Wrapping up Mapping Movements

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.

AoIR16: Day 1, part 2. Responsive policies and the feminist illuminati

The Responsive Policies session began with Nathan Fisk‘s work on ‘Vile pornography, sexual miscreants, and electronic stalkers: policy discourse of youth internet safety‘. Fisk argued that we are in a general mode of crisis, in which we’re seeing a transition from ways of controlling society that are focused on segmented, regimented space and time (the panopticon) to forms of control that are much more about continuous streams of surveillance and checking in. As such, we see frequent discussion of ‘choice’ and ‘individual freedoms’, although in many ways these are illusory.

In this context, Fisk discusses the ways in which media create moments of panic that have been used to extend policies of regulation. For example, movies like War Games prompted a shift from the idea of the Internet not just as a bunch of data being moved around data, but rather as a space you can go to (and also a space that can be attacked).

Similarly, recent concerns about ‘cyberbullying’ have lead to regulators pressing social media platforms to extend their own mechanisms for dealing with complaints, and reporting data on ‘bullying’ to regulators.

Next, Stacey Blasiola presented, You [don’t] gotta pay the toll troll: A Transaction Costs Model of Online Harassment, considering ways to change platform design to make it harder to engage in harassment. One of the interesting differences between Fisk’s work and Blasiola’s is that where Fisk talks about top-down pressure from regulators during moments of panic, Blasiola emphasised that the pressure on platforms like Twitter to deal with harassment has mostly come from users. A while ago Dick Costolo, Twitter CEO, acknowledged that Twitter has sucked at dealing with harassment; Blasiola pointed out that there’s a difference between sucking and something, and not trying.

Rather than asking, “what can victims do to respond to trolling?”, we should be thinking about ways that platforms and communities can make trolling [or harassment, which partially overlaps with but isn’t entirely the same as trolling] harder. One aspect of this might involve introducing transaction costs: friction that makes it more difficult to engage in trolling behaviour.

At the moment, the costs of experiencing, and trying to respond to, harassment, are high. Targets of harassment might have to deal with large volumes of abuse, lose the audience and reputation they’ve accrued online as they shift offline or try to protect their privacy, and spend a lot of time trying to report abusive tweets. For attackers using anonymous accounts, there’s little concern about the costs of losing their audiences or reputation – they can create more accounts – and sending an abusive tweet takes far less time than reporting one.

Twitter doesn’t want to lose users, and users don’t want to lose their audience (or they’d just be using a private network). Solutions might therefore include:

  • Options to flag one’s own account as under attack, which could activate protective features, like blocking tweets from new accounts.
  • Auto-blocks and shared block lists, like blocktogether.
  • Increase the difficulty of tweeting @mentions (here Blasiola is drawing on research on spammers, where increasing friction can have a significant impact).

In part, this drew on Blasiola’s experience with attacks on video game communities she was involved in, where relatively simple tactics ended the issue.

I think there are a bunch of interesting ideas here, including in drawing out the juxtaposition between top-down and bottom-up forms of regulation (which are not always clearly differentiated). I’m kind of curious, in a half-baked-ideas-just-forming kind of way, to think about what the idea of shifting forces of friction in social media would look like if we drew on Tsing‘s work on friction (as both a slowing force and necessary for traction) instead of Coates’. And about how many hurdles would need to be introduced to actually significantly reduce harassing behaviour (having just read This is why we can’t have nice things, in which Whitney Phillips tracks some of the ways in which trolls shift tactics to accommodate technical changes).

It’s not actually about ethics in games journalismI ended the day with the Gamergate session. As you may have noticed reading yesterday’s evasive notes, I don’t feel entirely comfortable writing about Gamergate. Accurate threat assessments seem challenging. Not being able to write about stuff happening at a conference feels wrong. Potentially putting other people at risk by making them more visible, or by writing about their work in ways that might expose them to abuse, feels wrong. So does not highlighting the excellent research and theorisation being done by people working in the area.

