Final Paper: Activism and Digital Platforms
In November 1989, massive demonstrations were held in Berlin after Eastern-German authorities decided to abolished border controls between the East and the West of Germany. Classical mediums of communication such as radio, letters, newspapers and telephones were the main channels of information during this period and they played a major role in the conduct of these protests. However, an even greater impact on population could have been expected during Berlin wall fall protests. Indeed, these classical mediums of communication were only exposing information to a limited sphere of citizens (Sandoval-Almazan & Gil-Garcia, 2014, p.366). New technologies and especially the creation of internet significantly transformed the dynamics of activism and social movements organizations. Information and Communication technologies (ICT) became interesting tools for activists to share information and mobilize a maximum of people. These new technologies reduced significantly the costs of collective actions and allowed an easier and faster access to politics (Van Aelst & Walgrave, 2002, p.465).
The growth of the internet since the mid-1990s generated a new debate among scholars regarding the influence that internet has on political process and social movements. Since then, the internet has evolved a lot. Starting from the Web 1.0, we are now slowly entering in the era of the Web 3.0. These periods are clearly noticeable in the literature about activism and new ICT. This research focuses on the second era of the World Wide Web, when social medias and interactive platforms where created. Most of the studies analysing social movements in relation with the Web 2.0 mainly emphasis the role of digital platforms as tools for external communications and publicity. In this paper, both internal and external medium of communication are addressed. Through a modest digital ethnography conducted via a semi-structured interview of a Belgian leftists activist, this work tries to understand what role plays current digital tools in the organization and the communication of activists groups. Therefore, the research question of this paper is: “How digital platforms are used within Belgian leftist activists groups ?”. Sandoval-Almazan and Gil-Garcia (2014) defines activism as “political activities that embrace a goal” within a group of people who shares the same ideas and become organized (p.366). This work refers to activism according to the latter definition.
This research firstly addresses some important concepts by reviewing the literature about new ICTs and their implications within activism and social movements. The second section presents the data analysed in this paper and is subsequently devoted to the development of the methodology to examine the use of digital platforms within activists groups. The next part concerns the main body of the research with a discussion and an analyse of the obtained information. Lastly, concluding remarks will be drawn to answer the research question.
In the academic literature, three main different categories regarding internet studies can be identified; Web 1.0, Web, 2.0 and Web 3.0. Ragnedda and Destefanis (2019) describes the first stage of the Internet as constituted of static websites that share information but without any interactions possible between users. The authors explain that the Internet served only to digitalize content (p.2). The second era of the Internet, Web 2.0, is characterized by its participative features. Indeed, digital platforms shifted from readable to writable content. With websites such as Wikipedia passive website visitors turned into active generators of content. Internet users were allowed to share information, add content and exchange data. The arrival of social medias on digital platforms even reinforced further the participation and collaboration features of Internet (Ragnedda & Destefanis, 2019, pp. 2-3). The last era we are slowly entering in is the Web 3.0. Ragnedda and Destefanis (2019) describe this third web generation based on the creation of decentralized networks without any points of control through a new technology called “Blockchain”. The latter allows the exchange of values without any intermediate between people that would be monopolistic service provider or centralize organizations making benefit on these transfers (p.3). The literatures linking the influence that the of the second era of the Web can have over social movements are numerous. These researches are called digital movements studies 2.0. Others focuses on how the transition between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 has changed the story of social movements. However, articles concerning the role that Web 3.0 can play for activists groups remain rare for the moment.
