Dr. Lindsay HoffmanOct 03, 2017 12:33PM ● By Steven Hoffman
Since joining the faculty of the Department of Communication at the University of Delaware in September 2007, Dr. Lindsay Hoffman has studied the impact of internet technology and how individual and contextual effects of media influence our opinions.
Grounded in political communication, mass communication and public opinion, Dr. Hoffman's work parallels the rise of social media over the last decade, and as the Director of the annual National Agenda Speaker Series at UD, she has spoken with experts from around the nation, and helped turn the hot-button topics that dominate our social media into civic dialogue and conversation.
Recently, Newark Life spoke with Dr. Hoffman to get her take on our changing perceptions of media, how social media can divide us but also bring us together, and the importance of occasionally turning off the white noise of opinion and commentary.
Newark Life: The University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication is currently hosting its seventh annual National Agenda Speaker Series this fall, and you've been its director for the past three years. Talk about some of the themes that drive the narrative of the series, and this year's theme, "As We Stand, Divided."
Hoffman: This series is intended to be a semester-long dialogue centered around a particular theme. During election years, we've focused on the most recent election, allowing students and the UD community to get a better understanding of things like media coverage of elections, polling and campaign strategy. During off-election years, we've chosen themes that resonate with issues on the national agenda. I cover the news as part of my research, so I'm attuned to what people want to talk about. One particular theme focused on Race in America, so we were able to have a discussion with a former police officer, an African-American who left the force to become an advocate for men in prison. We also invited a "Black Lives Matter" activist, and a cartoonist.
This year's theme, "As We Stand Divided," is about the divide that currently faces the nation. At our most recent discussion, we invited Appalachian author David Joy, and we engaged in dialogue about perceptions and misperceptions of people in different areas of that part of the country, and how Trump's message resonated with people in the Appalachian region. The purpose of this series is is to create a physical space for civil dialogue. It allows us to bring someone with a different perspective and allow him or her to share that perspective, and to encourage empathy and listening and other skills that I think we all need more of.
More and more, we are living in two vastly different Americas, where the tonality of our conversation is not being delivered as a whole, but separately. In large part, social media is the driver of that divide. Who is telling the truth in all of this? How much does are our modern media technology help -- or hinder -- our pursuit of finding objective and accurate information?
The question is a good one, and that's what my research aims to do: Can media, in particular new technology, drive people to engage with communities, or drive them away? I don't think it's a question that can be fully answered yet, because the media environment is changing so drastically on a day-to-day basis.
Right now, we're in a bad place. People don't trust journalists. The President is calling the mainstream media "Fake News." That's dangerous, because you have to get your information from somewhere, so if you're calling the news fake, then people will get their news from elsewhere, and there's a whole dark internet that a lot of people don't know about that provides a very different narrative.
There is a study that showed that even if a news article is neutral in perspective, if the readers' comments at the end of the article feature uncivil commentary, then people respond differently and more unfavorably. What I'm trying to do is demonstrate that we can have dialogue that doesn't have its basis in name calling. You have to be able to talk to people, even if they're on the other side. Life isn't a split-screen cable news punditry program.
Are we at a time where the process of sharing information is intended more to provoke than to inform, and if so, how do we dig ourselves out of it?
I don't think that we're necessarily in a new quagmire. We're repeating the periods of our past with new tools at our disposal. When we saw the "Black Lives Matter" movement emerge a few years ago, it mirrored what happend in the early part of the last century, which was mirrored by what hapened in the Civil Rights Movement.
It's important not to single out this era from the standpoint of, 'We've never seen anything like this before.' The truth is that we have, but it hasn't been with the kinds of access that we have to each other now. In many positive ways, however, we're also seeing movements connect with each who may have never connected with each other before, through social media.
You gave an address at a TEDx Wilmington conference last August entitled, "Reimagining Citizenship: A New Algorithm for Civic Life," were you said that you're seeing possible solutions to the divide come in the form of a new narrative -- a new way of communicating -- between people.
At that talk, I wanted to get people to think about, 'We're in the 21st Century. How do we plan to effectively communicate with other people?' In the National Agenda series, I encourage the audience to listen to a variety of voices, and follow news media from other countries to gain new persective, as a means of diversifying our portfolio of media resources. I offer ideas on how to have civil conversations, and not to go into a conversation trying to persuade someone. Rather, I encourage them to go into a conversation with curiosity and empathy. You may end up changing that other person's beliefs, but it's not going to happen if you go into it with your fists ready. It's as simple as working with each other and seeing our shared humanity. If we don't do that, we just become objects to each other.
At the conclusion of my talk, I said that sometimes, you need to get away. We're social creatures, and we want to engage with other people, so I told them to 'Put it down and turn it off.'
I am an optimist in my belief that we can do this, but we have to get out of this mindset that proclaims that we are at war with each other. If we set aside our differences and concerns and fears we have now, we can look at that person who is sitting across the table from us who is not a supporter of our candidate, and talk to that person as a human being. Then we can begin to make positive changes. We're all seeking truth. We need to realize that we're all looking for the same thing -- to understand what we're doing here and how we got here.
How are you seeing this manifested in your students and in your classroom?
The thread running through all I do is to demonstrate how we can communicate more effectively with each other. I think and I hope that it will make an impact on these students. They're a larger voting bloc than the Baby Boomers are right now. I want to send my students out into the world prepared to run for office, to be volunteers in their communities. I want to inspire them and give them the efficacy and the courage and the confidence to go out and achieve, and from what I'm seeing, they're going to do it. I am very confident in these young people.