I am a scholar of global communication working on journalism, civil society, and digital technologies. My research explores the multifaceted legacy of colonial power relations on contemporary media representations, journalistic practices, associational life, and digital networks. The first stream of my research agenda concentrates on media stereotyping and representations of Africa in global news. The other explores digital technologies and advocacy in a global context, particularly focusing on Big Tech’s initiatives to increase global connectivity. Disciplinarily, my scholarship sits at the intersection of global communication, journalism studies, critical/cultural studies, African studies, postcolonial/decolonial theories, and critical tech studies. My work has notably been published in the Journal of Communication; Boston Review; Public Books; Media, Culture, Society; Journalism Studies; and the International Journal of Communication.
Media Stereotyping and Representations of Africa in Global News
How does the global news industry represent Africa? Over the past 30 years, scholars across the humanities and social sciences have criticized the propensity of Western news media to marginalize Africa and provide a single stereotypical story of the continent. My research on the topic sheds new light on this long-standing issue. I combine the critical analysis of media texts (articles, op-eds, headlines, pictures and captions etc.) with that of media production through more than 50 interviews conducted over a decade with journalists, editors, correspondents, photographers and bloggers at the heart of the production of Africa’s media image.
My findings testify to the contemporary endurance of dehumanizing and racist representations tied to colonial and racialized representations of Africa as the “dark continent”, and I identify specific production factors that drive this phenomenon. My findings also demonstrate a significant uptake for a more positive, yet still racialized, discourse about Africa (“Rising, Hopeful, New”). I show that this afro-optimist trend is driven by local African audiences and bloggers in the diaspora using social media to challenge negative stereotypes (“A Hotbed of Digital Empowerment”?). I also make the case that this new wave of representations is the byproduct of changes in the structures and commercial incentives of international news, and the practices and professional culture of foreign correspondents. For instance, in “Postcolonial Reflexivity in the News Industry,” I find that many foreign correspondents recognize the negative contributions of the news industry to representational Othering and attempt to develop strategies to avoid reproducing damaging stereotypes – with varying degrees of success.
These findings contribute to rethinking long-held assumptions about Africa’s media image, advance current debates about media stereotyping and the links between news content and production, and inform discussions in the industry on improving news coverage of Africa. As such, they matter for media and communication scholars (particularly the sub-fields of global communication, journalism, and critical/cultural studies); for African studies scholars (across a broad disciplinary spectrum including international relations, anthropology, literature, linguistics, and history); and for journalists and news organizations.
I have published on various aspects of this research, including three single-authored articles (Journal of Communication; Journalism Studies; Visual Communication); two co-authored articles (International Journal of Communication; Communication, Culture, Critique); an entry in the Oxford University Encyclopedia of Journalism Studies; a book chapter in the edited book Africa’s Media Image, and an invited commentary in African Journalism Studies. You can find out more about my publications here. If you’d like a copy of those papers, drop me an email at tnothias(at)stanford(dot)edu.
I am currently developing this research stream through several projects, including:
- A co-authored article based on findings from a British Academy funded research project on global news coverage of US, Chinese, and French involvements in Africa and the geopolitics of representation;
- The development of an online tool (the “Africa Stereotype Scanner”) allowing journalists to check their writing for implicit biases by automatically detecting lexical fields, expressions, and words that contribute to the most common stereotypes about Africa.
Digital Technologies and Advocacy
Digital technologies are expanding globally and pervading nearly all aspects of our social fabric. For the past five years, I have been working on various projects that explore the global expansion of these technologies, how these technologies transform existing forms of community engagement, and how digital rights activists respond to their deployment. Throughout, I argue that we cannot understand Big Tech’s evolution and growing societal influence without examining specifically its expansion in the Global South.
In an article published in Media, Culture, and Society, I explore the history of Facebook’s most notorious and controversial initiative to increase digital connectivity across the Global South, Free Basics. Public and scholarly attention focused on its ban in India following nationwide protests about net neutrality. In Africa, however, Free Basics expanded widely and without much public scrutiny. My paper traces the quiet expansion of the program to 32 African countries. To do so, I draw on a qualitative review of various sources (corporate promotional material, industry conference talks, industry reports, tech press articles, and expert blogs) and an innovative VPN-based method to independently assess the availability of the program across Africa. The paper identifies two interrelated phenomena behind this expansion: (1) Facebook’s evolving communication strategy, including a greater engagement with civil society organizations, and (2) the focus of digital rights activists in Africa on other issues like Internet shutdowns, government surveillance, and the lack of data privacy frameworks.
Over the years, I developed several collaborative projects to advance scholarly and public engagement with the expansion of digital technologies, particularly across the African continent. These included editing a special series of blog posts on “Digital Media in Africa” for the influential blog Africa is a Country; co-authoring a piece on Ugandan activist Stella Nyanzi and how her activism blends digital technologies with older, anti-colonial social protest strategies; and co-producing an open-access collection of 20 essays (“Decoding Digital Democracy in Africa” ) written by leading scholars and civil society voices on a range of tech policy debates, from internet shutdowns and AI regulation to social media mobilization, disinformation, and government surveillance.
I am currently working on several publications related to this stream:
- In “Digital (de)colonialism: A History of the Global Movement for Tech Accountability,” I propose an intellectual history of the movement to decolonize digital technologies. As part of the calls for greater accountability of the tech sector, a growing community of scholars and civil society leaders are organizing against the harms of ‘digital colonialism’. My draft offers a genealogy and an analytic framework for understanding the concept. I explore the origins and driving forces behind the idea of digital colonialism, and I argue that they reveal the porous boundaries between scholarly and activist communities in global knowledge production.
- I am co-authoring a book chapter on facial recognition technologies across several African countries and community advocacy in response to its deployment. The chapter is part of a multidisciplinary book I am co-editing, AI+Assembly. The book brings together scholars from computer science, law, sociology, history, political science, communication, and information science to reflect on the ways technologies powered by artificial intelligence matter for freedom of assembly and collective action worldwide.
- In “Zero-rating and Media Pluralism”,I explore how Facebook’s zero-rating schemes matter for media pluralism. While most of the world’s population depends on zero-rating for access to the Internet, there is very little empirical work on how this type of access matters for political and civic participation. This article in progress uses an innovative screen-recording method to provide a comparative analysis of the news services offered on Facebook’s Free Basics in Burundi, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Senegal.