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Fracturing Democracy: The Erosion of Civil Society in a Shifting Communication Ecology Conference

February 27, 2020 @ 8:00 am - February 28, 2020 @ 5:00 pm

Fracturing Democracy: The Erosion of Civil Society in a Shifting Communication Ecology Conference

February 27-28, 2020 Conference

The title of our conference is “Fracturing Democracy: The Erosion of Civil Society in a Shifting Communication Ecology” and centers on issues that you all know too well: Democracies across the world are in crisis due, in part, to the rise of populism, spurred by the perceived lack of legitimacy of existing processes and institutions in the eyes of vast numbers of their citizens, not to mention the poor policy and administrative performance of democratic institutions more generally. We see a strong connection between the computational, public opinion, and ethnographic work we are doing at Wisconsin and your efforts to examine related questions for other perspectives. We hope to share knowledge and insights. We should note that this conference is the first of two Holtz Center funded conferences. Our 2021 conference will focus on civic repair and renewal.

The crises to democratic societies, we contend, flow through the delegitimation of major social institutions. Much of this legitimation occurs in civil society: the layer of everyday life in which individuals encounter one another—in groups, communities, organizations, at work, through media—to build trust and mediate differences. Core integrative mechanisms that once provided for some civic common ground, such as cross-cutting social networks, widespread civic membership, daily newspaper and local TV news viewing have been displaced by the “network society” and social media, with clusters of shared opinion and self-supporting facts. At the same time, post-industrialization has further dimmed the economic prospects of a wide swath of the working and middle classes, especially rural families and citizens living in urban centers, magnifying political and cultural differences and adding fuel to unresolved ethnic, class, and racial tensions. Populism, and it associated calls for the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” curtailed immigration, barriers for refugees, and intolerance for ethnic and racial minorities, has further eroded civil society, democratic functioning, and the potential for public deliberation over many social controversies. Political culture is increasingly defined by competing groups who see each other in zero-sum struggles for unequally distributed resources.

To understand these complex interrelationships requires a large-scale socio-political undertaking, especially when mapped longitudinally. Some of this work requires computational tools to gather, track and model the complex flows of communication, including natural language processing, network analytic tools, and computer vision and signal processing. The study of civic erosion and civic repair demands we combine these tools and techniques with social theory, ethnographic fieldwork, and multi-level and time-series modeling.

Against this backdrop, we seek to bring together scholars from across the US and, indeed, the globe, for a two-day symposium/workshop funded by the Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies with supplemental funding from The Jean Monnet European Union Center of Excellence for Comparative Populism to consider democratic fracture and its relationship to the contemporary communication ecology using a range of methodological approaches. We do so with two driving questions in mind: (1) How has growing polarization and fragmentation in the media ecology, as reflected in partisan media, broadcast content, political advertising and social media, contributed to ideological and partisan political divides within and across political, social, and geographic sub-clusters? (2) Under what conditions does the flow of information in the media ecology encourage citizens across the ideological spectrum to retrench into increasingly homogeneous sub-clusters that amplify highly partisan messages of party leaders and political pundits? The scholars hosting this campus event — Kathy Cramer, Lewis Friedland, Karl Rohe, William Sethares, Dhavan Shah, Michael Wagner, and Chris Wells — are examining parallel questions by gathering and analyzing social media content and flows, longitudinal survey responses, changes in news media content, ethnographic fieldwork, and in-depth interviews on contentious politics in Wisconsin. We are seeking a diverse group of scholars who approach these issues from computational, ethnographic, digital ethnographic, critical, information diffusion, networked personal computing, and conceptual points of view.

Our goal in inviting you and a select group of other scholars is twofold: (1) to have you share your perspectives on democratic fracture, populism and/or the role of communication in creating the current state of affairs, and (2) to have us inform each other’s work, with particular attention to on our efforts to reconstruct a statewide communication ecology of Wisconsin since 2010. This is an essential time to address the question of populism and its communicative roots. Despite deepening concern in our academic disciplines (political science, communication, and sociology) about fractures in civil society and growing political contentiousness, truly comparative work and integration across disciplines and methodological and theoretical perspectives is rare. Yet that is what is necessary to understand the broader features of civil society, politics, governance and mass media. You can read a short description of our data above on our webpage. To be sure, we see potential to engage in data sharing and collaboration with you given our desire to seek intersections between large data studies, survey data, interview data, content analyses and digital ethnographic work.

For more information, contact mwagner8@wisc.edu or follow @UW_CCCR on Twitter.