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Social Movement Media and Media Activismlocked

  • John D. H. DowningJohn D. H. DowningProfessor Emeritus of Communication, Southern Illinois University


Social movements are the matrix of many forms and formats (technologies, genres) of media that contest dominant power. Such media are in many ways the lifeblood of such movements. Media activism denotes collective communication practices that challenge the status quo, including established media. Frequently, such media are underfunded or unfunded and have a much shorter life cycle than capitalist, state, or religiously funded media. They are a “tribe” within a much larger continent of nanomedia (also called alternative media and citizens’ media). Their functions may spill over at times within the operation of established media, especially in times of social turbulence and crisis.

The “dominant power” in question may be quite variously perceived. Extreme-right populist movements, as in several European countries, may define the political establishment as having betrayed the supposed racial purity of the nation, or in the case of India’s Islamophobic Hindutva movement, as having traduced the nation’s religious purity. Labor movements may attack capital, feminist movements, or patriarchal and sexist structures. Sometimes these movements may be local, or regional; other times, they are transnational.

The impact of these media is still a matter of considerable debate. Often, the debate begins from a false premise—namely, the frequently small size and/or duration of many social movement media projects. Yet women’s right to vote and the abolition of slavery in the Americas were not won overnight, and neither was the dismantling of South Africa’s racist apartheid system. The Hindutva movement goes back over a century. We should not hold social movement media to a higher standard of impact, any more than we should ascribe instantaneous power to established media.

Social movements wax and wane, and so do their media projects. But the persistence of some such media activism between the peaks of movement activism is generally essential to the regeneration of social movements.


There are four broad zones in this field of study: (1) subversive, small-scale analog media; (2) alternative and radical digital media; (3) reform projects directed at corporate media ownership and policies; and (4) the interplay between large-scale mainstream media and the media projects in Zones A and B. (Reflecting research literature focuses to date, Zone A takes more space than the others.)

Before directly exploring these zones, some ground-clearing is needed by responding to the following questions:


What do we mean by “media”?


How do we navigate the numerous terms used to designate these small-scale media?


What does the term social movement mean?

Far too often, the term media is used as a handy way to lump together television, radio, the press, cinema, and the Internet. That is a technology-based bracketing. Here, the definition of media will be anthropological, thus including any and all forms of cultural communication: Tattoos, dance, street theater, popular music, street art, graffiti, dress, placards, satire, poetry, posters, flyers, murals, and all sorts of artwork all play their part, along with cell phones and legacy media (i.e., older media formats still in play).

Although this greatly expanded definition is a game-changer, it is easily grasped. More of a challenge is presented by the bewildering array of terms used to designate small-scale media. The following list gives an idea of the range, although it’s not completely exhaustive: alternative media, community media, citizens media, independent media, underground media, counterinformation media, small media, nano-media, participatory media, activist media, and social movement media.

An understandable reaction to this flurry of terms could be that professors love nothing better than to bicker endlessly over trivia. Let us nonetheless look at each term briefly, and as we do so, ask ourselves whether the root cause of this Pandora’s box of definitions may be that small-scale media represent not just a perverse little island of activity inhabited by the crazed and semicrazed but an entire continent of cultural energy. This cultural energy is multifaceted, hence the variety of terms, none of which can include all facets. Mainstream media are often national, even global—a routine focus of business journalism. The nanomedia continent often works by different rules and marches to an infinitely wider spectrum of drummers.

Some initial clarity may be gained by grouping these terms. Alternative, small, and nano focus particularly on size, either explicitly or implicitly, and are the nearest to generic terms. Alternative, at its best, denotes a frequently overlooked cultural reality—namely, the huge continent of small-scale media activities (Atton, 2015), from hobby weblogs (or blogs) to jihadist communiqués to zines to alternative rock to satirical phone games. Small or little initially focused on low-cost, simple technologies such as the slide projector (Schramm, 1977). Nano, by gesturing toward very powerful nanotechnologies, rhetorically challenges the seemingly sensible conviction that social impact increases with media size. (At its weakest, though, alternative tells you only that something is different, not how it is such.)

Community, citizens, and participatory focus more on process and local dimensions. In our networked and videoconferenced era, a community need not be tied to a specific locality, but ongoing face-to-face communication is generally acknowledged to provide stronger ties, with mediated communication more productive once those face-to-face ties are in place. The term community in English (though not always in other languages) does sometimes convey an optimistic sheen, signifying a united and supportive neighborhood whose media would thus be part and parcel of these warm fuzzies. It does not immediately evoke serious antagonisms over tough issues dividing communities. At the same time, its strength lies in implicitly asserting the irreplaceable value of independent local expression in a world where national and supranational forces frequently seem to rule the roost (Rennie, 2001; Howley, 2009).

Citizens media (Rodríguez, 2001, 2011) emphasizes the generative power of ordinary citizens as cultural producers in constructing their own media projects, step by step, in interaction with their particular local contexts. Rodríguez underscores the variety of such projects, the slow process of deliberation needed to mold them, and in particular, that they must be evaluated on their own terms and in their own context rather than concocting evaluations of their impact based on mainstream media criteria.

Participatory media (Wilkins, Tufte, & Obregón, 2014) also directs attention to collaborative dimensions of small-scale media production, especially in economically struggling zones of the planet. Virtually all media, short of the individual blog or graffiti-sprayer, are collective enterprises, but levels of participation in decision-making are typically hierarchical in mainstream media. Collective grassroots projects are a different matter entirely, yet often the practical experience of organizing them in a seriously participatory fashion dies with the project’s eventual demise. The wheel thus keeps on being reinvented . . .

