Activism and Social Media
Mamfakinch: From Protest Slogan to Mediated Activism. Annemarie Iddins, Fairfield University. [CN: rape.]
Iddens argues that the digital must be understood as part of a network of different media – the Mamfakinch collective only makes sense as a response to the limitations of the Moroccan media (which combines strong state influence with neoliberal tendencies). Morocco’s uprising, referred to as M20, used “Mamfakinch” (no concessions) as a slogan. Mamfakinch was developed as a citizen media portal, modelled over Nawaat. M20 was largely focused on reform of the existing political system. Protests were mostly planned online. The collective moves effectively between on and offline locations, supporting some campaigns and sparking others. Amina Filali was a 16 year old who swallowed rat poison after marrying her rapist. Protests took place in physical space and online to change the laws, and nearly two years after Filali’s death the laws that allowed rapists to escape prosecution if they married those they’d raped were changed. Mamfakinch was closed in 2014 after attack from a government-backed spyware attack and loss of momentum. Founders started the Association for Digital Rights (ADN), which is still attempting to register as an organisation. What began as an attempt to establish a viable opposition in Morocco has resulted in a restructuring of the norms of how Moroccans interact with power.
The Purchase of Witnessing in Human Rights Activism. Sandra Ristovska, University of Colorado Boulder. Witnessing is often associated with notions of ‘truth-telling’: this paper maps out two different modes of witnessing. Witnessing an event: bearing witness for historical and ethical reasons. Today, we a see a shift towards witnessing for a purpose. This second mode means that witnessing is very much shaped by a sense of strategic framing for a particular audience. If your end-goal is to appeal to a public audience, or a court, the imperatives are different: do you focus on a particular aesthetic, or on making sure that you get key details (such as badge numbers of police, or landmark shots to show where an event takes place). The push towards shaping witnessing towards particular audiences and institutional contexts can constrain, or oven silence, the voices of activists. Activists may feel they can’t let their own passion, or own voice, speak through as they attempt to meet institutional needs to be heard.
Citizen Media and Civic Engagement. Divya C. McMillin, University of Washington – Tacoma. This research examined the conditions that support particular forms of mobilisation and engagement on the ground: how do movements endure, and how do grassroots movements reclaim local spaces. There were two local case studies of grassroots tourism efforts which aim to preserve heritage and promote eco-friendly environments: Anthony’s Kolkata Heritage Tours, and Native Place in Bangalore. McMillin draws on Massey’s understanding of place as not already-existing, but as becoming – place is transformed by use. Indian cities are changing massively, with seven major Indian cities targeted for “megacity” or “smart city” development which makes them sites of urgent struggle for those living there. Using translation as a theoretical framework allows us to understand negotiations within the global economy: a translation of meaning through the opportunities of encounter. The way in which a space is translated into a place of consumption can also work to reclaim places in ways that the government doesn’t facilitate.
Whose Voices Matter? Digital Media Spaces and the Formation of New Publics in the Global South
What Happens When the Subaltern Speaks?: Worker’s Voice in Post-Socialist China. Bingchun Meng, London School of Economics. It is important to emphasise the class dimension of how we understand the subaltern. Chinese migrant works can be understood as the subaltern (drawing on Sun 2014). The Hukou system divides and discriminates against the rural population. There is a concentration of symbolic resources and an exercise of epistemic violence, with the marginalisation of migrant workers within China. Migrant workers are represented as the other: the looming spectre of social slippage for the children of middle-class urban people, a force for social instability that needs to be contained. Xu Lizhi’s poetry explores the experiences of migrant workers (he committed suicide, working for Foxconn). Fan Yusu’s writing is, however, more well-known within China, and some is available in English translation. She’s in her mid-40s, from rural Hubei, and works in Beijing as a domestic helper. Her writing draws extensively on Chinese literary tradition, and demonstrates a strong egalitarian view. Responses to her writing have included an outpouring of sympathy from the urban middle-class (which positions the subaltern as disadvantaged); warnings from urban elites against mixing literary criteria with moral judgement (seeing the subaltern as uneducated); and criticism of Fan’s writing about her employer (seeing the subaltern as ungrateful). Fan Yusu’s responses to journalists are not always what they expect: for example, she refuses the valuing of intellectual over physical work.
