On media and movements: a relational approach

Donatella della Porta, Scuola Normale Superiore

This keynote speech will discuss a theoretical approach to media and movements that focuses on relations, as a way to overcome the dichotomy between agency and structure. Eventful protests do not only exploit media opportunities but dynamically transform them, working as critical juncture. From the empirical point of view, illustrations will come from a cross-time comparison of the global justice movements in the rampant phase of neoliberalism and the anti-austerity protests in late neoliberalism.

Rediscovering the Political in Media Activism

Natalie Fenton, Goldsmiths University of London

Discussions of Media Activism often begin with technology and all too frequently it is with technology that they also end. And somewhere along the way we lose sight of social and political critique. Putting all our hopes in technology as our political saviour will never deliver social and political change of the magnitude required to deal with the global problems of inequality, poverty and ecological crisis. The costs then, of interpreting the world through the prism of technology are enormous. Far from answering the key questions of our time – how can we have a sustainable planet; how can we eradicate poverty and inequality; how we can we live together better and more peacefully? We remain stuck asking the questions that are confined to network niceties. This paper urges researchers in the field to rediscover the political in our work in order to better understand what political transformation might mean. I argue that social, political and economic context is key to appreciate the enormous constraints on the possibilities of being political to effect progressive social change; that organizational factors are vital to comprehend the efforts required to build and sustain a counter-politics; just as individual motivations and political passions are crucial if we are to understand the relationship of social life to political consciousness. All impinge directly on our understandings of what equality is or could be, on how liberty can be claimed and practiced and how solidarity is experienced. If we wish to research arenas of the political then we must open our arms and our minds a little wider to embrace and analyse the actual politics such that we can start to deal with the political problems and start to consider what the conditions of possibility for radical political solutions might be.

PANEL ONE – Political Imaginations in Research on Media/Movements Interactions

Political Cultures and The Imaginary Constitution of Media Technologies in Contemporary Social Movements

Veronica Barassi, Goldsmiths University of London and Alice Mattoni, Scuola Normale Superiore, Florence

In this paper we re-examine the data gathered over years of research on movements/media interactions in four European countries – Italy, Spain, Greece and the UK – to build a theoretical reflection on the multifaceted relationship between practices of imagination, political cultures and media technologies. It has been argued that ‘imagination’ is a key dimension of the lived experience of resistance. In the analysis of social movements the concept of imagination has been detached from an idea of fantasy and has been conceptualised as a social activity: something that social movement actors do when they construct alternative visions of society whilst establishing a feeling of commonality and belonging (Castoriadis, 1998; Graeber, 2006; Khasnabish, 2008; Anderson, 1991). In this paper we question how we can explore the concept of imagination in relation to political cultures and media technologies by looking at how these features tightly interconnect in the context of movements/media interactions. In fact the way in which social movements imagine alternative societies is highly determined by their political cultures. At the same time, the way in which social movements make sense of their media interactions is influenced and defined by their political cultures and media imaginaries (Mattoni, 2012; Barassi, 2015). We believe that understanding the complex relationship between these three dimensions is of fundamental importance. In fact, it is only by understanding the deep interconnection between practices of imaginations, political cultures and media technologies, we argue, that media and social movements scholars can place the question of the ‘political’ back at the top of the research agenda and move away from the media-centrism that has defined the field. We believe that this approach can enable scholars to shed light on the difference between progressive and reactionary media activist projects whilst developing a more culturally and context informed approach in the study of movements/media interactions.

