Yesterday was a surprising, difficult day for a lot of us. For many of us based in the U.S., amidst whatever political feelings we were having, it spurred us to think hard about our own work and research agendas, and how they should shift to face new political realities. So some of us spent the day thinking about what it is we do now and can do in the future. We invited Culture Digitally participants to articulate their own piece of the puzzle, of what the election reveals about their own inquiry, and what our agenda as scholars in the world needs to be for the next four years. Soom are looking back at the election and the current political climate that they think needs to be addressed or better understood; some looked forward at how to best pursue research that will matter given what we know about the priorities of the incoming Trump administration.
We know the scholars in this community cannot address every issue that’s likely on the horizon, but we think our work touches a surprising number of them. The kinds of questions that motivate our scholarship — from fairness and equity, to labor and precarity, to harassment and misogyny, to globalism and fear, to systems and control, to journalism and ignorance — all of these seem so much more pressing today then they even did yesterday. We’ve already been feeling that our field (or set of overlapping fields) is on the cusp of articulating a whole new set of questions. And now is as good a time as any to do so. If we’re going to have four years of a Trump presidency and all that goes with it, and one way we can respond is through our scholarship, we want to start today in stridently moving that forward.
Tarleton and Hector
read on, or skip down to the contributions from Jonathan Sterne, Tom Streeter, Seth Lewis, Kate Zyskowski, Tom Boellstorff, Shawn Walker, Josh Braun, Jessica R. Houf and Robert W. Gehl, Jessa Lingel, Sarah Banet-Weiser, Hector Postigo, or Tarleton Gillespie
Jonathan Sterne – Don’t Drop Everything, Or: The Same Emergency, Only More
Like a lot of other Americans, I am at a loss for the right register of response to the US’s election of Donald Trump. Anything I write today will be inadequate to the situation. But as a scholar trained in the cultural studies tradition, and a student of history, the one thing of which I am sure is that scholarship should not be asked to provide immediate political satisfaction. As scholars, the desire to denounce all of the awful things for which Trump stands may get in the way of our need to understand the political phenomena of which he is a part. Of course denouncing is necessary, but we don’t need scholarship to accomplish that. Research and analysis are essential. Like political organizing, they are slow and sometimes frustrating processes. Many fields have long traditions of taking the right seriously, in context—as a student, I benefitted from work by teachers in cultural studies and feminist research especially—and that is precisely what we need to do in this moment.
Our best analyses will not be the instant “hot takes” that populate my social media feed today. Yes, we need conjunctural analyses of what’s happening in the moment, but we also need long term analyses, we need basic research, and we need work that takes chances—and in fact the best analyses of any given moment will come from people who have been doing the work for a long time. Guard against the will to instant satisfaction—that is part of protecting the idea of the university as a space for reflection. And if you need further ammunition, go back and look at American scholarship that invokes clichés about how “nothing will be the same” after 9/11. Most of those faux-insights now appear superficial and trite. To say that all work must now immediately speak to this moment in a way that its political results will be guaranteed would require that we abandon long-term agendas that seek to understand historical and social forces that exist in this moment but also transcend it, whether we are talking about capitalism, colonialism or climate change.
For those scholars whose work has not been particularly political, and who now wish to dive in, remember that there are lots of other people who went before you. There is a huge swath of feminist, queer, trans, anticapitalist, anticolonial, antiracist and antioppressive thought. Take the time to educate yourself on those who went before you. And remember that scholarship and activism can aid one another, but that this is a relation that must be forged and maintained. It is never guaranteed. At the same time, take inspiration from others around you. This semester alone I am gifted with a host of smart students doing political work on everything from combatting sexual assault to providing aid to refugees to organizing for a living wage for casual employees to building safer spaces for queer youth and various disability communities. For some of them, their scholarship and activism are one. For others, these are separate endeavors: both paths can lead to real, positive change, and both paths can inspire others.
Finally, those of us in tenured positions—especially those of us who are privileged in our institutions more or less by design—should be using those privileges to help others who don’t have them. Every university and college has its issues. Every academic field has reactionary tendencies that should be fought from within. Every academic field can make a space to support those who are fighting for social progress. That will take work on all our parts. Sometimes the small things are also big things.
