Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Strategies of authoritarian control: The culture of forwarding private Facebook screen captures to authorities

One of the well-rehearsed strategies of authoritarian control is surveillance.

While technologies enable new modes of surveillance, the power and control of surveillance is reproduced through human participation.

Mechanisms of surveillance are perfected and reproduced by willing subjects that participate in the reproduction of surveillance (Andrejevic, 2002, 2007; Dubrofsky, 2011; Fuchs, 2017; Owen & Imre, 2013). Those that participate in these mechanisms are led to believe that they will somehow be rewarded by the structures.

With each new technology, authoritarian powers invent new mechanisms of control.

The power of authoritarianism lies precisely in the threat that one will be found out if they did or said anything that challenges the control of the structure. Surveillance works toward silencing critique through the culture of fear it reproduces.

Inherent in the reproduction of this culture of fear is the prevalence of mechanisms of surveillance. Everyday interactions are turned into sites of surveillance. Modes of participation are brought under the purview of surveillance.

And everyone around you is potentially an accomplice to the strategies of surveillance. Your neighbor, colleague, friend, partner-the possibility that anyone can potentially be an instrument of surveillance feeds a sense of paranoia that is antithetical to critical thought.

The global emergence of Facebook as a platform for social change, albeit within the logics of dominant capitalist structures, has also brought on new modalities of Facebook surveillance.

One such modality of surveillance is the monitoring of Facebook.

Facebook posts shared with the intent of communicating with friends (set to "friends only" settings) can be forwarded to authoritarian structures of power and control. Screen captures then can be used as tools of control.

The culture of forwarding screen captures in this sense is an extension of the overarching culture of authoritarian control. Participants in the elaborate networks of control are somehow led to believe that they will be incentivized and rewarded for passing on information, ironically themselves being under surveillance by somebody else. The paranoia enables the authoritarian system to reproduce itself, silencing critical thought and interrogation.

One of the key sites for communication advocacy in this backdrop is to hold global corporate structures such as Facebook to account. Facebook privacy settings are rendered meaningless if private Facebook posts can be treated as public.


Andrejevic, Mark. (2002). "The work of watching one another: Lateral surveillance, risk, and governance." Surveillance & Society 2.4.

Andrejevic, M. (2007). iSpy: Surveillance and power in the interactive era (p. 182). Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Dubrofsky, R. E. (2011). Surveillance on reality television and Facebook: From authenticity to flowing data. Communication Theory, 21(2), 111-129.

Fuchs, C. (2017). Social media: A critical introduction. Sage.

Owen, S., & Imre, R. (2013). Little mermaids and pro-sumers: The dilemma of authenticity and surveillance in hybrid public spaces. International Communication Gazette, 75(5-6), 470-483.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Communication theory in Science, Health, Risk Communication

Outside of the disciplinary framework of communication scholarship that systematically examines communication processes, communicative phenomena, messages, and their effects in the realms of health, science, and risk, mostly originating from within the Communication discipline in the U.S. and published in the top-tier disciplinary and sub-disciplinary journals, claims to expertise in science, health, and risk communication are often made by outsiders to the discipline of Communication in other parts of the world. This certainly seems to be the case in significant proportions of science, health, and risk communication being done, taught, and launched across the Asia-Pacific. A quick survey of these new and market-driven forays into science, health, and risk communication would suggest they have little grounding in and little to do with the scientific study of communication. Reviewing these programs, I often come away disappointed, and more importantly, with the recognition that our discipline needs to do much more in establishing and implementing the standards for what gets to be taught and practiced in programs using the Communication tag strategically and who gets to teach, offer, and practice it.

Whereas these claims to science, health, and risk communication across the Asia-Pacific are mostly responses to the burgeoning demands in the market, to the easily available funding in these industries, and to the opportunities for generating revenues in these areas, they are often poorly configured as they are not grounded in Communication theory and mostly lack knowledge of the theoretical and empirical scholarship in science, health, and risk communication. In many instances, such claims to communication knowledge without even the basic undergraduate-level exposure to Communication theory and research are dangerous as they replicate pseudo-scientific beliefs about communication, and are much more likely to produce negative effects.

