2017: Mediated Populisms

Mediated Populisms

The Neil Postman Conference | New York University | October 6, 2017

Location: 239 Greene Street | Floor 8 | New York


Can populism exist independently of its mediation? And if media are involuntarily complicit in the spread of authoritarian populism specifically, what room do they have for resistance? In considering the role and responsibility of media users, professionals, and scholars in resisting authoritarian populism, this conference calls for an investigation of industries, markets, algorithms, networks, policies, technologies, and practices as they shape politics and media landscapes.

Conference Schedule:

Thursday, October 5: Pre-Conference Showcase (5 – 8 pm)

Friday, October 6

Panel Information:

Fake Facts, Alternative News: Roles and Responsibilities of News Media (9:30 – 10:45 am)

Journalism History and Conservative Erasure (A.J. Bauer, Ursinus College, Department of Media and Communication Studies): Journalism history’s object of analysis, ‘journalism’, has been increasingly politicized from without, eclipsed by a modern conservative movement that has successfully mobilized around a belief in a “liberal media.” While sociologists of news media have fruitfully examined this phenomenon’s contemporary implications, it has thus far received little attention from journalism historians. Revisiting and revising the critical interventions of James Carey, this paper contends that the elision of right-wing forms of journalism and media criticism has been a constitutive feature of journalism history to date. Drawing on published materials and archival sources, it traces the long history of conservative news media criticism from the 1930s through the emergence of Accuracy in Media in the early 1970s, historicizing the contemporary conservative “echo chamber,” and demonstrating the historiographical value of an expanded conception of ‘journalism’ as a culturally embedded and politically contested category, simultaneously defined from within and without the profession.

A.J. Bauer is Visiting Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Ursinus College. He holds a PhD in American Studies from NYU, where he wrote a dissertation titled, “Before Fair and Balanced: Conservative Media Activism and the Rise of the New Right.” His work has appeared in Social Text: Periscope, The Guardian and The New Inquiry. An article version of his paper is forthcoming from American Journalism, and he is co-editor of News on the Right, a volume of essays on conservative news cultures currently under review by academic publishers.

Facts and artifacts: Consensus and Contestation in Fact-checking Political Rhetoric (Bernat Ivancsics, Columbia Journalism School, Department of Communications):  If journalistic fact-checking came of age during the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, it has come full circle—and bit its own tail—in 2016. Truth-seeking by independent new organizations, such as Politifact or factcheck.org, are today franchised, methodologically rigid, and wide-spread practices among mainstream political journalists in the United States. But two tumultuous political events last year, the US election as well as Brexit in the UK, has shown that even the mostly uncontested institutional knowledge of the social and natural world around us can be discredited. In their place alternative facts emerge, produced by partisan think tanks, ideologically driven bloggers, and fringe media outlets, who often directly target mainstream fact-checkers. The following research analyzes the social embeddedness of facts in the media discourse; it proposes a typology of facts (referential, synecdochic, rhetorical, consensual, data-verifiable, and pooled) that fact-checkers identify and check, and in whose place partisan ‘watchdogs’ offer alternative narratives. The hypothesis proposed here suggests that the social legitimacy of facts is maintained by an institutional framework, such as the opinion of experts, universities and so on, and that ideologically motivated ‘fact-checkers’ target this very institutional constructedness of facts by undermining their legitimacy and politicizing their statements.

Bernat Ivancsics is a second-year PhD candidate in communications at Columbia University. A data journalist by training, he worked both as reporter covering business and energy in Hartford, CT, and as a content curator and product manager at Microsoft’s MSN News. Bernat is researching why computational tools in newsrooms change the work of journalists the way they do, and how domains of expertise–such as the designer, the programmer, and the reporter–overlap in the news production process.

