Over the last few years, I’ve been working on a project with Tim Highfield that explores the connections and disjunctions of activism that crosses online and offline spaces, Mapping Movements. We had a book contract to bring the research together and write up some material that hasn’t made it into other publications, but we’ve decided to withdraw it. It was the right choice to make, and it means wrapping up the project.
I learned a lot doing this research, and even though not all of it will end up seeing publication it will continue to weave through my understanding of the myriad of ways people are trying to create change in the world. This post is an awkward goodbye, and a chance to reflect on some of what I learned.
A large part of what I found valuable (as in many of my collaborations) was working out how our approaches fit: how to bring together quantitative and qualitative data from the Internet and the streets to show more than we might see otherwise. We wrote a bit about our methodology in ‘Mapping Movements – Social Movement Research and Big Data: Critiques and Alternatives’ (in Compromised Data From Social Media to Big Data) and a chapter in the forthcoming Second International Handbook of Internet Research. I continue to reflect on how academics can engage in research that’s safe, and hopefully eventually also useful, for activists. Internet research poses particular challenges in this respect, in part because of the increased online surveillance of many social movements.
Fieldwork I carried out for Occupy Oakland and #oo: uses of Twitter within the Occupy movement was particularly instructive when it came to thinking about surveillance and oppression. There were important debates happening in Occupy at the time about livestreaming and the ways in which citizen journalism might feed into claims to represent or lead the movement. And the open police violence made it clear what the stakes might involve. I won’t forget being teargassed, seeing someone carried away on a stretcher, being kettled, running with a group of friends as we got away, desperately trying to work out where the bulk of the marchers were and if there was anything we could do to help them. This violence was a large part of what dispersed the Occupy movement, but activists also spoke about how it prompted them to a deeper understanding of the problems with the US state and the extents to which it will go to protect capitalism.
My second round of fieldwork, in Athens, led to Harbouring Dissent: Greek Independent and Social Media and the Antifascist Movement. Activists there are doing vital work resisting fascism and racism and, increasingly, working to support refugees seeking safety. I am so grateful for the people I met through a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend who were willing to talk to me, help me improve my shoddy classroom Greek, make introductions, and argue with my analyses. Getting the opportunity to talk about some of my work at Bfest and in small workshops made me feel like there’s some hope for this research to be useful beyond academia.
Finally, research at the 2015 World Social Forum in Tunis is unlikely to be published. However, it did feed into my continuing reflections on the way the WSF is constituted and contested.
Mapping Movements helped me grow a lot as a researcher and let me connect and better understand movements that I often feel very far from in Perth. Ending the project opens up space to consider what comes next. Whatever that is, I know it will continue to be influenced by the work we’ve done over the last few years.
The second day of Theorizing the Web was as intense as the first, and many of the presentations discussed potentially-distressing issues, including anti-fat prejudice, online harassment and abuse, police violence against people of colour, suicide, and transmisogyny. This post will only give a short overview of the presentations (and conversations) that happened. My notes from day one are here – I also recommend checking out the TtW15 website and hashtag for more information.
Day two began with Here comes every body, and Apryl Williams‘ discussion of fat activism online. Like most movements, fat activism is fractured: ‘body positivity’ is often still very much about healthiness, with strong moral undercurrents (for example, attempts to counter the idea that fat people are lazy by showing fat people exercising). ‘Fat acceptance’ rejects the idea that fat people have to prove their worth through performances of health, instead insisting that fat people (whether healthy or not) are valuable and retain autonomy over their own bodies. Williams notes, however, that fat activist spaces reproduce hegemonic ideology: fat activism often continues to frame women within the male gaze (“fat women are sexy too!”), and fat positive spaces are often dominated by white women. The Fat People of Colour tumblr provides an alternative space that includes men and genderqueer people, resists the fetishising of fat people, and invokes intersectional approaches (including considering class and disability).
