About Silvio Waisbord, Ph.D.: Silvio Waisbord is Professor and Director at The George Washington University’s (GW) School of Media and Public Affairs, where his scholarship focuses on journalism, media, and political movements, with a particular interest in disinformation and populism. A prolific scholar, Dr. Waisbord is the author of six books, most recently The Communication Manifesto, Communication: A Post-Discipline, El Imperio de la Utopía: Mitos y Realidades de la Sociedad Estadounidense, and the forthcoming Silencing Journalists: Anti-press Violence and the Risks of Public Life.

Dr. Waisbord has published dozens of essays and book chapters, which appear in journals including Television and New Media, Journal of Applied Journalism and Media Studies, Journalism, Comunicazione Politica, and InMediaciones de la Comunicación. He is also an accomplished editor. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Communication and International Journal of Press/Politics and has edited nine collections, including The Routledge Companion to Media Disinformation and Populism, The Routledge Companion to Media and Scandal, and the Routledge Companion to Media and Human Rights.

In 2022, Dr. Waisbord was elected President of the International Communication Association. Prior to joining the faculty at GW, he worked for five years as Senior Program Officer for the Academy for Educational Development in Washington, DC after holding faculty positions at Rutgers University and the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Waisbord received his Ph.D. and M.A. in Sociology from the University of California, San Diego and his Licenciatura in Sociology from Universidad de Buenos Aires.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in communication and media studies, and begin studying journalism in the contexts of globalization and populist politics in Latin America, the United States, and internationally?

[Dr. Silvio Waisbord] It all started almost by chance. I got my undergraduate degree in sociology at the University of Buenos Aires during a military dictatorship. After college, I stayed interested in research. I was a teaching assistant for a professor in a big sociology class when a colleague told me that her partner was looking for a research assistant for a communication project that had to do with the filmmaking industry in Argentina back then. I said, “Sure, I would like to learn.”

He was a well-known communication scholar in Argentina. Through him, I started reading traditional communications scholarship, US and European mostly, as well as work from Latin America, which has a rich and unique tradition of communication research and scholarship. That was how I got started. It was by chance. It was not something where I said, “Okay, after I finish college, this is what I want to do.” Then, I started TAing for a class a year later that had a strong communication component on traditional theories of mass communication like the Frankfurt School tradition of critical communication studies. That was my initiation into communication studies.

[MastersinCommunications.com] In recent years, you have written extensively on journalism, the rise of disinformation that has led many to dub our cultural moment as “post-truth,” and populist politics. Would you discuss the relationship between populism, post-truth, and journalism as explored in your work? Are there important ways this research reframes or nuances aspects of the current public discourse surrounding fake news and disinformation?

[Dr. Silvio Waisbord] I think multiple issues are relevant. First, there is the question of what is unique or different about misinformation or disinformation at our current juncture globally, given that those of us who have been interested in communication or journalism recognize that disinformation or propaganda in fact precede anything that we can call “information.” [e.g., propaganda existed before the advent of the digital or modern modes of information processing.] In fact, much of the study of 20th century communication has been about disinformation by governments, by corporations, by multiple actors. Propaganda and disinformation are not synonymous, but they are really closely related. We could reread the whole literature of 20th century mass communication as basically dealing with what we now call disinformation.

The second question is, “When does disinformation become a political movement?” There have always been actors who deliberately misinform people and publics who do not know better and are misinformed about most issues. Most of us are misinformed about everything because it is impossible to know so much of what affects our everyday life. We have very limited, superficial knowledge. In some ways, most of us have beliefs that could fit the definition of misinformation.

For me the question is, “When does disinformation become the backbone of a political movement? When is a movement primarily anchored in something that is not true — true in the sense that it will not pass conventional forms of verification that we use in, let’s say, mainstream journalism or traditional scientific models?” Misinformed or disinformed publics do not necessarily translate or convert into a movement, whether that be a political movement, a social movement, a religious movement, or a cultural movement.

