Monthly Archives: August 2012

Occupy global, globalise Occupy: the global hegemony of resistance technologies

Freie Universität Berlin

NB. I forgot to record this presentation, so I have included my notes below – this is not a polished publication, so you may find inaccuracies or inconsistencies (and feel free to point them out).


This paper will attempt to explore the complex relationships between language, hegemony, and the social and political movements and protests of 2011 (e.g. the Arab Springs, Occupy, UK riots) within a critical discourse studies framework. In doing so, it will examine not just the nature of the challenges (verbal, visual, physical) offered by the participants in the movements to symbolic and de-facto representatives of political hegemonies, but also the role of various technologies in causing or facilitating, complicating or frustrating activists’ efforts at communication, multilingual, monolingual or non-verbal, within and beyond their movements.

While the mainstream English-language media has often presented a compelling narrative of “liberation, democratization and social change caused by ‘Western’ technology”, the reality is of course often much more complex. This is shown particularly by the protests that have taken place in majority-English-speaking countries themselves. Protestors have made use of numerous technologies, non-digital and non-electronic in nature, to communicate and further their aims. An example is the  ‘human mic’, systematic repetition by the crowd of what a single speaker is saying, which was used at Occupy gatherings to ensure individual voices could be heard by the whole group, or to challenge amplified voices (in one famous example, protestors interrupted a speech by Barack Obama). At the other end of the technology spectrum, protestors, officials, observers and commentators used Twitter to frame events in particular ways and for particular purposes during major protests – one such example are the claims and counter-claims about looting in the riots that took place in UK cities in Summer 2011. These claims, many which were subsequently proved to be false, were repeated by broadcast media and had a role in shaping public opinion and subsequent governmental policy decisions.

What was notably absent from many contexts was much engagement with the broader global resistance movements. While they were multi-modal, encompassing physical actions, sound, visual elements on placards and banners, and also online actions such as Facebook and YouTube posts, tweets, etc., they were not particularly multilingual, in marked contrast to the Arab Springs and other protests outside the Anglo-American world.

It is thus noteworthy that global networks allow social and political movements around the globe to influence each other using the same technologies and networks as other globalised phenomena. And as with other such phenomena, this process has not necessarily been a two-way street. Thus, the paper concludes that while the “West” has “occupied protest” in less “privileged” parts of the world in various ways, including linguistically, the reverse has not always been true.

Notes from the presentation

I want to begin by thanking Louisa for organizing such a fascinating panel. I found her questions highly stimulating, and in my contribution, I will try to give my perspective on them in the research contexts that I have engaged with.

Over the past year and  a half, like many of my colleagues, I have been particularly interested in the global movements and revolutions that have not only brought about change to some political systems, but seem to have also fundamentally changed the way we can debate and analyse changes to political systems. I have been particularly interested in:

  • the Occupy movement (particularly its manifestations in the English-speaking world)
  • the UK protests and disturbances of 2011
  • the so-called ‘Western’ reporting of the Arab Springs

(I want you to imagine quotation marks around “Western” whenever I utter the term).

I have examined these in relation to political resistance practices, particularly those involving digital media, as part of the Political Resistance Online Research Project, which is an ongoing research project which ultimately aims to provide a taxonomy of digitally augmented political resistance practices. I have also recently started ‘Success in Activist Tweets’ project, looking at how activists actually use twitter, and what are the most effective strategies. Finally, I have been doing some work on the Occupy movement in the UK, including examining how local Occupy Lancaster protestors and non-protestors interacted with each other in a local newspaper website. If I have time, I will show you some data from these towards the end of my talk. But my main focus today is on the technologies of protest, and the way in which these cause of facilitate, complicate or frustrate communication by, to and between protestors.

In addition to the systematic data collection and analysis as part of my research, I have also engaged in careful observation, and in some cases participation in, the social media responses to the events I’ve just mentioned. I have read, written and retweeted tweets on Twitter, seen and shared Facebook postings, visited blogs and online news sites. I am not claiming that this gives me more privileged access than anyone else, but in some way, I feel that these movements have intersected with my ‘Western’, privileged life, both personally and as a researcher.

Many of the presenters in this panel have done ‘detailed ethnographic work’, have been in the squares, in the streets, and have observed the physical events in these physical, geographical locations. I applaud this work and am very excited to hear more about it. Some have also examined the use of online tools in protests, as have I. Now, some of us may feel that these are very different research contexts, but I feel this is a notion we urgently need to problematize: First, people engage with digital media while also being in a physical space – they are never ‘only’ online. Nathan Jurgenson critiques this ‘digital dualism’, and states that online and offline are in fact ‘not zero-sum’, in other words we aren’t offline or online – we are always simultaneously offline and online.

