Eleftheria Lekakis, University of Sussex – Shifting Boundaries of Consumer Activism: Communication, Consumption, and Capitalist Imaginations
This paper explores consumer activism in terms of its political potential and its cultural contradictions throughout the period of neoliberal capitalism, its crisis and its aftermath. Consumer activism is considered one of the most accessible ways through which citizens can engage with public life through their private practices. Importantly, it is also one of the ways through which activist groups and social movements more broadly seek to engage with cultural politics and everyday practices in order to mobilise citizens. The growing prominence of consumer activism in its latest historical form of ethical consumerism (e.g. fair trade, free range, local) in mainstream media befits the critique of the culture of new capitalism (Sennett, 2006). Yet, it also raises questions as to how consumer activism intersects with capitalism and its crisis.
The history of consumer movements reveals deep change over the last fifteen years and there are very diverse manifestations of it, not simply in terms of cause, but also in terms of organisation. From concerns about consumer safety and manufacturer reliability, concerns have moved towards producer-consumer relations between the global north and global south and onwards to sustainability and local regrowth. Through an exploration of different cases from the context of the European Union, I discuss the interplay between consumer activism and consumer capitalism to analyse the shifting boundaries of consumer activism and the capitalist imaginations produced. Through an examination of historical and present case studies, I outline the intersections between media and mainstream forms of activism.
Emiliano Treré, Lakehead University, Canada; Autonomous University of Querétaro, Mexico – Manufacturing digital consent: bots wars, telecracy, and digital resistance
During the last five years, Mexico has witnessed the rise of a vital wave of new social movements and mobilizations (the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity in 2011, the #YoSoy132 movement in 2012, the Ayotzinapa movement in 2014) that have criticized increasing violence and inequality in the country, aggressive neoliberal policies, and the dangerous interconnections between media and politics. Focusing in particular on the case of the #YoSoy132 movement, but also drawing on a plethora of experiences from the contemporary Mexican scenario, this presentation will outline the limits and the achievements of this new cycle of digital resistance. I will argue that in order to understand the contemporary challenges of digital resistance in Mexico, we need to examine three interrelated aspects: a) the increasingly sophisticated ‘bots and trolls wars’ online that are undermining dissent and freedom of expression; b) the enormous symbolic and political power of the Mexican telecracy, i.e. the media duopoly Televisa-TvAzteca and its ability to impose frames of protests, boost political candidates and careers, and shape public opinion; c) activists’ innovative practices and media appropriations in order to gain visibility, denounce censorship, and nurture collective identities. This presentation will show that in order to critically analyse the cultural, societal, and political implications of modern digital activism, we have to assume an ecological and interdisciplinary perspective that is able to capture the shifting interactions between mainstream media, alternative media and social media in the shaping of public opinion.
Dan Mercea, City University London – The Enduring Question of Social Media Usage in Collective Action. Foregrounding Activist Agency
Caution characterises the tone struck by the latest scholarship probing the fraught amalgamation of social media and collective action. Activism stands to be devalued by fleeting, noncommittal endorsements on performative social media platforms; personal political expression is ruthlessly mined for commercial gain and social control. All the while, the acceleration of communication seems to force an instantaneity that precludes meaningful participation in the (democratic) workings of collective action. In this talk, I draw on several empirical studies to present a set of concepts –namely serial transnational activism, activist persistence and activist compass—that may enable researchers to grapple with the high personal investment of individuals who push significant volumes of protest-related content on social media. Examining activist communication spanning geographical and temporal boundaries, I ponder such aspects as the availability, commitment and responsibilities of individuals who have been at the forefront of some of the most prominent instances of collective action in recent years including the Arab Spring, the Indignados Movement, the Occupy Movement, Occupy Gezi, the Vinegar protests in Brazil, the Stop ACTA campaign in the E.U. Further, I discuss examples of activist work ranging from organisational coordination to media tactics that are the fruit of activist talk on social media. The overarching point to my analysis is that contingent negotiations mark the relationships that activists develop with their media. Unravelling those negotiations is crucial to grasping the different colours of politics that tint the use of social media rendering activist agency a primary key to the puzzle of activist networked communication.
SESSION TWO – Changing Alternative Media Environments and the Problem of Visibility
Anna Feigenbaum, Bournemouth University – The ‘Other Media’ of Protest Occupations
Media and communication innovations are everywhere in protest occupations. They came in digital, analogue, and mixed forms. From the well-documented practice of the “people’s mic” at Occupy Wall Street, to the live streaming of general assemblies around the world, protest encampments are a space for experimenting with new forms of and for communication. Whether making pizza box placards or wearable tents, people find creative ways to get their messages across. In doing so, they engage with all kinds of objects that populate protest camp sites, from tarpaulins to umbrellas, as we saw recently in Occupy Hong Kong.