Tom Streeter – Crisis, Uncertainty, and Hope in 2016
Two days before the election, I wrote this: “Like most people I know, as the race tightens, I am in agony about the thought of a Trump Presidency. I find myself checking fivethirtyeight.com obsessively, desperately wanting someone to smartly assure me that Trump will not win, craving some kind of data, some kind of smart analysis, that tells me the nightmare of a Trump presidency is only that, a nightmare, not a real possibility. But the painful truth is that it is a possibility. Given how close the race is right now — a few percentage points in almost all the polls — the fact is that . . . . What separates the candidates at this point is random electoral noise. . . Two years ago, I never would have believed it, but I was wrong, everyone was wrong. How do I, how do we, live with that fact?”
We have to get beyond the habit of filling the void of uncertainty with too-clever-by-half theories, analyses, and generalizations. [For example,] polls shift people’s gaze away from voters and what citizens need to know towards insider baseball, where everything’s an effort to to second guess the electorate. . . . It’s not that polls are worthless, it’s that they are seductive, that in their crystalline numeric sheen they offer an image of certainty that offers false comfort to folks like me. What I and others like me (journalists, policy wonks, campaign professionals, etc.) should be doing is somehow engaging the hearts and minds of much wider swathes of our fellow citizens, in a way that is open to possibility, not locked into certainties.
Also, the Democratic Party leadership was wrong to close ranks so early and so tightly around Hillary Clinton: all the early endorsements from sitting officials, the narrowing of the primary debate schedule, etc. This is not because Hillary Clinton is a bad candidate, but because it was all based on a kind of unjustified certainty, a certainty that in aggregate smells like a fear of small “d” democracy. The Democratic Party should always want more primary candidates, not less, more debate not less. In the lead up to the primaries, it traded openness for a false certainty, a false certainty about about how things would go, about how the world works. What would have happened if seven or eight Democrats of various leanings had thrown their hat in the ring early on, if elected Democrats had withheld endorsements in the name of democracy, if the DNC and the establishment had embraced and encouraged a diverse, wide ranging primary? I have no idea, and no one else does either. Except that I suspect we’d be in a stronger position now, whoever ended up candidate.
What I strive for is way to proceed intellectually and politically openly, without guarantees, as S. Hall put it, to acknowledge both the horror and hope of the moment. I won’t speculate on whether or not Bernie could have done better than Clinton against Trump — we just don’t know, can’t possibly know — but I will again quote Jedediah Purdy: “The unexpected, sometimes astonishing strength of the Sanders campaign is that it represents a call for a politics that takes both crisis and hope more seriously. In this way, the campaign is utterly realistic.” Embrace both the crisis and hope, with no guarantees: that’s the way forward, I think.
Seth Lewis – The Filter Bubble Election
What is “news,” anymore? So much of journalism scholarship carries built-in assumptions that when we talk about news, we’re all more or less talking about the same thing, journalists and audiences alike — that there’s some kind of thingy-ness to recognizing news as news. True, there have always been charges of bias and manipulation, and the boundaries of journalism are a perpetual site of struggle (as Matt Carlson and I have shown), but still: news was assumed to be something everyone recognized, even if with a certain distaste. But consider what’s happened to news from the perspective of Trump supporters in rural America. As Joshua Benton points out, newspapers that served as key community institutions have been hollowed out, much like the factories and church pews, and the print-to-digital shift has only accelerated the concentration of power to coastal news elites — elites who mostly responded to Trump and his ilk with snark and scorn.
In such a climate, we have our first Filter Bubble Election. While echo chambers are nothing new and are not all-determining, the sheer volume of (cheap-to-make) fake news, the easy spreadability of misinformation, and the social and algorithmic orientations toward homophily that encourage such circulation on social media — together, those influences won the day (here, here, here). Shared notions of “news” did not. Facebook especially, as Benton puts it, has “become a single point of failure for civic information… Some of it is driven by ideology, but a lot is driven purely by the economic incentive structure Facebook has created: The fake stuff, when it connects with a Facebook user’s preconceived notions or sense of identity, spreads like wildfire.”
Much of the day-after criticism now being leveled at the news media assumes that basic terms like “news” have some shared understandings attached to them, some agreed-upon normative expectations for journalism in public life. We shouldn’t be so sure anymore, and scholars need to figure out why.