Underground, counterinformation, and independent media may be grouped together. The underground image (McMillian, 2011) dates from the clandestine antifascist activists in Italy and other countries during the 1940s, and was later self-applied by militants in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere to the media that they created during the rebellious 1960s and 1970s (although their activism then faced much less terrifying odds). Counterinformation media define themselves as supplying correct, politically challenging news and analysis in order to expose and defeat the propaganda lies of the established news machines (Vitelli & Rodríguez Esperón, 2004). For both of these terms, there is a clear dualism, with visible boundaries. While some writers sneer at this simplicity, the complex nuances that can be the stuff of interesting debate in liberal democracies melt away in authoritarian regimes. At the same time, the term enthrones so-called factual news and information as the crucial issue, implicitly sidelining the imagination and emotion. Independent media is a term favored by Noam Chomsky (2012), and many contemporary movement activists. In essence, it is a rhetorical challenge to the claim by commercial news operators that they are independent, while Chomsky underscores their capitalist and governmental bonds.

We are left, then, with activist (Lievrouw, 2011) and social movement (Downing, 2011; Milan, 2013) media. Activist media focus on their makers’ purposes in Zones A and B in this article. Media activism is broader, covering at least Zones A–C. Social movement media is designed to zero in sociologically on social movements as the matrix (i.e., womb) of these generally small-scale media, though of course since the emergence of digital tools such as the Internet and smartphones, a small-scale technology can reach a vast number of people (Gerbaudo, 2012; Zayani, 2015), even across frontiers. It is their embedding within social movements, large or local, that has given these media the degree of influence that they exert. In that sense, social movements are the contrasting “capital” source for these media, to business capital for mainstream media. They are the heartland, the wellspring, the resource base, and the amplifier of these media. This, in turn, is the movements’ cultural lifeblood.

This leads us straight to question 3: What does the term social movement mean? Rather than plunging into a second terminological forest (Goodwin & Jasper, 2014), the approach now is simply to clarify how the term is used here.

There has been much debate among specialists in the field as to whether social movements are, effectively, either short-run emotive explosions or rationally chosen tactics among the have-nots; or have been shifting, in recent decades, from traditional models of strategic political activism to being based principally on the assertion of fresh cultural identities, such as feminism; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning (LGBTQ) activism; minority-language activism; and the so-called New Social Movement school. Their extension across borders into global activism is a further focus. Here, all of these elements are defined as facets, sometimes overlapping but not exclusive.

But we do need to address the questions of scale and longevity. Social movements are sometimes assumed to be megamovements shaking thrones, and yet they also are assumed to be short-lived (because that level of energy is unsustainable). In reality, masses of eddies in the societal flow are highly local and never systematically come to national media attention. In the United States, local actions such as the Critical Mass cycling movement, antigentrification movements, the Reclaim the Night movement, police violence protest movements such as Black Lives Matter, labor union protests and strikes, and health and safety actions get only fleeting national coverage, if any.

As to the longevity of social movements, the US women’s suffrage movement persisted from 1848 through 1920, when law was changed to allow women to vote; and the US abolitionist movement continued from a small start in Rhode Island in 1652 to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Obviously, energy levels fluctuated in those two movements and their media projects over time. Expecting the routinized daily output of a capitalist media project from many social movement media projects would be absurd. But neither are social movements all flare-up and drama. A steady unpaid slog is on the menu.

Zone A: Subversive, Small-Scale Analogue Media

Through World War I

How can one summarize a continent? Nothing daunted, we continue, but we should give a strong warning here that what follows is meant as a series of pointers toward further exploration, in addition to an alert: Although the media examples that follow are mostly from social justice movements of one kind or another, ultrarightist social movements have to be part of our picture, and this point will be addressed a little later in this article.

Before literacy was reasonably widespread, subversive communication mostly would take place via music, jokes, poems, proverbs, and short plays, including mime. In Europe, with the Catholic hierarchy trying to keep the lid on cultural expression and retaining ideological dominance through hanging on to Latin, vernacular versions of the Jewish and Christian bibles were potential dynamite. Interpretation of the Supreme Being’s commands and priorities was now open to people who could not understand Latin, who even if they were illiterate could be read to. It is not customary to think of the Bible as a subversive media project, but during that period, its vernacular versions were capable of serving in exactly that role.

The Catholic hierarchy did not always have an easy time. There were a number of heretical circles and movements, such as the Cathars of northern Italy and southern France (12th–14th centuries), the Adamites in the Low Countries and Bohemia (14th–16th centuries), the Diggers and the Ranters in England (17th century), and many more. Pamphlets, songs, and ideas circulated underground. Colporteurs were traveling booksellers who bought subversive texts in the few cities with some publishing freedom (e.g., Venice, Basel, or Antwerp) and carried them on their journeys, usually in small octavo format with misleading covers, at the very bottom of their baskets or sacks, and sold them surreptitiously.

One of the first subversive novels was the Jesuit François Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, a five-volume work published during the mid-16th century. The novel cheerfully reproduced—and enhanced!—the irreverent, bawdy, and lively daily language of the market square, usually located right outside the local church, where such language was banned. (Being a Jesuit did not save Rabelais from condemnation and energetic attempts to sideline his novel.) Russian researcher Mikhail Bakhtin (1984, pp. 90–91) acutely observed that

laughter . . . was not only a victory over mystic terror of God, but also a victory over the awe inspired by the forces of nature, and most of all over the oppression and guilt related to all that was consecrated and forbidden . . . It was the defeat of divine and human power, of authoritarian commandments and prohibitions, of death and punishment after death, hell. . . . Through this victory laughter clarified man’s consciousness and gave him a new outlook on life. This truth was ephemeral; it was followed by the fears and oppressions of everyday life, but from these brief moments another unofficial truth emerged, truth about the world . . .

