2008/11/21 Andreas Jungherr

Social Media and Political Activism

It’s been quite a while since I returned from the conference “Social Web – Towards Networked Protest Politics?” in Siegen. So it seems high time for a little roundup.

The topic of the conference was the influence which different forms and uses of Social Media have on the practice of political activists. The papers covered an extensive range of theoretical and practical approaches to this question. A comprehensive account of the presentations can be found on netzpolitik (day 1, day 2).

The talk I enjoyed most was given by Richard Rogers. In his talk Rogers examined methodological questions regarding the research practices in online spaces. Rogers emphasized the necessity to develop research designs that take the nature of online interactions into account. A simple adoption of offline research practices would possibly lead to a distortion between research and reality. A short account of Rogers’ talk can be found on irevolution.

In the afternoon of the first conference day I shared a panel with Myra von Ondarza who talked about “The Euroblogosphere: Advent of a Social Movement or Source for Expert Information”, Christina Neumeyer and Celina Raffl who presented their research on “Facebook for Protest? Assessing the Potential of Social Software for Political Activism Exemplified on the FARC Countermovement” and Azi Lev-On who held a presentation on “Social Movements and the Web 2.0 Phenomenon: Conceptual Links”. An account of these presentations can be found on irevolution.

During this panel I presented the paper “Twittering Activists: The Uses of Twitter for Political Activism”.

In this paper I argue that Twitter has quite unintentionally become an useful tool for political activists. What started out as a hedonistic tool for self-expression has developed into a tool which influences public opinion and helps with the organization of small groups. In this paper I use four examples of the effects of Twitter usage during late 2007 and early 2008 to illustrate this point.

The examples are the reactions in the Twitterverse to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the Twittering during the Sarah Lacy Mark Zuckerberg interview at the 2008 SXSW, the use of Twitter during the San Diego wildfires in October 2007 and the get-out-of-jail Twittering by James Karl Buck. In my eyes these examples clearly show four different types of possibilities for political activists:

1. Twittering facilitates the fast distribution of information to a local or global community of interest.

2. The use of Twitter-Feeds can be a powerful open backchannel to actively monitor and comment on current events.

3. The use of Twitter can be an efficient way to organize and coordinate small groups for collective action and protests.

4. The use of Twitter can establish a remote presence for a group of activists.

This Wordle word cloud should give you a short impression of the paper.

The conference was a very pleasant experience. The talks were interesting and provided many new perspectives for further reading and research. And the really interesting conversations happened, as always, during the coffee breaks and lunches. I want to thank the organizing team Sigrid Baringhorst, Veronika Kneip, Annegret März and Johanna Niesyto for the invitation to the conference and for their organizing efforts and skills.

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