Visiting Professor Mirko Schäfer: Will the real expert please stand up! Revisiting expertise in polarizing social media debates

HSSH Visiting Professor Mirko Schäfer lectures on 21.9 at 15 – join us at HSSH!

HSSH Visiting Professor lecture with Mirko Schäfer from Utrecht University on Wednesday 21.9. 15-17 at the HSSH Seminar Room, Vuorikatu 3, 2nd floor, h209.

Will the real expert please stand up! Revisiting expertise in polarizing social media debates


(Lea Stöter, Hugo Bezombes, Mirko Tobias Schäfer)

With the advent of social media, we have seen the emergence of heated debates in online fora, social media and other web platforms. The debates appear to be polarizing between partisan positions, and the participating experts and their expertise becomes politicized (e.g. Bogner 2021; Eyal 2019). However, the quality of the dynamic and quality of these debates seems to be affected by the platform where it takes place, and the different participants taking to a platform and engaging in a debate. This also constitutes a different perception of what qualifies as expertise and who is seen as an expert within the different fora and debates. In this paper we have a closer look at what constitutes an expert and by whom in different contexts. Our research reviews theories of expertise, definitions of expert and expertise, and situates these in the context of conversations on social media and other web platforms. There, new participants project expertise, mobilize followers or disseminate messages. Here, we can distinguish several aspects that contribute to a conceptualisation of experts and expertise in the platform society. As social media are easy to access, new participants enter public debates. Our paper identifies who acts as and who is recognized as expert in different online platforms, how they signal expertise, how different topic communities claim and appropriate their expertise, and how central user accounts are instrumental in disseminating it.  In the fragmented audiences of various topic communities, expertise is perceived differently, and not necessarily connected to specialized knowledge. Drawing from established theories of expertise, we propose a novel framework that allows to distinguish the different participants that appear as experts within these social media debates. Locating participants along three axes, specialized knowledge, assigned status, and projection of expertise accounts aptly for the diversity we encounter in these debates.

Mirko Schäfer is an Associate Professor at Utrecht University, and co-founder and Faculty of Science lead of the Utrecht Data School. He is a member of the steering committee at the reasearch area Governing the Digital Society and a member of the research area Applied Data Science. His research interest revolves around the socio- political impact of media technology. His publications cover user participation in cultural production, datafication, politics of software design and communication in social media. He is co-editor and co-author of the volume Digital Material. Tracing New Media in Everyday Life and Technology (Amsterdam University Press, 2009). His book Bastard Culture! How User participation Transforms Cultural Production (Amsterdam University Press 2011) was listed as best-seller in the section computer science by The Library Journal. His most recent book publication is the edited volume (together with Karin van Es) The Datafied Society. Studying Culture through Data (Amsterdam University Press 2017). 

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