Social Media and Censorship: the Queer Art Exhibition Case in Brazil. Michel Nicolau Netto, State University of Campinas, and Olívia Bandeira, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. [CN: homophobia.] Physical violence cannot be understood if we don’t take into account symbolic violence. As an emblematic example, we see the murder of Marielle Franco, which can be understood as a violent response to seeing the subaltern voice start to be valued. This research looks at the Queermuseum Art Exhibition. After the exhibition opened, a man visited wearing a shirt reading “I’m a sexist, indeed”, and recorded the video calling visitors names such as “perverted” and “pedophile” – he shared this on a right-wing Facebook group (“Free Brazil Movement”). After this was further shared, the Santander bank hosting the exhibition cancelled it. Posts about the exhibition were then shared even more widely: right-wing groups were empowered by their success. Most-shared posts in Brazil are disproportionately those from the right wing. The bank’s actions can be seen as a way of supporting the extension of neoliberalism in Brazil, via the strengthening of right-wing extremism.
Sound Clouds: Listening and Citizenship in Indian Public Culture. Aswin Punathambekar, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Selfies as Voice?: Digital Media, Transnational Publics and the Ironic Performance of Selves. Wendy Willems, London School of Economics and Political Science. African digital users are often seen as being on the other side of the digital divide, not contributing to digital culture. This research looks at responses to boastful selfies from a Zimbabwean businessman, Philip Chiyangwa, mostly in Shona and aimed at discussion within the Zimbabwean diaspora (rather than aimed at an external public). There’s an online archive of 3000 images – often playful and ironic selfies and videos exploring the idea of zvirikufaya (“things are fine”). Discussions between diasporic and home-based Zimbabweans played with the history of colonisation, and reinforced or subverted the idea that diasporic Zimbabweans take on demeaning work overseas (for example, a woman in Australia filming herself being served in a cafe by a white man). Willems is keen to situate discussions of the transnational within a particular historical context, and to shift from ‘flowspeak’ to thinking more about mediated encounters. Diasporas can be seen as fundamentally postcolonial, understanding shifts as being responses specifically to the impacts of colonisation (“we are here because you were there” – A. Sivanandan). How do we understand the role of digital media in transnationalising publics?
Digital Constellations: The Individuation of Digital Media and the Assemblage of Female Voices in South Korea. Jaeho Kang, SOAS, University of London. We need to go beyond the limitations of ‘network’ theory, which reduce the social world to ‘actor-constellations’. One alternative is to understand protests in terms of assemblages of social individuals: non-conscious cognitive assemblages, collective individuation, and the connective action of affect, and non-representative democracy.
In the response, Nick Couldry invited us to think more about the metaphors around sound, including not only the sonic resonance, but also interference. We also need to think about the ways in which the theoretical language that we use reinforces neoliberal values, rather than subverting them.
#BlackLivesMatter and #AliveWhileBlack: A Study of Topical Orientation of Hashtags and Message Content. Chamil Rathnayake, Middlesex University, Jenifer Sunrise Winter, University of Hawaii at Manoa, and Wayne Buente, University of Hawaii at Manoa.The use of hashtags can be seen within the context of collective coping, which can increase resiliency (while not necessarily leading to political change).
The Voices of #MeToo: From Grassroots Activism to a Viral Roar. Carly Michele Gieseler. Tarana Burke’s original goals for the #metoo mission can be seen as largely silenced (or pushed aside) as the roar grew around the hashtag, echoing broader patterns in white feminism. Outrage is selectively deployed – the wall between white women and Black women within feminism isn’t new, but perhaps the digital space can do something to change it. We need to think about the ways in which white feminisms within academia have ignored or appropriate the work of women of colour. Patricia Hill Collins talks about the painstaking process of collecting ideas and experiences of thrown-away Black women, even when these women started the dialogue.
Voice, Domestic Violence, and Digital Activism: Examining Contradictions in Hashtag Feminism. Jasmine Linabary, Danielle Corple, and Cheryl Cooky, Purdue University. This research looks at #WhyIStayed or #WhyILeft within a postfeminist lens, supplementing data gathered online with interviews. This research highlighted the importance of inviting voice (opening spaces for sharing experiences – but with a focus on the individual, which often lead to victim-blaming); multivocality (with openings for a multitude of identities – but this also opened up the conversation for trolling and co-opting); immediacy in action (which allows responses to current events); and the creation of visibility around domestic violence (unfortunately often neglecting broader structural context). Looking at these hashtags with reference to postfeminist contradictions allows both an understanding of how they were important for those participating, but also the limitations in the focus on the individual.
