Art + Activism + Humor = Creative Disruption?

Throwing a pie in the face of an authority or high profile figure to protest against their political or public standpoint, known also as ‘pieing’ has long been a staple strategy of Tactical Media’s political activism-meets-humor style. Tactical Media, as defined by David Garcia and Geert Lovink, is the inexpensive, do-it-yourself media activities and approaches, often used by groups and individuals who feel wronged by governing powers or excluded from the wider society, as a way of speaking out. As a form of popular protest, it couldn’t be more different from mainstream media. Tactical Media is never neutral nor does it merely report events. Using the pent up angst and frustrations as fuel, tactical media is born out of crisis and as an offshoot of the Culture Jamming genre, it often relies on art, pranks and parody as tools of criticism and opposition. The aim of Tactical Media activities is to present the view of the world as seen from the disenfranchised masses.

A good example of an organization that blends art, social activism and humor is the aptly named art collective from Barcelona called Enmedio, meaning ‘In the midst of’ in Spanish. This collective of artists came together back in 2001 to protest against the World Bank meeting in Barcelona, in which they pulled off a (simple phone and media exposure) prank at the expense of the Barcelona Stock Exchange that escalated into riot police being brought in (in an overreaction on the part of the authorities) and ultimately causing the Exchange to be closed for 2 days.  Enmedio soldiered on with various pranks, parody and art projects on issues like housing, public evictions and unemployment, garnering public support and participation along the way as the financial crisis of 2008 began rolling out its devastating effects in the Spanish society.

paroMonumental-300x190As unemployment figures in Spain hit a record high recently, one of Enmedio’s latest exploits from last summer involved flying a huge yellow balloon with the words ‘Spain – World Champion of Unemployment’ next to the Christopher Columbus statue in downtown Barcelona, which like other public monuments and venues in urban cities across Spain, it has been sold out as a commercial billboard to the highest bidder. At the time of the prank, Senor Columbus can be seen wearing a giant football jersey of the Barcelona FC with Qatar Airways sponsorship. The balloon may not have survived any stretch of longevity, but what was important was having created the space, however temporary, for reflection and dialogue about the current contradictions surrounding the social existence in Spain. Online activism may be alive and well, and having contributed to community empowerment and social change, but artistic stunts like this offer participants a moment of solidarity and an opportunity to come together to take public action against instances of what many Spaniards perceive as the State’s social devaluing of their quality of life. Like pieing, Enmedio’s brand of art activism works at striking at the core of the problem or a social issue precisely because it’s built on the premise of simplicity and bold in-your-face parody acts (pun intended). By ‘transforming anger into fun’, it seeks to reclaim the power back to the people, not through force, but through offline participatory tongue-in-cheek satire and creative humor.

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How do we know what we know? The case of Google bombing


How often do we hand over the responsibility of knowing to a machine? If you don’t know something, just Google it! There is a great deal of concerns and discussions, especially in education field, where ability to search the internet is juxtaposed to the general knowledge and considered much more relevant. One could agree as in this era of information and technology we assume that we can find everything online and there is no point in knowing it by heart. However, the virtual space contains as much information as misinformation. Having the skill to browse without having enough knowledge to critically filter the information would probably just support the statement that “we live in an era of smart phones and stupid people” (by unknown).

Despite all our personal feelings towards the internet, we must admit that denying the importance of it in production of what we know would be just blowing against the wind. With the appearance of web 2.0, internet has grown beyond its mode of vast library and document repository to what Lievrouw calls a cultural festival where everyone can contribute. Highly flexible networks of links among people, systems, places, and information resources afforded by the internet opened new possibilities for collaboration. Possibility for collective action gave opportunity to create common knowledge projects, where a number of participants are involved in producing a resource (see E. Kluitenberg, “Constructing the Digital Commons”). The quality of the resource becomes greater as the number of participants who contribute to its comprehensiveness and diversity grow.

In the digital world search engines serve as pathways to information resources we seek. According to SEs algorithms, the better the walking route is – to the more valuable resource it leads. This is where it becomes important of how high in the search results a web page appears. So, if to rely on the initial idea of using online search, it would let you google what you need, check the first results (which mean the most relevant information) and assume to know-it-all while singing Pink Floyd’s “We don’t need no education”. Here comes a little tip – hold your horses before you do that.

