Post-truth politics and social media mis-education


In the same year that has seen ‘post-truth’ named as word of the year, both the UK’s Brexit referendum and the US election have raised significant questions about education. One question concerns why, on average, people with fewer educational qualifications tended to vote for the UK to leave the EU, or for Trump to take the presidency, while those with more qualifications tended to vote the other way. It has been suggested that a new ‘education gap’ has emerged as an apparent determinant of people’s political preference.


‘Labyrinthine Circuit Board Lines’ – Photo credit: quapan

‘The possibility that education has become a fundamental divide in democracy—with the educated on one side and the less educated on another—is an alarming prospect,’ says the political scientist David Runciman. ‘The less educated fear they are being governed by intellectual snobs who know nothing of their lives and experiences. The educated fear their fate may be decided by know-nothings who are ignorant of how the world really works.’

Education alone, of course, was not the only determinant in the two votes. Statistics from the EU referendum indicate the vote for leaving the EU was concentrated in geographical areas already most affected by growing economic, cultural and social inequalities, as well as by physical pain, mental ill-health and rising mortality rates.

‘There is ample evidence that political dynamics are being increasingly driven by the dramatic spiraling of escalating inequalities,’ claim the sociologists Mike Savage and Niall Cunningham. ‘To put this another way, growing economic inequalities are spilling over into all aspects of social, cultural, and political life, and there are powerful feedback loops between these different spheres which are generating highly worrying trends.’

The kind of political polarization that materialized during both Brexit and the US election is the result of the related dynamics of education, geography, economics, and cultural and social networks, and the feedback loops between them. ‘The way that the wealthy elite are increasingly culturally and socially cocooned, and the extent to which large numbers of disadvantaged groups are outside their purview is deeply worrying,’ note Savage and Cunningham.

Whether social media has participated in this polarization of political perspectives has become one of the defining debates in the wake of Brexit and the US election.

‘Social media now enhances these patterns,’ David Runciman has explained. ‘Friendship groups of like-minded individuals reinforce each other’s worldviews. Facebook’s news feed is designed to deliver information that users are more inclined to ‘like’. … Education does not provide any protection against these social media effects. It reinforces them. … [T]he gap between the educated and the less educated is going to become more entrenched over time, because it … represents a gulf in mutual understanding.’

The involvement of social media in the spread of ‘post-truth politics’ points to how it is leading citizens into informational enclaves designed to feed them news and knowledge that has been filtered to match their interests, based on data analysis of their previous online habits and what social networks they belong to.

Part of the problem is that social media has become the source for a very high concentration of fake news, computational propaganda and misinformation. Since the US election, it has been revealed that Trump’s campaign team worked closely with Facebook data to generate audience lists and targeted social media campaigns. It employed the ‘psychographic’ data analytics company Cambridge Analytica to data mine the personal details, online behaviours and sentiments of 220 million potential voters, and then sent them personalized, micro-targeted political messages. The same firm worked with the Leave.EU campaign. This exemplifies the use of the data journalist Jonathan Albright describes as a new ‘data-industrial complex’ of behaviour tracking and identification technology in contemporary politics.

Added to this, other more politically-activist social media sites such as Breitbart and Infowars have actively disseminated right-wing political agendas via social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, reaching audiences that count in the tens of millions. ‘Platforms like Twitter and Facebook now provide a structure for our political lives,’ Phil Howard , a sociologist of information and international affairs, has argued. He claims that social algorithms allow ‘large volumes of fake news stories, false factoids, and absurd claims’ to be ‘passed over social media networks, often by Twitter’s highly automated accounts and Facebook’s algorithms.’

‘Circuit Board’ – Photo credit: Rob Swystun

The post-truth spread of misinformation twinned with the magnification of political and social polarization is at the core of a new public pedagogy of political mis-education. Public pedagogy is a term used to refer to the lessons that are taught outside of formal educational institutions by popular culture, informal institutions and public spaces, dominant cultural discourses, and public intellectualism and social activism. Big data and social media are fast becoming the most successful sources of public pedagogy in the everyday lives of millions around the world. They are educating people by sealing them off into filter bubbles and echo chambers, where access to information, culture, news, and intellectual and activist discourse is being curated algorithmically.

This is further related to, reproduced and exacerbated by social inequalities in education, economics and cultural access. Doing well in formal education or not now appears to be a determinant of which kinds of social networks you belong to. ‘The educational divide that is opening up in our politics is not really between knowledge and ignorance,’ David Runciman argues. ‘It is a clash between one worldview and another.’

