Members of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin receive a monthly copy of The Ethics Report. Each edition will include summaries of research as well as articles about ethical leadership in practice...frequently awarding a "green light" or "red flag" rating. Each month, we include a featured article from the most recent edition of The Ethics Report.
Misinformation...Where to begin...where do we go from here?
"I ask myself, what is the fastest way to destroy democracy? The fastest way to destroy democracy is to poison information." Scott Pelley
Where to begin
On November 3rd, voters elected Mark Kelly (D) as the new Senator for the State of Arizona and Young Kim (R) new Member of Congress in Southern California. These are fresh faces with an opportunity for adding their perspectives to their new role. It will be interesting to learn how they navigate given the current climate of political divisiveness in a time of rampant misinformation.
Right after Election Day, Katy Byron of The Poynter Report tweeted that if Joe Biden won the election, there was going to be an “explosion of disinformation online, the likes of which we have never seen.” It now looks like this was a very prophetic statement. The Presidential election has demonstrated the profound political divisions in our country. The political division has grown in the last decade (Pew Research Center). And throughout history, our nation has experienced periods of profound political divisiveness. This in itself is not new. However, what has emerged in the last five years is the growing impact of misinformation as a major, complicating variable. Quite literally, since November 3rd, our nation finds itself in the midst of a veritable flood of misinformation.
In looking at the dynamics of today’s misinformation, and the impact on newly elected leaders (such as Senator Kelly and Representative Kim), there is a basic question...where do we begin? There are so many swirling issues. In this article, we are going to focus on three variables: social media, national news media and President Trump. In a future edition of The Ethics Report, we will take a deeper dive into some of the other variables such as the rural/urban divide and cultural elitism.
The evidence supports the increased public concern about the impact of misinformation on social media. About two-thirds of Americans (64%) say social media has a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the country today, according to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults conducted July 13-19, 2020. Just one-in-ten Americans say social media sites have a mostly positive effect on the way things are going, and one-quarter say these platforms have a neither positive nor negative effect. Those who have a negative view of the impact of social media mention, in particular, misinformation and the hate and harassment they see. Additionally, Democrats bemoan social media’s role in fomenting partisanship and polarization, the creation of echo chambers. Meanwhile, Republicans maintain that these platforms oppose President Donald Trump and conservatives, according to Pew Research.
Opening Pandora’s Box
It is hard to describe how dramatically social media has grown as a political tool in the last 10 to 12 years. In the book, Mindf*ck, Christopher Wylie describes his role in harvesting data from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as an employee of the firm, Cambridge Analytica. As a whistleblower, he testified at a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. Facebook provided open access to their data, with out cost, because of a company policy to provide their data to education institutions. The problem was that Cambridge Analytica was a partisan enterprise, not an education program. They simply rented an office on the Cambridge campus. Their program was able to identify users who would be prone to respond to hate and racist misinformation. The Senate Intelligence Committee recognized that Cambridge Analytica was an influence in the 2016 election and they have since been put out of business. But the data remained on the social media platforms and other users have stepped up their efforts to harvest that information...essentially following the Cambridge Analytica model. In October 2020, the Senate Commerce Committee brought in the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and and Google to address concerns about social media regulation. Unfortunately, the hearing revealed social media regulation has devolved into a partisan issue, with Democrats seeking more scrutiny and Republicans seeking an unregulated approach.
It is worth noting that the presidential election exacerbated these dynamics. Since November 3rd, social media users on nearly every platform have spread rumors of discarded ballots, mysterious new votes and sudden halts in the vote-counting process to raise doubts about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s gains in battleground states.
National News Media
While rumors have been rampant on social media, traditional news organizations have been wrestling with reporting the facts, reporting the dynamics of misinformation coming from the highest levels in government and responding to their consumers who are clamoring for conspiracy information.The Poynter Report tracks the performance of news organizations. They raised concerns about Fox News. While the daytime news at Fox is taking a reputable approach at reporting the news in a time of misinformation (including making disclaimers about baseless statements from the White House), the evening pundits have been doing otherwise. According to Poynter, “The type of rhetoric put out by some of the Fox News and Fox Business personalities is dangerous. It harms our democracy, fosters divisiveness, creates chaos and might even insight violence”. In simple terms, national media organizations a) report the news, b) provide commentary, and c) provide entertainment. It becomes a problem when consumers do not distinguish the difference.