The Problem of the Three Karls: Political Mobilization and Populist Media (Martin Eiermann, UC Berkeley, Department of Sociology): Drawing on the three Karls of social and political theory – Karl Polanyi, Karl Marx, and Carl Schmitt -, I posit an understanding of populism as political mobilization that channels disparate energies and anxieties into collective action and political power. I then bring this discussion to bear on the role of media ecosystems. I demonstrate five aspects of populist media: First, digital media ecosystems mitigate the collective action problem: They exploit network effects to educate and mobilize people into political action. Second, they clarify the stakes of struggles and serve as the vascular system of national or international populist communities. Third, they create and exploit opportunities for political intervention by destabilizing monopolies over information. Fourth, their organization reflects the priorities of rising power elites who lack institutional, but not financial, influence. Fifth, they expand the range of “the political” by facilitating the rise of marginal ideas into the public mainstream.

Martin Eiermann is a PhD candidate in sociology at UC Berkeley. His academic research focuses on the organizational dynamics of social movements and on the history of privacy in the United States. Uniting the two strands is an interest in the mechanisms of social transformation: How are disparate energies organized into collective action? How can abstract ideas become codified into the law, embedded into institutional practices, and built into the everyday environment? Martin regularly writes for, and speaks to, public audiences about populism in the US, the UK, and Germany.


Mediating the Nation: The Construction of National Space and Bodies (11 am – 12:15 pm)

A Nation Desired: A Comparative Analysis of the Uses and Affect of Nationalism in Late 20th-21st Century Erotica in Spain and the Province of Québec, Canada (David Desrosiers, Independent Scholar): As most societies continue to march deeper into the digital age, the content which one decides to click and watch have made the screen both mirror and window of the self. Our deepest desires, individual and collective, are revealed in the search histories of our multiple devices. The erotic has been at the forefront of technological and content engagement in the past 20 years, serving as the impetus to communicate every sense and wish through the screen. This study seeks to explore why Québécois and Spanish societies show a strong preference for ‘nationalist’ pornography in the past five years. How and why are the local made erotic, and what characteristics are projected to define the nation viewers wish to fornicate with and see? By interviewing actors and producers this project will determine how the content is made authentic to locals through language register, racial and class biases, location of filming, perspective, and digital strategy. Yet, any collective projection of the nation from its inhabitants cannot be interpreted within a prism. Both Spain and Québec exist within greater state structures—the EU and Canada—and though the popularity of the Parti Québécois has diminished, populist parties like Podemos have flourished in Spain. This article seeks to answer what similarities exist between the ‘nation’ people click to watch in private, and that which they want to elect and shape.

David Desrosiers received his BA in French and Sociology from Amherst College in 2014. He is passionate about international history and the ways in which cultural memory and ‘leisure’ is made, processed, and reproduced. There is never a television show he wouldn’t watch at least once. He freelances as a translator for refugees with the New Sanctuary Coalition and quests to master as many languages as possible. He is active in several political and cultural organizations throughout New York.

Leftwing Populism in Europe: The ‘Lonely’ But ‘Conscious’ Case of Podemos (Manel Palos Pons, UC San Diego, Department of Communication)

This presentation deals with the Podemos phenomenon in Spain and its implications in the study of populism and its consequences in the discipline of political communication. Briefly speaking, most of the populist forces deployed in Europe in the last years have been characterized as right-wing movements, particularly inspired by the rejection on immigration from third countries to Europe. In a few words, the main goal of this essay would be to contribute to answer the question: Why populism has a progressive, left wing, accent in Spain? In order to develop the question, I will propose a conceptualization of populism from different traditions –mostly centered in Ernesto Laclau’s work– followed by a genealogy of Podemos, the party and its main actors, as a process encompassed in the Spanish crisis since 2008. With this, I will show how a specific economical, cultural and institutional context contributed to the formation of that political movement. The critical transformation of the Spanish Media System will be developed as a fundamental political communication dimension to understand the emergence of a particular set of experiences and networks into a major political phenomenon that has disrupted the Spanish party system created since the transition to the democracy in the late 70’s.

Manel Palos Pons is a former journalist/editor and a current graduate student at the University of California, San Diego. With 10 years of experience as a journalist and editor in Spain and Mexico, Manel holds two bachelor’s degrees in Political Science and Sociology (University Complutense of Madrid), a certificat d´Etudes Politques at the Institut d´Etudes Politiques of Toulouse, a master in Journalism (El País/Autonomous University of Madrid) and a master in Political Science (UNED). Currently, he’s working on fields like political communication, media systems and contemporary populism in Spain and Latin America.