Legacy Russell followed with a presentation on feminism and glitch body politic, asking how experimentations with sex and gender in the digital arena can act to undermine the discourse of sex and gender. Art by glitch feminists like Amalia Ulman, AK Burns, Ann Hirsch, Mykki Blanco, and Fannie Sosa, creates cracks in the glossy narrative of the patriarchal gaze and invites us to consider ways of disrupting platforms at the same time as we use them. Glitch feminism not just about individual projects, but about the connections and spaces in between them.
Mariam Naziripour‘s ‘Craft of Beauty: Make-up after the Internet’ tracked some of the ways in which technology (including older technologies like photography and black and white film) have changed our approach to make-up. Jenna Marbles’ early vlogs demonstrate the strange tensions in how modern Western society views make-up: women are meant to ‘look natural’ at the same time as we’re expected not to look like ourselves. We’re pushed to engage in constant attempts to meet particular (unachievable) standards of beauty, at the same time as we’re criticised for artifice and deception. This also reveals tensions in many people’s relationship to make-up, which is in some ways an imposition (to look a certain way, often at significant economic and personal cost), but also a source of creativity and experimentation. Online communities like Makeup Alley have created one of the richest archives of make-up practices ever to exist, documented by the people who use make-up (rather than poets or essayists writing misogynistic critiques of makeup, as was often the case in the past).
Finally, Emily Bick talked about the ways in which ‘virtual agents’ (virtual assistants, custometr support bots, and so on) reproduce and enforce gender roles. These programs are often gendered, shifting from the more gender-neutral agents of previous decades (like Microsoft’s infamous Clippy), and are subservient and obedient. They represent-and help reinforce-an ideology of a feminised support worker who is constantly available and deferential. Thinking about this now, I’m curious about ways in which this is additionally racialised (with the idealised Western virtual agent usually presented as white, at the same time as a significant proportion of caring work in Western countries is undertaken by women of colour), and about the ways in which glitches or limitations of these programs might be understood as acts of resistance by virtual agents.
The h8 session opened with Alison Annunziata’s discussion of Love and Terror in the Digital Age. She outlined two central problems with dealing with cyberstalking and digital harassment: firstly, that technology shifts more rapidly than the law, and secondly, that both the law and police as individuals are often not capable of understanding the language of threat (and of terror). Antistalking laws, for example, often have a requirements of ‘credible threat’ – would a ‘reasonable person’ see this as genuinely dangerous? Victims are often the only ones with the right intelligence to understand why a particular action is threatening or violating, and they bear a heavy burden of proof.
Caroline Sinders extended this by talking about Twitter’s UX problem, starting with the very real impact of this: her mother was recently swatted, which lead to a painful discussion in which Sinders was asked by her mother, and local police, what gg is and why they’re mad at her…which is kind of hard to explain, when the answer is “I tweet about feminism sometimes”. (This reminds me about some of the discussions at AdaCamp around resources to give to therapists: for people experiencing online harassment and abuse, it can be useful – and even necessary – to have an information pack to give therapists and other support people to explain the background and kinds of abuse that are happening. Sinders mentioned abusive tweets, doxxing, swatting, sealioning, and dog piling as particular issues.) Sinders notes that Twitter has a very specific problem with harassment, in part because it was never designed from a perspective that recognised and aimed to prevent harassment. Legal frameworks (as Annunziata explained) don’t deal well with misogynistic stalking and harassment, and particularly haven’t kept up with online abuse, but Sinders argues that there’s a lot that Twitter could do to become safer, including rewriting community guidelines to recognise and ban emerging uses of the platform for abuse, look at and learn from Block Together, redesign their interface, allowing more user agency, and using algorithms and data better (for example, enacting the PGP Web of Trust, recognising that often friends of friends are safe to interact with), and allowing batched submissions of abusive tweets. They should also be drawing on the knowledge of people who have experienced these forms of abuse in developing their responses.
