SESSION ONE – Beyond Networks? Changing Organisational Patterns and Social Movement Research
Elena Pavan, Trento University – Collective Action Networks. A Multidimensional Network Approach
In this paper, we conceive of digital media as embedded within social networks, and use this perspective to examine the role of online communications in collective action. We claim that the adoption of this perspective requires two shifts: first, rethinking the ontological separation between media and social networks of action that has, so far, characterized research in this domain; second, the adoption of flexible tools that enable us to account, simultaneously, for the multiplicity of relations underpinning collective efforts and the hybrid interplay between direct and technology-mediated interactions. After discussing the necessity and the implications of considering communication technologies as endogenous to social networks of collective action, we introduce multidimensional networks (MDNs) as a suitable perspective to advance the application of a relational approach to the study of collective action, thus meeting the challenges posed by the diffusion of interactive and networking digital media.
Anastasia Kavada, Westminster University – The Communicative Constitution of Collective Action: Insights from the Occupy Movement
Current discourse around digital media and protest movements considers the media as integral to the mechanisms of coordination and bonding through which people constitute themselves as collectives. However, theoretical frameworks that help us to understand this relationship are still under development. This paper is aimed as a contribution to this strand of theorising. It considers communication as constitutive of collective action and outlines seven propositions that help us think of collective action as a phenomenon emerging in communication. To achieve this, I draw from the social movement theory of Alberto Melucci, as well as from the CCO strand of organizational communication and particularly the work of Taylor and van Every and their conceptualization of text and conversation. The presentation demonstrates the explanatory value of this approach by illustrating the theoretical analysis with examples emerging from my research on the role of digital media in the Occupy movement in the USA and the UK.
Paolo Gerbaudo, Kings College London – From Networks to Crowds: understanding Subjectivities and Imaginaries in two generations of Digital Activism
To understand the transformation of contemporary digital activism it is necessary to take into the change in techno-political discourse that has taken place in the last years paralleling the technological evolution of the web towards the interactive and data-driven services of the so-called web 2.0. In this context it is possible to identify a change in the imaginary underpinning the practice of the digital activists of the 2011 protest wave of the movements of the squares, and the practices of anti-globalisation activists. While anti-globalisation activists were inspired by the notion of network, as an horizontal and swarm-like aggregation, as it manifested itself in mailing lists and political fora, contemporary digital activism sees the rise of the return of an imaginary of strong collectives, as those invoked by the notion of “crowd”, used to described internet users behavior in moments of enthusiasm on social media. I will argue that this shift in imaginary is a reflection on the one hand of the changed media ecology of the contemporary internet with its trend towards massification and integration of broadcasting logics, and on the other hand a reflection of the change in ideology, and the transition from neoanarchism to populism, as the chief political logic in contemporary movements. The notion of crowd reinserts in the debate the importance of solidarity as a fundamental resource for collective action, yet alike the notion of network it supersedes, also the idea of the crowd faces the issue of organizational sustainability, one that has hampered many digitally organized social movements the world over.
Ella McPherson, Cambridge University – Digital Human Rights Reporting by Civilian Witnesses and the Verification Problem
Last November, a YouTube video portraying a young boy rescuing an even younger girl from what seemed to be a hail of bullets went viral and hit the headlines. The video, titled “SYRIA! SYRIAN HERO BOY rescue girl in shootout,” demonstrated both the promise and pitfall of social media for the public generation of accounts and accountability. On the one hand, the spread of this video demonstrated how social media facilitates the participation of new communicators. On the other, the BBC eventually debunked this video as a fake, funded by the Norwegian Film Institute and Arts Council Norway and shot by a Norwegian director in Malta on a set used by blockbuster films Troy and Gladiator, using professional child actors. Social media’s affordance of misinformation is a problem not just for the information professionals trying to parse the wheat from the chaff, but also for the civilian witnesses trying to publicize their documentation. This is because well-publicized incidents of misinformation reinforce gatekeepers’ verification barrier between private information and public evidence.
In this presentation, I demonstrate how professional human rights fact-finders can be understood, after Bourdieu, as a field characterized by an information logic governed by verification. In contrast, civilian witnesses – particularly at the accidental rather than activist end of the spectrum – can be thought of as a non-field. The verification of social media information depends on digital information forensics, a rapidly evolving field combining new verification technologies with tried and tested gumshoe techniques. These verification strategies are part of the cultural capital of the human rights fact-finding field, distributed via the networks or social capital within the field. The flipside of these verification strategies are verification subsidies, which, after Gandy’s concept of information subsidies, are characteristics sources can supply with their information to make it easier for others to verify; these include a digital footprint to facilitate the source’s identification. Part of the usefulness of Gandy’ concept is that it is an economic metaphor that highlights the connection between the ability to provide information subsidies and the possession of other types of resources. The implication for civilian witnesses is that those with the least amount of symbolic capital in the form of digital footprints and the least amount of cultural capital in the form of understanding verification (in part because they are not part of a networked field) will have the most trouble in getting their social media information verified; it is often those with the least resources, however, who most need access to the public accountability mechanism of human rights. The presentation concludes with considering how the phenomenon of third party verification subsidies, both human and machine, might lower the verification barrier.
