November 20, 2013 by Amy Ryall
Kate Geller is a student on the MA in Public Humanities at the University of Sheffield. She blogs here on the difficulties and challenges of academic blogging and using social media in an academic context.
In the last few weeks my lectures have been interrelated, a situation which is entirely coincidental as they were from two very different courses. In ‘Understanding Pubic Engagement’ we discussed the use of social media and blogging to support engagement events; in ‘Religion in an Age of Terror’ we discussed how academic blogging is limited by the same social/political restrictions of the mass media. In the ‘Religion in the Age of Terror’ module Professor James Crossley discussed Chomsky & Herman’s 1988 ‘Propaganda Model’ which put very simply suggests that the media, although often understood as a free and unbiased source, actually reflects the interests of the elites and generally accepted national ideologies. Chomsky commented that the rise of the internet does not change much and that media, whether social or mass, although with exceptions, will tend to follow this trend and both note five influences on the media. One very important one in the overlap of mass media and social media is what Chomsky & Herman term ‘flak’. This is negative responses to media outputs which put pressure on the journalist or author to retract what they have said, undermining the original comment. This is extremely common in social media, particularly on Twitter, where comments are often made and then deleted once they receive a negative press.
When using blogging and social media to engage with the public this is a key thing to think about. I don’t mean to suggest that a researcher or public engagement team should question their motives or their influence. What an academic chooses to output to the public is an issue for them and their institution. If the research is problematic the academic response and peer reviews should reflect that. However, how you speak in public will not necessarily be forgotten or forgiven by the public. If you say something controversial publically and it receives a negative response you must be 100% behind what you have said and how you’ve said it.
If your research or your public engagement is contentious, for example, if you’re looking into economics or Palestine or gay/racial/gender equality, not all press is good press. This is not to say that academics should censor themselves as the role of HE teaching & learning, research and civic work in the community should always be to push forward. In Arts and Humanities we should be pushing forward thinking. A negative backlash could also bring an idea or event into the public domain and force people to question their previously held conceptions and understandings.
That said, some things you would say in an academic situation may not encourage the public to attend your events, they may make certain groups feel isolated or even offended – those groups might be underrepresented, even if they are the people you were initially trying to reach. You may find that comments left un-monitored on your page will lead to a negative backlash and that an editor or moderator is very important. The internet and social media is an excellent tool for public engagement and for raising the profile of academics and their research, but it must be used with caution. I hope that we will see even more innovations allowing for new and exciting ways for the academy to use social media to engage.