Social media as tools of resistance: disseminating the voice of the multitude

Seattle     AoIR   Internet Research 12.0     October, 12th, 2011

Resistance and Technology Roundtable

Part 2: Leveraging Technologies of Resistance

Social media as tools of resistance: disseminating the voice of the multitude

I would like to say first why I’m not at ease with expressions like « Facebook Revolution » or « 2.0 Revolution ». These expressions reflect a determinist epistemology, a techno-determinist way of thinking suggesting that it is the 2.0 technology that is the very source of explanation of social transformation. Within that deterministic paradigm, for a social revolution to happen in a specific country, activists just have to implant Facebook and Twitter devices in that country, and the social revolution will happen at a moment or another. It’s not that simple!

The reasons why social revolts happen are numerous and complex, and the action of technology has to be put in a context where many explaining factors are to be taken in account. In countries like Tunisia and Egypt, a long period of social injustice in authoritarian regimes was the first historical condition; we can add also the presence for a long time, of invisible but active networks of protestation, and more formal social movements of political contestation who were repressed by these authoritarian regimes, etc.

In the same time – and this is my second point – the technological devices (mobile phones, laptops on hardware side / blogs, Facebook and Twitter on software side) appear to be efficient networking tools if there is a sort of coordination work assumed by nodes of the networks. Social media prompt new ways to think in common, new ways to organize social actions, new ways to decide collectively, to exchange information and emotions, new ways to develop a collective awareness and a social consciousness. By example, during the Arab Spring, a blood-soaked body of a protestor was immediately taken in photo, and that photo was instantaneously diffused through the networks. In short, the efficient uses of these tools can become a political catalyst having the capacity of revealing a social movement to itself.

I like the idea developed by Tarik Ahmed Elseewi (2011) of « a revolution of the imagination » permitted and brought by the uses of the new media. We have to pay attention to the fact that the uses of social media have « placed individuals (and groups of individuals) at the center of their own narratives in profound ways« . And Elseewi added that this « has led to the rejection of the tired, official narratives that have long dominated official mediated production in the Arab Middle East, and it continues to encourage Arabs to imagine themselves as subjects (…) of history. » (Elseewi, 2011: 1197).

One fascinating question – and this will be my third point – can be formulated in these terms: how can we explain the fact that a person comfortably seated in front of his/her screen decides at a moment to quit his/her house to join the collective on the street, to put herself in danger, taking the risk to be killed? In which conditions and how the political spark happens in the trajectory of an individual? We can speak here in terms of the process of politicization of an individual. Combined with some « media events » having strong political resonance (ex. the suicide of a desperate unemployed young), the social media are a part of that politicization process – giving the individuals the feeling and the conviction that they are not alone, that they are part of a social movement. The social media contribute to create a multitude of public microspheres where people talk and exchange, coordinate and organize actions. These microspheres are often heterogeneous in formats, contents and styles but as a whole likely to cause a political dissemination of the voice of the multitude.

I will conclude with a question concerning the political commitment of the younger generations in the era of social media. Do social media favour the re-emergence of new forms of political commitment? What do we mean if we suggest that the younger generations are sensitive to new forms of « commitment with and by the media »?

In western countries, from the eighties, with the reign of individualism and of neo-liberal ideology, the question of the political commitment of people tends to get weaker. Is it possible to make the hypothesis that, in the present historical period, with the multiplication of social media and in the context of the triple crisis (economic, social and ecological), we would see a re-emergence of new forms of political commitment in western countries? The current « Occupy Wall Street » social movement give us a flavour of the forms that political commitment can take these days.

Serge Proulx

October, 8th, 2011.

Reference:

Elseewi, Tarik Ahmed (2011), « A Revolution of the Imagination », International Journal of Communication, 5, p. 1197-1206.

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