Treré (2015) explains that digital movement studies 1.0 look at how the introduction of digital medias affected the organization of activists groups. However, the author questions the development of collective identities during the transition between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. He explains that some scholars argue that the advent of the first digital medias of communication did not have a significant impact over social movements organization. However, others maintain that collective identities could have been build through the first digital communication technologies such as emailing (pp.5-6). For example, Danitz (1999) research about the Burma movements against the authoritarian regime at the beginning of the 1990s shows that the first digital medias played a major in the organization of protests. Indeed, before the arrival of emailing services there were not much information going out of Burma regarding their regime. With the Internet, people could create websites to inform the world about the situation in Burma and use email to communicate with the outside world. The first ICTs served as a great tools to communicate, raise awareness and create the Free Burma movement (pp.257-260). However, the author also explains that the tools they had at this time were not completely satisfying because, they could only rely on one source of communication with the outside which was risky knowing that Internet could have been easily monitored. In addition, not everyone at this time had an Internet connection. Therefore, the sphere of influence of digital medias was limited (Danitz, 1999, pp.261-4). This growth of Internet during the mid- 1990s rose concern about its implication in political processes. Van Aelst and Walgrave (2002) explains that it clearly facilitated participation politics and make it easier and faster for citizen-based groups of activists to organize. However, the authors stay skeptical about a complete change of logic with collective actions and social movements during the 1990s (p. 466). After analyzing the protests of the Batlle of Seattle in 1999, Van Aelst and Walgrave (2002) argues that social movements still need real life meetings in order to create a collective identity. In addition, they state that the influence of internet over the activism has been exaggerated (p. 487). Sandoval-Almazan and Gil-Garcia (2014) also share this idea and explain that during this period, activist groups that used new digital tools to organize and communicate took place where real life relationships were already established (p.367). Additionally, these movements had unidirectional structure through the use classical medias, rogue informational websites or email discussion and they always ended in street protests.(Sandoval-Almanzan & Gil-Garcia, 2014, p.368).
According to Treré (2015), the introduction of social medias on the Web 2.0 significantly change the dynamic of activism. Indeed, even if the outcome of activists actions did not change, the horizontal nature digital platforms completely reframe organization and communication. Such platforms allowed to abandon the strong organizational control of social movements (p.17). Social medias with their users-generated contents became the perfect tools to mobilize people as well online as offline. They reduced the barriers of social exchange and increased connectivity. Even if the connectivity is limited to users, their participatory nature enables activists to spread discourses to involve a maximum of people in society issues (Hwang & Kim, 2015, p.478). Sandoval-Almazan and Gil Garcia (2014) also share these ideas. According to them, technologies improve social activists organization and faster communication in order to protest against the establishment (p.367). In opposition to Treré (2015) who states that social media did not altern the outcome of social activism, Hwang and Kim (2015) raise concern about keyboard activism which consists to support social movements by sharing and linking content. They consider this practice being a low level of involvement in social movements and are afraid that active members of activist groups became passive users. This would considerably change the outcome of activism as it would not end in real life actions or in the streets anymore (p.480). Indeed, as explained by Sandoval-Almazan and Gil-Garcia (2014), activists share considerable amount information about actions on social media. They presents facts via Youtube, organize with Facebook and Twitter and raise awareness on interactive websites. The more people are informed, the more people are going to participate. However, social medias also allow people to decide they degree of involvement within these actions and it could be by sharing posts on Facebook or signing an online petition (p.368). This path could enhance a change of activists’ morality by questioning them about their legitimacy to conduct real life actions. Kamphof (2017) define technomoral change as the way technology affect our morality. With this growing concern about keyboard activism, activists could be led to rethink if their ways to act with protests and violent actions are the more legitimate or moral manners to reach their goals. They could therefore limit themselves to keyboard acivism. Anyway the authors results show that, social medias have changed the strategies of activists but as for the first era of digital activism, social movements still ends in real life actions or street protests (Sandoval-Almanzan & Gil-Garcia, 2014, p.375).
