About Alice E. Marwick, Ph.D.: Alice E. Marwick is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Dr. Marwick’s research uses qualitative methods to study the social, cultural, and political impacts of digital technologies. Her first book, Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity and Branding in the Social Media Age, explores how profit-driven social media platforms transform how individuals create and present identities online. Her forthcoming book, The Private is Political, examines how the networked nature of online privacy disproportionately impacts cultural groups who are already marginalized on the basis of race, gender, class, and their intersections.
Dr. Marwick’s current scholarship focuses on online extremism and disinformation. In 2020, she received an Andrew E. Carnegie Grant to study far-right groups and conspiracy theories online. Dr. Marwick is also a committed public scholar. She has worked as a Faculty Advisor for the Data and Society Institute, which published the 2017 report Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online, co-authored by Becca Lewis. At UNC, Dr. Marwick is Principal Researcher and co-founder of the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life. She holds a Ph.D. in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University, an M.A. in Communication from the University of Washington, and a B.A. in Political Science and Women’s Studies from Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Can we have an overview of your professional and academic background? How did you first become interested in the study of digital media, disinformation, and online extremism?
[Dr. Marwick] I’ve been studying digital media since 2003. I’ve only been studying disinformation and extremism since 2016. I’ll start with my interest in digital media, which comes out of my hobbyist interest in the internet in the 1990s and then working in the dot-com boom in the late 1990s. In general, it was a very exciting time to be a young person in technology. There was a lot of very techno-optimist beliefs about the positive potential of the internet for publishing, connecting people, things like that. As someone who was caught up in the dot-com bust, I really wanted an opportunity to think more critically about these technologies. At that point, I decided to go get a master’s degree mostly because I’d been working for a series of companies that had gone under or lost funding and thought it would be a good way to ride out the recession.
I wasn’t familiar with communication as a research field because I went to a small, liberal arts college that didn’t have a communication major. I was a women’s studies and political science double major as an undergrad, so I was familiar with the sort of queer theory, feminist theory, cultural theory side of the humanities but communication was new to me. Then, I did a master’s degree in communication at the University of Washington because I was already living in Seattle — that was one of the locations of the dot-com boom — and I found myself falling in love with the discipline and the interdisciplinary possibilities and tools that it gives you to understand really complicated media environments.
From there, I did a PhD at NYU in a Department [of Media, Culture and Communication] that was pretty critical and humanities oriented. I trained in ethnographic methods with Faye Ginsburg, who is a media anthropologist, and started thinking about understanding how people use media as an embodied practice that is deeply contextual. From there, most of my work has centered on social media.
For the first part of my career, I was really focused on identity online and how people express themselves, and how the internet changes the way people interact. My interest in disinformation came from a faculty fellowship that I did at the Data and Society Research Institute from 2016-17. In the runup to the 2016 election, there was a small team of people [at D&S] who were watching what was going on in far-right subcultural spaces, and seeing the impact it was having on mainstream media. Narratives and frames that were being generated in these communities were disseminating into the mainstream. I became part of and then ran a team devoted to disinformation research using primarily qualitative methods, and that’s been my primary research stream since then.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you briefly discuss some of the strategies or methodologies you use to research these topics? For example, you recently received an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship for your research on far-right radicalization that involves imbedding yourself into extremist networks online. What are some of the risks involved in this type of approach and what does it help you see or understand?
[Dr. Marwick] I don’t know if I would say I’m imbedding myself in extremist networks. I’m doing, I’d say, ethnographic field work in far-right spaces but, because it’s fairly anonymous fieldwork, it doesn’t feel super risky to me. My research sites for this part of the project are Telegram and TikTok. With TikTok especially, you’re mostly just watching videos. It doesn’t feel very risky. And most of the stuff on TikTok is conspiracy theory related. There might be more danger on Telegram, but I’m joining groups that have thousands of members. I don’t feel a lot of personal risks.
I think the risks are mostly burnout. It’s hard to keep a positive mindset when you’re dealing with unpleasant content day in and day out, but I do believe that qualitative methods are the best way to understand these phenomena. We have a huge number of people using big data and computational methods to understand online interaction and generally some of those methods can be useful for description. However, what I go back to again and again to understand why people do things online, is qualitative work. I feel like qualitative work is best suited to understanding complex sociotechnical contexts. I don’t really care that there’s ten-thousand tweets under a particular hashtag. I want to know why people are participating in that hashtag, what it means to them, how it fits into the rest of their life. Those questions are much easier to answer with qualitative work.
