Keynote Speech: John D.H. Downing

John D.H. Downing
Recent (2012) Approaches to Social Movement Media: a Critique

I begin from the conviction that other worlds are possible. I don’t mean that there is human life in other galaxies. I am just making a small but important change in the saying popular in the global social justice movement, “Another world is possible,” which you recall was in defiance of British premier Thatcher’s (and others’) insistence that “there is no alternative” to the neo-liberal order. My small change is of a single letter, from one world – as in “another world is possible” – to worlds in the plural: other worlds are possible. I think Soviet history showed only too clearly the danger of assuming that in our very multiple planet there is only one alternative to the structural priorities of capitalism. Today’s jihadis, in a different mode of course, provide us with the exact same lesson.

The social tumult in many countries in the Arab region over the past two years, along with events in the indignad@s movement in Spain and the Occupy movements around the planet, have put this question very firmly back on the agenda. As did the 2009 post-election protests in Iran, and ongoing protest movements in Greece. Indeed the past fifteen years, from Canadian protests against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment in 1998 and the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, through the waves of protest against the US war against Iraq and global social justice actions in Brazil and around the world, to upsurges in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, China, France, India, Iceland, Palestine, Israel, and other places too numerous to mention – all these have put social change movements of different kinds on everyone’s map, whether they wanted them there or not.

For those of us who study media in their various formats, these years have been a particular challenge. Indeed, I would argue that for media sociologists, media political economists and media historians, these years have contributed to gradually reshaping the dominant research agenda away from a single-minded focus on stable large-scale media, and towards a focus on media and social change. This means, then, towards a focus on how mainstream media process economic crisis and its fall-out, and how they represent challenges to the status quo; but even more so, it means analyzing how “our” media, the media projects generated within social movements, are operating within these tumultuous periods and upsurges.

I would argue that if practical solutions are to emerge to the planet’s contemporary crises and dilemmas – ecological, gender-based, economic, cultural, military – the grassroots media we can construct have a pivotal democratic role in developing debate – and strategy – and imagination – toward specifying those solutions. This gives media researchers a particular responsibility and mission at the present time, namely to use our skills and experience to dissect media uses and experiences within social movements.

As we take stock of some of these cases and problems over these next two days, I hope it may be useful to begin our work by evaluating two attempts to interpret very recent examples of media use within social movements. The interpretations of the media of social movements which I will now summarize and then evaluate are the 2012 studies by Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope; and Tweets on the Streets by Paolo Gerbaudo. Of the two, Manuel Castells is certainly the more widely known, so let me start there.


His book focuses upon three case studies: the Egyptian movement’s media; the indignad@s movement in Spain; and the Occupy movements, especially in New York City. His information runs through the very beginning of 2012. His media format focus is almost entirely on the Internet, cell phones, and social media. He worked with a number of individuals directly involved with the movements in question, or with access to them. Language-wise, though born in Catalunya, Spanish is his mother-tongue, and he has been working in US universities for about 30 years; but for Arabic sources he was dependent on others.

Castells has been interested in internet uses and social movements for quite some time. One of his first books in 1975, in French, was about urban social movements and his work has all developed out of urban social geography. These days he teaches in the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California. He was invited to address the assembled indignad@s in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol Square. He wrote this book extremely fast in four months, though useful chunks of its 200-pages are webography or bibliography. The speed of putting it together shows at points, not least when his visionary purple passages risk misting over his sharper empirical observations.

Castells is of course very well known for his studies of the Internet, and especially for the claim that our contemporary planet is dominated by what he has long called “the space of flows” – in other words, that today information flows via the Internet are globally fundamental to the processes of human society. He also claims that there are certain crucial metropolitan cities which act as hubs or nodes of information production – New York, London, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, Paris, Los Angeles, Mumbai, São Paulo would be leading examples. So ‘place’, in his argument, does not become insignificant within his “space of flows.” Obviously, he is extending the sense of ‘space’ beyond its conventional meanings. The “arena of flows” or the “zone of flows” might have been clearer ways to say what he wanted. All the same, the notion of frontier-free networks and flows as the foundation of contemporary global society is, so to speak, his brand identity.