In his research, Treré (2015) made a significant distinction between two dimensions in the communication of activist groups that is also made in this paper. The author identifies the Frontstage use of social and the backstage use of social media within activist groups (p.1). Indeed, activists use social medias to organize, create and generate a collective identity but some private digital spaces of exchange exist where they can express safely far from the official lights of Facebook (Treré, 2015, p.15). Through memes, pictures, parodies or different means of expression, activist groups reinforced their solidarity and their interactivity on different digital platforms. These safe places could be considered as third places. Hamilton, Garretson and Kerne (2014) define them as “public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work” (p.4). They also explain that third places are “alternative locations, for people to come together, form, and maintain communities through informal public social interactions.” (p.4). However, even if activists develop a real sense of belonging through social media, Van Aest and Walgrave (2002) points out that in order to build a necessary basis of trust for a community, real life meetings are still important (p.466).
In order to answer the research question, this paper conducts a digital ethnography of Belgian activist groups through a semi-structured interview. The framework of this work does not allow the results to be generalized. Indeed, as Pink (2016) mentions, complete digital ethnography require to dive in the every day life of the group studied. Reading, listening and observing are essential to fully explore the consequences of the presence of digital medias over a specific group (pp. 1-3). This paper analysis is limited to the 42 minutes semi-structured interview of an anonymous individual member of a leftist Belgian activist group. Therefore, some pieces to achieve a digital ethnography are missing in order to understand all the dynamics of activist groups. However, in order to apply digital ethnography methods to the data collected to structure this research, the units of analysis developed by Pink (2016) are used. Throughout the 22 open-questions raised during the interview, this work is going to focus on experiences, practices, things, relations, social world, localities and events (Pink, 2016, p.15) As mentioned earlier, frontstage and backstage use of social medias by activists are treated separately and the concepts of third places and online communities are also going to structure the achievement of this research.
In order to start this research, the social world of activists is presented. Pink (2016) explains that to engage with social worlds through digital ethnography, it is important to look at how social relationships and collective activities are bound together (p.16). The interviewee explain that what ties group members in leftist activist groups and push them to act together are the ideologies they all share. Indeed, he says that everyone is aware of social and environmental issues of our society. They all mostly believe in systemic change through direct actions. Some of them consider that the anti-capitalist opposition they represent is essential to our society in order to give hope to people of a possible better world. The interviewee states that they all want to bring “emancipatory, progressist and pro-environment narratives” on the social medias in order to counter “the ambient conservatism in our society which is more and more important and sometimes close from neo-fascism”. The interviewee realize the paradoxical relationship between their ideologies and their presence on social medias. Indeed he explains that they defends certain disruptive values on social medias which aim to left capitalism whereas these digital platforms have ultra-capitalist structures. However, it is these ideologies that constitute the social world of leftist activist groups in Belgium. The interviewee also mentioned that the trust basis in their groups is also a major factor of their social world they need to have to conduct collective actions.
Personal relations are very important in the building of collective identity within activist groups. Pink (2016) states that it is important to look at how personal relation are constituted and maintained through technologies and digital platforms. In our case, two different ways to initiate personal relationship with group members can be identified. In order to be accepted and create personal bounds with the activist community, the interviewee explain that is it better to first being seen “on spot” during legal actions. Indeed, activists prefer to meet new people in real life before integrating them in their world. They need a strong trust basis as some of their actions are illegals. The other way to integrate a group is through mainstream public social media. However, for the same trusting reasons, a real life meeting with some older members is also often required before accessing the backstage of their groups. For example, the interviewee who is administrator of a Facebook page, explains that he already met some of the people who were particularly active at share posts and commenting on his page. Some of them even joined the activist group later on.
Sometimes relations can also be created and initiated elsewhere on social medias. Indeed, it exists some places where activists share contents and interact with each other more freely. They can relate to each other experiences and create a collective identity. Our interviewee explain that some private Facebook groups called “Neurchi” are constituted of thousands activists who share memes, experiences or articles to read about their ideologies. He also says that these people share de same values and know the codes of the activist culture. He even talks about Online communities emerging on these groups. Such localities can be defined as a third place because they clearly are “alternative locations, for people to come together, form, and maintain communities through informal public social interactions”. (Halimton, Garretson and Kerne, 2014, p.4).