It appears that one source of misinformation is the President. Many of the rumors found a home in the social media accounts of President Donald Trump, his campaign and his family. Trump and his family have amplified false and misleading posts alleging voter fraud since the early morning hours of November 4th. Reliable sources in the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia have determined that there is no viable evidence of widespread election fraud.
In a specific example, President Trump tweeted about signature-matching in Georgia and criticized Secretary of State Raffensperger for his management of the state elections: “Georgia Secretary of State, a so-called Republican (RINO), won’t let the people checking the ballots see the signatures for fraud. Why? Without this the whole process is very unfair and close to meaningless. Everyone knows that we won the state.” It should be noted that this is but one example of many alleging voter fraud since November 3rd.
The New York Times reported that President Trump made over 300 tweets between November 3rd and November 16th criticizing the legitimacy of the election. A number of lawsuits were filed. To date, 14 of these lawsuits were dismissed. The one exception involved an accommodation for observers to be able to be closer to the vote count...a very minor determination. There has been some speculation that the delay in reaching a concession has served two purposes. It has appeased disappointed Trump voters by “putting up a fight”. It has also helped to raise monies for the legal fund. Ironically, the clause in the contribution statement specified that up to 60% of the contribution may be used to retire campaign debt. President Trump has earned a red flag for his untruthful exit following the election.
Where do we go from here?
The question on everyone’s mind...where do we go from here? Nearly 80 million Americans voted for Joe Biden, an all time record for a presidential election in the U.S. However, nearly 74 million Americans voted for Donald Trump, a total which exceeds the previous high water mark for presidential votes. We are a nation divided. The exacerbating factor of misinformation is particularly troublesome.
Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson recently stated that it appears that half the country will not recognize Joe Biden as president. "It's very unfortunate that no matter who wins, the other half of America is not going to view this as a particularly legitimate election," Johnson said. "That's a real problem. I am not saying it is legitimate or not. I am saying this process has been set up where people are not going to view it as legitimate. And that's a real problem." Senator Johnson has earned a red flag for the missed opportunity to point out election integrity...a step toward unification.
So the road ahead looks long. Elected leaders will be faced with a dilemma. In terms of the election outcome, shall they tell their constituents what they want to hear, remain silent, or share the truth? As of right now, many Republican leaders are remaining silent. The power of misinformation is potent.
It will be interesting to see how Senator Mark Kelly and Representative Young Kim respond to the dilemma. Perhaps fresh voices can help to begin the bridge building process. Time will tell.
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Bipartisanship is a more than splitting the difference
The November 2020 election is considered to be a high stakes determination on a number of important policy issues. One area at stake is bipartisanship. This is not a legislative policy, rather it is a pathway to address policy issues. Bipartisanship has fallen into a pattern of disuse. The partisan divide has more than doubled in the last decade according to the Pew Research Center. The Pew Research Center has determined that political party loyalty is the overwhelming factor in the growing partisan divide (when compared to age, level of education, religious attendance, race or gender). Why is that? There are a number of reasons. To be certain, both political parties have been actively promoting strategies to prevail on policy issues through achieving a political majority...a winner takes all approach. This in itself is not new, though there has been a conscious effort to bypass some of the balancing legislative protocols such as the conference committee and the filibuster. The phrase "elections matter" is often heard today. Of course, this is not the first time our nation has been deeply divided. To be certain, we were divided during the Vietnam Nam war period. But there are other emerging factors at play today. As we have discussed in past issues of The Ethics Report, there is a convergence of 1) a dramatic rise in reliance on social media and 2) the expertly designed interference to divide Americans. For example, in 2016, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence determined that the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) inserted extensive fabricated posts on social media, designed play upon partisan fears and racial animosity. The campaign of fabricated posts by the IRA led to more than 31 million “likes” and “shares” on Facebook and Instagram. Remember, these were fabricated posts, designed to divide U.S. citizens and erode the integrity of the American democracy.
What do voters think about bipartisanship?
It appears that voters have mixed feelings about bipartisanship. Many view the divisive political climate with concern. The 2019 Pew Research Center study showed 85 percent of Americans feel the political climate to be less respectful, fact-based and substantive. It raises a legitimate question...can America truly be great if our nation is so deeply divided?
At the same time, there are conscious efforts to promote bipartisanship. LeaderEthics-Wisconsin recognizes the work of the Bipartisan Policy Center https://bipartisanpolicy.org/ , a think tank that promotes bipartisan solutions to many of the nation’s most pressing policy issues. BPC has developed suggested policy statements and pathways for addressing: Campus Free Expression, Corporate Governance, Economy, Education, Elections, Governance, Health, Immigration, Infrastructure, and Technology. These policy solutions are intended to provide viable options for members of the two major political parties to craft legislation that will measurably improve or address conditions. And the policy solutions are intended to inform citizens that viable bipartisan options do exist.