My dissertation—on basic computer training centers in urban India—investigates the everyday impact of new technologies and a technology-centric economy for low-income and minority students in India. It demonstrates how technology adoption, and its potential for socioeconomic mobility, must be examined with reference to particular times and places. Education institutions hold social power as potential catalysts for socioeconomic mobility, yet we know the picture is much more complicated than this. On this post-election day, I find hope in more ethnographic research to lay bare the contradictions in simplistic narratives of progress and to be ever more attentive to history, context, and complicated realities. We need intersectional scholarship now more than ever.
Yesterday I finished a draft on the rising issue on cyberstalking of women in India and the impact the fear of such an event happening has on women I interviewed. It is clear, for my interlocuters, that mobile phones (and other new forms of communication) offer both new opportunities and new configurations of violence and fear. We have just elected a president who has openly denigrated immigrants, racial minorities, and women, among many other groups. For many, the United States (and world) is going to be a scarier and more violent place. In the next four years, I’m thinking about the importance of research on how new technologies and social media sites may mirror (if not exacerbate) existing configurations of power.
Tom Boellstorff – The View from Lookout Mountain
Noon, November 9, 2016. We are 70 meters up; a flock of birds circles endlessly above. I hear the soft wind’s sound as it flows down the steep slopes of Lookout Mountain. It brushes the green of Ethnographia Island below, meeting the endless ocean. Gentle ripples shine in the gleam of the digital sun that everywhere looks down on Second Life.
I’m here for a regular meeting of the denizens of Ethnographia Island, who are participating in an ethnographic study about disability, embodiment, and virtual worlds. They’ve been given parcels of virtual land, and from Lookout Mountain we can see their creations: an art gallery, a “build biography,” a virtual studio, poems in a hallway that descends into the water. Today’s meeting was to discuss our efforts to support the coding of a new disability-friendly viewer for Second Life. But I’m still struck numb in shock; it seems we all are. My colleague and I ask if folks would like this topic instead: “how might the election affect disabled persons, and how can virtual worlds help respond to that?” There’s quick agreement and the conversation rushes forth. We take turns typing anything said, and speaking anything typed, so that our words are accessible to those with either visual or hearing impairments. One of the first to speak says:
The election of a man who stands opposed to our most fundamental values has left the people in my circles stunned. We must meet these challenges head on. I intend to continue to fight for equality and justice on all fronts. We have a place in this country, no matter how we are marginalized or who marginalizes us. Don’t ever let anybody tell you otherwise. Be bold, be strong, and continue to stand up for making every person in this world safe, equal and valued.
Murmurs of agreement fill the circle, but my colleague emphasizes not everyone on Lookout Mountain may share the same politics. One member of the group responds “I agree—this is why we need to reach across to each other and talk and understand.” There is talk of how anxiety about the election has fractured families, and great concern about the future of the Affordable Care Act. One person tells us:
All of these things put me at great risk in this country, but honestly, it is less of a risk than it was at one time. We are moving in the right direction, so slowly, so painfully slowly, but we’re not where we were 50 years ago. It’s important for us to keep our chin up, because we have had setbacks before.
Up on Lookout Mountain there is fear, but already hope and even a calm to face the road ahead. It fills my heart with a strength I did not expect to feel this day.
And now, three hours after leaving Lookout Mountain and less than 24 hours since the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency, I’m before my computer with fresh fieldnotes and raw soul, seeking meaning, guidance, solidarity. It is too early to see through the sadness and the bewilderment. Too early to draw lessons. But there is one lesson I’ll hazard to put forth, one I saw before me just today on Lookout Mountain:
Trump won because he understood the digital is real.
That’s not the only reason he succeeded, but it’s a pivotal factor and one with pivotal lessons for all of us whose scholarship, advocacy, and activism involves digital culture. I remain shocked by how many scholars counterpose the “digital” to “real life” or the “real world.” This is obviously untrue, even when sometimes speaking colloquially of “needing to get back to rl” when online. But as one person noted during our chat on Lookout Mountain, “people don’t believe things because they’re true, they believe them because they’re useful.” Opposing the digital to the real might seem useful as a way to claim relevance or tangible impact. But Trump saw that it is precisely in its reality that the digital is useful, relevant, impactful. Trump was “real” to voters when he was digital, and knew it.
