Distraction Free Reading

Twitter Hashtags, Emotion and The Resonance of Social Protest

There is something strikingly similar between the events taking place in Turkey and in Brazil. It is the momentum, intensity and force of these uprisings. It is the connection between profoundly context specific roots of social unrest and broader global political issues. In this post I want to focus on the issue of social media technologies. This is not to propose yet again a techno-deterministic analysis on social media and social protest. In fact, as argued elsewhere, in the understanding of the relationship between Web 2.0 technologies and social movements it is of fundamental importance that we move beyond techno-deterministic analyses that emphasize pervasiveness, agency and change (Barassi, 2012, Barassi and Treré, 2012, Barassi, 2013). What I want to do in this post is to consider the events in Turkey and Brazil by raising some points on the connection between social media, collective emotion and transnational resonance. In order to do so, I want to focus on the issue of identity.

The issue of identity is central to the understanding of the connection between social media and mass protests. It is central not because of its ‘presence’ but because of it’s apparent ‘absence’. Reading mainstream media we are constantly reminded that the people who are demonstrating in the streets of Istanbul or San Paulo do not have a political identity, in the sense that they do not belong to any political party or organization. We are also reminded that they come together thanks to Twitter hashtags and the social media buzz. Of course the situation on the streets is far more complex. It is not true that all the political demonstrators do not have a political identity or are not linked to specific organizations (the case of the Muslim brotherhood during the uprising in Egypt was a vivid example of this). Yet it is true that Twitter hashtags and other social media practices create a space of convergence of multiple political singularities, and establish networks of affinity that are then enacted in the squares and the streets.

In order to understand this process of convergence of multiple singularities we, of course, have to look back at the debates of the late 90s, when journalists, activists and academics tried to make sense of the relationship between the global justice movements, internet networks and new forms of political belonging. At the time the autonomous discourses of the global justice movements were creating the basis for a new reformulation of political identity. During the eighties, identity was a key word in any debate that related to social and political struggle (Laclau and Mouffe, 1984, Touraine, 1985). Yet during the 90s it became evident that amongst the movements for global justice, people were no longer interested in achieving recognition through the state for their marginal ‘identities’. This is because they no longer believed that the state could be perceived as a neutral arbiter.

Instead, largely influenced by anarchist currents, the global justice movements tried to replace the logic of ‘identity’ with a politics of affinity, which is based on an understanding of ‘groundless solidarity’ and ‘infinite responsibility’ (Agamben, 1993; Holoway, 2002; Day, 2005). By looking at the changing political repertoires of the global Justice movements of the 1990s, many scholars have focused on the power of internet networks’ and relied on generalized and essentialist concepts such as swarms/multitude’ (Hardt and Negri, 200; Virno, 2004) ‘mobs’ (Rheinghold, 2002) or networked individualism (Castells, 1997) to describe the connection between new technologies and new forms of political participation. Although insightful in mapping the connection between new repertoires of collective action, political imagination and internet technologies, most of these works were based on a unjustified techno-determinism, which assumed the causal agency of technologies, without providing empirical evidence.

In the analysis of mass uprising of the recent years and their connection to social media, such approaches today have been criticized and re-framed, through the exploration of the complex relationship between political participation, digital networks and the construction of public space. In this framework, whilst Castells (2012) remained anchored to the idea of the power of internet networks’, Juris (2012) considered how the networking logic of social movements is now coexisting with a new  ‘logic of aggregation’ (Juris, 2012) and Gerbaudo argued that contemporary movements are based on a choreography and performativity of assembly (Gerbaudo, 2012).

One element that is emerging from this body of literature – together with what I believe is the more spurious debate on whether we need to move beyond the logic of networks (Gebraudo, 2012) – is the understanding that social media are becoming a space for the diffusion of collective emotions, which are constantly reinforced within public space. According to Castells (2012) social media networks have created the basis for the sharing of two forms of emotions: hope and outrage, and he argues these emotions have been enacted on the streets from Iceland to the Occupy Movements. Gerbaudo’s (2012: 38-40) argument is less techno-deterministic as he draws from a Durkheimian framework to discuss the ‘collective effervescence’ and emotion created on the streets and shows how this collective emotion makes the choregraphy of assembly possible via social media.

From an anthropological perspective, these arguments are problematic. Part of the problem with these approaches is that they are not only ‘ethnographically thin’ – and thus over-simplify the emotional complexities of social movements (and the Durkheimian framework is surely an expression of that) – but they also do not take into account crucial cultural differences. As I watched the unraveling of the events in Turkey and Brazil and participated in the mediation of the anger, the outrage and shock in front of the police brutality, I have started to come to the conclusion that one way to understand the emotional intensity of these exchanges and how they were enacted on the ground was not to focus on a generalized concept of collective emotion – as Gerbaudo (2012) and Castells (2012) do – but rather to draw on the concept of transnational resonance.