Imagine your sociologist making claims to quantum theory; the situation is somewhat like that in these burgeoning knowledge industries in science, health, and risk communication in the Asia Pacific. The complete lack of exposure to the discipline is coupled with the absence of disciplinary oversight into what is being taught and practiced.

That a PhD in Physics or Chemistry or Biology or Economics is not a Communication PhD is the first point that needs to be imbibed in these outsider overtures into Communication. Without the fundamental respect for the systematic study of communicative phenomena, messages, and processes, anchored in the Communication discipline, new programs and claims of science, health, and risk communication are more like the snake oil being sold as the cure to all ailments. When these programs have the branding of legitimacy, they do more harm than good, just like the snake oil packaged as medicinal cure for cancer. In this sense, organizations that develop and sell these programs ought to be held accountable.

As one example, let's consider the basic framework in which communication  is taught in a number of these "fake" programs and "fake" degrees in communication. The basic tenets of what is termed as the magic bullet theory, that communication messages can be injected into the minds of unsuspecting recipients, long debunked by decades of empirical evidence and theorization into persuasive communication, continue to hold sway for functionalist managers of science, health, and risk communication. Driven by the simplistic notion that messages can induce the actions desired by the payers of the messages, approaches to science, health, and risk communication replicate the quest for the right technique, once again without grounding in the fundamental principles of communication. To top it all, physicists and chemists and biologists, with some basic interpersonal skills and techniques of grooming (dressing properly, with an English accent, wearing make-up etc.), are positioned as the experts on communication skills.

Second, without disciplinary oversight, there is no accountability in these programs and practices to actually engaging with the discipline. Therefore, when talking to science, health, or risk communicators, I am struck by how clueless they are about communication journals, communication scholarship, and the body of empirical evidence. For some of them, there is not even the basic knowledge that there exists a discipline called Communication.

Third, being strategic and flushed with money, these "fake" programs often mark their claim to legitimacy by attaching themselves to a world renowned name in science, health, and risk communication. When we as experts in the area lend our names to such programs, once again, we do more harm than good as we legitimize the pseudo-science. I am therefore very careful in evaluating a program, its objectives, content, and intent before accepting to speak for or serve in a Visiting role for a program. Say for instance, a Chinese University launches a program in health communication in a medical school. My first task then is to do my research and see if there is a Communication or Communication-related school in the same University, and if the proposed program has engaged in a collaborative partnership with the disciplinary representatives within the University. Second, I look up if the program has trained Communication scholars and researchers housed in it. If the answer to the question is no, I am likely to respond in the negative regarding lending my name, with the polite suggestion that the program needs to first and foremost recruit Communication scholars if it wants to have anything to do with Communication. At this stage, I am also very clear that I am unlikely as a health communication scholar to lend my legitimacy to a program that is disengaged with the discipline.

Fourth, and this relates to the point about strategy and access to resources, "fake" programs find out that one quick way to build legitimacy is to co-brand with an US university (say, a well-known Communication department). What this tells me is that the program is well aware of the discipline and intentionally ignores it because it wants to profit without investing in the discipline. Such instances of intentional snake oil-salesmanship are all the more problematic as they deliberately choose to not engage the discipline. In such instances, it is the role and responsibility of established global Communication departments to do their homework before identifying and partnering with organizations in the Asia-Pacific, even if these organizations are flush with money. It is irresponsible to lend the credibility to such "fake" programs as it does more harm to the discipline than good, and contributes to its delegitimization.

The proliferation of these "fake" degrees and programs in science, health, and risk communication needs to be held accountable as in many instances, they cheat students and organizations, and in other instances, deliberately mislead them into believing they are getting a communication education when they are not. Moreover, they give a bad name to the discipline as they teach and reproduce practices that are not based on sound scientific knowledge of communication. Framed as soft skills, communication is pitched as something that can be taught and practiced by anybody, devoid of the theorizing and empiricism that goes into the scholarship that is generated in the discipline.

