The Great Mediation: Perspectives on Politics and the New Media

Graduate Student Virtual Conference
May 6-7, 2021

Recent populist movements have heavily relied on online mobilization. While there is a consensus that the new media environment is implicated in their success, theories and empirical research into the connections between populism, political affiliation and digital mediation often remain astoundingly superficial. In what ways is the media environment of the 21st century recasting the political? How does digital mediation, as through contemporary social media, transform notions of statehood and political leadership, reconfigure voting blocs and political alliances, and provide new avenues of mobilization and resistance? How, if at all, is the new information environment reshaping the organizational structure through which politics operates, as in parties and movements? And ultimately, how does it shape how people conceive of, relate to and feel about politics and political leadership? 

This conference aims to begin answering some of these questions. It will bring into conversation theoretically-driven, empirically grounded scholarship across a variety of disciplinary contexts to promote deeper understanding and richer theorization of the social processes undergirding the contemporary populist and authoritarian surge. The conference will feature keynotes from Francesca Polletta (UC-Irvine) and Chris Bail (Duke University).


For access to the panels, please register here.
For access to the keynotes, please register here.

Conference Schedule


Introduction and Greetings (9:00-9:15am)              

Panel 1: Mobilizing in Digital Times (9:15-11:15am)

  • Twitter Hashtags, mobilization and organization of a Headless movement: A case study of EndSARS in Nigeria, Ajoseh Seun, Lagos State University
  • The context of collective control: socio-political opportunity structures, identity construction, and the fatalist threat of populist democracy, Hailey Allen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The Role of Meso-level Leaders as Brokers of Horizontal and Vertical Linkages in Feminist Networked Social Movements, Yena Lee, Northwestern University
  • Responding to COVID-19 on the Cloud: State Mobilization and Digital Community Governance in A Public Health Emergency in China, Xin Han, University of Pittsburgh

Comments by: Caterina Fugazzola, University of Chicago

Panel 2: Online Political Worlds: Community, Identity and Hermeneutics (11:30 am-1:00pm)        

  • The construction of identity within the online misogynist incel community, Catherine Baker, Loughborough University
  • “We Are the News Now”: QAnon and the Replacement of Epistemic Authorities with Personalized Online Political Communities, Peter Forberg, University of Chicago
  • DIY and Dissidence: political subjectivity between online informational practices and alternative epistemic cultures, Anna Berg, University of Chicago

Comments by: Karin Knorr-Cetina, University of Chicago

Break (1:00pm-2:00pm)           

Keynote: "Intimacy and Conspiracy: Social Imaginaries in Digitally-Mediated Right-Wing Populism," Francesca Polletta, UC Irvine (2:00-4:00pm)                

Panel 3: Navigating the New Information Environment: (Dis)Trust in the Media (4:10-5:40pm)

  • Narratives of Mistrust: The Intertwining of Political Trust and Media Trust, Sadie Dempsey, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • “I Don’t Know What to Believe:” Media Distrust and Opinion Formation during the COVID-19 Pandemic, Stephanie Ternullo, University of Chicago
  • An Ambivalent Crisis: The Commercial Critique of Journalism and The New York Times, Tyler Leeds, University of California, Berkeley

Comments by: Lis Clemens, University of Chicago


Panel 4: Political Discourse and the Digital Public Sphere (9:00-11:00am)

  • “Restoring ‘Traditional Families’”: Hungarian and Polish Rightwing “Anti-gender” Populism and Online Petitions, Michaela Appeltová & Roy Kimmey, University of Chicago
  • Exploring the Effect of Government Propaganda: The Case of China’s Twitter Trolls Targeting Hong Kong Protests, Maggie (Mengqing) Zhang, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Cyber-nationalism and The New Landscape of Public Discourse in China: the Anti-‘Pu-In’ Movement in the Chinese Online Public Sphere Since 2011, Yichen Shen, Northwestern University
  • Foregrounding Space and Context: A discursive study of Fact-Checking in India, Sakshi Bhalla, Rik Ray & Harsh Taneja, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Comments by: Andreas Glaeser, University of Chicago

Panel 5: Changing Practices: Political Elites, Digital Affordances and Online/Offline Strategies (11:10-12:40pm)

  • Is (S)He Presidential? The Changing Scripts of Presidential Leadership, Bo Yun Park, Harvard University                               
  • Discourse framing in the hybrid media system: the case of Mexico’s daily press conferences, Paulina García-Corral, London School of Economics       
  • Social Media, Meet Clientelism, Nicolás Torres-Echeverry, University of Chicago

Comments by: Nick Judd, University of Chicago

Break (1:00pm-2:00pm)

Keynote: "Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make our Platforms Less Polarizing," Chris Bail, Duke University (2:00-4:00pm)

