Harvard Disinformation Workshop

In early October I had the opportunity to present at the international Comparative Approaches to Disinformation Workshop held at Harvard University, an incredible event with phenomenally cutting-edge presentations from around the world (sponsored by The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy).

My talk, “Affect, Elections, and Social Media: Understanding the Emotional Dimensions of Propaganda,” shared preliminary findings from my current SSHRC funded, three-year research project, which examines the role of emotional expression in social media related to narratives of racial and national identity and belonging, in the context of the recent 2019 Canadian federal election and the upcoming 2020 U.S. election. 


Forthcoming Edited Collection, “Affect, Algorithms and Propaganda: Interdisciplinary Research for the Age of ‘Post-Truth’ Media,” coming in 2020!

Following our successful collaborations, and the International Symposium (supported by a SSHRC Connections Grant) we hosted at the University of Toronto this past June, I am co-editing with Elizabeth Davis a cutting-edge collection titled Affect, Algorithms and Propaganda: Interdisciplinary Research for the Age of “Post-Truth” Media. Our aim is to have the book published by summer, 2020.

This book responds to the need for robust interdisciplinary scholarship on the relationship between modern information economies, digitally mediated sociality and emotionality, the resurgence of Western fascisms, and the rise of grassroots justice (and injustice) movements. “Post-truth”, the 2016 word of the year, achieved zeitgeist status in news around the world after “Brexit” and the U.S. Election of Donald Trump. Defined by “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” (Oxford Dictionaries, n.d.)., skyrocketing use of the term evidenced public recognition of the powerful role of emotion in politics. Since then, the political context has only become more dire as information increases about the role of political operatives (such as the Trump campaign, Russian government, and Cambridge Analytica) in promoting “computational propaganda”, sowing mistrust and disinformation during elections and fomenting crises of trust in government and media. The rise of “fake news,” and the preponderance of right-wing and extremist views that dominate social and traditional media platforms, reveal the urgent need to understand how propaganda, (dis)information, affect, and emotion circulate through digital technologies. Political imagination is increasingly shaped by the nexus of corporate, military and political logics manifesting in and through algorithmic governance, psychometric profiling, and computational propaganda. Such uses of bioinformatics and micro-targeting made possible by the merging of behavioral science and big data foreground the critical role of emotion and affect in contemporary information warfare. What has become clear is that digital media propaganda, algorithms, and activism (known as “platform politics”) seek to inflame pre-existing emotional tensions surrounding racism, islamophobia, misogyny, and LGBTQ politics.  

Yet, while scholarship and investigative journalism continues to reveal the profound ways that emotional manipulation forms the center of today’s mediated political and economic landscapes, very little research takes stock of the philosophical study of emotion and the last three decades of the so-called “affective turn.” As a result, virtually all scholarship addressing the current crises of affective politics rely on limited, individualist models of understanding emotion from psychology, and have yet to benefit from enriched understandings of the sociality, and history, of emotions. Still less attention has been paid to the relationship between the contemporary affective politics and the actual political consequences, which is to say, the unequal stakes of the current political environment for people of color, women, immigrants, muslims, and other subordinated groups. 

This collection contributes much-needed cross-disciplinary approaches to the study of emotion, affect, digital media and politics, to address urgent questions including: How are political actors targeting emotions through digital media platforms to exacerbate racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, spread disinformation, and influence political behavior? What can we learn from the “post-truth” context beyond political punditry and journalistic self-aggrandizing, what does it signify, and what does it obscure? How are algorithms and mediated sociality affecting our sense of trust, truths, and what kinds of affective networks shape one’s sense of trust and truth? How can we track the evolution of the current affective politics of social media, and how do the different components of this landscape (including political, economic, military, and social movement actors) function? And what kinds of analyses are needed to understand the different political, military, and private sector actors involved in the current crises, and hold them accountable?    

