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Cyberprotest: New Media, Citizens and Social Movements

Editor: Wim van de Donk, Brian D. Loader, Paul G. Nixon, Dieter Rucht
Publisher: London and New York: Routledge, 2004
Review Published: November 2005

 REVIEW 1: Arthur L. Morin

Cyberprotest: New Media, Citizens and Social Movements, edited by Wim van de Donk, Brian D. Loader, Paul G. Nixon, and Dieter Rucht, is not about the successes and failures of social movements in cyberspace per se. Instead, this book is more of an effort to get a sense of the kinds of questions worth asking and answering when we study the dynamic relation between social movements and Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), particularly the internet. More specifically, the book is related to three specific issues pertaining to this dynamic relation: first, intra-movement communication (conclusion: the internet facilitates this); second, movement-external communication (conclusion: the internet provides alternatives that have the potential for greater access and that have the tendency to open up mainstream media to what is happening on the net); and third, the dynamic relation between ICTs and purpose, structure, and means of the social movement (conclusion: the purpose, structure, and means of the social movement -- and by extension, organizations -- shape the adoption of ICTs, and adopting ICTs can affect structure and means [1]).

Overall, one essentially optimistic conclusion that can be extrapolated from the book is that the internet has not yet reached its potential to radically democratize human (political, economic, cultural, social) relations. This is an optimistic conclusion because "not yet" implies "can." One of the strengths of the book is its multi-national flavor: for example, none of its chapter-length case studies are from the United States. These chapters show that the internet can be useful to social movements not centered in the U.S. I will say a bit more about these case studies later in the review. The editors also add an international flavor. Wim van de Donk is a Professor of Public Administration at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Brian D. Loader is in the U.K. at the University of Teesside, where he "is a Reader in Community Informatics and Director of the Community Informatics Research and Applications Unit." When the book was published, Paul G. Nixon was "a Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the Haagse Hogeschool, Den Haag, The Netherlands" (viii). Dieter Rucht is associated with the Social Science Research Center in Berlin. This multi-national characteristic could also be seen as a weakness: if it is true that there are a disproportionate percent of internet users in the U.S. than in most other countries, then a book that does not include case studies from the U.S. may underestimate the internet's efficacy and impact.

In addition to the conclusions mentioned previously, this book leads to at least nine other conclusions. First, at this point in their use, ICTs seem to benefit social movement efforts directed at international issues. Second, the use of ICTs does facilitate the establishment of lines of communication between people who might otherwise find it hard (the first conclusion is really a sub-set of this second conclusion). Third, new kinds of organizations -- virtual organizations -- have come into existence. Fourth, an organization's or movement's purpose and structure are more likely to influence how ICTs are used than the other way around. Fifth, ICTs are an extension of and alternative to old-style mass- and mainstream-communications that can open access to mass- and mainstream-communications to social movements wider than in the past and that some unique opportunities for action and access are facilitated by the use of ICTs. Sixth, nevertheless, social movements and organizations that adapt to the status quo are more likely to have an impact than those that use more radical means. Seventh, that the fluidity of networks and coalitions using ICTs may result in efforts the origins and effects of which are much harder to detect. Eighth, a new type of social movement may be rising that intentionally works beneath the radar of traditional media (see the quote from Borio on page 79). Ninth and finally, there will continue to be a need for intermediaries in large democracies, but who and what will serve as those intermediaries may change or be replaced.

In order to give some sense of the complexity of this book, I will provide brief commentary on each of the chapters. My commentary should not be read as complete summaries of the chapters. Readers who want a very brief overview of each of the chapters (other than the first chapter) should read pages 20 through 24 in Chapter One. Chapters Two through Six address different issues related to activism and social movements. The last six chapters of the book (Chapters Seven through Twelve) are case studies that point out how specific social movements have had some success -- and how ICTs, particularly the internet, have been part of the reason for the success.

Dieter Rucht (Chapter Two, "The quadruple 'A': Media strategies of protest movements since the 1960s") introduces four strategies that can be used by individuals, groups, and social movements: attack, adapt, abstain, and alternatives (36). The message conveyed is a function of: the information provided and the way it is framed; the means or methods used to convey the message; and the intended and actual audiences. The message conveyed is in part a function of the organization (group, network, individual) conveying it. (See also the list in Rosenkrands' chapter, page 64.) The face-to-face characteristic of social movement will be supplemented (not replaced) by the internet. The use of the internet will not result in "other media" (30) being thrown on the slag heap. Greater variety of media would mean more information outlets for social movements; as this happens, "social movements no longer need mainly rely on their own media" (38-39). However, more sources also means more noise: greater diversity and more numerous sources amount to a double-edged sword. Additionally, the decline of class (one by-product of the use of ICTs [3]) increases the cost of reaching a large audience. A further point that can be extrapolated from Rucht: It appears that the use of non-status quo information, methods, and means helps stretch the boundaries of what is acceptable and thus opens the possibility for the normalization of what begins as radical.