We also like the work of Braver Angels https://braverangels.org/. This organization promotes civil dialog among citizens with both firmly-held conservative and liberal views. Their approach involves grassroots workshops held in various communities all around the country. Their goal is to help citizens better understand and respectfully listen to and consider the views of others.
But at the same time, the political parties are promoting negative advertising in record numbers. According to NBC News a report by Advertising Analytics projects campaign advertising in 2020 to reach $6.7 billion, most of which will be spent on attack ads. Although people report that they are tired of the negative advertising, it continues to thrive. To quote Joe Heim, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse, negative advertising survives “because it works”. It is difficult for an elected official to endure a nasty campaign, and then turn around and embrace the opposition responsible for the negativity.
Can the partisan divide be healed?
The future prospects of increased bipartisanship are uncertain. The public appears to be growing weary of the extreme political divisiveness. But it is an uphill struggle to overcome the forces that promote the divide. Efforts by groups like the Bipartisan Policy Center and Braver Angels help because they encourage public awareness regarding the viability and benefits of well-crafted bipartisanship. This is an essential step in the uphill climb. Voters must first recognize that a bipartisan approach can lead to better and more lasting outcomes for everyone. From there, voters must support candidates who actively engage in bipartisan efforts. People must believe that “bipartisanship works”.
Bipartisanship is more than splitting the difference
The initial steps toward increased bipartisanship are important, but there will be limited results unless elected officials actively work to support their entire constituency (which you may recognize as one of the four principles of ethical leadership). This involves engaging with members on the other side of the aisle to better understand their viewpoint and to build trust. This requires an open mind. Ronald Reagan said about the evolving relations with the former Soviet Union, “trust, but verify”. That process involves both formal and informal engagement and communication. An example of the formal approach is the Select Committee for the Modernization of Congress, a bipartisan committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. As stated by Chair Derek Kilmer and Vice Chair Tom Graves, “This committee’s mission is to make Congress work better for the American people, which includes boosting transparency and finding ways to ‘open up’ the People’s House with just a click of a mouse”. Engagement and communication can also be done informally. A wonderful example is the friendship between Supreme Court Justices Anthony Scalia (a conservative) and Ruth Bader Ginsberg (a liberal). Their philosophy on law was significantly different, yet their friendship was real. They certainly earn a posthumous green light from our organization.
Without Expectations, Is Moral Character Possible?
Jeh Johnson, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under Barack Obama spoke at the convocation at Liberty University, the Christian school with more than 100,000 students enrolled. Liberty University is recognized for its conservative core philosophy. Johnson is considered to be a trusted lieutenant of Barack Obama.
He spoke of five traits that constitute a good leader: “tell the truth, build consensus, be inclusive, never ask someone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself, and follow the Golden Rule”.
He went on to state, “We no longer expect our political leaders to tell us the truth and we no longer expect our political leaders to play by the rules. Our expectations of our political leaders have sunk so low we now accept from them personal behavior that would be unacceptable for our children, our students, our employees, or cadets, soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines under our military command.” He added that “leaders too often seek to gain attention by pandering to our fears, our suspicions and our prejudices.” He did not specify names or examples, allowing the students to draw their own conclusions.
His remarks regarding the five traits of leadership bear a strong resemblance to the four principles of ethical leadership: truthfulness, transparency, acting as a unifier and representing all constituents. Although his remarks clearly address leadership behavior, he was also speaking to the expectations of citizens. He was asking the students at Liberty University...why do we accept behavior from political leaders that we would not accept from family, friends, co-workers or employees?
The Dynamics of Political Party Loyalty
Political polarization is a major factor of influence on the words and actions of leaders. Conservative author David French, in the September 11, 2020 article in The Dispatch, The French Press, takes note of this dynamic. In the subsequent dialog following the revelation in the Bob Woodward book, Rage, where President Trump revealed that he knew that COVID-19 was far deadlier than the flu, many saw it as an issue of untruthfulness. French stated, “When critics of the president declared, beginning even in 2015, that - character is destiny, -this is what we meant. When the time would come to tell the hard truths, the president was likely to fail—and fail he did.” He also added, “I’ve seen folks in the conservative media—including friends of mine—argue that if the president had been sounding the alarm accurately and consistently that he would have faced immediate pushback from the Democrats and the media. I agree that the reality of negative polarization means that there are too many people who oppose anything Trump says simply because Trump said it.” French goes on to add, “But that does not relieve the president of the obligation to tell the truth.” Such is the challenge of leadership in these politically polarized times, certainly for ethical leadership. Jeh Johnson is calling for leaders to follow their moral compass, even though they will face intense criticism, regardless of their position. Donald Trump has earned a red flag, perhaps the largest red flag awarded as of yet, for his admission that he was aware of the seriousness of COVID-19, yet he wanted to play it down rather than speak out with transparency.