Therefore, there is a pivotal role for the discipline to use standards and metrics of accreditation globally to ensure that what is being taught in these areas of science, health, and risk is legitimate, is anchored in empiricism and theory, and most importantly, is embedded within the scientific anchors of the discipline. The International Communication Association @ICA and the National Communication Association @natcomm, much like the World Medical Association in the case of medical education, have leadership roles to play to ensure that what is offered as communication education is rooted in the best practices and knowledge frameworks of the discipline and is legitimate content drawn from the fundamental tenets of Communication science.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Voices of resistance

from #fieldnotes2011

When the tides of voices
emerging from the margins,
tell their stories,
they offer lessons
that disrupt your draconian rules.

When the tides of voices
emerging from the margins
speak their truth,
they shake up
the lies that you have carefully woven.

When the tides of voices
emerging from the margins,
sing their songs,
they sow the
seeds of hope.

When the tides of voices
emerging from the margins,
make new rhythms,
they remind you
the end of your repression is near.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Lessons from a decade of academic leadership: Advocacy as a pillar of service

In 2007, more than a decade back, six years into my journey in the Professoriate, I was asked to serve in a leadership role.

Since then, I have had the opportunity to serve in various leadership roles from the Deanery to Headship to the Directorships of two centers that I founded.

In these journeys of leadership, the key lesson I have learned is the role of a leader as an advocate. Of course, my energy, creativity, and resilience have been great resources that have enabled me in my leadership journey. But all of these resources have been anchored in a lesson I learned early on, leadership in academe is the pursuit for building supportive structures that enable and inspire others to create, to imagine, and to build. This work of building enabling structures is what I understand as advocacy.

An academic leader is first-and-foremost an advocate for the people she/he serves.

Because most often academic leadership is a pathway into which one ends up (I certainly never imagined I would be spending a decade of my academic life leading), often serendipitously, from within the academe, it fundamentally means that an academic leader is first and foremost an academic.

This point is a critical point that needs remembering, especially amid the neoliberal transformations in the academe where leadership incentives are increasingly turned into managerial key performance indicators (KPIs) such as number of students taught, student evaluations, number of articles, number of top tier journals hit etc.

Advocacy in this sense is the ownership of the institutional processes and frameworks to serve the needs and goals of students and faculty colleagues. Advocacy is integral to retaining the integrity of academic institutions amid the managerial onslaught on academe based on logics driven by the least common denominator.

To be an advocate is to stand up for the rights of others that one serves, to make institutional processes transparent, and to create pathways for sustainability. To be an advocate is also to have the integrity to question the narrow managerial logics, to ask for accountability at the haphazard imposition of this-or-that diktat, and to question the top-down imposition of criteria that are imposed without accountability and faculty consultation.

To be an advocate also is to stand up against the KPIs that are often imposed on the academe by non-academic managers and bureaucrats. That these indicators, narrowly conceptualized, are often detractors is a point that academic leadership needs to make. A leader ought to fundamentally have the integrity to evaluate these criteria objectively, see what is achievable through consultative processes, and create pathways for achieving the criteria that are mutually agreed upon. This also means pushing back at the managers, bureaucrats, and ministries that often set these standards without real ideas of the academic process.

Most importantly, to be an advocate is to hold oneself to the same standards that one expects from students and colleagues. If I am expecting my faculty to publish two peer reviewed articles in top notch journals in a year, am I myself doing so or are capable of doing so?

Too often, institutions prefer mediocre bootlickers to warm the seats of leadership. This ironically means that the ranks of leadership are filled with ambitious failed academics with mediocre CVs. To this coterie of mediocre managers, counting the numbers or driving the number games is easy because leadership for this category has always been about crafting a career trajectory rather than about service.

Incentives are built in for these "managers" to toe the line rather than to demonstrate their integrity. Mediocrity knows very well the pathway to survival is to perform acquiescence to the hegemonic structures that control universities. Too often, the seductions of the next step up in the career ladder are too enticing to stand up for students and faculty when they question the line of power. Too often, the enticements of a managerial career hold these career academics hostage to random diktats that are fundamentally undemocratic and toxic to faculty health and wellbeing. 

