On Political Communication as a Mission Science
An old lecture, updated because Jim Jordan has decided to take aim at my discipline.
This post is going to be a two-parter. It will begin with a writeup of a lecture I gave a couple of times in 2016/2017. That lecture was intended to nudge the research community towards asking more salient, pragmatic, relevant research questions. The research community headed in that direction without much urging on my part.
The argument has taken on fresh relevance now, because Jim Jordan has determined it would be politically advantageous to make life hell for some of the finest social science researchers in my field. And that will be the subject of the second part of the post. I am mad as hell about this partisan smear campaign against social science research. I think we should understand what’s at stake here: they aren’t opposed to the science; they are opposed to the mission.
It’s a long post, so here is the TL;DR version: There are types of science that try to help advocates and policymakers. There are also types that are indifferent. I’ve always gravitated toward the former. I think researchers like myself ought to orient ourselves toward helping. Doing so does not undermine or weaken the research itself—quite the opposite, in fact. The current partisan assault on the research community is a product of some excellent researchers who proved too helpful. It has become strategically advantageous to scapegoat them and manufacture a controversy. At stake is the very foundation of publicly-engaged research.
If you believe that social science should be oriented towards helping us govern ourselves, then you should be furious about what Jim Jordan and his fellow travelers are trying to do right now.
…Let me begin by telling you about the coolest magazine I read in the 1990s.
[It wasn’t WIRED. God no. My dad worked with computers. I was a teenager, rebelling on principle against everything he stood for. Cyberculture simply could not be cool in my eyes if it had my parents in it.]
No, the coolest magazine a young environmental activist like me could read was Wild Earth magazine. I collected the full set. I read every issue cover-to-cover.
Wild Earth was, in its day, cutting edge. It brought together wilderness activists and policy specialists, along with historians and conservation biologists. They offered big visions and detailed proposals for how to preserve biodiversity, in the United States and around the world. They were hatching grand, ambitious plans. And those plans were grounded in science.
[Yes, I am telling on myself here. Young Dave didn’t get invited to many parties, and rarely stayed long at the ones he did attend.]
The scientists were what made Wild Earth so unique. The magazine was where I first learned about the science of conservation biology. And conservation biology was (and is) a mission science. I didn’t want to become a conservation biologist in those days — I didn’t intend to become any kind of scientist back then — but I wanted scientists to be like them. It was, instinctively, what I thought science ought to be.
Conservation biology is premised upon the belief that biological diversity is good, that it is threatened, and that it ought to be preserved. It treats the preservation of biodiversity as a shared normative commitment. From there, the field applies robust scientific methods to improve our understanding of the topic.
The result is still, for the most part, pretty mundane scientific research. A typical conservation biology study might gather data and present findings on how wide the corridors surrounding a stream bed need to be in order to preserve migratory songbird habitat. (Riveting stuff, right?). But those mundane studies fit into a broader disciplinary framework that, in essence, says “we all agree X is good. We don’t understand how X works nearly well enough. So we are going to direct our research toward helping policymakers and advocates become more effective in their efforts to preserve and promote X.”
It is, in this sense, a deeply pragmatic scientific tradition — a type of science that is concerned with practical questions that are of use to policymakers and advocates who are worried about the complexities of governance and implementation. I do not have strong innate preferences regarding the width of habitat corridors. But if the government is going to make a commitment to preserving biological diversity, I would very much like them to make sure the habitat corridors are big enough.
Wild Earth was the first place I saw researchers and civic activists collaborating. And, instinctively, that struck me as the way things ought to be. It meant that the conservation movement wasn’t just preserving pretty scenery with our Congressional Wilderness Proposals. We were creating biodiversity reserves, preserving some of the planet’s imperiled capacity for resilience. It was built on real, rigorous science, not just some old pastoral ideals.
Mission scientists orient themselves toward a shared normative stance. They pose research questions and gather data in service of that shared normative position. They aim to help. And so, naturally, they also engage with policymakers and advocates.
We can evaluate and debate thosee normative commitments - there certainly is a philosophical counterposition that insists only humans deserve to be treated as moral agents, and that converting all biodiversity to maximize human flourishing is fundamentally good and just. (Elon Musk believes this, as do many longtermist philosophers who I am inclined to take more seriously when arguing vehemently against them.)
We can also evaluate the science itself. but that’s a separate matter. One can produce normatively-sound research that is sloppy and unsound; one can also produce normatively-problematic research that is gold-plated in its execution.
[Here’s a little Mission Science flowchart. Graphic design is clearly my passion.]
When I was beginning my career as a social scientist, I was often bothered by the sense that my field (political communication) appeared to be so collectively unmoored from any sort of shared normative commitment.
