I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Owen Jones, Ken Loach, Podemos European Parliament member Tania González and Podemos lead strategist Iñigo Errejón at the invitation of the Podemos Londres Circle, who asked me to speak about digital media and political participation. I will soon post the transcript of my talk. Meanwhile, here are some pictures from the event. (The text is now posted below with some references).
“ICTs, (Digital) Media and Democratic Participation and Communication.” Text of public talk delivered to Rethinking Ourselves: Podemos and the Emergence of an Alternative Left in Europe, London Welsh Centre, September 13, 2014
I have been thinking a lot about trust lately. As you probably know declining trust in political parties has been a marked trend across democracies over the past decades. The day after Podemos won their seats in the European Parliament I went to dinner with some friends in Madrid. Before I had even sat down in my chair they asked me: okay Cristina so who is really behind Podemos? And I said well you know there’s Pablo Iglesias and there is Juan Carlos Monedero… And they said no no no, we mean who is really really behind Podemos? And this question “who is behind” is one of the central questions in politics. It is the first question people ask when new political projects are created –whether movement or party projects- and the answer strongly influences whether people decide to participate or not. In movement or party politics, trust and legitimacy are probably the most valuable yet difficult to attain resources.
Establishing and maintaining credibility and trust is very difficult for any political actor in this day and age and doing so through the use of digital media and ICTs throws up some particular challenges.
Because let me tell you—it is a digital jungle out there!
For one thing, unfortunately, progressive political actors are not the only people out there trying to pursue their agendas through digital media. We are all aware by now -thanks to Snowden -of the extent to which our governments not only spy on each other but also spy on us. One response I hear is, well if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.
Unfortunately spying is not all that is happening. According to a number of sources, government agencies and corporations deploy human intelligence teams to engage in digital propaganda tactics, which include spreading false information, delegitimizing targets, and manipulating communication to further their own agendas, one of which is to quash dissent and critical voices.
There are blogs, and there are clogs, which are corporate blogs, and then there are flogs which are fake blogs where it looks like an individual blog but in reality people are paid to pretend to blog while doing PR for corporations or parties.
Even more frightening are the possible uses of the algorithms that are built in to Twitter and Facebook, which as you may know are closely guarded and protected trade secrets. Zeynep Tufecki recently wrote an article in which she discusses how by manipulating the algorithms and the data users see individual users can be persuaded politically without their knowledge and the implications of this for elections for example is quite terrifying. So a given party or movement’s attempt to establish credibility can be sabotaged or undermined in a whole range of ways. Of course, the interactivity the internet provides can be also exploited by elites to maintain their position.
Establishing trust isn’t the only problem. In this brave new world of digital communication, activists who attempt to expose political corruption, or to contest hegemonic narratives face another challenge, which is not new but has been extended into the digital realm, and that is criminalization and repression. Not only do government agencies attack and confiscate alternative activist media servers, but now tweets and posts are also subject to fines and even prison.
Under Spain’s proposed penal code reform, a person who tweets “Let’s tear up the streets tonight at the protest!” and then goes to bed and never even goes to the protest could be charged for inciting a public disturbance if someone-anyone-even if they don´t know the tweeter from Adam-later decides to destroy property or throw something at the police. What this means is that the person tweeting could never know beforehand if they were in fact committing an offense, which according to my legal friends at No Somos Delito violates certain fundamental juridical principles.
The problems in the digital jungle by no means only come from government agencies and corporate hackers and trolls.
Anonymous recently had a whole spate of tweets going back and forth around the issue of a single person taking control of a number of anonymous twitter accounts, changing the passwords and then using those accounts to promote their own agenda. For an outsider to Anonymous it’s very, very difficult to determine who is doing what, which of those accounts are legitimate anonymous accounts and which aren’t —if there is such a thing as a legitimate anonymous account. And issues of control of accounts, problems with trolls and a host of other issues have long plagued social movements online. To the extent that the web is open, as many anti-democratic voices can try to make themselves heard as democratic ones.
So what does all this mean for those hoping to harness the power of digital media? I think what it means is that we need to approach the use of digital media and ICTs reflexively and strategically. To that end I would like to raise a few additional reflections that I hope might be useful in this regard.
The first is that we cannot rely solely on digital media to build up trust, legitimacy, and participation, key tasks for any political project. In this regard Podemos has done very well: from the beginning they have spent a great deal of effort building face to face ties with different groups, explaining their project and asking for support. Just like my friends in the restaurant, people still want personal contact and verification of legitimacy before they decide to participate.
Podemos have also relied on a mix of mediums, crucially mass media especially television, to reach a wider public, but also very low tech media such as personal hand delivered flyers that anyone could run off and spread around. Maintaining this connection with a grassroots movement base and also using mass media to move beyond this base are crucial strategies, and of course they are not unique to Podemos, social movements groups like Juventud Sin Futuro and the Oficina Precaria have also been very effective in combining digital campaigns with mass media campaigns and face to face participatory assemblies which is the bedrock of their activism.
I am not saying that trust and legitimacy cannot be built up online-
But this trust often depends on repeated interaction over time, conditions that are rarely reproduced in the sorts of forums or platforms, like redditt, that are designed to facilitate mass participation between large numbers of previously unconnected people.
Participatory digital tools also need to be connected to meaningful democratic processes to be effective. For example, any party, even a closed hierarchical one, can use a participatory digital app, but if the actual structure of the party is not transformed, and if there are not meaningful mechanisms of participation these democratic technologies merely serve as window dressing.
