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11-11-2021-media-diets-and-democratic-discourse-jesse-zhang
The Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy hosted a graduate workshop to discuss digital media, democracy, and support for fossil fuels. Credit: Adelaide Lyall

During a graduate workshop event on Tuesday, students and community members explored topics ranging from digital media and democracy to support for fossil fuels. 

The Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy sponsored the workshop, entitled “Media Diets and Democratic Discourse.” The event, which took place at the Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics, is part of a series of events hosted throughout the year by the Andrea Mitchell Center to engage the Penn community in discussions of democracy. 

The event centered around the presentation of two academic papers that examined how citizens navigate digital and physical spaces from a political lens. Irina Kalinka, a Ph.D. student in Brown University’s Department of Modern Culture and Media, presented her paper “User Democracy and Digital Citizenship Initiatives” on how digital media influences democratic participation.

“The question that animates my work is trying to sort of overcome a very common question in popular discourse and digital media which is: Are digital media, and more specifically, social media spaces helping or hindering various ways that democratic participation works?” Kalinka said.

The current state of digital media is defined by “privately owned public spaces” that enable corporations to control public discourse, Kalinka said in her paper. She added that people need to identify and consider implementing alternative modes of digital communication. 

“[Corporations] get to institute their own values about what good democratic participation means, how citizens should act, what is quote-on-quote healthy public discourse,” Kalinka said.

Another presenter, Helene Langlamet, a Ph.D. student at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, researched why people in Southwest Pennsylvania support the coal and gas industry. 

Langlamet found that although coal and gas companies can destroy the health of the individuals she spoke to, they were still in favor of developing the land because they viewed it as their only option. These results are largely due to the widespread acceptance of the “Growth Ethic,” a theory that posits that “free markets alone should determine land use,” Langlamet said. 

Langlamet also sounded alarm bells about the planned development of the land that housed the explosion at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in Philadelphia in 2019. 

“They are trying to gloss over how incredibly polluted the ground underneath there is, and the water underneath there is. So that is definitely one thing that if [Penn] students want to get involved in this aspect of my research, then PES is the place to look,” she said.

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