Another Type of Populism: The Rise of Narcopopulism in Contemporary Mexico(Karla Reyes, UC Santa Cruz, Department of Latin American and Latino Studies):French presidential elections, Donald Trump’s win in the United States and Álvaro Uribe serving two presidential terms in Colombia, it seems that Mexico will follow this global populist trend. The populist entity in this country is neither left nor right, but rather a subversive and dangerous one. Largely due to the fact that Mexico’s left has not been able to get into office, the cartels have positioned themselves as having the power and resources to challenge all political parties. In this paper, I explore the factors that have assisted the cartels in gaining the support of Mexico’s rural and lower classes. I look at the 2006 and 2012 elections, where Andrés Manuel López Obrador (the face of the left) lost, and argue that it left Mexico’s citizens in despair. I then analyze the use and language of narcomensajes, the cartel’s primary medium of communication, in order to gain a deeper understanding of how cartels are positioning themselves as an alternative governing entity.

Karla E. Reyes is a first year Ph.D. student in the Latin American and Latino Studies program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Karla graduated from California State University, San Marcos in 2014 with a double major in Spanish Language and Human Development. She received her M.A. in Media, Culture and Communication at NYU. Her research interests are in political engagement of Chicanxs and in exploring the question of how new media is shaping the opinions and understanding of Mexico for first and second generation children.


Technopolitics: Populism in the Age of Digital Networks

Suggesting White Supremacy: Ethical Considerations for Google’s Predictive Search Mechanic (Kiran Samuel, Columbia University, Department of Sociology): As a society, we have implicit trust in Google and its suite of technologies, but in particular, its search algorithm. We rely on Google as our primary information gatekeeper. I am interested specifically in the ethical implications of Google Search’s autocomplete feature, which populates a user’s search queries with crowdsourced suggestions from others’ searches. It is commonly lauded as a ‘smart’ technology; a predictive mechanic that promises to make searching more efficient (and it does–extremely well–in relatively benign contexts). How does Google’s autocomplete partake in mediating populism by upholding dominant ideologies through search queries? I argue that Google’s autocomplete imbues search queries with populist politics, much of which can be incredibly dangerous, particularly in regards to queries that stoke fear of the ‘other’ and lend credibility to white supremacist ideologies. Google’s code of conduct still opens with the motto “Don’t Be Evil.” It’s mission, to “organize the world’s information.” If Google accepts these stated responsibilities, then I argue it should consider the contexts in which autocomplete might harm both the searchers and the subjects of these searches.

Kiran Samuel is a first year PhD student studying how technology, through its development and use, shapes material conditions for marginalized communities. She received her MA from MCC this past spring. Before joining Columbia, Kiran worked as a creative strategist in the advertising industry, where she focused on user behavior on digital and social media. Past clients include: Google, YouTube, Beats by Dre, and other companies now turned subjects of her research.

The Pronoid Internet (Seth Graves, City University of New York, Department of English): Paranoia’s inverse, pronoia. Facebook’s philanthrocapitalist project, Internet.org, partners with local cellular providers to provide users with a Free Basics of limited apps that do not contribute to data charges. The carrot for providers? About half of these folks transition to paid data accounts. Internet.org’s advertising campaign touts the internet’s ability to encourage a rise above the collective disempowerment of the labor economy. Its exhibits represent global earlier adopters who have joined the pronoid space of network communication. In “The Pronoid Global Internet,” I trace the appropriation of early nineties internet adoption campaigns and digital literacy initiatives for today’s global market, and consider how these reaches towards investors and adopters alike appeal to the inscription of neoliberalist ideologies under the exigence of “knowledge economy” integration. In these contemporary tales of labor—the discovered artist, the boutique entrepreneur—advertisements pull an appropriative turn along the paranoia/pronoia boundary, conceiving of them as before and after visions of knowledge economy integration and early adoption.Domestically and internationally, our implicit protections of web neutrality are threatened, and discourse is buried deeply underneath cathartic dreams with complex mixed messages; outdated legal frameworks; and declining powers of public, constituent-oriented communications commissions.

