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Knowledge Gap: What have we learnt? Questions unanswered?

 Kristofer Jäntti blogs about his findings from the Knowledge Gap literature and suggests future avenues for further enquiries. This text is the fourth part of a serialised review of the Knowledge Gap. The full report will be published after the final entry of the series.
In conclusion, the research literature suggests that there are differences between countries when it comes to the media effects. This makes it difficult to make generalized accounts on the efficacy of different mediums that would hold across different countries. Moreover, methodologically trying to discern interaction effects between different variables is difficult at best. Even asking the right survey questions is difficult, trying to devise ‘objective’ questions that do not ‘trigger’ guessing, and to differentiate between generalized knowledge and campaign specific knowledge.

The Virtuous Circle hypothesis stresses the importance of the media as the primary source where citizens get information. The sheer explosion in the amount of media outlets, especially with the maturation of Internet and concomitant ICTs, means that has greatly increased the possibility for those who are most motivated to increase their knowledge. The literature has specified how and under what conditions the media is likely to lead to a narrowed gap as well as how it is being used to reach otherwise marginalised groups, hence potentially improving the health of democratic society.

The Media Malaise hypothesis emphasises the negative effects of exposure of modern media. The studies showing that television is particularly corrosive for knowledge gains and democratic participation remain unconvincing. However, the effect of greater media choice (Prior, Sunstein) does suggest our current media environment feeds our innate cognitive biases. For example, selective exposure to either entertainment or conducive political views means that a large portion of the population is getting more ignorant while others are under the grip of misperceptions that complement their political world-view. What is particularly interesting is how even providing ‘corrective information’ can itself reinforce misperceptions in the most partisan portion of the population. This implies that it may be very difficult to counter evidently wrong information via public broadcasts, for example.
The Differential Effects literature does not provide conclusive evidence for ‘differential effects’ for neither newspapers nor television for either being culprits for increasing or decreasing the knowledge gap. They do suggest, however, that television may be the medium through which knowledge may be increased equally in all socioeconomic groups, provided that they are exposed to the same content.
The attempt to make government more transparent by releasing public documents for public scrutiny has beneficial effects in countries that have high level of corruption. The attempts to effectively use ‘Open Data’ (OGD and PSI) depend, of course, on the quality of the data and what it is being used for. In some cases the unintended effects of OGD may even increase social inequalities through inadvertently empowering the powerful.
One issue that has emerged during this survey is that the type of media model has an effect on a country’s general knowledge level. Countries with a public service dominated media have generally more knowledgeable publics and the gap between groups is narrower when compared to countries with market or mixed models. Interestingly, the evidence presented in this survey also suggests that public service dominated countries also have less of a division between print and broadcast media.
Lastly, there is also the issue of the researcher’s underlying assumptions of what ‘well-informed’ citizens should know (see Graber 2004). For example, deliberative models of democracy require that citizens have the requisite knowledge to actively ‘deliberate’ about important social issues. Extensive evidence shows that people often fall short of such requirements. It may be the case that modern states and societies are too complicated for people to acquire detailed knowledge about all important policy-decisions (Somin 2010, 260).
Tangible suggestions for future surveys
1. To what extent the Internet has displaced traditional media outlets for people’s source of news.
2.   To what extent have online communities challenged the social standing of traditional sources of authority (e.g. science and health establishment)?
3.   Where do immigrant populations get their source of information in our information environment?
4.   How should the semi-anarchic nature of the Internet be regulated? What are plausible ways to do this?
5. To what extent can education help to curb the knowledge gap?
6.   What are the ethical implications for targeting disadvantaged groups to increase their knowledge?
7.   Is curbing the knowledge gap desirable?
8.   How has ‘open data’ helped to either increase or decrease the knowledge gap?
9.   How has the change in the information environment impacted on people’s health knowledge?
  1. Is there an ‘analogic’ divide?                                                                                                                                                   
11. Are there differences between formal and informal learning on the Knowledge Gap?

 

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Knowledge Gap and the Differential Effects hypothesis

Kristofer Jäntti blogs about the differences between newspaper and television consumption on the Knowledge Gap. This text is the third part of a serialised review of the Knowledge Gap. The full report will be published after the final entry of the series.
The previous posts have mostly analysed the overall effects of the media in either increasing or decreasing levels of knowledge. This section, however, reviews the literature that argues for a differential effect between the different mediums. It will examine the cases for newspapers, television, and Open Data.
Newspapers as a knowledge widener?
The research literature has often emphasised the superiority of newspapers over other media to increase knowledge (Jenssen 2012, 21). It is for this reason that the original KG hypothesis argued that newspaper consumption widens the gap as higher socioeconomic groups consumed more newspapers than lower socioeconomic groups (Tichenor, Dnonohue, & Olien, 1970).
There have been some recent studies that confirm this hypothesis. For example, Jerit et al. (2006) find, after analysing 41 cross-sectional studies from the USA that increasing media exposure increases general levels of knowledge among the population, but that the educated acquired knowledge faster from newspapers than the less educated. Likewise, Kim (2008) finds a similar result from South Korea. He hypothesises two causal mechanisms for their results: (1) people with higher education read more newspapers and (2) the more highly educated learn at a faster rate than the less educated (ibid. 203).
Some scholars argue that the complexity of the content of newspapers relative to television combined with the lower capabilities of the less educated explains the existence of the KG. For example, Moore (1987: 189) used two telephone panel studies to assess the effects of the political campaigns that were implemented for the 1987 Gubernatorial elections in New Hampshire. He found that there was an increase of the KG when the issues were more complex (Moore 1987: 186). Moore’s findings are corroborated by Kleinnijenhuis (1991) who found similar results from the Netherlands.
These findings are disconcerting for those who hope to bridge the KG as newspaper articles have become longer and more complex in the last fifty years (Barnhurst & Mutz, 1997). Moreover, newspaper articles in the USA are often written for the level of comprehension of an eighth or twelfth grader even though the majority of Americans ‘do not function comfortably above a sixth-grade level’ (Graber 2004, 558).
Even though the research literature does stress newspapers’ superiority, the evidence is not unequivocal. The different media systems in place may help to explain why newspapers are ‘superior’ in South Korea and the USA (Market Model) but not in other countries which have a public service dominated media. For example, Jenssen ‘s (2012) analysis of Norwegian election survey panels finds a weak support for the newspaper superiority, narrowly reaching statistical significance (ibid. 29). He notes that a possible reason for this is that in Norway there is no division between ‘high-brow’ newspapers and ‘low-brow’ television, as there may be in market model dominated countries (ibid. 32).
Intriguingly, Fraile (2011) finds an inverse relationship in Spain. Her analysis of the European Social Survey (ESS) data on Spain from the years 2004 and 2006 shows that newspapers increased knowledge the most in the least educated group, thus exhibiting a KG narrowing effect (ibid. 177). She suggests that the pluralist ensemble of newspapers relative to the highly concentrated and polarized broadcast media is more trusted by citizens and, therefore, ‘increases their interest and predisposition to learn about politics’ (ibid. 178).
In sum, the evidence is mixed about newspaper superior effect to increase knowledge. The literature suggests that there are great differences between countries when it comes newspaper consumption. The highly educated are more capable to process complex texts and do consume more newspapers and therefore may be more exposed to more public affairs content. However, evidence from Norway does not support the idea that newspapers are vastly superior in imparting knowledge when compared to other forms of media, and the study on Spain seems to suggest a knowledge levelling effect of newspaper consumption.
Television as knowledge leveller?
Tichenor et al. (1970) initially hypothesised that there is a possibility that television could play a role in narrowing the gap: ‘Since television use tends to be less correlated with education, there is a possibility that television may be a “knowledge leveller” in some areas‘ (Cited in Jenssen 2012, 20).
This notion that television content is easier to understand and therefore more effective for those with a lower education level, as suggested by Kleinnijenhuis’s (1991) study, has been backed by some empirical evidence. For example, Eveland & Scheufele (2000) find, after analysing cross-sectional data from the American National Election Study (ANES), that within the group which consumed the most television the KG was narrower between education groups compared to light users of television.
Correspondingly, Freedman et al. (2004) studied the effects of televised political advertisements on people’s political knowledge during the 2000 US presidential elections. They find, using data on political advertisements in the US with the National election survey data, that those citizens with the least amount of background knowledge (e.g. lower socioeconomic groups) gained the most (Freedman et al. 2004, 734). Though, when a similar research design was applied to Canada the effect of political campaigns was to increase the KG between socioeconomic groups (Nadeau et al.  2008).
With the lack of a meta-analysis on television’s effects on the KG it is difficult to ascertain its general effect. The best designed studies have shown that television does have a positive effect in increasing general knowledge levels and that it does not, at least, exacerbate the knowledge gap between socioeconomic groups (see Jerit et al. 2006; Jenssen 2012). Therefore, television should not be seen as a poor source of information, but as a valuable way to reach different social strata of society.
Conclusions and Suggestions
In summary, the evidence for a differential effect of newspapers and television on the knowledge gap is mixed. The complexity of the content in newspapers as well as the greater propensity for higher socioeconomic people to read them means that newspapers may in certain countries, such as the USA and South Korea, increase the KG. Though in other countries, such as Spain, it is associated with decreasing the KG.
The notion of television as a ‘knowledge leveller’ is something that intuitively makes sense, especially if its content is deemed as inherently easier to grasp than newspapers. The studies, however, show also mixed results for the notion. In certain countries, such as Norway, it is as informative for lower socioeconomic groups as higher ones implying that while it increases general knowledge levels it does increase the KG.
One way to reduce the KG would be to ensure that newspapers are written in a simpler way as to maximise knowledge transfer. One possible reason why the KG has widened in the US through newspapers is due to their education system’s relative inability to provide a high enough base-line literacy capability across socioeconomic groups. Curbing the education-based capability differences would help mitigate the gap.
Lastly, having politically ‘neutral’ media may increase people’s trust in what is reported and therefore their propensity to pay attention to news. This may be especially important with television as it is a medium where socioeconomic differences are less pronounced.

