It was inevitable. We needed a way to engage with other media, to promote what deserves to be promoted, to bring it into other conversations, and to be part of the infrastructure that connects storyteller and active listener – in short, to be the media. And I was looking for a way to do this outside of the usual full blog post-length format. For two reasons: (1) I can’t write up something for every interesting thing I read – writing takes time and for people or groups who don’t exploit (“employ”) loads of minions time is always a scarcity; and (2) we need something less ME-ish – this is a hang-up from the traditional corporate media that competes for audiences but the way to a radically democratic and emancipatory media is not to intensify the clamouring of ME-isms, but to shut up when somebody else says something better than you can, or from a position of different oppression-privilege to you. Shutting up and instead amplifying the voice of comrades – this is what building a WEdia instead of a MEdia is about.
To date, socialisestruggle has had a number of vehicles for this. Book reviews are a good way to share some of the lessons I take from the books I read with the wider community. And at the same time, promoting some important books that you might not otherwise have heard of and hopefully giving some struggling authors a bit of visibility. Then, the statements and communiques section involves direct unedited and unanalysed dissemination of communiques from people involved in struggle. This is something that there needs to be more of, and actually doing this has really helped me listen more directly to groups in the thick of it rather than the misrepresentations of them in media. Which is a harder habit to break than it sounds. The establishment media and even alternative media have a knack for getting you to listen to those who write the news rather than the groups making the world that the news is supposed to report on. And it is unsettling how easily the dominant frames from these news media enter your subconscious, even when trying to read critically. But I digress. Then there was another section on this blog, Posts of the month, where I would post compilations of the best articles I had read on other blogs. This was experimental more than anything, and after some time I found it doesn’t really work. While I like promoting the writings of other blogs out there, and taking stock of how things are playing out in the world, the process is just time-consuming and a month is such a long timeframe that it is a challenge to remember what different articles are all about and by that stage who is really interested in reading about what happened 20 days ago? So, this series sort of dropped off the socialisestruggle agenda and instead we are, reluctantly plunging into the Twitter world (if they will have us – the account was locked three minutes after setting up for suspicious activity, seems to be working again but for how long?) . And the Posts of the month -type function (sharing other sites’ good writings) is being replaced by the Twitter presence – but in a more timely manner.
The emphasis is on reluctantly, because I find it a fairly unsatisfactory solution. The world of social media is largely a corporate owned and controlled world which has marketed itself as and profited from an image of emancipation – both against the traditional top-down media and as a resource for anti-dictator movements. For a good few years this image was peddled by the PR machines of said companies, uncritical brave new world liberal commentators and often by naive leftists (e.g. Paul Mason). And it was resisted in an unimaginative way by the traditional media (of which their cries of ‘post truth politics’ and ‘fake news’ are just the latest shallow and dishonest strategies to save themselves) (yes dishonest. Can you really remember a time when the media didn’t lie to you in order to manipulate you? No neither can I. The post-truth accusation itself is post-truth. Does that make it meta-post-truth, or just post-truth negated, since it cancelled itself out? Confusing. Better just to ignore the whole thing. It is a meaningless red herring false flag, it’s been added to the site’s banned propaganda terms and that’s the last you will hear of it from me), some equally uncritical but nostalgic liberal commentators, and by some of the orthodox left. So in that kind of landscape it was hard for a long time to articulate some kind of understanding of a world we were learning to live in without falling into the narratives of either the starry-eyed brave new world types or of the reactionaries. But over the years a more accurate picture is beginning to emerge. This is thanks on the one hand to activists sitting down and drawing out lessons from their own experiences of the limits of social media, and on the other hand because of exposés about how the rich and powerful are using it for their own ends.
The most prominent of these is the example of targetted ads, used in particular in the Brexit referendum and in the election in the US in 2016 and for which a new round of scandal broke into the mainstream this year. It turns out that while the PR machines of social media corporations were pushing the dictator-toppling angle, they were simultaneously selling data on our behaviours in order to send us ultra-targetted and manipulative ads. In this way, the new media corporations are no different from the old ones: their primary income streams come not from selling ‘content’ to ‘users’, but from selling audiences to advertisers. In this sense, they don’t produce ‘news’ or ‘entertainment’ or what have you, they produce viewership (maybe it should be updated to ‘usership’), whether large or specialised niche pickings.