In the end I didn’t end up taking a lot of notes, thinking through this, so here’s some of the work that people on the panel have published in the area,:

  • Chess, S., & Shaw, A. (2015). A Conspiracy of Fishes, or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying About #GamerGate and Embrace Hegemonic Masculinity. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 59(1), 208–220. [Closed access.]
  • Shaw, Adrienne. “Do you identify as a gamer? Gender, race, sexuality, and gamer identity.” new media & society 14.1 (2012): 28-44.
  • Shaw, Adrienne. Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture. Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2015.
  • Consalvo, Mia, and Christopher A. Paul. “Welcome to the discourse of the real: Constituting the boundaries of games and players.” FDG. 2013.
  • Shepherd, T., Harvey, A., Jordan, T., Srauy, S., & Miltner, K. (2015). Histories of Hating. Social Media+ Society, 1(2).
  • Massanari, Adrienne. (2015). “# Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s algorithm, governance, and culture support toxic technocultures.” New Media & Society.

One of the things that struck me listening to this panel was the parallels with social movement researchers’ ethical and methodological difficulties in studying ‘unlikeable’ (or awkward) movements neo-nazis, the Christian right, and others that make for difficult engagements. It seems like some of this experience and ethical reflection might be useful in thinking about how to approach research on gaming’s latest round of toxicity.

Upcoming presentation: social movements and big data research

In October Tim and I will be presenting on the methodological underpinnings of our Mapping Movements project at the Compromised Data? colloquium at Ryerson University. Our paper examines some of the problems with big data research on social movements:

Social movement research and big data: critiques and alternatives

This paper examines the growing use of big data, social media-oriented approaches in the study of social movements, including Occupy and the Arab Spring, and suggests an alternative research methodology. We argue that although big data studies provide valuable contributions to the literature, there are both analytical and ethical reasons to complement this work with fieldwork. The Mapping Movements project provides a framework for a blended approach, developing mixed methods in order to examine the physical and the online aspects of social movements, with case studies of social movements in North America, Africa, and Europe; our preliminary research, from 2012, analysed the uses and perceptions of Twitter within Occupy Oakland, combining Twitter data with fieldwork from Oakland, including interviews with activists. Subsequent fieldwork and data collection was focused on the 2013 World Social Forum, held in Tunis, and Greek antifascist movements in 2013.

Recent years have seen a growth in the use of quantitative analyses in social movement research, taking advantage of the huge volume of data available through platforms like Twitter and YouTube. There has been considerable work on the Occupy movement focusing on hashtags (Conover, Davis, et al., 2013; Conover, Ferrara, Menczer, & Flammini, 2013), YouTube linking networks (Thorson et al., 2013), and even Facebook (Gaby & Caren, 2012), despite the difficulties involved in accessing data on the platform. Similar analyses have focused on the Arab Spring (Papacharissi & Oliveira, 2012; Starbird & Palen, 2012). This work makes important contributions to our understanding of these movements; a large-scale, quantitative approach enables a comprehensive overview of Twitter coverage across the lifespan of these social movements. Such data can demonstrate key patterns of activity, such as periods of heightened or lessened online communication, and in particular how these patterns develop over time in response to events affecting the movement. Datasets also provide valuable details on information sources cited or the attention received by individual users.

However, big data approaches have significant blind spots, and are most effective when complemented by qualitative methods, especially fieldwork and other direct contact with movement participants. Although other research has adopted a mixed-methods approach (Costanza-Chock, 2012), there has been little active reflection on this methodology when it comes to social movement research. The approach which we have framed for the Mapping Movements ties together big data research, participant observation, and interviews, working to complement and test data gathered through each technique. Such an approach is particularly vital for social movement research, where the online platforms used by participants may be different between movements, and also where the platforms employed – and their functions – change in response to the evolving needs and concerns of the movement.