This is when populism enters the picture. I wrote an article exploring the affinity between disinformation, “post-truth,” and populism. I find this relationship intriguing because, while there is always propaganda and disinformation, there are not always populist movements that challenge the current order. Populism isn’t new either. The way that I understand populism is relatively simple, which is a binary view of politics as us versus them. Populism believes that politics is always about conflict, never about the search for consensus or agreement. The political party is primarily about accessibility and conflict against the other, whoever the other is or however they are defined.

Similarly, there has always been a situation of post-truth to some extent because people use very different methods to determine what is reality or truth. Certain types of knowledge are hegemonic — there are certain “regimes of truth,” to use Foucault’s concept — but there has always been some kind of resistance to any regime of truth. Today, I think that becomes much more patently obvious. There is no single regime of truth on a number of issues, even though there are attempts to construct hegemonic regimes of truth. That is the situation of post-truth: this inevitable rift in the way that different citizens and movements determine what is real and what is not and the difficulties of bridging that rift.

The question of whether disinformation and post-truth have an affinity with populism is both interesting and open. Post-truth seems to favor populism because there is no single truth, but truth as politics is divided. There is no single politics or political order. There are separate, split orders and regimes of truth. I think the current populist movements crystallize that. I am not arguing there is a causal relation between post-truth and populism; there is no single cause here.

That is why I use the concept of affinity, rather than discuss a causal relationship between disinformation, post-truth, and populism. There has always been misinformation, false information, and conspiracy theories. The question is whether or not the current post-truth order expedites the transition of people who hold wild ideas into a political movement. This transition is not a necessity. This country has a long history of wild and extreme ideas. Not every idea became crystalized and culminated in an active political movement that actually changed politics — that made politics so different that you could say, “This is politics before, and this is politics after.”

The current moment seems to demonstrate this transition is occurring. Exhibit A is, of course, QAnon, which is significant not only in terms of its evolution as an isolated movement, but also because of how much it came to influence institutional, especially Republican, politics in this country in a very short period of time. Even in a country that has this long history of ideas outside of conventional wisdom, it is rare that views grounded outside objective reality become a political movement that permeates the entire country.

For example, flat earthers have conferences and journals and meetings and they live happily ever after. We have always had examples like that. It is much more difficult to think of examples where that becomes crystallized into something that influences the mainstream, official politics. That, to me, is where we are right now, in a broad sense.

[MastersinCommunications.com] In many of your recent articles you have taken up the issue of the risks attendant to journalism. For example, your articles “Mob Censorship: Online Harassment of US Journalists in Times of Digital Hate and Populism” and “Online Trolling of Journalists” tackle the hostility faced by journalists online, and you address the physical safety of journalists in “Can Journalists Be Safe in a Violent World?” Violence is one of the issues, moreover, that motivates your article, “Why Collective Resilience in Journalism Matters: A Call to Action in Global Media Development.” Would you discuss the cultural context that has led to this being a uniquely dangerous time to practice journalism? What are some of the key consequences of these dangers for journalists and journalistic practice, as well as some of the potential solutions you suggest in this thread of your research?

[Dr. Silvio Waisbord] Let us start with the solutions. I do not think we have good solutions, because the problem is of an unprecedented scale. We have much more awareness of the problem and many more mechanisms to detect, monitor, report and bring attention to violence. At the same time, we are at a particular juncture that drives this problem. We have the rise of authoritarianism and the erosion of democracy. Authoritarianism, by default, means violence against the press. Everything authoritarianism stands for involves those in power imposing their will upon journalists and, of course, citizens and activists — any kind of dissent.