Knowledge Gap and the Media Malaise hypothesis

Kristofer Jäntti blogs about the Knowledge Gap and the Media Malaise hypothesis. This text is the second part of a serialised review of the Knowledge Gap. The full report will be published after the final entry of the series.

This view sees the media as decreasing knowledge levels and having positively harmful effect on democratic deliberation (Newton, 1999; Norris, 2000). Recent popular books (Dobelli, 2010; Johnson, 2012) have expounded the harmfulness of the amount  of information in the news media and have recommended seriously circumscribing the amount of news people should consume.
Content of media
Many scholars see the content and nature of television media as being particularly corrosive for democratic participation and knowledge acquisition. For example, Putnam (1995) places part of the blame for low civic engagement and trust in government on the increasing consumption of television as it erodes social capital through occupying people’s time that would otherwise be used in collective pursuits.
The content of typical television media has been blamed for increasing political cynicism through displaying news items conveying conflict and political distrust (Robinson 1976, 70). It has also been seen as a ‘vicarious’ form of entertainment which posits easy explanations to sensational news and therefore breeds a sense of political participation when it actually promotes ignorance of important non-sensational issues and political passivity (Hart, 1996).
In addition to content, the way television media is displayed has been blamed for misleading viewers. For example, the ‘episodic nature’ of television has been blamed for making viewers less likely to attribute blame and responsibilities to public officials and therefore ‘…decreases the public’s control over their elected representatives and the policies they pursue’ (Iyengar 1994, 2-3).
Lastly, Graber (2004) notes that typical television programmes are presented in a way that ignores the ‘neurophysiological’ realities of humans. For example, the small breaks between news items are too brief for people to absorb new information effectively, or sometimes they are even filled ‘with distracting advertising information’ (ibid. 2004, 559)
Context and Media Systems
The change in media content is partly determined by the great structural change in the information environment. These changes are determined by two factors: the change in society and the adoption of new technology (e.g. television and the internet).
As aforementioned, the media is best conceived as embedded in society (Newton, 2006). This means changes in society are also reflected in the media. Modern societies have seen the erosion of traditional social ties that acted as stable sources of meaning and identity – such as conventional religious affiliation, party affiliation and social class (Blumler 1997, 398). This means that citizens are increasingly having fluid identities constructed from ‘disparate’ sources (Miller 1995, 432) . It is at this point that citizens are increasingly relying on the media to help them ‘navigate across a more complex landscape of competing structured and symbolic realities’ (Blumler 1997, 397).
In political life this change has manifested itself with increasing partisan de-alignment, decreasing party-membership and greater electoral volatility. This means that conventional political socialization has become less effective (ibid. 1997, 397). As a response, political advocacy has become more professionalized with traditional electioneering being transformed into political marketing in order to capture floating voters (ibid. 1997, 398).
The effect of this, according to Blumler (1997, 399), is that journalists resent that political news is being fed to them by professional spin doctors and therefore started to shift their focus from the substance to the process of politics. The resultant ‘race horse journalism’ tends to neglect the ideological differences between candidates and parties and, instead, concentrates on individuals and campaign tactics (Petersson 2006, 127).
The change in society has, at least in Europe, coincided with great changes in the media system with the growth of commercial channels. For example, in 1980 Europe had 38 public television stations versus 5 commercial ones, but in 1997 commercial channels (55) outnumbered public stations (Holtz-Bacha & Norris 2001, 123).
This commercialisation has been blamed for increasing the knowledge gap and political cynicism (Schulz, 1997). This is because public service television and commercial systems have different priorities. The objective of the former is best summarized by Lord Leith’s classic aim for the BBC: ‘to entertain, inform and educate’ (Holtz-Bacha & Norris 2001, 126). However, the key priority of commercial channels is to make a profit (Curran et al. 2009, 19).
The consequence of commercialisation is two-fold: the media system becomes more fragmented with increased programme choice (Schulz 1997, 62) and the quality of content of the media deteriorates with greater competition (ibid. 67). In other words, the more fragmented and commercialized the media system is, the wider the knowledge gap. Curran et al. (2009) find that media systems dominated by public service companies (Finland and Denmark) report more ‘hard news’ and have a more knowledgeable public when compared to the market model (USA) or dual model (UK). Their findings corroborate earlier research that find similar results for EU countries (Holtz-Bacha & Norris, 2001).
There are several reasons why this may happen. Pfetsch (1996) notes that commercial channels have aired less informational programming, for example in Germany the proportion of news has decreased from 10% in 1986 to 4% in 1993 (Pfetsch 1996, 438). Curran et al. (2009, 19) hypothesise that commercial media target a high-spending audience and therefore would neglect lower socioeconomic groups, which would help explain why there is a knowledge gap between disadvantaged groups (low socioeconomic status and ethnic minority) in the USA whereas there is none in Finland (ibid. 17-18).
Motivation and Selective Exposure
Our current information environment has seen the rise of a plethora of media outlets specifically catering to the media desires of particular groups. The possible effect of this is a growing gap between groups. This sub-section will discuss the importance of motivation in acquiring knowledge and how it interacts with our fragmented media system.
A strand in the KG literature sees motivation (e.g. salience, interest, involvement, or functionality) as the key variable for the acquisition of knowledge (Ettema & Kline, 1977). For example, Horstmann (1991) tested the effects of six different variables with three panel studies from Western Germany and found that motivation had by far the largest impact for the acquisition of civic knowledge. Similarly, Viswanath et al. (1993) ,using a cross-sectional sample from the Diet Intervention Project (CANDI), found the most motivated group acquired more knowledge than the least motivated, though higher education in the motivated group did correlate with increased knowledge.
The corollary to these findings, of course, is that if people lack the motivation for important knowledge they will not seek it. Prior (2005) provides a forceful argument on the effects of the structural change that has happened in our information environment. He notes that we used to live in a ‘low-choice broadcast environment’ that is characterised by only a few choices for media. In this ‘restricted’ environment people were often inadvertently exposed to important news, ensuring that even some of the people least likely to be interested in the political process received a rudimentary level of civic knowledge.
Now in our ‘high-choice environment’, with a plethora of media outlets catering to different interests, ensures that those who are least interested in current affairs are less likely to be ‘accidentally’ exposed to important news – or bypass them altogether. Conversely, those who are most interested in current affairs are now in a better position than ever before to increase their knowledge.
His argument is backed by evidence that shows that in America there has been an increase in television consumption but not in news (Hooghe, 2002). Even events that one would assume would elicit social conflict have not increased news consumption. For example, Althaus (2002) finds that the September 11 Terror attacks and the ensuing War on Terror has been accompanied by a general decline in news consumption.
Some commentators have suggested that low knowledge about public affairs is a form of ‘rational ignorance’. For example, Somin (2010) notes that in the USA the chance that a single vote would be decisive in the presidential elections is 1 in 60 million and, therefore, the ‘incentive to accumulate political knowledge is therefore vanishingly small so long as the only reason for doing so is to cast better informed votes’ (Somin 2010, 259).
If our information environment enables the least interested to avoid news, it also means that it can exacerbate the political polarization in those who are most interested in current affairs. The ‘selective exposure’ literature explores this question by investigating how our political biases affect our choice of media consumption. As such, this line of inquiry is based on Festinger’s (1957) seminal theory of cognitive dissonance which posits that (a) information that is congruent with prior opinions elicits positive feelings, and that (b) information that is inconsistent with prior opinions causes dissonance, ‘a state of mental discomfort and unease ‘(Cited in Garrett 2009, 680). Therefore, people will seek out information that reinforces their prior opinions (reinforcement seeking) and avoid information that challenges their opinions (challenge avoidance) (ibid. 680).
Recent studies have verified this tendency, at least in the USA. Iyengar & Hahn (2009) find that people’s political leanings affect their choice of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ news. Likewise Natalie Stroud finds, using rolling cross-sectional surveys and panel studies, that political leanings affect their  choice of media source irrespective of media type (Stroud, 2007), and that selective exposure increases political polarization (Stroud, 2010).
Strong political partisanship itself contributes to widespread misperceptions (Kuklinski et al. 2000). Bullock (2006) finds that false beliefs influence people’s opinions even after they have been shown to be false. Similarly, Nyhan & Reifler (2010) devised an ingenious experiment to understand why political misperceptions were so persistent. They made subjects read out mock newspaper articles containing  statements which reinforced popular misperceptions in US society: the existence of Iraqi WMDs, the effects of Bush tax cuts and the belief that the Bush administration banned stem cell research (ibid. 311). The effect of providing test subjects with ‘corrective’ information was that the most politically partisan had their misperceptions reinforced (ibid. 323).
Some psychological research shows that dissonance is painful because it challenges people’s self-identity that is tied to their beliefs (Cohen et al. 2000). There is evidence that bolstering people’s self-worth makes it easier for them to be able to receive information that contradicts their beliefs (Geoffrey L Cohen et al., 2007; Correll et al., 2004; Nyhan & Reifler, 2011). Though, this measure is unfeasible from the point of view of public policy.
Lastly, emotions play a key role in human cognition, helping to sort out salient information from our environment (Bradley 2009, 10). Therefore, McGinnes & Elandy (2012) argue that news which elicit the strongest emotional reaction remain better in people’s memories than ‘neutral’ news. This, they argue, is behind some of the greatest irrational media hypes in recent memory, such as the swine flu ‘panic’ in 2009. This helps to explain evidence that shows that the more people are exposed to crime-related television news stories, the higher their fear of crime is, irrespective of where they live (Callanan 2012, 106)
In summary, motivation plays a key role in sustaining or widening the KG. The interaction between motivation and the proliferation of media sources means that a sizeable portion of the population can easily bypass current affairs news altogether. Moreover, the selective exposure literature highlights how it is now easier to stick to consuming media that reflects one’s biases and, therefore, has the effect of increasing polarization.
4.4 Impact of new technology
As aforementioned, the explosive expansion of the Internet and concomitant Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) has increased access to information and has opened up new avenues for democratic deliberation. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the content on the web is ‘about sex, sport and shopping’ (Ward & Vedel 2006, 210). For this reason many scholars remain sceptical about great hopes placed on it to increase knowledge and improve deliberation.
First, it vastly exacerbates the fragmentation of media system (Sunstein, 2001). The consequence of this is that it will lead to ‘cyberbalkanization’: people will ‘purposefully communicate with others who share their beliefs, screening out information that challenges their predispositions’ (McDonald 2008, 50). If before the broadcast and print media potentially exposed people to diverse views the Internet makes it easy to stick to sites containing content that confirms one’s biases (ibid. 51). This notion has been backed by Garrett (2009) who finds that strongly partisan voters will use the Internet to explicitly increase their exposure to ‘opinion-reinforcing information’ (Garrett 2009, 692).
Moreover, there is empirical evidence that the Internet contributes to a growing knowledge gap, as suggested by Prior. For example, the initial stages of adopting the Internet increased the KG. Bonfadelli (2002) finds with data from Switzerland that Internet use increased by 200% from 1997 to 2000 but its use was highly unevenly distributed; the average Swiss user of the Internet at the time was ‘well educated, affluent, young and male’ (Bonfadelli 2002, 75). He also finds that those with higher education used the Internet instrumentally (e.g. for information) and those with less education used it primarily for entertainment (ibid. 81).
Even when the Internet has reached a level of technological maturity and widespread use it has contributed the widening of the gap. McAllister & Gibson (2011) find, using evidence form the Australian Elections Studies from 1996 to 2010, that even when the average levels of political knowledge have remained the same, the growing importance of the Internet in elections is manifesting itself as a growing gap between those who actively use the Internet and those who do not. For example, those who did not have access to the Internet in 2010 had worse knowledge levels than the same group in 2001 (ibid. 15). Indeed, they note that those citizens who primarily used television as their main source for news have less knowledge than the average citizen (ibid. 13).
Second, Morozov (2011, 136) argues that the decentralized nature of the Internet, whereby anyone can publish content, has contributed to the ‘urban myths’ such as the view that anthropogenic climate change is a hoax or the common misperception of the existence of ‘death panels’ in the recent Obama administration’s health reforms (Nyhan, 2010).
It is the relative ease of access to content online that contributes to what Caplan (2001, 4) calls ‘rational irrationality’ which explains why people hold highly biased beliefs with high certainty  based on little information. In other words, people will implicitly weigh the costs of self-delusion with the benefits of holding ‘irrational beliefs’ (ibid. 4). For example, for highly partisan Republicans the private costs for accessing and agreeing with web sites supporting the notion of Iraqi WMDs are far less than the psychological benefits of holding the belief which underpinned the Bush administration’s war in Iraq.
Third, the Internet has not necessarily empowered disenfranchised groups and improved democratic deliberation. Morozov (2011) argues forcefully against the notion that the Internet is a revolutionary force fomenting democratic revolutions around the globe. Instead he notes how authoritarian governments (e.g. Iran, Russia, etc.) have become technologically sophisticated in not only in online censorship but also in harnessing the Internet for surveillance and propaganda.
Even in mature liberal democracies the use of the Internet for political change by disempowered groups has been challenged. Scholars arguing from the point of view of the ‘normalisation thesis’ suggest that the Internet will be adopted and adapted by mainstream political forces, as in the case of previous communication technologies (Ward & Vedel 2006, 216; Agre 2002, 318). For instance, Lusoli et al. (2005, 39) find, using survey evidence in the UK, that those who use the ‘e-channels’ of political influence largely resemble traditional political participants and activists.
Similarly, Davis (2009) argues, using a hundred semi-structured interviews, that the ‘New media’ (Internet and ICTs) has increased the knowledge and communication gap in the UK between the political centre and the periphery. This, he argues, happens for two reasons: (1) enhanced communication between political elites (via popular blogs, think tanks and politicians) and (2) media competition has reduced resources for political content for the masses (Davis 2009, 756-757).
Even online voting, which one would assume would significantly reduce the barriers to voting, has not shown to have a positive effect in increasing political participation. Empirical evidence from Estonia, the pioneer of e-democracy, shows that voting online did not improve the participation of politically disadvantaged groups. Instead, it was mostly used in the wealthy ethnic majority areas, and it mostly substituted for votes at the polls (Bochsler 2009, 1).
In summary, the Media Malaise literature sees the widespread adoption of the Internet as exacerbating the fragmentation of the media system. This leads to an increasing KG as people consume entertainment over news. The effects of this on the most politically partisan is that it can reinforce their biases as they seek content that reaffirms their political beliefs and contributes to public misperceptions.
The effect of polarization and the anarchic nature of the Internet is that it helps to generate some of the most widespread misperceptions. Sometimes trying to ‘correct’ erroneous views reinforces them in the people most vested in them, either due to ‘rational ignorance’ or to avoid ‘dissonance’ in their world-view. The literature paints a bleak view on the effects of the Internet as it continues to occupy a greater place in media consumption.
4.5 Conclusions and Suggestions
In conclusion, the Media Malaise literature shows how the fragmentation of the media system contributes to an increasing KG. Scholars who blame the nature and content of televisions as creating passive uninformed citizens remain unconvincing as those people living in countries with a public service model have higher levels knowledge compared to other media system models.
In fact, a way to minimise the KG is to create a well-funded independent public service company that would be premised on the idea of both entertaining and informing all citizens. This way it would be possible to retain a media source that remains relatively ‘objective’ yet broadly informative.
Aspiring to present the best possible knowledge, without political spin, would help curb (though not eliminate) some of worst instances of selective exposure. Though, presenting a ‘balanced’ view, presenting both sides of an argument, on controversial political topics are unlikely to be effective in eventually harmonizing debates between the most politically partisan (see Lakoff 2002).