Even as the incentives for academic leaders to quickly turn into managerial bean counters are all to seductive, it is critical to remember, leadership is fundamentally about service, and therefore, inherently a form of advocacy. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Academic freedom is the anchor to social science scholarship

Trained as an agricultural engineer in the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), on the underlying technology and mechanics of agricultural innovations, I was drawn to the social sciences because I stumbled into the early realization that any design of technological solutions is incomplete without taking into consideration the societal, cultural, and contextual dimensions that constitute technologies and their uses. Working with poor rural and urban communities, one of the early lessons I was taught by community leaders who had developed their wisdom through the grueling and committed community work was this: narrowly technical solutions to problems of marginalization and inequality erase, often strategically so, the very underlying causes. This simple yet profound realization, mostly emerging from the communities I found myself conversing with, drove me to the social sciences, and more specifically to communication as it offered a pragmatic anchor to developing solutions to the problems I was interested in.

As I went through graduate school and in my early career as an Assistant Professor, I found the answers to the challenges of marginalization and inequality at best incomplete, and in most instances, constitutive of the status quo. Moving back and forth between the theorizing of communication as a vehicle of social change and the practical struggles of communities at the margins, I felt challenged by the vast gap between the empirical evidence grounded in community life and the distant top-down theorizing that was imposed on communities, often by local elites, drawing on theories manufactured in Western sites of knowledge production and funded mostly by Western agencies (state development agencies, private foundations, private corporations etc).

This challenge formed the critical foundation as my students and I worked on formulating the key tenets and applications of the culture-centered approach (CCA), embedded in community life and in the rhythms of community organizing. The many journeys of collaborations with communities that were often at the very margins of the knowledge systems that generated theories about these communities became the basis for articulating conceptual tenets that challenged the foundational categories of social change communication theory.

Any challenge to the status quo is on one hand, ridiculed by the power structures that perpetuate the status quo. On the other hand, the constitution of an academic community founded on the principles of argumentation enable the possibilities of new thought to emerge through reviews that critically engage the scholarship. The work of the CCA had similar experiences through its journey. In many instances, manuscripts were rejected because they offered arguments that were critical of the disciplinary status quo. Reviewers often noted how manuscripts did not engage with the dominant bodies of work, ignored these bodies of work, or misrepresented them in the critiques offered. In many other instances, reviewers noted the novelty of the arguments being made, attended to the evidence being presented, and considered the openings for the field created by the manuscripts.

This process of debate based on arguments, of going back-and-forth with evidence, was enabled by the fundamental commitment of scholarship to academic freedom. The very principle of knowledge production is grounded in freedom to explore new ideas, to challenge existing norms and diktats based on evidence, and to create new conceptual frameworks based on critical engagement with the evidence available to the scholar. Without the fundamental guarantee of freedom, knowledge would continue to be regurgitated within narrow domains of beliefs held by those in power who control the circuits of knowledge production.

This is particularly salient in the social sciences. The goal of the social sciences to generate truth claims, albeit fragmented and tentative, about social systems only becomes possible through a fundamental societal commitment to academic freedom.

In societies that don't value and safeguard the very foundation of academic freedom, conducting social science scholarship is impossible.

In other words, societies that don't fundamentally value academic freedom are not equipped to guarantee social scientists the basic integrity of scientific work. In such instances, the claims that are manufactured by charlatans posing as social scientists are meant to keep the status quo intact, singing the praises of power, obfuscating empirical evidence to tell the stories of power, and often carrying out the public relations work for powerful actors through the manufacturing of evidence that suits powerful actors.

The work of social science becomes one of maintaining and reproducing power rather than being ethically committed to generating truth claims anchored in empirical evidence.

For social sciences to carry out the work of generating truth claims therefore, the first and foremost work of social scientists is to actively lend their bodies to the struggles for academic freedom and to continue working to maintain the spaces of academic freedom.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

So why do we at CARE (the Center for Culture-centered Approach to Research and Evaluation) do what we do?