Thomas Rousse explored two case studies in implementing moderation systems for online communities using peer judgements: Wikipedia and League of Legends. He notes that this isn’t an issue of free speech: it’s about the management of bounded online communities, and not about the forms of speech that the state controls or represses. Rouse outlined two major models of community management: moderation, and ‘online vigilantism’. Many communities start without clear rules for behaviour, and end up defaulting to a vigilante approach as users try to find their own solutions: often these are incredibly inventive, and really terrible. Moderation offers better possibilities, but often requires a lot of work from community managers. Peer-judgement systems offer one alternative. However, democracy is not an inherent good, and majoritarian spaces can less to ‘a majority of assholes’. Neither Wikipedia nor League of Legend’s systems are without problems; in fact, the Wikipedia requests for comment system ended during Rousse’s research. League of Legends’ system has been more successful: it allows players to look at transcripts when players are reported, and decide if they should be punished or pardoned. 94% of those who were reported were punished. But using human adjudicators isn’t fast enough, so they took the body of data accumulated and used machine learning to create a machine judge. This opens up lots of interesting (and worrying) questions about the ways in which peer judgement processes and machine learning might be deployed in other spaces.
I closed the session by exploring some of the ways in which geek feminist activism is challenging the predominantly liberal and libertarian politics of the digital liberties movement (which I’ve written more about here and here). This was a very brief sketch of a complex movement that I’ll be writing about in more detail later, but I hope it brought up some useful reflections on the ways in which we approach-or might approach-issues around online harassment. While Rousse referred back to liberal democratic frameworks (talking about being judged by ‘juries of our peers’ and noting that Wikipedia’s system looked more like a ‘kangaroo court than the Supreme Court’), women, trans people, and people of colour are often very aware that existing liberal democratic frameworks do not work for us. Anarchafeminist praxis offers an alternative source of experience to draw on in considering how we might deal with abuse and harassment, silencing, and structural inequality, within communities that are frequently male-dominated, and in spaces shaped by the broader context of the capitalist system.
The Lockscreen: Control and Resistance extended the discussion on many of these themes. Harry Halpin kicked off arguing that ‘only cryptography can save us’. With the failure of the liberal state and the capitalist order, he says, we’ll be seeing hundreds of revolutions still to come. Technology won’t determine the shape or outcome of these, but it will affect the possibilities available, and if technologies of communication are open to surveillance then states will be able to crush resistance before it can grow. Snowden has argued that we can’t trust liberal mechanisms of governance, so we have to find ways of inscribing the values of the society we want into technology. I’m rather dubious about this idea, however. Sinders’ talk on Twitter’s UX problem described the problems that arise from building a platform based around the life experiences and priorities of a relatively homogenous set of designers (mostly white, relatively privileged, men). There are some excellent women and people of colour involved in crypto communities (as there are at Twitter), but even just within TtW there were many mentions of the problems with crypto culture. So it seems like before ‘we’ ‘inscribe our values’, more work needs to go into working out who the ‘we’ is here, and giving attention and hard work to the culture within crypto communities (and looking at the ways in which these communities overlap – or fail to overlap – with those of users for whom this technology might be a life-or-death issue).
Ted Perlmutter continued the discussion of ‘Twitter revolutions’, but also noted that while people have been very enthusiastic about the platform when it seemed to be supporting progressive revolutions, it becomes more worrying when it’s used by groups like ISIS or gg as a recruitment tool (I’d also add that the US state apparatus is far less enthusiastic about movements organising on Twitter when it’s happening within the US). How should we be disrupting violent hate movements using Twitter? And if we isolate participants, are we sticking them in an echo chamber that will only radicalise them further? This was an interesting talk, but it seemed strange to me to discuss gg primarily through the lens of other male theorists, and without drawing on the experience or analysis of women and other marginalised groups that have been attacked by them.