Going back to the risks. This morning I did an hour of telegram fieldwork at the beginning of the day and all of the QAnon groups that I’m part of are all super pro-Putin and think Putin is a great guy. Like most people, I’m very worried about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and going into these spaces and seeing all these really ridiculous, macho strong man memes about how great Putin is and how the Ukrainians are Nazis or have secret bioweapons—it’s very discouraging. I think the biggest risks for most people I know who work in these spaces is that it makes you depressed. It makes you sad. You need to give yourself the ability to think about things that aren’t just people being mean to other people all day.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your research trajectory has shifted over time – with your early work focused on online celebrity and identity and your more recent work focused on extremism and misinformation. What drove this shift in your research trajectory? Was it challenging to make this pivot as a scholar?
[Dr. Marwick] It doesn’t really feel like a pivot to me. It feels like all part of the same. I’ve always worked on a bunch of different projects at once and the further along I’ve gotten in my research career the more I’ve collaborated with people, which allows me to do more. A lot of my early work focused on identity and self-presentation online, and my dissertation was about how people present themselves online. The guiding question there was really one of political economy. Given frameworks for self-presentation online that are profit-driven — so, social media sites — how do people present themselves online given those constraints?
My master’s thesis looked at multi-identity play in places like UseNet and MUDs and early textual internet communities, and the shift to more singular identities in the context of places like Myspace and Friendster, but also Xbox 1 and videogames. My thesis at that point was that we were moving away from these frameworks that allowed for multi-identity play to fixed models of identity and that was being driven by a profit-driven mode of internet commerciality. Basically, I finished my MA thesis in 2005 and everything I thought was going to happen did happen. There’s some more of that space for identity play online, now. I think you see sites like Reddit or Discord giving people the ability to have multiple accounts or have pseudonymity. But the profit-driven nature of data collection online has only intensified.
My work on privacy has straddled both these things because it looks at how people deal with maintaining privacy within sociotechnical frameworks that are super profit-driven and based on data extraction. It also considers how people create spaces for themselves and how privacy affects people disproportionately.
When I wrote my dissertation, I chose to study Silicon Valley because it was a group of people who are the leading edge of social media use. This is before Oprah joins Twitter, before Ashton Kutcher joins Twitter, before Instagram really exists. I saw that the ways that people were presenting themselves in these spaces were so deeply influenced by market logics and by the internalized neoliberal logic of what we would now define as influencer culture. So, a lot of what I’ve been interested in has been driven by moments when I have an inkling that something interesting is happening, and I want to go see where that’s happening.
The work on disinformation I think is definitely a shift. I had this nascent research stream on the men’s rights movement because I had a bunch of friends who were feminist bloggers in the mid-2000s who got horrible harassment from the men’s rights movement. I’m actually quoted in a Guardian piece from around 2007 about the men’s rights movement. So, I was interested in these groups and knew they existed, but I didn’t really have a lot of interest in journalism or political communication or anything like that until I was kind of thrown into it.
I think my interest in radicalization comes from a larger interest in understanding how we can analyze the effects of technology given the complexity of modern technical frameworks. There are so many simplistic ways of thinking about how people are affected by technology. It’s just usually like, “Oh, videogames are making children hyperactive,” or, “Oh, kids who get too much screen time are dumb.” It’s always really simplistic ways of thinking about technology and public discourse. Studying radicalization is definitely a shift in my research focus, but to me the principles behind understanding the internet and the ways people communicate are the same.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Many people might assume that the culture of online celebrity and far-right extremism are very different. Are there ways in which your research has revealed any surprising commonalities between the two? Are there important ways your research on celebrity has informed your research on extremism, or your research on extremism has changed how you think about celebrity and online identity now?
[Dr. Marwick] The first and most obvious one is that there are plenty of people who are online celebrities in the far-right space. My friend Becca Lewis, whom I have worked with before, works specifically on these far-right microcelebrities and their use of amplification. That’s one dynamic that’s consistent, though I’m not spending much time analyzing that dynamic, per se.
I think there are two things that are similar. The first is the processes of how socialization takes place online, how people come to adopt the norms of online communities that they’re part of, and how people get enculturated into internet spaces. And that’s what people have been studying for about thirty or forty years. If you look at people like Nancy Baym, they’ve been doing this work for a really long time and I think there’s a need to keep hammering on a lot of this speculation and say, “Look, we do understand this. This is well-documented.” We know why people get involved in online communities, we know how they get involved in online communities. That doesn’t necessarily change just because the online community in question is about the far-right as opposed to a fashion blogger community or something like that. The processes are not that different, and a lot of the status markers and the kinds of things that I was teasing out when I studied online celebrity, which is about what people think of as a high-status or low-status action online, what gets you sanctioned by a community versus what gives you more clout within a community — that stuff is really similar, I think.