The spread of the Internet has enabled the widespread adoption of popular misperceptions. Measures of trying to control to the anarchic nature of the Internet would likely be unpalatable for liberal democracies, as it would involve censorship or steering discussions – measures that are used in authoritarian states (see Morozov 2011). However, there is some evidence which shows that providing corrective information via visual means (e.g. graphs) is more effective than written text to dispel some misperception (see Nyhan & Reifler 2011). For example, graphically juxtaposing the amount of foreign nationals receiving social benefits with the amount in the work force in order to dispel the misperception of ‘benefit tourism’.

The Knowledge Gap and the Virtuous Circle hypothesis

 

Kristofer Jäntti blogs about the effect of media in increasing knowledge. This text is the first part of a serialised review on the Knowledge Gap. The full report will be published after the final entry of the series.

 

Introduction
The Finnish Institute has embarked on a new programme strand dealing with the Knowledge Gap (henceforth KG). The KG is the differential distribution of knowledge between different socioeconomic groups, often defined by education level. As a result, there is a stratification between the knowledge rich and knowledge poor. This division had consequences for the quality of democratic deliberation as well as sustaining social inequities. A growing gap may increase social inequality as those who are better informed have the ability to use information (e.g. computerized databases or government leverage) not only to secure their own social position but also to prosper relative to those with less knowledge. The media is the primary medium through which people gain knowledge. 
Within the literature there are three competing views on the media’s effects: (1) The Virtuous Circle hypothesis, (2) the Media Malaise hypothesis and (3) Differential Effects hypothesis. The Finnish Institute will publish a series exploring the KG from these perspectives. This first blog post will critically introduce the findings from the research literature classified under the first of these perspectives: The Virtuous Circle Hypothesis.
This perspective views the media as potentially having a benign effect in people’s levels of knowledge and democratic deliberation. Pippa Norris suggests that there is an interactive process, ‘virtuous circle’, whereby those who are interested in current affairs will seek current affairs content from the media. This repeated media exposure will eventually increase their level of knowledge (Holtz-Bacha & Norris 2001, 138).
Others are optimistic about the potential of (new) media of not only increasing knowledge in those who are already interested, as suggested by Norris, but also in groups that have the least amount of prior knowledge. This section will explore the Virtuous Circle hypothesis with respects to three domains: changing content of media, how context matters in media effects, and the impact of new technology.
Content of Media
The mass media is the main source of important information for the public in developed countries (Hendriks Vettehen 2004, 416) , for example empirical evidence from Germany shows that almost every citizen is exposed to mass communicated messages during election campaigns (Schulz 1997: 58). Correspondingly, research findings show that those who consume news and current affairs programming have high levels of political participation (Norris 1996, 477), and that media consumption is more effective than personal networks in exposing people to views unlike their own (Mutz & Martin, 2001).
The virtuous circle research literature has conflicting views on how the content of media affects levels of civic knowledge. De Vreese & Boomgaarden (2006) find that the consumption of political news, irrespective of medium, has a positive effect on people’s knowledge and participation. Mcleod et al. (1996), however, find that it is the consumption of specifically local ‘hard news’ that shows the greatest increase in knowledge.
Television media consumption has been blamed for its malign effects on people (see discussion in chapter 4). The Virtuous Circle scholars, however, argue that the content of media is what matters as opposed to the media per se. McLeod et al. (1979) conducted a study that examined the media effects of the American presidential debate of 1976, which was the first time in 166 years that the confrontation of two strong candidates was being directly transmitted to the public via the media. They found that even though exposure was non-equivalent between different socioeconomic groups, the effect of watching the debate was to increase political interest and knowledge. They argued that watching the debates stimulated further consumption of subsequent media analyses (McLeod et al. 1979: 478).
In the same vein, Petersson’s (2006, 133) study on the media effects of the 2006 Swedish parliamentary elections shows that the consumption of political news from ‘morning newspapers’ and public broadcasters has  a positive correlation with political trust and knowledge. Conversely, those who use tabloids and commercial newscasts display the opposite correlation. These findings suggest that the content and style of reporting plays a crucial role in imparting knowledge.
Most studies argue that the consumption of ‘hard news’, defined as the ‘coverage of breaking events involving top leaders, major issues, or significant disruptions in the routines of daily life’ (Patterson 2000, 3), has positive effects on knowledge. However, there are those who argue that explicitly entertainment-centred media consumption may also contribute to knowledge gains. For example, Baum (2002) has argued that ‘soft news’, defined as a story-orientated format with ‘the absence of a public policy component, sensationalized presentation, human-interest themes, and emphasis on dramatic subject matter’ (Baum 2002, 92), has positive effects on knowledge. Similar effects have been shown with regards to talk shows (e.g. Oprah and Leno) which increased knowledge in the most politically inattentive individuals (Baum & Jamison 2006, 958).
Undoubtedly being exposed to content about current affairs increases overall knowledge and therefore it may play a role in decreasing the knowledge. Though, unequal exposure or motivation to consume relevant information may increase gap, as argued by Tichenor et al. (1970). To understand how the media can alter the gap between the knowledge poor and the knowledge rich depends on the context of media consumption, the subject of the next subchapter.