As much as collective action can produce a resource of quality, it can also generate different resources of misinformation or rumor, such as Google bombs that were originally known as “search engine bombs” (before Google became the ubiquitous, default term for online search). Google bombing means collective hyperlinking strategy intended to change the search results of a specific term or phrase. The idea is to get many web pages to link to the target homepage and use the same anchor text in order to manipulate the relative ranking of an Internet search term and thereby, through collective action online, create alternate realities. Google bombs can vary from covering political subjects to historical pranks and much more.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the most famous cases of Google bombing: “French military victories” and “miserable failure”. A few years ago if you were to enter “French military victories” into Google search and hit “I’m feeling lucky” button, the page that appeared would have asked “Did you mean French military defeats?” as if such thing as French victories didn’t exist. It would be difficult to argue that this is something more than a harmless funny prank, as long as no one with zero general knowledge takes it for granted.

However, the “miserable failure” example already falls into a different level. Around the time President George W. Bush was running for his second term in office, a Google search for “miserable failure” returned the president’s White House biography page as the top result. Such digital political protest was discussed widely resulting in various speculations about people behind it and bombing of other political figures. Although Google removed the search results at the time, it is up to this day being mentioned and discussed through a variety of different web pages, which leaves a black mark in how President Bush has been and is represented. Also, let’s not forget different search engines, such as Yahoo, where if you enter “miserable failure”, you still get President’s web page as the top result.

Searching for "miserable failure" in Yahoo results in George W. Bush webpage as the top result.

Searching for “miserable failure” in Yahoo results in George W. Bush webpage being displayed as the top result.

As Google success has been built on its search algorithm’s ability to return relevant web pages and weed out irrelevant results, the company updated their algorithm in 2007 in order to defuse bombs. However, there are still ways to artificially inflate Google rankings to show your opinion. Try searching for “completely wrong” and Google will show you pictures of Mitt Romney, the Republican Nominee for the US Presidential Election in 2012. Some may argue that this does not relate much to knowledge production, but let’s admit that images circulating in society have affect on groups and individuals (see D. Garcia & G. Lovink “The ABC of Tactical Media”). Google bombing in this case serves as a way for activists to collaborate and challenge, criticize and oppose existing reality truths with alternative ones by manipulating the power of representation.

Posted in Alternative Computing, Commons Knowledge, Culture Jamming | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Whatever happened to Kony2012?

By now, chances are that anyone with a facebook or twitter account and Internet access has heard of the viral social media campaign, Kony2012. However, the above image is actually from the website, created by American university students as a parody of the famous campaign, to make fun of the campaign’s donor centered approach which is seemingly more interested in pandering to the egos of young and wired slacktivists. It’s certainly not the first, nor one of the few parodies made of the campaign. You may be wondering why a well-intentioned activist effort for global justice should be met with so much disdain.

The original 30-minute video with slick production values was envisioned as a social experiment aimed at raising awareness among young people in the Global North – the generation who grew up as ‘native digitalists’ – to challenge them into taking action to bring the brutal Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony to justice. The viewers are asked to share the video on social media channels, and later on an assigned date march out en masse to plaster their local communities with posters of the campaign. It is believed that this mass action would result in gaining enough attention of world leaders that they would be pressured into deploying troops to Uganda to capture Kony. It is estimated that 100 million people have seen the video since its launch last spring. The San Diego based organization behind the video, Invisible Children was overwhelmed by the immediate attention the video received, and it would seem that they were also equally caught off guard by the hailstorm of backlash and criticism that followed. There was then a counter backlash by IC’s supporters as netizens who were divided into camps of pro and against positions deuced it out all over the media and blogosphere for weeks afterwards.

