The Participatory Panopticon: Discipline through Social Media

by Richard van Schaik on March 21, 2015

In his book “Discipline & Punish” Foucault famously describes his concept of the ‘Panopticon’ prison. The cells are build in a big circle, in the middle of which sit the prison guard. The guards can observe the inmates at all time, but the inmates cannot see when they are being looked at. This “induces in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” The prisoner does not need to be actually be observed anymore, because the awareness that he is possibly being observed automatically exercises a disciplining power on him. In this post, I will discuss the transformative power that social media can effectuate when it acts as a panopticon. Does society become like the disciplined prisoner, when each transgression is possibly being recorded?

We have seen numerous examples in the recent years where people capture abuses with their phones (often hiddingly). When published online, this can draw the attention of thousands of people. In some cases, this has led to the perpetrators being brought before justice. Several NGO’s such as Witness and Videre have used video recording equipment to document human rights abuses. They put a strong emphasis on bringing about social change. Witness’ motto is “See it. Film it Change it.” Videre’s founder stated in a TED video that the video’s, most importantly,  are not broadcasted to the world, but to the abusers themselves. Then they know that they are being watched, “their impunity is broken.”

Whereas the notion of citizen journalists still requires the ‘journalists’ to be present and to have the right equipment, this is rapidly changing in the modern day. Already in 2005 Jamais Cascio coined the term ‘Participatory Panopticon‘. He wrote that the idea of a Big Brother will be relatively meaningless as it will be “overwhelmed by the millions of cameras and recorders in the hands of millions of Little Brothers and Little Sisters. We will carry with us the tools of our own transparency, and many, perhaps most, will do so willingly, even happily.” People will observe each other constantly, surveillance will happen from below, sousveillance.

What could this mean for racism? Previously a camera could bring a single individual to court for violating the law. In an age where camera’s are omnipresent and where every person can turn into a reporter, one does not know when one is being watched. The mere though that someone could be watching, already induces a disciplinary power. This could have profound effects on the offline world. For example, during a job interview there might be a hidden camera filming everything – possibly damaging the companies reputation if any discrimination would occur. Also a policeman knows that, even when no one else is around, he might still be watched.

The participatory panopticon has turned us all into the prison guards and the inmates at the same time. It has blurred the lines between private and public, online and offline. It might well bring about the end of public misbehaviour.

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Culture jamming; cure or curse?

by Sophia Bengtsson on March 14, 2015

The importance of any technology comes from the way that people appropriate it and make it useful within the boundaries of their cultural context. So when we talk about twitter as an important contribution to the Arab Spring and other recent political changes, Manuel Castells reminds us that social media is a tool whose sociotechnical features mirror the trends of social practice in those countries, not like something which fundamentally changes social organization.

Castells suggests that one of the side-effects of gaining ground by being an alternative media activist is the requirement to adapt to mainstream media’s form and language. This provides an interesting bridge to what Leah Lievrouw calls “culture jamming”; a variety of ways in which alternative media allows for juxtapositioning, reconstructing, fragmentation of mainstream media to create radically different messages that expose inequalities, inconsistencies and abuse of power. Culture jamming often uses popculture form, but turning it on its head to reveal the problematic structures hidden inside. Not a new phenomenon, culture jamming should rather be seen as the continuation of a long tradition of subversions and parodies that vastly precede the internet and new media.


Banksy is probably one of the most famous culture jammer of our time. He is most known for his oevres of graffiti and often combines culturally well-known symbols with crude, realist messages that expose the hypocrisies and horrors of our time. His latest project was a trip to Gaza, where he created several pieces aimed at getting the world to act in defense of Palestinians. Apart from his usual graffitti-style pieces, Banksy also created a short documentary titled “Make this the year you discover a new destination“, playing with traditional marketing formats for tourist destinations, while shedding light on the hardships of everyday life in Gaza.


Banksy uses phrases from travel ads ironically, like “well away from the tourist track (access via a network of illegal tunnels)”; “the locals like it so much they never leave”; “watched over by friendly neighbors”, “development opportunities are everywhere”, contrasted with images of armed military, barbed wire and bombs going off. One of the most central pieces are shown in the videoclip. It looks vaguely like Rodin’s “The Thinker”, but it’s placed in the midst of bombed houses and the person is more likely protecting herself than philosophizing. Banksy first uploaded a picture of the piece titled “bomb damage” to his instagram account two weeks ago. It aready has over 14.000 likes.