Context matters

The media is best understood as embedded in society (Newton, 2006), therefore the social context determines how the media affects general knowledge. The most straightforward example how context matters is the contrast between media poor and media rich environments. For example, in 1992 Pittsburgh went through a period of eight months without a major local newspaper which coincided with a drop in knowledge levels (Mondak 1995, 525).
Another contextual factor is the level of social conflict. Tichenor et al. (1975, 21) hypothesised that the greater the social conflict in a community, the more the media will reduce the knowledge gap. For example, De Vreese & Boomgaarden (2006, 332) found that the conflict-driven style of reporting on EU affairs account for higher political participation in the Netherlands than in Denmark, even though the latter had more EU news items.
A high level of social conflict increases the motivation for knowledge, especially in times of political campaigns. Kwak (1999, 403) develops, on the basis of his study of the 1992 American presidential elections, a ‘three-way’ interaction model that accounts for education, campaign interest and newspaper attention for people’s acquisition of knowledge. In particular, he argues that when campaign interest was high more attention was given to newspapers and the knowledge gap between groups decreased. Conversely, when campaign interest was low the gap widened (ibid. 403).
Similarly, Strömbäck & Shehata (2010) develop, on the basis of a three-wave panel study, a model that shows the relationship between political interest, news media exposure and attention to political news. They find a causal and reciprocal relationship between political interest and attention to political news, and between political interest and public news media exposure (Strömbäck & Shehata 2010, 592).
In sum, the social context is crucial to understanding the relationship between motivation and media exposure. When there is generally a high level of motivation across different social groups, for example due to heightened social conflict, the media helps to reduce knowledge gap. When there is a differential in motivation, Strömbäck and Shehata’s (2010) model shows how the gap increases. One of the greatest changes to our information environment has been the adoption of new technology, the subject of the next sub-chapter.
Impact of New Media
The Internet has been the most profound technology to enhance our ability to communicate across space and time since the printing-press (Weber et al. 2003, 27). It has done this by greatly lowering the barriers to the access and the creation of information (Hargittai & Walejko 2008, 239). Therefore, our current information environment is highly conducive for increasing knowledge. Empirical evidence from the USA shows that as the costs of using the Internet have decreased, the more it is being used to look for information (Xenos & Moy 2007).
The Internet provides new channels to acquire political knowledge. The proliferation of news sites, blogs, e-mail lists and online discussion groups have provided new ways to participate and engage with fellow citizens (Ward & Vedel 2006, 213). Tolbert & Mcneal (2003, 184) find in their two-stage regression analysis on the impact of Internet on voter turnout, using data from the 1996, 1998 and 2000 American Election Studies (NES), that Americans were increasingly bypassing traditional media and turning to the Internet for political information. Likewise, McDonald (2008, 61) finds that online news increases political sophistication even when controlling for traditional media use.
In particular, the Internet has been lauded for its potential to reach out to politically inattentive groups, such as the young (Delli Carpini, 2000). For example, an experiment conducted by Lupia & Philipot (2005) indicate a good way to increase the political interest in the young (18-25) is to design websites that are specifically catered to them; presenting ‘political news that is more like MTV than The Economist’ (Lupia & Philpot 2005, 1137). Moreover, survey evidence from the UK suggests that the Internet has been especially good in mobilizing groups that are politically inactive offline (e.g. women, young, less-educated), implying that ‘e-stimuli and developing experience of the Internet increase the likelihood that one will engage in organisational contacting and online participation’ (Gibson et al. 2005, 578).
Lastly, the Internet has been credited for increasing political interest. Shah et al. (2005, 551) find that online information seeking and civic interaction have a greater influence on civic engagement than either traditional media or personal communication. McDonald (2008, 61) hypothesises that the interactivity and the use of visual images account for the fact that those who use online news express more interest in politics when other variables are held constant.
In sum, the Internet has made it easier to access and create information. Evidence shows that the Internet can be used to reach groups that are inattentive, therefore possibly decreasing the knowledge gap. Using the right ‘vehicles’ to transport important information, like ‘soft news’, can do this.  Though, it is unlikely to have an impact, as only a small proportion of the population is likely to tune into this kind of content (Prior, 2003).
Conclusions and Suggestions
In conclusion, the Virtuous Circle literature shows how the media can either increase or decrease the knowledge gap. The increase in the availability of information has the potential to increase general knowledge levels depending on the social context.  Trying to ‘untangle’ causal and reciprocal relationships between variables like interest, exposure and media attention is fraught with difficulties. Nonetheless, attempts to identify specific conditions for increasing knowledge levels is a more nuanced approach to the KG ‘problem’ than purely instrumental models that predict a straightforward relationship between the increasing availability of information and increasing knowledge levels.
After reviewing the literature there are a few possible ways to decrease the KG. Firstly, broadcast media can increase the amount of informative entertainment in order to inadvertently increase knowledge in an otherwise inattentive section of the population. For example, in the UK such shows would be ‘Mock the Week’ or ‘QI’.
Secondly, the Internet is a key medium to disseminate knowledge. It is important that access and the ability to use the Internet is further fostered. Moreover, it would be good to design websites according to different demographic groups to try to increase, say, their political interest. This would, admittedly, be a very difficult task to do as these pages would have to compete against an endless amount of other web pages.
Lastly, having localised media (e.g. newspapers) may provide content likely to be important and interesting for people. By subsidising these newspapers it would be possible to upgrade the quality (entertainment and ‘hard facts’), and a competitive price (if not for free) would help spread the newspapers.
*A full bibliography will be provided in the last entry of this series

Mozilla Festival and Archives Without Walls

 

Head of Society Programme Antti Halonen blogs about the recent web making festival in Ravensbourne.
 
The Finnish Institute was privileged to take part in the annual web making feast of Mozilla Festival in late October. 


According to Mark Surman, the chief executive of Mozilla, the event is “where many of Mozilla’s best and most innovative ideas spring to life. It’s where passionate thinkers and inventors come together to learn from one another and engage in a conversation about how the web can do more, and do better”. Exactly the right place for us.

We were fortunate to be named as one of several scrum leaders. Essentially this means being a facilitator of a make, that is a particular task that was hoped to be achieved during the two-day festival. 

 
Our make was to gather ideas and examples of how to enforce a participatory and digital historical culture. Provisionally, we have set our minds on creating a network of partners to start working on a project called Archives Without Walls (AWA). 


In short, the purpose of AWA is to provide a reliable and visually exciting way of building open online archives that provides solutions on how to capture physical contents and human interaction as well as digital audio, video and text – all in the same digital repository. Archiving method would have to enable open reuse and remixing of all contents. 

The overarching purpose of the project parallels the recent challenges that have been laid upon the discipline of History itself. 

 
Archivists and ITC experts respectively have expressed their concerns on the so called Digital Dark Age: a phenomenon where significant amount of important cultural heritage is lost due to rapid digitisation of information and lack of reliable long-term preservation methods. For instance, various organisations changed their internal correspondence into email format during the 1990’s before records management had come up with proper methods for preserving email correspondence. Similarly, what is left of the early days of the web for future historians’ use? While historians have so far relied on a rich source of paper-based documentation, future historians may face a prospect of empty archives. 
 
Social scientists, on other hand, have raised into discussion the topic of the knowledge gap. While the information environment has evolved unprecedentedly in a way which enables much more varied source for information consumption, simultaneously those who are least interested in current affairs can bypass it altogether if they so wish. We need to develop our thinking in terms of how to provide larger portion of the population an access to relevant historical knowledge.


Moreover, historians have pointed out the need to embrace new ways of creating and preserving everyday history. Participatory historical culture aims at both improving historical consciousness and offering citizens a possibility of “tackling their own present concerns and thinking over how to make a better future for themselves”, as Finnish historian Jorma Kalela puts it.

This was the setup but what about the results? 

Discussion arose around the concept of memory. How could different memories be integrated into the digital environment in a remixable and reusable fashion? The number of people who still have vivid memories of the second world war, for instance, is rapidly diminishing, yet amidst the rise of nationalistic right the understanding of the very reasons behind the horrible times of war is as important as ever. How should we find new ways of interpolating this historical knowledge into public discussion?


Another strand of thought focused on the question of preserving events like Mozilla Festival itself. What kind of material will a future historian use when doing research on this year’s event? Arguably, historians today have mostly relied on paper-based documents: letters, diaries, essays etc. However, the essence of Mozilla Festival is not to be found in printed documents, but in demonstrations, ideas and discussions. What kind of challenges does this pose to archivists who will have to make the increasingly difficult appraisal decisions?