From his first tweet to his embrace of the alt-right, Trump understood perfectly well this crucial point: the digital is real. Many factors shaped this election, but the emerging role of digital culture will go down in the history books as changing American society, politics, and power. This includes digital media in all its forms, but also digital culture more broadly—from social networks to games, from data analytics to the virality of memes. To the impassioned conversation on Lookout Mountain.
Speaking for myself, I can see several directions in which my research trajectory may change as I engage movements for social justice, science, and true community. But it is really too soon to say. I cannot emphasize enough the point that there is value—precisely at a time like this—in research whose value and practicality is unknown at the outset, whose timeline is measured in months or years. The urgency of the moment cannot foreclose long-range research projects. We can work and write in multiple genres. And we can work together. It is precisely at a time like this that the notion of a research community moves us forward. We are not collaborating in every moment or coauthoring every article. But we can build on the conceptual insights and best practices of our colleagues, to reach conclusions and solutions we never could have reached otherwise.
Let us move forward from this disaster (and on November 9, 2016, it feels like an unmitigated disaster), to forge new possibilities. I will return to Lookout Mountain to listen and learn, and through a range of digital cultures, including this one, seek from you, together, a better reality for all of us.
1) I see part of what happened as a failure of ‘big’ and social data and our lack of understanding of how existing methods need to be adapted to the space and the implications of the “new” methods we are inventing. Issues of ethics, consent, transparency, data access, and representation within ‘big’ and social media datasets also abound without any easy or neat solutions at present — especially since an increasing number of decisions in the public and private sectors use this data as input.
2) The collection and preservation of the complex web of digital media, social media, metadata, and linked data surrounding government and political activity is important as we attempt to study the relationship and impact of activity in these spaces on our political communication — and as documentation of our history. As an example, I made open records requests to the Departments of Transportation in WA, OR, and CA for tweets surrounding their public accounts. One state send me the archived data, another state replied that they did not archive any social media data, and another state responded that the data was already public.
Our esteemed contributor-colleague Daniel Kreiss recently wrote an excellent critique of the growing meme that social media gave us Donald Trump. I, too, would push back on the deterministic claim that we can divide our politics and public discourse into a before and after, severed by the motive force of digital media. But media distribution infrastructures and practices do matter for civic discourse and participation. They influence who has access to culture and on what terms; in doing so they help define the physical and imagined boundaries of public spheres.
The problem with scapegoating social media with respect to today’s political climate is that it ignores (a) the way that any influence of technology is inevitably entangled with practice—the flexibility in the way people use, adapt to, and strategize around it—and (b) that it strips away important historical context. If we’re going to talk about distribution systems that filter what we see and thereby influence American political discourse, we need to be thinking not just of today’s algorithms, but of 19th century postmasters who removed abolitionist tracts from mail bound for southern states. If we’re going to hold Facebook accountable for the sway its platform holds over the news business, we might do well to think back to the monopolistic distribution arrangements Western Union lorded over the New York Associated Press wire service, giving it an outsized influence over who Americans got their news from and, in some cases, what news they got. Historical context will be essential to any deeper understanding of what role today’s digital media infrastructures may play in the way we, the contemporary American electorate, understand ourselves and the ties that bind us to one another.
Jessica R. Houf and Robert W. Gehl
Had Clinton won, part of the narrative would have been about the continued triumph of data-driven politics. This is clearly not the case. The election revealed the utter failure of the mode of knowledge production known as polling. Polling data showed that Clinton would win handily, but as journalists are arguing in the wake of the election, these data did very little to capture the actual moods and angers of the people who voted in Trump. No doubt the Clinton campaign, as every modern political campaign before it, used these polling data to make decisions about where to campaign and whom to target. In hindsight, their choices were probably justified and in line with previous campaign practices. But the data were far to abstracted from the cultural lives of voters. This is a clear, unambiguous reminder of the need for qualitative, ethnographic work. Given that computer-aided Internet scholarship lends itself to modes of data-driven, distant reading, let’s not forget that “small data” analysis of micro-level anger, greivance, distress, and hope is just as necessary. The truth was not in elite, expensive knowledge, crunched through algorithms and statistical analysis. It was in the daily lives of voters.