Now famous worldwide, this book was joined two centuries later by yet another ferocious blast at convention, including official religious conventions: Voltaire’s Candide (1759). Widely banned, it nonetheless survived and flourishes to this day. Both Candide and the Rabelais novels are cited here as widely known instances in today’s world of social movement media, but they were far from the sole subversive texts circulating in those bygone centuries before the Industrial Revolution and the political revolutions of the American colonies and France. They were not, in other words, solely generated by their individual authors’ fertile imaginations, but out of their authors’ connections to dissident circles which challenged the status quo. Today, they are mostly taught in literature courses, which risks rendering them holy rather than subversive!

To return to the American and French revolutions, these too were encouraged, and in turn fed, by a slew of pamphlets, flyers, posters, songs, poems (e.g., Jensen, 2003; Darnton, 1996). The most famous at the time, and since, was Tom Paine’s Common Sense (1775), which in relation to the two and a half million settlers in the thirteen colonies, had proportionally the largest circulation of any book ever published in North America, before or since. It identified Britain’s King George III as “the Royal Brute of Great Britain.” Like Rabelais’s and Voltaire’s novels, Paine’s pamphlet is still in print.

The worm in the bud of the still-unfinished American revolutionary process was slavery. Although slavery is often misunderstood as an issue strictly affecting the southern colonies (and then US states), its profits also flowed to New England merchants, to New York, Philadelphia, and other cities (not to mention Britain and other European powers), as well as those West African princes who supplied captives. The abolitionist press, beginning in the United States in the 1820s, was an ongoing pillar of the movement to end the practice of slavery. While acknowledging the communicative impact of white activists such as William Lloyd Garrison, the contributions of African American writers need recognition as well.

No fewer than six books, detailing their experiences of being enslaved, were published by freed African Americans before 1800, as the major opening media salvo in the final decades of the campaign against enslavement in North America (Bolster, 1998). More books would follow by the African American writers Phyllis Wheatley, Solomon Northrup, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth, among many; and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sentimental and patronizing Uncle Tom’s Cabin enjoyed a huge circulation (although it was three times greater in Britain than the United States).

Along with the abolitionist movement, labor movements and women’s suffrage continually roiled the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. Both were characterized by multiple forms of media activism. Various print media formats predominated—newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, flyers, posters, placards, and cartoons—but music, song, and street theater also played significant parts. Studies of these communication projects and actions are few and far between, and mostly focus on the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Green, Roediger, Rosemont, & Salerno, 2016; Lumsden, 2014; Wolff, 1998). The topic cries out for further historical research.

Beginning with the Civil War, antiwar movement media activism also began to make itself felt, peaking in the 1910s as the US government moved closer toward involvement in Europe’s nightmare (Bennett & Howlett, 2014).

We can already see how far the roots of social movement media stretch. Individual media projects may come and go, and eventually be buried in archives somewhere or vanish entirely from memory with the passing of generations. But, recognizing their anchorage in social movements and acknowledging the magnitude of the tasks that they undertake—abolishing slavery, changing the status of women, carving out an 8-hour day and a 5-day workweek, fighting off perpetually renewed invasions of labor rights, pushing for an end to war, and so forth—the roles of social movement media are anything but fly-by-night.

Moreover, the focus to date has overwhelmingly been on US examples. Given the time and space to address them, Latin American, European, African, and Asian examples are numerous. Indeed, to get ahead of ourselves for a moment, Latin America in the 1960s and ensuing decades has been a powerhouse of both media activism and sustained reflection on its vicissitudes (Gumucio Dagron & Tufte, 2006). Brazilians Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal are names of leaders to conjure with, but they were active within an energetic cross-national movement.

Art, Radio, Film, Photography—and Tunnels

At the outset of this article, art was identified as a sphere for activist communication. Colleges, for convenience, often put communication in one department (and often a separate building as well), art in another, literature in yet another, and education in a fourth. This splits up many people’s instinctive thinking, elevating conceptual and practical barriers on bureaucratic pillars, and in the process, it draws attention away from real-world opportunities for radical reflection.

Even here, throughout the centuries sampled so far, the work of artists has only been touched upon, with cartoons mentioned in passing. This means that Francisco Goya’s depictions of the disasters of war, William Hogarth’s images of degradation in London, William Blake’s visions of human repression and liberation, Anna Akhmatova’s rendition of Stalin’s terror in her poem Requiem, Jimi Hendrix’s 1969 Woodstock version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Frida Kahlo’s portrayals of pain, Billie Holliday’s against-the-wall evocations, and Pieter Bruegel’s enthronement of our everyday lives, and other key works somehow tend to end up out of frame when considering social movement media. This is a huge error.

Certainly in the aftermath of World War I’s trench slaughter, artists targeted the infamy of the war in a great variety of ways, from the expressionism of Georg Grosz’s paintings, and Berlin Dada in particular, to some of the leading French surrealists. The relatively new communication technologies (i.e., film, photography, and radio), enthusiastically adopted by the early Soviet republic because of the very high illiteracy levels that it had inherited from the tsars, also stirred the energies of German movement activists (Jelavich, 2006). Soviet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Dziga Vertov, as well as photographers such as Aleksandr Rodchenko, sparked enormous interest.

Moreover, the cheap Brownie camera allowed ordinary people to generate their own portraits, so pictures were no longer the normal preserve only of elevated citizens who could pay to be painted. In several countries, worker photography movements emerged (Ribalta, Wolf, & Koltsov, 2011). Cinema was far too costly for most to produce—New York’s Worker’s Film and Photo League and Nykino (later Frontier Films) did not emerge until the 1930s—but still photography was entirely possible.

Radio, quickly being mopped up by commercial entities in the United States and Latin America, and by the state in Europe and beyond, would take a lot longer to be fully deployed by activists (more on this later in this article). Meanwhile, the usual range of print media was deployed continuously in antifascist struggles inside Italy, Germany, Spain, and other countries in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as in international solidarity campaigns. During the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939, photography was intensively used to try to garner international solidarity (Fontaine, 2003). In Japan (Ito, 2011), the military-dominated government stamped out almost all independent media by 1930, as well as the tiny remainder by the mid-1930s (although at war’s end, they surged back).