In this presentation I look beyond taken-for-granted media devices to examine the “other media” objects that communicate at sites of protest. Such “other media” objects include the fences, walls, and barricades, that become sites of and for communication. This ‘other media’ also includes ‘container technologies’ from shoeboxes to bins, that function as storage devices, as well as craft technologies and everyday objects that become transformed through practices of disobedient design, creating new movement messages and communicative interventions.
I argue that returning to the foundational roots of Communication Theory—the medium and the message—can help us look beyond taken-for-granted media devices and practices. In addition to smartphones, Facebook pages, and live-streaming laptops, communication at protest encampments involves all kinds of other technologies—from tents to tear gas. Without thinking about these objects, media studies miss out on some of the most powerful communication tactics that shape social movements.
Tina Askanius, Lund University – Connecting Past and Present Forms of Video Activism: The Case of TV Stop and Tv-Tv in Denmark
This paper argues that in order to tackle present challenges and future developments in the relation between social movements and online media technologies we need to better understand and pay analytical attention to the relatively recent past of alternative media practices.
Focusing specifically on the theories and practices of video activism, the paper examines how two now-defunct alternative television collectives in Denmark today appropriate social media as archives in their aspiration to connect contemporary and historical social movements and bring new forms of visibility and young audiences to past political struggles in the country. The paper builds on archival studies and in-depth interviews in two Copenhagen-based collectives (Tv Stop 1987-2005; tv-tv 2005-2009) to examine how they understand the current challenges faced by alternative media on the radical Left in Denmark, and make sense of their own demise in relation to the shift in the media landscape that took place with the advent of, first the internet, and later social media.
The analysis is suggestive of how struggles for visibility in previous forms of analogue video and television production are strongly reminiscent of the dilemmas and ethical concerns inherent to contemporary forms of online video activism. It argues that more social movement research should give voice to those who lived through transformative periods in the histories of alternative media landscapes as narratives of past failures and successes offer valuable lessons for activists today.
Eva Giraud, Keele University – Communicating Prefigurative Politics: Indymedia, Proprietary Platforms and Shifting Media Ecologies
This paper explores some of the tensions that have arisen within anticapitalist media praxis, because of activists’ migration from alternative media networks to proprietary digital media platforms. However, rather than contrasting the potentials of – and difficulties with – different platforms in communicating arguments to diverse publics, this paper explores how the organisational arrangements and media-making practices that lie behind radical-participatory initiatives have themselves been documented, communicated and made meaningful.
Building on previous work that has examined reasons for Indymedia network’s decline in certain regions (Giraud, 2015) it explores how activists have attempted to construct their own public narrative about this alleged ‘failure’. To complement the rich body of ethnographic and conceptual work about Indymedia’s organisation (Pickard, 2006; Pickerill, 2007; Juris, 2008), problems (Frenzel et al, 2010; Wolfson, 2012;) and legacies (Stringer, 2013; Constanza-Chock), the paper focuses on public statements that have attempted to diagnose and communicate the issues faced by the network. It focuses, in particular, on attempts to articulate the on-going value of pre-figurative attempts to implement direct democracy via the network’s publishing ethos, inclusive approach to media-making and its socio-technical infrastructures. Drawing upon public statements made by Indymedia collectives and the values articulated by the Indymedia Documentation Project, the paper analyses how activists have attempted to emphasise the on-going value of radical-participatory media organisation in the face of disillusionment.
SESSION THREE – Social Conflict and ‘The Media’: News Coverage, Social Media Feeds and Public Debate
Lorenzo Zamponi, European University Institute – Dusty Glasses: Mediatised Public Memory and Student Movements in Italy and Spain
Cultural factors shape the symbolic environment in which contentious politics take place. Among these factors, collective memories are particularly relevant: they can help collective action by providing symbolic material from the past, but at the same time they can constrain people’s ability to mobilise by imposing proscriptions and prescriptions.
In my research I analyse the relationship between social movements and collective memories: how do social movement participate in the building of public memory? And how does public memory, and in particular the media representation of a contentious past, influence the social construction of identity in the contemporary movements?
To answer these questions I focus on the student movements in Italy and Spain, analysing the content and format of media sources in order to draw a map of the different narrative representations of a contentious past, while I use qualitative interviews to investigate their influence on contemporary mobilisations.
In this presentation, in particular, I will focus on the role of the past in structuring the way in which the media represents contemporary social movements and on the strategies developed by activists to address the issues emerging from the media-imposed comparison with the past. Do media comparisons with the past produce resources or constraints? Do they grant legitimacy or do they damage credibility? And how do contemporary movements participate in these processes.
Furthermore, I will propose hypotheses and ideas for developing this field of research in the direction of including digital social media. If memory work in the media arena is strategic for collective action, what happens when the media environment changes? How has the explosion of digital social media changed these processes? Are the same mechanisms and dynamics of social remembrance still at work? And how has the role and behaviour of individual and social actors changed?