But this is an easy statement to make. The difficult decision is where to focus this qualitative, thick, descriptive work. Given the early understanding of the Trump coalition, we would ask: What does Masculinity and Internet Studies look like? What does Whiteness and Internet Studies look like? What about a focus on class resentments and the Internet? And of course, what does an intersection of these look like? And how do we move past critique of these areas, critiques of clear racism, sexism, and economic isolationism and individualism, and move towards common causes? Or do we continue to critique with an eye towards shaming, cajoling, and vilifying? Can we find sympathy in resentment? Can we find sympathy in hate? Can we love, and learn from, our neighbors and families? As echo-chambery and filtered as the Internet is, our neighbors, coworkers, and family are out there. They’re online with us. They’re at the dinner table with us after having read very different news sources. They’re in line with us at the post office. It’s time we got to know them.
Writing from a context of teaching in a communication department and researching online counterculture, my contribution is to pass on the most useful messages that have come through both online and offline conversations with friends, students, colleagues and neighbors.
- We need to educate ourselves, our students and our social networks about the affordances and limitations of online communication platforms as tools of political dialogue. The day after the election, I started my undergraduate class by asking my students to share their thoughts and reactions. They spoke of bewilderment at the disconnect between their newsfeeds and Election Day realities, and they also spoke of their disappointment in a platform that could offer diverse views and points of connection, but instead produces echo chambers of convenience and redundancy. As educators and activists, we need to find betters ways of incorporating filter bubbles and augmented news feeds into our efforts at digital literacy and civic engagement. As researchers we need to find ways to promote diversity, debate and perhaps even awkwardness as design values of mainstream social media sites.
- We deserve a robust critique of statistics, polls and surveys. In an era of big data hype, many of us who work from qualitative and interpretive methodological frameworks have struggled to articulate the necessity of theory and interpretation. It’s crucial not to dismiss polls and predictions as tools of thinking about social phenomena; we cannot afford to dismiss the incredible power of these methods, nor to further balkanize the academy along methodological lines. Yet it is also imperative that we critique these same tools, partly to improve them, and partly to understand what it is that we expect of them. When we lament the failure of polls to predict behavior, we need to acknowledge the limitations of these tools and how our desire for clear-cut evaluation defies the complexity and messiness of democracy. The failure of polls demonstrates the necessity of interpretive research on political discourse, conservative and liberal, formal and informal, on CNN and Facebook.
- We need to struggle against elitism. The role of the public intellectual has been a fraught one in a social context that contradicts a deep faith in self-improvement with a profound skepticism of intellectuals. While research on progressive, anarchist and leftist movements has made valuable contributions to research on political communication, media studies scholars have been less successful in developing sophisticated interrogations of social media practices among poor, rural, white conservatives. By assuming that these views are either obvious or unworthy of study, we consign them to irrelevance rather than a linchpin of the political landscape. Moreover, we do a disservice to the people who hold these views, people who are right to dismiss academics as elitist when we are so one-sided in choosing objects of study.
Through our capacities as teachers, educators and designers, we can listen, interrogate, make demands and build coalitions. We can work towards more ethical technologies, more diverse networks and more reflective relationships within our communities.
On election night, on my way home from work, my 15 year old daughter texted me. Her text read: “OMG. I yelled at my entire team about Donald. It was so cool!” I responded with encouragement. A bit later, she texted me again and said “it will be bad if he wins.” I replied immediately: “he won’t.” Another while later, she texted “I’m scared.” I replied that I was on my way. She texted back: “momma hurry he’s winning.” In a short text trajectory, my remarkably mature, self-possessed daughter moved from a position of empowerment to one of a frightened child, wanting her mom to rescue her from what was starting to look like a national catastrophe. But I couldn’t rescue her—I could only cry with her.
It’s hard for me not to read the election of Donald Trump as President through the lens of my 15 year old daughter, or my young female undergraduate students. It is difficult to explain to young women, who see and experience a volume of messages and initiatives telling them to be confident, to lean in, to just be empowered, why a known misogynist and racist has just been elected president. Popular feminism exists most spectacularly in an economy of visibility, where it remains just that: visibility. Popular misogyny, on the other hand, seems to fold into state and national structures with terrible efficiency—like the election of Donald Trump as president.