I distinctly recall a meeting I had with an ambitious grad student. He was eager to collaborate on a study of how members of Congress were using Twitter to communicate: “I have scraped all of the tweets from Congressional Twitter accounts,” he told me, “What if we took David Mayhew’s framework from Congress: the Electoral Connection and categorized them? Do you think that would be publishable?”
I asked him why he was interested in this question. It sounded like a lot of work to arrive at a conclusion that wouldn’t be especially interesting or relevant to anyone in particular. Like, you could do this study, but why should you? I generally find this sort of early self-interrogation can drastically improve the ultimate work product.
Flummoxed, he responded “because I think it would be publishable. Do you think it would be publishable?”
I told him it might be, but that I wouldn’t have the bandwidth for such a project. I wished him the best of luck on it. And, over the next half-dozen years, I served as discussant on conference panels for at least a dozen papers that were indistinguishable from his idea. It appeared as though the underlying research logic went something like this:
(1) We have all this data! Let’s analyze it and find some patterns.
(2) We need to populate the literature review section with some theories. What terms can we relate this dataset to?
(3) Okay, now we need a discussion/conclusion section for this journal article. Let’s claim that this confirms/denies/complicates traditional theories and insist that “more research is needed.”
And this is all methodologically-sound social science! Some of it is really quite sophisticated. But it is a far cry from the mission science that I so admired in my youth. It often seems to be driven more by data availability than by any core normative commitment or pragmatic concern. The result is that I often felt as though my disciplinary colleagues were inordinately concerned with the precise measurement of utter trivialities.
It is research that does not aim to help.
And that led me to wonder: what would the field of political communication look like if we treated it as a mission science?
Here’s a rough to-do list, if the members of my field were to take up the mantle of mission science:
First, we would need to have some serious deliberative conversations about what normative anchoring premises we all share. My own premise is as follows: human society is complex, and effective governance is difficult. I am committed to multiracial, pluralist democracy. I conduct research that helps advocates and policymakers understand how changing information and communications technologies affect the levers of power and social stability. But those are my personal priors. It is worth committing ourselves to collectively reasoning around our shared commitments.
Note, however, that this anchoring premise is directly under assault by conservative populist demagogues. It is not a partisan predisposition, but it is rendered partisan by the strategic choices of elite political actors.
Next, we would start building much closer relationships with the committed practitioners (policymakers, journalists, and advocates) whose work aligns with our normative premises. We should let the pragmatic questions and challenges they are facing influence the direction of our collective research agenda. Let’s pursue answers to complicated, pragmatic puzzles that practitioners are not positioned to answer for themselves. (Otherwise, even if we are well-intentioned, we are not helping anyone.)
Finally, we would develop conferences and journals (or, since it’s 2023 now, digital publications) where political communication scholars, advocates, and policymakers interact. We should build toward the overlapping interests of scholars and practitioners. We ought to take steps to celebrate and professionally reward these sort of efforts.
Now we’ve reached the point where I should pause to explain why I never bothered to write up this lecture:
It was because I determined it was no longer necessary.
I began work on this piece in early 2016. That year was a career inflection-point for me. It was the year that I earned tenure, and the year my second book would be published. The plan was to write this piece as a sort of post-book reflection on research philosophy and methodological choices. I had written a similar piece — “Social science research methods in internet time” — after the publication of my first book. This one, being post-tenure, would feature sharper elbows. I figured it was an appropriate time to start a few arguments about the state of the discipline.
The 2016 version of this lecture concluded with a final provocation: Werner Von Braun famously remarked ‘once the missiles go up, I don’t care where they come down.” But at least he was paving the way for space travel. What’s our excuse?
And then Trump happened. Political communication scholars suddenly became deeply aware that the implicit normative foundations of our field were under threat. Major foundations got serious about studying mis- and disinformation. Journals and conferences started giving serious attention to rising authoritarianism and the crisis of democratic legitimacy. The field, to a large extent, self-corrected.
I’m not claiming that the years that followed were perfect, mind you. My good friends Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor just recently published an excellent critique of the resulting literature that emerged around polarization and platforms. The push toward mission science has been haphazard. Our collective normative commitments are still rarely made explicit. And I’m still asked to peer review plenty of bland research that begins from an accessible dataset and then tries to backfill a reason why we ought to care.
But I would absolutely argue that the field has improved in the intervening years. Academics have built partnerships with policymakers and advocates. We’ve built venues for communicating our findings beyond our own disciplinary borders. Many of the best researchers in the field now take seriously the idea that they have a responsibility to try to help. They did all of this without my urging. The argument for treating political communication as a mission science was made moot by Donald Trump and everything that came after.
Here’s the lede of a New York Times article from last month, titled “G.O.P. targets researchers who study disinformation ahead of the 2024 election.”
On Capitol Hill and in the courts, Republican lawmakers and activists are mounting a sweeping legal campaign against universities, think tanks and private companies that study the spread of disinformation, accusing them of colluding with the government to suppress conservative speech online.
