Abstract In some ways this is the best of times: we have not had a world war, and overall we are living longer and healthier lives. In some ways, this is perhaps the most uncertain of times, more than at any other time in our living memory. Countries are more inward-looking and less inclusive; the media, the institution that is critical both for democracy and our discipline, is under attack; and so is our identity as researchers of truth, as facticity is questioned. This address makes the case that we have much to contribute as researchers, because good research aims to make the world a better place. The main task of a leader is to confront reality. This is a philosophy I have adopted for myself for some time now, after reading works on leadership (see for example, Collins, 2001, p. 65). So while preparing for my address, I was looking for a phrase that would capture the world we live in today and I think I found it in the acronym of VUCA. It describes four types of challenges. (The term originated in the US Army War College and there does not appear to be anyone who may be credited with coining the term; the earliest reference I can find online is a report by Lawrence and Steck .) The “V” in the VUCA acronym stands for volatility. It means the challenge is unexpected. The nature, speed, volume, and magnitude of change do not occur in a predictable pattern. The “U” stands for uncertainty, or the lack of predictability in issues and events, possibly because of a lack of certain information. The “C” stands for complexity, which is the condition that the outcome is unexpected and unpredictable because of interconnected variables. Finally, the “A” in VUCA stands for ambiguity, which is the lack of clarity about the meaning of an event because the causal relationship is unclear (Bennett & Lemoine, 2014). The context of the reality is also important to note. For that, we need to step back to look at the world. And here, I can say—no matter what you see around you—that we have a beautiful world. We have had no world war in more than 70 years (Roser, 2016). We are living healthier lives, and for longer (Roser, 2017). Yes, not everyone in the world has those advantages I have listed, but more and more do. Statistically speaking, a large part of these advantages is due to China, which has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, and, to a lesser extent, India. But I also attribute many of these improvements in our lives to science and research. How do we continue this salubrious trajectory? Why am I even raising the issue? I think there are dark clouds on the horizon. I list three areas of concern for us. First, the media are under attack. According to Edelman’s Trust Barometer, trust across the entities of business, government, and non-governmental organizations has fallen in 2017. But it is trust in the media has that has declined the most in this year. Of the 28 countries surveyed, 23 (or 82%) reported trust in the media as being below 50% (Edelman, 2017). Second, countries are looking inward instead of outward. As I wrote earlier in the newsletter, kingdoms on the rise have been more open and inclusive (Ang, 2016). The research suggests that to maintain our trajectory, we need to maintain the openness and inclusiveness. Third, facticity and its proponents are being questioned. I refer here to fake news. It is not easily to tell what is fake. One morning, I woke up to the following alert from the Guardian newspaper (February 17, 2017) showing the most viewed news: Suspect in North Korea killing “thought she was taking part in TV prank” Robert Mugabe could contest election as corpse, says wife German parents told to destroy doll that can spy on children I did a double take; but they were real, not fake, news articles. I first encountered the notion of fake news when I happened to visit Macedonia at the end of 2014. A non-profit organization, Metamorphosis Foundation, said that it was fact-checking the news. I was puzzled and had a brief conversation on the matter with my interviewee, but thought nothing more of it then, as it was not relevant to my research. Interestingly, a BBC report has pointed to the Macedonian town of Veles as a significant source of fake news in the U.S. presidential elections (Wendling, 2017). Fake news is an important subject for us to address, because it strikes at the heart of who we are and what we do. It strikes at our identity as truth seekers. It also strikes at the sustainability of the industry that our graduates will work in. How do we defeat fake news? I believe that here, there are contributions that we as researchers can make. First, we should work to remove the commercial incentive for fake news. As the legal advisor to the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore, a self-regulatory consumer-led body, I can say that advertisers are a conservative lot. They do not want to be associated with fake anything. They do not want to be associated with extremist sites. A London Times newspaper investigation uncovering ads that were linked to hate videos led to a protest pull-out from Google non-search platforms (such as YouTube) by more than 250 organizations, including the U.K. Government, McDonald’s, Marks & Spencer, the BBC, French advertising agency Havas, and the Guardian newspaper (Moustrous & Dean, 2017), as well as other global brands (Moustrous, 2017). Advertising requires a trusted space to function. Without that trusted space, the advertising market self-destructs. To understand this, I turn to a theory that I have tested and used in Singapore. This is the problem of the asymmetry of information. It is a problem that has been highlighted by Nobel prize-winner in economics George Akerlof: if incomplete information is the only means to judge a product/service, then bad information will eventually lead to the downfall of the market. In his paper, “The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism,” Akerlof (1970) shows that where the quality of the information is uncertain, in the long run, the market tends to self-destruct. Akerlof recommends self-regulation as a form of signaling and screening (so that only the good guys are in the market) to demonstrate credibility and thereby prevent the market from self-destruction. Based on prior research that I had conducted, such a self-regulatory regime was adopted by the Singapore Vehicle Traders Association. This