That is, while popular misogyny is perhaps not as spectacularly visible in the way popular feminism has been for the past several years, misogynistic expressions seem to more easily translate into actual structural changes. For example, at the same time when there is a dramatic increase in organizations (both corporate and non-profit) dedicated to empowerment and equality for girls and women, there is a similar increase in men’s rights organizations and alt-right group, whose focus is on the empowerment and equality for men, seemingly robbed from them by feminism. At a time when girls’ self-esteem and sexual agency is the focus of new corporate industries, federal funding, and educational programs, there is an explosion of rape and sexual assault cases on college campuses and elsewhere and we elect a man who casually talks about sexual assault. At a moment when women and girls are told to “lean in” and demand more for themselves at the workplace, there is a dramatic uptick in the number of reproductive rights that have been formally retracted, and we elect a Vice-President who has vowed to overturn Roe v Wade. And, when girls are encouraged to become a central part of the world of technology, from coding to STEM fields, we have online misogyny where men threaten women with death and rape for their participation in the technological sphere. Feminist logics of confidence, competence, self-esteem, and sexual agency are re-routed by popular misogyny, which then use these logics to center white men as injured and in need of recuperation and reparation. If successful, this cycle works to shore up, rather than challenge, structural sexism and racism. The US witnessed this shoring up in a truly terrifying way yesterday, as we watched the votes come in.
So what to do? In his Strength to Love, Martin Luther King Jr says “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” Today on campus, I told a group of students, “use your anger.” We need to refuse hate and channel our anger, to stay and fight, to reject the structural violence of racism and misogyny. And, we need to be explicit about the fact that racism and misogyny are not simply side issues of the President of the United States, but they are literally the platform he ran on. My work is on the dynamic between popular feminism and popular misogyny; today I woke up in despair, and thought I should just trash it—after all, look what just happened? But it is precisely in this moment when our work matters the most—if not only for the activist scholarship, but for our students, our daughters, our sons. We can’t rescue them, but we can insistently, relentlessly, tell them the struggle is worth it.
It goes without saying that historians will be mulling this particular epoch in American history for some time. Disorientated is the best descriptor I could come up with to illustrate the state of mind of many who pride themselves on their abilities to understand and predict trends in culture and society. For those of us who learn, write and teach for a living, some learning moments are painful. We’d like to avoid those, but it comes with the territory.
Colleagues and I have had extended conversations over the past weeks. Given our penchant for the occasional pessimism, we did contemplate the possibility of the outcome of this election. Our knee-jerk predictions were that only if decency and reason failed would such a thing be possible. If it happened, the question that we would be left asking would seek to understand how such large swaths of the electorate became so jaded or uniformed as to think this was good? But we also concluded that such a question might hint of hubris. Maybe the question ought to not be informed by an assumption that something is wrong with people who made one choice over another but rather that reasonable persuasion failed because we really didn’t understand where they were coming from.
This distinction is important. To understand where some one is coming from means to make another more faithful sort of assumption. That assumption means we have faith that people are basically decent, and that despite how they may vote, they are coming from a place painful or frightening enough that the unreasonable seems like a good idea. From a place of pain or fear, when one believes one’s back is against the wall, any option appears reasonable, even if to others it’s patently self-destructive. So we’ve had to reshape our questions: are people’s backs truly against the wall and what does that mean to them? What information or experience brought them to see the world through that lens? Does the data show their conditions to be so dramatic that it is reasonable to conclude that “yes, anyone would be pained or fearful?” If so then might we empathize with their feeling of fear and pain even if we cannot sympathize with their solutions, their lashing out and the dangerous consequences of the election outcome? Or does that data not wholly support conclusions about “being left out” as has been often said and so the feeling of being with one’s back against the wall is actually the result of other more complex narratives and cultural dynamics. Some of those dynamics might have something to do with how easy it is for a political faction to set agendas of thought and action with the celestial bullhorn of social media and profit driven news agencies thirsty to excite while only moderately interested in informing deeply. Or media industries and communication technology could have little to do with it and it could be that the ideology that moved parts of the electorate has been there all along, nurtured and sustained through various incarnations since 1945. Or maybe all of the above and more.