Raven Rakia wrapped up the session with a critique of the anti-police movement’s dependency on visual images. As activists have been bringing attention to police killings of people of colour, there has been a focus on images of police in riot gear, police killings, and police brutality. These images are powerful, but they implicitly rewrite history, and support a politics of respectability. Photographs of riot police with armoured vehicles suggest that the US police have become militarised, hiding the fact that police have always been militarised, and from the beginning played a role in enforcing racist structures of control (including slavery and lynchings). These images also build a politics of respectability: they rely on an opposition between violent police and pacifist protesters, on telling us that victims of violence were going to college or parents (which implies that those who aren’t ‘respectable’ are suitable targets for violence). These images also focus our attention on visible forms of violence while other structures are hidden, including the prison and legal system that disproportionately affects black lives. Some of these structures are also taking new forms online: for example, if children talk to each other about trying to organise resistance to police or violence experienced from others, they can be charged under ‘gang laws’ and given much harsher sentences. Rakia argues that instead of focusing on images of police violence, we need to work to abolish the police and dismantle systems of incarceration and control.
The second keynote of TtW15, Algorithms as Social Control, brought together Zeynep Tufekci, Kate Crawford, Gilad Lotan, Amy O’Leary, and Frank Pasquale. I won’t try to summarise all of the discussion on this panel, but you can catch the Twitter feed here. There were some important points raised about the ways in which algorithms can act as architectures of control, and potentially also work in liberatory ways. There were also questions raised about appropriate points of focus: should we be examining algorithms, or are they just tools (“just like the process you use for tying your shoelaces”, as two data scientists told Amy O’Leary)? If we are interrogating algorithms, how do we actually do this using the tools and data available to us?
I enjoyed Kate Crawford’s discussion about what the history of the deodand can tell us about algorithms: this legal structure was a way of dealing with death or injury caused by animals or inanimate objects, and was finally replaced by negligence laws in large part due to the political power of the railway industry. Looking at that history reminds us that we have a long history to draw on in working out responsibility in complex systems, and that we can make creative solutions, but but also that the forces of capital shape the ways in which we develop structures for accountability and responsibility.
Tweets about the final keynote, In Sickness and in Health: Technologies and Pathologies, can be found at the #TtW15 #k3 hashtags, with participants Jason Wilson, merritt kopas, Ayesha Siddiqi, Gabriella Coleman, and Alondra Nelson. Nelson’s overview of her work on the Black Panther’s grassroots genetic screening program was amazing, and laid out a six-point theory of health and technology for the social media age which set up the frame for the panel well:
Information does not want to be free, but demand it is because your life might depend on it. We need access to advanced medical and technical information.
DIY is self-care.
Technology needs to be for and by the people.
Bringing attention to neglected or rare diseases requires an activated network. The Black Panthers had two types of network: one based on homophily (sameness), and another with well-connected nodes that could bring in celebrity (around the campaign on sickle cell anaemia).
Access to and strategic use of tech must be coupled with vigilance about its excesses. For example, the Black Panthers actively challenged racist assumptions about genetic difference and built a multifaceted understanding of the politics of genetics and race.
Disruptive innovation can move the state: one outcome of the Black Panther’s campaign was increased funding for sickle cell anaemia.
merritt kopas followed this with a discussion of games as a site for exploring complex ideas around interiority, mental health, gender, and sexuality. Online games can be produced and distributed easily, and the format allows for non-linear narratives. Games like Depression Quest that explore these issues are getting more attention, and much of this work done is being done by women, and especially trans women. Previously, trans people have mainly been allowed to occupy the literary space of the memoir (specifically around transition), which makes trans lives consumable for cis audiences. New games formats allow space for trans women to explore and share their experiences in ways that are more challenging, and frequently are made for other trans people rather than for a broader cis audience. This is important, particularly when being trans online means hearing about suicides (but being told not to talk about them in case you spread suicide), hearing about the murder of trans people (and realising that most of society doesn’t care), being purposefully and continually misgendered, and harassed and doxxed. Even when in queer or feminist spaces, trans people cannot assume they are safe. merritt also notes that while gg has received a lot of attention, this attention usually centres on the experience of cis white women. However, trans people (and especially trans women) have been experiencing these forms of harassment by trans-exclusionary radical feminists for years.
