I research the interplay between journalism and political communication across three areas:
- Media agenda-building struggles;
- Issues of trust, accuracy and credibility in journalism;
- The security state and public accountability.
strategic political communication, journalism, civil society, sur/sous/veillance, social resistance, agenda-building, trust, intelligence elites, human rights, risk communication, propaganda, persuasion, fake news.
Bakir, V. 2018.Intelligence Elites and Public Accountability: Relationships of Influence with Civil Society. London: Routledge.
Bakir, V. 2013. Torture, Intelligence and Sousveillance in the War on Terror: Agenda–Building Struggles.
Bakir, V. 2010. Sousveillance, Media and Strategic Political Communication: Iraq, USA, UK. New York: Continuum.
Bakir, V. & D.Barlow, (eds.) 2007. Communication in the Age of Suspicion: Trust and the Media. Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan.
Research awards (major):
2018-19: £50,000. Economic & Social Research Council - Arts & Humanities Research Council - UK-Japan Social Sciences & Humanities Connections grant. Emotional AI: Comparative Considerations for UK and Japan across commercial, political and security sectors, Co-Investigator (PI McStay).
2016-19: ESRC Bangor University Impact Accelerator Awards on Political-Intelligence Elites and Public Accountability and Enabling Journalists £20,000. Principle Investigator. These intercionnected awards investigate how civil society (the press, NGOs, activists) can better hold political-intelligence elites publically to account. It co-created a benchmark of public accountability demands and plain English guidance for the National Union of Journalists to advise its members on avoiding surveillance and hacking of their data.
2016-17: £50,000. The Space. Veillance. (Academic partner). This inter-disciplinary, theory-practice art installation, (Feb-Mar. 2017, Pontio Arts & Innovation Centre, Bangor) raises awareness of citizens’ inadvertent data flows from their smart devices. It makes visible and tangible both state and commercial surveillance of people’s data flows, on connecting to the art installation’s wifi via their smart device. It also highlights ‘sousveillance’ (peer to peer watching), as people witness what others in the exhibit are browsing, where key words are projected onto the room’s four walls. The inter-disciplinary team included myself (my work on ‘veillance’ post-Snowden), Andrew McStay’s work on privacy, Gillian Jein’s work on artistic practices in cities, ethical hackers, sound engineers and visualisers, all orchestrated by Ronan Devlin (Pontio designer in residence).
- 2014-17. ESRC Seminar Series. DATA-PSST! - Debating Alternative Transparency Arrangements - Privacy, Security, Surveillance, Trust. £30,000. Principle Investigator: Vian Bakir. Co-Is: Andrew McStay, Bangor Univ., Martina Feilzer, Bangor Univ., Dyfrig Jones, Bangor Univ., Yvonne McDermott-Rees, Bangor Univ, Paul Lashmar, Sussex Univ., Claire Birchall, Kings College London, Madeline Carr, Cardiff Univ., Claudia Hillebrand, Cardiff Univ., Emma Briant, Sheffield Univ., Ross Bellaby, Sheffield Univ.
In 2013, National Security Agency whistle-blower, Edward Snowden revealed a societal transparency arrangement: where state surveillance had infiltrated the fabric of everyday digital communications, piggy-backing on commercial communications platforms that we all use; and where it had done so secretly from the public, most politicians, and to some extent, the commercial telecommunications platform. Simultaneously, commercial surveillance from marketers and advertisers was becoming finer-grained, better targeted and ubiquitous. Moreover, the general public was increasingly ‘sousveilling’ and sharing this, e.g. through wearable devices monitoring movement and heart rates, through selfie-culture, and through a massive rise in social media postings. Concerned about this net rise in mutual watching, DATA-PSST aimed to:
- Examine different aspects of transparency, especially how these affect privacy, security, sur/sous/veillance and trust.
- Explore what different academic disciplines and real world actors, from data regulators to data activists, think of existing and desirable transparency arrangements.
- Build a typology of transparency types.
- Intervene in public debate about transparency arrangements.
- 2015. Arts Council Wales. Veillance. £25,000. Co-Investigator. This enabled the first iteration of an inter-disciplinary, theory-practice digital art installation tocapture citizens’ inadvertent data flows from their smart devices. It exhibited at FACT, Liverpool.
- 2010: AHRC Research Leave. An analysis of Strategic Political Communication, Sousveillance and Web 2.0 in Convergence Cultures: Iraq, USA & UK 2003-09. £21,000. Principle Investigator. Project graded ‘outstanding’ by AHRC.
