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EVA GIRAUD: A lot of people mightask why you might want to study social mediain an academic context.It seems always trivial.It seems very every day.To get students thinking about these issuesI tend to open up class by asking a few questions.The first question that I'd ask would be,how do you feel if you lose your mobile phone?
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: And people tend to say, oh, it makesme feel like I'm cut off from my life in some way.The other thing I ask is that I oftennotice when going to a cafe or even sometimes in class peopleget their phones out and they put them on the deskin front of them.And so the second question I ask is why we do that.And again, people tend to say that if they don't havetheir phone in front of them, they feel somehow cut offfrom their friendships circle.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: And that's really what I'm interested in.I'm really interested in the cultural roleof social networks.Today I want to really focus in on a very specific aspectof our uses of social networks and that'stheir role in protest.To begin with I'm going to just talka little bit about how social networks fitinto a slightly longer history of the internet beingused for protest purposes.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: Then I'm going to be talking about how certain critics haveframed social network as almost the next stage in this process.The new way in which people can usethe internet for protest purposes.And then finally, I'm just going to givea bit of an overview of some of the criticismsthat have been leveled at social network's relationshipwith protests.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: And hopefully that should help mapout some of the debates about social networks,but also to illustrate why I thinkit's important to interrogate their role within culture.It's really important not to see social networks is this novelmode of protest, but contextualize themin relation to a slightly longer history of internet activism.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: From the '80s, for instance, peoplewere trying to circulate messagesthrough online newsgroups that weren't necessarily appearingin the mass media and mobilize support for issuesand bring people together using the internet.This carried on through the early '90swith some really important examples of movements drawinginternational attention to issues using the internet.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: I'm going to talk about a couple of key examples of activistuses of the internet in this way.And what I think is particularly interestingis that all those activists took the initiativein grasping the communicative tension of the internetbefore even corporations really understood its value.Say, for instance, an activist websitecalled McSpotlight, which I'm going to talk aboutin a bit more depth, was launched before McDonald's hadeven launched their own commercial website to promotethe corporation.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: And what McSpotlight did was try to give a platform to activistswho had a series of criticism that they wanted to levelat McDonald's.One of the reasons they felt that it was important to havea website was because in the UK, at least,McDonald's had had a history of preventing negative storiesabout them from appearing in the mainstream media.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: So they threatened to sue a lot of newspapers and televisionprograms.So it was really very useful for challenging,kind of, the corporate power of McDonald's thatwas trying to shape what could and couldn't be said.The second initiative that I wanted to talk aboutwas actually an activist news network called IndyMedia.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: And IndyMedia was really seen as a platform for peoplewho wanted to talk about alternatives to capitalism.What IndyMedia was designed to do though,was just to provide a platform for ordinary people's stories,narratives and opinions and allow newsto be produced by ordinary people, for the people.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: In more recent years though, commentatorshave noted a bit of decline in IndyMedia.And one of the things that has been blamed for thisis that activists increasingly turnedto more commercial social media to disseminate messages,rather than relying on like activist-produced websiteslike McSpotlight or a network like IndyMedia.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: People have turned to social media,or it's alleged that they've turned to social media,because you can just reach wider audiences.You can disseminate message very, very rapidly.And they're just very easy and simple to use.There are two key elements of social networksthat's been talked about quite extensivelywithin the literature in terms of their role within protest.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: The first is their role in mobilizing people.Twitter, for instance, has been seenas a really key way in which messages of mobilization thatencourage people to come together in physical spacesin order to protest have been circulated.In Muldova, for instance, in 2009they were seen as a key way in which people could protestagainst the recent elections.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: Messages were sent out via Twitterand encouraged people to, kind of, converge on public spaces.And because of the rapidity with which these messages canbe spread, huge numbers of people gathered.The second aspect of social mediathat's been seen as having a distinct political rolehas related much more clearly back to these earlier examplesthat I was talking about in relation to the internetand protest.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: And that's it's capacity to documentthings that aren't necessary appearing in the mainstreammedia.And also to allow those issues to reach large audiences.So these two things, the capacity to mobilize people,bring people together, and the capacity to document protesthave really been hailed as part of the revolutionary potentialof social media.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: I now want to talk about some of the criticisms thathave been leveled at these networks.Because the range of critics who initially celebratedthe political potential of social mediahas since become more cynical and pointed outcertain problems with suggesting that these networks canunproblematically support protest.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: So the first thing that I'm going to talk aboutis whether the role of social networkshas been overstated in protest.And what I'd really recommend doingif you're interested in this, is going to YouTube, ironically,and take a look at a documentary that'sbeen made by Al-Jazeera, which is called Tweets from Tahrir.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: And that documents the role of Twitterin uprisings against the Mubarak regime in Egypt.What this documentary points out,however, is that this kind of narrative of Twitteris this tool of liberation.It's not wholly accurate.Activists in the documentary point outthat actually it was at the point at which the internet wasswitched off and they could no longer access Twitterthat people actually took to the streets.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: So having no internet meant that people could no longer talkabout things online and actually had to take practical action.So this example just shows that it's really importantnot to just uncritically celebratethe role of social networks in protestor see them as this cause of causal factor.It's often a much more complicated picture than this.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: The second point that I want to talk aboutare problems of surveillance.Evgeny Morozov who was kind of one of the earlier, I suppose,cheerleaders of the use of Twitter for protesthas since become much more cynical.And he's pointed out in particularthat even though social networks can be used to mobilize people,in doing so they also can be used as a tool of surveillanceby people in authority.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: So, for instance, in the Iranian protests in 2009that surrounded the elections people actually arrested whodisseminated messages of protest on Twitter.The third issue that I want to talk aboutis what's known as the problem of soft power.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: And this, again, was seen as beinga particular problem in Iran.And this was because a lot of allegationshad been made that Twitter was kind of used by the USgovernment to help foster dissent in Iran.And it was dissent that was quite favorable to the US.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: And one of the ways in which this was manifestis that when Twitter in 2009 was due to have a serverupgrade, which was, kind of, going offlinein that period of time, the US government actuallytold them to postpone this server upgrade in orderto support protest in Iran.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: And I'm not trying to make judgments here or criticismsof the protesters or, you know, saywho was right or wrong in this particular protest situation.I'm just trying to, sort of, draw attentionto the way in which networks have been leverageby particular governments to supporttheir own political agendas.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: The final issue that I want to talk aboutis the way that social networks can activelyprofit from our dissent.They can profit from protest.A thinker called Jodi Dean talkedabout this quite a lot using a theory that shecalls communicative capitalism.Which basically says that when we stop communicating personto person offline and transfer that communication online,we're actually allowing people to profitthrough our interaction, through our communication.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: And this is particularly ironic if you'retrying to, say, circulate a message that's anti-capitalist,because, effectively, you're tryingto circulate anti-capitalist messages.But then you're creating profit for corporationsin the process.And that's because as soon as the messages circulateon a social network, you're creating advertising revenue,you know, you're enriching the network.
EVA GIRAUD [continued]: You might also be raising the share priceof the network in that process by increasing it's traffic.
Protest and Social Networks
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Dr. Eva Giraud explores the history and criticism of digital protest.
Dr. Eva Giraud explores the history and criticism of digital protest.