Communication Professor Studies Social Media of Marginalized Communities

Associate Professor Jonathan Ong

Jonathan Corpus Ong joins the Department of Communication at UMass Amherst as Associate Professor of Global Digital Media. Trained in ethnographic methods, his approach to the study of communication is through long-term immersion and inquiry into how media matter in the everyday lives of ordinary people–particularly from communities we know little about.

His recent projects have taken him inside the temporary shelters and new homes of disaster-affected people in the Philippines as well as migrants fleeing conflict zones in Europe. A common focus in his work is the mundane routines and unexpected practices that media technologies are used for survival.

“Often when people talk about the power of media, the focus is either on their very harmful effects on society or how they are incredibly empowering, such that they create vocal, confident, more political subjects. I’m much more interested in what lies in the in-between space. I’m curious about how people turn to technological devices just to get by as they deal with pain or poverty and how they inch their way toward new possibilities,” Ong explains.

In his recent collaborative work, Ong writes about the value of escapist entertainment and comedy in the context of the refugee camp: “Together with my colleague Maria Rovisco, I’ve been developing the concept of conviviality and why this mode of relation is important to cultivate to help people cope in spaces of dwelling that otherwise feel hopeless or dull.”

His ethnography of people’s media practices following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines catalogues many surprises during his fieldwork. For instance, for the International Communication Gazette, Ong wrote about how digital media in disasters are not only used for fundraising or community organizing, but also for social practices of “disaster dating”. Ong explains, “In this religious and small-town community, the LGBTQ scene was quite small and repressed, but the disaster changed all that when liberal and open-minded foreign aid workers came in and transformed the social environment. I found it interesting to explore how local people sought out new romance and friendships via dating apps after having come close to how suddenly and completely all could be lost.”

Formerly Associate Professor at the University of Leicester in the UK and Visiting Professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, Ong is excited to teach at UMass Amherst: “I’m very encouraged by the strong tradition of community engagement here at UMass. I look forward to inviting and teaching students that effective communication especially in today’s divisive environment starts from being an active and empathetic listener.”

He says that his undergraduate classes Social Media in Everyday Life (COMM 397SE) and Media Solidarities in the Age of Global Crisis (COMM 492M) will involve students connecting to communities and training them in interviews, participant observation, and digital ethnography.

He’s particularly interested to initiate classroom discussions around online trolling, drawing also from his ongoing research project “Producers of Digital Disinformation” funded by the British Council. Ong says, “I’m very interested to share with my students some of the data I have gathered from interviews with paid political trolls in the Philippines. My interviews with these operators of fake Facebook accounts reveal the mental acrobatics they go through in justifying their actions and splitting who they are from what they see as just a sideline job. I’m curious how students might judge them, or maybe find some of their experiences to be sympathetic–as I occasionally did.”

As Co-Editor-in-Chief of the journal Television & New Media from January 2018, Ong is also very excited to engage with the graduate student community in opportunities for mentoring, dialogue, and academic publishing. He looks forward to developing new scholarly collaborations and participating in community life at UMass Amherst.