The aim of the discussion, according to CCCE Associate Director Matt Powers who served as panel moderator, was to consider the energized if rocky journalism present with an eye to ways journalists might seize future opportunities to better fuel civic engagement and serve the public interest.
Panel members, in conversation with audience members, discussed citizen-generated “micro” journalism initiatives, Amazon.com podcasts, the growing journalism newsletter space, integrating community into reporting decision making and news-agenda setting, and the increasing awareness of the ways bias and algorithms and consolidation are shaping the media landscape and the work journalists do.
The role of think tanks, business sectors, and partisan political organizations in casting doubt on scientific facts, challenging the integrity of mainstream news organizations, and attacking the competency and legitimacy of government.
How innovations in media technology have disrupted the delicate balance between markets, regulation, and the provision of public goods such as news.
How networked communication technologies are reshaping public discourse, political engagement, the news media, and democratic institutions more broadly.
In conjunction with the first workshop meeting in December, 2018, a roundtable interview with Yochai Benkler (Harvard), Paul Starr (Princeton), Naomi Oreskes (Harvard), and Jane Mayer (The New Yorker) was filmed at the George Washington University School of Media & Public Affairs.
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.
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.
“The most pressing problem is the inaccessibility of our cities,” said Andrews. “They need to be reformed in a way that houses and transports people in better [more efficient] ways.”
“Water is the through-line on climate change; it connects everything,” said Bush. “You have too much when you don’t want it and too little when you do.”
“I think you have to look at who will be impacted the most [by the climate crisis],” said Shastri. “It’s communities of color and poor communities — and the impacts on those communities are going to increase as climate change takes hold… You have to involve those communities in coming up with solutions and putting them into practice.”
Panel moderator Adrienne Russell, CCCE associate director and professor of communications, has written about societal and professional structures that can impede efforts to move publics to work for change. She asked the panelists to talk about the challenges they face in communicating to the public on climate change and how they would address those challenges if they could.
The main challenge is to secure greater resources, they all said. They would use increased funding to hire more reporters to do a greater number and variety of more-deeply reported stories on a wider number of topics in a larger number of communities around the region and across the country.
The panelists said they’re inspired by the fact that they’re all seeing a spike in public interest in news and information about the climate crisis.
PhD Candidate Yunkang Kang joined colleagues from the University of Canberra, Purdue University, and the University of Texas at the American Political Science Association Conference in Boston for a panel on “Fake News and Trust in News Media in the U.S.” Kang presented a paper which investigated the logic of so-called “hyper-partisan” media on the political right such as Breitbart.
Funded, supported, and managed by the sprawling networks of right-wing donors, activists, think tanks, politicians, and Astroturf organizations, these media outlets tend to blend partisan news of the early Fox News variety with propaganda tactics and engage in a wide range of political operations such as opposition research and disinformation to advance tangible political goals at strategic moments.
While right-wing media are clearly not all run by the same political interests or operating under any central command, Kang’s research demonstrates that they display an impressive degree of coherence that resemble that of political organization. They join in amplifications of narratives at strategic moments, reaching very large audiences and accomplishing common political goals; they also at times de-align themselves as they attack each other and promote conflicting narratives that fragment their audiences’ attention when their interests diverge. You can read the whole paper here.
1) radical right movements and parties that threaten civil rights, press freedoms, and the postwar international order;
2) a fragmented left that is turning away from parties and elections in favor of direct democracy and protest politics;
3) public communication spheres divided between traditional journalism that largely reports official information; and
4) a growing online communication sphere that invites citizens to share and believe what they want.
These trends can be traced to a combination of factors: economic policies that create widespread insecurity that erodes trust in institutions, the failure of mainstream political parties to offer voters new ideas, and divergent uses of digital media by the left and the right. The fate of democracy depends on reshaping institutions and communication processes to engage a broader spectrum of citizens with pressing problems from climate change to economic and political inequality.
CCCE Co-Directors Matt Powers and Adrienne Russell to edit section of journal Social Media & Society entitled 2K. It will offer a space for short essays, and will invite lively and timely conversation around the ways that scholars are studying critical issues related to the study of media and technology. The first issue will examine “Things I No Longer Believe”. Further details, and the call for abstracts (due Jan 18), available here.
CCCE Associate Director Matt Powers releases new book. First in a new Reuters International book series, Powers discusses the way in which NGOs increasingly are taking on journalistic functions, shaping-and sometimes directly producing-international news. How effective is this? In “NGOs as Newsmakers – the changing landscape of International news” Powers charts the growth of these efforts, and analyzes its implications for advocacy groups, journalists, and news consumers.
CCCE, in coordination with the UW Department of Communication and the Simpson Center for the Humanities, hosted a highly successful symposium exploring the “big questions” for scholars concerned with our contemporary media landscape. Entitled “The Shifting Landscape of Public Communication”, the event brought together preeminent scholars in the field to address questions of surveillance, propaganda, and the receding faith in the power of social institutions. For more information about the event, including a list of participants and extended abstracts, please head here.
Through a grant awarded by the Campus Sustainability Fund (CSF), an exciting new student-led initiative for a campus wide sustainability action network (UW-SAN) is ready to launch its first year operations.