Impact and Public Engagement (selected projects)
Vian Bakir (with Andrew McStay) has written and spoken extensively about fake news. Contemporary fake news is either wholly false or contains deliberately misleading elements incorporated within its content or context. It is widely circulated online where many people accept as fact stories of uncertain provenance or accuracy.
The phrase ‘fake news’ came into popular usage following two political campaigns across 2016 that combined widespread deception with voter profiling and targeting online. These were the American presidential election campaign battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton; and the UK’s European Union (EU) referendum campaign battle over ‘Brexit’ (on whether Britain should leave or remain in the EU). In both cases, fears were expressed that fake news had misled the electorate and undermined confidence in the electoral outcomes (both narrow victories for Leave and Trump). These fears have since generated political inquiries in the UK and USA, and a maelstrom of activity across society in multiple countries, including political, intelligence agency, technological, journalistic and educational sectors.
Responding to this furore, Vian has written about fake news in academic journals (Fake News and The Economy of Emotions), and for two Subject Associations: the Political Studies Association (e.g. ’What Drives Fake News’, and ‘Was it ‘AI wot won it’? Hyper-targeting and profiling emotions online’); and for MeCCSA’s Three-D (Combatting fake news: analysis of submissions to the fake news inquiry).
Across 2017, she made three written submissions to the UK Parliament’s Fake News Inquiry. Two, with Andrew McStay, are Fake News: Media Economics and Emotional Button-Pushing; and Summary And Analysis Of All Written Submissions On How To Combat Fake News (Up To April 2017). One (with Miller, Robinson and Simpson) is on Fake News: A Framework for Detecting and Avoiding Propaganda.
In 2018, Vian Bakir was invited to give evidence on misinformation and user targeting to the UK Parliament’s Fake News Inquiry. She told a panel of 11 MPs about the many democratic problems with online ‘filter bubbles’. This is where deception and misinformation can run rife among a closed online community, with no hope of being corrected by facts because those inside the filter bubble are either not exposed to the facts, or choose not to believe them. This is democratically problematic: those trapped within the online filter bubble lose touch with reality, and those outside the filter bubble have little or no idea that this state of affairs is taking place. Ultimately, what is at stake is the common foundation of knowledge upon which democratic decisions are made. Bakir also pointed out that politicians themselves are responsible for a significant portion of deception online, and should do more to prevent fake news at source. Televised coverage of the 1.5 hr Fake News panel generated worldwide press coverage. This includes the following (from AOL): 'Facebook promotes news and information which support people’s existing beliefs, said Professor Vian Bakir, from Bangor University, but people are less likely to question those ideas if they already believe them, whether they are true or not. ... While there is “no silver bullet”, Professor Bakir said online information and misinformation should be addressed “at all levels” of education and that political leaders should take responsibility for any lies they spread.'
In autumn 2017, Vian was an invited speaker on fake news at Cymru Communications Annual Autumn conference in Cardiff (150 delegates) and Llandudno (25 delegates) and participated in panel discussions. As their conference theme this year was Trust in Government Communications, her talk on Fake News: Lessons from Deception in Political Campaigning not only diagnosed the fake news problem, but addressed what the Public Relations industry could do about it.
Earlier in 2017, Vian was invited to participate in a Pew Internet survey on the future of information ecosystems and reliable facts – a survey that consulted more than 1,100 internet and technology experts. It wanted to know her thoughts on fake news and its implications for democracy. This was published in Oct 2017 as The Future of Truth and Misinformation Online. The survey was nearly split down the middle on the question: can fake news be thwarted in the next 10 years? Pessimistically, Vian predicts: ‘It won’t improve because of the evolving nature of technology - emergent media always catches out those who wish to control it, at least in the initial phase of emergence; online social media and search engine business models favor misinformation spreading; and well-resourced propagandists exploit this mix.’ This survey, and Vian’s quote, was covered by Adweek.
Even earlier in 2017 (Apr.), Vian was an invited speaker for a public talk at the House of Commons, London, on the topic of Fake News & Digital Advertising. This was sponsored by Branded Content Network (AHRC-funded). With Andrew McStay, she discussed the fake news phenomenon. This event was covered by the trade press, Branded Content Marketing Association and the Drum.
Vian Bakir has been involved in a number of public engagement activities around ‘veillance’. ‘Veillance’ is Prof. Steve Mann’s term for ‘mutual watching’. It constitutes surveillance of citizens and consumers by state and commercial enterprises (a form of ‘watching from above’). It also constitutes ‘sousveillance’ of peers and of surveillant entities by ordinary citizens (a form of ‘watching from below’).