In analyzing the influence of the Zapatistas on the global justice movements, Khasnabish (2008) argued that the concept of resonance was fundamental. For him resonance had to be understood as an unpredictable dynamic by which meaning constructed in a particular context becomes important in another in ways that are at the same time expected and non-expected. According to Khasnabish, “rather than diffusion – which signifies migration – resonance signifies movement, mutation and active translation” (Khasnabish, 2008:8).

The concept of resonance, I believe, is of particular importance in the understanding of the role of Twitter in the events in Turkey and Brazil. This is because it enables us to appreciate how through the practice of combining Hashtags, and through the constant diffusion of images of police brutality, people are constructing a ‘transnational resonance’ and creating a shared ground of social outrage against the violence of Neoliberalism and against state repression. Yet in contrast to those who have claimed that social media create forms of viral and emotional contagion (Castells, 2012; Gerbaudo, 2012) the concept of resonance would also enable us to have a more culturally sensitive approach. This is because resonance implies ‘active translation’ and thus highlights how political participation is constructed on social media not through a transmission of generalized feelings of hope and outrage (Castells, 2012) or through some kind of Durkheimian centering logic (Gerbaudo, 2012), but rather through the active mutation of these emotions to different social and culturally specific issues. In order to fully understand this process of resonance and cultural adaptation, I believe, contemporary studies on social movements and social media technologies are in urgent need of greater ethnographic thickness.

References

Agamben, Giorgio (1993) The Coming Community, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Barassi, V. (2013) ‘When Materiality Counts: The Political Importance of Activist Magazines in Europe’ submitted to Journal of Global Media and Communication, Published online before print May 27, 2013.

Barassi, V. (2012) ‘Ethnographic Cartographies: Alternative Media, Social Movements and the Spaces of Networks’ Social Movement Studies Journal, Vol. 11: 1

Barassi V. and Trere’, E. (2012) ‘Does Web 3.0 follow Web 2.0? Deconstructing Theoretical Assumptions through Practice’, in New Media and Society Vol 14(8):1269-1285

Castells, M. (1997) The Power of Identity, Cambridge Massachusetts: Blackwell.

Castells, M. (2009) Communication Power, New York, USA: Oxford University Press.

Castellls, M. (2012) Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age Polity Press.

Day, R.J.F. (2005) Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements, London: Pluto Press.

Gerbaudo P. (2012) Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism, London: Pluto Press.

Graeber, D. (2009) Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Brooklyn, NY: Melville Publishing
Granovetter, M. S. (1973) ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’, American Journal of Sociology, 78, pp. 1360–1380.

Hands, J. (2011) @ Is for Activism: Dissent, Resistance and Rebellion in a Digital Culture, London: Pluto Press.

Hardt, M and Negri, A. (2000) Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, New York: Penguin Press.

Holloway, J. (2002) Change the World Without Taking Power: the Meaning of Revolution Today, London: Pluto Press.

Juris, J. (2008) Networking Future: The Movements against Corporate Globalization, Durham: Duke University Press.

Jurus, J. (2012) ‘Reflections on #Occupy Everywhere: Social Media, Public space and the emerging logic of aggregation, American Ethnologist, 39(2) 259-279.

Khasnabish, A. (2008) Zapatismo Beyond Borders: New Imaginations of Political Possibility, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Rheinghold H. (2002) Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revoluiton. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books.

Touraine, Alain (1985) Movimientos Sociales y Actores Politicos en America Latina, Santiago: OIT.

Virno, P (2004) The Grammar of the Multitude, For an Analysis of contemporary forms of Life, New York Semiotext(e).

4 Comments

  • Ian Lowrie says:

    Thank you for this sharp corrective to some of the less rigorously anthropological treatments of the imbrication of technology with contemporary protest movements! I find myself wondering what, methodologically speaking, a project attuned to “the active mutation of emotions to different social and culturally specific issues” on social media might look like? That is to say, if what we’re after is greater ethnographic thickness, we probably don’t want to confine ourselves to a textualist or discourse-based approach, just studying social media as a field unto itself; but if, by their very nature, these mutations extends into the broader social along complicated and potentially divergent lines, where are we to situate our inquiry? Are we limited to either these forms of textual analysis, or to a “supply-side” investigation of the use of social media by professional or quasi-professional organizers? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this; social media is rather outside of my field of professional expertise, but I found your post here quite intriguing.

  • Veronica Barassi says:

    Thank you for your comment and question. I agree wholeheartedly with you, the quest of ethnographic thickness in the study of social media and political movements needs to be dissociated from a purely textual understanding of these platforms. One way to do this is to focus, like many are doing at the moment, on social media practices, and thus to study these practices, by exploring the beliefs, fears, desires and hopes that shape them and also by looking at how these practices coexist in a tension with other media and social practices.

