Integrating Computational Social Science and Political and Digital Ethnography to Study the 21st Century Communication Ecology: The Case of Civic Renewal in Wisconsin

Integrating Computational Social Science and Political and Digital Ethnography to Study the 21st Century Communication Ecology: The Case of Civic Renewal in Wisconsin

Details related to our February 2020 conference are listed below.

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About Our Project

The study of the relationship between communication and civil society is at the center of many of the most pressing problems facing democratic societies today. Fault lines across and between groups widen on an almost daily basis and are driven by a myriad of changes to the communication ecology: (a) an increasingly partisan cable news environment, (b) the thinning of local news coverage due to corporate consolidation, (c) ever-increasing campaign expenditures that hammer negativity, and (d) the pressure generated by the adversarial politics found in online news and social media. Disentangling these relationships is a necessary first step to understand how we might engage in civic repair and return to deliberative democratic norms. Understanding how we move beyond the “politics of resentment” and toward civic renewal is a large-scale socio-political project that requires detailed and extended study of the communication ecology and its social consequences. Our cluster project centers on hosting two conferences concerning computational social science methods and political and digital ethnographic research methods in the study of communication. This work focuses on the role of broadcast and digital media technology in everyday life, and examines the interplay of different research methods in STS.

Our Holtz Center-funded project extends our reach within the UW while simultaneously drawing upon excellence in computational social science and political and digital ethnographic research from around the globe to inform and advance our project. Specifically, in 2020, we will host a conference integrating UW-Madison faculty, both within and beyond our project, and internationally-recognized faculty in computational social science and/or ethnographic research who apply their work to important questions related to the contemporary communication ecology and questions of civic fracture (e.g., misinformation, social and institutional distrust, polarization, and contentious, oppositional politics). In 2021, we will hold a second international conference and resources to provide for public outreach on a parallel effort focused on question of civic renewal (e.g., civic engagement, public volunteerism, political participation, and deliberative discussion).

To understand the complex interrelationships we describe we are investigating requires a large-scale socio-political undertaking, especially when mapped longitudinally. So, we are building a 10-year data archive of (a) county-level economic resilience, population change, and health and education status for each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, (b) print and broadcast news coverage about Wisconsin politics from all major designated market areas (DMAs) in the state, as well as many smaller metro areas, (c) themes revealed in talk radio, more than 10 elite interviews, and conversational discourse of over 230 Wisconsinites across the state, (d) social media discourse, both overtime changes in attention and sentiment directed at key politicians, referent groups, and policy disputes, and network mapping of online political communities and their interactions, and (e) political advertising and public opinion data collected around major midterm and presidential elections, for which Wisconsin has been a battleground. We have published books and articles related to our project in leading outlets, including Journal of Communication, Human Communication Research, International Journal of Communication, University of Chicago Press and CQ/Sage Press.

Our approach to the study of communication, context, and civic renewal draws on a broad range of methods: qualitative fieldwork and in-depth interviewing, most notably political ethnography, longitudinal state-and-regionwide surveys, natural language processing of news and social media, dynamic network analysis of online interactions, and time series modeling of the different layers of the communication and public opinion ecology. However, we currently do not have a digital ethnography specialist on our team and are eager to incorporate insights from this approach into our work. Importantly, to do much of this work we are developing computational tools to gather, track and model the complex flows of communication, but would also like to mirror the deeper ethnographic fieldwork we are doing throughout the state of Wisconsin (which involves in-depth questions about digital media use) with deeper digital ethnographies of online communities centered on Wisconsin politics. Our conferences seek participants across these methodological perspectives, with a particular focus of integrating the work of computational social scientists with those doing ethnographic field work in mass communication.

About Us

Michael W. Wagner, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison | Twitter

Dhavan V. Shah, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison | Twitter

Lewis Friedland, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison | Twitter

Katherine J. Cramer, Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison | Twitter

Karl Rohe, Department of Statistics, University of Wisconsin-Madison | Twitter

William Sethares, Department of Electrical Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Chris Wells, Department of Emerging Media Studies, Boston University

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

Upcoming Events and Calls

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

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 or follow @UW_CCCR on Twitter.