I don’t know if I’d say my research on extremism has changed how I think about celebrity and online identity. I’ve always been very aware that identity is very performative. I will say that most of the groups that I’m in, the kinds of identities that people want to portray are very different than many of the identities I’ve worked with before. They tend to be very patriotic, often very macho, very religious. These aren’t communities that I necessarily knew a lot about before, but, again, the act of performance is the same. It’s just that the signals and the status markers are different.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your forthcoming book for Yale, The Private is Political, examines how privacy is constructed online and the disproportionate impact this has on groups who are already marginalized on the basis of race, gender, and class. How do you see this research as connected to your other areas of research? Is there a particular idea or finding from your work on the book so far that you think is especially important or surprising?
[Dr. Marwick] I’ve been doing work on privacy for a long time. When I was at NYU doing my doctorate, I worked with Helen Nissenbaum, who is a lauded privacy scholar. While she was at NYU, she set up something called the Privacy Research Group at the law school, which still goes on to this day and which I’ve been a long-term member of. I took a class at the law school and got more involved with the information policy side of these debates. I became very interested in that, and I have gone to privacy conferences for years.
To me, privacy is the flipside of publicity. The work I did on celebrity and self-presentation was all about how do people get status online, how do they seek visibility, how do they seek attention, and privacy to me is the other side of that coin. What about when you don’t want attention, what about when there are certain things you want to keep private? On both the privacy and publicity sides of the coin, I’ve always tried to think about how this plays out differently in terms of power dynamics for different intersectional identities.
In Status Update, I talk about how women were judged much more harshly than men were for using the same kinds of attention seeking techniques online, and they just couldn’t get away with a lot of things, and their accomplishments were always seen as tied to famous or powerful men in some way. In the privacy work, a lot of the focus has been on asking, are privacy violations more impactful for people who are marginalized in other areas of their lives? Are there certain people who are denied privacy systemically based on their positionality? The answer to both of those questions is, yes, obviously, and these are long-standing dynamics.
The book draws together a large swath of literature in feminist theory, queer theory, and critical race theory and applies it to privacy theory. It’s trying to knit those things together into understanding privacy as networked. It’s not just about the fact that privacy impacts people differently. It’s about the fact that social media and big data have actually changed the way that information flows and our privacy laws and privacy-protective technologies haven’t really kept up with that. This is the culmination of about ten years of work and a bunch of different studies, but once the book is out and I’ve talked about it, I might be putting that area of my research to rest for a bit.
[MastersinCommunications.com] At UNC Chapel Hill, you are a Principal Researcher for the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life (CITAP), which you also co-founded. Could you tell us about what motivated the founding of the Center and the type of research that you conduct there?
[Dr. Marwick] What motivated the creation of CITAP was that we had this critical mass of really great people doing scholarship on political communication and social technologies. I started at UNC the same semester as Deen Freelon, who is a professor in the Hussman School [of Media and Journalism]. We both already knew Daniel Kreiss, who is also at Hussman, and we also knew Zeynep Tufekci who is in SILS [the School of Information and Library Science]. So, we’re all very connected. I did my master’s at the same place Deen did his Ph.D. Daniel’s advisor was on my dissertation committee. Even though our methods are somewhat different, our training and the way that we think about technology and media are pretty similar.
For the first year I was at UNC, every time I was at a disinformation conference I would run into Deen or I would run into Daniel. We kept seeing each other over and over again, so we thought, “Well, we’re obviously working on the same things. We’re at the same university. Wouldn’t it be great if we had the resources to really scale our work up and make a big public impact?”
Because the other thing I think that differentiates Zeynep, Deen, Daniel, and I from your average academic is that we’re very public people. We all strongly believe in doing public writing and public talks. We all do a lot of press. We do a lot of op-eds. Obviously, Zeynep’s a New York Times columnist and the rest of us can’t claim that, but we strongly believe that being an academic is about communicating your research findings to the public in a comprehensible way. That it’s not just about publishing in journals that no one can get access to. I have a responsibility to get that knowledge out into the world in different ways and I’ve done that in a bunch of different ways over my career. So, the idea with CITAP was to create a research center that does really strong empirical research that is dedicated to getting that kind of research out to the public.
We’ve been extremely fortunate to have other superlative scholars come and work with us. Really, Francesca Tripodi, Shannon McGregor and Tressie McMillan Cottom are three of the best in the business. We have an all-star team, and what it’s enabled us to do is, not just scale up the amount of work we do, but also scale up the quality of the work that we do. We formulated this research agenda that’s really put identity and difference and especially race at the center of our understanding of disinformation and social media.
I think that the scholarship we’re putting out, which is all informed by qualitative work even if it’s not all entirely qualitative, is really shifting the field in the sense that disinformation can sometimes be depoliticized and I think it’s important for us to say, “No, this is something that impacts vulnerable populations. It often favors the powerful, and it often draws on deeply racist, misogynist, transphobic, and xenophobic narratives that have been present in American society for hundreds of years.”
