public opinion in scandal events, contributing to the development of a ‘trial by media’.

Moreover, the initial framing of a scandal event can have serious consequences on the formation of public opinion, whereby reported levels of human agency or degree of damage can provide incidental cues to the audience that support the formation guilt or excuse audience frames.  In a situation with a perceived high degree of damage, the notion of ‘trial by media’ becomes a distinct possibility, much akin to the notion of a ‘witch hunt’, with serious potential consequences for political actors caught up in the scandal event.  Arguably, Kepplinger et al.’s (2012) findings raise serious ethical questions about the media’s coverage of scandal events, particularly in the era of 24-hour news.

Critique

            The research of Kepplinger et al (2012) is an important addition to media effects research, insofar as it demonstrates a relationship between journalistic framing of scandal events, audience cognitions and emotions, and the audience’s behavioral intentions.  However, there are opportunities to further their research to draw more conclusive findings.  First, the research focused on solely on political scandals, to the exclusion of financial, criminal, or sexual scandals.  This author wonders whether audience elaborations would exhibit the same consistency in the face of a sexual scandal, where audience morals may play a more salient role in the creation of guilt or excuse frames.  Moreover, would the same journalistic framing norms apply during a media investigation of powerful political figures, as they would for others with less power?

In addition, the research did not explore the role of confirmation bias in an individual’s elaboration process.  To what degree do political leanings affect the media effects described? Are individual’s more or less likely to elaborate according to their own established views?  To what extent are journalist more or less likely expand on the journalist guilt frames based on their bias?   In an analysis of scandal events, Puglisi and Snyder (2008) found that Democratic leaning newspapers provided relatively greater coverage to Republican scandals and Republican leaning newspapers provided greater coverage to Democratic scandals.  Given Kepplinger et al.’s (2012) findings, is greater coverage inherently biased?  More importantly, does the combination of greater coverage and the workings of confirmation bias all but assure an individual will arrive at a guilt frame?

In addition, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) suggest that their work could benefit from more investigation into how opinions form over time to understand their malleability.  Furthermore, the authors acknowledge that more work is needed to understand the sources, beside media content, upon which individual frames are based (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).  This author concludes the findings are sufficiently compelling to warrant further investigation to advance this line of media effects research.

Conclusion

            Kepplinger et al.’s (2012) research into how media-constructed frames of political scandals can cue message recipients to elaborate and draw conclusions in absence of complete information.  Moreover, the greater the number of guilt frames the audience receives, the higher the likelihood the audience will draw a guilt conclusion, a disturbing finding consider the character of the 24-hour news cycle.  Accordingly, the greater visibility of today’s heavily mediated reality is fraught with risk for political actors seeking to manage their image, where the simple association with scandal could very well minimize their ability to advance their agenda, or even destroy their career.

References

Kepplinger, H. M., Geiss, S., & Siebert, S. (2012). Framing Scandals: Cognitive and Emotional Media Effects. Journal of Communication, 62(4), 659-681.

McQuail, D. (2010). Mcquail’s mass communication theory (6th ed.). London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Nerb, J., & Spada, H. (2001). Evaluation of environmental problems: A coherence model of cognition and emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 15, 521-551.

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). ‘The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion’. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (pp. 132-205). New York, New York: Academic Press.

Puglisi, R., & Snyder, J. M., Jr. (2008). Media coverage of political scandals. Washington DC: The National Bureau of Economic Research.

Scheufele, D. A. (1999). Framing as a theory of media effects. Journal of Communication, 49(1), 103-122.

Thompson, J. B. (2000). Political scandal : power and visibility in the media age. Cambridge

Malden, MA: Polity Press ;

Blackwell.

Thompson, J. B. (2005). The New Visibility. Theory, Culture & Society, 22(6), 31-51.