Our new programme strand seeks to find some answers to these questions and we are continuously looking for interesting initiatives that promote the fair dispersion of knowledge in the society and try to find novel solutions to preserving our digital cultural heritage. One interesting case of the latter was MozBug, an online tool for archiving events by analysing Twitter behaviour. Something to consider for next year’s OPPI – Helsinki Learning Festival, too?

Politics as Morality – Lakoff explains how metaphors influence the way we vote




Kristofer Jäntti blogs about George Lakoff’s contribution to Politics


George Lakoff, the renowned cognitive linguist, stresses the importance of metaphorical thinking and frames for human cognition. In his lecture  in London (Monday 7th of October), arranged by Counterpoint, he  challenges contemporary conceptions of political communication and the Enlightenment view of rationality.


Europe is undergoing a ‘Populist Zeitgeist’ where populist parties have not only increased their share of the vote but are also in government, recently exemplified by the entry of the Progress Party as junior partner in a coalition with the Conservatives in Norway. In Britain UKIP saw a surge in votes in the last local elections and is expected to do well in the coming European elections.

Lakoff argues that reason for this hemorrhaging of votes from mainstream parties to the political fringes is the misconceived policy of trying to appeal to voters in the political centre – a notion that he argues does not exist. In his book Moral Politics he argues that what distinguishes conservatives from progressives are two different moral systems: the strict father and the nurturant mother. The former is a metaphor for a family that teaches self-reliance and self-discipline while the latter is one where each family member cares and is cared by one another.

Most people mostly fall into one of the two moral systems. ‘Moderates’ are still dominated by one moral system while retaining elements from the other. Lakoff sees the attempts of parties to ‘capture’ moderates by appealing to both moral systems as mistaken. Instead, he councils to parties to frame their political messages in one or the other moral systems, which will ensure that the ‘dominant’ moral system in moderates will overpower the other.

Moreover, he argues that political arguments framed with the view that voters make decisions consciously and dispassionately after reviewing the facts is ineffective and exhibits an erroneous Enlightenment view of rationality. In his lecture he proclaims a different vision of human rationality: ‘To be rational you must be emotional’. Therefore, Political Parties can improve the effectiveness of their messages by framing their campaigns using stories and metaphors that appeal to the emotions by tapping into the unconscious moral systems.

Professor Lakoff’s theories about human cognition and suggestions for political communication are thought-provoking, yet to some they are sinister. One of the main contentions, however,  is how his biconceptual model of moral systems works outside the context of the USA. For example, the campaign that saw the spectacular political rise of Pim Fortuyn in Netherlands in the early 2000’s combined a call for tighter immigration control (strict father model) with a staunch support for the rights of women and sexual minorities (nurturing family model).

In conclusion, George Lakoff’s application of Linguistic Cognitive Science to the realm of Political Science is analogous to the ‘Behavioural Revolution’ in Economics. Understanding how people  ‘tick’ improves the way political parties frame their message and, perhaps, can be used as way to halt the decreasing levels of political participation in developed countries. Smoking and healthy-eating are examples of notions that have been successfully ‘reframed’ with the corollary changes in behaviour which implies that Lakoff’s work has the potential to address the Knowledge Gap.

Towards Fair and Inclusive Knowledge Society: Exploring the Causes and Consequences of the Knowledge Gap


Kristofer Jäntti blogs about Finnish Institute’s new programme strand.

There is a Knowledge Gap: the division between the knowledge rich and knowledge poor. The former have the motivation, knowledge and skills to influence public affairs while the latter are effectively disempowered. These divisions have consequences on the quality of the democratic process and help to sustain social inequities.

This is happening while we are living in an information environment unlike any before, an environment that can potentially foster various forms of open knowledge: releasing open data, placing culture in the public domain and enhancing the interaction between civil society and government.


Our democratic society is premised on the idea that each citizen has the necessary information to take part in democratic deliberation. This does not ensure consensual nor particular outcomes but it does ensure that outcomes are a general reflection of the public will[i].
Yet, there are still significant barriers in use, access and understanding of information. Morozov questions the democratic potential of the Internet[ii], and Bartels highlights the detrimental effects of a mismatched self-interest on policy-outcomes and overall well-being[iii].
The academic literature, so far, has explored the effect of (new) media on democratic deliberation. This research can be broadly divided into two viewpoints. The first sees the new media as potentially enhancing the democratic process by either increasing civic knowledge[iv] or help in political mobilizing[v] .The second sees it undermining it through widening the political knowledge gap[vi] eroding social capital[vii], and demotivating the electorate[viii].
Beyond these two polar-opposites there is a view, prominently argued by Kenneth Newton, which holds that the media should be seen as embedded into society and its effects are mediated by other forces in society, such as class and personal values[ix]. Newton highlights three paradoxes about the media and its effects. First, those who have the least interest in politics are most affected by the media, though they are least likely to expose themselves to it. Second, the more people have personal experience of something they are more likely to be interested in it when they encounter it on the media, though they are more likely to trust their own judgements. Third, the more the partisan media tries to persuade the less it is trusted and exhibits the least amount of influence[x].


Noakes’s ideas are linked to Markus Prior’s forceful argument on the effects of the structural change that has happened in our information environment. He notes that we used to live in a ‘low-choice broadcast environment’ that is characterised by only a few choices for media. In this ‘restricted’ environment people were often inadvertently exposed to important news ensuring that the even some of the people least likely to be interested in the political process received a rudimentary level of civic knowledge and current affairs [xi].


Now in our ‘high-choice environment’ with a plethora of media outlets catering to different interests ensures that those who are least interested in current affairs are less likely to be ‘accidentally’ exposed to important news – or even bypass it altogether. Conversely, those who are most interested in current affairs are now in a better position than ever before to increase their knowledge. Both of these trends confirm one of the greatest ironies of our time: the transition into the ‘information age’ has coincided with a drop in political knowledge in significant portion of the electorate[xii]


The insights of Newton and Prior can be useful to understand mass opinion beyond the narrow realm of political science into a wide variety of social questions. For example, strong scientific evidence about the harmfulness of cigarettes has been available for over 40 years yet despite overwhelming evidence and anti-smoking campaigns sizeable portion of the adult population still smoke. Or for a more recent example, why the two-thirds of the American public supported president Bush’s tax cuts despite being concerned of growing income-inequality, thus effectively acting against their own economic interests[xiii].


These questions indicate that people are reacting to societal messages through personal biases partly informed and validated by knowledge derived from different sources – widening the knowledge gap between different groups in society.
The Finnish Institute has been at the forefront of exploring these issues as a part of its open knowledge agenda: publishing The Open Book’ – a multi-author book contextualising the international open knowledge movement from the perspective of those fostering it, and being a key actor in organising ‘The Open Knowledge Festival’ in Helsinki and helping to establish Open Knowledge Finland.
Now its new agenda seeks to explore the ways to identify tangible scenarios where and how information asymmetries have caused adverse effects to democratic decision-making and to examine how to bridge the evidently widening gap. To do this we have to investigate three questions:


· What are the dynamics leading people to hold erroneous information?
· What measures can be taken to increase people’s motivation to find and use important information?
· What can be done to improve equity in our information society?


A public sphere free from contestation is as utopian of a prospect as democracy without conflict. However, aspiring to make each citizen as informed as possible on important social issues helps us move closer to our democratic ideals and, perhaps, help us find ways to increase general well-being.