Women’s Voices in the Saudi Arabian Twittersphere. Walaa Bajnaid, Einar Thorsen, and Chindu Sreedharan, Bournemouth University. This research focuses on women’s resistance to the system of male guardianship, asking about how Twitter facilitate cross-gender communication during the campaign. Women’s tweets connected online and offline mobilisation, for example by posting videos of themselves walking in public unaccompanied. Protesters actively tried to keep the hashtag trending, and to gain international attention. Tweets from male opponents attempted to defend the status quo by attempting to derail the campaign, accusing the protesters of being atheists and/or foreign agents trying to destabilise Saudi Arabia. Men frequently seemed hesitant to support the campaign to end male guardianship.
The Mediated Life of Social Movements: The Case of the Women’s March. Katarzyna Elliott-Maksymowicz, Drexel University. This research draws on the literature on new social movement theory, collective identity, and visuality in social movements. Changing dynamics of hashtags and embedded images is a useful way of understanding how the movement changed over time.
Colonial Imaginations, Techno-Oligarchs, and Digital Technology
(The discussion here was interesting and important, but I struggled a bit to take good notes given the flow of the format. Please excuse the especially fragmentary notes gathered under each presenter, as that seemed easier than taking notes following the flow of discussion.)
[Correction: I initially attributed Payal Arora’s excellent prompts to discussion to Radhika Gajjala.]
Discussant: Payal Arora, Erasmus University Rotterdam
We have to remember that colonial theory is buried in different areas, including development discourse. It’s also important that ‘the margins’ aren’t always positive – the extreme right were also once on the margins (though they are being brought to the centre in many places, including Brazil). Is identity politics toxic to our cause, or should we be leveraging aspects of it? When we talk about visibility in the Global South, we largely celebrate it (“They’ve gained visibility! They’re speaking for themselves!”), without recognising the complicated nature of different identities within nations. There’s a lot of talk about data activism and data justice – we need to also look at data resistance. How do we conceptualise resistance in a broader way without moralising it? We also need to think not just about values in design, but also about who the curators of design are (and how they are embedded within particular territorial spaces and power structures). We also need to think about who is operationalising design.
Digital Neo-Colonization: A Perspective From China, Min Jiang, University of North Carolina – Charlotte.
Min Jiang talks about the challenge of working out: is China the colonised, or the coloniser? Looking at the role of large digital companies, we could see Google as colonising China…but also see Chinese companies as having largely replaced Google now, and as colonising Africa. China has its own colonial history. In China today, there’s been so much crackdown on resistance: colleagues in China working in journalism are forbidden for even mentioning the word resistance.
Islamic State’s Digital Warfare and the Global Media System, Marwan M. Kraidy, Annenberg, University of Pennsylvania
North American white supremacists use digital technologies to mess around with spatial perceptions. Social media platforms are working in tandem with all kinds of techniques of spatial control and surveillance. There’s something about the ways in which these platforms claim innocence from the kinds of feelings that they spark, and we shouldn’t release them from responsibility. Kraidy notes the environmental, social, and economic issues tied up in the ways that data works, using data centres that need to be air-conditioned as an example.
Non-Spectacular Politics: Global Social Media and Ideological Formation, Sahana Udupa, LMU Munich
We need to understand not just intersectional oppression, but also nested inequalities, and the ways in which the digital has lead to increased expressions of nationalism. A decolonial approach requires that we recognise the resurgence of previous forms of racism. Is digital media just a tool for discourses of racism and neonationalism that exist outside it? Udupa argues that we should see digital media cultures as inducing effects on users themselves. In India, Facebook is having a huge (but largely invisible) impact on politics. For example, the BJP uses data extensively in crafting particular political narratives.
Decolonial Computing and the Global Politics of Social Media platforms; Wendy Willems, London School of Economics and Political Science.
