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Researching Protest and Wildfires on Digital Media in California

27 September 2023

5 mins

The Fulbright Programme was established by Senator J. William Fulbright in 1946. Its purpose is to facilitate cultural diplomacy and intercultural learning. It is a means for US citizens (students, academics, artists, and professionals) to travel to different parts of the world acting as knowledge and cultural ambassadors and in return for citizens of other countries to visit the USA in the spirit of reciprocal exchange. Since it began, 62 Fulbright alumni have won Nobel prizes and 88 have won Pulitzer Prizes. The US-UK Fulbright Commission was established in 1948.

I was a recipient of the 2022-23 Fulbright Scholar ‘All Disciplines’ Award from the US-UK Fulbright Commission which took me to the USA to conduct research whilst based at a US university. I spent six months at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles at the renowned Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. Whilst there, I conducted research on environmental activism and how images are used on social media to raise awareness and visibility of climate change in the case of the recent Californian wildfires

The Fulbright Commission emphasises the importance of dialogue and exchange. To this end, I gave a talk at USC Annenberg based on my research and taught undergraduate students a class on citizen diplomacy and environmentalism at the Centre for Public Diplomacy. I was even invited to give a talk to students at UCLA on my experience of growing up in Northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles’ and discuss the role of the USA in supporting the peace process and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

I really enjoyed listening to the Monday lunchtime talks at USC Annenberg by faculty such as Prof. Manuel Castells discussing AI as well as regular visitors presenting their research. I was lucky to meet some wonderful colleagues at USC with whom I enjoyed stimulating conversations and discussed potential collaborations. It was a great pleasure to attend a research showcase by USC PhD students and learn about their fascinating projects including the use of drones in mapping technologies and the fighting of misinformation on social media.

But it wasn’t all work! The Fulbright Commission strongly encourages ‘Fulbrighters’ to immerse themselves in local culture and experience life in their host country.

I travelled extensively whilst in the USA including Hawaii, Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon and was lucky enough to see many parts of California including Palm Springs, Santa Barbara, Berkeley, Russian River, Lake Tahoe, wine country, Yosemite national park, and drove along the legendary Pacific Coast Highway. When travelling around California I was able to see first-hand the devastation wrought by the wildfires as formerly lush-forested landscapes are now bare or marked by charred tree stumps stretching for miles

I also managed to experience as much of LA as possible travelling to lesser-known neighbourhoods such as Watts, Hermosa Beach and Highland Park. But it is important to do the clichéd touristy activities too. I climbed the Hollywood sign, hiked to Griffith Park Observatory, mooched along Rodeo Drive, roller skated at Venice beach, went to West

Hollywood gay pride, attended open mic at the famed Comedy Club, and spent a fun 16 hour day at Disneyland doing 21 rides! My partner spent his time making pilgrimage to various filming locations of his beloved ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ TV show from the 1990s.

I ate some incredible food including an Ube (purple yam, popular in Philippines) cheesecake at a downtown market and an incredible seafood platter at Paradise Cove in Malibu while my feet were in the white sands. When my sisters visited, we managed to blag our way into the notoriously exclusive Chateau Marmont for afternoon cocktails and celebrity spotting (the trick is to strut in like you own the place). LA has some excellent cultural experiences including the fantastic Korean spas which do the best kimchi noodles as well as the fashion district in downtown LA which has excellent budget shopping and even has a piñata district where I bought a huge Wednesday Addams for a friend’s birthday. I probably ate tacos twice a week whilst in LA trying out the excellent food trucks dotted across the city. One of my favourite experiences was going to a ‘luche libre’ Mexican wrestling event in the beautiful Mayan theatre in downtown LA where masked wrestlers melded theatrical entertainment and athleticism with brilliant and hilarious results. It is kind of like pantomime in the UK but with more spandex and chairs being hit on people’s heads.

LA does have its issues though. My experience was informed by the fact that I didn’t have a car (except when I hired one for trips outside the city). My ‘Angelo’ friends were surprised, and a little horrified, by my commitment to public transport and walking; this is a city where even banks and pharmacies have drive-throughs. The metro in LA is not for the faint-hearted and runs infrequently (often 20 mins between trains!) to select parts of the city. The metro is seen as such a problem, as it brings unhoused populations across the city, that some especially affluent areas like Beverly Hills actively, and successfully, lobby to not have a metro station on their doorstep. This is the opposite of cities like London where tube travel is fundamental to the vitality of the city. But there is some hope here. LA has won the bid to host the 2028 Olympic Games on a campaign which focused on improving transport infrastructure rather than building new stadia so there is an opportunity to change the culture around public transport especially for a city and state which likes to herald its green credentials. I look forward to returning to LA for the Olympics in 2028 to catch up with friends and see how the city has changed. Who knows, maybe Mexican wrestling will be an Olympic sport by then!

Aidan McGarry

Professor of International Politics

Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance

Loughborough University, London

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