Seth Graves is a Ph.D. Student at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. He coordinates the Writing and Great Works programs at Baruch College and teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The New School. He is associate editor of the arts magazine Coldfront.

Meshiness: Wireless Infrastructure and the Politics of Connectivity (Rory Solomon, New York University, Department of Media, Culture, and Communication): The present ascendancy of authoritarian populism has often been attributed to a techno-media landscape in which decentralized information technology networks create severe challenges for establishing trust and veracity of the messages we receive. In spite of this, there remains a persistent techno-utopian attitude, prevalent among theorists and activists alike, that a better world is possible if only we could build a truly distributed communication network beyond the reaches of authoritarian control. Many remain committed to projects developing wireless mesh networks: infrastructures oriented toward peer-to-peer connectivity, community ownership, and an absence of centralized authority. Thus, we have a belief that these technologies can provide an immediacy which circumvents authoritarian activity like censorship and propaganda, and yet concurrently, we have a political reality in which precisely these technologies appear to aid the rise of greater authoritarianism, by undermining the conditions of an informed populace, critical to a democratic public sphere. How can we reconcile this antinomy? Mesh networks are more than technical objects. They are nexuses of socio-cultural activity that coalesce around a political fantasy. For this presentation, I will share findings from fieldwork visiting three notable mesh projects: Freifunk in Berlin, GuiFi in Catalonia, and Mazi in Greece. To mesh means to get along harmoniously, like personalities, and to engage and produce force, like interlocked gears. When these networks function successfully (when they “mesh”) they demonstrate engaged publics in which negotiation resolves into coherent politics, providing insight into how to develop media technologies that challenge authority, without inadvertently abetting authoritarianism.

Rory Solomon is a doctoral student in the department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. He is also a software engineer, artist, and Adjunct Faculty at Parsons The New School for Design. His research focusses on the media archaeology of software, infrastructure, the stack, and computer programming education. Rory has developed database-backed websites for many organizations, and was the technical lead for the Urban Research Tool. Rory has collaborated on artworks featured in Medialab Prado, the Conflux Festival and the National Art Museum of China. He holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in Computer Science and Mathematics from UC Berkeley, and a Master of Arts in Media Studies from The New School.


Resurrecting the People: Circulations and Capture

The Management of Savagery: The Art and Governance of Destruction in Iraq & Syria (Arran Robert Walshe, New York University, Department of Middle East & Islamic Studies): My project seeks to understand the shifts in structures of governance and the development of civic identity in contemporary Iraq and Syria from the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003 to the present day. I do so through the examination of visual media and bureaucratic practices of militant and civil society groups, as well as state apparatuses and quasi-formal NGOs. Utilizing interdisciplinary analytical frameworks and methodologies, I argue that through discursive productions of martyrdom, actors produced and continue to produce a martyrological ‘counterpublic’ rooted both in the virtual (online communicative discourse) and material, (bureaucratic structures of governance) world. Within this decentered public, I argue that notions of a noble death, proper action, morality, and virtuous politics are played out through the idioms of sacrifice, death, and violence. Further, I argue that the use of martyrdom and related narratives of loss, death, and decay by these entities, including ever-expanding bureaucratic structures constructed to manage the destruction, constitute a new form of ‘thanatocracy’, that is, formal rule through death.

Arran Walshe is a PhD candidate in the Middle East & Islamic Studies Department, Culture and Representation track. With a disciplinary background in History and Social Anthropology, he studies commemorative discourses, governance, and media, and how these relate to notions of citizenship, identity, and negotiations between the public and private in the contemporary Middle East.