Does the burden of ethical leadership lie solely on leaders?
The research supports the importance of leaders as role models. In many ways, leaders can help shape the actions and beliefs of others. And even though in the American democracy, we elect representatives as well as those that serve in the executive branch of government, all elected officials (for better or worse) are role models. In a time of intense political polarization, we need leaders who work at unification...leaders who are willing to do the heavy lifting...leaders as described by Jeh Johnson.
It we also need to cultivate the expectation of ethical leadership among citizens. That is what Johnson was referring to when he said we are finding ourselves accepting from political leaders “personal behavior that would be unacceptable” for others in everyday life. In fact, our silence is beyond acceptance, it reflects endorsement.
What can citizens do to raise the expectation of ethical leadership?
In the American democracy, we are provided the opportunity in a number of ways. We can band together to address “large scale” issues. For example, in the November 2019 issue of The Ethics Report, we talked about the work of the “Badass Grandmas of North Dakota”, who succeeded in passing a state constitutional amendment in 2018 to address the lack transparency in state government. They accomplished this even though they were outspent by the opposition 20 to 1. Clearly, average citizens can achieve some amazing things. But there are also “small scale” steps citizens can take at the local level. They can raise questions about truthfulness, transparency, unification and across-the-board representation at local candidate forums. They can express their thoughts to traditional and social media sources. They can support candidates that exemplify the values of ethical leadership. Indeed, these “small scale” steps, in the aggregate, can at times have an even greater effect than some of the “large scale” efforts because they start at the local level where change can be more readily embraced. For example, candidates who are seeking to be elected to the state assembly are going to be more in tune with the stated beliefs in their home community. Imagine the effect if the conversation on ethical leadership is occurring in many communities across the state and nation. Citizens are role models too.
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The Presidential Election: Things We Don't Like...Things We Like
2020 will be a year many of us would like to forget. The pandemic, the economic downturn and the partisan divisiveness have taken a toll. And the presidential election has become fully embroiled in these elements in an ongoing and seemingly endless way. Yet, despite these conditions, there may be some watershed moments in this year's election as well. Some things, born out of necessity in 2020, may become part of the new way forward in future years. At the risk of sounding pretentious, here are some things we don't like about this year's election...and some things we like.
Of course, there are a number of other items that could make the "don't like" list. These are the ones that stand out most for us. However, there are also some things on our "do like" list.
Of course it is important to remember that there are still more than two months to go (as of this writing) before the November 3rd election. And there may be developments that are yet to unfold. The vital element to consider, regardless of the things you do not like, or like, about the election? It is important to vote. The American democracy may not be perfect, but in the absence of active and engaged citizen voting, all of the alternative outcomes are much worse.
The Heavy Lifting of Leadership for Elected Officials
Is the American Democracy fractured? What is causing the cracks? By all accounts, the growing partisan divide and “silo mentality" of the major political parties is a major factor.
In 1988, Phil S. Ensor coined the term “silo mentality” which described the condition where the subsystems or departments in an organization are in conflict. For example, different departments may fight for budget dollars, head count and control over direction, seemingly intent on winning no matter the effect on the overall company or organization.
In large corporations, silos can get so intense as to bring the competitive drive of the company to a halt. Ironically, the participants in the conflict often do not recognize the damage being caused. Silos can develop anywhere. Unfortunately, they are also common in healthcare and higher education.
Over the years, there have been numerous studies on the silo mentality and how to overcome it. Nearly all conclude that leadership is an essential factor. Leaders can communicate common, overriding goals that are essential for organization success. They incorporate cross-divisional communication practices. They can reward teamwork. They can call out internal conflict and remove people, if needed, who are the repeated source of conflict. In other words, they can do the “heavy lifting” needed to break down the silo mentality. On the flip side, if leaders ignore or contribute to the conflict, the climate worsens. In my words, all hell breaks loose.
