Category Archives: Uncategorized

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”

Dr. Kate Starbird  (University of Washington), “Information and Social Media Warfare and Challenges,”

Dr. Ian Reilly (Mt. Saint Vincent University),  “Media Hoaxing and The Yes Men”

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:

Podcast: Affect and Emotion in Philosophy and Education, Megan Boler in conversation with Winston Thompson

This podcast features an interview Dr. Thompson conducted with me, highlighting how I came to focus on questions of emotion and affect in educational theory; questions of media and democracy; and related dialogue on my recent research on democratic possibilities of digital communications.

This podcast is but one from Dr. Thompson’s podcast series, Pipeline.

“This compilation represents a historical archive of some of the contemporary contours of work in philosophy of education. While important for a number of reasons, this documentary component of the project records more than the scholarly ideas of our guests; it depicts perspectives of persons that may not always be seen in the body of journal articles and books that are presumed to define a researcher’s career. Though not full portraits, these profiles form a unique view of a field.”


Links to Boler in Berlin: McLuhan Salon Keynote Lecture, and transmediale panel on Unmasking Cyberwar

(1) Video of my January 30, 2018 McLuhan Salon Keynote sponsored by the Canadian Embassy of Germany and transmediale

Megan Boler, “The Affective Politics of Information Warfare”

(2) Links (two options) to listen to the Unmasking Cyberwar Panel, February 2 2018 at the transmediale conference in Berlin.  (My talk begins at 43:40) . (Talks co-authored with Elizabeth Davis, PhD candidate, Social Justice Education, OISE/UT)


Latest Op-Ed: “How emotion trumps rationality in the world of Trump”

How emotion trumps rationality in the world of Trump

Society is not benefitting from research into how emotions are abused for the sake of profit or ideology, while social media giants and other purveyors of spectacle profit handsomely.

“As reported in The New York Times, NYU psychologists studied how ‘moral emotional language’ moves more readily through Twitter than other kinds of emotion,” write Megan Boler and Elizabeth Davis, adding: “We urgently need to understand our emotional and a ective relationships to social media — and to knowledge itself — before Zuckerberg’s Facebook Frankenstein entirely reprograms humanity.” (DOUG CHAYKA / NYT)


Facebook’s algorithms are at last a trending topic, identified as a game-changer of public opinion and hence in politics and elections. Why do algorithms and the microtargeting strategies of companies such as Cambridge Analytica work so effectively?

The elephant in the room is the role of emotion in contemporary politics. While marketing, advertising, cognitive and behaviour psychology, and neuroscience — have kept up with studies of emotion and affect, the humanities and social sciences have been asleep at the wheel.

Still crushed under the pressure of Enlightenment conceptions of “Rational Man,” scholars have focused on evermore intricate debates about rationality, at the expense of developing more nuanced understandings of how emotion shapes behaviours, subjectivity and politics.

As a result, society is not benefitting from research into how emotions are abused for the sake of profit or ideology, while social media giants and other purveyors of spectacle profit handsomely.

Microtargeting operates by directing advertising and other influential messages at individuals on the basis of “psychometrics” — user profiles extracted from personal data collected through their various “public” social media activities.

News reports allege that Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, received a crash course in Facebook’s marketing strategies when the Trump campaign realized it could use social media to target susceptible, undecided voters in order to sway the election. There is evidence, for example, that African-American voters were targeted with a message stating “Hillary thinks black people are superpredators,” designed to anger undecided voters and sway Clinton supporters to vote Trump, or stay home.

In addition to microtargeting that squashes public debate, another emotional aim of disinformation campaigns is to create emotional confusion and information anarchy, producing so much (dis)information that citizens become apathetic and opt out of news media altogether.

The emotional nature of contemporary politics and information is captured by the 2016 Word of the Year, “post-truth.” In 2016, there was a 2,000 per cent increase in the frequency of its usage. Post-truth is defined as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion

11/23/2017 How emotion trumps rationality in the world of Trump | Toronto Star

than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Post-truth arose to describe the emotional aims of the Brexit campaign, which sidestepped reason and went for the emotional jugular, tapping into the feeling of truth, or what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls “deep stories” — for example, powerful emotions of fear and anger catalyzed by perceptions of economic loss.

Of course, emotion has always been targeted by propaganda. In Ancient Greece, Aristotle emphasized emotion centrally in his analysis of the power of rhetoric. The father of modern propaganda, Edward Bernays, founded much of today’s dangerous proficiency at manipulating emotion in the wake of modern mass communications technologies of the 1920s.

On a funnier note, Stephen Colbert also recognized the emergence of “post-truth” a decade ago, in 2005, when he popularized truthiness: “the belief in what you feel to be true, rather than in what the facts support.”

Truthiness was named Word of the Year in 2006. But at that time, news media made barely a peep about the truthiness crisis, not wanting to accept responsibility for the role it had played in spreading the Bush Administration’s apocryphal intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and misleading propaganda linking Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda, and beating the drums of war prior to the U.S. pre-emptive invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Two recent studies reported in popular press reveal scholarly attempts to understand the $1 million question of how affect works at a collective (rather than only individual) level.

As reported in The New York Times, NYU psychologists studied how “moral emotional language” moves more readily through Twitter than other kinds of emotion. European psychologists claim to have identified “Factor X” — a measure of a collective zeitgeist of “doom and gloom” — that influences voting decisions and accounts in part for the rise of populism and the extreme-right.

