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U-M hosts symposium on social media influencers' effect on society, politics and economy

Friday, 03/25/2022

An international cohort of social media influencers will arrive at University of Michigan for a two-day symposium on April 7-8. The “Social Media Influencers and the New Political Economy in South Asia and Africa” symposium will highlight the role of social media in societies around the world, especially the Global South, and showcase how influencers impact politics, economy and culture. The event will be held in-person and virtual.

Invited speakers represent social media influencers from a wide array of platforms, and include film stars, politicians, lawyers, journalists, artists, dissidents, comedians and scholars from two of the fastest growing internet-using regions in the world: South Asia and Africa.

Co-organizers Joyojeet Pal, associate professor at the U-M School of Information, and Omolade Adunbi, associate professor and associate chair at the U-M Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, say the inspiration for a symposium like this has been the significant shift in media landscape over the last decade. 

“Several independent social media based channels have gained mindshare among hundreds of millions of people around the world, across age and language boundaries,” says Pal. “This has also led to dramatic changes in political and artistic communication, leading to new forms of polarization, and new means of building and articulating public power.”

“South Asia and Africa are the two regions with the fastest growth in internet and social media adoption in the last five years, making this a good regional focus for the conference,” says Pal.

The methods and reach of social media influencers

While social media is often researched, there have been scant studies into the influencers themselves and how individuals play a role in economies and discourses. 

“Studies that focus on social media oftentimes tend to interrogate social media use either as a political or social tool for communication,” Adunbi says, adding that the social media users themselves — including activists, celebrities and politicians —  are missing from these studies. “Our goal in this symposium is to bridge this divide by creating a space where all these voices can engage in a conversation with each other.”

The symposium is divided into themes that were carefully selected by the organizers. Adunbi says they wanted to create a space for constructive and critical engagement among scholars, practitioners, industry and activists.

“Social media influencers have totally changed politics; in part politicians themselves have become influencers,” says Pal. “But likewise, culture — things like food, travel, body image — are all changing as a result of how they are depicted and appropriated on social media.”

“The participants are leading voices in their own field, and the experiences they plan to share with members of our community will be invaluable,” says Adunbi. “Our expectation is that participants will shed more light on the ways in which social media have become an important factor that shapes economic practices in a variety of ways in many of the countries where we are drawing our participants from.”

Global influence in local discussions

Although the symposium is concentrating on South Asia and Africa, the topics have international ramifications. “I am looking forward to the inter-regional exchanges,” says Pal. “We find that the patterns of social and political upheaval are remarkably similar not only in nation states in the two regions we studied, but also across the two oceans.”

Adunbi agrees, adding that it will be interesting to see how scholars will engage with public intellectuals, political and social activists, industry, politicians and artists. “These are groups that ordinarily wouldn't see themselves sitting in the same room for a conference, so it is a plus for the University of Michigan to be bringing these array of individuals to sit in the same room to deliberate on the place of social media in society.”

The breadth of speakers is a huge draw, says Pal. “This sort of panel is very hard to find in a single location,” he notes. “The majority of the speakers are coming in person, which is a great opportunity for our students to engage them directly.”

 

Sign up to attend the symposium in-person or virtually.

This event is sponsored by Center for South Asian Studies, Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, African Studies Center, UMSI, Ethics, Society, and Computing, and Rackham

Learn more about the Social Media Influencers and the New Political Economy in South Asia and Africa symposium. 

Learn more about UMSI associate professor Joyojeet Pal.

Learn more about DAAS associate professor, Omolade Adunbi.

 

—Sarah Derouin, UMSI public relations specialist