The philosopher Bruno Latour has described these opposing worldviews as ‘two bubbles of unrealism,’ one clinging to an imagined future of globalization and the other retreating to the imagined ‘old countries of the past,’ or ‘a utopia of the future confronting a utopia of the past.’ Education has long reinforced these utopias of unrealism. Contradictory policy demands over the last two decades have pointed simultaneously towards an education for the future of a high-skills, globalized knowledge economy (as reinforced by global policy actors like the OECD), and an education of the past which emphasizes traditional values, national legacy, social order and authority. Social media algorithms and architectures have further enabled these utopias of unrealism to embed themselves across the US and Europe.

Sociologists have begun asking hard questions about the capacity of their field to address the new problems surfaced by Brexit and Trump. The field of education needs to involve itself too in this new problem space. Clearly, for example, there are important implications here for how young people access and evaluate information. Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller of the think tank Demos have highlighted a need to teach young people critical thinking and scepticism online to ‘allow them to better identify outright lies, scams, hoaxes, selective half-truths, and mistakes.’

But I think we need to go further, and to probe how educational inequalities and the public pedagogies of social media are combining to co-produce people’s expectations of their place and their futures in democratic societies. We need to directly address the challenge of how to approach education in post-truth times.


benwilliamson2may2015_1004_180x180_contentThis post was written by Dr Ben Williamson, Lecturer of Education within the Faculty of Social Sciences and member of the Faculty’s Curriculum and Pedagogy research group. Ben’s research focuses on education policy and educational technology from a critical, sociological perspective. Read more.

Misconduct in the Scottish charity sector: The signal and the noise

Source: Calvin and Hobbes

Charities are under increasing pressure to be accountable for their conduct. This is an issue for both regulators concerned about supporting a healthy sector, and charities concerned about maintaining public trust. To date there has been little academic research on the nature, extent and determinants of regulatory investigations into alleged and actual charity misconduct; this is partly due to the difficulties in accessing and processing the administrative data necessary to study this phenomenon, as well as the relative infancy of charity regulatory regimes. Examining this topic allows researchers to “peer under the hood” of the sector, shining a light on aspects of charity behaviour that are often overlooked. Research in this area has the potential to develop the evidence base on charity misconduct and accountability, improve regulatory practice through the targeting of resources at serious incidences of misbehaviour, and dispel misperceptions around the conduct of these organisations (by providing context for media reports for example). My colleague, Dr Alasdair Rutherford, and I conducted work modelling charity risk using administrative data from the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR).

charity-439469Drawing upon OSCR’s administrative records for all Scottish charities in the period 2006-2014, we developed models to explain two dimensions of charity misconduct: regulatory inquiries and resulting action. There have been 2,109 regulatory inquiries of 1,566 Scottish charities over the period, with 13 percent of these inquires leading to regulatory action being taken (e.g. suspension of trustees). Members of the public are most likely to raise a concern and thus trigger an inquiry, while the most common concerns relate to general governance and misappropriation of assets. Our results demonstrate that large charities (Income of £10m +), those that carry out activities themselves, and those that do not have parent organisations are more likely to trigger an inquiry; the age of the organisation is, perhaps surprisingly, not associated with this outcome. With regards to regulatory action, it appears that the largest charities are less likely to be subject to regulatory action, as are those with parent organisations. Despite being most likely to raise a concern with OSCR, members of the public are worse at spotting actual misconduct than other stakeholders (e.g. trustees, auditors).

Our results suggest that there are clear patterns in the types of charities subject to complaints about their conduct and, to a lesser extent, in the use of regulatory action by OSCR.  There are two implications of this work that deserve further consideration. First, most concerns regarding misconduct are ill-founded or minor and serious wrongdoing can be difficult to identify: in essence, there is a large degree of “noise” (complaints) obscuring the “signal” (misconduct). Second, the disconnect between the types of charities triggering complaints and those engaging in misconduct presents a significant challenge to regulators in how they promote public confidence and trust in the sector.