It comes as something of a surprise, then, to find the tremendous importance he gives to place in this study. He says unequivocally:

“…the fundamental social form of the movement was the occupation of public space. All of the other processes of network formation were ways to converge on the liberation of a given territory that escaped the authority of the state and experimented with forms of self-management and solidarity.” 59

Later on, in his concluding chapter, he claims that a hybrid of cyberspace and urban space, which he calls “the space of autonomy”

… is the new spatial form of networked social movements.” 222 (his emphasis)

Probably if he had simply written that this hybrid independent ‘space’ is ‘the new zone of contemporary social movements’, his point would have been as clear, or clearer. In the Italian social movements of the 70s and 80s, the term spazi aperti, open spaces, was widely used to develop the notion of liberated zones in the global South guerrilla wars of the period, in order to signify the communicative spaces opened up by movement radio stations, for example. Castells’ more academic language has its roots in those times. His term ‘space of autonomy’ means something more than ‘space of independence’, though, and would be better as ‘a space where we organize the rules, not the power structure’.

Castells also heavily stresses, as in the title of his book (…Outrage and Hope…), the crucial role of emotions in the process of movement development and its networked communications. He further characterizes contemporary social movements as both global and local; as spreading virally; as self-reflective; as nonviolent; and as rarely offering a political program (221-228).

But the core term in his analysis of the Egyptian, Spanish and Occupy movements continues to be ‘network’. Let us explore a little further how he uses it. For Castells, all three of these social movements were perfect examples of the power of networks in action – meaning in particular, though not solely, online networks. He writes:

“…[the principle of having no leaders] was present in the experience of Internet networks in which horizontality is the norm, and there is little need for leadership because the coordination functions can be exercised by the network itself through interaction between its modes. The new subjectivity appeared in the network; the network became the subject.” 129, my emphases

“The network became the subject.” We will come back to this formulation again, but for now let us hold it in mind.


Paolo Gerbaudo is considerably younger than Castells. Italian by birth and upbringing, he completed his doctoral degree on the media of the global social justice movement, and now teaches in the Culture, Media and Creative Industries program at Kings College, London. He has also worked as a journalist on the Italian leftist daily Il Manifesto, and as a sociology instructor at the American University of Cairo. His research for Tweets in the Streets took him to Cairo, Madrid and New York; the same three social movements as Castells. He has fluent English and Spanish, but like Castells relied on Arab colleagues for Arabic sources. He describes himself as a left-libertarian, and an ongoing social movement activist.

Gerbaudo’s overwhelming focus, like Castells, is on how these movements used Facebook and Twitter. Both writers also propose that in the USA the Tumblr page “We are the 99%” was a major force in helping generate and then expand the Occupy movement. And both of them pay heavy attention to the roles of Tahrir, Puerta del Sol and Zuccotti as combined physical, deliberative and symbolic places.

However, Gerbaudo is highly critical of Castells’ emphasis on ‘horizontality’, which the latter shares with a substantial number of activists, and also with Negri & Hardt’s books on the ‘multitude’ (which have become more than a little Quranic for a segment of movement activists). ‘Horizontal communication’ was a term originally used rather intensively some forty years back in Latin American media activist circles, but in order to contrast horizontally communicating social movement media – for example Bolivia’s famous miners’ radio stations of that period – with the power structure’s ‘vertical communication’ top to bottom.

‘Horizontality’ is used by many contemporary activists to indicate the rejection of political leadership – not simply of established political leaders and parties, but the very principle of having leaders. But this also overflows on to movements’ Internet uses. In its reincarnation now, ‘horizontality’ broadly refers to what Hardt and Negri describe as the ‘swarm’, and followers of Deleuze and Guattari as the ‘rhizome’. For Castells and for contemporary movement ‘horizontalists’, the Internet is a technology which (1) enables, (2) profoundly expresses and (3) virtually generates horizontal political organization and communication. Organization and communication become almost fused together. As Castells might put it, given his virtual obsession with the term ‘network’, “the network becomes the subject” or the fundamental movement actor or agency. So that the protest movement ‘subject’ ceases any longer to be a clique, even a freely elected clique.