(picture from Note how the picture is taken to display the Israeli watchtower in the back)

Last week a group of Gazan parkourers created a video-reply to Banksy’s documentary, titled “Yes, Banksy, this is Gaza”, where they invite Banksy to come back to Gaza. “I’m sure we can find you someplace to stay“, one of the young guys in the video says. “but there are over 12.000 people in Gaza needing homes”; “We can offer you bread and water, but 90% of the water is undrinkable”. The video shows some of Banksy’s artwork, but more importantly it follows the group around as they perform somersaults, jump off buildings and throw themselves over obstacles around Gaza. It’s a powerful way of taking back the narrative, while continuing the juxtaposition between hope/despair and capitalism/poverty that was used in Banksy’s clip.

There is a discussion concerning culture jamming and its limitations to achieve real change. One of the reasons is that the sort of co-optation that is the basis of culture jamming, is increasingly used also by commercial actors. Culture jamming is powerful precisely because it cannot be controlled, but this means that it flows in all directions at the same time, and a symbol can be hijacked by anyone, for any purpose. Even in mainstream culture, the notion of subculture, rebellion and indivudualism is gaining increasing ground, and producers of consumer goods often borrow from these subcultures because they know it sells well. Lievrouw argues that subcultures and alternative media are sometimes even complicitly engaging in the cross-fertilization of symbols and messages.

The lines are indeed blurry. Consider, for example, John Oliver, a well-known British satirist with his own HBO-show, wherein he consistently mocks big corporations, often by turning their logos into their exact opposite and generally uses guerilla semiotics to expose them. One recent example is his bashing of tobacco company Philip Morris, where Oliver created a new logo (“Jeff the Diseased Lung in a Cowboy Hat“)  to replace the “Marlboro man”. Oliver’s staff had posters printed and hung them in various places around the world. The hashtag #JeffWeCan started a minor Twitterstorm.


But how shall we think about this? In terms of impact, John Oliver’s segment was definitely effective, and sparked a general discussion about the power and influence of tobacco companies and their marketing strategies. But does the fact that Oliver himself is employed by HBO for a hugely successful tv-show in any way diminish his takedown of a crony capitalist company? As Lievrouw says, the lines are increasingly blurred between what is “alternative” and what is just alternative-like portrayal of the mainstream.

Similar difficulties have been discussed in the context of anti-colonial and anti-racism social media campaigns. Suey Park has spoken and written much about how to use -especially- hashtags to gather momentum to expose racial bias and stereotyping in the mainstream media. But the risk of corporations and other organizations (NGOs etc) co-opting the messages for their own benefits and thereby diluting the cause is something which must always be taken into consideration.

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Technology and Capitalism as a Remedy for Racism

March 13, 2015

In the United States today, numerous people of color are embracing” smartphone-based ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft. For them this serves as a way to circumvent discrimination from traditional taxicab drivers. This approach seem to be effective. In 2014 alone, the Uber founder and its investors shared of the company’s reported  $18.2 billion valuation which […]

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New media, activism and racist internet trolls

March 13, 2015

In her book Alternative and Activist New Media, Leah A. Lievrouw identifies four characteristics that set new media apart from other media forms and systems. In terms of design and use, new media are continuously recombinant and complexly and dynamically networked. With regard to their social consequences, people now take for granted new media’s ubiquity […]

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Twacism: Online Racism and the Illusion of Anonymity

March 8, 2015

Social media is often portrayed as a tool of empowerment and overcoming traditional barriers. Sadly, it can also be used for the perpetuation of existing discriminatory attitudes and remarks. The fact this is happening to a great extent has even led to the coinage of the term ‘Twicism’ or ‘Twacists’. An online article remarked how […]

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Why Online Activism Against Racism Doesn’t Achieve as Tangible Results as Offline Racism Activism.

March 3, 2015

Today, social media has become one of the most important global leaps forward in recent human history. It affords platforms for self-expression and promotes mutual understanding. Social media creates a sense of belonging for the user. Therefore, by participating in an online activism campaign, the social media user feels like they are contributing their own quota […]

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Self-representation and racial bias

March 1, 2015

One important aspects of new digital tools for communication is its way of allowing for a more diverse group of voices to be heard. Nico Carpentier (in Cammaerts & Carpentier ) discusses the fact that one of the main roles of new and more participatory media is to facilitate self-representation of marginalized groups. This means effectively […]

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Hashtagging our way through barriers?

February 16, 2015

The fact that new and social media can help strenghten and mobilize social movements became clear during the Arab Spring, even if the exact role it played has been debated ad infinitum ever since (see, for example PITPI; Evgeny Morozov; Bad Subjects etc). A quick google search reveals that much more has been written about racism in new […]

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Big Data against Racism

February 14, 2015

Twitter’s 288 million monthly active users send 500 million Tweets into the world per day. The information, opinions, discussions and so on, provide ample data for further analysis. There are virtually no limits to the amount of data that computers can process. This has led to much enthusiasm about the ‘Big Data’-revolution. The research project […]

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