Keynote Speakers:

Francesca Polletta, University of California Irvine

Francesca Polletta.jpg

Francesca Polletta is Professor of Sociology at UCI. She works in the areas of culture, politics, social movements, and law. Much of her work investigates how culture sets the terms of strategic action, but culture understood less as beliefs and worldviews than as familiar relationships, institutional routines, and conventions of self-expression. She is the author of the award-winning book Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements (2002) and the award-winning book It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics (2006). In her new book, Inventing the Ties that Bind: Imagined Relationships in Moral and Political Life (2020), Polletta explores how Americans think about what they owe others. She argues that people have acted together on the basis of diverse relationships, some of them imagined, and that their rich vernacular of solidarity offers possibilities for building a more inclusive politics. She is currently working on two book projects: one, with Edwin Amenta, on the cultural consequences of social movements, and the other, entitled The Trouble with Stories, on when stories persuade—and why they often do not persuade.

Chris Bail, Duke University

Chris Bail.jpg

Chris Bail is Professor of Sociology, Public Policy, and Data Science at Duke University, where he directs the Polarization Lab. A leader in the emerging field of computational social science, Bail’s research examines fundamental questions of social psychology, extremism, and political polarization using social media data, bots, and the latest advances in machine learning. Bail is the recipient of Guggenheim and Carnegie Fellowships. His research appears in top journals, such as Science, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Sociological Review. His book, Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream, received three awards and resulted in an invitation to address the 2016 Democratic National Convention. In his new book Breaking the Social Media Prism, Bail explains how social media function like a prism that distorts our identities, empowers status-seeking extremists, and renders moderates all but invisible.

Graduate Student Organizers

Anna Berg, Doctoral Student in Sociology at UChicago

Nisarg Mehta, Doctoral Student in Sociology at UChicago

Nicolás Torres-Echeverry, Doctoral Student in Sociology at UChicago


Please feel free to contact the planning committee at with any questions.

This conference is sponsored by the Department of Sociology, the Society for Social Research, and the Chicago Center on Democracy.



Presenter Bios

Ajoseh S.M. is a graduate student in the department of Sociology, Lagos State University, Nigeria with special interest in maternal health, and traditional medicine and social movement. His research interests include Social epidemiology, development and health, culture and health, maternal health, as well as workplace health. His current research interest is in the cultural correlates of maternal morbidity, and use of Social media in the populism movements in third world countries.

Hailey Allen is a Roy H. Park Doctoral Fellow in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Prior to beginning doctoral study, Hailey worked as a communications advisor for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC)—a D.C. based NGO mainstreaming civil resistance through policy research, education, and hands-on training. Her current research considers multi-level perspectives to contentious politics, including identity construction, social networks, and psychological dimensions of control. Hailey examines contentious politics as dynamic communication environments and employs mixed methodologies to operationalize her work. She is particularly interested in communication medium theory and phenomenological approaches to conflict analysis. Her previous work has focused on disposition theory, stereotypes of the U.S. military, and media frames of social movements.

Michaela Appeltová is a historian of East Central Europe and Teaching Fellow in the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on the history of gender, sexuality and the body, and she teaches courses on the history of modern Europe, gender and sexuality, and disability. Her current book project examines the gendered body culture in Czechoslovakia in the period between the Prague Spring and the collapse of communism in 1989, exploring the ways in which the growth of consumerism and increasing support for the nuclear family shifted the communist project from it emancipatory goals towards biologized understandings of gender. By examining a variety of sites, including the beauty and slimming industries, mandatory military service and pregnancy, the book illuminates how essentialized notions of gender and the body were mobilized in the name of socialist modernity and familial stability.  

Catherine Baker is a PhD researcher with the Online Civic Culture Centre (O3C) at Loughborough University. Her research explores extreme forms of online misogyny, focusing on the online incel subculture. She holds a BA Hons in Psychology at Trinity College Dublin. Prior to joining Loughborough University, Catherine was a research assistant at the Trinity Institute of Neuroscience in Trinity College Dublin. Her research interests include online hate and extremism, the far-right, conspiracy theories and digital platforms.

Sakshi Bhalla is a PhD student at the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and studies the intersections of news media and journalism with propaganda and misinformation.

Sadie Dempsey is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at University of Wisconsin – Madison. Her research lies at the intersection of political sociology, social movements, and civic life. She is a co-founder of the qualitative methods workshop in the department, a space for graduate students to share research, discuss methodology, and build community. She is also a Knight Fellow at the Center for Communication and Civic Renewal at UW Madison, where she travels across Wisconsin (in pre-COVID times) and talks with people about how they make sense of politics and news media in their daily lives. Outside of academia, you can probably find Sadie doing something crafty like hand-building ceramics or sewing, watching too much reality tv, or trying to cuddle with her bunny, Kohlrabi.