KEYNOTE SPEECH – Jennifer Earl, University of Arizona – When Information Isn’t Scarce: Political Communication as a New Frontier in Social Movement Studies
As digital technologies have become more pervasive tools in social movement organizing and participation, the sub-fields of social movement studies, political communication, and digital media studies have been forced to draw closer together as their objects of study have converged. Each sub-field has different disciplinary bases, with social movement scholars being heavily drawn from sociology and political science while political communication and digital media studies scholars tend to be heavily drawn from communication, political science, and/or interdisciplinary media and/or technology studies programs. In the absence of concerted efforts to bridge these differences in background and focus, these differences are likely to lead to both missed opportunities for theoretical growth as well as actual errors. In this talk, I attempt to briefly trace how these fields came to develop so independently in the first place and what kinds of knowledge gaps are likely to negatively affect each sub-field. For instance, the paper points to an over-eagerness on the part of some new media scholars to appreciate that dilemmas found in movements using digital media are not always new; some issues that appear new have actually been known issues affecting offline activism for some period. Likewise, research from political communication may underplay the importance of non-communicative elements of organizing and participation, such a coordination issues (or, being willing to simply label all interaction as communication, which dissolves the line between communication and sociology as fields of inquiry). Social movement scholars are not exempt, having much to learn from other fields about information access, processing, and persuasion. After identifying several existing missed opportunities, the paper outlines a broad training and research program that could improve our collective understanding of digital activism while also purposively knitting these three increasingly artificially independent fields together.
SESSION TWO – Transforming Political Imaginations: Web 2.0 and Political Repertoires
Stefania Milan, University of Amsterdam – We Come in Peace: Inside Hacktivists’ Imaginaries and Repertoires
Hacktivism, a portmanteau of “hacking” and “activism”, indicates the politically motivated use of technical expertise like coding. It addresses network infrastructure or exploits the infrastructure’s technical and ontological features for political or social change: in other words, activists seek to fix society through software and online action. Recent examples of hacktivism include Anonymous, an online community whose self-identified members engage in disruptive activities using electronic civil disobedience techniques in support of digital freedoms. Hacktivism is a highly contested concept, and different groups of people associate different objectives and tactics under its umbrella, not all of which are compatible. With this contention in mind, this paper explores hacktivists’ imaginaries, organizational forms and action repertoires. It seeks to understand how technology intervenes to shape the social, and what we can learn from contemporary hacktivists to understand the most recent tendencies in contemporary social movements.
Lina Dencik, Cardiff University – The Changing Repertoires of Worker Resistance in the Digital Age
This presentation starts from the premise that the labour movement, certainly as we have come to know it throughout the twentieth century, is going through a period of great crisis and transformation. In order to understand this crisis we need to look at how the labour movement has emerged and evolved, adapting to the changing nature of capitalism and the nation-state. In particular, the labour movement is at a crossroads in the twenty-first century, facing up to pressing questions regarding its relationship to the state and alliances with political parties as the means to permanently promote the interests of working people. Historically, the capitalist media has played an active role in this relationship, often as a means to destroy, curb or co-opt the advancements of any independent working class movement seeking to bring about forms of social life that threatened to end economic privilege and transform political power. However, the nature of capitalism and media is said to be changing, moving towards a digital economy, presenting both new challenges and opportunities for the labour movement. In this presentation, I will look particularly at the rise of low-wage service workers, the sector that has grown most significantly since the financial crisis of 2008, and some of their struggles to improve working conditions and to resist increasing corporate exploitation. Faced with the inadequacies of traditional mainstream business unionism in the current climate, we have seen workers’ movements emerge that speak to different forms of unionism, such as community unionism and social movement unionism, that seek to move worker resistance beyond the workplace, away from political parties or in partnership with business, and operate in solidarity with other groups and movements in order to articulate broader social justice agendas. Digital media and the changing protest culture of recent years could be seen to play a significant role here, both in terms of the tactics and organizational tools used by the labour movement, as well as the potential for (re)building a labour internationalism that is more relevant to the social, cultural, political and economic conditions of the twenty-first century. However, as I will argue in this presentation, such a transformation relies on an internal will for a significant overhaul of the structures of organized labour (and its relationship with state and business) and cannot come about through or via developments in media technologies. Rather, we see that the engagement by the labour movement with digital media and ‘new’ protest cultures without such internal will plays to short-term media stunts that lacks the political mass and imagination necessary to sustain long-term worker resistance. This becomes evermore pertinent in a context in which the risks and struggles that workers and labour activists face align increasingly with the causes and agendas pursued by other prominent groups and social movements, providing real opportunity for a reassessment of the purpose of unions and the nature of the labour movement in a digital age.