Social movements and their media have a way of seeming to disappear into “tunnels.” The tunnels may be easily identified (Japan’s militarized regime), but more often, they represent a depletion of energy, a reverse, or perhaps even a leadership crisis. Most often, perhaps, there was a decline in mainstream news coverage for whatever reason. The 1950s, in the United States and many other countries, looked to be just such a tunnel period.

Yet in the southern U.S. states, the African-American civil rights movement became increasingly active in the struggle to overthrow the ongoing vestiges of slavery. In Iran, the shah (king) was overthrown, and Western oil firms confronted the forces of nationalization. In Egypt, the Suez Canal was nationalized as well, and Britain, France, and Israel, seeking to hold onto it, were confronted. Hungary fiercely defied Soviet occupation in a revolutionary upsurge. Ghana became the first sub-Saharan country to throw off colonial rule peacefully. Activism in Britain in favor of unilateral nuclear disarmament grew by leaps and bounds.

Then, this was not a silent decade around the planet. Much else was quietly bubbling. Research on movement media projects in those and other instances remains limited, although it probably is best so far on U.S. civil rights struggles. Thus, the tumultuous movement decades of the 1960s and 1970s did not emerge from a vacuum. The interwoven roles of music, artwork, pamphlets, weekly papers, citizen education programs, flyers, placards, and pickets during—and often after—those tunnel periods are yet to be significantly explored for country after country, location after location. Oral history and archival projects have a major opening. Maybe trees falling in the forest make no sound when no one’s around, but at the time, these movements could not have persisted, let alone grown, without their media of communication.

Moving On: Cinema, Radio, Video, Fax, Photocopier

Tunnels aside, a relatively short-format account of social movement media like this one has no space to draw a step-by-step picture. So we leap forward to the 1960s and 1970s. Building beyond the variety of print media formats, historically favored because they were relatively low-cost for producers and users alike, activists not only took print itself to new points (Kaplan, 2013), but also began to exploit electronic media. Film, hopelessly expensive in 35mm (whether to buy, develop, or screen), became available in much more manageable 16mm and “Super 8” formats.

Before proceeding further, however, a word of caution: it is all too easy to slide into naïve technocelebration. This is deeply unwise, for at least two reasons. First, it diverts analytical focus away from social movements, users, and producers: the communicative matrix. Second, as the saying goes, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”—in this sphere, the surveillance and propaganda scope that newer communication technologies regularly afford the power structure.

Radio, still at the time of writing the most widely used communication technology in the planet as a whole, despite its reduction to a commercial music outlet for the most part in affluent countries, began to be used by movement activists in some Latin American countries from the 1950s. The tin-miners’ radio stations in Bolivia (O’Connor, 2004) were the most dramatic example, steering an independent trajectory among different revolutionary groups, surviving bomb attacks by government units, and staying faithful to their base. With the disappearance of tin mining from Bolivia, they scarcely exist today, but for some decades, they acted as a beacon for other social movements in Latin America. Currently in Brazil, for example, there are estimated to be some 10,000 free radio stations, ranging from temporary loudspeakers hung from lampposts on the edge of street markets to ongoing broadcasters. In 2007, Uruguay passed advanced community radio legislation to govern its 200 stations, including a registration process to avoid government or business patronage.

The beacon cases in Europe were Greece, Portugal, Italy, and France. The Greek example was short-lived—a transmitter set up for just a few days in November 1973 by engineering students at Athens Polytechnic protesting the then-military government. It acted as a detonator of further dramatic media developments. In April 1974, the fascist government ruling Portugal since 1926 was overthrown, and soon afterward, two radio stations were seized, one extremely conservative owned by the Catholic hierarchy, the other by a firm friendly with the neighboring Franco dictatorship in Spain. For some 18 months, these stations were suddenly open to many long-banned voices and perspectives, reinvigorating the public sphere (Downing, 2001, pp. 237–265).

A few months after the Portuguese stations were being closed down in 1976 by a far more conservative government, Italy’s Constitutional Court passed Decree 202, permitting nonstate local radio broadcasting. New stations erupted through Italy, numbering perhaps 2,000 at the crest of the wave. Some were not exactly stations—more like teenagers with a bunch of records, an amplifier, and a small transmitter in their living rooms—but others were actual stations, and some still flourish today, such as Radio Popolare in Milan and Controradio in Florence. Their launch pad, so to speak, was Italy’s stultifying state radio, which had been in the hands of the same government party since the late 1940s. Their backdrop was also the ongoing labor ferment from the 1960s, which in Italy continued without halt for a decade or more (Downing, 2001, pp. 266–298).

These radio developments drew considerable interest farther north, especially in France and Germany. In the former, free stations began to mushroom in the last two years of the 1970s. The incoming Socialist Party government in 1981 declared it would legalize nonstate broadcasting, which opened the door to a wave of commercial radio and TV stations much larger in scale than social movement stations (as was already transpiring in Italy). The German government initially retained a much tighter grasp over broadcasting and tried promptly to shut free stations down.

One such station, however, Radio Verte Fessenheim/Radio Grüne Fessenheim (Radio Green Fessenheim), began in 1977 as a combined French, German, and Swiss project in opposition to the new Fessenheim nuclear power plant at France’s border with Germany and Switzerland. Its French location managed to evade German and Swiss broadcasting restrictions. In 1981, the project renamed itself Radio Dreyeckland (ThreeCornerLand), and later still, with an easing of Germany’s broadcasting laws, the German wing of the project continued as a social movement station (while its French cousin eventually went commercial, playing oldies). It is a good example of cross-border media activism, but also of the often fluctuating character of social movement projects. The power station, originally planned for a 40-year operation, was promised to be closed in 2016—one year ahead—but only after decades of protest. Meanwhile, the German government ordered the closure of all nuclear plants by 2022.