Whatever the cause of our current state of affairs, by understanding where someone is coming from we might find more effective ways of persuading and understand the means and memes people use and circulate to collectively orient themselves when their life-world maps appear to them to not make sense. In those cases one can help and persuade them to re-draw their map. It will be a learning experience for everyone. But I have a feeling it will be one far less painful than surrendering our commitment to equality and attempting to twist the arc of the moral universe to retrofit a social map that was never consistent with our better natures. The retrofitting strategy is pernicious and an affront to our common humanity, most of all for the least among our fellow citizens. So for those of us who hope to illuminate knowledge, inform and inspire human flourishing: how do we better understand where people are coming from, learn from this and persuade more effectively?
Pundits and commentators are just starting to pick through the rubble of this election and piece together what happens and what it means. In such cases, it is often easier to grab hold of one explanation — Twitter! racism! Brexit! James Comey! — and use it as a clothesline to hang the election on and shake it into some semblance of sense. But as scholars, we do a disservice to allow for simple or single explanations. “Perfect storm” has become a cliche, but I can see a set of elements that had to all be true, that came together, to produce the election we just witnessed: Globalization, economic precarity, and fundamentalist reactionary responses; the rise of the conservative right and its target tactics, especially against the Clintons; backlashes to multiculturalism, diversity, and the election of President Obama; the undoing of the workings and cultural authority of journalism; the alt-right and the undercurrents of social media; the residual fear and anxiety in America after 9/11. It is all of these things, and they were all already connected, before candidate Trump emerged.
Yet at the same time, my expertise does not stretch across all of these areas. I have to admit that I have trained myself right down to a fine point: social media, public discourse, technology, control, law. I have that hammer, and can only hit those nails. If I find myself being particular concerned about social media and harassment, or want to draw links between Trump’s dog whistle politics, Steve Bannon and Breitbart, the tactics of the alt-right, and the failings of Twitter to consider the space of discourse it has made possible, I risk making it seem like I think there’s one explanation, that technology produces social problems. I do not mean this. In the end, I have to have faith that, as I try to step up and say something useful about this one aspect, some other scholar is similarly stepping up an saying something about fundamentalist reactions to globalization, and someone else is stepping up to speak about the divisiveness of the conservative movement.
The book I’m working on now, nearing completion, is about social media platforms and the way they have (and have not) stepped into the role of arbiters of public discourse. The focus is on the platforms, their ambivalent combination of neutrality and intervention, the actual ways in which they go about policing offensive content and behavior, and the implications those tactics and arrangements have for how we think about the private curation of public discourse. But the book is framed in terms of the rise and now, for lack of a better word, adolescence of social media platforms, and how the initial optimism and enthusiasm that fueled the rise of the web, overshadowed the darker aspects already emergent there, and spurred the rise of the first social media platforms, seems to have given way to a set of concerns about how social media platforms work and how they are used — sometimes against people, and towards very different ends than were originally imagined. Those platforms did not at first imagine, and have not thoroughly thought through, how they now support (among many other things) a targeted project of racial animosity and a cold gamesmanship about public engagement. In the context of the election, my new goal is to boost that part of the argument, to highlight the opportunities that social media platforms offer to forms of public discourse that are not only harassing, racist, or criminal, but also that can take advantage of the dynamics of social media to create affirming circles of misinformation, to sip the poison of partisanship, to spur leaderless movements ripe for demagoguery — and how the social media platforms who now host this discourse have embraced a woefully insufficient sense of accountability, and must rethink how they have become mechanisms of social and political discourse, good and ill.
This specific project is too late in the game for a radical shift. But as I think beyond it, I feel an imperative to be sure that my choices of research topics are driven more by cultural and political imperative than merely my own curiosity. Or, ideally, the perfect meeting point of the two. It seems like the logical outcome of my interest in platforms and content moderation is to shift how we think of platforms, not as mere intermediaries between speakers (if they ever were, they are no longer) to understand them as constitutive of public discourse. If we understand them as constituting discourse — both by the choreography they install in their design, the moderation they conduct as a form of policy, and in the algorithmic selection of which raw material becomes “my feed,” then we expand their sense of responsibility. moreover, we might ask what it would mean to hold them accountable for making the political arena we want, we need. These questions will only grow in importance and complexity as these information systems depend more on more on algorithmic, machine learning, and other automated techniques;, more regularly include bots who are difficult to discern from the human participants; and that continue to extend their global reach for new consumers, also extending and entangling with the very shifts of globalization and tribalization we will continue to grapple with.