What does this mean for the Scottish Charity Regulator? We highly recommend that regulators should publish more detailed, accessible information and guidance on misconduct and other concerns in the sector. The Scottish Charity Regulator already engages in this activity to some extent by publishing some reports and statistics but there are a number of areas that should be improved. First, the regulator should enhance its public profile so that it captures greater numbers of complaints: there is evidence that levels of awareness of charity regulators in the UK are not high and thus there is almost certainly missing data on misconduct (Hogg, 2016; OSCR, 2016). Second, better guidance on what constitutes serious wrongdoing should be developed in order for stakeholders to better identify matters worthy of reporting to the regulator. Third, the reports and figures that are currently published provide little or no narrative on the implications of regulatory monitoring of misconduct, and often fail to place this activity in the wider context of public trust and confidence in the sector. The regulator should clearly communicate the compartmentalised nature of misconduct in the sector, thereby helping to insulate low risk charities from being afflicted by the general reputational damage caused by the minority accused of misconduct. Adopting this recommendation can address a longstanding concern in the provision of performance information about charities: the inaccessibility – both logistically and cognitively – of this information for key stakeholders (Britton, 2008; Connolly, Hyndman & McConville, 2013; Keating & Frumkin, 2003; Philips, 2013).

diarmuid_mcdonnell-200x200If you want to know more about this research then please contact Mr Diarmuid McDonnell or consult the Scottish Network for Third Sector Data website. Diarmuid is a research doctorate within the Faculty of Social Sciences and member of the Faculty’s Social Surveys and Statistics research group. Read more.

The author would like to thank the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Scottish Charity Regulator for their generous financial support of his collaborative PhD studentship.


Britton, R. (2008). Making disclosure regulation work in the nonprofit sector. University of Illinois Law Review, 2008(1), 437-458.

Connolly, C., Hyndman, N., & McConville, D. (2013). Conversion Ratios, Efficiency and Obfuscation: A Study of the Impact of Changed UK Charity Accounting Requirements on External Stakeholders. Voluntas, 24(3), 785-804.

Hogg, E. (2016). What regulation, Who Pays? Public Opinion and Charity Regulation (Research Report). London : Charity Finance Group.

Keating, E. K., & Frumkin, P. (2003). Reengineering Nonprofit Financial Accountability: Toward a More Reliable Foundation for Regulation. Public Administration Review, 63(1), 3-15.

Phillips, S. D. (2013). Shining Light on Charities or Looking in the Wrong Place? Regulation-by-Transparency in Canada. Voluntas, 24(3), 881-905.

Scottish Charity Regulator. (2016). Charities, Public Trust and Regulation 2016 (Research Report). Dundee: Author.

Legal Consciousness and Subjectivity: Women’s Rights and Violence in Bolivia

main-image1Since Evo Morales became the first indigenous president in 2006, Bolivia has witnessed many changes with regards to law. At the start of 2009, the Morales government – the Movement towards Socialism – created a new constitution, which set out increased rights for women as well as recognition of indigenous forms of law. Following from this, there was greater pressure to address the issue of violenceboth domestic and political – and in 2013, the government passed Law 348: The Comprehensive Law to Guarantee Women a Life Free from Violence.

Overlooking La Paz – the location of my fieldwork

My doctoral work explores these legal transitions in the city of La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia, using ethnographic methods. Through participant observation in a women’s centre as well as interviews with institutions and organisations involved with these transitions and the implementation of the law, the law itself is examined through everyday interactions and lived experiences using the framework of legal consciousness.  For my PhD, my fieldwork was conducted over a period of twelve months, from October 2014 to October 2015.

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, my socio-legal PhD is supervised by Prof. Samantha Punch and Dr. William Munro, in the Faculty of Social Sciences. Having conducted her own doctoral research in Bolivia using ethnographic methods, Prof. Samantha Punch’s extensive knowledge on both the location and the methodology have been invaluable, and Dr William Munro’s theoretical knowledge and engagements have enabled and facilitated a deeper exploration of the relationship between law and society, and in particular the legal subject. The combination of both supervisors, with their own unique contributions and approaches, has created a much valued space within which I feel very encouraged and supported.  My development during my PhD Research is further reinforced through my membership of the Crime and Justice Research Group and also the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, whereby opportunities are offered for involvement in other research projects and team-working with other academics. Wider experience in research as a result of my membership has led to a broader consideration of important themes and issues that transcend the boundaries of research areas, allowing a greater identification and recognition of the salience of both my work and my methodology.

main-image2Research focused on women’s rights, and in particular on violence against women in Bolivia since the introduction of Law 348 has been somewhat limited, largely due to lack of funding and the recent closure of important women’s rights organisations. Regardless, there has been a growing number of women’s movements in relation to violence against women and the crime of femicide. Movements and calls for better implementation of Law 348 in Bolivia can be found through social media platforms, such as Facebook, where groups such as #NiUnaMenos Bolivia have been created, and pages dedicated to raising awareness are attracting increasing attention not only from women within Bolivia, but also globally. A good example of this is a page entitled Ley 348 – Against Abuse of Women in Bolivia. Many of the broader issues in relation to my work draw on engagements with the structural conditions of society such as gender justice in Latin America, for which Sieder and McNeish (2013) are particularly relevant as well as recognition of the value of ‘epistemologies of the South’ (Sousa Santos 2014). My paper entitled “Legal Consciousness, Women’s Rights and Identity in Bolivia” received positive feedback when presented in Braga, Portugal, at the annual conference for the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control, of which I am also a member.

