The Occupy Gezi Protests and the Re-Ignition of Public Intellectuals

(The following is the first of a two-part blog posting about events in Turkey, and how academia has played a role in coverage and analysis of events. Against all laws of nature, this post is link-free. I don’t see the need for them as I will be providing links in the follow-up posting. This is the set-up piece. If you don’t know what happened in Turkey, or need background, it’s all out there.)

The Occupy Gezi Protests and the Re-Ignition of Public Intellectuals: Part I

Isolated. Cloistered. Pampered. Stuck in ivory towers. Drowning in theory. Divorced from reality. Those who cannot do, teach.

Those of us who work in academia have heard it all over the years, often from people without the faintest clue what is actually involved in academic work: years of study with little or no income, copious reading and writing, data collection, administrative meetings, teaching, student advising, conferences. I’m not complaining that I am overworked. In fact, I have made it clear on many occasions that I consider academic work to be a privilege in a world dominated by awful jobs with terrible wages.

The critique of academia is part of a broader, depressing anti-intellectualism in a great many societies. If we are being honest, however, these wounds are in part self-inflicted: academics have (in general) been terrible at explaining to the outside world what it is we do, how we do it and why it is important. On top of this, while many of us rail against the commodification of society, we (and I include myself here) publish in journals and books charging crazy money for access, teach at universities increasingly demanding fees, and present research at expensive conferences only other academics are interested in attending. We have been unfairly maligned, but is it any wonder?

And, of all of the disciplines within academia, few have been as maligned and misrepresented as Media Studies/Mass Communication. Media professionals look at us and ask, “They’ve never worked a day of their lives in the industry, yet profess to be experts?” Regular citizens look at us and ask, “They are paying people to do research about television?” And, journalists look at us and ask, “Studying cartoons and David Beckham is what passes for university material?”

So, what are we to do? Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the protest…

Recent events in Turkey have made it abundantly clear what academia in general, and Media/Communications Studies in particular, have to offer. And it’s a lot. If we take my own discipline (Journalism, Media & Communications) as an example, the protests around Gezi Park in central Istanbul, and the state and media reaction to those protests, raised a number of core issues. Here are 10 examples:

1. The use of social media as a means of information distribution, organization and dissent;

2. the role/performance of the domestic (in this case Turkish) media — both mainstream and alternative — in the coverage or non-coverage of events;

3. the role/performance of the international media in the coverage or non-coverage of events;

4. the ownership structure of media in Turkey, and an historical understanding of the impact of such structures upon content;

5. the role of the Turkish state in the regulation of radio, television, film and newspapers, as well as social media;

6. the contemporary and historical relationship between journalism and the state in Turkey;

7. levels of access to, and use of, social media in Turkey;

8. forms and modes of social media use, as well as use of television, radio and newspapers;

9. the relationship between popular culture and politics in Turkey;

10. the use of media for the purposes of political communication by mainstream politicians.

Yes, this list is not complete; and, yes, many of these issues overlap. But, if we can get away from that for a minute, let’s consider this list and just how central they are to (1) an understanding of what is going on in Turkey, and (2) what academics do for a living.

An in-depth understanding of any of the items on this list requires more than a few hours with a laptop and an internet connection. It requires reading and research. It requires an understanding of social, political and historical context. It requires reflection. So, when the protests in Turkey broke out, what happened was interesting: a large number of academics — many Turkish, some not — began to emerge as key sources of information and analysis. What is also interesting is that these sources and analysts were not relegated to those at the top of the academic food chain: bloggers, Tweeters, Op-Ed authors and news sources ran the gamut from Professors to MA students. Of course, within this process, technology has been absolutely central.

Some caveats. First, none of this is to say that what has happened in Turkey is unique, but, rather, that Turkey has made the role of the public intellectual (to me) more visible. Academics have been writing about public events for centuries, of course, but my sense is that this function has diminished, and recent events in (for example) Iran, Egypt and now Turkey (not to mention the Manning and Snowden cases) have re-ignited that public role. Second, none of this is to say that there are not journalists and non-academics who can do the kind of analysis and research I am writing about. There are. Finally, I am fully aware that there are academics in Turkey, Iran, Egypt and elsewhere who have been active for many years in spreading information and analysis about events in those countries. This is not to ignore that work, but rather to note how academics are now reaching out to a much broader audience via a combination of language (English) and technology. My ultimate point is to highlight the ways in which academics can engage in the coverage and analysis of a major event such as Gezi, and how this should be held us as evidence of how the supposedly banal, dry research which we produce is not only relevant and applicable, but actually central to an understanding of important events. This, in turn, needs to be trumpeted as a important component of academic work.

(In the next installment, I will discuss some specific examples of what I am writing about about here, and how they contributed to and understanding of events in Turkey.)

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Free Access – Wave-Riding and Hashtag-Jumping: Twitter, Minority ‘Third Parties’ and the 2012 US Elections

My new article, “Wave-Riding and Hashtag-Jumping: Twitter, Minority ‘Third Parties’ and the 2012 US Elections,” published in Information, Communication & Society has been made open-access (free) for 6 months (until September 2013).