In established, consolidated democracies we also see the rise of polarization as a factor. Polarization plays into the populist binary [us versus them] model that is responsible for driving multiple forms of violence against journalists: physical, rhetorical, psychological violence. Under populism journalists are seen as enemies or friends, which works to legitimize any kind of violent action against journalists in the name of championing our cause or defeating the enemy. There is very little room these days to see journalists as anything but partisan actors, as much as journalists would like not to be seen that way. In the United States and other democracies, we have increasingly seen that it does not so much matter what journalists do or say. What matters is how they are being perceived to be on one side or the other, and these perceptions are made up of justifiable or completely fabricated reasons.

Then there is the question of online violence, which completely changed the way that we traditionally thought about offline violence, because it introduced a different set of categories. In one way, online violence reflects how digital life and digital communication have no guardrails. There are no normative guardrails. Platforms are trying to put up some guardrails by introducing regulations, and we are still in the middle of that discussion. But it is clear that if somebody wants to be offensive or hateful towards journalists or anyone else with a public profile — politicians, activists, academics — they can do that. There is no normative order to regulate behavior.

It is almost the opposite of the Habermasian ideal speech situation: the opposite in the sense that there are no regulatory norms telling us how to engage in a communicative act. Because of their public profile and because of their work, journalists are perceived to be the enemy by a significant number of people in different societies, regardless of the quality of the work that they do or what they write about. They are prime targets or sitting ducks, if you will.

Then, on top of that, you have a good layer of hate speech. Journalists are often harassed and persecuted just because of who they are, not because of the work that they do. That is especially a problem for women or any member of any minority group, whether religious, ethnic, racial, or gendered. Cultural difference makes people a prime target for hate speech, and journalists have to deal with this on top of the violence directed at them because of their occupation.

There is, then, a convergence of different factors driving this violence. Ultimately, this also raises questions about what violence is. The position that I subscribe to is that violence is about the transgression of boundaries. But in the current order it is very difficult to define where the boundaries are. The same people who perpetrate attacks against journalists and others will say, “Well, it was just a joke. It was just free speech. It was just me speaking.” This raises questions about proper behavior, proper speech, and multiple forms of aggression. Where can we draw the boundary between violence and nonviolence when we do not limit violence to something physical?

The boundaries when it comes to different forms of physical force or physical violence are perhaps clearer, but the boundaries of rhetorical violence or psychological violence are much more contested. You and I may agree on where the boundaries are drawn, but if you look at large-scale societies it is clear there is substantial disagreement. In that way violence is, without being too relativistic about it, intersubjectively constructed. I think that communication scholars need to be much more forceful in their discussions about communication and violence, and see clearly that part of the struggle against violence is the struggle to define what violence means. That is a task for communication scholarship; it is a communicative struggle.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Your two most recent books are Communication: A Post-Discipline and The Communication Manifesto. Could you give us some background on these book projects? Taken together, what do they help us capture about the communication discipline, past, present, and future?

[Dr. Silvio Waisbord] Communication: A Post-Discipline came out of my experience as editor of the Journal of Communication. I had this nagging question every time that we put out an issue. We had eight articles on average in each issue, and my question was, “What do they have in common? What makes them belong in the Journal of Communication?” Increasingly, it was very difficult to answer that question.

For me, this difficulty reflected not only the ambiguous or multi-semantic character of the word communication, but also the way that the communication studies and communication sciences have grown in multiple forms. There are now multiple networks of discussion, scholarship, and journals that overlap or coexist institutionally rather than intellectually. By institutionally I mean in journals, in schools of communication, departments of communication, in conferences and professional associations. I am not saying this as a criticism; it is okay if we talk past each other in the way we understand communication. The question is how do you make sense of this Babel-like situation in which we speak different languages?

That is what the book was trying to do. I just wanted to understand this situation and explore the connecting tissues among communication scholars. We try to propose a few ideas on what those connective tissues are, but that is something I took on more in The Communication Manifesto. The Manifesto asks, “Can we find these connective bridges or meeting points?” We speak different languages and think about communication in such different ways, from sense-making to information transmission and everything in between. How do we find something that connects us all?