My doctoral research is in the final stages of writing-up, and will be completed early 2017 – watch this space for my thesis on STORRE.

ashley-rogersAshley Rogers is a PhD student in the Faculty of Social Sciences and member of its Crime and Justice research group.  Ashley’s interests lie in a number of areas. Previous work at the Scottish Refugee Council ignited an interest in refugee and asylum seeking issues, particularly concerning unaccompanied asylum seeking children, and also women’s rights. She is also interested in human rights more generally and in particular on the relationship between law and society. Learning about other countries and cultures is often central to Ashley’s interests, however she enjoys engaging with human rights issues within the UK, particularly those with a focus on immigration or asylum processes. Read more.

This blog has been re-published from the University of Stirling Research and Enterprise blog.

Actor-Network Theory is neither a network nor a theory. Discuss.

Saturday Night Live (1991) NBC, 12 October


In a recent postgraduate research seminar in the Faculty, we explored the ways in which Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is a particularly useful way to explore the mobilization of knowledge in medical education practice.  Since it was first developed by Michel Callon, Bruno Latour and John Law in the 1980s and ‘90s, ANT has evolved into a widely diverse set of diasporic practices that provide a way of looking at the sociomaterial relations that occur in everyday practices – the ways in which the human things interact with the material things, to enact the social. Continue reading “Actor-Network Theory is neither a network nor a theory. Discuss.”

Introducing the Housing through Social Enterprise research project

The ‘Housing through Social Enterprise’ project being run in the Faculty of Social Sciences is working with three very different social enterprises to explore how they support people at risk of homelessness.

We all know how important it is to have a house that we can call home – the right to adequate housing is even enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which says that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care”. So it’s not surprising that a range of social enterprises are involved in the housing sector, supporting people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Housing associations, housing co-ops and employment projects supporting homeless people back into work are all examples of organisations with a clear social purpose and a significant trading aspect, even though they may not always brand themselves as ‘social enterprises’.

The ‘Housing through Social Enterprise’ project being run in the Faculty of Social Sciences is working with three very different social enterprises to explore how they support people at risk of homelessness. We will be following a number of tenants from each organisation over the first year of their tenancy, to see what impact the social enterprise has on their lives, and whether it affects their health and wellbeing in particular.

The three organisations we will be working with are:


  • Homes for Good – a Glasgow-based social enterprise set up in 2013 as a not-for-profit letting agency, with the aim of supporting vulnerable households to access quality rented accommodation and sustain their tenancies. The organisation also has an investment arm, which is using social investment finance to buy and renovate properties, which it then rents out to people on low incomes who are at risk of homelessness and/or have a variety of other social needs. Unlike most letting agents, Homes for Good uses some of its income to provide a tenancy support service, helping tenants to deal with managing money, looking after their home, accessing specialist services, or whatever else is needed to help them sustain their tenancy.


  • Y People – a charity providing a range of support services to vulnerable people across Scotland. We will be working with two schemes run by Y People in Glasgow and South Lanarkshire, which provide a rent deposit guarantee for people who are at risk of homelessness, but are unable to access housing in the private rented sector because they have no savings for a deposit. The schemes provide support to tenants during the first year of their tenancy, helping them to maintain their tenancy and build up savings for the deposit.


  • NG Homes – a community-based housing association, which provides social housing for a large part of North Glasgow. As well as housing, NG Homes provides a range of support services in partnership with other voluntary organisations, from money advice to community development. It also operates NG2, a subsidiary which provides training and employment for local people.

Over the first few months of the project, we’ve been working with each organisation to clarify exactly how they work and to identify the different ways in which they may have an impact on their tenants’ lives. Crucially, the project aims to understand the specific impact of these organisations as social enterprises and to develop new ways of measuring this impact. It seems obvious enough that having a home is likely to make you feel better than not having one, but the question for this project is whether the involvement of social enterprises in providing housing delivers anything extra. In other words, what it is about being a not-for-profit organisation with a clear social purpose that might enable Homes for Good, Y People or NG Homes to have a greater impact on the health and wellbeing of their tenants.

We’ll be starting the first interviews with new tenants in the next few weeks, so watch this space for further updates on the research over the coming year.