And the beauty of corporate owned social media platforms such as facebook is that all this targetting was exempt from public debate because the only people who saw those ads were the targeted. So while the mainstream media talk about anti-immigrant sentiment as the key factor deciding the Brexit referendum because of UKIP’s ‘breaking point’ campaign poster depicting lines of brown people, in reality we have no idea what kinds of discourses tipped the balance because the ads employed are obscured from the public domain (leaving aside for the moment the fact that voters are not just outcomes of advertising). As long as differential access can be bought and sold, the rich will continue to try to use it to control us.
The flip side of this is that corporate-owned social media platforms can place restrictions on how certain types of content, possibly from certain types of profiles, can circulate. And again, because you see your posts from the perspective of your account, such restrictions are mostly undetectable. The ‘Shadow ban‘ on twitter is probably the most well known example, but I’m sure there are other mechanisms at work on that and other platforms that we just don’t know about and are powerless to do anything about. Can’t really call it our media then.
Then, let’s not forget the biggest winner in all this after the likes of facebook, twitter etc: uber, deliveroo, air bnb, etc, not to mention more traditionally structured companies who also benefit indirectly from the generalised lowering of labour standards and organising capacity brought about by what has come to be known as the gig economy. As people started to lose jobs following the 2008 economic crash, instinctive and creative ways were developed so people could continue to make ends meet, in what became known as the ‘sharing economy’ or ‘solidarity economy’. These kinds of practices involved to a greater or lesser degree informally connecting production and consumption and cutting out the biggest liability – formal middle-man institutions designed to funnel wealth out of the system towards Capital and the state. And then companies like those mentioned above parachuted themselves into this middle-man space, privatised the networks and practices that people themselves had created, and then, even worse, pressurised governments to recognise as law (or just to simply ignore and tolerate) and normalise what were and are effectively informal survival-level labour conditions for coping with an emergency. A far cry from the emancipation and empowerment that web 2.0 was supposedly ushering in.
So, with all this kind of corporate ownership and control, is it possible to challenge dominant narratives? I remember back in 2011 talking to a mate of mine, definitely not an activist, about the protests in North Africa, which had just spread from Tunisia to Egypt. He was super enthusiastic about the potential of the internet (as it was still known then) to unmask and disarm illegitimate repression wherever it is found in the world. “… because now, if the police beat a guy this can be filmed and then posted and then people everywhere will see it and see that the police are out of line. And then they can do something about it”. Leaving aside our differences on what he imagined illegitimate repression and being out of line were, and leaving aside for the moment the ‘they can do something about it’ part of the equation (returned to below), my answer on whether social media is an effective tool in terms of correcting misrepresentation in the mainstream media is … Yes and No. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, and I can’t figure out any further why the fuck it works sometimes and others not. The best analysis I have read on this is from the middle of a review of Paul Mason’s Why it’s kicking off everywhere:
“It’s easy to lose sight of the potential impact this network effect allows and the way it has already transformed the potential for communication. As an example, I was part of the Shell to Sea media group that broke the story almost a year ago in April 2011 when women campaigners who had just been arrested accidentally recorded the arresting police joking about threatening to rape them as an interrogation technique. State media initially refused to broadcast the recording, but using Facebook and Twitter the recording we put online was listened to by 70,000 people in the first 12 hours, which spurred the state media into finally broadcasting it.
An article I’d written explaining what had happened was shared by over 2,000 people on Facebook in the same period. Close on 20,000 people read it in the first 48 hours. This genuinely new development in communications allows any one individual with something to say but without access to the mainstream media to communicate relatively easily with vast numbers of people. This happens because hundreds or thousands of other people make the small and low commitment decision to click ‘share’ or ‘retweet’ on an item in their feed and thus recommend it to their friends. Compare this to a pre-internet situation where we would have had to not only print 20,000 copies of an article up, but had to find 100’s of people willing to distribute them and get the leaflets into 20,000 individual sets of hands. This was only possible for large organisations or those with the financial resources to pay for such distribution; today the equivalent effect is potentially available to anyone with computer access.
Mason argues that Twitter has also greatly undermined the old anchorman structure of the news where a very, very few well known news figures got to interpret, spin and twist the news for everyone. This of course still happens from Fox News to Newsnight, but now such stories and those putting them out can be challenged on Twitter. The status of anchors in the industry no longer protects them from criticism because their critics are no longer journalists worried about the impact making powerful enemies might have on their future careers.