Peter Forberg is a fourth-year student at the University of Chicago pursuing a joint-degree to receive a Bachelor’s in Sociology and a Master’s in Digital Studies of Language, Culture, and History. For nearly two years, Peter has been conducting research on the alt-right conspiracy theory QAnon. More broadly, his work is concerned with the social ramifications of digital media, with past projects looking at the social affordances of online role-playing games, alternate reality games, and college social media platforms. He is primarily interested in identity, ideology, and community formation, especially as they relate to radicalization, social inclusion, and political action. In addition to this work, Peter is hoping to produce more articles related to QAnon’s online social networks and narratives. After graduation, Peter intends to pursue a PhD in Sociology.

Paulina Garcia-Corral studied Sociology at Universidad de Monterrey, Mexico and holds an MSc in Social Research Methods from the London School of Economics. Her research interest lies in the intersection of digital media, censorship, and political sociology in Latin America, as well as developing the methodology of computer-assisted discourse analysis. Currently, Paulina is a Research Assistant on the JUST AI project at the Ada Lovelace Institute and the LSE, supporting the multi-disciplinary mapping effort. She has previously worked as a social data scientist for a research center in Mexico, and as a junior researcher for an NGO in South Korea.

Xin Han is a Ph.D. candidate in the fields of public administration and international development at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA), University of Pittsburgh. Her research interests include political economy of development, comparative politics, community governance, and rural development in China and other Asian developing countries. In addition, she is also interested in the evolving state-market-society relations, collaborative/interactive governance, and formation, structures, and outcomes of the emerging digital self-governance in various contexts. Her current research focuses on the long-term effects of state mobilization on citizens' social trust and associational activities, as well as political trust and participation under authoritarianism, and how the recursive state-society engagement shapes development outcomes in local communities, especially during China's state-led rural development campaigns. These campaigns include the most recent Targeted Poverty Alleviation Program (2014-2020), Rural Revitalization Strategy (2018-2022), and “Digital Villages” Program (2019-present).

Roy Kimmey is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Chicago. He holds degrees from Central European University in History with Specialization in Religious Studies (MA, 2012) and Harvard University in History and Music (BA, 2009). His dissertation, titled "History in Question and Crisis: Romani Politics, Policy, and Grassroots Activism in Postwar Hungary (1945-2015)," considers how state actors, from both the state socialist past and market capitalist present, have deployed the language of “social inclusion” to advance policies that, with varying degrees of intentionality, justified classificatory regimes and surveillance practices that link race/ethnicity to ideas of civilizational progress and framed civic participation through debt relations and the exploitation of Romani labor. This research was made possible through support provided by the Hungarian Fulbright Commission, the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights, and the Department of History at the University of Chicago. His most recent publication, to appear in a forthcoming issue of Techniques & Culture, is a co-written article that considers the circulation and political economy of images, technologies, and primary goods produced by and for diving, whether for pearls or sport.

Yena Lee is a second year Ph.D. student in the Media, Technology, and Society program at Northwestern School of Communication. She is interested in studying the emerging forms and processes of networked social movements and the technological, political, and organizational conditions and strategies that may open grassroots accessibility to political processes in transformative ways. Her research aims to explore questions regarding both consciousness-raising and policymaking through an interdisciplinary and comparative lens. Her most recent research looks at the role of leadership in feminist networked social movements in South Korea. She has previously written about a feminist activist chatbot in Brazil and feminist K-pop fan activism on Twitter. She is affiliated with Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies and Center for Latinx Digital Media and facilitates Social Movement & Enterprise and Qualitative Method Workshop at Northwestern University. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Media Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.

Tyler Leeds is a PhD student in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is writing a dissertation on mass polarization and the news industry. His ethnographic research on right-wing activism was published in Qualitative Sociology.

Bo Yun Park is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology and an affiliate of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, the Center for European Studies, and the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. Her research lies at the intersection of political and cultural sociology. She is particularly interested in how dynamics of social inclusion and exclusion shape different forms of civic engagement and political discourse in democracies under stress. Her dissertation, “Is S(H)e Presidential? The Changing Scripts of Political Leadership, 1995-2020,” investigates what makes a presidential candidate presidential from the vantage point of political strategists and campaign operatives in France and the United States. She also conducts research on youth activism, racialized political consumerism, and frame resonance in the digital age. She uses a wide array of methods, including interviews, observations, computational text analyses, and cognitive maps to study these various dynamics. Bo Yun received a B.A. (Barnard College) and an M.A. (Sciences Po Paris) in Political Science via the Columbia University - Sciences Po Five-Year B.A./M.A. Program. She also earned an M.A. in Sociology at Harvard.