To that end, this book uniquely brings together inter- and trans-disciplinary scholarship on affect and emotion, digital and social media, with a focus on critical race, feminist and anti-colonial/decolonial studies. In the interest of modeling the promise of inter- and cross-disciplinary scholarly collaboration, the collection features contributions from philosophy, media and communications studies, feminist and critical race studies, as well as public and private sector researchers to address the broad range of questions that need to be asked at this historical juncture in media, technology and politics: what is the relationship between emotion, truth, the crisis of trust in traditional media, the rise of fascism and right wing extremism, digital surveillance, social media, algorithmic governance, and neoliberal capitalism? What are the research and policy directions that need to be considered by academics as well as policy makers and journalists?

New Funded Research Projects Underway!

I have been awarded two major research grants to continue my exploration of the role of emotions and affect in circulating social media and disinformation related to narratives of racial and national belonging, in the context of the upcoming 2019 Canadian election and the 2020 U.S. Presidential election.

This spring, I was awarded a three-year Insight Grant from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, titled “Digital Dissenters and Polarized Politics: Affect, Identity, and Social Media in the U.S. and Canadian Elections”. With a Research Team of brilliant graduate students — six qualitative and two quantitative researchers — we have commenced our mixed-methods study of social media related to the October 21, 2019 Canadian Federal election.

I was also awarded a research grant from the Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge which supports the appointment of two Research Assistants to conduct sentiment analysis of large-scale data sets provided by McGill University partners in the Digital Ecosystem Research Project. This project is entitled “Affective Media, Social Movements, and Digital Dissent: Emotions and Democratic Participation in the ‘Post-Truth’ Era.”

Affect, Propaganda, and Political Imagination Symposium June 7-9, 2019, University of Toronto

This weekend, 16 participants from six countries are coming to University of Toronto to participate in my (SSHRC Connections Grant-funded) invitational Symposium on the subject of “Affect, Propaganda, and Political Imagination”. The invited interdisciplinary scholars will share works-in-progress to be published as an edited book with Taylor and Francis and a special journal issue. The aim of our collaborative symposium is to develop better understandings of the following issues:

Public attention to the targeting of emotion and affect — ideologically labelled “post-truth” politics —  confirms what many scholars have long recognized regarding the central role of emotion and affect in reproducing hegemony.  Yet scholarship in the humanities and social sciences falls far behind the political realities. Despite the “emotional” and “affective” turns across many disciplines over the last 30 years, there remains a glaring need for conversations across disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, to develop new approaches to understanding the rapidly changing configurations of affect, propaganda, and politics within digital media landscapes.

Invited participants are: Asma Abbas, Carolyn Pedwell, Adi Kuntsman, Yasmin Jiwani, Merlyna Lim, Ed Cohen, Luke Stark, Leslie Regan Shade, Ezekiel Dixon-Roman, Stephen Kovats, Marnie Ritchie, Rob Hunt, Giulia Evolvi, Dan Adleman, Elizabeth Davis, Michael Primrose, and Hoda Gharib.

Navigating the News Workshop

My fabulous Graduate Research Team will be conducting a workshop with me at a local Toronto Housing Cooperative Community this April 10.

Navigating the News: Panel and Discussion with Professor Megan Boler (Social Justice Education, OISE/University of Toronto) and Navigating News Research Team: Kate Jackson, Gordon Katic, Michael Primrose

Overwhelmed or confused by the news media environment?  How to choose what to read? How to identify trustworthy sources?  Debating whether to quit Facebook? The panel provides an overview of the challenges posed by information overload and digital propaganda in the news media environment. We address:

  • the phenomenon of filter bubbles, fake news, increasing political polarization and public mistrust of media
  • the history of journalistic ethics and commitments to democracy
  • how the alt-right capitalizes on social media to disseminate ideologies, influence and recruit
  • debates about “disconnecting” from Facebook and other social media

We will conclude with a discussion of whether critical reading skills provide sufficient defense in the face of new modalities of propaganda.  