The radio story continues in many places, from a women’s station in Austria (Pfisterer, Purkarthofer, & Busch, 2011), to low-powered FM radio in the United States (Opel, 2004), to peace radio stations in Colombia (Rodríguez, 2011).

Let us now shift our attention, though, to film and video. Because of the high costs of the former and the refusal of cinema exhibition chains to consider any but the most occasional documentary screenings of any kind, social movement film documentaries were scanty for decades. The same was true for feature films, although occasionally mainstream films would convey movement sentiment, such as the antinuclear war satire Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (1964), Malcolm X (1992), and Erin Brockovich (2000). An antinuclear war TV docudrama such as British director Peter Watkins’s extremely powerful The War Game (1965), funded by the BBC, was promptly banned from being broadcast by the British government. As noted already, 16mm and Super-8 formats opened up production and lab-processing opportunities but did almost nothing about distribution and exhibition.

Two key developments in audiovisual activism emerged at the end of the 1970s and during the 1980s, at least in the United States. One was the emergence of significant social movements against nuclear war and against the US government’s political and military support for murderous governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, and counterrevolutionary thugs in Nicaragua. Involving community activists, educators, and some religious organizations, interest in information, protest, and solidarity networked and blossomed. Simultaneously came the portable video camera, often referred to as a camcorder, which was much cheaper and more flexible than the huge 35mm film camera. This, akin to the Brownie still camera, opened up what came to be called guerrilla video-making (Boyle, 1997). Antinuclear war documentaries and radical documentaries about Central American conflicts flourished on the alternative circuits. In Britain, through an unprecedented expansion in patronage from the new Channel 4 television station in the early 1980s, a Black film movement emerged from virtual invisibility, and a series of other imaginative and searching documentaries came to life.

One of the most interesting developments in the United States was Paper Tiger Television, led by DeeDee Halleck (2002). Beginning in New York City in 1981, Paper Tiger generated extremely low-cost, short documentaries (lasting around 20 minutes or so), often featuring a social movement activist or writer. Their secondary purpose was to encourage people to realize that they did not need costly props, fancy lighting, or immaculate audio to make short films, and that videocassette technology made the process of producing multiple copies of movies for distribution feasible. Soon there was a Paper Tiger collective on the West Coast, and not long after that came Deep Dish TV, again with Halleck’s and her colleagues’ visionary activism in full flood.

Deep Dish TV took the distribution and exhibition challenge a major step further. It issued calls for short documentaries on key topics—prisons in the United States, AIDS activism, the 1990–1991 Persian Gulf War, and many others. Those submitted and selected were then compiled on a single VHS tape and satel-cast to more than 300 community TV access centers and stations across the United States. They could be screened immediately or at another time. At this point, distribution technologies has changed to DVDs and streaming, and Deep Dish has moved in synch. At the beginning of the US war on Iraq in 2003, Deep Dish distributed a compilation titled Shocking and Awful (after the Bush administration’s vainglorious “Shock and Awe” terminology to trumpet its horrific bombing of Baghdad)—a three-DVD set, showing how far the pool of social movement filmmakers had expanded. The distribution issue, with YouTube and other vehicles, was not perfect from a social movement point of view, but it differed sharply from the previous pattern.

Yet it would be a major error of technological reductionism to conclude that the issues were nearly solved. Ultimately, the acid test for social movement media is not that people can readily access them, but whether they watch them attentively, and especially whether they discuss them. Cinema Politica, a very significant project based at Concordia University in Montreal, has brought social movement film and video to this crucial juncture (Turnin & Winton, 2014). Running since 2003, weekly documentary screenings have been attended by some 300–700 students and others, with lively debates following. Around 100 collaborating sites were active around the world. Movement media activism is not just about production. How to engage the public is ultimately the issue (Downing, 2003).

Lest we forget in this flying tour of analogue movement media, the humble xerographic photocopier and the equally obsolete fax machine also have their place. Eichhorn (2016) shows how xerography was a medium of choice for gay activists, punk culture, zinesters, and many other dissident communicators. A particularly potent and striking example was the AIDS-activist group ACT UP in the 1980s through the mid-1990s. As for the fax machine, when the 1989 Chinese student and citizen insurgency against Communist party rule was crushed on June 4—currently in Chinese media, The Great Unmentionable That Never Happened—while the press and broadcasting were brought to heel, the aging Politburo never thought about fax machines. So news of the massacre did get out to citizens globally via faxes, especially from activist Chinese students in Western countries. In August 1991, an attempted coup in Moscow to roll the clock back to Soviet rule was similarly publicized internationally as it happened because the sclerotic plotters were only aware of broadcasting and the press—not the humble fax machine, then quite new in the fading Soviet Union.

We will analyze digital social movement media in a moment. But first, we must pause briefly to review the uses that repressive social movements—fascist, white supremacist, anti-Jewish, Islamophobic, homophobic, and xenophobic ones—have made of alternative media.

Repressive Social Movement Media

It is important to recognize that repressive social movements also may see themselves as revolutionary or, at the very least, as prevented by comfortable elites from having any real voice. Their definition of alternative, of community, and counterinformation, and even of citizens, takes the sense of those terms in a completely distorted direction.

Nonetheless, to understand the power of these media requires that we foreground their social movement matrix too. A famous German photomontagist, John Heartfield, used a news photo of Adolf Hitler standing and asserting “Millions are behind me,” his right arm raised in the Nazi salute, hand open and tilted backward, and joined it to two others—one of million-mark banknotes in Hitler’s outstretched hand, and the other of their donor, a German tycoon. Heartfield wanted to challenge Hitler’s claim, saying that he was a mere puppet on a capitalist’s string. This was true, at that point in time; but Hitler was right too, although he had fewer members than the German Social Democratic Party and Communist Party combined (had their leaders only heeded their rank and file’s call to join together). Nazism was a social movement, not just a free-floating ideology, and in particular, it used posters, marches, and mass assemblies during the decade before it acquired state power (its reputation for deploying radio and film during that period is greatly exaggerated). It also published some 60 local newspapers during that decade.

