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New O3C Article by Andrew Chadwick: The New Crisis of Public Communication: Challenges and Opportunities for Future Research on Digital Media and Politics

As the post-2016 political context becomes embedded, there is profound uncertainty about the long-term impact of digital media on the civic cultures of liberal democracies. In this article, Andrew Chadwick argues that the legacy of research on digital media and politics has created four epistemological problems that have hindered attempts to make sense of what amounts to a new crisis of public communication. Research in the field has tended to select cases that are progressive or pro-liberal democratic and it has usually employed what he terms the engagement gaze. Research has underestimated the trade-offs between affective solidarity and rational deliberation and it has been driven by a rationality expectation that neglects the role of indeterminacy in digital culture. For more than twenty years, researchers have focused on whether online “engagement” was being sufficiently embedded in political or journalistic organizational settings, irrespective of the motivations and ideological goals of those who actually engage. This has often obscured problematic aspects of how digital media may be reshaping the formation of public opinion and behaviour in ways that contribute, alongside other factors, to the erosion of liberal democratic norms of authenticity, rationality, tolerance, and trust. Addressing these epistemological challenges—a project already underway across a range of research endeavours—will better equip the field for the future.