Politechs: Digital Politics Academic Program Debuts

By Tom McLaughlin

When Ted Cruz upset Donald Trump in the Republican Iowa Caucuses, despite media polls widely predicting a Trump victory, some tech-savvy observers weren’t the least bit surprised. Cruz had utilized highly sophisticated analytics data to identify the demographics of potential voters, tailor his messages accordingly, and predict voter turnout. President Barack Obama had utilized similar tools to run an effective, digitally enhanced ground game on his road to reelection.

Halfway around the world, social media, especially Twitter, played a critical role in mobilizing Egyptian citizens to topple the entrenched dictatorship of President Hosni Mubarak, while, more ominously, the Islamic State has used social media and digital technology to recruit terrorists and organize attacks.

“There are countless examples of how digital technology and social media are disrupting – indeed transforming – politics and the study of politics, nationally and globally,” explains Rich Harris, a professor of political science at Rutgers–University–Camden.

Rich Harris

Exploring the impact of these evolving, digital tools, Rutgers–Camden will begin offering a digital studies certificate option in digital politics in fall 2016, through an innovative partnership between the Department of Political Science and the Digital Studies Center.

“Our goal is to make the digital studies certificate completely interdisciplinary, and this means finding ways to work with every department on the Rutgers–Camden campus to develop new courses and directions,” says Jim Brown, director of the Digital Studies Center. “This collaboration with Political Science is a perfect model for that, since it demonstrates how digital technologies are reshaping every field and discipline.”

Under the tutelage of affiliated digital studies faculty from political science, students completing the program will be introduced to the theory and tools of digital studies, and learn the myriad ways in which these tools have altered the political landscape. Students will also take two elective political science courses with the designation of digital politics, and complete the certificate with a capstone, digital-studies project in the students’ areas of interest.

Mark Baker, a junior political science and philosophy major at Rutgers–Camden, says that he is drawn to the study of digital politics due to media’s overwhelming influence on knowledge acquisition.

“Knowledge in the form of articles, academic databases, and social media are made accessible through the Internet, which comes via a computer screen, not from direct human contact,” says Baker, a Cherry Hill resident who attended Cherry Hill East High School. “It has emerged as our main source of information, to an extent where we need to ask ourselves whether media is producing answers for us before we have the chance to ponder them.”

Rich Harris, chair of the Department of Political Science, affirms that the way social movements, modern media, and electoral politics function – from the Tea Party to Black Lives Matter, to the explosive growth of online publications and blogs, to the organization of election campaigns that micro-target voters and deploy resources to mobilize them – demonstrates the need to recalibrate and reorient the way that politics are taught and studied in the digital age.

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