Turning to the United States after World War II (Hilliard & Keith, 1999; Simi & Futrell, 2010), the stronger the black civil rights movement became, the more active was the white supremacist backlash. Over the next 60 years, the supremacist movement diversified, with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), perhaps its best-known organization, becoming only one of its components. Nonetheless, the KKK was one of the first movement organizations to use computers, it shifted away from them once their capacity for unwanted surveillance became better understood. Racist rock music became a significant vehicle in these circles. Racist talk radio became even more of an everyday staple, although revolutionary racist activists preferred shortwave radio because it was much harder to monitor.

Media of the religious ultraright in the United States—again, splintered into many currents—deserve a much more thorough analysis than they receive. Kintz and Lesage (1998) still are the best source for understanding how this powerful movement has grown. It has had huge funding and highly focused leadership (Sharlet, 2008), but that is not sufficient to explain the tireless commitment to tedious and time-consuming organizational tasks, on which this movement has built itself to its great level of influence.

Authoritarian neopopulist currents have been widespread in Europe and beyond since at least the 1970s. The rise of France’s Front National, a variety of groups such as the Lega Nord in Italy and neofascist groups in Britain, the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, the True Finns, Golden Dawn in Greece, and others testify to this strong trend. Regrettably, the study of their media, until quite recently, did not keep pace with their growth of influence (Mazzoleni, Stewart, & Horsfield, 2003; Downing & Husband, 2005, pp. 61–85)—another prime area for careful research, although signs suggest researchers are beginning to take up the challenge.

Zone B: Digital Social Movement Media

Zone B, this second zone, should not be insulated from Zone A. Not only are analogue social movement media still alive and energetic—not least the book and the magazine, as well as live music and theater performances—but they generally mesh effortlessly with digital media. The ridiculous response of many Western media commentators to the political upsurges in the Arab region that began in 2011, along with Spain’s very substantive Indignados movement and the global Occupy movement, in all of which Facebook and Twitter played varying roles, was to attribute their motivational power and impact to these digitally connective media. A less sociologically informed analysis is hard to conjure up.

At the same time, these more recent media offer affordances that legacy media do not. Their usage is still developing, so the full advantage of reflecting on their impacts over a couple of decades is not with us yet. At one point shortly after 2000, the blog made its appearance and was heralded as the best thing since sliced bread. It has indeed fulfilled some of its promise, as witnessed by the major role that it played in Iran in the 2000s in releasing the theocracy’s near-stranglehold over independent media communication (Sreberny & Khiabany, 2010). In Egypt, blogging gave space to women to communicate in public, which they proceeded to do in a variety of registers (Shokry, 2011). Yet today, it has settled into a particular groove within our media ecology. The same will assuredly be the case for Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, WhatsApp, and whatever may come next, but as yet, we have not arrived there.

So where, then, are we? Let us look at some significant in-depth analyses to try to set out the state of play as it stands now. In a splendidly detailed study of global social justice mobilizations and mass demonstrations in Europe, Juris (2008) mapped digital networking affordances onto a revisioning of political debate and organizing, a shift from a hierarchical political party model to an emergent, horizontal process. However, despite his attention to local detail in the case of Barcelona, an activist epicenter, his analysis tended at times to tip over into a consecration of networking as the movement hero, fusing politics with digital technology.

Gerbaudo (2012) took a different step, comparing the uses of digital and mobile technology in the 2011 upsurges in Cairo and Spain, as well as the New York City Occupy movement. He paid particular attention to digitally connective media (van Dijck, 2013)—a more accurate term than the vapid social media. Two major findings transpired. One was the great variety of uses of Facebook, Twitter, and other sites across the three locations. No single pattern stood out. The other was, that despite common assertions that these movements were leaderless—roughly in line with Juris’s interpretation—in practice, certain forms of leadership were not only present at key moments, but vital.

This debate about political communication processes inside social movements rumbles on. Bennett and Segerberg (2013) argued that spontaneous connective action of various kinds was becoming increasingly evident with the advent of digitally connective technologies, and this perhaps formed the initial base, a diffuse type of launch pad, for collective action in protest activities. Like Juris, they detected an alienation among younger citizens in Western societies from political parties—a deep desire to act politically, but without hierarchical shackles and filters, let alone political sectarianism. Self-motivated sharing of ideas, comments, links, retweets, and short videos was, they claimed, the heart of connective action, in its purest form entirely self-organized and often operating simply through the sharing of memes (e.g., “the 99%”). Between this pure format and conventional collective activism, they suggest that there may be an intermediate level, where conventional political and advocacy bodies set up open digital sites, as distinct from specific mobilization sites.

A necessary sociohistorical perspective comes from Wolfson (2014), who traces the story of the US cyber left from the new political activism of Mexico’s Zapatista movement, which first came to Mexican and then global attention in 1994. The Zapatistas fused completely local with entirely global issues, and the harsh conditions for the Indigenous communities of Chiapas state with the rise of global market forces and fundamentalist policies (exemplified in the North American Free Trade Agreement that went into effect on January 1, 1994). They, too, avoided Mexico’s political parties, but they knocked conventional expectations of Indigenous peoples sideway by using the then-novel Internet to convey their analyses and struggles across global frontiers.

Wolfson examines the Zapatistas’ direct influence on both the swift success of the global Independent Media Center (IMC) movement and gave some reasons for its running out of steam over time. IMCs emerged out of the four intense days of the Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in late 1999, which in turn were a culmination of years of global social justice movement organizing in the United States, Canada, and beyond (Kidd, 2003). During this period, the experience of having set up in advance a temporary open-access physical site and Internet service for photographers, audio- and video-documentarians, and print journalists, so that they could provide multiple independent accounts of what went down, was potent—so much so, in fact, that comparable linked sites were generated across North America, and then also in Europe, Latin America, Australia, and some other locations (toward 200 at the IMC movement’s height).

