People Power (CMN5195 Blog Post #1)

Koopmans’ argues that the relationship between social movements and political authorities is determined by mass media coverage. Koopmans’ theoretical framework suggests that these authorities, including police or politicians, react to a social movement according to how it is depicted in the media. Activists change their strategies according to media coverage in an effort to increase their visibility, resonance, and legitimacy in the public sphere.

This framework gives most of the power to the mass media (the gatekeepers), and lessens the power of the activists (the speakers).

However, the Occupy Wall Street movement used a number of tools to renegotiate power between itself and mass media.

As seen in the documentary Fault Lines – Occupy Wall Street: History of an Occupation (which you can watch here), OWS used live streaming as a tool of resistance. One activist argues that “having a live stream allows nothing to be hidden and shapes the narrative.”

OWS activists thus not only renegotiate power, but they also use new media to increase their legitimacy within the public sphere.

This is an important tool. Higher legitimacy could create more public demand for increased coverage of events like police brutality in social movements. Like a domino affect, these issues are hard to neglect or deny once activist videos go viral.

This reveals how the mass media may alter its behaviour according to that of social movement actors, and not the other way around.

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For example, this renegotiation of power is evident in the public backlash caused by citizen journalism during the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto. The large number of videos posted on social media, like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, increased the public’s understanding of police brutality towards peaceful protestors.

The mass broadcast media largely depicted the police responses during this event as necessarily premeditated. However, the citizen journalism available gave voice to those who had been unjustly assaulted and arrested for exercising their right to peaceful protest. This material gave power to otherwise silenced voices in the mass media, and contributed to the investigations that occurred after the Summit was over.

Castells offers a theoretical framework that includes the counter-power I have described above. Castells argues that the diffusion of communication technologies and social media have prompted the development of horizontal networks of communication. This has redefined the public sphere to accommodate counter-power.

Social actors, like activists or citizen journalists, engage counter-power to oppose existing institutions, such as mass media or political authorities. Contemporary counter-power is largely the result of social media and the increasing accessibility of communication technologies, which has created mass self-communication. As one person can now send out information on a large scale, Koopmans’ theory of media power holds little ground in Castells’ understanding of counter-power, social media, and communication networks.

The sites of power in Castells framework include public opinion, as social media is a tool used to change or influence a population.

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There is a consistent reality regarding social activism throughout these discussions: in order to generate and maintain support, those who do care or are interested in generating support for a specific cause, need to make it very accessible and easy to get involved.

After all, public opinion can be a very powerful thing.

We cannot deny the incredible influence of social media in terms of ease of involvement and quick spread of ideas. While this may be linked to questionable social behaviours (such as slactivism), public behaviour, in whatever form, is still powerful.

Consider the Kony 2012 campaign. The success of this movement, including its resonance and incredibly large amount of supporters, was directly related to how easy it is to click ‘share’ and literally spread not only information and ideas, but also to encourage independent action regardless of location.

What the mass media reported on, at least in the beginning of Kony 2012, was the mass number of people who were participating in the social media awareness campaign. Their behaviour dictated media coverage.

Juris brings up an important point when discussing the power of social media: not everyone has access to it. However, while the mass media may be more prevalent than social media for some populations, I find it difficult to theorize that, in 2013, the behaviour of the mass media will have an impact on these populations while social media will not.

Today, social media and mass media are more often than not intertwined. Journalists are alerted of events, correspond with citizens and find sources on social media like Twitter, and even include public opinion in their broadcasts and articles, citing social media as a source.

Thus media power, in all of its forms, is now partly defined by its relationship with social media and the actors involved in these new networks – the people.

Sources

Castells, M. (2007), “Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society”, International Journal of Communication, 1, 238-266.  Available from: http://ijoc.org/ojs/index.php/ijoc/article/view/46/35

Juris, J. (2012). “Reflections on #Occupy Everywhere: Social media, public space, and emerging logics of aggregation” American Ethnologist, Volume 39, Issue 2, pages 259-279, May 2012.

Koopmans, Ruud. 2004. “Movements and Media: Selection Processes and Evolutionary Dynamics in the Public Sphere.” Theory and Society 33: 367–391.

 
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