Unleashing the radical technological imagination: the significance of political and digital cultures within anti-austerity struggles in Spain, Italy and Greece

Emiliano Treré, Scuola Normale Superiore

In the last few years, anti-austerity mobilizations in Europe have attracted a lot attention in the academia, spawning debates on the conceptual and practical challenges that these new movements pose (Flesher Fominaya & Cox, 2013), and also about the roles of communication technologies within them (della Porta & Mattoni, 2014). The role of digital media within European anti-austerity protest has also been addressed, but it has often suffered from a lack of contextual depth (Fenton, 2016) that has largely disregarded the relevance of political cultures and their dialectical relations with the diverse digital cultures that have produced significant differences in the types of communicative struggles developed in each country. In this article, relying on a corpus of 60 in-depth interviews with activists and media professionals in Spain, Italy and Greece, I explore the historical differences in the unfolding of anti-austerity protests in the three countries, and link these aspects to the substantial distinctions in the nature of the social movements emerged in each national context. Additionally, I connect these social and political peculiarities to the different digital cultures that have characterized each country, showing the different types of communicative activism that have flourished, and the different political outcomes that have resulted. Only when a fertile radical imagination (Haiven & Khasnabish, 2014) around media technologies arose, it is shown, the potential of media technologies for social change was fully unleashed.

The Radical Imagination and the Ecology of Movements

Alex Khasnabish, Mount Saint Vincent University

Social movements are not only vehicles for resistance and refusal but, at their most radical, spaces of experimentation with other ways of reproducing life in common. This generative capacity to prefigure alternative realities is one of the most significant and underappreciated dynamics of radical social action. Indeed, the radical imagination – the collective capacity to envision the world as it might be otherwise – is a vital force animating robust and resilient movements for social change. But the radical imagination is not a thing, it is something that people do and do together and it is visible only as it sparks between people in the context of critical, dialogic encounters. If researchers want to understand the radical imagination and the way it works within movements we cannot simply reconcile ourselves with being observers of it, we have to become agents in its convocation. In this paper I explore the radical imagination within the ecology of contemporary movements for radical social change in the Anglophone North Atlantic. Drawing on research focusing on the transnational resonance of Zapatismo and the Radical Imagination Project, a social movement research project based in Halifax, Canada, I seek to draw out the best lessons offered by academic-activist scholarship and theorizing about the relationship between the radical imagination, movement success and failure, and the possibilities and perils marking political ecologies in the north of the Americas today.

Contrasting radical democratic imaginaries and (poor) practices of participation in the experience of the M5S

Lorenzo Mosca, Scuola Normale Superiore

Since its foundation, the identity of the M5S has been greatly constructed around the idea of direct democracy. As a post-bureaucratic organization, the M5S greatly relies on ICTs understood as an egalitarian and open environment apt to overcome the limitations of representative democracy. Throughout its history, the internet has been used by the party as an instrument for involving members in internal decision-making through online voting, for organizing activists (through the Meetup platform), for communicating with voters and sympathizers and for creating and diffusing a cyber-utopian narrative presenting the web as the very solution for contemporary ‘corrupted’ democracy. Despite claiming the democratic affordances of the internet as a leaderless and horizontal medium, in its everyday practice the M5S has clearly displayed how this cyber-utopian imagination translates into very poor democratic practices. Grillo’s party allows individual activists to vote online on specific options that are defined ex-ante by the managers of the online platform, generally ratifying the decisions of the political leaders. No places of debate and contrast between conflicting views exist. Participation of members is limited to specific issues while broader discussions are simply avoided as distracting from a “war” against the old party and media system. With reference to the different phases in the evolution of the movement (from a blog of like-minded people to one of most important Italian parties) I will discuss how the democratic virtues of the internet (magnified by leaders speeches) clash with decision-making procedures that are strongly controlled by the top of the party.