Vian sees the problem of understanding contemporary veillance flows as a global one, at play in every country where much of life is conducted through digital means. Greater transparency of citizens’ communications and data to state surveillant organisations can deliver many benefits to citizens, ranging from increased national security to less corruptible delivery of welfare and basic services. However, abstract and invisible processes of dataveillance-informed targeting also negatively impact citizens’ privacy, as well as their awareness of being unduly influenced by targeted messages designed to provoke outrage and change voting behaviour (as in fake news).
Following the leaks by Edward Snowden in 2013 of massive state surveillance of citizen’s digital communication flows, in 2015 Vian Bakir coined the term ‘veillant panoptic assemblage’ to highlight contemporary society’s profoundly unequal arrangements of mutual watching. In the veillant panoptic assemblage, citizens’ watching of self and others through corporate channels of data flow, is fed back into state surveillance of citizens. This is ethically problematic if citizens have no knowledge that these processes routinely occur, or if they have no control over these processes. While theoretically, citizens can vote with their feet when it comes to commercial surveillance, either opting out of the digital platform or using encryption and ad blockers, in practice, it is more common for citizens to acquiesce to, or ignore, the surveillance in order to facilitate their digital lives: the effort of understanding the abstract practices of commercial surveillance, or taking protective action, are simply too great. That state intelligence agencies in scores of liberal democracies collect and store people’s everyday digital communications and meta-data (i.e. data about data, such as when and to whom communications were sent) shows the repurposing of commercial surveillance by the state for disciplinary ends, adding another layer of abstraction, complexity and secrecy to what is surveilled.
Investigating the power flows involved in veillance, across 2015-2017, Vian ran a series of activities as part of an ESRC-funded project, DATA-PSST (Debating and Assessing Transparency Arrangements: Privacy, Security, Sur/Sous/Veillance and Trust). This generated three documentaries (with documentary-maker Dyfrig Jones); 7 policy briefs; a final report summarising the outputs of the project; and a report on public feeling on surveillance and privacy.
Across 2017-18, Vian teamed up with Ronan Devlin (Pontio Artist-in-Residence) to help deliver Veillance - an immersive artwork that makes visible state and commercial surveillance of people’s digital communications. This was funded by Arts Council Wales and The Space. Created by Devlin, with academic input coordinated by Gillian Jein, it involved significant inter-disciplinary input (team members included a data privacy expert (Andrew McStay), software developers (Carwyn Edwards, Jamie Woodruff), a visualiser (Michael Fluckiger) and a sound engineer (Ant Dickinson). Veillance, exhibited at FACT (Liverpool) for a week in 2016 (50 attendees) and at Pontio White Room (Bangor) for three weeks in 2017 (488 attendees). This installation developed real-time responsive software to surveil unencrypted data flowing through attendees’ smart devices when connected to the exhibition’s wifi. It showed the public the extent to which their data and communications are routinely surveilled by commercial and state surveillance organisations. Attendees’ web browsing revealed words that are identified by UK and US global security services as ‘triggers’ for potential suspicious activity. These words were re-rendered creatively in real-time to appear as floating texts, projected on the four walls of the exhibition space. A list of websites with which attendees’ devices were communicating was also created in real-time, illustrating the constant communication between attendees, their data and outside surveillant organisations. The team launched theVeillanceart exhibition at Pontio Arts & Innovation Centre on 24 Feb 2017, with apublic panel on the importance of art in public education on complex, abstract issues like data surveillance; and why the public needs to understand these issues.
Vian’s work on the veillant panoptic assemblage, and her Special Issue on Veillance and Transparency (with Andrew McStay and Martina Feilzer), clarified the nature of contemporary data transparency arrangements to engage the creative practice of others. For instance, Evan Light created a mobile installation that allows people to examine the leaked intelligence files from whistle-blower Edward Snowden without being tracked by the veillant panoptic assemblage. Jennifer Gradecki & Derek Curry created a crowd-sourced intelligence agency to highlight the surveillant nature of social media.