One answer is public scholarship, and that is what the Manifesto is about. One could argue that we are, or should be, interested in knotty questions about global problems: those wicked problems that are so hard to resolve or address. Why do we not — coming from very different traditions in communication studies and with very different ways of framing questions and different theories, methodologies, etc. — find a way to bring together this tremendous diversity that we have in our organizations and our schools to address these wicked problems?

That is not just politically smart, it is also a way of tapping into student interest. Increasingly, for example, many students are interested in addressing specific problems in the world, whether that be social hate, or the climate crisis, or migration, or violence, or labor conditions. The Communication Manifesto is trying to ask, “How do we rethink the model of being engaged in public? How do we shift away from a more narrow model of public intellectualism, which sees us giving our opinions or pontificating about our expertise, to engage with different non-academic publics in addressing many interesting and difficult problems?” Those are the questions that drove me to write this book.

[MastersinCommunications.com] You have authored several articles advocating for “de-Westernizing” the communication discipline, including “De-Westernizing Communication Studies: A Reassessment,” and “What is Next For De-Westernizing Communication Studies?” Would you discuss your critique of the Western focus of the discipline, and how your perspective on this problem and how to resist it has developed across these publications?

[Dr. Silvio Waisbord] The question is how do we point out the blind spots of academia produced in the West. Even the West sounds too broad because communication studies is a body of work that primarily originated in the US and a few European countries and was based on empirical experiences in those countries. From the 1920s onwards, theories were constructed and built in the tradition of these individual countries. This leads to all kinds of built-in biases, and the question, first, is how we can identify what they have led us to overlook. What are the underlying, almost invisible premises of our scholarship that we should be aware of?

That is one aspect. The other is to foster a different intellectual approach or consciousness, to be aware of our own biases, given not just who we are as individuals, but also with respect to the academic milieus where we grew up intellectually. Everything we learn and do not learn in terms of experiences, ways of asking questions, ways of answering questions, theories, concepts, the whole scaffolding that we have in our heads when we are doing scholarship — how do we shift the perspective? This means interrogating our own premises as well as engaging ideas that are outside of where we grew up intellectually.

That is a very important, useful, healthy exercise for everybody. Indicating blind spots is not just a matter of denouncing something. It is about changing perspectives, including our own. It is about increasing awareness of and sensitivity to the limitations of our work. All work has limitations.

In my most recent piece, I am trying to argue that interrogating the limits of Western perspectives in communication is not just something that some people in a corner of communication studies need to do: another task group, or interest group, or area of specialization. Typically, what we have done when people are interested in a given topic is create a narrow specialization. This is something different. This is something that has to connect different ways that we think, rather than just the way we approach a specific subject of study. That is why I think many people are interested in this.

For people coming from outside the Global North, this is natural because we had to read US and European scholarship, as well as scholarship produced in different parts of the world that looked at the Western scholarship through a critical lens. I understood that an idea produced in Iowa in the 1940s did not apply to my context in a very different country, in a very different community. Almost by default you ask yourself questions like, “Does this apply here? Why or why not? What is missing? How can I say it differently? What local knowledges can we use to reinterpret ideas that were produced in different contexts?”

That could be from France, China, the United States, but it happened that scholars based in a few Western countries had a tremendous role in defining theories and concepts and lines of work and questions that define communication studies. Latin American scholarship started in a very different place of interrogating these influences, again, asking “Does it apply to us? Why or why not?” This is an important reminder that lends itself very well to different forms of comparative work. I find it very helpful for interrogating where we are, whose questions we are asking, whose theories and concepts we are using, not because they are necessarily right or wrong, but because we need to ask those questions.

[MastersinCommunications.com] This year, you were elected President of the International Communication Association. Could you tell us a little bit about your goals as ICA President? How does your academic background — for example, your advocacy for de-Westernizing communication discussed above — inform your objectives for, or approach to, your presidency?