Ayesha Siddiqi talked about the ways in which marginalised people are building narratives of self care. Posts and tweets sharing tips for self care, or even telling others that they deserve self care, can be seen as a way of sharing amateur mental health resources. We need to be asking why people are turning to these to try to survive: what is it about our communities that create this need for self care, and why do are people forced to look after themselves (rather than being looked after by those around them)?
Finally, Biella Coleman talked about a question that’s come out of her previous project on Anonymous: how did those, and do those, who are deemed ‘crazy’, gain a voice when the very category of being ‘mad’ makes you ‘irrational’? She notes that disability marks the past and present of hacking in dramatic ways. While this has many negative impacts, it also creates spaces where people with disabilities (or people who identify with different neurodiversities) are able to find a place where they are accepted (although I would argue that this space is far more welcoming for some people than others).
The discussion that followed emphasised the ways in which ‘madness’ is socially-constructed: Siddiqi pointed out that traits that would mark others as ‘crazy’…are sentimentalized when they occur in white bodies, Coleman argued that in order to resist categorisations of madness you need strong communities of mutual aid, and Nelson noted that the Black Panthers knew you can’t be healthy in a pathological society, and there’s been a pathologization of anyone who poses a threat to the state and the market.
I’ll do one more post about Theorizing the Web, but I want to end this one with Alondra Nelson’s words (or as close as I could get to them while typing frantically):
I don’t feel optimistic at all, but people make do and keep going. But we can find a glimmer of hope in spaces and moments, not fully autonomous, of community, and of gathering.
The day began with ‘Mobile ecologies: mobile phones and young people’s online participation in public access venues in Cape Town’ from Marion Walton and Jonathan Donner. Walton started by saying that mobile Internet in South Africa doesn’t, for the most part, mean smart phones, the Web, or Twitter: it means “feature phones”, and probably platforms like Mxit. Southern ecologies of use for mobile phones are also very different from Northern contexts: most public schools don’t have the resources to provide training in technology, and the overlap between mobile use and the spheres of tertiary education and the workplace is limited (since many people don’t have the opportunity to study further and unemployment is high). Those who are poorest pay the highest costs for data, as prepaid data access is far more expensive than broadband access. Putting this together allows a better understanding of mobile Internet use beyond well-off users in the North: as Internet handsets become more accessible, they amplify some people’s participation more than others, interacting with existing inequalities in diverse ways.
Later in the session, Magdalena Olszanowski looked at Instagram’s spaces of flow. This is one of those talks where I knew absolutely nothing coming in (I don’t use Instagram, let alone study it) , but there were some useful links with the reading I’ve been doing lately on space/place that I want to explore later. It was also lovely seeing the slides, which (as you might expect) were illustrated with beautiful photos.
Tim and I presented in the following panel (slides to come), on politics and civic engagement, so my note-taking was limited. Tim’s paper on ‘#auspol, #qldpol, and #wapol: Twitter and the new Australian political commentariat’ will probably be of interest to some readers (so keep an eye on his site for updates), Sharon Strover and Sujin Choi’s ‘YouTube and civic engagement’ was notable for its examination of reply networks on YouTube, and Sheetal Agarwal et al’s paper (also out of SoMe Lab) provides a good model for understanding OWS as a networked organisation (or a series of interconnected networked organisations).
The day (and the conference) ended with a lively discussion from my colleagues Mike Kent, Tama Leaver, and Kate Raynes-Goldie on the use of Facebook in tertiary education, with Clare Lloyd‘s research presented in absentia. Mike presented the most positive perspective, arguing that while boundaries need to be set, Facebook provides a familiar environment for student engagement that stimulates discussion effectively. Tama’s position was a cautious but still predominantly positive, and focused specifically on Facebook, student engagement, and the ‘Uni Coffee Shop’ group. Clare Lloyd and Kate Raynes-Goldie argued for the need to be careful about context collapses when using Facebook and to avoid getting stuck in a false choice between Facebook and Blackboard. All in all, the panel and following discussion was in favour of using Facebook in a carefully-informed and well-managed way.
