Journalist Sue Gardner connects internet and democracy in Overby Center lecture

Posted on Nov 15 2017 - 8:00am by Logan Williamson

Canadian journalist Sue Gardner analyzed the internet’s effect on American democracy in front of a student audience Monday night in the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics.

In her lecture, Gardner focused on underlying political trends and factors, specifically those on the internet, that influenced voting behavior during the last presidential election.

Gardner has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a producer, reporter and documentary maker. In 2006, she became senior director of, the broadcasting group’s website. She also served as the executive director of Wikimedia, the non-profit organization behind Wikipedia, from December 2007 to May 2014.

At the Overby Center, Gardner identified three precursors to the result of the 2016 election: how the internet accidentally broke the news industry, how the internet became a massive machine for micro-targeting and persuasion, and the ways social media accelerated hyperpartisanship.

“These trends spray a miasma of confusion and noise, and they stir up conversation in various ways,” Gardner said. “This is often seemingly with the intent to persuade people that politics is toxic or too unpleasant or no fun to be involved in.”

She talked about influential factors like partisanship and political animosity, legal and ethical issues in the media industry and the Senate investigations into the Trump-Russia scandal.

“The country, I think, is still vulnerable. Nothing has changed,” she said. “It is still engrossed in misinformation and disinformation and outright propaganda designed to inflame us and make us upset, angry and alienated from the political process. There is very little that was healthy for democracy in this election campaign.”

She says she doesn’t have a “magic bullet answer” to the problems caused by the intersection of news and technology but that there are small counteractions that could alleviate some issues. Citizens paying for news, supporting public broadcasting and encouraging media literacy were among the actions she mentioned.

Robert Cummings, the director and associate professor of writing and rhetoric, has worked with Gardner on the board of the Wiki Education Foundation for several years.

“I know from her work there that she remains committed to education, personal development, diversity, equity and inclusion,” he said.

Cummings said the university’s digital media studies interdisciplinary minor and the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies invited Gardner to campus.

“We have asked Sue to come to campus because she has in-depth experience managing a global community-based technology,” he said.

Cummings said she was an important speaker to have at the university.

“She provided insights on how the worlds of technology and social media have affected the health of our democracy,” he said.

Debbie Hall, an integrated marketing communications professor, asked her public relations class and her three writing classes to attend Gardner’s lecture.

“I thought it was a great presentation,” Hall said. “Information responsibility with the use of social media is of the things we emphasize in our IMC program. I wanted to get it a little more into my students’ heads that we must be responsible. We want to use social media as an advertising and promotional tool, but we want to use it ethically.”

Lydia Holland, a biology major, attended the lecture.

“She gave me an insight on the news that I take in and how to be a better reader, be more attentive and weed out the good stuff and the bad stuff to make sure you’re getting credible news,” Holland said.