Described as a resource center intended to create “solutions for economy, environment and democracy,” UW-SAN aims to provide online and in-person support for coalition-building projects between student organizations. “One of our primary goals is to bring about systematic growth and change,” explains COM student and Network Ambassador, Sky Stahl. “Studies have shown that when people come together and apply themselves to a challenge, growth isn’t linear, it is exponential.”
The project was conceived as a student led campus initiative affiliated with the Rethinking Prosperity Project at the Center for Communication and Civic Engagement (CCCE). “This was a student initiative all the way,” said CCCE Director Lance Bennett. “The initial groundwork was done by Nathaniel Matthews-Trigg, a graduate student in the School of Public Health. Emily Tasaka, a dual Political Science and Communication major, who will continue working on the project as a manager for the resource center and an outreach coordinator, made the formal presentation to the Campus Sustainability Fund.”
According to UW-SAN organizers, the network will utilize both on-line and in-person components. The online component consists of 1) a blog and website that shares relevant articles and resources, lists events, provides updates on student projects, and archives the work of student organizations, and 2) a social engine that maps and connects student groups and resources for building collaborations and serves as a cybernetic space for project development. The in-person component will include student staff, volunteers, and faculty, coordinated by the CCCE. The UW-SAN team will provide support throughout the development and implementation process of student projects.
“Our vision is to create a campus-wide community that actively works together to realize collective prosperity through connected localized movements,” Stahl said. According to the UW-SAN team, “the rich diversity of UW activism around issues of sustainability, environmentalism, democracy, and the economy” means that there is a multitude of opportunities to interact with the student population at large on a deeper, more interconnected level.
As stated in the original grant application, there are over 50 sustainability-focused groups and over 50 social justice-focused groups currently at UW. The intent of UW-SAN will be to bring together the traditionally siloed spheres of environment, economy and democracy to broaden the understanding of sustainability.
“Over the course of going to UW, I have gotten really interested in the possibilities of collaboration,” Stahl explained. “When I first learned in COM 202 how to map a network, it was very exciting because you can just see the possibilities that are there. This then became one of my primary focuses of study. In COM 306, taught by Lance Bennett, we discussed many aspects of society and explored how they all interlace. I was impressed by Lance’s knowledge and enthusiasm, so I reached out to him about doing an independent study, and he introduced me to this project.”
According to the UW-SAN team, the development and maintenance of the network will rely on the continued involvement of and outreach to campus groups, students leaders, and faculty, and will grow as campus coalitions gain momentum. “What we have found is that there is currently not a lot of communication that happens between these 100+ student organizations, even though they share similar, interdependent interests,” Stahl noted. “We want to make connections between currently isolated groups. Every student at UW is learning skills that will affect society. When you talk to other people, you learn about how your work impacts someone else and vice versa; then we can start looking at things systematically and find solutions.”
As defined in the UW-SAN proposal, student involvement will consist of three overlapping types of engagement: cross group and campus networking, project collaboration and development, and project launches.
“UW-SAN would be a great resource for student groups seeking to expand their reach and develop long-lasting coalitions on campus, particularly for those groups led by students new to Seattle activism,” stated Jerzy Eisenberg-Guyot, a Pre-Doctoral Research Assistant at the UW School of Public Health.
When asked what UW-SAN hopes to accomplish within its first year of operation, Stahl said that he would hope his team has a good grasp of the state of the campus student organizations network. “I want us to be able to answer any questions about environmental and social justice efforts taking place at UW. We do not want to reinvent the wheel, so we want to know what people are currently doing and what challenges they have faced. My hope is that we could then take this information and get a few collaborative projects underway.”
Additional outreach goals for the UW-SAN team include having the link to the organization’s portal published on official University of Washington pages, in order to attract the attention of those looking for ways to get involved. They also plan to publicize UW-SAN with brief information sessions at courses of faculty affiliated with various student groups.
“Right now we’re trying to start a conversation,” Stahl said. “Our first step is to have meetings with as many groups as we can and see what is going on. We have more planned for the fall and winter of 2017, and we are very excited about getting people connected and launching our technology components. We are moving from micro to macro. Eventually we aspire to move from campus to city, and then to other campuses, other cities, and perhaps one day national and then international.”
Our Partners, Supporters and Collaborators
The Center for Communication and Civic Engagement is proud to acknowledge the support of a number of funding partners, including: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Surdna Foundation, The Belgian Science Policy Foundation, The Norcliffe Foundation, The Charlotte Martin Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Annenberg Policy Foundation, The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, and The Microsoft Corporation.
We are also indebted to our many friends at the University of Washington: the Dean of Arts & Sciences, the Provost, the Royalty Research Fund, the Mary Gates Fellowship Fund, the Departments of Communication and Political Science, and the growing number of individual donors who have contributed to our many student and community projects.
You can play a substantive role in the Center’s success by making a tax-deductible contribution. Your gift will provide a much-needed source of funding for a broad spectrum of activities, programs and projects that involve students in research linking the university to society. Please make your check payable to the Center for Communication and Civic Engagement and mail it the address above.