Digital Activism – ingroup bonding or bridging across differences? The case of #jagärhär

We live in a time where polarization of opinions is growing. Expressions of xenophobia and misogony are getting more and more normalized. Based on the premise that positive (mediated) contact with ‘others’ reduce prejudice, where are the digital initiatives that try to bridge across differences within the public sphere? Is Swedish activist group #jagärhär one of them?

One of the first lectures I listened to when I started studying Communication for Development about a year ago was from professor Silvio Waisbord (2016). He posed some questions that haven’t left me since then. He talked about how the mediated public sphere of today is characterized by “shattering of the public”, meaning that the public is no longer one single public body, but many, and in many cases disconnected from each other. Polarization is a fact. He pointed at phenomena like digital narcissism and echo chamber communication where all you see and read confirms your own world view. Based on the premise that positive (mediated) contact with ‘others’ reduce prejudice, Waisbord called for digital initiatives that try to bridge across differences within the public sphere. But he did not have one single example so far. That beat me down.

In the article Blogs and Bullets – New Media in Contentious Politics (2010) the authors propose five levels of analysis when measuring the impact of new media; individual transformation, intergroup relations, collective action, regime policies, and external attention.

When it comes to intergroup relations I find it interesting to connect it to what Waisbord talked about in his lecture. Do new media tend to “bond” group members to one another, or do they “bridge” members of different groups? Pessimists see new media’s ability to polarize while optimists see the Internet as generating positive connections and proliferating points of contact across political, sectarian or geographic divides (Aday, S., Farrell, H., Lynch, M. et al. 2010).

And as always, it’s not either or, black or white. But where are the examples Waisbord is looking for? The bridging ones? We need them, living as we do in a time where polarization is growing, xenophobic and misogynist expressions are becoming increasingly normalized  and opinions and feelings often count more than facts and science. (Look at this to get an animated explanation of how that works)

So, with this in the back of my mind I was very interested when the Swedish Facebook activist group #jagärhär (#Iamhere) started its work in May 2016. I joined the group shortly after that.

I am here – with democratic ambitions

Logotype from jagärhär#jagärhär takes its starting point in the democratic question of who has the possibility to express him/herself on the Internet. The group fights against cyber hate and connects their work to notions of click mania, filter bubbles and alternative facts. (Jag är här 2017:a)

#jagärhär further says they have succeeded in finding a practical, simple solution to a problem and that the solution is about moral courage; to strengthen people in standing up for others who are subjected to hatred and threats and to…

“…stop the polarization through having political discussions in an objective way. And to stop the spreading of disinformation by helping others to find sources with fact checked information. We believe in the good conversation as a method for several social changes. We want a change of attitude…”

(Jag är här 2017:a)

Today the group has nearly 75 000 members. Every day the administrators starts an open Facebook-thread where members can suggest comment fields in need of attention, fields filled with hatred, prejudice etc. Members/activists then go to the article or post and start posting “nuanced comments and informing about how to find fact checked information”. (Jag är här 2017:a)

The external attention has been massive. #Jagärhär has received loads of prizes and the amount of press coverage is hard to measure. The initiative has spread to other countries and can now be found in the UK, Germany, Norway, Finland and Slovakia. It is a welcome initiative, for sure, considering the current political development.

But what is actually changing?

What is the result of the work of #jagärhär? The impact? The change?

My own experience from being active a couple of times is (above all) feeling strengthened by my fellow activists who were liking my comments and standing up for me when I was questioned or “attacked” by those I “talked” to. But in no way, do I think I managed to change the position of my adversaries.

We, members of #jagärhär, managed to “drown” their comments. But were we actually just silencing these people? Or did we change anything? What did we change, except our own intergroup sense of community, our sense of courage and bravery in standing up against hatred, taking a stand? That is certainly something. It is something great, don’t misunderstand me. But if the goal is to make more voices hard, to strenghten democracy? What happen to the persons we “talk” to? What will they feel, think, do after having met such massive resistance?

This connects back to Waisboard’s call for bridging activities. Is #jagärhär an example of bridging activism? Or can this kind of activism actually make a change of attitude and mutual understanding more difficult? Or is mutual understanding no longer desirable given the growth of anti-democratic opinions and movements?

Is mutual understanding and “real” dialogue even possible using new media? Cass Sunstein, Harvard professor and author of #Republic: Diveded Democracy in the Age of Social Media, says that social media contributes to splits, division and mutual misunderstanding and then:

“We need deliberative democracy—one in which people deliberate with people who are unlike themselves, and learn from them. We need to put a premium on science and facts. We need serendipitous encounters with people and ideas that we would not choose to engage.”

(Sunstein in Liese 2017)

I mean, the aim for #jagärhär, is to stand up against cyber hate by having good conversations with people who don’t think like yourself, to let more voices be heard. Does it serve its purpose? A little or a lot?

Considering the limitations social media come with, maybe this is the best we can do: to let the haters know their hate will not be accepted, and the hated that they’re not alone.

