Last week, I was lucky to be invited to speak at ‘Visibilities: Social protest, ‘the media’ and the shaping of public opinion‘, the second event in the SOME seminar series, which was held at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence. The series consists of six interrelated events that address contemporary questions about social movements’ uses of media technologies and the first two sessions have invited a range of people (both academics and activists) to explore the relationship between different forms of media – from graffiti to Facebook – and political participation.
Throughout the session we grappled with ways of discussing technologies that weren’t overly celebratory or deterministic about the potential of technology to ‘set us free’ (while this seems jokey, it’s important to reiterate in light of the popularity of recent texts that extol the political power of the digital!). In fact, several of the empirical examples given were a little down-heartening, and included: The use of bots to undermine online dissent in Mexico, the widespread use of tear-gas to silence protest; the recuperation of anti-capitalist criticisms of austerity in Greece, to support nationalist narratives of ‘buying local’; and controversial instances of digital vigilantism. While all of these examples did illustrate the tensions and difficulties facing social movements, however, they also revealed spaces of hope and the potential to move forward and learn from contemporary (and past!) difficulties.
Des Freedman’s keynote, for instance, cut across the conventional dichotomy between calls for media reform and radical media activism, by asking whether activists could focus on ameliorating some of the damaging forms of representation and exclusion within the mass media, rather than solely developing alternative forms of media. Other talks foregrounded some inspiring legacies of past activist media engagements, such as Anna Feigenbaum’s fantastic research into the traditions of protest camps and Tina Askanius’s moving work on how Danish video activism from the 90s was being archived and re-experienced online to reignite a sense of community among activists.
I was a little intimidated to be presenting my work on Indymedia in front of a group of people whose work I really admired and that I regularly drew on in my own work, not least the facilitators of the series – Veronica Barassi (whose fantastic Activism on the Web has just come out) and Alice Mattoni (whose Mediation and Protest Movements is a must-read for anyone interested in this topic). My nerves were ultimately counteracted, though, by the friendliness of everyone there, and the collegiality and warmth of the event. It was also good to discuss a plan of action about how we could move from analyzing and discussing some of the political tensions surrounding media technologies in an academic context, to reflect on how we could work together to make these ideas more accessible. On an individual level, this also made me think about what I could do with my own work on food activism to make it more meaningful to people.
All in all, then, I’m hugely appreciative to the organisers, not just for inviting me but for facilitating such a thought provoking series of events. I very much look forward to the next sessions.