PANEL TWO – Right-Wing Political Cultures, Media/Movements Interactions and the Challenge for Academic Research

The agenda-building practices of social movement organizations of the extreme right: mobilization strategy, issue attention and news media coverage

Pietro Castelli, Scuola Normale Superiore

Samuel Bouron, Université Paris Dauphine

What are the most successful issues and mobilization strategies used by extreme right social movements to attract the attention of the mass media? Social movements shape politics, but the extent to which protest events influence public agendas is still unclear. This very exploratory paper presents the first results from an ongoing study on the mobilization strategies and agenda-setting potential of social movement organizations of the extreme right in Italy and France. Looking at the newsworthiness of the issues they focus upon and the repertoires of action they employ to influence public debates and increase their own visibility in the mass media, we investigate the relationship between the ideal agenda that these actors promote on their online archives, and the news coverage of these groups’ activities on national quality newspapers. In so doing, we identify a number of conditions under which the protest agenda of the extreme right achieves media visibility, taking into account the opportunities provided by the outbreak of the economic crisis in Europe. By reconstructing the mobilization history of the two movements throughout Europe’s democratic and economic crisis, the paper sheds a light on the increasing attractiveness of groupuscular right-wing movements in the mass media. The descriptive results illustrate that the agenda power of far right movements is related to the type of issue over which these actors mobilize, the resonance of these issues in broader national debates, and the repertoires of protest actions employed. In this sense the results indicate that extreme right actors are well aware of the logics of news value and newsworthiness, suggesting that the outsized exposure of extreme right social movements in the mass media is not only related to the resonance of their issue priorities with media agendas, but also to the strategic construction of protest agendas to address specific issue fields and grievances.

Extreme Right Organizations and On-line Politics in Europe and the USA

Manuela Caiani, Scuola Normale Superiore

The Internet is generally regarded as an important vehicle for the diffusion of democratic principles, global thinking and equality. However it also embodies a ‚dark side‘ which is not widely understood. Focusing on extreme-right organisations in six Western Democracies (Italy, Spain, France, Great Britain, Germany and the USA), this presentation addresses the political use of the Internet by extremist groups and its potential impact on their identity formation, organizational contacts (at the national as well as international level), and mobilization. Whereas these phenomena are well-known and studied concerning left-wing social movements, so far scarce scientific attention has been devoted to the extreme right and the new ICTs. Through a social network analysis of 650 extreme right organizations, the configuration of the extreme right communities (online) is investigated and their potential for mobilization discussed. In a second part, through a formalized web content analysis of 250 organizational web sites, I will show that different forms of political activism on the Web by extreme right wing groups are indeed on the rise, with the use of the Internet for diffusing propaganda, political information, promoting cyber community of debate, recruit new members, organizing political mobilisation, and cross-borders contacts. The analysis includes different types of extreme right organizations, from political parties to Neo-nazi and youth skinhead groups. The presentation also shows that different types of groups (e.g. political parties vs. subcultural skinhead groups) use the Internet for different functions and purposes. In addition it relies to the available political opportunities and cultural traditions of the respective countries in accounting for differences in the degree and forms of online right wing political activism emerged.

The Birth of a Terrifying State: ISIS and the Technologies of Shock and Awe

Gholam Khiabany, Goldsmiths University of London

Much of the recent literature about the perceived role of technologies in the uprisings in the Middle East was laden with optimism and the inevitability of change and progress. The technologies, that their absence or limited diffusion in the global south is regarded as a significant index of their underdevelopment, were praised for their revolutionary and transforming powers.  The internet and the electronic media were seen as powerful weapons for mobilisation of unarmed citizens against the repressive states with real arms. Less emphasis was placed on the way that imperialist forces, not to mention dictatorships, have used and are continuing to use technologies, not for progress but for blocking it; not for civilised purposes but for barbarian intentions; not to empower and enhance people’s self-reliance but instead their dependency: and not to quash their fear but putting the fear of god in them. The rise of the Islamic State and their effective use of social media has dented neoliberal fascination with alternative uses of new technologies and has shown that there is nothing inevitable about the use of these tools, that they are the direct outcome of broader social and economic policy and as such are subject to alteration and direction.  This paper locates the rise of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and its media/military strategy in the context of the imperialist interventions and the defeat of the Arab uprisings. It suggests that the rise of ISIS is the clearest indication of the miserable failure of the hugely expensive “war on terror”. However, the fascination with ISIS media strategy and the tightening of “security” at home shows that the policy of interventions abroad and surveillance and control in the domestic front will continue.