From careful observation and comparison of Twitter and Facebook uses in these three movements, Gerbaudo comes to distinctly different conclusions to the horizontal vision. For example, he finds that Twitter was used by just 0.15% of Egyptians during 2011 for any purposes at all. Only 4% used Facebook. In the build-up to Occupy and for its entire first week, Facebook was hardly used at all. He finds that both Facebook and Twitter were heavily used, however, in Spain. Twitter, during the New York police onslaught on Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011, was very intensively deployed in order to help activists regroup and remobilize once forced out of their space. (Castells, similarly, cites a daily #Occupy Twitter use in November of 100,000 a day, but 500,000 on that day.)

But on the issue of political leadership and the absence of hierarchy in these movements and in their media uses, Gerbaudo flatly proposes, in opposition to Castells, Negri & Hardt, and many current activists, that

“…the ideology of ‘horizontalism’…is ‘betraying’ activists by being incapable of capturing empirically the gist of the actual practices taking place on the ground.” Kindle version 3236

In support of his contention, Gerbaudo instances

-the crucial role of a small union office space available to develop strategy within the Zuccotti Occupy movement

-the pivotal roles of certain key Egyptian Facebook contributors at certain junctures in the Egyptian process

-the massive use of Twitter by a few activists to reassemble Zuccotti protesters when the police forced them out of the square

-the decisive role of Madrid’s squatter activists [okupa] in setting up the tent-occupation [acampada] of Puerta del Sol after the initial demonstration had largely dispersed

Moving broadly in the same zone as Castells’ ‘space of autonomy’, the hybrid of public square and cyberspace, Gerbaudo proposes the term ‘the choreography of assembly’ to understand the crucial role of certain organizing elements within these three movements’ space of autonomy:

“… [in all three cases] social media were crucially used for constructing a choreography of assembly facilitating the gathering of participants in public space, and generating an emotional tension towards participation.” Kindle 2054

By choreography, Gerbaudo means much more than organizing the logistics of occupying a square, as the quotation above indicates, although that is part of the process too. He means the intensification of emotion, the escalation of collective consciousness of being ‘the people’ locked in conflict with an oppressive power structure, the growing embodiment of deliberative democracy in the public square, the networked communication of police violence when they cleared the square (or tried to). For Gerbaudo, in all three movements this choreography of assembly proved itself to be an indispensable vector in the field of forces. Pure horizontality was not in fact the sole reality. However, he never claims that only social media served as protest choreographers.

Summing up Gerbaudo’s contribution, it is important to include, even if briefly, some further key points in his portrayal of these movements and their media uses.

One is his stress on the importance of notions of ‘the people’, a non-ideological togetherness of Spain’s Left and Right, of Egypt’s Muslims and Copts, of the USA’s 99%, in serving as a deeply felt collective identity for these movements which is constantly reinforced in their various communications, face-to-face or online. He draws heavily on studies of populism by the Argentinean sociologist Ernesto Laclau, where a broadly leftist populism has long been an integral element in the political culture.

Yet connected to the vagueness of populism is Gerbaudo’s notion of ‘liquid organizing’: the refusal of rigid structure, the attachment to the Temporary Autonomous Zone of the public square. Castells, equally, writes of the ‘timeless time’ of the public squares in these movements. Both stress the extraordinary intensity of ongoing interactions in the squares, comparable to participants’ reports of May 1968 in central Paris.

But this escape from conventional structures, from what Gramsci called ‘normal times’, this secular ‘retreat’, not into a religious center for a weekend but into white-hot political engagement and visionary exchange in a reclaimed and repurposed public space, has an inevitable end, brought about by gradual exhaustion and the state’s violence. This is a reality plainly acknowledged by Gerbaudo, perhaps a little less plainly by Castells.

