Interview with Andrew Chadwick

Digital media democracy expert on tension between control and engagement, and need for less interesting research in his field

September 7, 2017
Andrew Chadwick

Andrew Chadwick, an authority on digital media, power and democracy, is newly appointed professor of political communication in the Centre for Research in Communication at Loughborough University. The author of The Hybrid Media System: Politics and Power and Internet Politics: States, Citizens, and New Communication Technologies, he is the first professor to be appointed via Loughborough’s Excellence 100 campaign, an initiative launched earlier this year to recruit up to 100 outstanding academics across a wide range of disciplines.

When and where were you born?

In 1970 in Middlesbrough, an industrial (now mostly post-industrial) town in the North East of England. My parents were young when I was born, so there wasn’t a big generation gap. My dad was a plumber – he only recently retired. My mum worked in a clothes factory before giving up work to look after my brother and me.

How has this shaped you?

My dad in particular taught me the value of self-reliance, hard work and perseverance. By constantly describing how things worked he also instilled in me what I would later discover the famous sociologist C. Wright Mills called the “sociological imagination”: the importance of understanding the underlying mechanisms that generate everyday social norms and institutions. I did reasonably well at secondary school but my eyes were truly opened by some wonderful teachers at sixth-form college. My working-class and northern background had a huge influence on me. Until I was 17 I hadn’t really thought about going to university and expected to get a job in the town, perhaps working as a clerk in local government. When I first arrived at Birmingham in 1989 I was shocked that there were so few working-class kids. I had no idea. I was the first in my family’s history to go to university and was lucky enough to eventually win funding from the Economic and Social Research Council to do a master’s and a PhD at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

What inspired you to enter the field of political communication?

Looking back, there were two important moments. When I was an undergraduate I studied political science and loved it but each year I was permitted to take courses from the department of cultural studies – then the successor to the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies [at Birmingham] that hosted Stuart Hall in the 1970s. This ignited a passion for understanding media. The second inspiration was living through the internet’s rapid diffusion during the late 1990s. I was suddenly gripped by what was going on – the dotcom boom and bust, the development of online culture, the early experiments in online democratic engagement. I started researching the internet’s emerging role in politics.

In your work, you have developed the concept of the “hybrid media system” and argue that political communication has entered a new era. Can you tell us more about this theory?

Political communication is journeying through a chaotic transition period induced by the rise of digital media. Understanding the systemic consequences of this transition requires a new agenda for both political communication research and the broader study of media and communication technologies. The hybrid media system is built upon interactions among older and newer media logics in the reflexively connected social fields of media and politics. Actors create, tap or steer information flows in ways that suit their goals and in ways that modify, enable or disable the agency of others, across and between a range of older and newer media settings. The book examines this systemic hybridity in flow – in information consumption and production patterns, in news making, in parties and election campaigns, in activism and in government communication.

What is your assessment of the way that information spread and influenced politicians, the media and the public in the recent elections in the UK and the US?

There is an “analytics turn” in election campaigning: the increased use by campaign elites of experimental data science methods to interrogate large-scale aggregations of behavioural information, with the aim of organising and mobilising key segments of the electorate. At the same time, as Corbyn’s Labour has shown, citizens are breathing new life into parties and campaigns from the bottom up and remaking them in their own participatory image using digital media. Elections will continue to be shaped by this tension between control and interactive engagement.

In Europe and the US, the populist Right has been using emotional appeals to win support. What could progressive politicians do to combat this?

The Enlightenment rationalist yearning for a “pure” public sphere free from prejudice and ignorance has come up against the reality that media are, for many, a means to affirm identity. Progressive politicians need to stand up to hatred and discrimination and promote tolerance and respect for difference, but also work to promote a social solidarity and communality of the left, through narratives that resonate with people’s lived experiences.

If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?

The abolition of undergraduate tuition fees and student loans and the reintroduction of proper maintenance grants. The current regime says to large numbers of talented working-class youngsters: “This is not for you.” And this gets in the bloodstream early on, long before A levels.

What one thing would improve your working week?

An immediate 50 per cent reduction in the publication of interesting research in my field. Writing on digital media, politics and society has exploded in the past decade. It’s hugely exciting but it’s often difficult to keep up with all the terrific work. I’m the editor of a book series, Oxford University Press’ Studies in Digital Politics, which helps me gain perspective, but information overload is very real for scholars in my field. We grumble about it all the time.

Ellie Bothwell


Appointments

Scott Dodelson, a physicist who has studied the composition of the universe’s dark matter, has been appointed head of the department of physics at Carnegie Mellon University, whose McWilliams Center for Cosmology has a key role in a number of large, international cosmological surveys. “I was drawn by the university’s enthusiasm for foundational research,” said Professor Dodelson, who arrives at Carnegie Mellon having been co-founder and interim director of the Center for Particle Astrophysics at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), and before that a professor in the department of astronomy and astrophysics and the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago.

KU Leuven rector Luc Sels has taken office, along with his team of new vice-rectors who form the bulk of the executive board, responsible for the day-to-day management of the university. Professor Sels, dean of the Faculty of Business and Economics since 2009, narrowly beat former rector Rik Torfs in a vote among staff and students.

Simon Gilson, chair of the Faculty of Arts and professor of Italian at the University of Warwick, has been appointed to the Agnelli-Serena professorship of Italian studies at the University of Oxford. He will take up the role in January 2018. Professor Gilson joined Warwick in 1999 and served as head of Italian, later heading the first Sub-Faculty of Modern Languages.

Michael Solomon, professor of chemical engineering and professor of macromolecular science and engineering at the University of Michigan, has been appointed interim dean of the university’s Rackham Graduate School. He will be the next interim dean and interim vice-provost for academic affairs – graduate studies. He replaces Carol Fierke, appointed as executive vice-president of Texas A&M University. 

Jim Cawley, the former lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, has been appointed vice-president of institutional advancement at Philadelphia’s Temple University.

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