Notes for a talk given on February 10 at the IU Department of Telecommunication T600 Weekly Seminar. Kinda raw and too long for this space, but here it is:
Syria. Jordan. Maldives. Russia. Hardly a day goes by without a news report of at least some social movement activity around the world. While scholars have described ours as a “movement society” before (Meyer & Tarrow, 1998), it seems that national and transnational collective actions are on the rise—and often from unexpected people and places.
Not surprisingly, there has been a surge in research exploring the connections between newer media and all of this social unrest. Conferences, books, journals, symposia glom onto the topic. And then there are the public intellectuals—the Clay Shirkys, the Evgeny Morozovs—who have created a cottage industry around the media/social change debate.
The popular and academic interest in what makes these recent movements “tick” is understandable: Social movements and dissent in other forms are dramatic, newsworthy events our lives.
“Understanding our own society, as well as the larger social world in which it is embedded, requires some knowledge and understanding of social movements and the activities with which they are associated” (Snow & Soule, 2010, p. 5-6).
And the newer networked media presence is unmistakable in many of these recent movements, if vaguely understood and contested.
In this talk, I’ll begin by briefly discussing the social movement literature and some characteristics of recent social movements that seem to be out-of-step with the dominant literature. Next, I’ll explore the possible media role in fueling emotion and identity dynamics and discuss ongoing research directions, including some of my own and of the Janissary Collective at IU. Finally, I’ll suggest that new media-fueled movements place unique demands on journalists who chronicle movement activity for the rest of the world, demanding new approaches to reporting. Journalists have long been important chroniclers of social movements, even if they have been criticized for downplaying such coverage or for framing participants in unfavorable ways.
Social movements: In flux?
First, a quick overview of what we’re talking about when we talk about social movements. There’s not a lot of agreement on an exact definition in the literature, but there is some consistency. Generally, social movements are described as:
Collective, organized, sustained, non-institutional challenges to authorities, power holders, and/or to cultural beliefs or practices. These challenges often involve protests, but not always.
A few of the big questions that social movement research has tended to ask: How did the group form, and why? Why did it form when it formed? Why did the individual participants believe they could make a difference? How and why did their discontent translate to action? How did they get organized and how did they stay organized? How did the group get (and maintain) its energy and power? What strategies were used to achieve the group’s goals? How or why was the group successful or unsuccessful?
With such a sprawling literature, there’s a lot of the usual debate and squabbling over appropriate methods, frameworks (resource mobilization, political process models, expressive/instrumental movements, etc.), disagreement over findings, etc. I will skirt by without going there!
What I do want to emphasize about the literature: The importance of media to the features of social movements and to literature’s big research questions.
Mediated communication is important across the movement literatures: for networking; for collective identity formation and sharing; for mobilization; and for protest (which often includes as part of its definition some requirement of being reported or recorded in the media).
In fact, it has been said of social movements that if they do not make it into the media, then they don’t really exist.
When it comes to newer networked media, there is also agreement among scholars that protests and dissent in many forms can be coordinated and communicated globally, quickly, and more easily than before (Lester & Cottle, 2011).
However, other traditional media continue to play a critical role in defining, framing, narrating dissent. This idea is along the lines of the so-called ecological view of media.
“Social networking and other forms of Internet-based communication may provide new means to participate, new styles of protest and new ways to mobilize support, but they cannot fully relocate the mediated politics of dissent away from mass media news platforms. All political actors are now present in both the ‘old’ media and what Manuel Castells calls ‘networks of mass self-communication,’ and all undoubtedly will continue seeking to find bridges between the two” (Lester & Cottle, 2011, p. 291).
The world of social movements and dissent is changing with those bridges.
I want to highlight a pattern I’m seeing in the recent literature (e.g., Walgrave, Bennett, Papacharissi, Cottle) and in recent news accounts of movement activity around the world: Social movements with many characteristics that are at odds with dominant social movement theory:
1. No clear leader and often multiple, crowdsourced leaders
2. No clearly defined demands or goals
3. Weak organizations
4. Loose, weak, informal network ties
5. No clear ideological framing
6. No collective identities built around national politics
7. Diversity, heterogeneity within the fluid group
8. Heightened role of emotions and identity dynamics
Stefaan Walgrave describes movements that start off of as emotion or identity movements, only to become a more instrumental movement later on. One example: Walgrave’s (1998, 2000) analysis of the Belgian White Movement of the late 1990s. I don’t have time to discuss the White Movement here. It was unique, though, in that it had no clear leader, no clear demands, and group heterogeneity, among other characteristics. Also, it included a protest of 250,000 marchers (Belgium’s largest) driven largely by their shared feelings of compassion (for victims) and frustration (at the Belgian justice system) during the unfolding case of child rapist and murderer Marc Dutroux.
Emotions and movements
Emotions have long been important to social movement scholars, but it’s fair to say not the target of too many “thick descriptions.”
Emotions are tough to get at, tough to talk about.
But, they’re viewed as critical: As an important purpose of social movements, even a key reason for their existence or maintenance
(Polletta & Amenta, 2001).
Why? People often participate in movements in order to meet psychological or emotional needs that can’t easily be met otherwise (Polletta & Amenta, 2001).
And then consider social networks. They’re almost always described as influential in the social movement literature, as catalysts or even requirements for collective action. But why? Part of their importance has to be affective bonds. We join a network because it makes us feel good. And it’s that affective tie that holds the network together (Goodwin, Jasper & Polletta, 2001).
Feelings for a group can make participation itself pleasurable, separate and independent from the movement’s goals and outcomes (Goodwin, Jasper & Polletta, 2001).
Emotions may be the reason we get up off the couch and participate at all!
“Movements are themselves a distinct setting in which emotions can be created or reinforced….The emotions created within social movements are attempts, often explicit, to elaborate intuitive visions into explicit ideologies and proposals” (Goodwin, Jasper, Polletta, 2001, p. 10).
That’s somewhat at odds with dominant views. For example, consider New York Times columnist David Brooks’ op-ed last week (2/2/12), written in response to the viral YouTube video, “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus.” Brooks uses the performance art video as a window to explore the state of youth rebellion, protest forms, and social change. He opines: “If you go out there armed only with your own observations and sentiments, you will surely find yourself on very weak ground.”
However, what the research on social movements indicates is that if you do go out there armed with those sentiments, you might just discover your capacity for collective action.
That’s when we might encounter strangers who begin to feel less like strangers and more like a “we.”
What about the newer networked media connection to these emotions? Consider the ways we use social media, like Facebook, Twitter, and even e-mail. Each update or message represents a moment of self-presentation. Fleeting as it may be, it accrues “a tiny affective nugget,” as political theorist Jodi Dean (2010) puts it. Here’s how she expresses the connection between emotional ties and newer media use:
“Affect…is what accrues from reflexive communication, from communication for its own sake, from the endless circular movement of commenting, adding notes and links, bringing in new friends and followers, layering and interconnecting myriad communications platforms and devices” (p. 21).
“Every little tweet or comment, every forwarded image or petition, accrues a tiny affective nugget, a little surplus enjoyment, a smidgen of attention that attaches to it, making it stand out from the larger flow before it blends back in” (p. 21).
These affective attachments to media are not, Dean says, enough to produce actual communities. However, these affective networks produce feelings of community. They enable mediated relationships, Dean says, that take a variety of changing, interconnected forms.
So, a goal for research might be: Look at the interaction of emotions, related identities, and the media as social movements evolve.
We might ask: What are the mediated emotions that prepare people for collective actions?
But, aren’t emotions too wishy-washy? Too vague a concept? Too messy? Everything and therefore nothing?
I agree with Jodi Dean (2010), who points out that, in the newer media ecosystem, “the circulation of intensities leaves traces we might mark and follow.”
For example, recent Twitter/social movement research connects Twitter use to emotions and mixes techniques of media/cultural studies and computer science.
Consider Papacharissi and Oliveira (2011): They used centering resonance analysis (1.5 million Tweets) and discourse analysis (stratified sample of 150,000 Tweets) to analyze storytelling forms on Twitter during the Arab Spring. A few of their key claims and findings (paraphrasing and quoting here):
First, it is important to comprehend the meaning of affect in interpreting media use during mobilization.
Twitter feeds during Arab Spring emerged as “affective news streams,” because: “they blend opinion, fact and emotion into expressions uttered in anticipation of events that have not yet been reported in mainstream media.”
Affective news streams: Sustain and nurture affective involvement, connection, and cohesion.
In addition to facilitating social cohesion/connectivity around topics, “the affective quality of tweets fuels and sustains ambient streams of social awareness.”
In regimes where expression is controlled, it takes a lot of courage to express unpopular emotions that run counter to the regime’s way. It’s dangerous! “In this sense, affective statements become political statements, and affect may signify the political.”
There are other studies of Twitter that investigate affect and this “circulation of intensities.” For example, Bae and Lee (2011) and Tumasjan et al. (2011) conducted computer science-based empirical analyses of sentiment of users on Twitter. These studies reveal that Twitter can be used as an indicator for identifying the sentiment of an audience.
Ongoing research projects
1) My colleague Emily Metzgar and I are building on past work by Informatics doctoral student Mike Conover. Using data collected from the Twitter streaming API, Mike’s work aggregates and analyzes data using algorithms that enable massive analyses. The study we’re building on found differences in the behavior, communication, and social connectivity of 11,000 left- and 7,000 right-leaning Twitter users. Findings indicated that right-leaning Twitter users had greater levels of political activity, tighter social bonds, and a network that facilitated rapid and broad dissemination of political information.
That study is important because it points to the importance of Twitter as a tool for political engagement and it shows how the microblog is used in remarkably different ways by left and right groups. Emily and I will expand on that earlier study by exploring the left/right partisan structures for journalistic functions, news values, and storytelling styles. We’ll also have an opportunity to explore the emotional dimension: that is, how Twitter users empower followers with emotion and with a sense of “we” or collective identity.
2) Emily, journalism doctoral student AJ Wagner and I are looking at the roughly 10,000 Tweets of one reporter, with programming help from Informatics. We’re using mixed methods to investigate journalistic storytelling forms, as well as the emotional dimensions of these Tweets.
3) With the Janissary Collective (a faculty and student media research group from IU’s SOJ, Telecom, and Comm and Culture led by IU Prof. Mark Deuze), I am writing about new media and social change with the benefit of our group’s diverse disciplinary perspectives.
These projects just skim the surface, but hopefully show how we’re following and analyzing the “circulation of intensities” and charting their relationship to dissent, collective actions, and social movements.
Journalism’s future in the global movement society
A final thought: I believe the seemingly new media-fueled emotion and identity movements place unique demands on journalists who report on movement activity for the rest of the world, demanding new approaches to journalistic work.
New styles of reporting that we might explore or open our analyses to: Identity-based, emotion-based reporting.
I’m still working on this malformed idea!
For guidance on what this style of reporting might be, I’ve been looking at Peter Berglez’s (2008) ideas about “global journalism.” Traditional reporting, he says, tends to concentrate on one spatial, one political, or one cultural context.
Global journalism, Berglez says, connects people, places, issues, problems, and actions across borders. It also reveals transnational links between events, phenomena, and people.
This global journalist potentially creates awareness of global interdependency, of global citizenship in its many forms.
Reporters already do this, to be sure. Berglez’s idea goes a step beyond conventional foreign reporting, though, to emphasize transnational power and identity dynamics.
It’s easy to cast doubt on this idea: There are newsroom constraints on such reporting; such stories are labor- and time-intensive for reporters and readers alike; the news agenda is typically dominated by national, local interests; and reporters on foreign desks would undoubtedly say, “We’re already doing this!”
However, there’s increasing evidence of transnational issues in public life, often manifested through expressions of raw emotion and identity. It makes sense for journalism to take on some broader frames, to more effectively mediate this “circulation of intensities.”