Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Greg Elmer

By Jelena Djurkic, MPC2013

Photo Credit – Dr. Greg Elmer

Dr. Greg Elmer on surveillance, big data and how Trump used Twitter in the US election.

Dr. Greg Elmer has spent his academic and teaching career delving into new media and its effects on politics. We sat down with Dr. Elmer, Bell Globemedia Research Chair and Director of Ryerson’s Infoscape Research Lab, to get his thoughts on contemporary surveillance, Donald Trump and his new documentary set in North Korea.

One of your recent books, Compromised Data: From Social Media to Big Data, examines the world of data surveillance. What sparked your interest in this?

A well respected senior professor once asked me, in a very large room in front of many of my colleagues, what media had to do with surveillance. I was stunned. I had spent the previous five years writing and researching my MA and PhD theses about just that topic. At that time, “surveillance” was seen as something that governments or the state engaged in. But over the years, it has become obvious that all media now engage in intense forms of audience surveillance – that is, as part of how they function. They are actively collecting information on what we view, share and post on their platforms. For me, mediation and surveillance go hand in hand.

In reflecting on the results of the US election, much has been said about how Donald Trump used Twitter during the campaign to communicate. What are your thoughts?

There is a rigorous debate in academia and in society at large about the impact of the Internet and the social media revolution. We have lost much – think of all those great independent bookstores and video rental shops! – but I cannot bemoan the expansion of places to debate and discuss issues of importance to our daily lives. That said, I think it will take time for society to adjust and start to digest the vast amounts of information now in circulation (much of it pure garbage, lies, rumour and most unfortunately, hate filled). This is the state of our democracy right now, and I would prefer to directly engage with it rather than pretend that we live in a perfect and socially just society.

How has the 24/7 cycle of social media changed the way politicians communicate?

There has been a litany of cases where candidates or their surrogates have posted inappropriate comments online. Prior to Donald Trump, this often resulted in the candidate having to issue apologies or resign so it is yet to be determined how Trump’s bombastic tweets may have impacted this trend. Generally speaking, 24/7 communications seek to humanize political candidates. Justin Trudeau was, of course, the master of this during our last election, using well crafted and stylized photos of him interacting with voters.

Turning to big data, it is often claimed the same ideas of surveillance do not apply because there is a neutrality to vast quantities of data. How would you challenge this?

Data is never neutral; it is as human as veins or blood. Data is produced from the material conditions of the day, from technologies built and designed by humans. In short, data is filled with human values. Even something as “natural” as data about the weather is now seen as reflecting the role that humans have played on this planet.

Going back to a unique moment in political history, you have been working on a documentary centred around a Canadian delegation which travelled to North Korea in 1989. What’s next for you and the project?

About the film: In the summer and fall of 1989 the world witnessed a string of revolutionary movements and challenges to state authority. The film covers the trip within the context of that time. You can view the trailer here.

I just returned from interviewing a social worker on the Oneida nation reservation in Wisconsin. She was part of a delegation of Canadian youth who participated in an international festival held in Pyongyang, North Korea. This was the last interview for the film. You can learn more about the documentary on our website.

The other large project I am working on is a history of new media companies. It’s a book project that investigates how companies change their business models before seeking capital support from stock markets. The project is seeking to understand why social media platforms, for example, have engaged in ever more intense forms of user (and non-user) surveillance and data analysis. So in that sense it is part of my long term study of surveillance in media technologies.