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Workshop note on digital media and socio-political change

March 3, 2015

By Victor Lasa

On 20 February 2015, Dr John Postill convened a workshop with fellow RMIT scholars and research students around the topic of “Digital media and socio-political change”. Participants came from a range of disciplinary and professional backgrounds, including anthropology, journalism, economics, and cultural studies (see their profiles here). The aim of the workshop was to get to know each other’s work and research interests and explore potential collaborations.

One of the threads emerging from the discussions was the idea that the internet has been considered a space for political contestation of power since its very inception. John Grimes and Barney Warf discussed the political nature of internet and its different actors as early as 1997 (Grimes & Warf 1997). The internet is, among many other things, a space for activism, including avant-garde, counter-hegemonic approaches. The most obvious expressions of political counter-hegemonic activism are well-known groups like Anonymous; networks of people from around the globe working together, and operating “on ideas rather than directives” (Kelly 2012, p. 1678). They typically present disruptive political discourses with the intention of challenging the existing structures of power.

There are other active groups with equally disruptive approaches, but different intentions. Crypto-anarchist groups with a strong libertarian, radical free-trade approach collaborate both online and face-to-face around Silicon Valley to build new state-less legal structures, as pointed out by the workshop participant Trent MacDonald.

The internet has given a new hyper-connectivity dimension to everyday politics, becoming instrumental for the development of several post-global financial crisis (GFC) socio-political movements of protest and change globally. These movements have often been misinterpreted by conventional analysts as a mere attention-attracting circus, usually being associated with existing political ideologies or organizations. However, the origin and development of these movements are typically not related to existing political organizations. They all have been characterized by a leader-less, network-style structure that used the internet to grow exponentially via emotional virality (Toret 2013).

The need for new paradigms in socio-political information management was at the core of the movement, which originated in the internet. The ‘Indignados’ movement gradually evolved from an online phenomenon to a face-to-face encounter in the streets of Spain that lasted several weeks. Afterwards, a mixture of digital media activity and regular street assemblies progressively lead to the creation of a new political party: Podemos (Spanish for ‘We can’). Smartly articulating the political message encrypted in the ‘Indignados’ chaotic, non-partisan movement, Podemos revolutionized the Spanish political landscape using a conventional hierarchical structure with a strong leadership. Although they always remained active in digital media, they built their popularity using the mainstream media. This resulting hybrid approach is an example of the potential of the internet to initiate political change, but perhaps also its inability to execute it without the contribution of conventional approaches.

Next meeting

These discussions raised awareness among workshop participants about the considerable gap existing in academic literature regarding digital media and socio-political change. The incognita is the magnitude of the socio-political change digital media can really drive. Unless the movement leads to a clear regime change, as was the case in Tunisia or Egypt, a macro analysis doesn’t clarify the real impact. Macro indicators can ignore changes at the micro level. More specific, narrowed-down research that focuses on measurable variables is needed. Following specific social groups and studying their behavior or status quo before and after the movements could be a good methodology to determine the magnitude of change.

After discussing several options, participants decided to meet again in June 2015 to discuss the recent ‘Umbrella’ revolution in Hong Kong (Hilgers 2015). Using a multi-disciplinary approach, the group will aim to understand the origin, structure, dynamics, purpose and outcome of the revolution, focusing on the digital aspects of the phenomenon. The ‘Umbrella’ revolution will be compared to similar post-GFC movements like the Arab Spring or Occupy, in order to find similarities and contrasts.

References

Grimes, J and Warf, B (1997), ‘Counterhegemonic discourses and the Internet’, The Geographical Review, 87.2 (April 1997):p259

Hilgers, L (2015), ‘Hong Kong’s Umbrella revolution isn’t over yet’, The New York Times, viewed on 1 March 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/magazine/hong-kongs-umbrella-revolution-isnt-over-yet.html?_r=0

Kelly, BB (2012), ‘Investing in a centralized cybersecurity infrastructure: Why “hacktivism” can and should influence cybersecurity reform’, Boston University Law Review, Vol. 92:1663 2012

Toret, J. (2013). Tecnopolítica: la potencia de las multitudes conectadas. El sistema red 15M, un nuevo paradigma de la política distribuida. IN3 Working Paper Series.

 

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