Jacob Rosenkrands (Chapter Three, "Politicizing Homo economicus: Analysis of anti-corporate websites") builds on a straightforward fact: participation in the market can be a political act. Indeed, "linking the name of a company or a product to certain lifestyles or values such as freedom, healthiness, [and] harmony" (61) makes that company a more salient political target. The internet has been used to provide opportunities to participate at varying levels of commitment, affording potential participants greater flexibility than might otherwise be possible in traditional organizations. ICTs also open targets in the market to social movements in ways not heretofore available. What was accomplished by the Barbie Liberation Group (BLO) is an excellent example of this. The BLO took Barbies and G.I. Joes off of the shelf, then in effect gave each the other's voice, then put them back in stores where they were purchased by unsuspecting customers. The changes became an international news item [4]. Thus, it should not surprise us that "In their procedures for business intelligence, many companies will pay attention to the potential threats posed by internet-based activism" (62).

Steve Wright (Chapter Four, "Informing, communicating and ICTs in contemporary anti-capitalist movements") discusses information overload, knowledge management by social movements, the bias of the internet toward English, and what could be called virtual imperialism: first-world information demands imposed on third-world individuals, groups, and governments. Wright also brings to our attention "the emergence of a distinctly social movement electronic communications forum" (82). His examples are Indymedia (Independent Media Centers) and the European Counter Network (ECN). There are differing opinions about how the use of ICTs impact social movements: can virtual information lack "human context" (81, quoting ECN)? does it lead to members staying "off the streets" (82, quoting Stoecker)? With regard to this latter concern, Wright claims that "the use of ICTs [by social movements] has largely been to 'reinforce face-to-face acquaintances and exchanges' [quoting Diani]" (82).

One of the major attractions of internet-based activism is the ease of individual entry and exit. A drawback is that because it is so easy to come and go, it is very easy to leave the hard work of maintenance and commitment necessary in a social movement up to someone else. Maintenance requires commitment which requires single-mindedness -- anathema to the ebb and flow that now seems to be part of the culture of the internet. It is possible that a few individuals truly committed to a particular social movement may become so distraught with the fluid and anarchic nature of the wide-spread participation of individuals and groups with different perceptions, values, objectives, and levels of commitment that they will seek to impose order and direction upon the use of ICTs in behalf of that particular social movement. This is directly related to Wright's discussion of whether social movements can manage knowledge: some evidence suggests that the answer is "yes" and other evidence suggests that the answer is "no" -- or, more optimistically, "it will be hard."

The authors of Chapter Five ("New media, new movements?: The role of the internet in shaping the 'anti-globalization' movement") are Peter Van Aelst and Stefaan Walgrave. They do a content analysis of the websites of seventeen anti-globalization organizations. Their chapter leads to the conclusion that the internet does seem to have facilitated trans-national action regarding globalization. However, the technical capabilities of the internet are apparently not fully used.

Chapter Six ("Communicating global activism: Strengths and vulnerabilities of networked politics") is by W. Lance Bennett. Perhaps the major conclusion to draw from this chapter is that ICTs and the internet are amenable to groups caught up in identity politics. Because of ICTs, those groups can do things they couldn't do before (target digital resources -- but this is almost a tautology) and can do better what they did before (coordinate, provide "multiple points of entry" -- p. 124). The confluence of identity politics and ICTs moves social movements from fixed organizations and stable, formalized ideologies to an ad hoc coalescing of individuals and groups -- a shift from "heads" to "hubs" and "affinities." From my perspective, this leaves a significant problem I discussed above: Who is going to maintain the webpages and the archives?

Gustavo Cardoso and Pedro Pereira Neto's chapter (Chapter Seven, "Mass media driven mobilization and online protest: ICTs and the pro-East Timor movement in Portugal") is the first of the book's six chapter-long case studies. In this chapter, we learn that mass media combined with digital media in a social movement to bring pressure on national governments and the U.N. to do something about East Timor -- and achieved some success. Left unexplored is the legitimacy of the social movement's representation of the Maubere people -- should there be some social mechanism through which the representation of "the one" by "the other" is legitimized? Put another way: as long as I mean well, am I morally justified to unilaterally select those in whose behalf I speak?

For cyber-optimists (to borrow Pippa Norris's (2004) term), the answer to the question in the title of Chapter 8 ("ATTAC(k)ing expertise: Does the internet really democratize knowledge?" by Brigitte le Grignou and Charles Patou) would be, "yes and no; less than hoped for." Based on this case study, one might conclude that what ICTs foster is argumentation, not discussion. Additionally, with respect to ATTAC's experience, "the internet . . . appears to date as an instrument that is hardly able to be used to make the adult education project come true. It tends to root in, or at least to maintain, the frontiers between active supporters and non-active supporters. These frontiers replicate more and more the boundaries between experts and amateurs" (178). Or, in the form of a wisecrack: more of the same, virtually.

