Seminar Two

Visibilities: Social Protest, ‘The Media’, and the Shaping of Public Opinion

Scuola Normale Superiore, Istituto di Scienze Umane, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence 3rd and 4th of September, 2015



The first seminar of our series explored how Web 2.0 technologies are re-shaping Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 19.37.51protest cultures as well as movements’ organisations and networking dynamics. In this second seminar we turned our attention to the complex relationship between social conflict, mainstream media and the issue of visibility. The rapid extension in use of Web 2.0 technologies has transformed the way in which social movements mobilise and organise, yet critical questions need to be addressed on the extent to which social movements are able to achieve visibility for their political messages and on the continuing role mainstream media play in the shaping of public opinion.

This seminar engaged with these questions by looking at different albeit interconnected dimensions a) mediated tactics and media appropriation b)alternative media and other platforms c) mainstream media and the shaping of public opinion.  Our challenge this time was to explore the often neglected and multidimensional relationship between different forms of media (alternative media, social media, and mainstream media etc.) when we understand social movements mediated experiences.

Sitting in a beautiful room of Palazzo Strozzi in the centre of Florence, our invited speakers responded perfectly to the challenge. Their talks focused on a variety of different issues that span from consumer activism (Eleftheria Lekakis) ; video activism (Tina Askanius); feminist media (Carlotta Cossutta); tear gases and ‘other media’ (Anna Feigenbaum); serial activists (Dan Mercea); digital vigilantes (Daniel Trottier); digital traumas (Emiliano Trere); old forms of alternative media (Eva Giraud); memory and movements (Lorenzo Zamponi); media regimes of space and time (Anne Kaun); mainstream media narratives in shaping anti austerity politics (Pieter Verdegem) and the political project of whistle blowers (Christian Christensen). Presenters addressed all these different and interconnected issues by focusing on cultural and context specific examples that span from Latvia to Mexico, from Belgium to Greece.

All the different talks seem to converge when confronted with the question of visibility. All of them highlighted the difficulties social movements face today, at an historical time when new information technologies foster new communication hierarchies, and when the power of neoliberal-mainstream media remains intact.

Our keynote Des Freedman enabled us to reflect on this power, and to consider how social movements can challenge it. He did so by discussing the importance of media reform. Within social movements studies, policy activism has often been overlooked. According to him, this is not the product of a random mistake but rather a clear political choice, which finds its roots in the political tension between radicals and reformists, and in the conceptual understanding that reformism cannot be disentangled from the liberal tradition. However, quoting from Rosa Luxemburg, Prof Freedman has shown that reformism is essential if we want to bring about social change. It has been historically at the very heart of different struggle for social justice, and has brought about key social transformations. In fact he asked: Wasn’t the right to women’s vote a reform?

By exploring the limitations of much of contemporary social movements’ research, the keynote  highlighted not only the importance of addressing the question of media reform when we think about media activism, but it also suggested that we can and should think about reform in a more radical way, and that policy activism should be shaped by radical strategies.

As it happened in the previous seminar, we had a lot of time to talk, to confront ourselves, and to develop a shared strategy for the future. We are committed to the ‘slow-academia’ mission. This means that in contrast to the experience of international conferences, which impose a 10-minute limit on paper presentations, in the SoME seminars all speakers have 25 minutes to discuss their research and theoretical frameworks.

At the end of the second day we were left with some important lines of inquiry for future research.

Visibilities and New Communication Hierarchies 

One key understanding that emerged during the seminar was the shared acknowledgement that the rapid extension of web 2.0 technologies amongst political activists is triggering new challenges in terms of the communication hierarchies that they need to confront themselves with. Carlotta Cossutta, an activist from the Ambrosia Collective, came to explore precisely these difficulties by discussing how the logic of immediacy fostered by many platforms is creating a new communication hierarchy of the constant producer and how this is not conductive to democratic processes. Similarly, Emiliano Trere mentioned the problem of ‘digital noise’ when looking at social movements’ uses of social media technologies in Mexico and Dan Marcea talked about a new ‘communicative elite’ covering protest events.

If we consider the many different communicative hierarchies that are emerging in the current information ecologies, we would realise that much social movement research is at present lacking data on their social complexities, and on how these communicative hierarchies are re-shaping activists understanding of their mediated practices.

Historical Narratives and the Issue of Visibility 

In his presentation on mnemonic projects and mainstream media narratives, Lorenzo Zamponi has clearly highlighted the importance of history for political activism not only as a form of legacy, but also as a political project for the present. A similar understanding emerged also within Tina Askanius’ work on video activism and within Eva Giraud analysis of Indymedia.

Current social movement research on digital activism lacks this historical depth, and is void of a critical appreciation not only of the importance of historical narratives for social movements, but also of how these narratives are shaped by mainstream media. In fact as Anne Kaun suggested, by looking at mainstream media narratives of the Occupy movement in Latvia, we can clearly see how mainstream media engages in a systematic de-historization and de-politicization of social movements.

Whilst in the first seminar we focused on the importance of the concept of ‘culture’ and we argued that it is central to understand movements by looking at the broader political and social context in which they are embedded, within this seminar we highlighted how our understanding of activist cultures needs to be grounded in historical depth.

Individually-Centred Movements and the Question of the Visible Individual

Another fundamental question that has emerged during the seminar cocerns the relationship between the individual and the collective. Whilst this is not a new question for social research and especially in the study of social movements, it is becoming clear that critical questions need to be raised on the relationship between the visible activist and the broader social movement. Christian Christensen and Dan Mercea addressed this question by looking at what happens when individuals who consider themselves activists, become effective political agents through the gathering and processing of data. As, Daniel Trottier has argued, such individually centred processes can lead to reactionary forms of organising – such as digital vigilantism – rather than progressive ones, and can have massive social consequences for people and their everyday life. Hence it became clear during the seminar that we need to deconstruct, the idea that individually centred grassroots forms of organising that are fostered through digital activism are the equivalent of a social movement.

We look forward to your thoughts comments and ideas! 

Dr Eva Giraud has written a great reflection on the seminar for the MCCKeele Blog  that you can find here.

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