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U. Digital Ethnography Working Group hosts panel on authoritarianism, technology

The Rutgers Digital Ethnography Working Group, based out of the Rutgers School of Communication of Information, holds regular panel events, including this event, "Studying Online Authoritarianism with Digital Ethnography," last week. – Photo by

Last week, Rutgers' Digital Ethnography Working Group held a virtual panel, in which guest speakers Rosana Pinheiro-Machado, a professor at the University College of Dublin in Ireland, and João C. Magalhães, an assistant professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, discussed the intersection of online programs and autocracies.

During the event, titled "Studying Online Authoritarianism with Digital Ethnography," Pinheiro-Machado and Magalhães explained their research on the topic.

Pinheiro-Machado was the first speaker and shared research regarding economic and political transformations in emerging economies from an ethnographic perspective. Her research focuses on the interaction between labor and politics internationally.

"One of the questions that mobilizes my work is, 'What happens when millions of street vendors start enterprises online in the post-pandemic world, and how are these everyday politics transformed?'" she said.

Pinheiro-Machado said that many vendors are used to working 12 to 15-hour days with fierce competition. She explored what occurs when these individuals are introduced to an online marketplace rather than in-person vending and how this alters their political views and radicalization.

She said that despite these vendors falling victim to an economic and political system that requires individuals to work extreme hours, they were still loyal to their government leadership. With the introduction of the digital marketplace, though, their politics changed, and they became more noticeably radicalized.

The other speaker at the event, Magalhães, said his work focuses on the political consequences of algorithm-based technology.

He said that under authoritarian governments, individuals are just masses living under the regime, and they are not participating in anything.

Magalhães also said that because autocrats control the media, they have a hold over the message reaching the people.

Governments have substituted social media for what was previously mass media, and the masses are now internet users, he said.

In previous times, rulers sent out a mass message to a large group of people, whereas now, using a series of algorithms, they can better target specific groups of people.

"The idea that before people had to stay close to the radio to listen to Hitler, now they have to stay close to their phones to listen to people like Bolsonaro or Trump," he said.

Now, autocrats and other influential figures are utilizing technology to manipulate the dissemination of untrue misinformation in such a way that it will have the most substantial impact and are using mathematical algorithms to do so.

After Pinheiro-Machado and Magalhães shared some of their research, individuals had the opportunity to ask them questions.

One participant asked what suggestions both speakers have for educators, ordinary citizens, activists and organizers to effectively counter disinformation and propaganda on social media.

In response to this question, Pinheiro-Machado spoke about the importance of peer correction and face-to-face discussions to avoid the spread of misinformation. She also noted that educators should receive proper training to discuss misinformation because it is only helpful if they know what it is.

Another participant asked how society can think about undoing the established set of norms regarding debunking tools in the world of propaganda.

Magalhães says that there is a problem with trust in the world of media and that this needs fixing.

"We keep thinking about truthfulness and keep talking about the post-truth era, and we should be thinking about the post-trust era," he said. "We should focus way more on trust and less on truthfulness, more on effects and feelings and social relationships and less on pieces of information on people's screens."

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