Even for people not holding a device in their hands while on Tahrir Square or on the steps of the London Stock Exchange, their physical realities will have been mediated in some way by social media. Tufekci & Wilson, in their 2011 paper on how social media affected the decision to participate in Tahrir Sq. protests, state that “Social media alter the key tenets of collective action … and, in doing so, create new vulnerabilities for even the most durable of authoritarian regimes.” Their overall finding is that social media accelerated, but were of course not wholly responsible for them (which we might think if we only believed Western news sources). They further point out the importance of

  • Al Jezeera, as a new kind of traditional broadcaster, which engages in “reverse agenda-setting” and has pan-Arabic reach (incidentally, it more recently also provides a news source from within the region accessible to non-Arabic speakers via Al J English)
  • Early attempts to critique the government in Egypt by bloggers from 2005 onwards – they claim this created room in the public sphere for critical voices, whereas before critique would have been restricted to the private sphere
  • The fact that Facebook became available in Arabic (in 2009), allowing political bloggers and non-bloggers alike to connect with much larger social networks
  • The growing ubiquity of mobile phones (80% of Egyptian adults by late 2010)

In the context of the global movements I have mentioned, only a tiny proportion of people who engage in a particular protest movement are actually physically located in the space in question. As Phil Graham puts it in Hypercapitalism, “whole political movements are mobilized across formerly intraversible spaces without the bulk of people involved ever having met in person” (2006)

This is further accentuated by the concept of mutual knowledge, as Steven Pinker points out: one of the reasons why social media is effective in accelerating or mobilizing protests is that people can tell each other what they think about the regime more easily and quickly.

So, if I can ask a provocative question, why should we prioritise the voices & the experiences of people who are physically present at the main events associated with a revolution? We have already heard this morning about Deleuze and Castells in relation to (de-)territorialisation and about Scollon & Scollon’s concept of Geosemiotics. But to give a specific example that I watched unfold on Twitter, the case of the prominent Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy being detained in Egypt, it was not the voices in the street that were responsible for her release. Rather, it was the reports in social and then mainstream media, the calls from concerned citizens in the US to their political representatives, and the swift action of the US Embassy that caused her release 12 hours later.

This is not to suggest for one moment that there is no value in doing ethnographic work in the physical spaces where events related to a protest is taking place. Indeed, to learn more about linguistic and political behaviors, this kind of work is essential. But I would argue that what being ‘on the ground’ tells us about how global movements interact with each other, and how the majority of individuals interact with them, is limited. Through ‘on-the-ground’ ethnographic work we can get access to local (or glocal?) representations (or sometimes mis-representations?) of global movements, but to really get a handle on how global media (mis)represent local voices, we of course need to include texts drawn from these media in our analysis. A good example of this kind of work is Gaby and Karen’s (2012) analysis of recruitment to Occupy’s Facebook pages. Interestingly, they found that although images and videos were highly effective in recruiting new members to Facebook groups, these did not necessarily depict events in the physical place were the protest was taking place. Many of them were memes of a humorous or historically or culturally salient nature.

On a related note, in the abstract for the panel, Louisa stated that the strong international focus of the movements can be explained by “the conviction that only global actions can confront global problems”. However, many of these movements are not about global problems, but about local (or at least national) problems or about local manifestations of global problems. Furthermore, many of the most powerful actions and images from the various protests we are examining in this panel have been oriented towards achieving local objectives – though they have then been photographed, videoed, described in blogs, on Twitter, and then reproduced and recontextualised globally.

What many activists were successful in doing, as Mariam showed earlier, is using intertextual references to highlight the links and similarities between different movements – where these existed – and in using previous successes (e.g. Tunisia) to present visual and verbal arguments pertaining to their present plight. Thus, I would argue that many of these movements are at best quasi-global.

So why did these local protests with their quasi-global orientations happen in particular places and at particular times? At this point, it is relevant to introduce the notion of

Political opportunity structures

  • This is the idea that political resistance becomes protest when the right “political opportunity structures” are in place.
  • Originally proposed by Peter Eisinger (1973), popularised by Sidney Tarrow.
  • I draw my definition from the work of Herbert Kitschelt (1980) who suggests that we should reject both the Marxian-macrosociological view of protest (focus on socio-economic modes of production) and the microsociological view (grievances, deprivation) in favour of political opportunity structures: in a nutshell, the conditions have to be just right for political resistance to become political protest.

“Political opportunity structures are comprised of specific configurations of resources, institutional arrangements and historical precedents for social mobilization, which facilitate the development of protest movements in some instances and constrain them in others.” (Kitschelt 1980)

As I have mentioned, in this paper, I’m particularly interested in what specific ‘technologies of protest’. These are not just technologies in the sense of gadgets running on electricity. Rather, any deliberate act of semiosis makes use of a technology, even if it is the human voice.

I was going to show you a video of the human mic in action, but the next paper deals with it as its central theme, and I don’t want to steal Lila’s thunder.

What I would like to argue is that protestors in any context will make use of the technologies that are available to them, and will utilize these to the extent possible within their affordances.