Adrienne Russell, Denver University – Journalism as Activism: Representing and Shaping Social Change in the Contemporary Media Landscape
As media activists become more adept at using and creating new communication tools, they are taking up some of the work of journalists and in the process gaining influence over both the way news is reported and the content and form of those reports. And as activists take up the practices of journalists, journalists are at times taking an engaged stance toward the stories they cover, looking to activist for information and for ideas on how to report the stories of the day. Drawing on her research of media activism related to the climate justice and internet freedom movements, Adrienne outlines recent changes in relations between journalism and activists and considers the broad question: How can we update our understanding of media power to account for this shift in the way contested issues are represented in the contemporary news media landscape?
Simona Levi, XNet – The Experience of X-Net and Digital Activism, changing repertoires of protest: be radical, ask for the possible.
This paper discusses what we’ve learnt from the Net and how we can extrapolate it to all spaces of struggle. Why the 15M movement (Indignados) is a native digital movement. Why it changed the goal and way of fighting for the social change. We believe that the struggle we have been participating in – for the defence of the Internet and sharing – has been crucial for arriving at the #15M movement. Crucial at two levels. Firstly for the maturity it has created, which cuts right across all layers of public opinion, both in terms of defending something that belongs to it and is in danger of being snatched away – the neutral Internet – , and secondly in terms of ethical ways of relating to others. It is clear that the Network of Networks is changing the history of humanity. It does more than just allow for rhizomic forms of counter information and self-organisation, and more than just leave economic and political powers bewildered by the end of the univocity of their messages – of their monologues – in the face of the real-time dissolution of the impunity of their decisions aimed at perpetrating power and their own interests. Rather, the people – through the Net and like the Net – are dialectically putting an end to the fragmentation of ideas of change and the endogamy of groups, setting up a new ethical system that recognises the merits and skills of each person and allows for their maturity and autonomy, and normalising forms of organisation that are based on decentralised power, the empowerment of the end user and the shared distribution of resources.
We argue that the Internet is not just a tool, it is an epoch in history. Technological progress changes the ways in which we organise, think about and see the world. The Internet is both a tool and a battleground. The Network of Networks is a distributed network, and this is the basis of its functioning and philosophy: relevant trust networks that are distributed and autonomous in relation to their specific activities, in which no node needs to know in detail what the others are doing in order to move forward and support each other. These nodes, which are separate but linked by bonds of trust, can support each other when the need arises, but as a rule they operate as sovereign, autonomous groups. Centralisation is neither possible nor desirable; federation is the option. A global association of selfish radical reformers. Even in its smallest form (two people), “democratic” organisation is not about attaining the impossible goal of always agreeing (dogma and centralist control). It’s about creating a space of ethical trust that allows some of us to look after certain aspects and develop our skills in them, while at the same time we can let go of controlling other aspects because we know that others will take care of them. This forces us to shed the prejudices that lead us to try and control the actions of others. On the basis of this philosophy we have built a new form of acting in the struggle field. We will show, for example, one of the results of our actions: in the last few days the ex-president of the FMI have been brought to jail, him and his fellow have to pay a caution of €800 million and they are now persecuted. The citizens did it via a citizen devise that Xnet built: 15MpaRato.
SESSION THREE – Web 2.0 and Political Participation in Cross-Cultural Perspective
Mirca Madianou, Goldsmiths University of London – #PeopleSurge: protest, politics and (lack of) solidarity in post-disaster Philippines
In my talk I will focus on a protest movement that emerged in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) that hit the Philippines in November 2013. People Surge, officially self-described as a ‘broad alliance of Typhoon Yolanda victims, organizations and individuals aimed to help those affected by the disaster’, was formed in January 2014 and has been campaigning locally and across social media for reparations and greater government accountability. Drawing on a 10-month ethnography of the disaster recovery in affected areas, my talk places the analysis of this particular protest within the wider context of uneven disaster recovery and politics. The paper contrasts the movement’s online campaigning to the relative lack of protest on the ground. Despite rare moments of public mobilization (such as the disaster anniversary rally) the paper observes certain disconnects between the movement’s online self-representation and its traction among local people. In my talk I will aim explain the reasons why this protest campaign did not generate a high degree of social solidarity among those it claims to represent. My analysis will draw on the history of protest movements in the Philippines, including the well-documented People Power events. Acknowledging that social solidarity and collective identity formation are not processes solely internal to movements, but rather embedded in the wider political field, in my talk I will identify factors such as the local political system, political culture as well as the context of patronage that characterize Philippine society and contribute to forms of silencing. At the same time I also argue that the movement’s own organizational structure and communication practices may have contributed to the weak display of solidarity on the ground. While People Surge used social media for external audiences, communications among the movement’s supporters were largely handled by intermediaries creating a vertical (hierarchical) – rather than horizontal – structure of participation. SMS, the main platform used for internal communications, is not conducive for deliberation or reflexivity which is vital for creating a shared commitment to a social movement.