[i] Delli Carpini & Keeter (1996) What Americans know about politics and why it matters, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, pp. 6.
[ii] Morozov (2009) ’Iran: Downside to the ”Twitter Revolution”; To Save Everything, Click Here (2013)
[iii] Bartels ‘Homer Gets a Tax Cut: Inequality and Public Policy in the American Mind’
[iv] Lupia & Philipot (2005) ‘Vews from inside the Net: How Websites Affect Young Adults’ Political Interest’, The Journal of Politics, pp. 1122 – 1142.
[v] Krueger (2006) ‘A Comparison of Conventional and Internet Political Mobilization’, American Politics Research, pp. 759-776.
[vi] Bonfadelli (2002) ‘The Internet and Knowledge Gaps: A Theoretical and Empirical Investigation’, European Journal of Communication, pp. 65-84.
[vii] Putnam (1995) ‘Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital’, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 65-78
[viii] Ansolabehere et al. (1994) ‘Does Attack Advertising Demobilize the Electorate’, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 88, No. 4, pp. 829-838
[ix] Newton (1999) ’Mass Media Effects: Mobilization or Media Malaise?’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 577-599
[x] Newton (2006) ’May the weak force be with you: The power of of the mass media in modern politics’, European Journal of Political Research, Vol. 45, pp. 209-234
[xi] Prior (2005) ’News vs. Entertainment: How Increasing Media Choice Widens Gaps in Political Knowledge and Turnout’, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 49, No. 3, pp. 577-592
[xii] ibid p. 589
[xiii] Bartels (2007) ’Uninformed Votes: Information Effects in Presidential Elections’, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 40, No. 1, pp. 194-230

Afternoon with Open Ministry – outcomes and challenges of open policy making in Finland


Head of Society Programme Antti Halonen blogs about our recent event on citizen initiatives and open policy making.


The Finnish Institute organised together with the Embassy of Finland, Democratic Society and Open Data Institute an event where Aleksi Rossi, a co-founder of Open Ministry, gave a passionate lecture on citizen initiatives and how to facilitate them. The lecture was followed by a round table discussion on the more general outcomes and challenges of open policy making.


Open Ministry is a non-profit organization based in Helsinki. They help citizens and NGO’s with national citizens’ initiatives, EU citizens initiatives and develop online services for collaborating, sharing and signing the initiatives. Open Ministry was established in 2012, after the new Finnish constitution came into force. The constitution allows every citizen a right to put forward a law proposal for the Parliament to consider. If the proposal gains more than 50.000 signatures within six months, then the Parliament is obliged to discuss and vote on the initiative.


Rossi started of the event with a brief reminder of Finland’s relatively good standing in international country comparison rankings. Despite the harsh climate (or maybe partly because of it) Finland seems to do rather well: no 3 in PISA rankings (2009) and no 1 in anti-corruption index (2009), to name a few. In addition, the Finnish political culture has long been characterised by a high level of public trust towards the government.


According to Rossi, however, this trust has started to erode. This is reflected in a decrease in election turnouts and a collapse in political party memberships. There is, in parallel, a growing demand for exploring new forms of participative democracy and open policy making.


Open Ministry’s version of open policy making combines technology and the human factor interestingly. It recognises the fact that technology itself can never be a solution for social problems or a motivator for political participation. In addition to the internationally unique system of strong online authentication, Open Ministry provides an opportunity for citizens to sign initiatives in public libraries. It also participates in an academic study on the longitudinal changes in public opinion.  


Rossi explained that there is an abundance of ideas for citizen initiatives, but the big problem is how to filter the good ideas and how to develop them into credible law proposals. Open Ministry provides a platform for crowdsourced draft writing and also expert help in formulating the final law text proposals.


Effectively Open Ministry works as a good indicator of public opinion. Most of the initiatives never gather enough signatures to enter the parliamentary discussion but in some cases citizen initiatives can reveal an overwhelming public support for a particular initiative that has been previously neglected by the parliament. In Finland, the initiative supporting equal marriage gathered over 100.000 signatures in one day only, thus making it virtually impossible for the parliament to ignore the topic.   


How to place Open Ministry in a bigger societal context? Participation through political parties is still as relevant as ever. Crowdsourcing will never replace representative parliaments, but it doesn’t undermine the value of citizen initiatives. Where Open Ministry have been particularly successful, is in highlighting the fact that the expertise does not necessarily lie within parliaments or established policy makers only. The question worth asking is, how to harness this collective skill without losing the efficiency and accountability of representative systems.


This culture of openness was one of the highlighting themes of the event. Arguably the culture change is not only a question for governments and civil services to consider, but increasingly for communities, too. Individual citizens have to realise that due to demographic changes the relevance of certain structures of decision making and service delivery have to be scrutinised. In terms of political participation, especially the younger generation needs to find a way to get their voice heard. Bold initiatives like Open Ministry can help in creating a political culture where interconnected networks and smaller scale local initiatives are not only appreciated, but also put in use for a more participative democracy.


You can read a storify-summery of the event and listen the presentation


What was the gender(gap) of Open Knowledge Festival? Data for improving it

What is the gender gap in open knowledge community and how to improve it? This article was originally meant to be published in The Open Book, but was unfortunately left out in the final editing process. The study was facilitated by Mayo Fuster Morell from Berkman Centre for Internet and Society and developed in collaboration with the Gender & diversity stream of Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki last year.  


This contribution to the Open Book presents an study to monitor gender at Open Knowledge Festival (OKFest). As in any other event, the monitoring of gender at OKFest aims to increase gender consciousness among OKFest community, and ultimately aims to contribute to reduce gender gap in open and technological sectors.

Gender gap refers to the “gap” in gender equality, that is, when one gender predominates more than and over the other. We acknowledge that gender equality is more complex than gender balance (that is, equal presence of male and female). However, in this study we adopt gender balance as an indicator of gender equality, also assuming that better gender balance contributes to improve gender equality.

Gender “what”? What is this about?

Gender gap is the difference between women and men involvement. To provide some data to exemplify the gender gap, according to surveys developed in Wikipedia, around 88% of Wikipedia editors are male (Source: Wikimedia Foundation Annual Editors Survey 2011); according to a EU survey, 98.5% of developers in free and open source software projects are male, while they are 70% in the software industry (Source: Gender: Integrated Report of Findings. UCAM, University of Cambridge. March 2006). This is also present in conference. According to our counting from Wikisym – International Symposium on Wikis and Open Collaboration (http://www.wikisym.org), at Wikisym there is 89% men at Symposium Committee (8 men / 1 woman), 78% men in Program Committee (54 men /12 women) and 80% of the program of speakers were men .

Most technological sectors (even if not in all) are more populated by male, and projects, communities and conference in those sectors might reproduce it. However, this is not a uneatable situation. Furthermore, in some occasions the projects, communities and events not only reproduce the gender balance in its sectors, but more importantly, results in worth gender balance percentage that do not represent the sector. Importantly, projects, communities and conference could help to improve the gender balance in its sectors. There are ways to solve the gender gap projects and conferences which are gender conscience and put in practices the methodologies than reduce gender gap are able to generate gender balanced communities. This is the case of Wikihow (a community about how to manuals) which has an almost gender balance community of contributors (Source: Women in Wikihow presentation at Wikimania 2012 (http://wikimania2012.wikimedia.org/wiki/Submissions/Women_on_wikiHow). The same could be said to academic institutions such as the Berkman center for Internet and society at Harvard University (which according to our counting from its web, the Berkman center program of fellows for 2011 and 2012 is gender balanced). This is also the case of technological conferences such Personal Democracy Forum with a speaker gender balance of 60% men 40% women according to our counting (Source: http://personaldemocracy.com/conferences/nyc/2012/archive).

Which is the methodology of this event gender balance monitoring?

This study was facilitated by Mayo Fuster Morell and developed in collaboration with the Gender & diversity stream of OKFest. The methodology was based on counting male and female presence in each of the ways to engage with a conference. We acknowledge that gender is a complex constructions that goes beyond female and male categories, such as the hermaphrodite. However, for this study we used the categorization of gender as female and male for methodological purposes. We classified people according to their names or/and apparency in pictures in the web.

