Selfie Democracy: Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and the New Digital Politics

Title card

In this open seminar hosted by the University of Edinburgh’s CDCS Digital Social Science Cluster, Elizabeth Losh Professor of American Studies and English at William & Mary University and a Fulbright U.S. Scholar to Estonia in 2021-22 at Tallinn University, presents ‘Selfie Democracy: Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and the New Digital Politics.


Based on interviews with White House insiders, archival research, and a trove of digital data, this presentation provides a preview of the author’s forthcoming book about digital literacy in the White House. It reveals important insights about the smart phone practices of the most significant actors in recent American politics—Barack Obama and Donald Trump as presidents and Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden as presidential candidates—and how their approaches to domestic governance and crisis management related to their everyday technological choices as users of computational media. Such powerful political leaders often reinforce certain cultural assumptions about the power of the smartphone that perpetuate myths about connection, transparency, participation, and access. These myths are further amplified in rhetoric borrowed from Silicon Valley about how these technologies supposedly strengthen social bonds, enable exploration, encourage engagement, and overcome barriers. Obama might have been the anti-Trump and Trump the anti-Obama, but they both used mobile computing in ways that redefined the office of president. This talk exposes the unintended consequences of wireless technologies on political leadership and shows how seemingly benign mobile devices that hold out the promise of direct democracy can ultimately undermine representative forms of government, as the January 6th, 2021 storming of the US Capital by a selfie-taking mob livestreaming the insurrection demonstrates.

Speaker Biography

Elizabeth Losh is the Duane A. and Virginia S. Dittman Professor of American Studies and English at William & Mary and a Fulbright U.S. Scholar to Estonia in 2021-22 at Tallinn University. Previously she directed the Culture, Art, and Technology Program at the University of California, San Diego.  She is the is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009), The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014), Hashtag (Bloomsbury, 2019), and Selfie Democracy (MIT Press, 2022). She is the co-author with Jonathan Alexander of Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013; second edition, 2017; third edition, 2020). She also edited the collection MOOCs and Their Afterlives: Experiments in Scale and Access in Higher Education (University of Chicago, 2017) and co-edited Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities (Minnesota, 2018).

First broadcast on 4 May 2022

Chaired by Dr Karen Gregory





Header Image: Screenshot from the open lecture