“Democracy and Digital Media Conference,” Media in Transition, MIT May 17, 2019

I am excited to participate in the upcoming conference on “Democracy and Digital Media” in Boston at MIT.  I look forward to presenting on this panel May 17, with the following scholars:

Elizabeth Losh, William & Mary College, “Emoji Democracy: Digital Literacy and Political Communication”
Dave Karpf, George Washington University, “Is the Pace of the Digital Revolution Slowing Down?”
Ethan Zuckerman, Center for Civic Media, MIT, “Unreal”
Megan Boler, University of Toronto, “Affect and Algorithms: Evolving Synergies of Military, Corporate, and Government Propaganda Strategies”

Boler, upcoming 2019 talks

American Educational Research Association, April 5-9, 2019, Toronto

“Skeptical and Affective Literacies: Redefining Critical Media Pedagogies in a ‘Post-Truth’ Era,” Fri, April 5, 12:00 to 2:00pm, Metro Toronto Convention Centre, 100 Level, Room 104A

“Bringing Affects into Education: The Radical Contributions of Feminist Politics of Emotion and Feminist Pedagogies,” Sat, April 6, 10:25 to 11:55am, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Second Floor, City Hall

“Critical Quantitative Methodologies: Measuring Emotion and Affect for Research and Pedagogies,” Mon, April 8, 4:10 to 6:10pm, Metro Toronto Convention Centre, 200 Level, Room 205B

Navigating the News, Panel and Discussion, Toronto, April 10, 2019

Keynote, Smith Lecture, Ohio Valley Philosophy of Education Society, September 2019


Affect, Propaganda, and Political Imagination Symposium

Funded by a Social Science and Humanities Research Council Connections Grant, I am convening an international summer symposium on Affect, Propaganda, and Political Imagination. Invited participants will participate in the 3-day working Symposium, from which we anticipate an edited book and special journal issue.  Participants include: Carolyn Pedwell (Kent University); Ed Cohen (Rutgers University), Adi Kuntsman (Manchester Metropolitan University ), Merlyna Lim (Carleton University), Yasmin Jiwani (Concordia University), Giulia Evolvi (Ruhr University Bochum), Luke Stark (Microsoft), Leslie Regan Shade (University of Toronto), Asma Abbas ( Simons Rock), Ezekiel Dixon-Roman (University of Pennsylvania), Stephen Kovats (Open Culture Agency), Elizabeth Davis (University of Toronto), Hoda Gharib (University of Toronto), Michael Primrose (University of Toronto).

Affect & Algorithms, 2018-19 McLuhan Working Group

Funded by a 2018-19 award from the McLuhan Centre for Technology and Culture, I have convened a Working Group since September to host visiting speakers and reading group on Affect and Algorithms.  Our Working Group includes faculty, graduate and undergraduate students from across UT Departments. We have hosted the following guests:

Professor Susanna Paasonen (University of Turku), “Conceptualizing Affect and Media” https://susannapaasonen.org/

Dr. Kate Starbird  (University of Washington), “Information and Social Media Warfare and Challenges,” http://faculty.washington.edu/kstarbi/publications.html

Dr. Ian Reilly (Mt. Saint Vincent University),  “Media Hoaxing and The Yes Men” https://msvu.academia.edu/IanReilly

Forthcoming speakers include:

March 1, Professor Tero Karppi discussing his 2018 book Disconnect.

March 31, Dr. Selena Nemorin (University College London), Dr. Whitney Phillips (Syracuse University), and Dr. Sun-Ha Hong (Simon Fraser University), “Mediated Subjects and (Ir)rationalities”.  These invited scholars will also present at the April 1 Monday Night Seminar, McLuhan Centre for Technology and Culture.

“The Affective Politics of Post-Truth Era”: New Findings: SSHRC KSG

I was awarded a Knowledge Synthesis Grant in 2017, “Safeguarding democracies: An interdisciplinary synthesis of digital media studies and the politics of emotion to understand identity, belonging and trust in the post-truth media landscape.”  Working with doctoral student Elizabeth Davis, our research resulted in the following publication:

“The Affective Politics of Post-Truth Era: Feeling Rules and Networked Subjectivity”

The essay can be found through this link: