CCCE Co-Directors Matthew Powers and Adrienne Johnson release new book: “Rethinking Media Research for Changing Societies”

In Rethinking Media Research for Changing Societies, an edited volume by CCCE co-directors Matthew Powers and Adrienne Russell, some of the world’s leading theorists propose what each considers the single most pressing question for scholars concerned with media and public life.
Image courtesy of Matthew Powers.

The world of media has transformed so rapidly that many traditional ways of studying the relationships between media and society may no longer suffice. Even the questions scholars typically ask, such as how journalism affects the public sphere, might not make as much sense as they once did; what is journalism if anyone can be a journalist and any website can count as a journal?

In Rethinking Media Research for Changing Societies, an edited volume by CCCE co-directors Matthew Powers and Adrienne Russell, some of the world’s leading theorists propose what each considers the single most pressing question for scholars concerned with media and public life. Then each suggests a research approach that could address the question, with attention to real world action.

The proposed questions touch on some of the issues of greatest concern to lay and scholastic publics alike, including what is happening to journalism, how corporate use of big data affects our lives, whether new media technologies have made the world more or less inclusive, and what purpose academics can serve going forward. The editors hope that the book will foster new approaches and ideas for scholars as they grapple with evolving communication problems. Because these issues interest many people outside academia, the book is written to be accessible to lay audiences. It is also suitable to college students of all levels.

The book is divided into five topical sections. The first deals with the implications of the increasing use of data. How might we make sense of corporate goals for the use of data, and what can be learned from the data collected for commercial use? The second section considers the state of journalism, including the meaning of press freedom and the ongoing relevance of traditional news values. Powers and co-author Sandra Vera-Zambrano ask, “what are journalists for today?” The answer, they suggest, may be to reinforce existing arrangements of power.

Part Three focuses on whether changing media practices and technologies are inclusive. Are counter-hegemonic communication efforts successful? Does new technology bring about greater equality, or reinforce existing racial hierarchies of power? Are new journalism practices resulting in better representation of marginalized people? The answers, the three authors in the section suggest, may be cause for dismay. The fourth section asks how communication across ever-deepening political divides might be improved. Finally, Part Five addresses the role of scholars as the world of media and public life continues to change. How can communication research be relevant? How should we think of the function of communication? What, if anything, are communication scholars fighting for?

The book concludes with a call for a deeper engagement with the goals of research and a greater clarity and focus on how scholarship can bring about change. In the epilogue, Silvio Waisbord, professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, argues that media scholars should commit to some normative ideas of the good, for “outlining desirable elements of media and public life is necessary to clarify the analytical benchmarks that help us discern contemporary problems and outline possible solutions.” The question for Waisbord is, then, what media is needed for what public life?

Waisbord’s question will require a shift in thinking, one that the book is positioned to foster. Old ideas of a single public sphere must be shed in favor of recognition of the public as chaotic, multitudinous, splintered, and polarized. The long-accepted normative ideals of public communication need to be reevaluated considering the observable efficacy of expressions of emotions of grief and fury under conditions of oppression. And it is time to recognize that there is no common political project. Rather, the most fundamental tenets of society are contested, including what counts as knowledge, how to resolve dissent, what it means to belong to a collective national identity, and what the ideal society looks like.

Is it even possible to bring about justice in the current media moment? When the book’s authors gathered at a University of Washington conference on the “shifting landscape of public communication,” all concurred that we are experiencing a crisis. In fact, some said the landscape of public communication was better described as “crumbling beneath our feet.” In this book, which arose from that conference, the authors propose a range of approaches and thoughts on how to engage with publics in the service of fostering justice, but all agree that scholars need new ways of thinking about media and public life. The book, the editors believe, is a promising place to start.



#BlackLivesMatter co-founder Opal Tometi and CCCE founder Lance Bennett featured at Seattle conference on tech and democracy

#BlackLivesMatter co-founder Opal Tometi takes questions from an audience at the Seattle Public Library and also participating via video link from Berlin, following her talk on social media and social movements Friday, Oct. 25. Tometi was the keynote speaker at the two-day conference, which focused on political uses of digital technology.
Photo by Polly Straub-Cook

One of the most powerful tools to keep democracy alive can be tucked into the back pocket of your jeans. The ways that digital technology can be used to pursue political solutions was the focus of discussion at “Pocket Democracy,” a pop-up Seattle conference last month that included remarks by Black Lives Matter cofounder Opal Tometi, CCCE founding director Lance Bennett, and others, and included via video link participants and speakers in Berlin. The conference was sponsored by The Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles and the Goethe Institute Seattle pop-up. Also collaborating on the event were STATE Berlin, World Affairs Council Seattle, the UW Center for West European Studies, and the UW European Union Center.

The Oct. 24-25 event included seminars and workshops on the political implications of digital communication and strategies for developing new modes of engagement. Participants discussed the risks associated with technology, such as the spread of disinformation and the manipulation of images and videos, as well as possibilities for such pro-democracy uses as supporting free and fair elections and automating detection of false news and altered images.

Keynote speaker Tometi talked about how activists used digital technologies to coordinate protests in the wake the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old who was shot in Ferguson, Mississippi, by a police officer.

“Righteous, beautiful, courageous people were protesting,” she said. “We used social media to mobilize people across the country to go to Ferguson. In two weeks, we organized 500 people to go to Ferguson so they knew they were not alone.”

Digital communication is important for social and political change, but it is not enough by itself, she cautioned.

In response to a question from a participant in Berlin, Tometi said that social media is best used as a tool for mobilization, but that there is a limit to its power to facilitate persuasion.

“Changing hearts and minds requires face-to face-interaction,” she said.

Dr. Lance Bennett, founding director of the CCCE, talked about efforts to use digital technologies to spread disinformation and undermine democratic governments worldwide.
Photo courtesy of the University of Washington.

Following Tometi’s remarks, CCCE founding director Lance Bennett gave a sobering talk on threats to democracies around the world that is due in part, he said, to a very successful far-right strategy of using digital technology to spread disinformation, propaganda, and conspiracy theories.

“There is an organized production of disinformation around the world,” he said. “What it adds up to is an attack on liberal democracy.”

The goal of the far right, Bennett said, is to bring about ethnic nationalist systems of government that  exclude ethnic and religious minorities and immigrants, attack the press, and block action on climate change.

Technology, including social media, is deeply implicated in the spread of disinformation and hate speech, he noted, adding that those problems can be very difficult to address. For example, a number of parliament members in Sweden have been targets of death threats on social media, but since those threats are made in the form of cartoons and jokes, they are hard to control. Algorithms cannot accurately screen for cartoons and humor, and perpetrators can insist that they are within their rights to “joke.”

But more could be done, Bennett said.

One problem that social media companies could at least try to address is the use of fake accounts to spread disinformation or artificially inflate the appearance of popular support for a person or movement.

Estimates from different audits suggest that as many as a quarter of Donald Trump’s Twitter followers are fake, Bennett said. And a study showed that substantial numbers  of the Facebook followers of the far right group Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) were not located in Germany and appeared to be managed accounts.

Facebook has the capacity to test solutions to the use of its platform to undermine democracy, but remains resistant, Bennett said. Indeed, when media companies remove suspect accounts, political factions often complain of partisanship. The regulatory problems are important to address, but are likely to become caught up in the partisan politics of many nations.

Like Tometi, Bennett noted that some of the most important measures to protect democracy extend beyond technology. Democracy is undermined when governments no longer produce solutions to the problems of their citizens, he said.

Workshops  at the conference focused on the potential irrelevance of political parties should they fail to use digital technologies to engage citizens, as well threats to democracy arising from election-season disinformation campaigns and what technical and political solutions might be available. The conference concluded Friday afternoon with a session on cybersecurity and elections.