Abstract: With the description of the 2012 election as the ‘most tweeted’ political event in US history in mind, considering the relative media invisibility of the so-called ‘third-party’ presidential candidates in the US election process, and utilizing the understanding of retweeting as conversational practice, the purpose of this paper is to examine the use of Twitter by the four main ‘third-party’ US presidential candidates in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election in order to better understand (1) the volume of tweets produced by the candidates; (2) the level of interaction by followers in the form of retweeting candidate/party tweets; and, (3), the subject and content of the tweets most retweeted by followers of the respective parties. The ultimate goal of the paper is to generate a broader picture of how Twitter was utilized by minority party candidates, as well as identifying the issues which led followers (and their respective followers) to engage in the ‘conversational’ act of retweeting.

Two New Journal Articles on Nation-Branding & US 2012 Elections

Two articles I have written have just come out.

The first, @Sweden: Curating a Nation on Twitter is a critical analysis of the Twitter-based @Sweden nation-branding project published in Popular Communication. This paper is OPEN ACCESS UNTIL THE END OF JUNE 2013. You can access it by clicking on the link above. Here is the abstract:

On December 10, 2011, the first tweet was sent out from the @Sweden Twitter account, a nation-branding project financed by the Swedish government through the Swedish Institute and VisitSweden. Trumpeted by the media both in Sweden and internationally as an exercise in “transparent” and “democratic” nation-branding via the use of Twitter, the @Sweden account is “given” to a new Swede every week, and, supposedly, these curators are given free rein to tweet what they like, when they like. The use of a popular communication channel by the Swedish government—in this case, Twitter—provides an illuminating example of the carefully planned and managed promotion and nation-branding of Sweden, presented under the guise of a “transparent” and “democratic” selection and editorial processes. The @Sweden project will be addressed in light of “liberation technology” (Diamond, 2010) and “technology discourse” (Fisher, 2010) perspectives, within which a correlation between access to, and use of, technology and proactive change is postulated. These theoretical perspectives are particularly valuable when heeding Kaneva’s (2011) call for a more critical, communications-based understanding of nation-branding.

The second paper, Wave-Riding and Hashtag-Jumping: Twitter, Minority “Third Parties” and the 2012 US Elections is a study on the use of Twitter by smaller political parties in the run-up to the 2012 elections published in Information, Communication & Society. The abstract:

With the description of the 2012 election as the ‘most tweeted’ political event in US history in mind, considering the relative media invisibility of the so-called ‘third-party’ presidential candidates in the US election process, and utilizing the understanding of retweeting as conversational practice, the purpose of this paper is to examine the use of Twitter by the four main ‘third-party’ US presidential candidates in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election in order to better understand (1) the volume of tweets produced by the candidates; (2) the level of interaction by followers in the form of retweeting candidate/party tweets; and, (3), the subject and content of the tweets most retweeted by followers of the respective parties. The ultimate goal of the paper is to generate a broader picture of how Twitter was utilized by minority party candidates, as well as identifying the issues which led followers (and their respective followers) to engage in the ‘conversational’ act of retweeting.

 

 

 

Hacking and Whistleblowing: The New Crack Cocaine of Activism

Hacking & Whistleblowing: The New Crack Cocaine of Activism

(This article appeared in the February 2013 edition of Le Monde Diplomatique)

Christian Christensen

At the height of the purported cocaine “epidemic” in the United States in the 1980s, politicians and law enforcement officials felt something had to be done. What Congress did was to pass the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986: one of the most draconian, overtly racist pieces of legislation in US history. The law introduced mandatory minimum sentences, including an astonishing 5 years in federal prison for the possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine. What moved the law from the medieval to the outright racist, however, was the fact that in order to spend the same 5 years in prison for possession of powder cocaine, one would have to be caught with 500 grams of that substance. In other words, there was a 100:1 sentencing disparity between convictions for possession of crack versus powder cocaine. Expensive powder cocaine tended to be the drug of choice for upper-middle class suburban kids and white-collar bankers, while much cheaper crack was favored by poorer drug users. Despite such a blatant discriminatory factor, it took 26 years to pass Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 which pushed the sentencing ratio down from an outlandishly racist 100:1 to an outrageously racist 18:1.

What does this have to do with hacking and whistleblowing? A lot.

At the most basic level, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 stripped bare any pretense that justice in the United States was blind, and that the scales were calibrated so that  no preference would be given to a particular citizen on the basis of race or socio-economic status. The law sent a loud, unambiguous message that there are two sets of rules in the United States: one for those with power and social capital, and one for the rest. Thus, when it was widely reported in the wake of his suicide that the hacker and programmer Aaron Swartz was facing 35 years in prison for illegally downloading academic articles from the JSTOR system, it became clear to many previously unfamiliar with the case just how skewed the US legal system is, and the extent to which prosecutors were willing to go to “make an example” of someone whose greatest crime was downloading articles that academics provide to publishers for free, which are then re-sold to those same academics for a healthy profit. JSTOR itself did not wish to press charges, but the prosecution went ahead, with a computer hacker facing more years in prison for downloading journal articles about Emily Dickinson and film theory than any Wall Street CEO, Blackwater executive or corrupt politician.

