Connective Democracy: A new approach for building bridges in American society

journalism / Article

On July 22, 2019, Knight made a $50 million investment to develop a new field of research around technology’s impact on democracy, including a $2.5 million investment in the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Below, center researchers share how they’ll use the funds to explore “connective democracy.” 

Democrats vs. Republicans. Scientists vs. laypeople. The media vs. the public. America is facing an accelerated rise and entrenchment of tribalistic divides, creating new challenges in facilitating the exchange of information in our society.  

The great experiment that is American democracy thrives on diverse views, but these divisions also make it fragile. Divisions create checks and balances, enrich our culture, and yield diverse opinions that allow for more creative problem solving. But they can also stir up hostilities and us-versus-them mentalities that prevent progress and breed distrust. Divisions are particularly consequential because they can impede the transmission and evaluation of accurate information that is critical to a properly functioning democracy. 

The Center for Media Engagement is proposing a new approach to address the problems associated with divisiveness in our society: “Connective democracy.”

Connective democracy involves understanding the ties that bind and the values that divide us, with a focus on identifying practical solutions that bridge societal fissures. The media are at the core of this approach, as they both amplify and allay societal divides. 

"The great experiment that is American democracy thrives on diverse views, but these divisions also make it fragile."

Partisan media such as Fox News, MSNBC, and other online outlets polarize their audiences.(i) Social media can make divides more salient, fragment the information environment, and polarize attitudes.(ii) Our news feeds and search results can be manipulated to influence our beliefs and attitudes in ways that boost division.(iii) Yet certain practices, such as featuring and humanizing those with diverse views, can help people appreciate other perspectives.(iv) And there are some media organizations pioneering ways of engaging the public across lines of difference.(v)

In short, the media are at the heart of our connective democracy endeavor. By working with them, we can promote bonds across divided groups.

Connective democracy is more than a theory about the problems that need to be addressed — it is a method. It requires us to work collaboratively with organizations such as newsrooms, platforms, and public policy entities. The practice of connective democracy asks scholars to collaborate throughout the research process, spanning idea generation, study design, data collection, the interpretation of findings, the sharing of results, and the leveraging of findings to affect practice.

"Connective democracy involves understanding the ties that bind and the values that divide us, with a focus on identifying practical solutions that bridge societal fissures."

With new support from Knight Foundation, the Center for Media Engagement will expand its work to develop the study of how newsrooms, scholars, platforms, and public policy entities can address issues of polarization in society.

For the next several years, the Center will embark upon a unified research vision to promote connective democracy. We will focus on major social cleavages where groups have legitimate value and policy differences that have been amplified to the extreme of dehumanizing those with different views. 

We are under no illusions that we can create a fully united society, nor do we believe it would be desirable to do so. Connective democracy is about appreciating the humanity of those who seem to be very different from us. This basic belief, we contend, is what allows democracy to flourish. 

Visit here to learn more about the Center for Media Engagement, as well as the other U.S. institutions receiving new support from Knight.

By staff at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin: Talia Stroud, Director; Gina Masullo Chen, Assistant Director; Anthony Dudo, Program Director of Science Communication; Matt Lease, Program Director of Algorithms and Interfaces; Scott Stroud, Program Director of Media Ethics; and Sam Woolley, Program Director of Computational Propaganda


i. Stroud, N. J. (2011). Niche news: The politics of news choice. New York: Oxford University Press.

ii. Kearney, M. (2018). Analyzing change in network polarization. New Media & Society, 21(6), 1380-1402. doi: 10.1177/1461444818822813; Settle, J. E. (2018). Frenemies: How social media polarizes America. New York: Cambridge University Press.

iii. Osnos, E. (2018). Facebook and the age of manipulation. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/facebook-and-the-age-of-manipulation; Epstein, R., & Robertson, R. E. (2015). The search engine manipulation effect (SEME) and its possible impact on the outcomes of elections. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(33), E4512-E4521.

iv. Wojcieszak, M., & Azrout, R. (2016). I saw you in the news: Mediated and direct intergroup contact improve outgroup attitudes. Journal of Communication, 66(6), 1032-1060. doi: 10.1111/jcom.12266.

v. Murray, C., & Stroud, N. J. (2018, November 14). Making strangers less strange. Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. https://mediaengagement.org/research/making-strangers-less-strange/ Stroud, N. J., Muddiman, A., & Scacco, J. (2017). Like, recommend, or respect? Altering political behavior in news comment sections. New Media & Society, 19(11), 1727-1743. doi: 10.1177/1461444816642420

Image (top): CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication, accessed here

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