What is Facebook?
I ask this question as I am well embarked on a two-week intensive seminar, “Democratic Crisis and the Politics of Social Media,” part of the 27th annual Democracy and Diversity Institute sponsored by The New School’s Transregional Center for Democratic Studies in Wrocław, Poland. Facebook and Twitter, and the unregulated (often untruthful) political narratives they disseminate will be a key focus, as will the ways that prior technologies such as radio, television and newspapers prepared us to use social media. My students are from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Poland, and the United States, and we are taking a deep dive into critical questions of democracy and democratic movements under Web 2.0.
Together, my students and I seek to understand the recent history of democratic crisis by examining the rise of a global digital public sphere. In the past three decades, the politics of social media have been both aspirational and cynical. While increased communication within and across national borders, as well as the possibility of instant translation, can inspire global democratic organizing, digital communication has also fueled authoritarian and anti-democratic coalition building. The benefits of social media are not abstract: it fuels resistance movements; supports access to privileged information, local journalism, and fact checking; and powers networks that guide refugees and immigrants fleeing state violence. Yet the same apps and digital tools have also fueled the rise of nationalism, authoritarianism, surveillance and global terror. Using Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983) as a provocation, we will chart the similarities and differences between social media and its non- digital predecessors, work to understand the present terrain in which citizens manage information and imagine principles that might guide a democratic digital public sphere.
But I am now pressed by a second, more parochial concern, one that I have thought about a great deal, but that has become newly urgent in the past two weeks. President Donald Trump has nominated a new candidate for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, to replace retiring Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, and a battle is brewing. To be honest I am ambivalent about Senate Democrats’ intention to derail the nomination, as Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Court was derailed at the end of the Obama administration. I don’t like it that both parties seek to rule the country from the judiciary, and that my fellow Democrats do not understand—as Donald Trump invokes broad powers to remake all the federal courts for decades to come—that such politics make our democracy volatile and unstable.
For the rest of this post, published at Public Seminar on July 11 2018, click here.