    One problem of contemporary social research outside of anthropology however, is the fact that despite some claim to have used ‘ethnographic’ methodologies to address the issue (e.g. Gerbaudo, 2012), these works are grounded on the assumption that combining ‘participant observation’ with qualitative interviews is the synonym of ethnography. Such an assumption constitutes a real challenge to ethnography as we understand it in anthropology, because it provides us with data that – although interesting as it highlights individual beliefs and practices – is not holistic or thick.

    In fact, by focusing on individual actors that are embedded in larger social movements, these works do not consider the social life of political collectives who are participating as ‘collectives’ to these movements and do not provide us with sufficient data to appreciate how political groups are negotiating with the new repertoires of political and media action.

    I believe that the study of “the active mutation of emotions” is not an easy task, especially because – as said in my post- we do not want to essentialize ‘collective emotion’. Yet I think that we need to take a step back and re-think about the importance of ethnographic thickness in the study of movements. It is only through an ethnographically thick approach that we may shed some light on the way in which the ‘outrage’ and ‘hope’ of contemporary social movements that Castells (2012) believes is transmitted through social media, is actually translated, understood, and experienced in a wide variety of ways within the cultural contexts of these movements. At the same time, an ethnographically thick approach, I believe can enable us to explore how different movements’ actors construct ‘transnational resonance’ by connecting context specific feelings of outrage and hope to others, in order to build a sense of international solidarity.

  • I am very interested in this post and related comments, as I teach and research these areas with regard to self-expression and civic engagement. I wondered, what are some concrete examples of things to study in order to reach this kind of ethnographic “thickness” in this topic? How might you suggest studying a “collective”? Also, I wondered if you had thoughts on how one might “operationalize” a concept such as “emotional resonance”? How does one know that one is looking at “resonance”?

  • Veronica Barassi says:

    Hi, thank you again for the comments and interest.

    I will at first answer how I approach the study of the ‘collective’ dimension of social movements and then I will try to add few thoughts on resonance.

    The way in which I approach the study of the collective dimension of social movements is not by looking at individual actors, who participate in the squares and the streets, but rather I look at how different political organisations or collectives – who have for long been involved in political activism – participate to these movements and negotiate with the new political and media repertoires of our times.

    As argued above, I think a problematic aspect of social movements’ research is the constant emphasis on transition. In designing my own research I drew heavily from the understanding that an approach that focuses on ‘transition’ rather than renewal, and that does not consider the complex dialectics between change and continuity is flawed. This is because such an approach does not take into account how different repertoires of political and media action coexist in a tension. Looking at this tension, I believe is of central importance to the analysis of social movements. This is because it sheds some light on their internal, innovative and creative struggle to find new possibilities to bring about social change.

    Within my work thus I looked at these processes of renewal by considering the experience of political collectives. My research took place over the course of five years from 2007 to 2013, and consisted in ethnographic work carried amongst three very different political organisations in Europe, which were embedded in three very different political movements (the Labour Movement in Britain, the Environmental Movement in Spain, and the Autonomous Movement in Italy).

    The three organisations were chosen for their diverse historical and social contexts as well as for their difference in political ideologies, structures and understandings of political action. Furthermore they were also chosen because their everyday realities were defined by a coexistence of repertoires of political and media action.

    The first organisation, the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, was chosen because it was funded in 1978 and brought together the ‘old’ left political ideologies of the British Trade Union movement, with ‘single issue politics’ and transnational activism. The second organisation Ecologistas en Acción, was chosen because it was born in 1998 and combined the radical left discourses of the global justice movements with identity politics. The third organisation, the Corsari, was chosen because it was founded in 2008 and despite being based on a political culture that stressed the importance of self-management and autonomy and rejected the notion of collective identity; its political action supported the Italian precarious workers movement, and the group was constantly involved in negotiations with institutional politics.

    Methodologically my project was based on a quest for ethnographic thickness. It combined a variety of different research methods: from a year long ethnographic fieldwork to online ethnography; from 87 one hour long interviews based on the life narrative’ method to textual analysis of the media they produced.

    Now the quest for ethnographic thickness it’s not easy at all, and as anthropologists we all know this. Especially if we are balancing research work with teaching, and other commitments. But I believe it is a necessary goal if we want to understand the complex relationship between activists and new technologies, and I also believe that one way to achieve it is really to study the fascinating social life of political collectives who participate to different social movements, and adapt to new political imaginations.

    You ask me how we can operationalize ‘resonance’. That is a great question. From my own fieldwork I came to the conclusion that activists are constantly involved in the construction of resonance, this is because they participate to ‘other’ struggles at a distance and actively try to relate to them at both the emotional and political levels. A first step to start operationalizing resonance I think is the one of studying these practices, and understanding their complexity. However, I am open to other idea or suggestions!!

    Hope this answers your questions.

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