In Malmö, Switzerland. Recited truths and racist assemblages in the hybrid media system.

Gavan Titley, Maynooth University

This paper examines the intersection of informational abundance and racializing logics in the production of what Michel De Certeau called ‘recited truths’ about targets of racist communications in and across social media. The description for this panel session argues that there is comparatively little research on ‘right-wing political movements, their ideologies and their imaginations as they relate to different types of media technologies’. While this is broadly correct, it is worth noting that the issue is also that much research is thematically and methodologically determined by a number of dominant frameworks – the problem of ‘hate speech’, putative processes of radicalization, and the discursive and mediatic strategies of radical-right and right-populist electoral parties – that pay little attention to networking dynamics and their political generativity. The importance of Facebook as a mobilizing and indeed instigating medium for radical street movements has diversified the field to some extent. The aim of this paper, however, is to argue that we need to focus as much on movement as circulation – of images, memes, astro-turfed informational sources, narratives of defining civilizational events, fragments of ‘Islamic scholarship’, news evidence of ‘what they do’ – as movements of mobilization to understand the construction and elaboration of contemporary transnational racial imaginaries in social media spaces. Drawing on examples from Finland and Ireland, it argues that Facebook groups generate spaces of assemblage that not only provide ephemeral nodal points for exchange between movements, but are also generating bricolant and versatile racist repertoires that can only take shape through these media spaces. However, and as the story of “in Malmö, Switzerland” will illustrate, these repertoires circulate within a hybrid media system in ways that are consequential for public cultures beyond the dark contestations of far-right movements.

PANEL THREE Media/Movement Interactions in Left-Wing Politics and the Importance of Cross-Cultural Comparison

Indonesias transition culture: the view from Whatsapp digital democracy groups

John Postill, RMIT University

Indonesia’s democratic transition has been keenly debated by scholars since the fall of Suharto in 1998. In one camp, liberal scholars steeped in theories of transition stress change, arguing that it was a ‘people power’ movement that brought about the end of Suharto’s autocratic New Order and the birth of a thriving civil society. Thus Mietzner (2013) contends that a growing number of activists-turned-politicians have managed to lead ‘ground-breaking’ legislative reforms in some areas. In the other camp, scholars with a political economy orientation emphasise continuity, suggesting that the much touted reformasi era amounts to little more than a ‘reorganisation of patrimonialism’ among Indonesia’s oligarchs (Fukuoka 2014). In this paper I wish to add two new elements missing from the debate. First, I import from Spain into the Indonesian context the notion of ‘transition culture’ (cultura de la transición). This term, coined by Guillem Martinez, refers to the consensual culture that followed the end of the Franco regime based on national unity, political stability and social cohesion. This culture, which relied on a co-opted leftist cultural sector, pre-determined the limits of acceptable political discourse, with ‘market democracy’ as the only possible imaginable system. Has Indonesia developed its own self-reproducing transition culture (budaya reformasi) in the post-Suharto age? If so, what are the limits of its acceptable discourse and praxis? Second, I bring into the discussion the rapid digitisation of Indonesia’s social and political life post-1998. This process has positioned tech-minded activists, or ‘freedom technologists’ (Postill 2014), in the vanguard of civil society demands for a more transparent, efficient and accountable ‘digital democracy’ (demokrasi digital). Drawing from anthropological research among two Whatsapp groups of digital democracy activists, I ask to what extent their everyday discourse and praxis reproduces Indonesia’s entrenched transition culture, or whether it may be prefiguring the coming of a ‘second transition’. This was a hope embodied by the non-elite candidate, Joko Widodo, during his successful 2014 presidential campaign, in which freedom technologists played a key role.