There have been more talks here on activism than it’s been physically possible for me to attend without splitting into two. Friday afternoon’s session on protest and online activism began with a look at ‘Protest and Internet humour memes in UK universities’ from Gordon Fletcher, which was pleasantly LOL-heavy (even if I was missing the appropriate background for many of them). Fletcher argues that while this is politics of a sort (“politics, but not as we know it”), it’s not necessarily particularly effective politics: it’s not going to start any revolutions.
Next Dan Mercea (co-authoring with Paul Nixon) looked at the use of Twitter and Facebook in attempts to recruit participants to the Occupy movement in the Netherlands. Whereas most participants in our research on Occupy Oakland saw Twitter as the primary online platform for communicating about the movement (even if this was often problematic), participants in Netherlands Occupy sites relied far more on Facebook. Mercea and Nixon also found that both Facebook and Twitter played a role in helping participants to initially learn about the Occupy movement, but wasn’t actively used to try to recruit participants. Participants’ use of both Facebook and Twitter also tended to taper off over time, and lost importance as a source of information or engagement with Occupy.
The talks which followed were a little less relevant to my own research (and, sadly, my note-taking seems to drop off significantly towards the end of the day, especially at conferences that involve international travel): Constance Elizabeth Kampf looked at ‘The past, present and future of online activism towards business’, drawing on some great case studies. I particularly liked the Google Will Eat Itself project, which claims it will use revenue generated from Google ads to buy Google shares, and eventually turn Google into a public trust. (GWEI currently owns 819 shares, totalling USD 405.413,19, meaning it will be 202.345.117 years until GWEI fully owns Google.) Zeena Feldman‘s ‘Beyond freedom and oppression’ looked at practices of resistance to the commodification of the Couchsurfing website, as users tried to continue their engagement without fully capitulating to the site’s shift to for-profit status.
There have been a couple of notable issues over the last week or so in Australia where organised citizen action has actually led to change.
The first was Adshel’s withdrawal of advertisements promoting safe sex after lobbying from the Australian Christian Lobby. When the news came out activists began mobilising support through a Facebook page and on Twitter, encouraging supporters to let Adshel know that they wanted the ads reinstated. Adshel listened. Within a day the ads were back up, although there are still calls for Adshel to apologise.
The second was the campaign, in the wake of Four Corners‘ “explosive exposé of the cruelty inflicted on Australian cattle exported to the slaughterhouses of Indonesia”, to ban live animal exports. After pressure from a number of directions, including through GetUp’s Ban Live Export campaign, the government went from announcing a ban on specific abattoirs to issuing a blanket ban.
At first glance, both of these stories sound like victories for citizen action (and online organising). However, I think there are two important questions that need to be asked. Firstly, why have these campaigns succeeded when so many others have failed? Another way of putting this question might be: is there something about the strategies used here that can be replicated in other campaigns in order to achieve similar results? Secondly, are the outcomes we’ve seen here for the best?
When it comes to answering the first question, as far as I can tell there are three factors common to both issues that are probably more important to the success of these campaigns than the use of online media.
Neither campaign required broad changes in society. Hopefully, Australian society is now at the stage where the majority of the population wouldn’t be at all offended by the Rip & Roll advertisements, and many people would, at most, find them mildly discomfiting. I’d like to think that many people would simply look at them and take some pleasure from seeing a beautiful photo of two people who are in love. (And, as many people have pointed out, far more sexual images are commonplace in advertising.) Similarly, the images seen in the Four Corners documentary were shocking, and banning the live export trade doesn’t require much in the way of behavioural or attitudinal change from most Australians. Both campaigns built on existing social norms (acceptance of non-threatening images of homosexuality, opposition to gratuitous animal cruelty).
