Spotlight On: Jennifer Forestal
Jennifer Forestal, PhD, Helen Houlahan Rigali Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, has been selected as a Notre Dame Research Fellow for 2021-2022.
This week, we train our spotlight on Jennifer Forestal, PhD, the Helen Houlahan Rigali Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences, who has been selected as a 2021-2022 Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study Faculty Fellow.
Forestal is a political theorist whose research focuses on the effects of digital technologies on democratic practices. Her work considers how digital platforms such as Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter are changing citizens’ attitudes, behaviors, and interpersonal relationships in ways that are both promising and problematic for democratic politics. Forestal approaches this question by thinking about design—how the built environment (both physical and digital) shapes the way we interact with other people.
Forestal has published numerous articles about digital platforms in the past few years, focusing on issues such as internet trolls, propaganda and disinformation, anonymity and online deliberation, and content moderation. Her work has appeared in journals like the American Political Science Review, Journal of Politics, Political Studies, Contemporary Political Theory, and Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy. She has also written for popular media outlets like the Washington Post.
One of the major takeaways from Forestal’s research is that many people are too pessimistic in their conclusions that the internet and social media will necessarily undermine or ruin democracy. Instead, Forestal’s research highlights the need to think more deeply and critically about how these platforms are built in order to design them better. If we want digital technologies to support democratic politics, Forestal’s research shows that we have to think more deeply about what kinds of spaces democracy requires and use those criteria as ‘blueprints’ for digital spaces in the future.
Forestal’s book Designing for Democracy: How to Build Community in Digital Environments will be published by Oxford University Press later this year (2021). It extends her research into the ways that digital platforms are transforming users’ democratic practices by thinking more deeply about questions of design, making the analogy between digital spaces and the physical built environment, and suggesting the design characteristics required for digital platforms to host democratic communities.
“Jennifer Forestal’s scholarly work is an important and immediate contribution to how we think about today’s information landscape and the ways it affects societal discourse, debate, and expression,” says Peter J. Schraeder, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Loyola. “The collaborations fostered by Dr. Forestal’s fellowship will provide tremendous insights into how we might design and navigate an evolving information landscape in ways that strengthen democratic processes and policy discussions.”
As a faculty fellow, Forestal will work on her newest project, “Mute, Block, Unfollow: Technology, Democracy, and the Politics of Opting Out.” In that project, she will examine how communities need to be organized to generate buy-in from their members. In this project, she is not only interested in the design characteristics of the built environment; she is also concerned with the governance structures—what rules need to be set, for example, for people to not just leave a community when they do not like a decision? In order to answer that question, Forestal looks to popular and longstanding virtual communities such as Reddit for lessons on how to organize communities to prevent this kind of “opting out.”