III – Understanding New Media Activism

In a global context marked by globalization and neo-liberalism hegemony, social movements have found new media as a powerful mean of counter-discourse production and to ignite actions and interventions in society.

This is due to mainstream media is greatly connected with  those interests social movements fight against, thus the latter usually do not have their voice heard by mainstream media nor their viewpoints taken in account.

Thus, in our opinion, understanding social movements is useful to comprehend new media activism. Thus, we are going to drawn upon social movements’ theory and eventually relate it with new media.

To analytically examine movements, Crossley takes into consideration the definitions of four sociologically notorious theorists, namely Blumer, Eyerman & Jamison, Tarrow, Della Porta & Diani. Blumer(1969, p. 99) points out that social movements could be viewed as collective enterprises seeking to establish a new order of life; having their foundation in a condition of unrest and deriving their motive power from wishes and hopes for a new system of life but are embarked into the dissatisfaction of the current form of life. (Crossley, 2002).

Crossley (2002) distinguish social movements from forms of collective action that are result of immediate reactions due to collective discontent such as “panics or mass hysteria” and that are not aiming to rebuild social life in order to dig to the root of the problem and change the system. The latter can be collective online actions but these are not social movement until they seek a social change and become a social activity that seeks to have a “new form of life”.

We can give several examples of reaction from new media crowd that does not form an organized movement pursing social change, such as anger due to a new president election or new government, which does not end up with real opposition group against the government or anger of basketball fans at Facebook groups or at Twitter channel due to a match.

As we have intertwined our discussion of social movements and new form of media we might now talk about the purpose of the content, because “messages, organizations and leaders who do not have presence in the media do not exist in the public mind” (Castells, 2009, p. 205).

Castells also argues on the method of message transmission: the message has to be presented as infotainment form which includes personalizing the news via particular figure and in ways that relate to the receiver’s emotion and interests (Castells, 2009, p. 205).

According to Cammaerts (2007) activism refers to the ability to act and make or change history. Thus, “agency and the makeability of society is central to any tentative definition of activism” in his words. He also quotes another definition of activism from Wikipedia stressing the “intentional action to bring about social or political change” (Cammaerts, 2007, p. 217).

In this regard, it is interesting to note that, while quoting Wikipedia might be criticized by orthodox scholars, when it comes to a literature on new media activism is highly appropriate as Wikipedia in its own right is an example of new media activism which promotes the acknowledge of commons knowledge employing new media.

If mass media have been employed by mainstream political institutions since the twentieth century, we can say that from the last decade of this century onwards, new media have been used mostly for citizen and activist’s initiatives in order to enhance social justice all around the world, in a mode of resistance, production of discourse, strengthening of identities of communities, among other aims.

Atton (2004) quoted by Lievrouw (2011, p. 18) states “that alternative media have sought to be participatory, emancipator, non-commercial, authentic (i.e., faithful to a community’s point of view or experience), and anti-institutional. They combine both ‘creative expression and social responsibility’ in a way that departs from most mainstream media.”

However, it is important to emphasize that using new media does not exclude the use of mass media by social movements and activists when they have means for it.

Of course, the combination of both communications is the ideal strategy of intervention in order to pursue and achieve lasting social changes.  In fact, lately we have witnessed powerful mainstream mass media organizations broadcasting contents produced by alternative media or activists using new media.

But, is online activism, for example, publishing films on youtube, enough to achieve change? Is it possible to provide enough people with enough information via the internet so that they can make informed decisions and exercise agency? Is it even possible to challenge or alter dominant, expected, or accepted ways of doing society, culture and politics by employing any practices of new information and communication technologies, as Lievrouw (2011, p. 19) states?

In our opinion, an obvious answer is ‘of course, no’, since achieving change requires both different modes of communication as well as other instruments such as legal and economical.

In addition, we believe that when it comes to activism, it is also crucial the employment of both online and offline media, as both strategies combined can better enhance the public engagement with the social cause, because people are everywhere and choose different modes of communication according to their social context, interests, lifestyles, and needs.

Thus, achieving social change needs both online and offline strategies since activism cannot be confined to the media realm.  “Establishing trust among activists, collaborative arrangements between organizations and diverse forms of direct action need the offline, as much as the online. As often, it is the interaction between the two binaries of the dichotomy that is most relevant and crucial towards organizing, mobilizing and debating resistance.” (Cammaerts, 2007, p. 221)

The idea of renegotiating information and participating are itself key features of activism in the form that it is captured in “Reclaiming the media: communication rights and democratic media roles”:  “activism (…) represents the practice of struggling for change” (Cammaerts & Carpentier, 2007, p.217).

Struggling requires for example participation.  At the same time, however, even though activism always indicates participation, participation does not always indicate activism. Instead it needs to be evaluated on a case-to-case basis to, in the words of Cammaerts and Carpentier, determine “when participation has taken on such a focused, critical mass of energy aimed at attaining specific changes that we would want to label it activism” (2007, p.ix).

Another fundamental shift on the understanding about communication and its uses by activists is that “the nature of media activism projects is actions in their own right, rather than communication about other “real” actions, as Lievrouw (2011, p. 18) points out. Below we present a video produced by The Collective Mosireen, reporting a tragedy in Cairo. It is an example of an activism action in its own right, more than simply broadcast.

 

The Maspero Massacre

Activist new media project are categorized in five genres by Lievrouw (2011, p. 19-20): culture jamming, alternative computing, participatory journalism, mediated mobilization, and commons knowledge.

For her, culture jamming borrows, comments on, and subvert elements from popular culture (entertainment, advertising, art, music, literature, cinema and so on).

Alternative computing critiques and reconfigures the infrastructure of information and communication technologies;

Participatory journalism projects employ the ethics and practices of professional news reporting and editorial opinion to cover communities, stories, and points of view that are neglected by the mainstream press.

Mediated mobilization extends and activates the power of “live”, local social relations and organizing; commons knowledge projects reorganize and categorize information in ways that can challenge or reframe established, expert knowledge classifications of mainstream cultural institutions and disciplines.

Finally, to sum up, new media activism is based on focused participation with the goal of attaining specific changes and the usage of media with interactive features to reach its goal.

References

Cammaerts, B. and Carpentier N. (eds) (2007) Reclaiming the media: communication rights and democratic media roles. Bristol: Intellect.

Castells, M. (2009) Communication power. New York: Oxford University Press.

Crossley, N. (2002) Making sense of social movements. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Lievrouw, Leah (2011) Alternative and Activist New Media. Oxford: Polity Press