In both cases it was ‘them’ at fault, not ‘us’. While the Australian Christian Lobby certainly does represent a portion of Australian society they’re mostly at the fringe, even of conservative opinion. They’re ‘not like us’, even for many people on the right. Similarly, my understanding of the Four Corners report* is that it was built on the implicit construction of a dichotomy between foreigners who engage in cruel practices (with a focus on the link with halal slaughtering techniques) and our own humane practices. I suspect that this tied into the rather disturbing thread of anti-Islamic racism that’s present in Australia today, with halal slaughtering being framed as another barbaric practice (along with oppression of women, terrorism, etc) that other people, not us, do.
In both cases there was a clear target for action. In the case of the Rip & Roll advertisements, there was a target for action (Adshel), easy mechanisms for showing support (join and share the Facebook page, use the Twitter hashtag, call or email Adshel), and a clear outcome being sought (reinstatement of the ads). Similarly, the GetUp! campaign calling for a ban on live exports had a clear target (“Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig”), easy mechanisms for showing support (sign the petition, email your local MP, support Animals Australia and the RSPCA), and a clear outcome sought (ban live exports).
What this meant was that supporters could take action without having to engage in any major behavioural changes, and without having to examine or admit their own complicity in questionable ethical practices. Which brings me to the second question: are the outcomes we’ve seen here actually ‘good’?
I’d argue that in the case of Adshel’s restatement of the Rip & Roll ads, the answer is yes. Australia has come a long way in terms of accepting and making space for homosexuality. We still have a long, long way to go in terms of fully valuing healthy attitudes to sex and diverse sexualities (not to mention gender identities, on a related note), but as far as I can tell these ads are a step in the right direction**.
In the case of the ban on live animal exports I’m not so sure. My housemate has been quite worked up about the ban, and has been pointing out that it means a heap of animals will be sitting around on ships with limited feed. It also has the potential to have some serious effects on farmers, including limiting their ability to provide feed for cattle (since the much of the income for feed comes from live cattle sales). So the ban means a sudden shock to the industry and the potential for more harm to animals. And the framing of animal cruelty as something that they do, not us, is problematic; as Fox (and a heap of other animal rights advocates) have pointed out, even the Australian meat, dairy, and egg industries involve substantial amounts of cruelty and suffering. By thinking of this as something that only happens in other places, we let ourselves off the hook.
Social media allow us to build campaigns quickly, particularly in cases where there’s a target for action, easy mechanisms for showing support, and a clear desired outcome. However, where issues are more complex and require significant changes in people’s attitudes or behaviours, campaigns that run overnight might not be the best option. It’s easy (and satisfying) to applaud the success of quick campaigns. But we also need to be looking at how to bring about long-term and sustainable change, as many queer and animal rights activists do as they work to create changes to the fundamental structures of society. And while it’s easier to frame problems as something that other people are responsible for, we need to be open to questioning our own complicity in those problems.
* I didn’t watch the Four Corners report. I’m vegetarian-going-on-vegan already, and even seeing the still image on the front page of this video is upsetting for me. (This is also why there are no images associated with the story on this blog post.) I’ve talked to people who watched the report, and am taking my information from those discussions.
** But of course not entirely unproblematic, I must acknowledge. It seems, after all, much easier for us as a society to accept images of homosexuality when those represented conform to dominant ideals of attractiveness and gender presentation.
Having talked a bit about my reasons for discomfort with the way we in the West have been following “Twitter revolutions”, I wanted to give a few ideas about how to use Twitter to engage usefully with struggles in other parts of the world. I’ve been thinking about this primarily in regards to the Egyptian protests, but I think most of these suggestions could also be useful if you’re thinking about natural disasters or other international events.
Know your audience
Think about who follows you on Twitter, and the ways in which you might be able to connect with them usefully.
If you know people who are on the ground during a protest or a dangerous situation, retweeting information about police movements and roadblocks can be useful. If most of your followers live outside the area of unrest, this might not be a particularly effective way of showing support.
If most of your Twitter followers are likely to already agree with your perspective, think about giving them ways to turn their ideas into action. This might mean sharing information about which ministers to lobby (boomerang politics is one way to try to pressure other governments into changing their policies), organisations to donate to, upcoming vigils or protests, or providing meaningful support in other ways.
