The outcome of the 2016 election shook many of us to our core, to the point that many of us are apparently struggling to focus on our jobs. Following the projections of Nate Silver and others, I had taken for granted that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency, potentially by a large margin. But thanks to a toxic storm of innovative data analytics strategies, fake news articles, and unbalanced media coverage, Democrats lost an election that has the potential to do significant damage to our very concepts of democracy. With so many of our vital institutions at risk, it now seems more vital than ever that media scholars not only engage with the commons but even to immerse ourselves in the more rudimentary aspects of political activism, even if these tasks are outside of comfort zone. Media scholars of all stripes—especially those working in digital media—have ample opportunities to rethink political activism in an era dominated by the challenges and possibilities presented by social media.
Since the election, I have devoted much of my energy to political action—partly to keep my sanity but also to push back against the assault on civil rights and the attacks on journalism. In my case, I’ve written and shared call scripts for two North Carolina-based political groups virtually every day since the election. I’ve immersed myself in literature on political strategy such as the Indivisible Guide. And I’ve participated in strategy sessions with a number of local political groups. And I’ve worked with colleagues to craft infographics and memes that can be shared quickly. In many ways, all of this work seems consistent with my expertise in political communication. We can begin to think about how to craft messages that will support progressive values, using popular narratives to brand ourselves—welcome to #TheResistance, everyone. But we also need to think about how to create media events, political spectacles that will compel favorable media attention. Much of this has focused on conveying the message that our representatives are unresponsive to their constituents’ needs. One of my North Carolina Senators, Richard Burr, played into this narrative when called constituents’ phone calls a liberal “strategy.” And even though most of our calls will not result in policy changes, they are part of a long game.
But, in addition to this, I’ve found myself rethinking questions about how our specific interests in media literacy can be brought to engage with the current political media crisis associated with the concept of fake news. While I share Ethan Zuckerman’s reservations about the term, it has provided a useful shorthand for describing a range of media ranging from overt propaganda, disinformation, or conspiracy theories, whether those stories are published for political or financial gain. With that in mind, I devoted one of the units in my first-year writing class to a discussion of “fake news.” Using Melissa Zimdars’ Washington Post article as a starting provocation, I sought to challenge my students not just to identify fake news but to understand the mechanisms that make it possible and the potential effects that it might have on our political system. We can bring these skills to the commons as well, as Zimdars’ intervention illustrated.
Ultimately, there are countless opportunities for media scholars to engage with the commons. We do need to enter these spaces humbly, prepared to learn from those people who have been working in these areas. But our training in crafting and analyzing political narratives will continue to remain essential both inside and outside the classroom.