The culture-centered approach (CCA) outlines a conceptual framework for communication for social change, developing empirically grounded tenets that map out key concepts of communication within the broader ambits of social change.

As a meta-theoretical framework for communication for social change, the CCA explores the ways in which culture, structure, and agency constitute spaces for meaning making and sites of participation for communities at the margins of social systems.

Social change in the context of marginalization specifically attends to the co-creation of communication infrastructures, communication tools, and communicative spaces where the voices at the margins of societies are heard.

From the question of systematic erasure of subaltern subjectivity, the CCA theoretically grapples with the work of communicative processes in disrupting these erasures, the role of communication in struggles for voices to be heard, and the array of communication strategies that open up possibilities for transforming structures.

In answering the questions, "What communication strategies work in challenging erasures?" "What are the communicative infrastructures that enable subaltern voices to be heard?" the CCA is embedded within a contingent, impure, and dynamic site of communicative practice. The theory of practice emerges from the practice itself. In this sense, the culture-centered scholar has to do the work of social change communication to tease out the key lessons of social change communication.

To observe the social change communication processes from a distance is unlikely to generate valid and reliable concepts because the very nature of social change communication involves nuances and practices that are usually invisible to an external observer. For instance, while a removed external observer, sitting in her ivory tower, might claim that "there is no possibility for dialectical articulations in Singapore," an immersed reading of social change communication might point to very different lessons regarding the array of communicative strategies that are put into work everyday by different actors. 

As an empirically grounded meta-theory, the CCA is by nature community immersed. The tenets of social change emerge through the collaborative work of academics with communities at the margins, and also with a range of other actors including state agencies, activists, and civil society organizations. The nature of these relationships, however, are fundamentally grounded in the challenge of "how to build communicative infrastructures for listening to the voices of the margins."

The theory of communication for social change, grounded in cultural articulations and constituted in iterative relationships with structures, emerges through the work of "doing" communication for social change. In this sense, the doing of communication for social change is deeply intertwined with the concepts that are distilled out, and mapped into the meta-theory of social change communication. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Sati, consent, and power: White men and predatory behavior in Asia


During our trip to Phuket, Debalina and I were inundated with images of White men, mostly middle-aged and above, roaming the streets of Phuket with women that seemed to barely have crossed their teens or just beyond their teens.

This sight, of the "old White man" with a young Asian woman, often old enough to be his daughter, is a fairly common sight across East and Southeast Asia.

The image is so common that it is naturalized as part of the scenery, a normative element of the "unique selling proposition" of Phuket, Bangkok, Bali.

The liberals and Asian apologists of cultural tourism have often responded with the concept of consent, noting that the women participating in these "relationships" offer their consent in participation, that they are fully aware of the consequences of participating in such relationships, and therefore, make active choices.

However, consent and participation are never devoid of power. To construct some elaborate narrative of human agency devoid of the structures at play reproduces the exploitative nature of the structures.

Consent is constituted within networks of power, tied to the seductions and affordances offered by power, even as power constrains the possibilities available to those at the receiving end of powerful relationships.

Consent thus is imbricated within the network logics that make up possibilities, possibilities of a better life, possibilities of mobility, possibilities of negotiating structures, possibilities of economic access.

The nature of sexual consent is further complicated by the ways in which patriarchies shape the normative expectations within and outside of institutions. Relationships of power, embedded in clearly signalled differentials in economic access, constitute specific logics of consent that reproduce the vastly unequal terrain of power and control.

The apologia of the "old White man with a young woman" discourse is a reminder for me of the apologia for Sati, the practice in India rooted in the marriage of young women to Brahmin men old enough to be their father or most often, grandfather.

The discursive justifications of Sati were often rooted in notions of consent, celebrating the agentic choices women made in their participation in the ritual, which ended in them being forced onto the pyre of their dead husbands.

In any social system, the powerful deploy the notion of consent to reproduce structures of power.

The notion that "women enact their consent when participating in exploitative relationships with predatory men" reproduces the circuits of power, upholding the participation of institutions to reproduce these logics of exploitation.