If most of your Twitter followers are unlikely to have heard about what’s happening, or have a perspective you disagree with, try to pass on information that will engage and convince them. This can be a tricky balancing act, as most people prefer not to feel like they’re being preached to. Humour, personal stories, and good infographics can help.
Be careful what you throw into the stream
Be aware that people in the midst of the situation may be relying on a hashtag for up-to-date information.
Be cautious and critical about what you retweet. During the 2009 protests in Iran, there’s some evidence that the government and/or government sympathisers were using Twitter to send out false information (cf. this list on Twitspam and Morris’ brief post on Twitter psyops). As well as actively malicious information, rumours can be passed quickly on Twitter: try to confirm stories before you pass them on, particularly if they may have important consequences.
If you can, try to work out who is using relevant hashtags and for what. If activists have asked that you keep a certain hashtag clear for on-the-ground information, respect their request.
Right now my Twitter stream is full of tweets about the protests in Egypt, mostly retweeted information. It’s easy to get caught up in it. As I type this, protesters and journalists are being beaten up, shot at. Twitter is full of personal stories: video of arrests, messages from increasingly-worried protesters, notes about the international response. It’s hard to read something like this:
“@bencnn: Government-sanctioned mass lynch underway in Tahrir Square. #jan25 #Egypt”
and not feel like I must do something, right now.
I felt this way, to an extent, when the protests in Iran, Thailand, Greece, and Tunisia were happening. In some cases, I sat there through the night following a hashtag, retweeting now and then, reading the stream of articles and analysis that other Twitter users linked to. Today, I don’t really know what’s happening in Greece, or Thailand, or Iran, or Tunisia.
The people I followed during those times, people who were tweeting from the middle of the situation, sometimes still write something about the political situation, but it’s not enough to overwhelm my Twitter stream, to make me feel immersed, there. Life moves on, and there’s simply not enough time to stay up-to-date on everything.
This makes me curious: what does it mean when we (Australians? Westerners?) follow these struggles in other parts of the world? Perhaps it’s simply a particularly gripping new form of entertainment, a spectacle that is all the more engaging because we can feel like we’re part of it. Perhaps it actually leads, through an accumulation of small efforts, to concrete benefits for the people whose struggles we follow at such a distance and with such immediacy.
I also want to think more about the ways in which difference is (or might be) effaced through this process. My quick search turned up literacy rates of 83% for men and 59% for women (as of 2005), and around 20,136,000 Internet users among a population of around 80,471,869*, helped along by Egypt’s Free Internet Initiative**. The number of Twitter users based in Egypt also seems to be quite small. It will come, I assume, as absolutely no shock when I write that those tweeting from Egypt are not likely to be wholly representative of Egypt’s population. (The same would be true of tweets from any protest, including in Western states.)
The tweets we read, whether we follow a hashtag or particular users, are likely to confirm our feelings that the protesters are “like us”, because the information we’re getting is usually in English, written by people who read many of the same websites as us, who are at least on one level part of this shared culture that we are all building online. Recognising that similarity, the bond that comes from knowing that people like us are suffering right now, can be immensely powerful. There are so many areas, including the Australian debate around asylum seekers, where I wish there was a more widespread recognition that other people are, in important ways, like us, and they are suffering.
However, there is something about the way in which difference disappears in this process that makes me a little nervous. Because it is also important to recognise that many of those involved in these protests differ significantly from us in their outlooks, in what they want from life, in what they hope to gain in terms of political change. I’m not entirely sure yet why this matters, but I believe that it does. Perhaps because it might influence the ways in which we try to engage with others’ struggles, perhaps because it is important for our own understanding of the situation. Perhaps for a different reason entirely.
The question that I think I am most interested in is: are there ways we can engage in these struggles from a distance ethically and usefully, contributing to and learning from them while remembering that distance (and difference) matters?