Social media & democracy: getting critical

Why should scholars be concerned with mitigating polarization over and above valuing social justice and political equality?

At CITAP, we take a critical approach to research on platforms, politics, and information which incorporates history, inequality, power, and culture. We believe that effective analysis of disinformation requires us as researchers:

  • To take a holistic approach to disinformation that is grounded in history, society, culture, and politics;

  • To center analyses of how social stratification and differentiation—including race and ethnicity, gender, class, and sexual identity—shape dynamics of disinformation;

  • To foreground questions of power, institutions, and economic, social, cultural, and technological structures as they shape disinformation; and

  • To have clear normative commitments to equality and justice.

This week, we’re celebrating the release of two important new publications that demonstrate those principles.

Social Media and Democracy

First, Daniel Kreiss reviewed Social Media and Democracy: The State of the Field, Prospects for Reform in the International Journal of Press/Politics. The review critiqued the scope and origins of the field as defined within the collection, calling to important work on “hashtag activism,” the history of political polarization, and American racial democracy as important, neglected contributions to the field.

“Any analysis of disinformation or polarization that fails to proceed from the deep-rooted political, social, and racial contexts within which they take shape is bound to  be  limited. The  foundations of  many  western  democracies riven by race, identity, and inequality are revealed on social media.”

Read the full review

Or take Twitter’s word for it:

Critical Disinformation Syllabus

Alice Marwick, Rachel Kuo, Shanice Cameron, and Moira Weigel took up a similar call in their Critical Disinformation Studies syllabus. They introduce the project:

“Many of the stories that pundits, journalists, and scholars tell about disinformation begin with the 2016 US presidential election and focus on the role of social media platforms in spreading and generating false content. At their worst, these narratives imply that in the past, everyone shared the same sense of what was true and what was false; that this collective understanding was reinforced by legacy media like newspapers and TV news; and that “fake news,” disinformation, and inauthentic online behavior are responsible for a global far-right shift to populism exemplified by Brexit and the Trump presidency. None of these assumptions hold up to scrutiny.”

With case studies on crime and anti-Black disinformation, Japanese incarceration, media activism and the AIDS crisis, the Welfare Queen, and disinformation, repression, and Black Liberation, the syllabus explores the topic of disinformation in a historical and political context and explores the role of mass media and other often-ignored actors in spreading these campaigns.

See the syllabus

Recent publications and appearances

“As Twitter becomes embedded in journalistic routine, journalists turn to it during news events. This leads journalists to use tweets in their stories, granting tweets markers of authority. It increases the likelihood that elites will use Twitter for future information releases, the likelihood that journalists will return to receive them, and the likelihood that audiences will become accustomed to seeing tweets as key aspects of news stories.” Shannon McGregor and Logan Molyneux discuss the dangers of affording Twitter with journalistic authority in a new piece for NiemanLab.

“Asian American women and femmes being killed and attacked because of toxic masculinity, which is a form of racist, classist and heterosexist entitlement that brings together white supremacy and rape culture, is not new.” Postdoctoral researcher Rachel Kuo coauthored a piece for Truthout analyzing how attacks on Asian women are fueled by criminalization, war, and economic injustice.

“This is something that we see, I think repeatedly, with human cognition, the emphasis on the breathless anecdote and then the discounting of statistics.” Deen Freelon spoke to All Things Considered about a NPR analysis finding that articles linking COVID-19 vaccines to death are driving misinformation online.

“Invitations issued in The Discourse to make fun of overwrought literature and theory texts are always trying to conscript you into a culture war. The pop-culture stereotype of privileged academics obscures the working class politics and minority identities of the majority of people who actually do that work.” On Essaying, Tressie McMillan Cottom dug into why The Discourse regularly critiques and mocks academic writing.

“1. Given the data indicating that minority groups—who were disproportionately affected by the pandemic—are being undervaccinated, what are the plans to ensure vaccine equity? 2. What are the plans to address vaccine hesitancy, which seems to be especially high among supporters of the ex-president?” Zeynep Tufekci offers ten questions the press should have asked at President Biden’s first press conference.

“Everyone's looking for something to blame and Section 230 is convenient.” Faculty affiliate David Ardia commented to Yahoo! Finance on how Section 230 is likely to take center stage in Congressional Big Tech hearings.

“The danger here is that if the Oversight Board does not uphold Trump’s ban, it will set a precedent of valuing political elites’ expression over the right of the public to self-govern.” Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor’s op-ed in Wired was quoted in a Mother Jones piece questioning the ability of Facebook’s Oversight Board to fix the company’s problems.

"Like how? What would be new, other than just that Trump would be allowed to be on it?" Shannon McGregor spoke to NPR about the challenges facing Donald Trump as he teases the possibility of launching his own social media platform.

Coming soon

Tressie McMillan Cottom will be giving this year’s Ed Mignon Distinguished Lecture at the University of Washington Information School on April 13, and the keynote address for the Association of College & Research Libraries 2021 Conference, taking place April 13-16.

Informal, Criminalized, Precarious: Sex Workers Organizing Against Barriers” – CITAP is presenting a webinar series with Hacking//Hustling, the Cornell Gender Justice Clinic, and Berkman Klein Center.  Sessions are scheduled throughout April.

Rest of web

Deen Freelon shared a conference/training event for early and mid-career scholars hosted by NYU’s Institute for Public Interest Tech.

Our neighbors at the Duke Center on Science & Technology Policy just launched a new project tracking Section 230 legislative reform proposals, in partnership with American University’s Tech, Law, & Security program and Future Tense.

…and finally, ICYMI: I, uh, appeared on Jeopardy! this week.