For more information, contact Dr Steve Rolfe, Research Fellow –

The project is being run jointly with Glasgow Centre for Population Health and is part of a wider research programme based at Glasgow Caledonian University, called CommonHealth.

steverolfepic_1082_180x180_contentDr Steve Rolfe is a Research Fellow within the Faculty of Social Sciences and a member of the Faculty’s Public Services and Governance research group. His current research is focused on the public health impacts of social enterprise. This fits with his broader research interests in community participation and what it delivers for individuals, communities and public services. Read more.

Setting up a Social Work Study Tour

Recently I had the opportunity to go home to Calgary in order to set up a study tour for our social work student

calgary-s-golden-hourRecently I had the opportunity to go home to Calgary in order to set up a study tour for our social work students. This came about as in May 2016, social work students came from the students came from the University of Calgary to the UK in order to learn more about how social work is practiced here. As a result of the visit we had in the spring, it came about that I would then develop a similar experience for University of Stirling students to go to Calgary. The focus of the study tour is to look at community social work and social work with indigenous populations. These two themes came about as our students get limited opportunities to look at social work from either of these angles and they are an important component to social work practice no matter what country you practice in. Continue reading “Setting up a Social Work Study Tour”

The importance of a humanistic approach to drug users in Indonesia

The importance of a humanistic approach to drug users in Indonesia


My research explores judicial perspectives on the sentencing of minor drug offenders in Indonesia. Recently new legislation was passed in Indonesia which declared a ‘war on drugs’. This law has led to more people being imprisoned for drug use or drug related offences and can result in sentences of up to 5 years in prison. Presently there are an estimated 4 million drug users in Indonesia. Therefore, it would be impossible to send those 4 million people to prison, due to issues of overcapacity and the logistics needed to imprison so many people.

In my research, I interviewed 31 judges in Indonesia from different levels of court: from the lower level court to the Supreme Court.

Interestingly my data highlighted that some judges tried to resist the recent enforcement of drug legislation in different ways. The interview data highlighted that different judges negotiated the law differently. Some judges had an amicable relationship with the prosecutor and so when a case involving a breach of the new law arose, the judge would discuss a change in the charge against the accused with the prosecutor who set up the indictment.

After consulting with the prosecutor this charge was often changed to a lesser charge of drug using with a lesser sentence of one year.

Another method used by judges was their increasing encouragement to talk from the heart rather than to discuss how the mandatory minimum sentencing would apply to the accused. This has led to a focus of sentencing led by the heart. These approaches were delivered by judges making judgements on a moral basis, essentially ‘following their hearts’ on sentencing.

The enforcement of the law has been associated with the targeting of people who are of the lower social class. Most of the people charged with breaking this new drugs law are from underprivileged/poorer backgrounds and it seems that the criminal justice system now is targeting people who are more likely to experience poverty. By trying to resist the new law the judges are trying to be just, where this sentencing, led by the heart, shifts understanding of what constitutes fairness to the level of structural equality and involves calls for public health and social welfare approaches aimed at eradicating   structural inequality.

At the practice level, the Court has been affected by the overload of drug cases, and the negative impact of imprisonment which does not deter drug users from becoming persistent offenders and committing more serious offences. The notion of the war on drugs has lost its direction.

Seen in this way, I believe that those recreational drug users should not be punished at all. Problematic drug use should be viewed as a symptom of an underlying issue. Such issues relate often to social (peer pressure, isolation, stigmatisation) and economic (unemployment and poverty) reasons which motivate some individuals to both use and sell drugs for profit, or as a perceived way of boosting energy for work) or family issues (conflict with parents, partners, etc.).

Seen in this way, it is imperative that attention should be paid to addressing those underlying issues. Those related to social factors would require empowerment, inclusion, acceptance from the public and equal opportunity.  Economic issues would require stable jobs and access to resources. Family issues may require counselling.

Certainly, when considering that there are an estimated 4 million Indonesian drug users, addressing structural inequalities could be a fairer response and, ultimately, would contribute to the very meaning of justice.

Your Turn:  In your opinion, what does justice mean in relation to drug use?


cecep-mustafaIf you want to know more about the research, or wish to share your comments or views on this research, please contact Cecep Mustafa.

Cecep Mustafa is a PhD student in the Faculty of Social Sciences and member of the Faculty’s Crime and Justice research group.

He has a Master degree in Criminal Justice and Penal Change at the University of Strathclyde and his research interests focus on the ‘sentencing’ role of the judiciary in drug matters. Read more.