Social Media and Democracy Colloquium | 2018

Social Media and Democracy Colloquium
Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Lecture Time: 4:00pm – 6:30pm
Lecture Location: 10-250

Seminar Time: 7:00pm – 10:00pm
Seminar Location: 4-153

Sponsored by MIT Anthropology, MIT History, and the MIT program in Science, Technology, and Society


Democracies around the world face a set of unique and proliferating challenges in the twenty-first century, particularly stemming from the increasing power and presence of digital platforms like social media and related technologies. Such digital platforms are the spaces and places that increasingly provide the dominant means of encountering and exchanging ideas, finding news and information, and for creating social and political communities. Although these platforms can promise to serve a public function, they are nonetheless dominantly owned and operated by the private sphere, leading to a number of legal, ethical, and broadly techno-social problems as evidenced by recent revelations of the relationship between Facebook and the 2016 American Presidential Elections.

Digital platforms are thus not easily classifiable under familiar categories: are they similar to traditional media (press and TV)? Are they considered a utility company (ISPs), providing essential services for internet users? What promising potentials and subsequent futures might certain iterations of social media platforms offer towards creating and maintaining the public and political spheres that are central to the evolution of twenty-first century democracies? How might these platforms be harnessed generatively, as well critiqued?

MIT’s doctoral program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS) invites the MIT and broader Boston/Cambridge community to join our first colloquium of the year, focused on the social, political, and technological entanglements of social media and democracy. This event features four leading scholars and thinkers specialized in researching and analyzing the infusion of social media platforms in our everyday social and political lives, including an audience Q&A session. Following a dinner break* and time for socialization, the speakers will return for a smaller seminar session offered to graduate students for a more intimate and roundtable-style discussion.

*There will be pizza!


Siva Vaidhyanathan, University of Virginia

Author of Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects As and Undermines Democracy; and, The Googlization of Everything. Siva has argued that academics from many fields associated with what he calls “Critical Information Studies” (which in part synthesizes key aspects of both cultural studies and political economy) should be engaged in interrogating the “structures, functions, habits, norms, and practices” of particular aspects of information culture and in analyzing how these issues go beyond simple arguments about digital “rights” to include consideration of more subtle impacts of cost and access that have the potential for chilling effects on a “semiotic democracy” that is situated in global flows of information.

Daniel Weitzner, MIT

A leader in the development of Internet public policy from its inception, Prof. Weitzner is making fundamental contributions to the successful fight for strong online free expression protection in the United States Supreme Court, crafting laws that provide protection against government surveillance of email and web browsing data. His work on US legislation limiting the liability of Internet Service Providers laid the foundations for social media services and supporting the global free flow of information online.

David Edelman, MIT

Formerly Special Assistant to the President for Economic and Technology Policy at the National Economic Council (NEC), Prof. Edelman led the Obama White House team focusing on the digital economy – including broadband, spectrum telecommunications, and technology trade – as well as consumer cybersecurity, domestic and international data privacy, high-tech patent and copyright issues, and antitrust/competition.

Joan Donovan, Data & Society

At Data and Society, Joan is the research lead on media manipulation and platform accountability projects. For several years, she has conducted action research with different networked social movements in order to map and improve the communication infrastructures built by protesters. In her role as a participant, she identifies information bottlenecks, decodes algorithmic behavior, and connects organizations with other like-minded networks.