Let me know your thoughts! I am far from finished thinking about this. And do you have other examples of digital activities aiming to bridge over poles of opinions?

Featured image
The image featured in this post is Öresundsbron, the bridge between Sweden and Denmark. The photo is taken by Susanne Nilsson and is available here. CC License.

References

Aday, S., Farrell, H., Lynch, M. et al. 2010: Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics, Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace.

Liese, D. (2017). Cass Sunstein on the echo chamber and his new book, #Republic. [online] Princeton University Press Blog. Available at: http://blog.press.princeton.edu/2017/03/07/cass-sunstein-on-the-echo-chamber-and-his-new-book-republic/ [Accessed 28 Sep. 2017].

Jag är här. (2017:a). Om oss – Jag är här. [online] Available at: https://www.jagarhar.se/om-oss/ [Accessed 28 Sep. 2017].

Jag är här. (2017;b). JAGÄRHÄR-FAQ.docx. [online] Available at: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1pZRhHrNSVdF_bC7Zf2kDKTDDTvQTBqaPRvliZ7AwQZs/edit [Accessed 28 Sep. 2017].

Waisboard, S (2016, 22 September) Communication in the society of difference: Between pluralism and (dis)engagement and discussion. [Video file] Retrieved 28 September 2017 from http://bambuser.com/v/6468333

 

3 thoughts on “Digital Activism – ingroup bonding or bridging across differences? The case of #jagärhär”

  1. Thanks for this post Frida! I didn’t know about #jagärhär, will definitely check it out!

    I liked the thoughts and questions about what #jagärhär actually changes, particularly in relation to those people that “perpetrate” the wrongdoing. Perhaps it would help to think of this in terms behavioral science and individual agency and what dimensions really affect change in a persons self-efficacy. Or as Albert Bandura would put it, an individual’s “efficacy expectations”. If the subjects you’re trying to change are continuously exposed to and experience a powerful enough source of efficacy expectations then attitudes and behavior can gradually shift. There are several dimensions of sources ranging from emotional arousal (lowest), verbal persuasion, vicarious experience, and performance (highest). If a subject is only exposed once and from a lower source then chane in behaviour is unlikely. But, a combination of a set of sources and continuous exposure could alter behavior gradually. Of course, the impact will likely depend on the subject’s degree of belief to a certain “fact”. And it is possible that he or she will get their existing efficacy expectations reinforced by their own filter bubbles. However, and here’s my point, if a sufficient number of these subjects start altering behavior and join ranks with #jagärhär, then they could become a powerful source of vicarious experience for others. These people that become “turned” could become the part of the bridge between the spaces. That’s an interesting, and encouraging, thought!

    Check out this classic read by Albert Bandura: “Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying Theory of Behavioral Change”
    https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Bandura/Bandura1977PR.pdf

    1. Hi Emanuel!
      Thank you for your comment. You are certainly adding valuable thoughts and theories, that I felt was missing when I was writing. I don’t have enough knowledge about behavioural change to really know what makes a person change his/her opinion or feeling of certainty but I really follow what you’re saying and it makes sense. Will take a closer look at Bandura, for sure. But another thing is that the “others” – in this case people spreading cyber hate, racism, prejudice etc. is not a homogenous group and not organized as far as I know. So, I don’t know if one really influences another – if they don’t identify with each other from the beginning. (Well, yes, some of them are organized, I guess, since there have been threats against many active members of the group from Granskning Sveige). It would be very interesting to know if there are known cases of people that have “turned” and joined #jahärhär after having been subjected (enough times) to their counter strategies. The whole question of impact and change connected to new media would certainly make for an interesting thesis 🙂

  2. Just saw this very interesting article on the same topic, of bridging vs bonding in social media with the help of technology (controlling algorithms in a creative, bridging way).
    https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/10/facebook-zuckerberg-friend-swap/541881/

    Some excerpts from “The Social Experiment Facebook should run”:

    “This study points to some creative ways that Facebook can promote political bridging among its users—and develop some WD-40 against threats to democracy in the process. Let’s say that Facebook created a new feature called “Friend Swap” for users interested in creating connections with people outside of their political bubble. The company could use its powerful algorithms to match users with someone who, based on their individual preferences and posts, they disagree with politically, but have some things in common with personally. What’s important is that the users don’t engage over political issues, at least until they’ve had time to build some social trust. If you’re a liberal, you might not be so open to being thrown whole-hog into a conservative stranger’s feed and reading their posts from Fox News. But you may find some common ground around, say, rooting for the same sports team, or shared musical tastes or experiences, like being a veteran.”

    “Trying to “socially engineer” relationships, even for the purposes of political cross-pollination, might go against the grain of a company that has been built upon a principle of fierce neutrality. But Russian operatives’ attempts to use Facebook to disrupt American democracy demonstrates that neutrality no longer seems be an option, if it ever really was one in the first place. On Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, Zuckerberg acknowledged as much, asking for forgiveness for “the ways [Facebook] was used to divide people rather than bring us together.” Facebook has the talent and the resources to help unite people in defense of democratic values, if it has the will to do it.”

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