Let me then express my view. Such mobilizations and the media formats that today help them navigate and take shape represent high water marks in the ongoing development of struggles against injustice, and in the formation of a generational political consciousness. But their contribution to hammering out the specifics of new economic policies, fresh approaches to the ever-growing globalization of capital, practical steps to end institutional sexism and racism, meaningful engagement with the ecological crisis, is one of frameworks and principles. It is for those involved to continue working, discussing, arguing, using social movement media to extend the information and debate process, in order to make the possibility of other worlds a tangible, imaginable, grounded, but tasty prospect.

Both Castells and Gerbaudo provide valuable insights into the processes of these three social movements and their media uses. They both acknowledge, of course, that these movements had historical roots in prior oppression and resistance, and yield no ground to the techno-freak pundits who claimed social media platforms had sparked instantaneous upsurges. They both rightly emphasize the importance of place and of emotion in these processes (although Gerbaudo, not having this Networks book at hand, accuses Castells of not acknowledging either one).

Yet neither of them addresses four key questions which I consider central to a full analysis. One is the issue I just raised, the “what to do once the square has been returned to the power structure’s purposes?” question. What media and organizational strategies and practices need to be developed for the period of apparent quiescence that follows overdue tumult? I say ‘apparent quiescence’ because of course all of the injustices that rained on people’s heads beforehand continue to do so, sometimes with extra vigor.

A second is a comparison and contrast, not between these three movements’ climactic and virtually simultaneous periods of upsurge, valuable as that exercise is, but between media uses in other movements with very different outcomes to date. I am thinking of Syria and Libya, but also Tunisia and Burma. The key question, again, is the actual and potential roles of social movement media over the long haul, after and indeed before an upsurge – and that is now equally true for the USA, Spain and Egypt. A social movement has to be more than a protest peak, or it will never generate a protest peak.

A third is the roles of media other than Facebook and Twitter (and Tumblr) within social movements. Both Castells and Gerbaudo perform a useful task in zeroing in on these two currently rather new media formats to try to establish their particular roles in different settings. Gerbaudo does a better job, I think, of differentiating their uses among the three social movements. He has interesting observations regarding Occupy on the importance of the Facebook platform as a non-political arena to draw in concerned citizens without prior activist involvement, and the importance of sustaining moment-by-moment Facebook interaction. But both writers virtually fail, by holding rather strictly to this “New, New Thing” focus, to address either the roles of other media formats in these social movements, or of course their mutual interactions.

There are exceptions. Castells has an interesting paragraph popped in at the very end of his section on Egypt which summarizes a list of other media formats utilized in Syria’s anti-Assad movement. At another point he touches on the importance of “pre-existing offline social networks” (59) in enabling pamphlets to circulate in Cairo’s slums, though his “pre-existing offline networks” terminology seems almost an authentic netizen’s nod to inclusiveness! Gerbaudo is if anything stricter in his social media focus, though he does acknowledge the importance of al-Jazeera in sustaining the Egyptian movement.

But this is a gap in their work which needs filling. You will excuse, I hope, my noting the tremendous variety of media formats and their uses, and the great variety of social movements, which are to be found in the Encyclopedia of Social Movement Media I edited three years back. My purpose in mentioning them, and it, is that those 250 entries are merely the tip of the iceberg of social movement media experience around the planet. The media research community at large, then, cannot fixate solely on the internet and social media, as Castells has done in a string of publications, any more than it should fixate upon video or popular music or street theatre or community radio or posters. It is the ensemble of these formats which, collectively, media researchers need to address. The landmark study by Annabelle Sreberny and Ali Mohammadi of Iran’s movement media against the Shah in the 1970s – Small Media, Big Revolution – illustrates in its breadth of media formats analyzed, the research model to follow.

Fourthly, and to conclude: while there is no doubt that Castells and Gerbaudo are fully aware of repressive internet uses, from surveillance to mobile phone zone closedowns to regime blogs, their two studies are virtually silent on the subject. (Indeed, what is the democratic network subjectivity of and in and among Langley, Fort Meade and the Pentagon?) It is not a question, absolutely not, of citing these Internet and mobile phone dimensions in order to generate the higher fatalism of some political Cassandras who simply revel in listing every obstacle to social justice in loving detail. But…a degree of balance on the topic is essential for this research.