Commoning and reaching out: political cultures and media logics in the Occupy movement

Anastasia Kavada, University of Westminster

Social movements are heterogeneous actors, serving as spaces of encounter between activists with diverse political cultures who converge around a common cause. Activists may have different understandings of strategy and tactics, of how the movement should effect social change and alter power relations. Such cultures are directly related with the movement’s communication practices and the logics that underlie them. Drawing from 75 interviews with Occupy activists based in New York, Boston, Seattle and London, this study identified two types of political cultures and media logics within the Occupy movement: a logic of commoning and a logic of reaching out. The political culture of commoning emphasizes prefiguration, the creation alternative spaces and codes, and the principles of the commons, such as transparency, openness, respect for individual contributions, and common ownership of resources. When it comes to communication processes, the logic of commoning was associated with the practices of consensus decision-making in the assemblies, as well as the emphasis on free software applications and the development of alternative media platforms. The culture of reaching out privileged efforts of quantitative mobilisation and the swaying of public opinion to effect change. It was thus linked with practices of outreach on commercial social media platforms, as well as a serious engagement with the mainstream media. Although these two political cultures and their associated communication logics were often the source of tensions within the movement, they should not be considered as inherently contradictory. Rather, it is their successful combination that may prove most effective in the struggle for social and political change.

Jeremy Corbyn, social movements and the media

Des Freeman, Goldsmiths University of London

The refusal by Jeremy Corbyn, the new left-wing leader of the British Labour Party, to adopt a business-as-usual attitude towards the media is deliberate. It is not just New Labour policies but also New Labour’s relationship with the media that have been buried by Corbyn’s victory. Unlike Tony Blair, Corbyn has decided that he has little to gain from cooperating with a media culture that, by and large, will marginalise, misrepresent or simply mock what he says. Indeed, he highlighted the abuse of media power in his very first speech as Labour leader where he warned journalists not to ‘attack people who didn’t ask to be put in the limelight’. Instead, he is determined to shape his own message and to use those channels – notably social media – that allow him to communicate directly with the grass-roots supporters who voted for him.

In his leadership campaign, Corbyn himself was far from silent. He took his anti-war and anti-austerity message up and down the country, hoping that his presence in front of tens of thousands of people at public meetings would generate the kind of buzz – online and offline – that is worth more than an interview with mainstream media outlets that are more likely to focus on the ‘divisiveness’ of his ‘radical’ programme or on internal Labour Party discussions. My paper will examine the relationship between Corbyn, the social movements from which he drew (and continues to draw) his support and an overwhelmingly negative media system.

Digital feminism, identity and political cultures: from local struggles to transnational activist networks

Aristea Fotopoulou, University of Brighton

Feminist activism, and particularly leftist feminism, is guided by strong visions of social change in which digital and network communications feature prominently. But what does it mean when network technologies and network logics become incorporated in the everyday lives and spaces of activists, as a default mode of interaction? Are these technologies just tools used concurrently with media forms that were dominant prior to web 2.0, e.g. protest marches, mailing lists and zines? Or do they reconfigure feminist politics in more fundamental ways? In this paper, these questions are approached by paying special attention on the embodied, lived and situated aspects of feminist activism in digital media, and particularly the cultural/historical contexts and social visions shaping the media practices and interactions of activist cultures. I draw on two cases: primarily on womens’s organisations who mobilise against austerity and violence against women in the UK. Secondly, I examine transnational feminist networks around reproductive rights and how they strive to create an online identity. It is suggested that although media technologies provide opportunities for direct engagement with civic life, they also delineate a space where certain gendered bodies, such as those of older women, seem to experience new forms of precariousness and marginalisation. The discourses of autonomy and choice that are communicated particularly with celebrity activism seem to be a key challenge to identity formation for transnational digital activism. These different feminist cultures, and the ways they use media technologies to interact, manifest the complexities of contemporary feminist politics, and digital culture as a space of tensions and contradictions today.