Kony2012 is probably one of the best examples of mediated mobilization, of how social media is increasingly being used as the major channel for activism and advocacy. The instant connectivity and interactivity features of ‘hypermediacy’ and ‘immediacy’ (borrowing from Bolter & Grusin’s terms on Remediation) of social media networking sites help organizations to coordinate offline activities across borders easily and with low costs, and ideas and messages can reach a global wide audience in no-time. But therein also lies the problem with Kony2012 and other social media campaigns like it. Best explained in Beyond #Kony2012: Atrocity, Awareness + Activism in the Internet Age, a collection of short essays on this social media phenomenon, critics have pointed out that it’s a practice of superficiality and a reinforcement of the clicktivism feel good culture when the success of a campaign hinges on the ability to produce a cool video with a simplified narrative, galvanizing a largely western, young, urban audience to buy plastic armbands and forwarding a video in support of the cause while changing little on the ground. Others have criticized the harm Kony2012 can cause when the overall context and history of the Ugandan conflict is being reduced to a hip video which centers on the heroic magnanimity of IC’s co-founder Jason Russell, and overlooking the hard work that local activists have carried out for years – it reinforces the post-colonialist development model of the ‘white man’s burden’ at best, and at worst, it can unleash unintended violence on Ugandan villagers if military actions are deployed to capture Kony as demanded by Kony2012. Aid workers and NGOs also argue that the Kony2012 campaign could use the lessons learned from the Save Darfur social campaign from a few years ago, in which awareness raising tactics not only fell short of creating sustainable changes and outcomes for the target community but created adverse effects, because the presumed solutions came from external do-gooders with little homegrown perspectives.

Evgeny Morozov, author of To Save Everything, Click Here, coined the term ‘Digital Solutionism’ to explain that in the new hyper-connected and fast paced society, digital solutions are being presumed as the way to go without due diligence as complex situations are often reduced to an oversimplified, straightforward, black and white, good guy/villain dichotomy. It’s easier to retain the attention of the audience if the problem and proposed solution is presented in a quick, attractive and interesting package, especially against the backdrop of the inefficiency of big, international bureaucracies like the UN and EC. Clay Shirky, who writes on the effects of internet on society, further contends that while we can safely say that social media have enhanced and facilitated the success of many collective activist efforts, it wins the best supporting role award instead in the realm of mediated mobilization. This is because while social media’s contribution should not be taken lightly, its real potential actually lies in providing a public platform for the discourse that could gradually produce social changes in civil society, rather than being blindly hailed as the universal remedy to all social problems.

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Between hacktivism and cyberwar – where do we draw the line?


The Future of Security – from The Economist KAL’s Cartoon

Albert Einstein once said: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” Whether it is true or not I will leave to find out for those who live up to the WW4, but as for WW3, I think I know what army I would choose to have – an army of geeks equipped with brilliant knowledge in programming; or, to put it simply, a bunch of hackers.

Today we live in a cyber society and there is no essential need to look for scholar researches to prove that. Have you ever used Facebook, Twitter, or bought something online? Do you read online news or write your works by browsing through online databases? There are endless examples, that one can come up with straight on spot, of ways in which we interact with technology on everyday or, most often, hourly basis. (In case you have no clue what Facebook is and you happen to read this just because somebody left a piece of weird equipment lying around with this blog open, I recommend you to click here and read about digital divide (quick hint: page 177). In any other case, also do the same).

As R.Deibert and R.Rohozinski mention in their article “Liberation vs. Control: the Future of Cyberspace”, everyday there seems to be a new example of ways in which human ingenuity combines with technology to further social change and, when looking  at these examples of social innovation, one might easily assume that cyber-technologies possess a special power – a power of freedom. The technological infrastructure itself becomes the arena for expression and social change. This is where we finally come to hacktivism.

Activist technologists design, build, and “hack” or reconfigure systems with the purpose of resisting political, commercial, and state restraints on open access to information and the use of information technologies. While creating and using Linux, free and open source software, has nothing to do with criminal activities, taking over government’s webpage already does. Hacktivism varies from, according to Lievrouw, naïve at the best to terroristic at the worst. Doesn’t matter how controlled the cyberspace is, hackers find a way to demonstrate a position, raise awareness or simply overcome all the limits in order to bring change. In the most simple case we have two opponents – governments or commercial corporations against activists skilled in programming, who more or less represent the “people’s voice”.

