As I near the finish line in what has been a marathon to prepare for my prelim exams, I picked up two “final” pieces of literature. One is the latest April 2012 edition of Journal of Communication, a special issue on Arab Spring and activists using social media in other locales to organize for political change. The other is Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, by Rebecca MacKinnon, published by Basic Books earlier this year.

I study alternative and “participatory” media, which has been traditionally defined as platforms such as community radio, zines, radical newsprint and more recently Internet projects like IndyMedia. However, one thing I’ve been pondering of late is the implications of new media technologies, most notably social media platforms. Can they too be considered means of “alternative media”? If so, under what conditions? Clearly there are differences between activists developing their “own” tools and infrastructure vs. using corporate owned and controlled platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Google, Flicker, etc.). But as the examples of Arab Spring, #Occupy, and #wiunion among others illustrate, activists are using all available tools to coordination protest actions and mobilize support, often parallel to more traditional “alternative” media projects (e.g., the Occupied Wall Street Journal or the Spanish 15M movement’s N1 social network). The questions are under what conditions are activists making these choices, how are they using both “old” and “new” media tools to organize and what are the implications?

Social Media, Networks and Political Protest
The April 2012 issue of Journal of Communication, features articles centered answering questions of how activists are using new media to demand political change, from the relation between Chinese blogs and print media, resisting “networked authoritarianism” in Azerbaijan to, of course, the role of social media in the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 and more.

In the case of Egypt, Zeynep Tufekci and Christopher Wilson analysis survey data collected in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Murbarak on the relationship between point at which individuals joined the protests and how they first learned about them. They find that those who use social media were more likely to have attended the first day of demonstrations (January 25, 2011). Most notably, of the total sample they write, “In spite of widespread media use, nearly half (48.4%) of those in our sample reported that they had first heard about the Tahrir Square demonstrations through face-to-face communication… Although Facebook (28.3%) was by far the most dominant means of hearing about the protests outside of face-to-face communication, texting, for example, was rarely the means by which someone first heard about the protests (0.8%), even though it was used widely for sharing information about the protests (46%)” (p. 370).

In another article dealing with social media and youth protest in Chile using data from a 2010 survey, Sebastián Valenzuela, Arturo Arriaguada and Andrés Scherman show that using Facebook as a medium for news and social interaction is positively associated with engaging in protest activity. These findings are in line with what social movement scholars have shown in the pre-social media era, people are more likely to go to protests if friends and family are going and they believe will think positively of their participation, along with an expectation of success (e.g. Klandermans, 1984). So social media and mobile tools don’t by themselves fuel the start of large-scale protest mobilizations but they help a core group of activists plan and coordinate actions. They then play an important role in the diffusion of real time information and documentation of demonstrations once they get started, helping to sustain and expand protest beyond core activists. It could be that seeing your Facebook wall full of updates about a demonstration alters one’s perception of a movement’s likelihood to affect change, making you more likely to join in, especially if you feel you will be socially rewarded by those in your circle of friends for participating.

While all of this is great news for activists and resonates with my personal experiences of the #wiunion movement (see below), William Lafi Youmans and Jillian C. York offer a more cautionary tale in analysis of the way Facebook handled the “We Are All Khaled Said” group, YouTube policy on Syria and others. They conclude that corporate policies “can inhibit activists and empower authoritarian regimes” and that the infrastructure design and policies of social media companies will continue to be a growing barrier for collective action. They suggest activists develop open access “civic technologies” (Zittrain, 2009). However, the underlying circular collective action problem is that if everyone is on Facebook or Twitter, as an organizer you need to go to where those people are to mobilize them but exactly where they are can put you at heightened personal risk. But at the same time getting individuals to switch to new platforms “en masse,” as Youmans and York suggest, itself requires collective action. Still, their article is a crucial contribution. They address issues which are often left to the wayside as scholars rush to praise the positive benefits of new media on civic and political participation.

“Consent of Networked” or What Kind of Internet Society are We Living In?
The ways in which information communication technologies are used is constrained by the political opportunities of any given nation-state but because the vast majority are privately owned, it creates additional challenges for users. So as media consumers and citizens, we find ourselves increasingly in situations where corporations control the channels through which we engage in political speech. Rather than what Rebecca MacKinnon, a former journalist, co-founder of Global Voices and global Internet policy fellow at the New America Foundation, terms “consent of the governed” (i.e. democracy) in her new book Consent of the Networked:The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, she argues that private companies have de-facto sovereignty in cyberspace and are not directly accountable.

Speaking on post-revolution Tunisian censorship in a 2011 TED Talk, MacKinnon asks, “How do you decide who is empowered to make these decisions and how do you make sure that they do not abuse their power?” As she outlines in Consent of the Networked, there are potential chilling implications and not solely in non-democratic nation-states. Tools such as Facebook were not designed with social protest in mind, and as commercial products, their owners have financial objectives that can run counter to the use of these tools by activists, not to mention security concerns which MacKinnon riches details in her book.

