Public Relations Failures by Russian State Officials: A Botched Cultural Transmission?

In 2018, during a public meeting, Olga Glatskikh, head of the Sverdlovsk Region Youth Politics Department, gave the following response to a question about the lack of state funding for youth projects: “The state owes nothing to you in principle. Your parents who gave birth to you owe you things. The state did not ask for you to be born.” [1] This episode which resulted in Glatskikh’s widespread condemnation and temporary suspension is just one example on a long list of insensitive statements by Russian state officials that have provoked lasting public outrage. Other notable cases included Minster of Labour, Natalia Sokolova’s assertion that one can easily survive on a $56 per month subsistence wage by eating a “balanced” and “slimming” diet of macaroni and seasonal vegetables [2], Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev’s suggestion that teachers should have become businessmen “if they wanted to earn money,” [3] and Children’s Rights Commissioner Pavel Astakhov’s tone-deaf question to survivors of a 2016 canoe accident in Karelia, which claimed the lives of 13 children: “So, how was the swim?” [4] One interesting thing about these statements is how starkly they contrast with the rhetorical style of President Vladimir Putin as well as official state policies of raising birth rates by subsidizing families with children and incentivizing young people to become teachers by promising them higher salaries. From the evolutionary perspective on cultural transmission which predicts selective learning from and imitation of behaviors of “successful” individuals (Atkisson et al. 2012; Henrich and Gill-White 2001; Henrich 2015), such public remarks by Russian state officials that often cost them their careers appear puzzling: after all, why would they not just copy the style of their leader and reproduce the official line of the ruling United Russia Party?

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“Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age” Book Club General Discussion

Join the discussion of our Book Club here!

You will find on the Book Club page: the précis of the book by Alberto Acerbi, commentaries by Alex Mesoudi, Hugo Mercier, Mathieu Charbonneau, Olivier Morin, Pascal Boyer, Sacha Altay and Tiffany Morisseau, and finally Alberto's response to the commentaries. The general discussion starts today and will continue until July 12th. Everyone is welcome to join.

To post a comment, you should be registered and logged in. Please provide a short title for your comment. If it responds to another commentator, you might use “@Xxx” in your title. New comments appear at the bottom.

Comments are moderated and may only appear after a short delay. For any practical question, send an email to: tiffany@cognitionandculture.net.

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Alberto Acerbi’s response: There is much work to do

It was a great pleasure having a book club dedicated to Cultural evolution in the digital age. Writing a book feels like a long and solitary experience and it is comforting that, when done, it may result in such productive exchanges. Thus, first of all, I want to thank the organisers, Tiffany Morisseau and Dan Sperber, and all the participants for their commentaries: kind, sometimes even flattering, but always perceptive and stimulating. I organised my reply around three macro-themes that emerged in the book club: the role of producers of cultural traits, the features of specifically digital cultural transmission, and a discussion on some more foundational issues in cultural evolution, namely the importance of faithful transmission for cumulative culture and our reliance on social information.

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Truth is not always the point

Thank you, Alberto, for writing this book! In addition to being a captivating reading, it shed light on some thoughts I had on how people share information on social media, and what truth has to do

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Cultural evolution – The mystery of production

Alberto Acerbi’s book is not just an impressive and timely summary of our knowledge of cultural transmission in the digital world (that in itself would be a good reason to read it). It also

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The Participatory Age

Of central interest to Alberto, and to cultural evolutionists in general, are the impacts of the transmission of cultural information from one person to the next—what is transmitted to whom, where

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Consuming vs. sharing information online

In his brilliant book, Alberto notes a series of significant differences between information sharing in oral cultures and online (to take two extremes). Oral cultures are dependent on memorization

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Cultural transmission, reinvention, and progress

I sometimes wonder why some of the cleverest things about the digital age seem to date from before the digital age really started. Few philosophical analyses beat thought experiments like Turing's

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What’s the recipe?

In his book, Alberto pointed out that information can now be passed on, and ultimately become cultural, without being memorized or even understood. But online information can also become cultural

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Are humans ‘wary learners’?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Alberto Acerbi’s Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age (Acerbi, 2019). It provides not only a much-needed corrective to overblown claims about the power of social

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