Translating Rituals of Mourning into Technologies of Exclusion: How Bulgarian Obituary Postings Appropriate Public Discourses of Identity Construction towards Xenophobic Practice (Maria Lechtarova, New York University, Department of Anthropology):  What is a national media? How does a national media become a nationalist movement? In this project, I trace the nearly 200-year-old history of the traditional death notice in the country of Bulgaria. Despite Bulgaria’s prolonged political instability, spanning from the end of the Ottoman Empire, through Socialism, and into her European present, the practice of death notice postings, or “nekrologs,” has thrived in the urban and rural areas alike. Currently, right-wing conservatives have appropriated the format of the nekrolog to promote the Christian ethnic majority as the exclusive keeper of Bulgarian national identity. In investigating which aspects of this traditional commemorative practice serve the conservative nationalist agenda, I hope to isolate some of the semiotic tools that xenophobic propaganda continues to use in mainstream Bulgarian media today. Furthermore, by stressing the legal and technological reasons for the nekrolog’s popularity historically, I hope to illustrate how the conservative right uses this traditional media practice to harness existing mythologies of national exceptionalism for its own political agenda. Through rethinking the nekrolog practice and its symbolic histories, I consider how commemorative medias can be deployed alternatively to communicate belonging in an ethnically diverse Europe.

Maria Lechtarova is a second-year PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department at NYU. Her works investigates historical and semiotic instruments of visual media to unfold their symbolic capacities as tools for nationality development and acquisition. Her MA thesis, titled “Tracing Traveling Qualisigns; mapping ethnographical platforms of Post-Soviet Televised Consumption” was successfully defended at the Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and Eastern European Studies of Columbia University. Her undergraduate thesis, “The Inner and Outer Chronotopes of Vigilance: a cross cultural study of Neighborhood Watch signs in the United States and England,” was awarded by the UCSD Anthropology department.

I Can’t Think: Intention and Interpretation of Money as Medium (Victoria Grubbs, New York University, Media, Culture, and Communication): I examine a range of public responses to the “popular” decision ratified by the U.S. Treasury that Harriet Tubman’s image will be replacing that of former President Andrew Jackson on the face of the twenty-dollar bill. Bringing together the work of Constantine Nakassis (2013) and Jodi Melamed (2006/2011), I argue that the decision to incorporate the image of a former slave into the nation’s self-representation can be understood as an attempt to control the uncomfortable and unpredictable ‘surfeits’ produced by the commodification and branding of the nation-state. Where the excess of meaning produced by the campaign to “put a woman on the 20” might be subsumed or effaced by populist ideals of “equal” representation in the global marketplace, I suggest some means by which this supposedly “new” money can offer interpretants’ recourse to neglected histories and alternative futures.

Victoria Netanus Grubbs is PhD student in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication and New York University. Her research interests include the political economy of cultural production, transnational/diasporic networks, the semiotics of sound, and the aesthetics of the black Atlantic. Professionally, she is an arts educator with a commitment to developing and supporting radical leadership in underserved communities in the U.S. and abroad.



Igniting the Internet: South Korea’s Internet-Born Protests and Popular Politics, 2002 to 2017: In late 2016, South Korea saw a series of Internet-born street protests demanding that then-President Park Geun-hye step down, eventually leading to her impeachment in March of 2017. These candlelight protests were only the newest iteration of the youth-driven candlelight protest that originated online in 2002, which has now become a standard repertoire for activism. Drawing on Kang’s recent book Igniting the Internet (2016), this talk attends to the cultural dynamics that allowed the Internet to so rapidly bring issues to public attention and exert influence on South Korea’s domestic and international politics. Kang will discuss the cultural dynamics of online politics and mediated popular politics, situating them in the legacies of South Korea’s authoritarian and post-authoritarian eras. This talk will consider the interplay among local historical context, structural variation across different societies, and the role of chance in the dynamics of mass movements and the “cultural ignition process”—speculating about the future of Internet-driven activism and popular politics in South Korea and beyond.

JK profileJiyeon Kang is an associate professor of Communication Studies and Korean Studies at the University of Iowa. Her research interests include popular politics, Internet activism, youth culture, and globalization. Her recent book, Igniting the Internet: Youth and Activism in Postauthoritarian South Koreaexamines a decade of Internet activism in South Korea by combining textual analysis of online communities with ethnographic interviews. Her research has appeared in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, Quarterly Journal of Speech Communication, Journal of Korean Studies, and Global Networks.