Again, in the example of the police ‘rape tape’ we were able to use twitter to bombard the state media Twitter accounts with questions as to why they had not yet broadcast the recording. These postings would have been visible to other journalists as well as the general public, not only resulting in a public shaming in front of colleagues, but also undermining the credibility of the broadcaster with a section of the general public, causing cumulative damage to the ability of state media to perform its primary function.
These processes are powerful but, at least as yet, they are no substitute for the automatic reach the mainstream media maintains. In the case of the Garda ‘rape tape’ the state was able to recover much if not all of the credibility lost through a cleverly worded and highly misleading report which was uncritically covered by the mainstream media and successfully created the false impression that the original story was suspect. We continued to provide often highly detailed corrections to these reports but despite the use of the same internet mechanisms & resources these never achieved a fraction of the circulation the original recordings received.”
Sometimes the fish bites and sometimes it doesn’t. But stories of the times it does bite become famous and are heavily referenced by starry-eyed proponents of the brave-new-world narrative, while the times it doesn’t bite are known only to those media activists who have no option but to sit down and start again.
In some respects one of the definite gains of social media is found in its potential for developing class/race/gender/etc consciousness. When it comes to things like #me too, what is important is not whether these things are ‘true’ as some traditional media critics harp on about. Instead it is the potential for people to see their own specific circumstances (sexual harassment, domestic violence, or ‘low-level’ male aggression) as something that others also experience as part of a broader system of oppression. As put on a blog post about #YesAllWomen,
“Women who may never have considered the connection between the microagressions we suffer, misogyny, and patriarchal society read and participated in those tweets. They are seeing the connections between the unwanted hand on your arse in a nightclub that other men condone, and the man who murders a woman because she says she’s pregnant, dumps her body in a barrel and flies to New York to try and get busy with his ex-girlfriend. And between the man who calls a woman a slut for rejecting him on OK Cupid, and the man who decides to shoot women because they rejected him in a forum outside of the internet. There is a broad spectrum of violence against women, and if others make those connections, while happening to “blow off steam” at the same time, that is a very useful thing in terms of naming the problem of misogyny in order to address it.”
Or, as we say on this blog, ‘to recognise your struggle in the struggle of others’.
That said, the shift from indymedia to personal blogs and facebook accounts has done some damage to the communities that were required to run alternative media back in the day. As Indymedia London wrote in their closing down post in 2012, the initial creation of the indymedia networks was a gamechanger in terms of giving direct access to posting to ordinary people, which is the spirit that subsequently fuelled the later turn to blogs and facebook profiles, only replacing the collectivity of ‘we-ism’ with the egotism of an endless series of ‘me-isms’. I remember years ago in London we had what were known as ‘Free information networks’ (or FINs as we used to call them), where you would pool info on all sorts of events in the activist world onto an A4 sheet, photocopy it and then start handing them out and leaving piles of them at squats or bars. It wasn’t much work but doing it really felt part part of something, which you don’t get with liking or retweeting.
And speaking of liking or retweeting being insufficient, another detrimental impact social media has had is that it has killed in many places the capacity (and sometimes even the awareness of the need for) plane old fashioned organising. Social media has made pervasive the idea that you can make an event on facebook and BANG, unstoppable revolution started. (although to be fair, this is not such a new thing; I remember seeing critical mass dublin dying before my eyes because people thought they could just post it on the Indymedia calender and no need for any further work). Although this is maybe one of the most parroted myths pushed by the corporate PR machines, anyone who has tried it will quickly realise there is more to it than that – either that or lapse into a ‘I tried but people obviously don’t care enough’ righteousness. Building a movement is not about the numbers (a hang-up from traditional politics) but about how new people can take part and shape the development of that movement. Which involves hard work – movement-building and organising shouldn’t be confused with marketing and advertising. If you do then you will end up with a campaign that is as effective in changing the world as buying a product or voting for a party.
So, with all those reservations why was it again that we are venturing into the twitter sphere? Oh yes, because it is unavoidable. Definitely not my favourite of reasons when making a decision as to how best to further the autonomist revolution. But there we are. I’m just looking forward to when everybody is on Mastodon (an open source replica of twitter which can federate to twitter – meaning Mastodon accounts can follow Twitter accounts but not vice versa) and the twittershphere resembles an ageing out-of-touch population talking to themselves oblivious to conversations taking place not on their turf and in denial about the declining influence they hold with the world outside their bubble.
See you on the streets
Oh, sorry, I forgot. Follow us on Twitter etc etc @socialisestrug1.