Pieter Verdegem – “Traditional” and “New” Actors in the Anti-Austerity Protest: A Comparison Between Social Media and Mainstream Media
This contribution addresses a specific type of social movements, the anti-austerity protest. Confronted with the consequences of the worldwide economic crisis, people and organizations across Europe are protesting against austerity measures imposed by their governments. In Belgium, the anti-austerity protest culminated in strikes and demonstrations throughout November and December 2014, resulting in intensified media coverage as well as public debate. Especially apparent was a heightened polarization between civil society, represented by labor unions and topical organizations formed around the anti-austerity protest, and employers’ associations and other defenders of austerity policies.
We present findings from research into how austerity protest organizations make use of social media to gain public support, and how their communication is covered in news reporting by the mainstream media. We focus on how “traditional” actors (i.e. labor unions) and “new” actors (i.e. a citizens’ movement organization that has formed around the anti-austerity protest) embraced social media as opportunity structures. Correspondingly, we also explore how the framing processes occurred, especially with regard to the different actors involved in the anti-austerity protest. Ultimately, we aim to shed light on how protest logics and media logics (media logic as well as social media logic) function and intersect.
Christian Christensen, Stockholm University – Manning, Snowden and Media Exposure as Protection
In August 2013, Chelsea Manning was sentenced to spend 35 years at the maximum security prison at Fort Leavenworth for disclosing 750,000 classified and unclassified military documents to WikiLeaks. The case received a relative paucity of coverage from the mainstream media (including outlets that had written stories based on the material leaked by Manning), with few journalists in attendance at Manning’s trial. Two months before Manning’s sentencing, the US government unsealed espionage charges against the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Unlike Mannning, Snowden’s story (including his personal life) has been well-covered in the global news media. In this paper, and using Manning and Snowden as case studies, I would like to consider the role of media exposure as a “protection” strategy for major whistleblowers. In other words, to consider the extent to which publicness, debate and expressions of support (potentially) place pressure upon state authorities to take a more flexible, lenient stance against whistleblowers.
Anne Kaun – Narrating Protest: Mainstream News Stories of Occupy Stockholm and Occupy Latvia
While the Occupy Wall Street movement was identified with a critique of the US-American economic and political system, the focus of critique changed for its European branches. Although Swedish and Latvian Occupy activists clearly rooted their activism in the regional and national context, in both the Latvian and Swedish case an absence of European narratives is persistent when it comes to the reporting in mainstream news media. This although predecessors of the Occupy movement such as the Indignados in Spain and the Indignant Citizens Movement in Greece as well as the European versions of OWS clearly expressed European perspectives by addressing institutions of the European Union as being responsible for the crisis and the consequences of strict austerity politics.
This presentation addresses particularly the absence of a European perspective in news narratives generated in the context of Occupy Stockholm and Occupy Latvia – both in a geographical and a political sense – and in conclusion suggests reasons for the disconnection between activist and news narratives. Empirically, I examine how Swedish and Latvian mainstream news media are recontextualizing the Occupy movement according to their specific contexts while considering activists’ narratives gathered through in-depth interviews and monitoring of social media, particularly Facebook groups set up by activists. Furthermore, I identify major narrative strategies employed by the mainstream news media in their reporting on the movement in Sweden and Latvia that go beyond the protest paradigm. Looking at Occupy Stockholm and Occupy Latvia, the presentation also moves from the central arenas of global capitalism to its periphery that is no less affected by the contradictions of accelerated capitalism that Occupy addressed in its critique.
Keynote Speech – Prof Des Freedman, Goldsmiths University London – A Return to Prime Time Activism: Social Movement Theory and Media Reform
Social movement theory has a key role to play in both galvanizing and strengthening media activism. With its emphasis on theories of participation and agency, it provides a body of knowledge that highlights the communicative competences, performances and structures that are necessary to publicize and mobilize movements for social justice. We have a whole host of platforms, technologies and practices in place—from ‘hacktivism’ to citizen journalism and from ‘culture jamming’ to community media—that allows ‘ordinary’ media users to deploy media technologies for activist ends. Yet social movement theory has had relatively little to say about how activists should relate to mainstream media and how best to engage in projects that are aimed at reforming (as opposed to bypassing or revolutionizing) some of our most popular media outlets. My paper will, therefore, reflect on how we might challenge social movement theory to respond to activists’ commitments to combat media power and to secure a more democratic media.
Des Freedman is a Professor of Communications and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of The Contradictions of Media Power (2014) and The Politics of Media Policy (2008), co-author (with James Curran and Natalie Fenton) of Misunderstanding the Internet (2012), co-editor (with Daya Thussu) of Media and Terrorism: Global Perspectives (2012) and co-editor (with Michael Bailey) of The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance (2012). He is an editor of the journal Global Media and Communication and chair of the Media Reform Coalition in the UK.