The effort has encumbered its targets with expansive requests for information and, in some cases, subpoenas — demanding notes, emails and other information related to social media companies and the government dating back to 2015. Complying has consumed time and resources and already affected the groups’ ability to do research and raise money, according to several people involved.
They and others warned that the campaign undermined the fight against disinformation in American society when the problem is, by most accounts, on the rise — and when another presidential election is around the corner. Many of those behind the Republican effort had also joined former President Donald J. Trump in falsely challenging the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
“I think it’s quite obviously a cynical — and I would say wildly partisan — attempt to chill research,” said Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, an organization that works to safeguard freedom of speech and the press.
The accusations being lobbed by Congressman Jim Jordan and his fellow travelers would be comical if they didn’t have the force of government subpoenas behind them. An earlier story on this topic, in the Washington Post, noted:
In one letter obtained by The Post, Jordan alleges strong ties between the Virality Project and federal government agencies, most notable being the Office of the Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The letter seeks years worth of communications between employees at those organizations and representatives of the executive branch and social media companies.
Some of the top researchers in my field are having their lives ground to a halt because they are accused of informing the Surgeon General and the CDC about their COVID disinformation research. Other researchers filled out forms (GASP! THE HORROR!), created by the platforms, that helped the platforms enforce their own policies.
And to that I can only say: excuse me, but since when were we expected to hide public health research from the Surgeon General?!?
What stands out in this bad-faith attack is that there is no debate about the quality of the underlying social science. Jim Jordan isn’t disputing the science. He is opposed to the mission. He believes that researchers who study the spread of misinformation online — from Trump’s “Big Lie” that culminated in the January 6th insurrection to COVID misinformation that directly contributed to the death tolls — should be kept far away from the people making decisions at the platforms and in government agencies.
This is hell for the people who are facing these subpoena requests and being subjected to targeted online harassment campaigns. There is an ocean of distance between “nothing to hide” and “nothing that could be willfully misconstrued.” Again, it’s 2023. We all know very well by now how strategic actors can fabricate controversy that causes real personal harm. As a social scientist, I am livid that my field has been turned into a political football like this.
And of course, as a researcher I can also identify precisely what’s going on here: Jim Jordan is pursuing the narrowest form of own political self-interest. He can fundraise off of this manufactured scandal. He can get on Fox News and Breitbart. He can try to shut down research on the spread of disinformation in advance of the 2024 election, under the assumption that uninhibited disinformation will play to his favor.
We’ve seen this playbook before. The tobacco industry spent years politicizing science in an effort to prevent governments and advocates from doing anything about the public health dangers posed by cigarette smoke. Fossil fuel companies have taken the same approach to climate scientists. Politicizing science and trying to sever the relationship between research and policy was in the companies’ strategic interest, even if it proved deadly for the public at large.
The downside of mission science is that, once your scientific research proves relevant, it also can make you a target of smear campaigns.
This, in retrospect, is the natural implication that I never paused to consider in my 2016 talk. The thing about conservation biology and my beloved Wild Earth magazine is that they never came anywhere close to putting their bold ideas for restoring biodiversity into practice.
(It brings to mind a conversation I had with a disenchanted conservation biologist several years ago. He had worked for a government agency, conducting scientific research that could help the agency meet its stated mission of protecting wildlife habitat. They kept ignoring his research findings though — not because they doubted the science, but because they had other, more powerful stakeholders to consider.)
Conservation biology is a lovely template for how one might begin to formulate a well-intentioned community of mission scientists. But we have to look to climate scientists and public health researchers to understand the threats that will bubble up once you prove too useful and become a target of powerful actors who oppose your underlying normative position.
So what is to be done here? I think it’s useful, as a starting point, to state plainly what is happening:
Academic researchers decided it was worth studying the spread of election misinformation and public health misinformation. They did this not out of partisanship, but out of a shared normative concern for democratic stability and public information in a rapidly changing information environment. They let the hard, pragmatic challenges faced by public officials, advocates, and digital platforms shape their research questions, and they worked to communicate relevant findings back to those actors. This is a positive development. It ought to be celebrated. Instead, these researchers are now paying an unjust price.
These are good, honorable social scientists. Their lives are being made hellish, not because of any doubts about the merit of their scientific research, but because they have proven too relevant to the complicated work of governance.
(No one gets a subpoena for counting congressional tweets, because no one in power notices that research to begin with.)
I’m proud to be part of a discipline where people are doing important-enough work to attract the ire of powerful actors who are seeking to undermine the normative foundations of a functional democracy. It is a sign that we, as a discipline, are doing something right.
I would urge all of my peers, and these scholars’ university administrations, and the foundations that have supported this work, take pride as well.
If you believed in the mission before, you sure as hell ought to stand behind these scientists now.