A decolonial approach means bringing back in structures, and seeing colonisation as fundamental (rather than additive) to processes of identity formation. It resists claims to speak ‘from nowhere’, and helps us to understand the global aspects of platforms. How might we understand the colonisation of digital space by platforms, including the extraction of data? These platforms are positioned as beneficial (‘connecting the unconnected’) – Willems mentions Zuckerberg visiting Africa in shorts and a t-shirt, the image of white innocence this portrays. There’s a challenge around provoking more discussion of these platforms in Africa. There’s a discussion of Internet shut-downs – the state is being seen as the enemy as it shuts down particular services, but we’re not turning the same critical eye on the platforms themselves. She also distinguished between the use of digital media in resistance, and resistance to digital media and datafication itself – there’s been less of the latter. In South Africa, there was #datamustfall in the wake of #RhodesMustFall (focusing on the costs of accessing digital media, rather than contesting platforms themselves). Operators are crucial gatekeepers in accessing the Internet – we need to look at the relationship between operators, platforms, and the state.
Media Representation of Cultural Symbols, Nationalism and Ethnic and Racial Politics
Framing the American Turban: Media Representations of Sikhs, Islamophobia, and Racialized Violence. Srividya Ramasubramanian and Angie Galal, Texas A&M University.
Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world. Several waves of Sikh immigration to the US, with various degrees of control. There’s a history of hate crimes against Sikhs in the US, but disaggregated data only began to be collected (by the FBI) in 2015. Anti-Sikh views, and violence, is tied to the othering and dehumanization of Muslims. There’s a long history of negative portrayals of Sikhs (tangled in with Hindus and Muslims) before 9/11. Going on from this research, it’s also important to look at how Sikhs are resisting negative media portrayals. This research located three key moments of rupture in US media portrayals: 9/11, the Wisconsin shootings, and the Muslim Ban/Trump era.
Selfie Nationalism: Twitter, Narendra Modi, and the Making of a Symbolically Hindu/Ethnic Nation. Shakuntala Rao, SUNY, Plattsburgh.
Modi‘s use of Twitter has been seen as particularly strategic, with extensive use of selfies. He always presents himself as someone who can speak to the layperson as “I”. Rao’s methods involve reading, rather than quantifying, tweets, including replies. For example, as soon as Modi starts ‘praying’ online, people upload videos of himself praying. He tweets in seven languages (using local languages when he travels), but mostly a combination of Gujarati, Hindi, and English. He portrays himself as a Hindu god – some people talk about the ‘banalisation of Hindutva’. Part of this is portraying “every Indian” as special. ‘Selfie Nationalism’ has four characteristisc: Modi’s personification of a symbolic self (and driven by him, not others); a rejection of plural religious/cultural narratives of India; a discourse with a short self life driven by optics as in the frequent launch of new policy initiatives (which are then discarded); less concern with media access and more by media use.
Representing the Divine Cow: Indian Media, Cattle Slaughter and Identity Politics Sudeshna Roy, Stephen F. Austin State University. What are discursive strategies used to generate, resist, sustain, or reify discourses of Hindu nationalism surrounding the Divine Cow? Modi has had a lifelong association with the Hindu nationalist organisation RSS. He has been providing the conditions to support the growth of violent identity politics. In 2014, as Gujrat chief minister, he started attacking the beef export industry. In 2017 he instituted a ban against small-time Muslim and low-caste Dalit, leather-workers. Some low-caste Dalit Hindus do eat beef. Roy notes that while we commonly understand culture as private, our common associations and larger context shape how we understand culture. There have been several cases of Hindu mobs murdering Muslim people for (allegedly) eating beef. Newspaper articles on these events frequently refer to the ceremonial, ritual, and religious roles of the cow, including its sanctity and ahimsa (harmlessness); and pastoral Khrishna. There is, however, no monolithic adherence to the sanctity of the cow for Hindus. There’s a forced conflation of private and public culture in the media’s coverage of the symbolic cow. Hindutva is being presented as a way of life.
Do We Truly Belong: Ethnic and Racial Politics of Post-Disaster News Coverage of Puerto Rico. Sumana Chattopadhyay, Marquette University. In surveys, only a very small majority of people in the mainland US knew that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. However, they can’t vote in the national elections, because they’re not represented in the Electoral College. US mainstream media coverage of Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico is like their coverage of foreign countries.