However, what troubles me here is that the same technologies that give voice to hacktivists can be used by governments in order to influence global politics and interfere into the foreign decision making. In order to make myself clear, I want to draw attention to one of many examples. Estonia, 2007, government’s decision to relocate Bronze Soldier of Tallinn – a marker of Soviet era and Russian imperialism – from the main square to Tallinn Military Cemetery. This decision was followed by cyber attacks on the websites of Estonian parliament, banks, ministries, broadcasters and newspapers. Up to this day it is not fully clear whether this case was a truly patriotic hacktivism or Russian government hiding behind a group of hackers – when it comes to Russia, it is widely believed that security services hire hackers to fight for the motherland in cyberspace (R.Deibert & R.Rohozinski).

Similar actions make it difficult to determine the origin of such attacks: is it government or citizens acting independently? Perhaps both? If under government’s decision soldiers cross foreign borders with a purpose to attack, it is considered a war. What about crossing the borders in cyberspace?

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On the crisis of the disappearance of print media and traditional journalism



In the above satiric video from The Onion, ‘How Will the End of Print Journalism Affect Old Loons Who Hoard Newspapers?’, political satirists make fun of the panic mongering discourse that has been surrounding the apparent imminent demise of print journalism. The blame here lies of course with the advent of the digital age and the changing nature of the practice of journalism. The concern with the disappearance of traditional journalism and print media is understandable, with ICT being used to replace more and more communication practices in our lives.

Participatory Journalism, a form of new media activism as exemplified by the many citizen-led blogs and media projects, chat forums and listservs available today, is clearly changing the way news are being reported and disseminated, and to some extent one of the contributing factors challenging the existence of traditional journalism. Citizens, or the ‘people formerly known as the audience’ getting behind reporting roles has made news reporting and news consumption a seamless circle, blurring the lines between producer and consumer. Participatory journalism’s horizontal, online, peer network style of information sharing and collaboration has made access to information and news item coverage easy, more varied and democratic. As such, it has shifted the power position by challenging the role of conventional media’s top-down, institutional, one-to-many informational channel as public mediator and agenda setter, breaking the hold that traditional media have on what is reported and what to exclude. Citizen involvement in reporting news and issues that affect their lives and community further contributes to localized agency empowerment and widens the competence circle of investigative journalism.

It would seem then that the way of the future lies with participatory journalism but it has nonetheless been criticized for being amateurish and unreliable. Vincent Maher, a communication critic posits that there are 3 deadly ‘E’s of citizen journalism: Ethics, Economics, and Epistemology, with a possible fourth ‘E’ for Editing. There is the concern that citizen journalists who are self taught, and ruled by self-interest and subjectivity lack the ethical codes and standards of professional journalists, and risk news reporting that could be founded on rumor and infused with fiction. Individual and non-profit outfits of this alternative form of journalism also often have funding vulnerabilities, leading them on a bias to cover popular trends. The last 2 ‘E’s account for the messy, free-for-all blogosphere culture. Without the intervention and expertise of editors, who serve as gatekeepers and fact checkers, much of the information and interaction on blogs and online news sites can be convoluted, unprofessional and inaccurate. There are also more occurrences of stand alone pieces which are not positioned under a wider issue umbrella, and therefore lacks the development of a long term perspective on a certain topic that is chosen and reported on.

Beyond the debates of traditional vs. participatory journalism, there are also other questions to be asked. With so many avenues to choose from, one must ask if there’s a difference between media diversity and media plurality? Simply having more choices doesn’t necessarily mean more plural content that reflects different societal norms, views and values. Secondly, is having more diversity and plurality really useful – can there be too much of a good thing? Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe argues that too much effort given to ensuring all views are represented and all parties are given equal platform can sometimes backfire, by causing the lack of crucial debates that are center to the evolution of ideas and societal progress, because the necessary ‘antagonisms’ found in contentious, differing views are all but stifled in respect to the acknowledgement of diversity.

There is also the illusion of freedom of choice – if the diversity of choices are market and profit driven, are they really free choices? Not to forget in the equation is the audience, whose pictures are often painted as being reactive and sovereign but who may in fact be more passive and subdued than we think. How are our cultural production processes, from whence we derive meanings for our social existence being changed in the new networked century? And lastly, must the new always replace the old, or can a new form of hybrid journalism which incorporates citizen activism and new media be the way forward?

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