According to the interview, events organization seems to be one of the main practices of leftist activist groups. Many parts of the organization and the communication about these actions take place on digital platforms. Two different dimensions can be identified in the communication and the organization of activists groups, the internal or the external dimension. The interviewee explains that his personal main task in the group concerning external communication consists to film actions and generate aesthetically appealing videos. These videos are then published of social medias such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter in order to reach a maximum of people and raise awareness about the values they defend with these actions. He also explains that for now, Facebook is the main channels they use to communicate publicly. The interviewee explain that even if Facebook is in decline since a few years, it remains the largest social media they reach the largest audience with it. For them, mainstream social medias play a major role in sensibilization and the recruitment of new members. Concerning the organizational side, these platforms are very useful to mobilize people when coordinating legal events. However, actions led by leftist activist groups are often illegal. For example, the interviewee participate to blockage of a refinery in Belgium and tried to protect a natural zone destined to become a factory by implanting a camp on it. These kind of actions require a secret organization that happens in the backstage. The interviewee explains that the police is monitoring many activists personal social medias and tells that actions have already been crushed before starting because of that. Therefore, activist groups have to deal with surveillance that appeared with new technologies. This represents a soft impact of technomoral changes. Indeed, Swierstra (2015) explains that the latter are “morally ambiguous, and there is no consensus on the question of whether their impacts are good or not”, which is the case for this classical trade-off between privacy and security. (Swierstra, 2015, p.10). However, the interviewee reveals that activists group have found ways to bypass this surveillance issue through digital platforms. The internal communication concerning the organization of actions now take place on encrypted social medias such as Telegram or Signal. In addition, activists try to disclose the less information possible about actions on digital platform even if they are encrypted. Before the actions, they all gather together for a real life meeting and solely there display crucial details about actions. During the action, the internal communication between activists when they are separated is also made through encrypted platforms. At the briefing meeting all activists receive list of phone numbers to contact on encrypted platforms in case of emergency or arrestation by the police.
However, the interviewee also explains that the mainstream public social medias are also very important for the internal dynamics of their group. He says that “it motivates us to see that we have some traces ore nice videos of what we did during actions and it allows us to be proud of our actions”. Indeed, having a archives of their work which is seen and shared by many people is a thing that gives meaning to what they do.
This paper examined the use of digital platforms by Belgian leftist activist groups. Throughout the semi-structured interview of one of their members, some observations allow to now better understand the implication of technologies within their group. The analysis shows that some online communities of leftist activists are created on online third places. Members of these groups build common identities by sharing and exchanging ludic content around the values they all share. However, the interview also demonstrate that offline meetings are still very important for activists to build strong relationship. Indeed, the illegal nature of certain actions led them to test the honesty of new members in order to generate trustful connections. The experiences of the interviewee go against the concerns that Hwang and Kim (2015) had about going toward a keyboard activism. On the contrary, the interviewee explained that low level of activism on social medias is often a gateway through direct activism.
Internal and external communication methods within activist groups have been approach separately. Frontstage communication is achieved through mainstream social media platforms such as Facebook, Youtube and Instagram. On these platform activists share information about their engagements and publish videos on their previous actions in order to publicize what they are doing and reach a maximum of people. In the case studied Facebook remains the easiest tool to share content and mobilize people. However, Mainstream social medias are also important for the internal dynamics of activist groups. The publication and videos they published help them to motive and give meaning to what their actions.
Concerning internal communication, activists had to find ways to overcome the soft impacts of technomoral changes. Indeed, the arrival of new technologies increased the digital surveillance over their movement. Therefore, activists decided to use encrypted platforms such as Telegram or Signal in order to communicate internally. It allows their groups to organize illegal actions without being crushed by the police before the beginning of the action. The academic literature regarding encrypted digital platforms remain rare for the moment and could receive more academic attention.
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