Vian’s work on the veillant panoptic assemblage was used by legal scholar, Yvonne McDermott, who applied this concept to a legal context (on data protection and consent in the information age). These insights found their way into a 547-page landmark judgment by the Indian Supreme Court on 24 August 2017. India’s Supreme Court ruled that privacy was a constitutional right, deserving of protection. Its ruling was a response to a constitutional challenge to the Government of India’s Aadhaar card biometrics project – which aimed to see that beneficial Government schemes filter down to persons for whom such schemes are intended. As such, Aadhaar aimed to build a database of personal identity and biometric information covering every Indian resident – the world’s largest endeavour of its kind. Our research is cited alongside 68 others including 7 on informational/data privacy, and numerous references to famous Enlightenment and contemporary philosophers, religious texts, foundational legal texts on constitutional law, ethics and privacy doctrine, and specialists in India’s privacy law. In short, Bangor’s research clarified the opaque inter-linkages between state and commercial surveillance, and citizen ‘sousveillance’ (i.e. watching of self, peers, and power-holders), and has applied that understanding to data protection and consent in the information age. As such, Bangor’s research, in helping the Supreme Court reach its landmark judgment that recognises privacy as a constitutional right in India, will impact on the rights of all Indian citizens (over 1 billion people).
Since 2015, Vian’s work on Veillance has led to her being anadvisor/network member for Policy Delivery department at the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office.
Intelligence Elites and Public Accountability
Vian Bakir has written several monographs on the relationship between intelligence elites and civil society. Her most recent is Intelligence Elites and Public Accountability (2018), preceded by Torture, Intelligence and Sousveillance in the War on Terror (2013). She defines intelligence elites as comprising that small number of leaders in interlocking political, economic and military domains that make fundamental decisions on policies concerning intelligence that have far-reaching consequences for all citizens. For her, the term evinces the normally close relationship between top politicians and intelligence agencies; the deferential relationship to intelligence agencies from wider politicians; and the secret involvement of private companies. These three factors make parliamentary scrutiny of intelligence elites difficult. The term intelligence elites further highlights the exclusion of civil society in the process of intelligence oversight. Indeed, academic research shows that, with some notable exceptions, civil society largely does a poor job in holding intelligence elites publicly accountable. To address this, Vian has been co-developing with civil society some best practice guidelines to encourage critical researching and reporting in this difficult area. This work has been funded by Bangor University’s ESRC-Impact Accelerator Account.
In related work, in October 2016, Vian was a number of invited academics who independently evaluated advocacy group CAGE’s report, The Science of Pre-Crime: the secret radicalisation study underpinning PREVENT, on the secret research base underpinning Channel’s ERG22+ (extremist risk guidelines). Reflecting on this, and other secret research in the USA, Vian published a piece in Open Democracy about the problems with secret research that informs security policy.
More broadly, Vian has been interviewed, or asked to speak on the relationship between intelligence agencies, national security and surveillance laws. In Dec 2016, she was interviewed for al-Jazeera English to comment on national security and surveillance laws. In October 2015, she was an invited Panelist on Journalism in post-Snowden era for Eurovision’s 10th News Assembly, European Broadcast Union(the largest association of broadcasters in the world),held in Berlin. Moderated by Alan Pearce (Journalist and Author of Deep Web for Journalists), this panel comprised Marcel Rosenbach (Journalist, Der Spiegel), Evan Light (FRQSC Postdoctoral Fellow, Mobile Media Lab, Toronto) and Annie Machon (former MI5 intelligence officer). The News Assembly brought together over 150 Head of News and Editors-in-Chief from more than 60 TV and Radio Member stations in Europe. In Sep 2015, Vian participated in the Emwazi External Review (held at SOAS, Univ. of London) where she discussed CAGE’s reaction to media coverage of ‘Jihadi John’ and intelligence agencies. In January 2015 Vian introduced CitizenFour, Laura Poitras’ (2014) documentary on national security whistle-blower Edward Snowden, at Caernarfon Arts Gallery. With Andrew McStay, this involved a pre-screening talk on the national security whistle-blowers and media representations, and the importance of privacy, followed by Q&A afterwards. In January 2015, Vian published a commentary in Spinwatch on the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s Report into CIA torture during the Bush administration.
Risk and Trust in a Citizens’ Jury
In 2006, Vian Bakirco-convened (with Prof. Marcus Longley, Welsh Institute for Health & Social Care, Univ. of Glamorgan, and Andrew McStay, Thames Valley Univ.) a 4-day Citizens Jury on Risk, Trust & Preventative Medicine (aspirin). This took place in Cardiff, funded by Pfizer (£47,000). Fifteen citizens from a wide socio-demographic heard expert testimonies from scientist, doctors, regulators and patients on the risks and benefits of aspirin as a preventative medicine against heart attacks and strokes. They debated the risks and benefits, to reach conclusions about the value of aspirin as a preventative medicine. We produced a policy report on the Citizen’s Jury’s verdict, that was fed back to policy-makers.