Our preliminary research suggests that this methodology highlights issues which may not be visible to big data approaches. Interviews from the case studies indicate that many activists are currently engaging in strategic avoidance of social media. Participants also engage in self-censorship when they do use social media. This means that important participants and tactics are effectively hidden from the view of research based purely on big data. Similarly, our research suggests that many participants perceive Twitter and other social media platforms to be engaging in censorship or otherwise limiting activists’ online presence, with tweets or other material disappearing suspiciously, or accounts associated with activism being unfollowed. Recent developments, including the apparently targeted shut-down of Greek left-wing Facebook profiles (Ματθαίος, 2013) and the introduction of a Twitter ‘report’ button, are likely to further diminish the visibility of certain kinds of social movement activism on social media.

There are also important ethical issues associated with big data research on social movements. Chesters argues that ethical social movement research requires reciprocity with movement participants (including an openness to being challenged), and that we remember the “academy has no a priori reason or justification for making demands upon those it seeks knowledge of” (2012, p. 155). This suggests two ethical critiques of big data approaches to social movement studies. The first is that in gathering data from public or semi-public spaces we are drawing on participants’ activism, and transforming it into “commodifiable objects of knowledge” (Chesters, 2012, p. 145). The second is that the distance involved means that there is little dialogue involved with movement participants, and few chances for them to challenge the researcher’s position of power. Whereas participant observation and interviews frequently require the researcher to answer difficult questions about their work (as has happened in the case of our research), it is possible to carry out big data research without ever interacting with movement participants. If research is published in paywalled journals, participants may never even be able to read it, let alone comment on it.

The Mapping Movements methodology is not just an approach for gathering research data, but also shapes how findings and discussions are later disseminated. Our research enables a nuanced analysis of social media use by activists, looking beyond the object of study (the social medium of choice) at a quantitative level, to examine the intersections between the online and the physical aspects of social movements, and how these influence one another and affect the social media strategies at hand.

Bibliography

Chesters, G. (2012). Social Movements and the Ethics of Knowledge Production. Social Movement Studies, 11(2), 145–160. doi:10.1080/14742837.2012.664894

Conover, M. D., Davis, C., Ferrara, E., McKelvey, K., Menczer, F., & Flammini, A. (2013). The Geospatial Characteristics of a Social Movement Communication Network. PLoS ONE, 8(3), e55957. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055957

Conover, M. D., Ferrara, E., Menczer, F., & Flammini, A. (2013). The Digital Evolution of Occupy Wall Street. PLoS ONE, 8(5), e64679. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064679

Costanza-Chock, S. (2012). Mic Check! Media Cultures and the Occupy Movement. Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, 11(3-4), 375–385.

Gaby, S., & Caren, N. (2012). Occupy Online: How Cute Old Men and Malcolm X Recruited 400,000 US Users to OWS on Facebook. Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, 11(3-4), 367–374.

Papacharissi, Z., & Oliveira, M. de F. (2012). Affective News and Networked Publics: The Rhythms of News Storytelling on #Egypt. Journal of Communication, 62, 266–282.

Starbird, K., & Palen, L. (2012). (How) will the revolution be retweeted?: information diffusion and the 2011 Egyptian uprising. In Proceedings of the ACM 2012 conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 7–16). New York, NY, USA: ACM. doi:10.1145/2145204.2145212

Thorson, K., Driscoll, K., Ekdale, B., Edgerly, S., Thompson, L. G., Schrock, A., … Wells, C. (2013). YouTube, Twitter and the Occupy Movement: Connecting Content and Circulation Practices. Information, Communication & Society, 16(3), 421–451. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2012.756051

Ματθαίος, Τσιμιτάκης. (2013, June 5). Το facebook ‘κατέβασε’ προφίλ χρηστών ‘για λόγους ταυτοποίησης’. Θύματα πολλά προφίλ αριστερών και αντιεξουσιαστών. Η Αυγή Online. Retrieved 5 June 2013, from https://www.avgi.gr/article/414765/to-facebook-katebase-profil-xriston-gia-logous-tautopoiisis-thumata-polla-profil-aristeron-kai-antiexousiaston

Research ethics/research subjects

Over the last few days I’ve stumbled across a few different texts that relate to research ethics and the ways in which we treat the subjects of research…

I.

