Friday, June 6, 2014

#bringbacklastingactivism

I'm not usually one to post university or school-work, mostly because it's either garbage or doesn't say 'fuck' enough. However, I'm going to post a blog that I had to write for my course because I'm a little proud of it, I'm passionate about the subject and it's very much relevant at the moment.

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Socio-political uprisings which are brought about by social media and other new media are ineffective in creating lasting change. The prominence and fast-paced nature of social-media tools can often trivialise an activist’s cause into a short-lived meme. Castells (2009) called this “instant insurgent communities” (pg. 363). As seen with the recent Nigerian Bring Back our Girls campaign, digital activism brings enormous, worldwide attention to an issue, but how long will it last before it’s forgotten? This essay will explore digital activism’s effective scalability and its ineffective sustainability, as discussed by Rossiter (2014) in his lecture. It will explore the similarities between today’s activism and the Reclaim the Streets movement of the 90s, before social media, as discussed by Klein (1999). It will finally look at Siapora (2014) and how digital activism’s short term nature is instead more effective as a tool for disruption and circumvention of strict governments.

Hashtags, memes and any other form of viral marketing is an “activist practice” (Rossiter, 2014) and only forms a small part of activism itself. While quoting David Karpf, Yang (2014) said that these are “only a single tactic in a whole repertoire of action used by advocacy groups”. In spite of this, it often seems like a cause doesn’t live beyond its practice and, therefore, dies out once it ends, which can happen very quickly. Siapora (2012) said that communication in digital activism is “more about personal experiences and narratives” and less about “a central binding idealogy” (p. 94). For example, while recent campaigns like the No Make Up Selfie for cancer research and the Bring Back Our Girls hashtag seeked to raise awareness and garner donations, there is very little to identify these campaigns with any underlying organisation or long-term cause to ensure its sustainability. It would seem that the aim of these campaigns is more on the side of scalability, seeking to get as many supporters and shares as possible, sacrificing its life beyond the scope of the campaign. One factor attributed to the issue of longevity is the lack of identifiable leaders to look over these movements and campaigns, like with the Occupy Wall Street movement for example (Rossiter, 2014). Siapora said that these weaknesses “confuse publics and ultimately sabotage efforts for change” (p. 94).

However, there is also the presence of seriality in activist practice, which Rossiter (2014) argues is only another form of sustainability. Seriality refers to practices that are repeated, either in the same or across different movements. Within the same movement or cause, the repetition of a certain practice would engender a sense of continuity of that movement, even in the absence of a clear ideological stance or organisation. Siapora (2012) says that “although on the one hand this may be seen as weakening the movement, on the other it offers it a tactical advantage as movements can regroup and reconfigure themselves with relative ease” (p. 94). If we also look at seriality in a historical light, it could be argued that social media aren’t to blame for short-lived activism and that it’s actually existed all along. We can see this from the Reclaim the Streets movement from 1995. “They camouflage identifiable leaders, and have no center or even a focal point” (Klein, 1999, p. 316). The Occupy Wall Street movement from 2011, 16 years later, also has no leader, no center and no focal point. In fact, Occupy was almost a remediation of Reclaim the Streets, as both seeked to cause disruption by occupying public spaces in protest.

However, perhaps short-term uses of social media aren’t particularly a bad thing and would perhaps be better thought of as tools for disruption and as a side-step to higher powers, like regimes and government. Speaking in terms of the recent repression in Greece, Siapora (2014) says that “disruption politics creates an opening, enables and encourages others to take part in anti-austerity politics, providing a public outlet for the anger and despair felt by many in Greece and which is prohibited and repressed in the streets and squares”.

If we also look at Arab Springs, the internet was a powerful source of disruption. Following the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, a man who had set himself on fire, Tunisians took to the internet in the absence of coverage in the state-run media. They watched YouTube videos and foreign news coverage of their government’s corruption, and “bloggers and activists pushed on, producing alternative online newscasts, creating virtual spaces for anonymous political discussions” (Howard & Hussain, 2011, p. 36). They also state that they were “communicating in ways that the state could not control, people also used digital media to arrive at strategies for action and a collective goal” (pg. 36). As mentioned earlier, in Greece, political participation in public spaces has become heavily policed and the media are simply seen as “propaganda machines” (Siapora, 2014). Siapora states that because of this, Twitter is “one of the few spaces left in Greece for the conduct of public politics”.

In conclusion, while it’s quite certain that online social movements and digital activism deal in meme-like, short-peaks of communication, in the process sacrificing longevity and sustainability, two things can be argued to that point. The first is that there is perhaps sustainability in the seriality of activist practice. Seriality within a common cause extends the life of it, even in the absence of a binding ideology. Seriality across different causes is simply a demonstration of new activist behaviours and practices, introducing an almost linked networked web between each cause. The second argument is that, regardless of seriality and sustainability, the scalability make these practices powerful tools in disruption and in the liberation of information in otherwise repressed and censored environments, such as Greece at the present moment. So perhaps it’s wrong to think of digital activism as a trivial and short-lived endeavour, and better to think of it as powerful in the short-term and somewhat sustainable in a non-traditional sense.

Hit the jump for a reference list…

References

Castells, M. (2009). Communication Power (pp. 361-364). Oxford, GBR: Oxford University Press.

Howard, P.N., & Hussain M.M. (2011). The Role of Digital Media. Journal of Democracy, 22(3), 35-48. doi:10.1353/jod.2011.0041

Klein, N. (1999). No Logo (pp. 311-323). New York, N.Y.: Picador.

Rossiter, N. (2014, May 14). Media Cultures and Industries (101926) Wednesdays @ 10:00 [Video file]. Retrieved May 19, 2014, from https://lecturesonline.uws.edu.au/ess/echo/presentation/2584cb79-3b73-46ce-abce-42ec69c86c2a/media.m4v?downloadOnly=true

Siapora, E. (2014, April 3). Disrupting Austerity on the Greek Twitter. Digital Activism #Now. Retrieved on May 21, 2014, from http://www.digitalactivismnow.org/disrupting-austerity-politics-on-the-greek-twitter-eugenia-siapera/

Siapera, E. (2012). Understanding New Media. London, UK: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Yang, G. (2014, March 14). The Historicity of Digital Activism. Digital Activism #Now. Retrieved on May 21, 2014, from http://www.digitalactivismnow.org/the-historicity-of-digital-activism-guobin-yang/

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