This study is available at a wiki together with data on other events: http://wiki.digital-commons.net/Gender

Data on gender at OKFest 2012
Visualization provided by Michael Bauer

Mean of % of gender balance in all the categories at OKFest =  26,83%
Including:
* Core Organizing Team: 83.33% m / 16.6% w
* Advisory Board: 75% m / 25% w
* Guest Programmer Planners: 59% m / 41 % w
* Featured Speakers: 81% m / 19% w
* Speakers: 72.5% m / 27,5% w
* Participant Testimonial: 71,5% m / 28,5% w

Total people % Gender Balance
ORGANIZATION
Core Organizing Team Total 6 = 5 m + 1 w 83.33% m / 16.6% w
Advisory Board Total 16 = 12 m + 4 w 75% m / 25% w
Guest Programmers Total 63 = 37 m + 26 w 59% m / 41 % w
SPEAKING
Featured Speakers Total 26 = 21 m + 5 w 81% m / 19% w
Speakers Total 381 = 276 m + 105 w 72.5% m / 27,5% w
Gender balance per stream:
Ranking of women inclusion
1. Gender and Diversity in Openness (75% w)
2. Open Cultural Heritage (42,85% w)
3. Open Development (38,88% w)
4. Data Journalism & Data Visualization (38,09% w)
5. Transparency & Accountability (32,96 w)
6. Open Research & Education (24,24% w)
7. Business and Open Data (24% w)
8. Open Geodata (22,22% w)
9. Open Democracy & Citizen Movements (21% w)
10. Open Knowledge & Sustainability (19,35% w)
11. Open Cities (17,24% w)
12. Open Design, Hard., Man. & Making (15,6% w)
13 Open Source Software (9,09 % w)
Participant Testimonials on the web Total 14 = 10 m + 4 w 71,5% m / 28,5% w
m = men w = women

Overview and best practices insights from OKFest for improving gender at conferences

Some points for an overview of gender performance at OKFest and insights on best practices for women engagement in Internet and technology related conferences:

i)  OKFest 2012 had a gender and diversity in openness stream in its program, which was not the case in previous OKFest, and it is not common in other conferences on Internet and society issues.

ii) This OKFest had several sessions in the program on gender, more than in the program of previous OKFest years.

iii) The Gender Stream had a 75% of female and 25% men. For next occasions, it might be good to see how to better balance it and engage more male in the Gender stream. However, this seems a better % than other gender events in which around 95% are female. Even if the Gender Stream is predominantly female, this had the good effect of contributing to rate the female presence in the overall conference. Over all to have a gender stream has increased the overall gender balance of the conference. In this regard, it seems a recommend best practice to other Internet & Society related events to have gender specific activities in order to attrack women.

iv) Overall OKFest had a balance of 73.16% male and 26,83% female. In this regard, OKFest has a long process to do in order to assure gender diversity and inclusion in the conference and to keep working in that direction is something to do. However, in contrast to other Internet & society conference, the actual balance at OKFest is not the worth (conference like Wikisym are around 85% male dominated, but better cases in contrast to OKfest can also be found like Open Personally Forum with 60% male 40% gender balance). In sum, there is much to be done, but this is not the worse starting point.

v) What it seems to be more problematic is what happened in some specific stream topics at OKFest 2012. That “Open Software” stream was the worth (with 91% male 9% female) is not a surprise, neither that “Hardware, Manufactures & Making” was also bad (15,6% female). However, it is in certain degree a negative surprise that topic streams like “Open Cities” (82% male 17,24% female) and “Open Democracy & Citizen Movements” (79% male 21% female) performed so badly. Those are topics that could be said that has less challenging aspects to include women that other streams. These results open up questions such as: How can we think cities or democracy with such a poor involvement of women?. For future OKFest editions there could be done a more explicit effort for assuring that the balance in those (and all) streams to be better.

vi) Observing the relationship between guest program organization and the number of speakers per stream seems to suggest that (in some cases) involving more women in organizational tasks tend to have a higher presence of more women in the program of speakers. However, the data does not provide strong statistically significant support for this.

vii) The distribution of travel bursaries making sure it also favors women could be a way to assuring women participation.

Unintended consequences of government transparency – freedom of information and open data under scrutiny

 

Institute’s Head of Society Programme Antti Halonen writes about government transparency, open data and freedom of information

Finland has one of the oldest freedom of information (FOI) laws in the world and – like its Nordic counterparts – its government is frequently considered one of the best-functioning and less-corrupted. The spirit of Chydenius and Forskål has encouraged Finland to showcase itself as a frontrunner of government transparency and good governance. Since its inclusion to the European Union in 1995, the Nordic state has argued for greater transparency within the supranational body, and in 2011 the newly elected Finnish government made open data one of its principle objectives in its government programme. Earlier this year, Finland joined Open Government Partnership, a new intergovernmental project for more transparent and accountable societies.

This was the setup for an all-afternoon discussion event held at the residence of the Finnish Ambassador, HE Pekka Huhtaniemi on 30 May. The event was organised by the Finnish Institute, Embassy of Finland, Center for the Study of British Politics and Public Life at Birkbeck University and the University of Helsinki.

The first part of the event comprised of a lecture by Dr Tero Erkkilä from the Department of Political and Economic studies at the University of Helsinki and a commentary from Dr Ben Worthy from Birkbeck University. Dr Erkkilä has recently published a book “Government Transparency and its Unintended Consequences” where he forms an argument on how the conceptual shift from publicity to openness and transparency has in fact lead to several paradoxes in terms of democratic accountability and accessibility of public sector information.

The second part consisted of a panel with Christopher Cook (Financial Times), Paul Gibbons (SOAS) and Dr Gesche Schmid (Local Government Association) sharing their views and answering questions on the topics of the event.

One of the outlining themes of Dr Erkkilä’s lecture was the gradual shift in discourse from publicity towards market-oriented transparency. In the 1970s freedom of information was perceived mostly in democratic terms, as a right to access governmental documents, whereas during the 1990s the government started to realise the market potential of public sector information and the efficiency-driven term transparency began to emerge.

This conceptual shift together with Finns’ high trust towards their government has lead to a one example of unintended consequences, that being the economic exploitation of information such as census data. When government started to see public sector information as an economic commodity and started to attach a price tag to data, citizens’ access to this information arguably became more restricted.

The consensus-driven political culture has arguably lead to another unintended consequence, that being the “grey area” of openness, where the relevant information is being circulated among the decision making elite, but where the information will not necessarily reach the general public.

Dr Worthy responded to the lecture by contrasting the long tradition of FOI in Finland with the secretive administrative culture of the UK. However, certain similar trends seem to emerge in both countries due to the digitisation of information and the evolving efficiency-driven discussion around the role of public sector and provision of public services.

The panel further strengthened the observation of increasingly efficiency-oriented transparency discourse. Dr Gesche Schmid pointed out that especially in the UK the recent open data agenda has foremost focused on saving public resources. Open data agenda started as a technology-driven initiative but later on has transformed into primarily a way to save public resources.

Another interesting argument concerned the usability of data. According to Christopher Cook, comment editor of Financial Times, much of the data that is released as open data is almost unusable for the journalists since the data is not designed for using. Instead, there are datasets that are released under license and that are designed for journalists’ purposes. National Pupil Database is a good example of a dataset that is restricted from the public use, but selected individuals have access to it under a strict license.

Paul Gibbons, the creator of FOIman blog, pointed out the increasing division between FOI and open data. It is argued that the goals of the open data agenda have less and less resemblance with the initial democratic goals of FOI. Moreover, some of the most senior figures in the British public policy have recently argued in favour of proactive release of open data to replace the reactive FOI. Prime Minister David Cameron has even argued that FOI is merely “furring up the arteries of government”.

Gibbons further highlighted the importance of records management. In fact, one unintended consequence of open data might be the undermining of records management profession. In order to ensure the good quality of data and to protect privacy, it is crucial to involve records management into open data processes, because in many places records management professionals possess the required legal knowledge and have enabled the everyday mechanics of good governance.

Of course, FOI is not the only tool for ensuring democratic accountability, but without it it is hard to contemplate any serious progression. Moreover, the question of transparency is not a zero-sum game: open data does not automatically undermine FOI, far from it. In fact, open data can be used in various innovative ways to improve the state of FOI. As Ben Worthy mentioned in his comment, interesting things will presumably happen where FOI, open data and citizen engagement interact and this is what we should further support.

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