By Andrew Lim
I attended the 2021 New Zealand Political Studies Association’s (NZPSA) Conference on 8-10 February 2022, which was held via Zoom. This article gives a brief account of my experiences at the NZPSA Conference followed by a discussion of the pros and cons of Zoom conferencing. I argue that while Zoom helps overcome geographic barriers and travel restrictions, the service still has to contend with the “digital divide” and maintaining a balance between free speech and national security issues.
The NZPSA is the national professional body for political scientists and international relations scholars and graduate students in New Zealand. Each year, the NZPSA holds an annual conference of scholars and graduate students to present their research findings, frameworks, methodologies and new scholarly works. In addition, conferences host the NZPSA’s annual general meeting. Different universities take turns to host the NZPSA conference each year.
While similar bodies such as the Canadian Political Science Association (CPSA) and Australian Political Studies Association (APSA) had moved their conferences online in response to COVID-19, the NZPSA was slow to embrace change. Though the NZPSA had initially planned to hold their most recent annual conference at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) in December 2021, the Delta and Omicron outbreaks that year forced organisers to delay the conference to February 2021 and move it online completely.
The NZPSA conference
Reflecting these tumultuous times, the main theme of the 2021 NZPSA conference was the “Politics of Crisis.” Presenters covered a range of topics including COVID-19 policy responses, election campaigning, human rights, climate change, foreign policy, political leadership, conflict resolution, and the political participation of women and ethnic minorities. Keynote speakers Dominic O’Sullivan and Steven Ratuva talked about indigenous responses to the legacy of colonialism in Australia and New Zealand and efforts by indigenous scholars to combat scientific racism and inequality within the academic world. The conference also featured some prominent guest speakers including former Prime Minister Helen Clark and Auckland Councillor and mayoral candidate Efeso Collins. There was a significant cohort of University of Auckland (UOA) academic staff including Jennifer Lees-Marshment, Edward Elder, Jennifer Curtin, Maria Armoudian, and Lara Greaves, who presented papers and chaired several panels. Several UOA graduate students including Luna Zhao, Leah Yu Du, Manqing Cheng, Luke Oldfield, Ella Morgan, and myself presented papers. This is a testament to the productivity and resilience of our disciplinary area.
I presented two papers at the 2021 conference using political marketing analytical frameworks. Political marketing explores how marketing ideas and principles can be used to analyse the electoral performance, policies, and leadership styles of political parties and figures. The first paper looked at how advocacy groups can practise political marketing, undertaking a comparative case study of pro-Israel and Palestinian solidarity groups in New Zealand and Australia. Drawing upon Lees-Marshment’s “product, sales, and market-oriented framework,” I argued that advocacy groups were less likely to let the market design their product since they already had a preconceived program they wanted to push. The second paper explored how New Zealand political parties campaigned on COVID-19 and health issues during the 2020 general election. Using Robinson’s political marketing advertising framework, I argued that positive campaigning, good leadership, and crisis management could help incumbent governments remain in power.
The Zoom experience
There are both advantages and disadvantages to Zoom conferences. Several advantages include being able to communicate with people despite geographical barriers, not having to worry about travel and accommodation expenses and visa difficulties, and most importantly being able to meet without exposing oneself to pathogens and viruses. In addition, Zoom works well for those who have to negotiate busy work, family, and study schedules. While Zoom is free for up to forty minutes, hosts can subscribe to a range of subscription packages that can be tailored to meet a range of needs and venues.
However, Zoom also has its disadvantages. First, Zoom also requires a stable Internet connection, which can be problematic for areas with poor Internet infrastructure and accessibility. This problem is particularly felt in developing countries and even low-income or remote areas in developed countries (eg. South Auckland and provincial towns and communities ). Bad weather and faulty fibre-optic cables can also affect communications. On the second day of the conference, I had to restart my laptop twice after my Internet connection disconnected due to the cloudy, moist weather in my hometown of Dunedin.
Second, this leads to the issue of the “digital divide,” which reflects inequality within countries and societies. Not everyone can afford computers and tablets that would enable them to participate in an increasingly digital society and economy. Even those who can afford them in developing countries will have to contend with poor Internet infrastructure. For example, I had difficulty communicating with a fellow student living in Ghana via Zoom due to that country’s less developed Internet infrastructure. In the end, we had to communicate by exchanging texts on Facebook Messenger. As more academic conferences rely on Zoom, scholars in developing and underdeveloped countries may have to jump through loops to participate. Addressing the global digital divide is a problem that would require significant investment and collaboration between governments and the private sector over a long-term period.
Third, Zoom must also navigate the issues of free speech, national security and censorship. In June 2020, Zoom controversially closed the accounts of pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong and the United States, citing compliance with Chinese national security law. In September 2020, Zoom also deplatformed a Palestinian solidarity conference at San Francisco State University featuring Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) militant Leila Khaled as guest speaker following opposition from Jewish groups. While Palestinian supporters regarded her as a freedom fighter and criticised Zoom for alleged censorship, Jewish groups regarded her as a terrorist due to her role in the 1969-1970 hijackings of Western and Israeli airlines.
As a video conferencing platform, these incidents raise some ethical questions. How can a platform balance its customer service goals and free speech with the conflicting national security requirements of various governments? Should a platform deplatform controversial individuals or groups whose views and actions are considered offensive by some? When does deplatforming cross the lines of censorship? As Zoom becomes increasingly mainstream, academic conferences may face deplatforming for featuring difficult topics and speakers.