Social Movements and Political Agency in the Digital Age

6226930086_4d4f416338_mI have recently published a short article on the political agency of social movements in the digital age. I’ve been trying to think of political agency in communication terms, reflecting on the power that social movements may have in their communication with the public and with their adversaries. You can find the beginnings of this argument in this short article. An article on communication power is currently in a very draft stage…

Some broad research questions

Question Mark Graffiti, a photo by Bilal Kamoon on Flickr.

Question Mark Graffiti, a photo by Bilal Kamoon on Flickr.

The key question at the heart of this project concerns whether and how the use of certain technologies shapes the characteristics and effectiveness of social movements. As discussed in another post, this approach can be considered as part of a paradigm shift in the study of media and social movements, where the media are no longer viewed only as spaces for the representation of protest, but also as tools for organizing and coordinating.

To address this key concern, the project focuses on four broad research questions with regards to the role of the internet in the Occupy movement and networks/campaigns that emerged from it:

  • How is the activists’ internet use contributing to processes of organizing, diffusion and participation?
  • What are the implications for the power relationships both within the movement, as well as between movements and their targets or the mainstream media?
  • How do activist cultures with regards to the internet, strategy and organizing affect the activists’ use of these technologies?
  • How does the design and proprietary or non-proprietary nature of these technologies affect their use and implications for social movements?

In other words, the project is looking at the role of the internet in different activities of the movement and what it means for power – both power within the movement and the power of the movement (to effect change, to influence public discourse etc.). Conceptualizing these power relationships is difficult as it necessitates an understanding of how leadership works in social movements, as well as a clear framework for studying movement outcomes. It also requires a definition of power that not only captures the multiplicity of its meanings but is also empirically workable (this will be the topic of a future blog post…).

However, to forge a better understanding of the role of new technologies in protest, we need to take into account the activists’ experiences, expertise and attitudes towards the internet. Activist cultures with regards to strategy and organizing are also important as they affect how activists perceive and organize the communication process – who they think is authorized to speak, about what and to whom and through which tools. I talked about the intersection between internet and strategic/organizing cultures in a chapter for the book Mediation and Protest Movements (edited by Bart Cammaerts, Alice Mattoni and Patrick McCurdy). The chapter derives from earlier work on the Global Justice Movement and the European Social Forum in particular. Based on interviews with European Social Forum organizers, I identified two ideal-types of internet cultures with regards to the use of web and email: a broadcasting culture and an interactive one. The current project builds on and enriches these ideas, looking for instance at the impact of the cultures of tech activists – of people who have links with the hacker or the FLOSS communities – on the creation and use of online tools.

Finally, the design and proprietary or non-proprietary nature of the online platforms also shapes their role in protest. Internet platforms and services offer ‘online structures for action’ as Foot and Schneider put it. Proprietary platforms like Facebook and Twitter were not designed with protest in mind, but are commercial operations, profiting from users’ data. The ways in which they are designed, the applications they offer, the rules encoded in the software and their implied governance mechanisms influence the use of these technologies by protesters. The same is true for the platforms created by protesters themselves to coordinate their activity.

Yet in this project platforms are conceptualized in a more expansive terms. Although the focus is on online platforms and applications, physical spaces – the squares where encampments were set up or the rooms where meetings took place –  are also considered as platforms whose norms of use, architectural characteristics, ownership, accessibility and state regulation affect the types of communication and coordination that they facilitate. Movement activities transcend different spaces that are at once and at the same time both online and offline: we access the internet from physical places that are in turn always mediated in one way or another. Investigating the role of specific technologies in protest movements needs to involve a better understanding of their placement within the communication ecology of the movement.

References

Foot, A. K. and Schneider, S. M. (2006) Web Campaigning. Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press.

Kavada, A. (2013) ‘Internet cultures and protest movements: the cultural links between strategy, organizing and online communication’ in B. Cammaerts, P. McCurdy and A. Mattoni (eds) Mediation and Social Movements, London: Intellect.