It’s about taking this hot topic of disinformation and social media and political communication and using the resources we have to shift to a more critical understanding of some of those questions and an understanding of how we center questions of power when we’re talking about these things. Rather than just tell another story of Facebook’s failure to moderate content, how do we center the experiences of the vulnerable or dynamics of power when we have those conversations?
[MastersinCommunications.com] You have also worked as Faculty Advisor for the Media Manipulation Initiative at the Data and Society Research Institute, which led to the publication of the report with Becca Lewis, Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online. How does working with research organizations like this compare to conducting and publishing research as a university professor?
[Dr. Marwick] Data and Society is one of several nonprofit thinktanks that’s focused on the social impact of emerging technologies. Data and Society focuses on big data, but similar organizations focus on things like artificial intelligence or algorithms. The important thing to know about these organizations is that they’re grant-funded, and they’re very public-oriented. When you’re working for a research institute somewhere like Data and Society, the goal is creating research that shifts public discourse. How can we do impactful public scholarship that changes the way people view these issues?
Part of achieving this mission is you do workshops, you talk to the press, you put out whitepapers. Data and Society is a little unusual because lots of researchers there do publish in traditional scholarly journals, but that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is that you get the research out to the public and you put out the academic articles as your side hustle. The grant funding is a big one though.
I think a lot of people think, “Oh, if I can’t get a tenure track job, or if I can’t get one at a university I like, or in a part of the country I want to live in, I can always go work for one of these organizations.” But they don’t have a ton of long-term stability. They’re organized around a lot of one year or two-year appointments, so people cycle in and out of them.
For example, some of the researchers at Data and Society are postdocs. Francesca Tripodi was a postdoc there. Or, they work there while they’re finishing their doctorate, like Robyn Caplan, and then they go get a tenure track job. Or, in some cases it’s people who have had sort of unconventional academic careers. They might not be a PhD, but they’re a really good writer with really good research skills and they find a home there. The one thing about universities is, if you can get a job there, which is a big if, they’re very old, stable institutions that don’t tend to go anywhere. With thinktanks and nonprofits there’s much more turnaround and less stability.
The great thing, though, is they tend to be very agile and the projects tend to be really exciting and interesting. I definitely felt when I was at Data and Society that I was at the heart of some really exciting work that was going on — that I was able to collaborate with people of very different skill sets, very different training, different areas of specialization, and make big impacts on the ways these issues are being viewed by the public. Which is the ideal of a thinktank.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For current and prospective graduate students who are interested in working for organizations like Data and Society, what advice do you have for them, given the considerations you mentioned above?
[Dr. Marwick] I think these kinds of researcher jobs are terrific if you’re preparing for graduate school. Say you have a bachelors and you’re trying to decide whether to get a masters or you have a master’s degree and you want to take a couple of years before you do your Ph.D. I think that’s the perfect time to work for one of these organizations because it can help you get publications, and you can network and solidify your research agenda a little bit. However, know also that you’re in a transitional space and it likely isn’t something you’re going to be doing forever.
Right now, most of the thinktanks in these tech and society spaces are geared more professionally toward junior scholars. We’ll see in ten or fifteen years if there’s more opportunities for midcareer scholars to be there.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have any advice you might give, more generally, to students considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication who are interested in journalism and digital media?
[Dr. Marwick] I would say that it doesn’t matter what you major in as an undergrad. I think you can major in anything and go into graduate studies in communication because it’s such a diverse field and there are so many inroads into it. I would recommend that everyone be trained as widely as possible, because whatever your interests are when you enter graduate school may be completely different a couple of years later. If you go somewhere that gives you strong methodological training or a broad theoretical grounding, it will serve you well, regardless of what your topic of study ends up being. That’s very much a feature of the American system of higher education– we train our students somewhat more broadly than the European system or the Australian system where you go to get a Ph.D. on a specific topic and you already know going in that’s your topic.
You know, I don’t know if I really can, in good conscience, advise people to go to graduate school, though. It’s a difficult road. Graduate students are horribly exploited by most institutions. It’s a very stressful experience. It was a very stressful experience for me. I almost dropped out halfway through grad school because I was so miserable. If you can get into a program that’s well funded at a nice university that’s unionized or a private university that has really deep pockets, great. But given how horribly difficult the job market is, it’s hard to ethically say, “Yes, you should go take out student loans to get a Ph.D. in a humanities field.”
Thank you, Dr. Marwick, for your insightful discussion of your research into digital media technologies, misinformation, and the shaping of politics and culture through social media!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.