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.
Our behavior is predictable. We leave digital traces throughout the course of our daily (mediated) lives. So accepting the premise that human behavior is not random, the next set of questions is to understand what laws govern our actions. As Albert-László Barabási explores in Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do (2010), human behavior is governed by natural laws and through studying artifacts of digitality we “come to see the rhythms of life as evidence of a deeper order in human behavior” (p. 11).
Featured in Bursts, the case of art professor Hasan Elahi is old news by now but still worth revisiting given on-going debates over privacy and ownership of the data we share about ourselves daily (Facebook being the current headline maker). Following 9/11 he was tracked by the FBI and in an act of creative resistance he made his whereabouts freely available via the Internet. He raises questions of who owns our data? What gives it value? If we share “everything” does it become meaningless in the vast quantity of data?
We can learn from Elahi about how to find humor and art in the uncontrollable. My favorite excerpt is, when asked during a FBI polygraph if he belongs to any groups that want to harm the United States, he replies “I work in a university.”
Barabási raises the ethical issue of the role of research in understanding new information technologies, writing “Technology has outstripped our ability to use it responsibly, and I could not ignore the possibility that the fruits of our research would soon become part of some malicious Vast Machine-like enterprise” (p. 221). Do we take Elahi’s approach under the premise that information loses its value once it is freely available. What then are we “sharing” and via what platform? To me the difference between making one’s life into art and using a commercial social networking platform. Sure we are more connected but at what cost? And, do we have a choice to opt-out? I believe increasingly that we do not.
Then as researchers we have an obligation to understand the place of digitality in our mediated lives.
For an international communication seminar project last semester, I wanted to examine how social movements use information communication technologies to challenge the dominant economic order. To do so, I chose to compare Occupy Wall Street with the Spanish 15M, or Indignados movement, which may be less familiar to a U.S. audience.
On May 15, 2011, one week before municipal elections, thousands took to the streets in 50 Spanish cities to protest corruption and demand “real democracy,” calling for crisis management by “the people and not the banks” (seePeriodismo Humano). Forty demonstrators gathered in Madrid’s main square, Puerta del Sol, into evening of May 15 talking about the country’s future decided to stay. In the early morning hours of May 16, those in the plaza made a key tactical decision to negotiate with police over their presence, who allowed them to stay the night. And they camped, sparking what is now know as the 15M movement, for the date of its commencement, or #SpanishRevolution after one of the movement’s main Twitter hashtags.
As events of the past year illustrate, while the social problems associated with economic globalization are correspondingly globalized, protest actions such as Occupy and 15M are place-based.
During the fall semester I conducted comparative research on the Spanish 15M and Occupy Wall Street movements. In a mixed methods approach, I used data from movement publications and websites to examine their early development and structural linkages. You can view a prezi on my research here:
In Communication Power Manuel Castells writes, “Power relies on the control of communication, as counterpower depends on breaking through such control” (Castells, 2009, p. 3). The history of international communication as an academic discipline is integrally linked to post-colonial and Cold War power struggles between nation-states. For example, the development of satellite television was one “soft power” tool to win the “hearts and minds” of the world’s population during the height of the Cold War (Schwoch, 2009).
Now—as we are debatably entering an era marked by the decline of the nation-state and the rise of the “network society” and the “network state”—questions of power become more pressingly tied to access to the definitional power that comes with control of information communication technologies (Castells, 2009; 2010, pp. 42-43; Schiller, 2010).