Chapter Nine ("The Dutch women's movement online: Internet and the organizational infrastructure of a social movement"), by Arthur Edwards, is concerned about the link between disintermediation and democracy. The chapter is interested in three broad issues. First, will there be a negative correlation between the rising use of the Internet and the disintermediation of social movement groups, political parties, and interest groups? (Perhaps, but it seems to me that the correlation could be more coincidental than not; other forces or dynamics may play a larger role in the cases of disintermediation.) Second, will this "open up" the political process directly to the people? (It appears that this depends to an important degree on the purpose to which ICTs are put; e.g., the "opening up" is not automatic.) Third, are intermediaries necessary in large democracies? (I would say yes, but who or what serves as intermediaries may change.) Edwards seeks specifically to address the following questions: "how are internet uses reshaping the organizational infrastructure of the Dutch women's movement?" and "what impact do these changes have on the capacity of the movement to articulate social problems, to mobilize support and to influence the political agenda and political decision-making?" (184). Edwards looked at twelve "real" and seven "virtual" organizations. There are four answers to his first question: (a) if there are efforts to facilitate connections and cooperation between those online and those not, then some organizational change occurs; (b) the integration of the internet into the everyday life of a service organization -- which it is inclined to do -- can lead to radical organizational change; (c) "The organizational infrastructure of the Dutch women's movement has been enlarged by a number of virtual organizations" (196); and (d) use of the internet may be followed by a change in organizational objectives. The answer to his second question: apparently it can be noticeable.

Chapter Ten ("Dis@bled people, ICTs and a new age of activism: A Portuguese accessibility special interest group study," by Rita Cheta) is about GUIA, the Portuguese Accessibility Interest Group. Previous chapters made it clear that social movements try to influence how a particular issue is framed. From Chapter Ten we learn that GUIA framed the issue of disability in two ways: first, not as an issue of normalization, but as an issue of empowerment; and second, to focus not on changes to the individual but changes to the environment in which the disabled individual found himself or herself. GUIA pursued the politics of inclusion -- rather than approach disability as something or someone in whose behalf society or government should do certain things or find ways to include the disabled in the process of determining how to provide access to everyone. GUIA demonstrated a variety of ways that the internet could be used. It did not seek immortality but temporality -- it came into and went out of existence (here we can recall Chapter Six and ad hoc coalitions ). Its actions did help reconfigure technical guidelines and the political environment.

Chapter Eleven ("The Queer Sisters and its electronic bulletin board: A study of the internet for social movement mobilization," by Joyce Y.M. Nip) is about "the oldest queer/lesbian group in Hong Kong," which began in 1995 (237). The chapter "seeks to examine the identity-building capacity of the internet in social movements" (233). The case study's conclusion: it has that capacity. Whether it has the capacity to build consciousness-raising is still an open question. The author wants to draw the conclusion that, with regard to building consciousness-raising, it appears that groups using the internet have this capacity. However, it seems to me that this conclusion can only be sustained by what some might object to as an unsustainable extrapolation of what the study actually found.

Chapter Twelve ("Politics and identity in cyberspace: A case study of Australian women in agriculture online," by Barbara Pini, Kerry Brown and Josephine Previte) is a case study of the Australian Women in Agriculture (AWiA) and their discussion list created in 1998. This discussion list was used to disseminate information and to informally converse. Indeed, there was some disagreement regarding the proper use of the list. Clearly, discussion lists, blogs, listservs and similar ICT-based capabilities create new arenas of participation. But -- as this chapter makes clear -- this also means that some (those without access or those who eschew access) do not participate in the new arena. Drawing from the case study and other research, the authors have hope for what can be done with and through ICTs. A more critical view of the chapter might conclude that this hope is too much a matter of faith.

Where is the internet's democratizing power? At best, its promise is only part-way fulfilled. ICTs, and particularly the internet, offer powerful tools for both those interested in democracy and for those interested in control. Without the commitment and action of "the people" for and in behalf of democracy, it is foolish to believe that technology will be, to put a new twist on an old saying, the deus ex machina for democracy.

[1] Jane Fountain (2001) would agree with this latter point as it pertains to organizations.

[2] There is some irony here: the very technology that can benefit globalization also benefits those who take issue with it.

[3] About public spheres, John Keane (2004, p. 367) says the following: "Although they typically have a networked, interconnected character, contemporary public spheres have a fractured quality which is not being overcome by some broader trend toward an integrated public sphere." Keane distinguishes between micro-, meso-, and macro- public spheres.

[4] See also Mark Frauenfelder, "Secret prankster fund goes public," Wired, April 8, 1997, http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,2997,00.html (accessed July 22, 2005).

[5] This is a classic example of the "free rider" problem so insightfully analyzed by Mancur Olson (1971).

Jane E. Fountain, Building the Virtual State: Information Technology and Institutional Change. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2001.

John Keane, "Structural transformations of the public sphere." In The Information Society Reader, edited by Frank Webster, pp 366-378. London and New York: Routledge, 2004. Taylor & Francis Group. Originally published in Communication Review, 1(1), 1995: 8-22.

Pippa Norris, "The digital divide." In The Information Society Reader, edited by Frank Webster, pp. 273-286. London and New York: Routledge, 2004. Originally published in Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty, and the Internet Worldwide, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 1-22.

Mancur Olson. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, revised edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Arthur L. Morin:
Arthur L. Morin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Justice Studies and Director of the Master of Liberal Studies Program at Fort Hays State University.  <amorin@fhsu.edu>

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