[Dr. Silvio Waisbord] I bring everything we have been discussing into discussions about what the International Communication Association does. Currently we are asking, “How can we make the organization more inclusive of different perspectives, including perspectives from the Global South? If we’re really committed to being a global association, what are the challenges in doing that, and how do we address those challenges? Are those institutional, economic, or power challenges? How do we address them en route to making ICA more inclusive?” In my public statement, I note that the organization is much better than it used to be in these matters 30 years ago. Much better. Still, there is always work that can be done, that needs to be done. That is one issue.

Relatedly, I mentioned earlier the important question, “How do we put our knowledge to work to help different publics address some of the pressing problems we face?” This is the connective tissue among an association with six or seven thousand members coming from very different countries and different disciplinary traditions — from computer science to anthropology and everything else in between. Our goal is to bring people together around questions about communication and fill-in-the-blank, whatever issue we want to tackle. It may be violence, or specific forms of violence, or a human rights issue.

By doing that, we engage in public scholarship. What is going on around the world and the crisis of many universities has led to reflection within higher education. How do we expand our reach? How do we engage in ways that are not just about the public intellectual model of circulating what we know, but also about enriching our work by engaging with the public, with activists, and with institutions outside of academia? Those two things are central to me in terms of future directions for ICA, and something I want the association to prioritize in different ways, like membership, participation panels, journals, etc. There are all kinds of ways we can infuse what the professional association does with these goals.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students interested in studying journalism through a communication lens, in post-truth and populist politics, or in international research in communication studies who are currently considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?

[Dr. Silvio Waisbord] To me, it is important to develop your own voice or your own take on any of the issues that you choose to study. That is one of the most difficult and most rewarding aspects of doing academic intellectual work. It is not only important that you are recognized or admitted by your colleagues and your peers, though this ultimately is also central to what we do. In graduate school you are taught, and you are expected at some point to develop, present, and defend your thesis, and you cannot avoid that. Still, along the way, we have to develop a sense of who we are when we are talking, thinking, teaching, and writing.

We have to ask, “Who am I inside of this thing? What makes my perspective unique, even if I’m working on issues that lots of people are working on and thinking about?” That is something to never lose sight of. Find that thing, and remind yourself of it, especially because not so many people will remind you. We have to remind ourselves what is new, original, and exciting about what we are bringing to the table.

This is not easy, but that is why we do what we do. It is important to have fun with it, even though it is hard work, and it can be frustrating and exhausting at times. It is a way of reminding ourselves that this is a great opportunity to do something that is true to us and our voice. You can try that in your teaching, your writing, conference presentations, in research projects, and the way that you collaborate with different people.

There is no single path in academia. You need to chart your own path. I think grad students should be aware of that. There is enough room in the discipline to build your own path rather than following exactly what somebody else has done. You can follow those paths, but do not think that it is the only way it can be done. Without being overly optimistic, I think there is still room for doing that in academia — for charting your own way in this world.

Admittedly, if you are in a situation of labor precarity, it is much more difficult to do this. Even if you have a tenure track position and eventually you get tenure, it is easy to lose track of your identity with all you are expected to do. You have to work to hold on to it, because I think it is ultimately what sustains you and really makes you happy. Finding our own voice is a way to nurture ourselves. It is a form of self-care, in spite of all the challenges.

Thank you, Dr. Waisbord, for sharing your insights on journalism, disinformation, populism, the importance of international and engaged communication scholarship, and more!


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About the Author: Ben Clancy (they/them) is a critical scholar and creative living in Chicago with their partner, child, and other wildlife. They are a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill in the Department of Communication, where their research focuses on the politics of communicative and artistic technologies. Ben has an M.A. from Texas State University, has worked as a research fellow for the Center for Technology Information and Public Life at UNC, and is an alum of the Vermont Studio Center residency in poetry writing.

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.