"If you don't know what's going on or what we're talking about turn off the news and tune into the movement"
Tune into the movement, by Flickr user Meneer De Braker

The first, Jennifer Earl’s (2000) ‘Methods, movements and outcomes‘, advocates a more rigorous approach to the study of social movement outcomes. Earl outlines some of the problems involved in trying to determine how effective movements are in achieving social and political change, and suggests a number of solutions to these problems. Many of these suggestions are useful, although most involve a shift towards a ‘hard science‘ approach which I think has serious limitations when it comes to the study of social movements.

However, the first suggestion which Earl makes seemed particularly problematic to me. Earl argues that,

researchers should begin to use theory to define sets and types of outcomes that they would expect to be associated with a movement. Instead of relying on informants to “voice” goals, researchers should define broad, theory-driven categories of possible outcomes that are independent of SM [social movement] or SMO [social movement organisation] demands (p. 13).

She goes on to add that, “with theoretically driven outcomes categories, researchers could still study identity change as an outcome of social movements even if no social movement representative
ever articulated identity change as a goal” (p. 14).

While I think that Earl raises some excellent points about the difficulties involved in social movement research, I’m troubled at the suggestion that these can be effectively addressed by using an approach that sidelines activists’ autonomy in favour of tidy theoretical models. Activists, after all, have often devoted significant amounts of time to the causes they’re involved in, and have thought carefully about what they’re trying to achieve and why. To presume that activists’ statements about their goals can be overridden by movement researchers is to devalue activists’ knowledge and choices, as well as their role in building an understanding on their movement (for more on this I recommend Cox and Fominaya‘s work).

II.

The second text is this video, which my partner was watching this morning. It shows chimpanzees who have been kept in captivity for all their lives being let out into the daylight for the first time:

I have trouble articulating how I feel about this, particularly in a tone that’s suitable for this blog. On an intellectual level, I find the arguments for seeing animals as non-human beings that are capable of suffering and worthy of respect deeply compelling. On an emotional level I’m deeply saddened and upset that we can, as a society, accept keeping sentient beings in cages for decades (and doing far worse).

III.

A close up of one of the gorillas from the New York Natural History Museum diorama
Photo by Thomas Hawk

Finally, as part of the research I’ve been doing on curation I’ve been reading Haraway’s Teddy Bear Patriarchy, which explores the creation of the New York Natural History Museum displays in the early part of the twentieth century. Haraway explores the ways in which the structures of race, gender, class, and colonialism shaped the production of the museum, focusing on Carl Akeley’s role in producing natural history dioramas. There’s more to Haraway’s chapter than I have time to unpack here, but reading it I was struck (again) by the ways in which we have been prepared to sacrifice others (both human and non-human) in the service of science and ‘truth’.

Having just watched the above video, Haraway’s account of Akeley’s hunt for gorilla ‘specimens’ for the museum had a particular resonance. Haraway relays Akeley’s account of himself as “a naturalist interested in preserving wildlife” who wanted to “do anything to make killing animals less attractive” (such as devaluing the activity by showing that even women could do it) (p. 57). Akeley’s hunt was, in his eyes, undertaken out of necessity and with the aim of killing as few animals as possible.

Haraway’s retelling of the hunt is, despite (or perhaps in part because of) the reference to Akeley’s rationale, gruelling:

Within minutes of his first glimpse of the features of the face of an animal he longed more than anything else to see, Akeley had killed him, not in the face of a charge, but through a dense forest screen within which the animal hid, rushed, and shook branches … The second quest resulted in two missed males, a dead female, and her frightened baby speared by the porters and guides. Akeley and his party had killed or attempted to kill every ape they had seen since arriving in the area (pp. 57-58).

In each of these texts, there’s something that disturbs me about they way in which researchers have placed themselves in relation to the subjects of our, and in the sacrifices (of others) that have been made to produce (a version of) the truth. There isn’t, I think, a tidy lesson to tie all this together, or at least not one I’m willing to offer right now. There’s plenty of excellent analysis out there about research ethics, but the sense of unease that flows across these texts is important to me in itself.