There is a paradigm shift in the study of social movements and their relationship with the media. This is in no small part due to the emergence of the internet, which has highlighted an overlooked aspect of media: their function as organizing and coordinating mechanisms, rather than simply as public spheres or arenas of discourse.
It was in the end of the 1990s and in the beginning of 2000s when the greater popularization of the internet coincided with the birth of the Global Justice Movement that this shift became evident in both journalistic and academic accounts of the new movement.
For instance, as Naomi Klein put it in her 2002 book ‘Fences and Windows’,
“What emerged on the streets of Seattle and Washington was an activist model that mirrors the organic, decentralized, interlinked pathways of the internet’ (p. 17).
In a paper written at about the same time, Sidney Tarrow, an influential social movements scholar, noted that the internet seems
“to constitute a social network (which is) remarkably similar to the reticular structure of social movements’, so that ‘it is only a short step to regarding the Internet itself as a form of organization” (2002: 15).
If the internet is set up as a ‘network of networks’ and the Global Justice Movement operates as ‘a network of networks’, the thinking went, then there should be a relationship between the two. However, conceptualizing this relationship in concrete terms and understanding empirically how it works has been a difficult task.
This is because for all the theories explaining the representation of social movements in the media, frameworks that help us conceptualize the role of the media as organizing mechanisms are scarce.
There are also few studies that allow us to see this role historically. A common criticism of scholarly work on social movements and the internet is that it is ahistorical and too celebratory of the power of new communication technologies. Yet for those scholars with an interest in the role of the media in the organizing processes of social movements, there very few historical studies we can base our research on. For example, there’s limited research on the role of telephone trees in the organizational forms of the Civil Rights movement or of the influence of the telegraph (if any) on the spread and transnational coordinating structures of the communist movement [I am probably wrong about this – in fact, I hope I am – so please send your suggestions of relevant literature that I’m not aware of in the comments below].
The need becomes even more pressing now when discussions of Facebook or Twitter revolutions are filled with polarized views that either place the media in a very central position or disregard their influence altogether. Moving towards a more sober and nuanced analysis requires solid conceptual frameworks that link mediated communication with organizing structures and practices.
Klein, Naomi (2002) Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the front lines of the globalization debate. Flamingo.
Tarrow, Sidney (2002) ‘The New Transnational Contention: Organizations, Coalitions, Mechanisms’, Paper presented in the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, Chicago, 31 August-1 September 2002.