Affordances – Ryder & Wilson 1996

  • ‘the action possibilities posed by objects in the real world’ (from psychologist James Gibson in 1977). Affordances become effectivities once we employ them
  • Brings us back to an idea raised by Susan Herring, that as analysts we shouldn’t chase round after technologies – what is interesting about the technologies is not the technologies themselves, but what people do with them – and what they make possible.

Jay Lemke 2002 claims that

  • “Typical meaning differences then arise because people exploit the affordances of one medium differently from those of another.”

Drawing on Jay Lemke’s earlier work, Phil Graham puts the idea of the exploitation of technological affordances into the context of the global capitalist system:

“Periods during which new media emerge, by definition, coincide with extensions and transformations in human relationships. They change the scale and character of human relationships, often irreversibly.” (Graham 2006)

We might ask, then, whether it is the emergence of digital and social media that have made the links between different protest movements possible in the first place. Again, I’m not suggesting that they caused the protests (they are only part of the political opportunity structures). However, Graham appears to be suggesting that new structures like the flat hierarchies, shared decision-making, and lack of leaders that Louisa described in the session abstract may have been made possible by changes in communication structures, in other words they may have fundamentally changed relationships between affected individuals and groups.

This is supported by González-Bailón et al.’s 2011 analysis of the use of Twitter in the Spanish May protests. They find that communication via Twitter involves a

“trade-off between global bridges (controlled by well connected users) and local networks: the former are efficient at transmitting information, the later at transmitting behavior. This is one reason why Twitter has played a prominent role in so many recent protests and mobilizations: it combines the global reach of broadcasters with local, personalized relations”.

Based on the data available to me, I believe Graham has a point… up to a point. My key finding, however, is that the relationships between protest movements across the globe are not unlike those between linguistic communities; that the hegemonic power structures found in the global economic system are partially reproduced in the way technologies and texts flow between protests.

I make these claims for two reasons: First, while we have heard from Mariam about the many multilingual and intertextual signs found on Tahrir Square, I have found very little evidence that the Occupy Wall Street, LSX or even Lancaster were similarly multlingual. They were strongly intertextual – but what was notably absent from these contexts was much engagement with other global resistance movements. This is also supported by content analysis of the most popular image search results for “Tahrir square signs” – vs. “Occupy Wall Street signs”, and image blogs such as ‘wearethe99percent’ on tumblr.

You may ask whether this is just because the pictures and descriptions of the protests that I am seeing are already mediated by news organisations, bloggers and tweeters, which will naturally focus on data that is globally accessible, i.e. in English, if we are talking about the “Western” reporting. However, as I suggested earlier on, it is mainly these globally accessible images and reports that have the potential to forge links between protest movements. It is the most popular images – the ones that were linked to, reproduced, recontextualised – that constitute the global discourse on the protest movements.

There were of course references to the Arab Springs by the protestors in Occupy – as we heard from Louisa this morning, and even in interviews conducted with UK rioters. And of course Tahrir was central to the formation of Occupy, if you take the Adbusters call to occupy Wall Street as the starting point (“Are you ready for a Tahrir moment? On 17 September, flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street”)

However, my perception is that in signs and texts produced by the occupiers, these referenceswere mainly instrumentalised in two ways: First, in arguments about the right to protest, and in attempts to highlight the hypocrisy of governments that support protests abroad while suppressing them at home. And second, as a symbolic claim about of the global nature of the movement. However, they did not necessarily indicate any direct engagement with or links between these protestors and those in other global resistance movements.

The second reason for my claims about global hegemonic flows is that it is significant that much of the infrastructure for the social media platforms and digital devices used to augment the physical protests is based in the United States or other “Western” countries, and that most of this infrastructure is run by companies that are owned by shareholders who are expecting a return on their investment. This becomes relevant when we consider that social media can be used as effectively by governments to survey protestors as it can be used by protestors to organize (a point illustrated by Evgeny Morozov in The Net Delusion, 2011). Furthermore, this was an important part of the narratives of the protests presented in the “Western” media, particularly in the labels “Twitter revolution” or “Facebook revolution”.  While the mainstream English-language media has often presented a compelling narrative of “liberation, democratization and social change caused by ‘Western’ technology”, the reality is of course often much more complex.

I would like to now return to the questions Louisa posed at the beginning. With regard to linguistic practices, I see particularly notable changes in the channels and modes of communication, rather than in the linguistic forms being used. However, these are not restricted to social struggles, but are common to many forms of digital communication in the public sphere. Social and digital media have undoubtedly played role in organizing these protests, in making the views of protestors public, in holding public figures to account. Their particular value to protesters has been in drawing global attention to local issues, in circumventing traditional media outlets that are restricted through state control or commercial interests. Nevertheless, they are themselves also susceptible to state or commercial control, and thus we should not be too utopian about their role.

With regard to multilingualism, the picture is complex: much as in international business and politics, English occupies a hegemonic position in global communication of an about issues being protested. Multilingualism appears at times to be symbolic – and to be heavily instrumentalised, or even commodified as part of local protest goals.