Although news media fancies itself “objective” (The New York Times responded to the rise of post-truth by advertising itself as purveyors of “reason, not rhetoric” and purveyors of “The Truth”) we are unlikely to see an end to emotionality driving information, since traditional and social media profit handsomely from creating mediatized spectacles.

A polarized populace — extreme differences of opinions between the right and left — makes for good drama, as we witness in media coverage of “both sides,” in response to what should be intolerable — white supremacy, dramas over the national anthem, or whether or not recent weather disasters result from climate change.

We have hit an impasse in understanding by adhering to the Holy Grail of human subjects as reasonable creatures. The fact that we are fundamentally influenced by our emotions and by collective affect (or “zeitgeist”) is slowly being recognized across disciplines in what is known as the “emotional” or “affective” turn in the humanities and social sciences.

It is high time that scholars catch up with more nefarious uses of emotion research. We urgently need to understand our emotional and affective relationships to social media — and to knowledge itself — before Zuckerberg’s Facebook Frankenstein entirely reprograms humanity.

Megan Boler is a professor at University of Toronto studying emotion and media. Elizabeth Davis is a doctoral candidate at University of Toronto. This news analysis is based on their research funded by the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council, “Safeguarding democracies: An interdisciplinary synthesis of digital media studies and the politics of emotion to understand identity, belonging and trust in the “post­truth” media landscape.”


NYC and Berlin: Upcoming Invited Sessions/Keynotes

I have been invited to give a Keynote on the topic of “truth as event,” sponsored by the Canadian Embassy and the transmediale festival in Berlin at the end of January.  I will also participate in a transmediale panel addressing cyberwar.

Also excited to participate in an invited 3-day session at the Modern Language Association Meeting in New York city the first week of January, on the topic of Narrative Empathy, Insecurity, and the Humanities

Keynote in Sarajevo September 21

I am very excited to have been invited to deliver a keynote at the Media Meets Literacy Conference this September organized for media education specialists from across the EU.  The other Keynote Speaker is Evgeny Morozov, whose work addresses the limits and risks of using internet and social media as explored in his book The Net Delusion: the Dark Side of Internet Freedom. The conference is preceded by a two-day Propaganda Lab workshop with Prof. Renee Hobbs (Rhode Island University) & Igor Kanizaj (Foundation of Media Culture).



“Can Journalism Save Democracy? Salvaging Public Trust in News Media,” by Megan Boler

Hot Off the Press! Boler’s news analysis on How Media Produced Trump just published by “Can Journalism Save Democracy? Salvaging Public Trust in News Media”
This news piece reflects 3 months of my intensive analysis of news coverage and recent studies from think tanks and  watchdog orgs.  I aim to catalyze debate on questions largely unasked to date, regarding news media responsibility for producing and legitimizing Trump–and the consequent perils to representative democracy.
“Although the US corporate media helped to produce Donald Trump, his unpredicted rise to power delivered a shocking wake-up call to media professionals and catalyzed unprecedented global debates about “post-truth politics.” Yet news media continue producing the spectacular and lucrative reality television show, “Trump Making America Great Again.” While the crisis of polarized US is blamed on far-right news, filter bubbles and social media, traditional mainstream news media are not being held responsible. Business as usual is supremely risky in times of crisis: routinized reporting habits, amplification and repetition of lies dangerously normalize Trump and his administration. As the countdown of democracy’s slide into tyranny progresses, like it or not, the future of democracy rests in the hands of the journalism industry.”
**Please take a moment on the article to comment on and/or “Like” my news analysis, to help catalyze inquiry into media responsibility for producing and normalizing Trump!**
And many thanks to my fabulous 2016-17 team of Graduate Research Assistants, Elizabeth Davis, Maral Karimi, and Yara Kodershah, with whom I am currently tracking when and how traditional media re-evaluate their Fourth Estate responsibilities to informing citizen and democracy.  We are conducting a content analysis comparing media attention to truthiness (Word of the Year 2005-06) and “post-truth” (Word of the Year 2016-17) to explore public opinion as shaped by longings for ‘truth’, collective emotions, and information warfare.

2016 Wrap: boler in media

Selected Media Appearances, 2016

On Air/Broadcast:

Boler, M. Featured Expert, CBC News with Dwight Drummond, December 6, 2016

Boler, M. Featured Expert, Effects of Social Protest Alberta@Noon CBC Radio One Calgary Thursday, November 17, 2016

Featured Expert, CBC, The National News, “Facebook Decision to Restrict Fake News” November 16, 2016.

Published News Analyses:

Boler, M. Featured Expert, University of Toronto Experts on U.S. Presidential Election

Selected Print Media Appearances, Expert

November 5, 2016 “What will a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton presidency mean for women?” By Patricia Kozicka

Oct 12, 2016. “Trump video prompts global revelations of sexual assault” Lauren Pelley, Toronto Star,

December 6, 2016: “Is there a ‘Trump effect’ with Syrian refugees in Canada? University professor says people look for something to blame when there is poverty instead of ‘actual roots’ CBC News,

April 2016, Featured Expert, “Revolution Making” by  The Varsity Magazine, University of Toronto by Alex McKeen (pps. 6-16)

 Jan 25, 2017. “Premier Kathleen Wynne bombarded on social media by homophobic, sexist abuse,” By Mike Crawley, CBC News

April 1, 2016. “Occupy-style tactics mark shift for Black Lives Matter Toronto,” Luke Simcoe Metro,

April 5, 2016. “Black Lives Matter co-founder called out for tweet deemed racist”By SARAH-JOYCE BATTERSBY,

April 24, 2016. You nude nothing, Jon Snow: Stripping down Game of Thrones’ gender politics by Colin McNeil