The second reflection is that technology always comes from somewhere and is designed to serve particular purposes and agendas. Sometimes it is designed to serve our needs and agendas and sometimes it can be adapted to our needs but might not necessarily be serving only our agendas. Activists have long questioned the use of corporate owned social media for progressive politics not only for ideological reasons but also because of issues of data protection and autonomy. At the same time there’s no question that the use of Twitter and Facebook has enabled activists to communicate with a wider audience outside the activist ghetto.
I think we should reflect on who is producing these tools and reflect on the differences between tools created by radical geeks committed to enhancing participation, circumventing surveillance and protecting anonymity for example, and media created by corporations which come at the cost of anonymity, censorship, data mining and data manipulation. I am not saying we should not use corporate owned social media, but lets’ think carefully about the purposes and advantages of the digital tools we use and whose agenda they are really serving.
The third reflection is that even if a technology exists that suits our intended purpose and agenda, it does not mean people will actually use it or use it in a way that is consistent with our goal of facilitating democratic participation.
One part of using a technology is knowing how to use it, and if you are like me, you currently have in your possession a smartphone or computer which have a range of features that you either do not know exist or do not know how to use. So knowledge and expertise is one component of digital media use that you can probably all relate to.
What you may not be as aware of is that our use of digital media and ICTs is also very much shaped by culture. My own research on digital media use in activist communities shows that activists in different networks have different digital repertoires. Activists in Spain for example, use Titan Pads a lot (which are used to write collaborative documents) but these are not really used at all in Ireland. Obviously Irish activists are just as digitally savvy as Spanish ones, so this is not a question of difference in technical skill or know how– Titan pads just don’t form part of their digital repertoires. Other researchers have found that it is very difficult to get people to use new participatory online tools.
Our use of ICTs and digital media don’t just reflect these sorts of national or local cultural differences, but also cultural patterns in the wider society such as gender inequalities. For example, males post and participate much more online than women. Women and non-whites are subjected to much more trolling and vitriol online which can also inhibit participation. Research shows that activist or progressive communities are not immune to these effects either. So even though in theory digital media is open to all on an equal footing, power relations and cultural patterns shape their actual use.
My research also shows that our emotional experience of participation online (and offline!) determines whether we decide to continue to participate or not.
Another key finding is that even in participatory networks and forums, a few people tend to dominate the discussions and people tend to reply or respond to people they know, but not to those they don’t know. The uneven distribution of digital knowledge is another real challenge. Inequalities in time and resources also affect online participation or the lack of participation.
Cyber idealism that supposes the internet is the bastion of free and equal exchange really needs to be tempered with evidence of the way that inequalities are reproduced and magnified online.
Being aware of the factors that inhibit or promote participation will help us make the best use of digital tools.
Finally we need to remember that what digital media offers in theory is not necessarily what it delivers in practice.
If, like me, you have seen TV advertisements where deliriously happy people hold a universe of digital content in the palms of their hands while they download, upload and communicate with astonishing ease, and then compared that with your own experience of crappy broadband, desperately trying to get a signal for your cell phone, dying batteries, and glitching applications, you will know what I mean.
But I think some theorists, scholars and activist commentators also seduce us away from taking a hard look at how we actually use digital media and the effects and impacts that it has with the language of free spaces of digital flows and seamless connectivity. Don’t get me wrong, digital media and ICTs are powerful tools that have revolutionized activism and politics. But getting the most out of these tools requires being critically reflexive about how we use them and I hope I have given you some food for thought today. I have a lot more to say about digital media and participation but I am out of time, there is much more about all of this in my book Social Movements and Globalization, if you are interested. So I will leave you with some last words of advice: Remember, whatever you do, don’t feed the trolls.
Some references for further exploration:
Albrecht, S. 2006. Whose voice is heard in online deliberation?: A study of participation and representation in political debates on the internet. Information, Community and Society, 9, 62-82.
Askanius, T.,And Gustafsson, N. 2010. Mainstreaming the alternative, Interface, 2(2), 23-41.
Cammaerts, Bart (2008) Critiques on the participatory potentials of Web 2.0. Communication, culture & critique, 1 (4). pp. 358-377. ISSN 1753-9129
Dahlberg, L. 2001. The Internet and democratic discourse: Exploring the prospects of online deliberative forums extending the public sphere. Information, Communication & Society, 4, 615-633. http://epphenicie.iweb.bsu.edu/5820550.pdf
Flesher Fominaya C (2014) Social movements and globalization: How protests, occupations and uprisings are changing the world. London: Palgrave Macmillan. (CHAPTER 5—Also includes discussion of the many positive aspects of ICTs and digital media for social movements!)
Flesher Fominaya C and Garvía, R. (2008) Nuevas tecnologías de la comunicación, democracia y participación política, en Victor Pérez Díaz (coord) Mediterráneo Económico, Vol 14: Modernidad Crisis y Globalización: problemas de política y cultura. Disponible: https://www.academia.edu/615522/Nuevas_tecnologias_de_la_comunicacion_democracia_y_participacion_politica
Morozov, Evgeny (2014) To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, Public Affairs.
No Somos Delito http://www.nosomosdelito.net
Sam and Annie, Indymedia UK/London (2014) Cyber-autonomy: A Tactical Approach to Media, Occupied Times http://theoccupiedtimes.org/?p=13153
Sapiera, Eugenia (2014) The Really Dark Internet: Deception and Propaganda in Social Media, Occupied Times, http://theoccupiedtimes.org/?p=13166
Taylor, A. 2014. The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, London, HarperCollins
Tufecki, Zeynep (2014) Engineering The Public: Big Data, Surveillance And Computational Politics, July 2014 issue of First Monday, Volume 19, Number 7
See Also: Open Democracy article on participation online research: https://www.opendemocracy.net/participation-now/deirdre-lee-hilde-c-stephansen/engaging-eu-citizens-in-policy-making