is an industry association of used-car dealers, people who handle the lemons that Akerlof wrote about. Mainly because of cost consideration, only 20% of the members signed up. Figure 1 below shows the number of complaints before and after the self-regulatory regime was put in place. In absolute numbers, the 20% of members had a total of four complaints in the six months after enrollment, and the four were minor and easily resolved. Allowing for the fact that participants were only a fifth of the entire membership and this was for half the year, the extrapolated number should have been 40 complaints during that time, when compared with 150 for the rest of the Association. This is a nearly 75% reduction in complaints. In other words, under the right conditions, self-regulation, even of the used-car industry, can work. Figure 1 View largeDownload slide Number of complaints before and after self-regulation of used cars in Singapore. Source: Consumers Association of Singapore, 2008. Figure 1 View largeDownload slide Number of complaints before and after self-regulation of used cars in Singapore. Source: Consumers Association of Singapore, 2008. The advertising market has asymmetric characteristics. The seller knows whether the claims for the product or service being advertised are true; the buyer does not. The advertising industry gets around the problem by having an advertising code, often of a self-regulatory nature. With the large sums of money involved—Google and Facebook are estimated to command some 60% of the online ad spend in the United States and about half globally—there is every incentive for the two internet giants to fix the problem. I am sure that these and other players will work to restore trust in the online space. Facebook is reported to be aiming to restore trust not just to address fake news, but also to remove violent and inappropriate content, especially live video, through hiring 3,000 moderators. One reason for the large number of hires apparently is the high burnout rate from watching such content (Chaykowski, 2017). Perhaps one role we as researchers in the space can take is to point out and minimize the potential harm for those working to solve the problem of making the space more trusted. Governments have to be very careful about regulating fake news. There are significant governance issues: Who decides what is fake news? Who decides how to punish an offender? What about unintended consequences? Might the regulations stifle science? Might they stifle whistle-blowing? I believe that civil society groups—and I include academia here—have an enlarged role: To call out fake news sites, To educate users to call out fake news sites, and To do better research to minimize the harm from such content. By better research, I mean research that solves global problems: i.e., problems that people around the globe want solved. This does not mean always aiming to get to world peace. It could be an equation that opens the door to solutions many around the globe had been seeking. It could be pointing out issues before they become major problems. For example, all unjust discrimination begins with framing. And so framing research warns us of the potential hazards in the frames being used. Finally, by better research I also mean research that is done well and compels society to take science more seriously. At the International Communication Association, we honor colleagues and friends who have done outstanding research. It reflects well on us that we set high standards and recognize those among us who meet those standards. But the goal of outstanding research is not to be recognized, cited, or even to win awards. The goal of work, our research, is to make our world a better place. I know this is something good researchers, such as our award winners, strive to do in their research. May we continue to make our world a better place in the years ahead. References Akerlof, G. A. ( 1970). The market for “lemons”: Quality uncertainty and the market mechanism. The Quarterly Journal of Economics , 84( 3), 488. doi:10.2307/1879431 Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Ang, P. H. ( 2016). Being better, doing better. ICA Newsletter, December 2016, 4. Retrieved from http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.icahdq.org/resource/resmgr/Newsletters_Archive/2016/DEC16.pdf. Bennett, N., & Lemoine, G. J. ( 2014). What VUCA really means for you. Harvard Business Review, January–February, 27– 28. Chaykowski, K. ( 2017, May 3). Facebook is hiring 3,000 moderators in push to curb violent videos. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kathleenchaykowski/2017/05/03/facebook-is-hiring-3000-moderators-in-push-to-curb-violent-videos/#76cce81f58cb. Collins, J. ( 2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap and others don’t . New York, NY: HarperCollins. Edelman. ( 2017). Trust barometer. Retrieved from https://www.edelman.com/trust2017/. Lawrence, J. A., & Steck, E. N. ( 1991). Overview of management theory . Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College. Retrieved from http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a235762.pdf. Moustrous, J. ( 2017, March 21). Global brands shun Google: Hundreds of companies suspend advertising in row over extremist content. The Times. Retrieved from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/global-brands-shun-google-p9zlr7bq7. Moustrous, J., & Dean, J. ( 2017, March 23). Top brands pull Google adverts in protest at hate video links. The Times. Retrieved from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/top-brands-pull-google-adverts-in-protest-at-links-with-hate-videos-5f5sfrcjw. Reuters. ( 2017, July 28). Why Google and Facebook prove the digital ad market is a duopoly. Fortune. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2017/07/28/google-facebook-digital-advertising/. Roser, M. ( 2016). War and peace. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/war-and-peace/. Roser, M. ( 2017). Life expectancy. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy/. Wendling, M. ( 2017, February 17). “Fake news city” is now pumping out odd Facebook videos. BBC Trending. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-38971987. © 2018 International Communication Association
Journal of Communication – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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