Very briefly, the IMC network enabled up-to-the-minute visual and audio information, and reflection, on current social struggles in all the locations where there was an IMC site. As in Seattle, the perspective was opposite to mainstream news (facing the police lines, not positioned safely behind them). While English was the majority language, half a dozen others, such as European languages, were in regular use, depending on location. Access to posts was entirely open, although after a time, a separate archive was set up for purely abusive, racist, sexist, and similar postings, where editorial judgment could be employed to evaluate their suitability.

In Wolfson’s argument, however, the Seattle IMC leadership, and consequently many of its mirror sites, overread the Zapatista organizing approach—highly consensus-based, grassroots-up, slow—as universally applicable. The Zapatistas themselves made no export claims for their internal political communication activities, which were based on ancient Indigenous practices (about 30% of the state’s population is Indigenous, although with more than 50 ethnicities). But some of their admirers outside Mexico took that cultural model as a universal toolkit—almost an upside-down Leninism. The essential conclusion to draw is that understanding digital communication tools ripped from history and culture is not to understand them at all, notwithstanding the IMC movement’s genuine contributions and achievements.

The same crucial lesson can be learned from a multifaceted study of the buildup to Tunisia’s 2011 movement revolution, which in turn helped spark further revolts across the Arab region (Zayani, 2015). Framing his analysis within a social history of Tunisia over the previous 30 years, and proceeding with a constant focus on everyday life, Zayani weaves a saga of the unexpected. An increasingly repressive dictatorship, bent on modernizing and thus installing an advanced Internet infrastructure (along with an Internet police to match), found itself increasingly caught up in its own contradictions, including a stagnant economy. Meanwhile, digital enthusiasts were mostly pursuing their various fascinations without any intention (let alone anticipation) that they might be engaged in a subversive process.

The dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s worms initially were tilling the soil without any signposts. Only when they began to be suppressed by his Internet police for minor infractions did opposition slowly begin to jell in the digisphere—and then beyond. Within a year or two, the international affordances of the Internet made it possible for Tunisians living in France and French people of Tunisian descent to share safely candid reflections on Tunisia’s state—and government. As Zayani (2015, 108) writes, “[T]he gradual politicization of the Tunisian blogosphere and its emergence as an incubator of cultural contention was a significant development.” The generational dimension—half of Tunisians are under 25, but are often more educated than their parents—is one that he explores carefully. His study is full of pertinent anthropological detail whose implications go well beyond the 11-million residents of this North African nation. It provides a model for grasping how connective digital media embed in the fabric of everyday life during periods of gathering social change.

There is now a plethora of studies that address digitally connective media in the framework of social movements, but there remains a strong tendency to suppose that only data from the United States or Europe is of research interest. But there is no excuse for methodological nationalism in this research zone. One excellent collection of essays engages with case studies from no less than nine Latin American nations (Treré & Magallanes-Blanco, 2015). Several of its studies examine student movements, where imagination was in power, representing generational and educational divides of a type touched upon previously in this article when discussing the Tunisian case. Such movements often leave social high-water marks whose presence continues to be felt underground, even when, as in mainland China, their open discussion is banned.

A very different angle on these issues regarding movement use is taken by an ethnographic study of working-class Chinese users of mobile phones and their efforts to carve out cultural space and achieve civil rights (Qiu, 2009). Conducted over the 2000s, and focusing on what he calls the “have-less” (i.e., not the rich, and not the very poorest either), it uncovered many instances in which cheap cell phones were successfully deployed to spread awareness of police abuse, to protest routine hardships of everyday living, to alert rural migrants to job opportunities, and much more. The situation that Qiu detailed is endlessly changing, but he graphically evokes the inventiveness of China’s huge working-class movement in formation, wrestling with the shifting obstacles that it confronts. Comparable studies of India’s working-class political and social uses of digital media would be very valuable.

To conclude this provisional foray into turbulent waters that are still to be charted, a challenge to some frequent assumptions about digital social movement media is in order. Petrick (2016) has queried whether the fundamental dynamics of digital media may stifle the development of social movements’ accumulated experience of activism. The digital dynamics of speed, she argues, may well be a process that atrophies activists’ capacity to learn from past strategies, successes, and failures. Based on detailed interviews with global social justice movement activists, she proposes that oral sharing, face-to-face storytelling as done in Walter Benjamin’s famous essay is far more generative than the mere existence of a digital archive of struggle, whose standard modes of usage tend to leave more questions unanswered than resolved. Rather than miracle technologies, digital media dynamics may be prime movers in blotting out our capacity to learn how we got to where we are in movement struggle history, condemning us to an endless reinvention of the wheel, an eternal sunshine of spotless consciousness.

Zone C: Reforming Corporate and State Communication Policies

Media activism takes this road as well. Uruguay’s successful community radio legislation has been noted in previous sections. Brazil has an excellent law—on paper anyway. In Latin America, Uruguay is a trailblazer, but the media reform movement there is far from alone (Soledad Segura & Waisbord, 2016). In the European Union, local community media are enabled to an extent under “Third Sector” laws, this being current grab-bag terminology for nonstate and noncorporate activities, including philanthropy and advocacy (Coyer & Hintz, 2010).

In the United States, attempts to galvanize a movement against oligarchic corporate media control began in 2002 with the formation of the Free Press organization, which soon began, along with over 20 other allied groups, to organize intermittent but very large media reform conferences. The craven mainstream US media support for the George W. Bush administration’s war in Iraq (2003–) did much to focus energy in this direction. At the same time, the Media Justice movement emerged (Hill, 2011), which especially focused on the denial of media rights to citizens of color. In 2008, the Center for Media Justice formed in Oakland, California, and Brooklyn, New York. The media reform movement is found not only in the Americas, but in Europe and beyond (Freedman, Obar, Martens, & McChesney, 2016).

