On December 2nd, Shannon McGregor discussed the role of identity, power, and social media in her presentation titled “Political Campaigns, Social Media, Journalism, and the Identitarian Citizen in a Democracy” hosted by the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin. McGregor presented current and past work with colleagues like Daniel Kreiss, Regina Lawrence, and Eric Peterson to address questions like what does it mean to be a citizen in a democracy? What is the role of the press, the role of social media platforms, and the work of campaigns in promoting democratic values? in creating a more equal society? In confronting polarization?
For one thing, McGregor argues—based on her work with Daniel Kreiss—that polarization should not be something we should fear. Polarization is rather a symptom of a democracy recognizing and beginning to reckon with historic identity-based inequalities. Scholars, practitioners, and journalists must ground their investigations of polarization in critical understanding of the ways people of different social identities are treated differently.
Inequality matters and identity matters, perhaps more so than information itself. This idea is derived from McGregor’s work conceptualizing how election campaigns make decisions about what they post and how candidates perform particular identities as part of their campaigns. In her talk, McGregor shows that political ads and political posts on social media [from campaigns] are not primarily about information about issues. They’re about identity. Media and social media are central to constructing identity of candidates, election campaigns, and political parties.
Consequently, McGregor proposes we move past informational-based citizenry toward an “identitarian citizenry.” She shows how issues get linked to political parties and particular social identities, which then creates the conditions by which election campaigns operate, which prototypes they can present their candidates as. Identity, particularly race and gender identities—along with social media platform policies and affordances—also drives disinformation campaigns like election denialism and targeted attacks on candidates.
McGregor also offered hope, presenting briefly on what a democratically resilient model of the press might look like. She argues that the press does not necessarily need to prioritize concerns of the public, when those concerns are based on fear and hatred of an out-group. The press remain key pillars in a democracy and have the capacity to center their work on democracy by clearly and repeatedly covering any attempts to undermine the foundations of democracy.
Watch the full presentation: