Progressive Social Movements and the Internet
- Sarah J. JacksonSarah J. JacksonDepartment of Communication Studies, Northeastern University
Because of the field’s foundational concerns with both social power and media, communication scholars have long been at the center of scholarly thought at the intersection of social change and technology. Early critical scholarship in communication named media technologies as central in the creation and maintenance of dominant political ideologies and as a balm against dissent among the masses. This work detailed the marginalization of groups who faced restricted access to mass media creation and exclusion from representational discourse and images, alongside the connections of mass media institutions to political and cultural elites. Yet scholars also highlighted the ways collectives use media technologies for resistance inside their communities and as interventions in the public sphere.
Following the advent of the World Wide Web in the late 1980s, and the granting of public access to the Internet in 1991, communication scholars faced a medium that seemed to buck the one-way and gatekeeping norms of others. There was much optimism about the democratic potentials of this new technology. With the integration of Internet technology into everyday life, and its central role in shaping politics and culture in the 21st century, scholars face new questions about its role in dissent and collective efforts for social change. The Internet requires us to reconsider definitions of the public sphere and civil society, document the potentials and limitations of access to and creation of resistant and revolutionary media, and observe and predict the rapidly changing infrastructures and corresponding uses of technology—including the temporality of online messaging alongside the increasingly transnational reach of social movement organizing. Optimism remains, but it has been tempered by the realities of the Internet’s limitations as an activist tool and warnings of the Internet-enabled evolution of state suppression and surveillance of social movements. Across the body of critical work on these topics particular characteristics of the Internet, including its rapidly evolving infrastructures and individualized nature, have led scholars to explore new conceptualizations of collective action and power in a digital media landscape.