Michael J. Christensen, PhD

Assistant Professor in the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada)

July 10, 2019 – July 31, 2019

In cooperation with Prof. Dr. Jens Steffek

Funded by Cluster of Excellence “The Formation of Normative Orders”, Goethe University Frankfurt in cooperation with Forschungskolleg Humanwissenschaften


Michael Christensen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University. He was previously a postdoctoral fellow at York University’s Global Digital Citizenship Lab and he held a research fellowship with the Democratic Resource Center at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC. His academic interests are in the fields of democracy and human rights, international aid organizations, science and expert knowledge and digital media. His current research focuses on emerging forms of expertise and democratic debate mediated through digital technologies, with a special emphasis on the social, political and legal implications of disinformation.

Research project title:
Practices of Promoting Democratic Media: Paradoxes of Legitimacy and Institution Building in the Disinformation Era

Abstract
Is online disinformation an existential threat to global democracy? Is it a symptom of corporate media concentration, or is it just a new iteration of an ever-present feature of political communication? Whatever the answer, scholarly debates about ‘fake news’, disinformation and media manipulation have reached a fever pitch. Recent scholarship has focused on coordinated disinformation campaigns targeting the United States and the United Kingdom, partly in reaction to the 2016 Brexit referendum and the US Presidential election, but this research project argues that fake news is a smaller part of a much larger story. Since the Cold War era, Western democracies have waged global information campaigns extolling the virtues of free elections, free markets and free media. Governments in Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom eventually institutionalized these campaigns in the form of organizations promoting and assisting the development of democratic institutions around the world. Now these democracy promotion organizations are facing a crisis as networks of authoritarian governments, far-right political parties, internet trolls and social media personalities have leveraged popular social media platforms to undermine the legitimacy of democratic institutions. This research project looks at how formal democracy promotion organizations work to counter anti-democratic narratives by mobilizing international aid in the service of developing “independent media.” While attempting to bolster liberal narratives of free expression, this top-down approach to countering grassroots social media campaigns reveals the limitations of focusing on liberal norms grounded in the rule-of-law and institutional legitimacy in an media environment dominated by questions of personal credibility. Of course, democracy promotion organizations have, for decades, sidestepped questions about their own credibility by developing a form of expert knowledge about building legitimate institutions.
The research question guiding this project therefore asks: how do professionals in Western democracy organizations counter disinformation in practical terms? I view the project through a practice theory lens that assumes everyday organizational practices can provide unique explanations for complex social phenomena. This perspective builds on growing interest in practice theory in the fields of International Relations and Political Sociology, and I believe that these insights can greatly benefit current debates about disinformation and post-truth politics, which have primarily been taken up by communications scholars. While the specter of state-sponsored disinformation campaigns is a growing concern, there remains a dearth of literature exploring the relationship between disinformation, public discourse and democracy promotion. Developing a better understanding of disinformation is worthwhile in itself, but exploring this relationship also fills an important gap in our knowledge about the ways underlying norms of democratic discourse are being reimagined in the social media age.

Publications (selection):

Christensen (2017) “Interpreting the Organizational Practices of North American Democracy Assistance” International Political Sociology, 11(2): 148-165.

Christensen (2017) “A Critical Sociology of International Expertise: The Case of International Democracy Assistance,” in Kurasawa (ed.) Interrogating the Social – A Critical Sociology for the 21st Century. Palgrave Macmillan

Christensen (2015) “Re-establishing ‘the social’ in research on democratic processes: Mid-century voter studies and Paul F. Lazarsfeld’s alternative vision,” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 51(3): 308-332

Christensen (2013) “The Social Facts of Democracy: Science meets politics with Mosca, Pareto, Michels & Schumpeter,” Journal of Classical Sociology, 13(4): 460-486

 


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