Silos and turf wars are particularly challenging in the political environment, where the political parties have differing interests. The growing partisanship differences between Democrats and Republicans are inherently more challenging because the differing interests can be very fluid and, in some cases, lack integrity. At the national level, the President, the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House can play a major role in defining the common, overriding goals. This is not happening now, despite the presence of an apolitical national threat in COVID-19. However, all elected officials at the national, state and local levels also bear some responsibility of the partisan fractures. This is clearly the case for those elected officials who refuse to reach out to members of the other side.
To be certain, campaign funding from special interest groups, media bias and misinformation on social media can make “reaching out to the other side” very difficult. But many Americans are seeking bipartisan solutions as exemplified by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Jefferson-Hamilton Award for Bipartisanship. The U.S. Chamber is the world’s largest business organization and they recognize the inherent problems associated with a deeply divided political climate. It is a challenge in today’s climate for any elected official to take on the heavy lifting of bipartisan leadership. But it is needed now more than ever. Elected officials can be readily accused of selling out to the other party. Therefore it is important to support citizen efforts to promote positive examples bipartisanship. The U.S Chamber of Commerce has earned a green light for the Jefferson-Hamilton Award.
Of course, when we vote, every citizen has the opportunity to recognize those elected officials who are willing to do the heavy lifting. As citizens, through voting, we can step outside of the partisanship silo. We can recognize the damage that is occurring and take a stand to bring about bipartisan solutions for the complex problems we face. Our country will be the better for it.
2020 in the United States will be a year to remember and, for many, a year to forget. In a matter of four months (March to June), we have experienced the surge in COVID-19 infections resulting in varying stay-at-home polices in each of the states. During the four month timeframe, more than 100,000 Americans died from the virus. The pandemic, coupled with the closing of many businesses, led to a dramatic downturn in the economy and an increase in unemployment not seen since the Great Depression. By early May, pressure was building to reopen the economy, resulting in citizen protests in a number of state capitals. Most states began relaxing stay-at-home policies in May. Then on May 25th, George Floyd was killed by a policeman in Minneapolis. This event spurred massive protests in numerous cities across the country. There were peaceful protests as well as violence and looting. And there was an emergence of dialog and actions designed to address systemic racism. Some counter-protests are now also emerging. Throughout all of this, the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic are continuing.
For people of the Baby Boom generation, the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 are reminiscent of the civil rights protests of the 1960’s. There are differences, of course. The dramatic, sudden and combined impact of the pandemic and economic recession is something this nation has never experienced. Meanwhile, the controversial war in Viet Nam was more like slowly sinking in quicksand.
Clearly, elected leaders in both political parties are struggling with the dynamics in 2020. The November elections are a little more than four months away. To their credit, national leaders have passed three stimulus bills, focusing on the combined impact of the pandemic and the economy. And national legislation is moving rapidly, designed to address systemic racism and excessive force by the police. However, throughout this process, the rhetoric and actions of President Trump have not been unifying...particularly at a time when the pandemic...a nonpartisan threat...looms large. As noted by the Pew Research Center, we are a nation divided at this time https://www.pewresearch.org/topics/political-polarization/. President Trump has earned a red flag by his divisive words and actions.
Two different audiences - and countries, perhaps - are wrapped up (with) two chyrons running simultaneously as President Trump stood in front of a church following his brief remarks Monday
CNN: “Peaceful protestors gassed, shot with rubber bullets so Trump can have church photo-op.”CNN: “Peaceful protestors gassed, shot with rubber bullets so Trump can have church photo-op.”
Fox News: “President Trump visits historic St. John’s Church in DC amid protests.”
And later, this from CNN: Trump says he's an "ally of all peaceful protestors" as police fire tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protestors near WH"
Poynter goes on to report that this excerpt is just the initial snapshot of the detailed opinion-based coverage later that evening. They note that rubber bullets were not fired (as reported by CNN). Meanwhile, they point out that Fox News coverage appears to be clueless to the events on hand. Poynter states that it is as if these major media outlets are simultaneously describing two different countries.
Where Do We Go From Here?
We are at the mid-point of 2020 and clearly in a chaotic state. The prospects of a rapid turnaround in 2021 are not promising. David Gergen (political commentator and former presidential advisor in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations) stated in a 2020 visit to La Crosse, “It is very possible that, regardless of who wins the Presidential election in November, they will have a very difficult time governing for the next four years.” We hope he is wrong in this prediction. But we should not ignore the gravity of the situation.