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Is Civic Media an Antidote to a Polarized World?

The concept of ‘civic media’ was discussed in academic circles before the rancorous political and media fights of the last few years. But only in the last few years, as polarization, disinformation, and the impact of social media have become central concerns in public life, has it become more broadly considered as a possible solution. To contribute to that discussion, the Kluge Center and Kluge Prize winner Danielle Allen hosted a panel discussion on the topic titled Using Civic Media to Build a Better Society, part of a larger campaign: Our Common Purpose—A Campaign for Civic Strength at the Library of Congress.

On March 11, Danielle Allen moderated a panel discussion with three experts on civic media. Watch the full event here.

Talia Stroud of the University of Texas is a nationally-renowned expert on examining commercially viable and democratically beneficial ways of improving media. Richard Young is the founder of CivicLex, a non-profit that is using technology, media, and social practice to build a more civically engaged city. Brendesha Tynes, of the University of Southern California, is a leader in the study of how youth experience digital media, and how these early experiences are associated with their academic and emotional development.

What is Civic Media?

To add to that conversation, I spoke with Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education at the University of Southern California, as well as a past Kluge Chair in Modern Culture. He is an expert on civic media.

In 2007, Jenkins offered this definition: “Civic media, as I use the term refers to any use of any medium which fosters or enhances civic engagement.”

Expanding on the idea in a recent interview, Jenkins said, “The civic has to do with the obligations members of a community owe to each other as opposed to the relations between citizens and government or the more contentious realm of politics.” This, according to Jenkins, is opposed to the current arrangement, where political divisions are mapped onto cultural topics so that a preference for a particular TV show or style of music acts as a wedge sharply dividing one group from another and “social media becomes a battleground for ideological factions.” A strong civic infrastructure, on the other hand, is a foundation of shared interests and goals based on things like hobbies, cultural interests, and community engagement.

Contrary to some popular understandings of the problem of polarization and distrust, Jenkins said, “Distrust within social media is a reflection of the erosion of the civic infrastructure of American society.” Declining civic involvement in the US has been noted as a problem well before social media became a driver of politics. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) provided an influential study of the decline of civic organizations and associations since the mid-20th century. While Jenkins pointed to numerous ways that social media is used to amplify division and distrust, he said the problem’s roots are political and social, not technological. “We don’t trust each other online because we do not trust each other off-line,” he said.

How Can Civic Media Help?

Jenkins pointed to Wikipedia as a well-known example of a project that supports a kind of civic engagement. Key to this, he said, was “the awareness that a community needs to define and regularly articulate shared norms of participation.” Wikipedia developed a process for resolving and avoiding disputes in a way that allowed multiple perspectives to be heard. It developed a community around a shared goal “even when there may be other kinds of differences at play,” Jenkins said.

“What we need to do,” Jenkins said, “is develop practices and platforms where shared goals around these common interests drive things and where the technological affordances and articulated norms are designed to support the achievement of these new kinds of civic connections.”

Emphasizing the point that technology is not a determining factor in whether media divides us or brings us together, Jenkins pointed to the involvement of Korean pop music (known as K-Pop) fans in the American Black Lives Matter movement. K-Pop fans, a diverse international community, were brought together by their shared musical interests. They made use of media platforms notorious for fostering division, like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, but for purposes of education and crowdfunding.

“Media consumption can just as easily be said to unite us,” as divide us, Jenkins said. “You have to work hard to drive a wedge between sports fans who are invested in the same team, yet partisans on both sides of the culture war have found ways to do so,” he said.

“I suspect if we want to heal these divides, we have to find shared interests that cut across party lines and these are again more apt to be shared hobbies, fandoms, and other cultural interests.”

Watch the March 11 event here for much more on civic media and the promise it holds.


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