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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.

Article

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.