By focusing on the factors that hinder participation and solidarity my talk aims to cast light on the role of communication platforms (and their affordances) and how they might contribute (among other factors) to the life of protest movements. Ethnography was essential for understanding the lack of participation and its causes; if I had only analyzed the movement’s campaign in social media and digital environments, I would have written an entirely different paper. In so doing the paper makes a parallel argument about the importance of ethnographic work in social movement research.
Bart Cammaerts, London School of Economics – Movement Spillovers through Technologies of Self-Mediation – The case of the anti-austerity movement.
In my presentation I will propose a conceptual framework to think and theorize processes of self-mediation by social movements relying on Foucault’s notion of technologies and techniques of the self. I will argue that the Stoic technologies of the self are a productive conceptual tool to address and analyse the ways in which activists and social movements have appropriated and use social media and web 2.0 platforms to constitute as well as imagine themselves as a movement. The circulation of movement discourses within movements but also beyond is inherently implicated in this. I will contend that practices of self lead to an ontology of a movement, but besides a set of practices we can also identify a metaphysical conception of self, implicating an aesthetic of existence. At the level of practices I will address disclosure, examination and remembrance as technologies of self-mediation in relation to web 2.0 and resistance. At the level of the metaphysical, I will relate to imagining as a final technology of self-mediation, which refers to the interpretation of dreams in Foucault’s model. The case I will focus on is the anti-austerity movement and a renewed politics of redistribution. I will conclude that the circulation and diffusion of anti-austerity frames and of the discourse of the politics redistribution is mostly dependent on practices of disclosure and remembrance, as well as the imagining of an alter-reality. However, technologies of the self not only enable renewal, agency and change which also implicates examination practices, they also instill compliance to the order of things, they limit the horizon of the possible. Regarding the latter the question becomes to which extent the neoliberal and capitalist hegemony can still be seen as a regime of truth that is never total, that can always be unsettled – i.e. We are pushed to ask ourselves the disturbing question whether the slogan ‘another world is possible’ is not a fallacy and a romantic illusion.
Gholam Khiabany, Goldsmiths University of London – The importance of ‘social’ in social media: contradictions and limits of digital activism in Iran
The phenomenon of Iranian digital activism has been recognised for over a decade by many commentators. Since the launch of first Iranian blog in 2001 there has been an overwhelming sense of surprise over the level of computer literacy in Iran, how and why there is a such vibrant cultural/digital scene in a country ruled by a repressive regime. This chapter will examine the ‘assemblage’ of politics and communications inside the Islamic Republic of Iran, with specific reference to the Stealthy Freedom Facebook page which gained national and international attention for posting images of Iranian women defying the state’s dress code. It will work through a series of paradoxes that haunt the Islamic Republic, but also pays particular attention to paradoxes of digital activism in Iran.
Dhiraj Murthy, Goldsmiths University of London – From the Grim Sleeper to Ferguson: are urban black people turning to Twitter to mobilize
Traditionally marginalized groups in the US such as young urban African-Americans may be turning to Twitter as they perceive the medium to be able to individually or collectively provide some level of voice. Given the response by urban African-Americans on Twitter to the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, studying urban social media use within this context is particularly relevant. This paper explores the historical roots and routes that led to the black community expressing their outrage at the time of Michael Brown’s shooting as well as well as after the acquittal of the white police officer, Darren Wilson, who fatally shot him. This paper uses the case of ‘The Grim Sleeper’, a mass serial killer active in south-central Los Angeles for decades to highlight how black lives have been marginalized institutionally in the US and that contemporary social media-based movements draw from the fact that African-Americans have historically had little voice in mainstream media. This pre-social media history is important to understanding the emergence of Twitter-based movements such as #blacklivesmatter, a hashtag that was used as a call to action after Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old, was shot by white police officer George Zimmerman. This paper makes the argument that focused outrage on Twitter not only helped bring the case of Ferguson to national attention, but has the potential to do so in other black social movements. Indeed, in the case of #blacklivesmatter, the hashtag was formed around Trayvon, but was redeployed during Ferguson.