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
#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?
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