Rik Ray is a PhD student at the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research broadly examines the structural and architectural affordances of social media platforms. More specifically, his current research agenda focuses on exploring the role of such affordances in matters of Internet policy deliberation and governance, especially in the Global South.

Yichen Shen is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Northwestern University. She received her bachelor degree in Sociology at Tsinghua University, and completed her master degree (Msc Culture and Society) at The London School of Economics (LSE). Her interests are located at the intersection of scholarship on cultural sociology and political sociology, with focus on popular culture, social movements, intellectual studies, and urban aesthetics. Her previous studies include two streams. The first one involves the cultural and socio-psychological understanding of cyber-nationalism and the state’s regulation on online public sphere in China. The second stream of research is related to how the relationship between city dwellers and “urban uncanny” is changed in different regeneration programs drawing upon actor-network theory. She is currently working on a project investigating intellectuals’ participation in popular culture, particularly detective fiction, and its political consequences in postwar Japan.

Stephanie Ternullo is a PhD candidate in the sociology department at the University of Chicago, specializing in political and urban sociology. Ternullo is particularly interested in how place matters for political outcomes. How do the communities where people live shape the way they understand national politics? And how does place continue to matter for politics in an era of social media politicking? Although the concepts of red and blue states are familiar to most Americans, we have little understanding of how that patchwork emerges from everyday interactions. We know even less about how the relationship between those interactions and political understandings are transformed as political discourse becomes increasingly virtual. To understand how local contexts continue to produce the geography of American politics, Ternullo’s dissertation follows three Midwestern communities during the 2020 presidential cycle, drawing on multiple methods and data sources. Ternullo uses quantitative methods to identify field sites, qualitative and quantitative methods of analyzing local politicians’ social media activity, and longitudinal, in-depth interviews with voters for the bulk of the analysis. This research advances the scholarship on partisanship and spatial polarization in American politics by re-orienting its focus away from individual-level factors and toward place-based processes of sense-making.

Maggie (Mengqing) Zhang is currently a first-year Ph.D. Student in Communication at Institute of Communication Research at UIUC. Maggie holds a BA in journalism from Tsinghua University and an M.Phil in communication from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research interests are computational political communication, with particular focuses on networked communication processes and media effects. Specifically, she would like to explore: (1) information dissemination in social networks and the influence/effect of network and structure on communication process; (2) the underlying mechanism of information dissemination and factors influencing information perception; (3) the influence of information manipulations (propaganda/censorship; social bots/trolls; rumor/fake news/misinformation) on public opinion and political polarization. Methodologically, she prefers computational methods and pays special attention to network dynamics. Her research projects employ large-scale datasets, usually in the form of text. Therefore, various text mining techniques are often utilized, as well as natural language processing and machine learning methods. She also uses social network analysis to facilitate her research projects.

Organizer Bios

Anna Lea Berg is a PhD candidate in the sociology department at the University of Chicago. She is broadly interested in secular studies, the sociology of affect and emotions, as well as cultural and political sociology. Berg’s dissertation project explores the emergence of new political subjectivities at the intersection of online and offline lifeworlds in Germany. Like other parts of the Western world, Germany witnesses increasing polarization over political issues. In 2020, protests against Covid-19 containment measures started as local demonstrations, but peaked in two major demonstrations in Berlin, rallying up to 38,000 protestors. Observers were puzzled about the composition of the protests, attracting peace activists, anti-vaxxers and far-right movements, but also about their intensity. In this regard, the recent anti-containment protests were often compared to the massive demonstrations during and after the “refugee crisis” in 2015/6. How can people leave the informational and political consensus and start believing in obscure conspiracy theories instead? Why do they suddenly turn not only against established media, but also other forms of epistemic and political authority?  To answer these questions, Berg’s fieldwork compares the two contexts of the anti-refugee and the anti-containment mobilizations in the former East and the former West of Germany.

Nisarg Mehta is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago.  As an ethnographer, his research broadly explores the intersection between culture and politics. His current project considers the relationship between diaspora and statecraft, examining how the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and the Indian-American diaspora have increasingly oriented toward each other, reshaping the terrain of Indian politics. His previous work focused on the effects of urban governance decisions like place commemoration on the urban spatial imaginary, and how these governance projects shape people’s relationship to their neighborhoods and their behavior within them.

Nicolás Torres-Echeverry is a third-year sociology Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago. His work explores questions in political sociology, technology and society, and, more recently, in urban sociology. He is particularly interested in Latin America. Right now, he is working on a paper on social media and clientelism and developing his dissertation on political transformations in cities. Both projects use Colombia as a case study. Before coming to Chicago, he was at Stanford as a JSD fellow and a research assistant at FSI’s Global Digital Policy Incubator. His previous research was on state-building challenges in post-conflict settings.