To provide one example, of many, on Apple’s iPhone release in China, MacKinnon writes:

As a condition for entry into the Chinese market, Apple had to agree to the Chinese government’s censorship criteria in vetting the content of all iPhone applications–or “apps”–available for download on devices sold in mainland China… On Apple’s special store for the Chinese market, apps related to the Dalai Lama are censored, as is one containing information about the exiled Uighur dissident leader Rebiya Kadeer. Apple similarly censors apps for the iPads sold in China. So much for that revolutionary, Big Brother-destroying 1984 Super Bowl ad. Fifteen years later, Apple seems quite willing to accommodate Big Brother’s demands for the sake of market access.

Internet and mobile telecommunications companies (whose functions and relationships are increasingly intertwined) create computer code that functions as a kind of law, in that it shapes what people can do and sometimes directly censors what they can see. Sometimes the computer code is written to comply with government demands, as in the Chinese case. Sometimes government uses legislative code–law–to force the evolution of computer code in one direction or the other. (p. 115)

The bottom-line is that as consumers and citizens we need to be concerned with Internet governance, both public in the form of laws, and private in terms of what products and features companies are selling us and under what terms. Take the case of net neutrality. If you make an informative website about say the potential environmental impacts of mining in your community it won’t serve its intended function unless it comes up high in search results and members of your community can actually find it when they look for news and information on the issue.

MacKinnon addresses these themes in this July 2011 TED Talk:

In Wisconsin
The themes of MacKinnon’s book and the Journal of Communication research strike close to home. I am in no way trying to imply overly simplistic comparisons between protest mobilizations under authoritarian regimes and in our state, but rather to provide examples from my personal experience. In the wake of Gov. Scott Walker’s February 11, 2011, introduction of a Budget Repair Bill, now Wisconsin Act 10, Wisconsin saw unprecedented demonstrations–reaching an estimated 100,000 people at the State Capitol in Madison in early March–against the bill’s provisions to strip most collective bargaining rights from the majority of public employees.

Confronting the near total loss of our collective bargaining rights,  acting like activists all over the globe, we used all available tools to mobilize opposition quickly, from phone-banking fellow union members to setting up a Twitter account to spread information about demonstrations. Defend Wisconsin, a website that I co-manage, was blocked on the wireless “guest” network in the State Capitol for a short time during the height of the historic labor, pro-democracy protests in late February 2011. After CNN, the Huffington Post and other news outlets reported on the situation, the Wisconsin Department of Administration was quick to back step.

A Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA) report obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in July 2011 through a Freedom of Information request suggests that authorities improve on monitoring social media. The report notes, “Use of social media allowed protesters to mobilize and react very quickly” and a page earlier recommends improvement is needed in, “Monitoring of social media during events to anticipate crowd psychology, action and reactions” (pp. 11-12).

In addition, University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies William Cronon, a leader in his field, had emails from his university account requested by Republican lawmakers after he started a “Scholar as Citizen” blog in March 2011 and authored a New York Times opinion piece on the protests.

Like elsewhere, new media technologies were crucial to our efforts to coordinate and spread information quickly on a rapidly evolving situation, while engaging in our First Amendment right to petition our government. The actions of authorities were questionable and provide an example of how, even here in the United States, we need be concerned over potential infringements of “Internet freedom.”

The Future?
We must find a middle ground between utopian and dystopian visions of our mediated political and social future. As MacKinnon asks in her TED Talk, “How do we make sure the Internet evolves in a citizen-centered manner?”

In her answer, she is right in many respects to call for individual action and that the future lies in our hands. But she also lets private companies, international regulatory bodies and governments off the hook in taking an individualized approach. Yes, we have a responsibility to pressure our elected leaders and the companies who own the vast majority of our technological infrastructure to protect “Internet freedom” but we also must not overlook the inherent structural imbalances of power between those who control billion dollar Silicon Valley holdings and citizens. It is by no means a fair fight.

The scholarly question remains under what conditions do protests reach a critical mass and get big enough to affect change? And, how are the use of new media tools changing the dynamics of collective action? To me, whether or not such efforts qualify as “alternative media” is less interesting than innovations how activists are using all media tools. I suspect that the answers lie in the murky and hard to sort out interplay between resources and techie know-how, perceived political opportunities and agency and the ability of activists to quickly mobilize through preexisting interpersonal networks. As activists and anyone with even vaguely political interests, we hear about demonstrations on a regular basis. The synergy of offline networks with social media can help to make actions seem big, and as Tufekci and Wilson find, spread information quickly once mobilizations start to help diffuse protest.

But, as academics we must also be wary to not gloss over the dark side of exercising political speech in privatized online “public spheres” and the inherent dangers of social movement organizing through mediated channels in non-democratic societies and under conditions of repression even in democratic societies. For those reasons, Consent of the Networked is well worth a read and provides such a cautionary warning.