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A Systems Approach to Digital Democracy

When: Monday, November 13, 2023
2:30 PM - 4:00 PM CT

Where: Scott Hall, 212, 601 University Place, Evanston, IL 60208 map it

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Student - Graduate Students

Contact: Ariel Sowers   (847) 491-7454

Group: Department of Political Science

Category: Academic


Please join the Global Theory Workshop as they host Jennifer Forestal (Loyola University Chicago), who received her political science Ph.D. from Northwestern University.

Abstract: It is by now commonly understood that digital technologies like social media are reshaping the practices of democracy—and often for the worse. From Facebook’s influence on elections to Twitter’s impact on social movements, to the rise of #gamergaters, incels, and other alt-right groups on Reddit and 4chan, it seems that these platforms—and the companies who run them—are largely responsible for many of the pathologies that plague democracy today. While scholars and practitioners have provided these much-needed insights into the democratic consequences of individual social media platforms, however, they tell us little about the wider ecosystem of digital technologies more broadly—how the effects of social media platforms intersect to amplify, suppress, or alter one another, as well as how we might mitigate these concerns without giving up on them altogether.

In this paper, then, I propose a corrective. Drawing from the literatures in deliberative systems, I argue that we should evaluate the democratic effects of digital platforms not in isolation but as part of a wider democratic system designed to make the public sphere more inclusive and participatory. When we consider digital technologies as part of these larger systems, I argue, we can see how many of the pathologies associated with social media platforms like (pre-X) Twitter are actually the result of the intersection of user behavior on these platforms intersecting with, amplifying, and being amplified by traditional news media and offline/off-platform political organizing. I conclude, then, with some lessons on how we might mitigate some of the harms associated with these platforms by turning to other institutional “checks” that come from elsewhere within the system. In order to make digital technologies “work” for democracy, we must consider not just now they work in isolation, but also how they interact with the other spaces and institutions of public life.

Jennifer Forestal is the Helen Houlahan Rigali Assistant Professor of Political Science at Loyola University Chicago. She previously received her Ph.D in Political Science from Northwestern University and her BA from the Ohio State University, summa cum laude in Political Science and Comparative Cultural Studies, with distinction in Political Science. Her research draws from the history of political thought, particularly in the American tradition, to investigate the consequences of digital technologies for democratic practices.

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