However, the movement engages with more than concentrated media ownership and issues of class, “race,” and gender in representation and access. A key dimension only slowly emerging to public awareness at the present time is the issue of information and communication infrastructure (Lentz, 2011). Satellites, cabling on land and in the oceans, cell phone towers, the whole global pipeline of the Internet and mobile telephony are not owned by the public, which therefore has little or no practical say in how they are used or how their uses might be changed. This electronic infrastructure is a bedrock of contemporary democracy, but it is barely subject to effective democratic control. Switching off citizen cell phone use in demonstration locations, while retaining a separate frequency for the police, is just one example. An even-further dimension of media reform activism consists of drawing attention to the dangerous ecological dimensions of various communication technologies (Maxwell & Miller, 2012).

In the era since the 2013 state surveillance revelations courageously supplied by Edward Snowden, the century’s most pivotal single information activist to date, more and more attention has been paid to this dimension of communication policy reform (Lyon, 2015). Opposition to commercial surveillance on this scale also has been rather slow, perhaps because George Orwell’s 1984 has been part of mainstream culture for three generations; despite its brilliance, the book did not anticipate the extent of the dizzy expansion of capitalist data-driven marketing (a recent how-to book on “big data” is entitled The New Oil).

Zone D: Mainstream and Social Movement Media

Citizens do not normally inhabit just one or the other media sphere (although obviously in many countries, many inhabit the mainstream media universe, including Web 2.0, without having any intensive nanomedia exposure). Nonetheless, there is inevitably an interplay among social movement media users between the two spheres. Movement activists often will use their media to critique mainstream media frames or misleading information. Sometimes during major upsurges, journalists will comb through movement media as a way of interpreting what is happening (and perhaps to avoid uprooting themselves from their desks). Movement activists often trust the business press, as distinct from the rest of mainstream news, and enjoy much mainstream entertainment.

However, these levels of interaction do not exhaust the matter. Kenix (2012) has proposed that the two spheres may be converging. She provides some instances from New Zealand’s media scenario to suggest that mainstream media sometimes may carry more deeply radical material than do nanomedia. The point to extract from this argument, which perhaps posits an evolution yet to occur in any major way, is that attempts to bifurcate absolutely between the two spheres are pointless. Mainstream media are a mixed bag, with cartoonists, for example, often given license to convey views quite out of synch with the newspaper’s party line. Political divisions within the national elite, as in the United States concerning the Southeast Asian war from the late 1960s onward, may open up a diversity of viewpoints hitherto shunned by mainstream news editors.

An excellent example of the meld between mainstream and alternative-media social movement strategies is given by the decades-long global campaign against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa (Thörn, 2006). The international movement operated on several media fronts: activist journalism in and out of South Africa; working with sympathetic professional journalists; cultural events, such as two huge concerts in honor of jailed activist Nelson Mandela, held in London’s Wembley stadium; and public demonstrations, especially outside South Africa House in London’s Trafalgar Square, a large building directly between the National Portrait Gallery and the iconic St Martin’s-in-the-Fields church. British business ties with South Africa went back over a century and were the regime’s primary support, so that antiapartheid opinion in Britain was especially important to foment.

Working with professional journalists in mainstream media is the province of what is sometimes called “radical PR.” The studies of Charlotte Ryan at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell and of Bob Jensen at the University of Texas–Austin are exemplary in this regard (Ryan, 1999; Jensen, 2005). It is a ridiculous error to assume that there are no constructive individuals working in mainstream media, not least in the business press. The same is the case, for instance, with screenwriters, scriptwriters, and videogame makers.

Finally, the interpenetration of rightist established media and repressive social movement media is a highly fertile combination—one without any mirror in labor, environmentalist, feminist, Indigenous, and other social movement media. The established media frame immigrant workers in “racial” or nationality terms; repressive movement media encourage neo-Nazis to beat these people up and set fire to their homes.

The crossover zone is a prime area for further, action-oriented research.

Concluding Remarks

This has been a quick tour of a continent (as in “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium”). To pull the threads together, the vital points of emphasis in this article have been the social movement matrices of these media; the necessity of thinking historically and over the longer term about their multiple roles; their wide variety of formats; the crucial importance of imagination, emotion, and the arts, not just accurate factual information; the still-emerging affordances of network and mobile technologies; the need to avoid “methodological nationalism,” focusing on one nation as if it stood for all of the nearly 200; the compelling requirement to include repressive social movement media in the picture; the significant rise of media reform movements, pushing for policy change; and last but not least, the crossover zones between mainstream and movement media.

Yet, as noted at several different times in this discussion, there are so many more areas still unresearched or underresearched. A contemporary ethnographic study of favela media activism, focusing on young Brazilian media-makers and the paths that led them to commit their energies in this direction (Custódio, 2016), is not only absorbing in itself, but it serves as a pointer toward how little we know about the life histories of movement media activists, not least in the youth generation, especially given the pronounced youth demographic in the Global South (cf., Zayani, 2015). Indeed, so little still has been communicated about how readers and audiences use these media (Downing, 2003).

Further Reading

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  • Gumucio Dagron, A., & Tufte, T. (Eds.). (2008). Antología de comunicación para el cambio social: Lecturas históricas y contemporáneas (in Spanish). South Orange, NJ: Communication for Social Change Consortium.
  • Journal of Alternative and Community Media. Available at
  • Journal of Community Informatics. Available at
  • Rodríguez, C. (2001). Fissures in the mediascape: An international study of citizens’ media. New York, NY: Hampton Press.
  • Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University. Available at
  • Underground Press Archive (United States). Available at


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