When we speak of state violence, we tend to think of overt acts of physical violence against the body: the death penalty, police brutality or warfare being classic examples. Violence, however, is not relegated only to the application of pain, but can also include the limiting of physical and psychological freedom. As such, imprisonment is a significant act of violence, and is, along with the ability to take a life through capital punishment or warfare, a significant power afforded to states. Financial sanctions may cripple a person economically, but if they are still free to walk the streets, play with their children or engage in the many simple acts that make up the day-to-day existence of a human being, then that person still retains the core elements of dignity and humanity. I simply cannot fathom the idea that someone would be denied those elements for a quarter century for the crime of downloading academic articles; nor, for that matter, can I fathom the UK sending Anonymous hackers Christopher Weatherhead and Ashley Rhodes to prison for 18 and seven months respectively for the crime of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against PayPal, Visa and Mastercard. This, while the former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Sir Fred Goodwin, walks free after taking home 1.3 million pounds in salary while overseeing the biggest loss in British corporate history: 24 billion pounds.

In addition to hackers we have whistleblowers, none more famous than Bradley Manning, who also faces the possibility of spending the better part of his life behind bars. Already confined for almost 1000 days, and initially placed in solitary confinement, Manning is accused of placing the security of the United States in jeopardy by providing classified documents to WikiLeaks. A portion of the information he leaked was footage (now known as the “Collateral Murder Video”) showing the killing of civilians by a US attack helicopter in Iraq. The irony is, were Manning a Chinese, Iranian or Cuban soldier who had exposed potential war crimes committed by his government, his solitary confinement and impending life sentence would be held up as evidence of the barbarity and anti-democratic tendencies of the “regimes” in question, and calls would be made for his release on “humanitarian” grounds. As it is, Manning (like Swartz) is being given the 1986 crack cocaine treatment by the US government: the threat of a wildly excessive prison sentence, at odds with both logic and law, for the purpose of crushing the individual in question.

If the message of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was that the poor and minorities needed learn their place in an America ruled by white elites, then what is the message being sent in relation to Manning, Swartz and the two Anonymous hackers in the UK? Much the same as in the case of crack versus powder, actually. While the US and UK make geo-political hay out of their commitment to free speech and democracy, dissenters and activists must learn their place. They are useful to the neo-liberal project in that they show that moderate dissent is tolerated; however, once that dissent crosses the line, and trespasses upon the sacred turf of corporate profits and military power, then action must be taken to rectify the situation. If that means sending a man to prison for life for exposing potential war crimes, or driving a man to suicide for downloading academic articles, so be it.

Democratic? Let’s put @Sweden Into Context

The 24-hour rise and fall (and rise again…the feed now has seen a big jump up to 57,000 followers) of the @sweden twitter account — from global PR masterpiece to international diplomatic embarrassment — is an excellent case study in the hyping of the benefits and perils of technology at the expense of contextualization. The account, which had already received a decent amount of press, achieved a global exposure breakthrough with an article in the New York Times entitled, “Swedes’ Twitter Voice: Anyone, Saying (Blush) Almost Anything.” This headline managed to crystallize everything that is misleading and shortsighted about coverage of the @sweden project: (1) the idea that the feed is the “voice” of Swedes; (2) the idea that “anyone” can take part; and (3) an obsessive, uncritical focus on the fact that the feed was/is marked by supposedly non-repressed Swedish sexuality.

I imagine that most people reading this post will by now be aware of what happened only a matter of hours after the New York Times articles came out: the @sweden “curator” sent out a number of tweets about Jews which caused a near-immediate avalanche of global media coverage containing breathless hyperbole about a failed democratic experiment where one person represents an entire country on the world stage. As a media story, of course, this had it all: modern technology, a young blonde Swede using salty language, making risque comments about sex, Jews and AIDS, all framed within a vague understanding of Sweden and Swedishness.

So, what’s the problem? Let’s start with the obvious fact that…

1. @sweden is an exercise in calculated PR and nation branding:

Sweden has been very aggressive in promoting Brand Sweden online, from the rather misguided opening of a virtual Swedish embassy on Second Life, to Foreign Minister Carl Bildt blogging and tweeting his way through international diplomacy, to the current Swedish government taking the lead on providing foreign aid to net activists. In fairness, it has been widely reported that @sweden is the brainchild of the Volontaire advertising agency (who also work for corporations such as Nestle and SonyEricsson), at the behest of the Swedish Institute (a state organization involved in public diplomacy) and Visit Sweden (the Swedish national tourism agency), as a project to increase Swedish exposure on Twitter. Deeper considerations of what this fact means for the @sweden feed, however, are rarely presented.

And, so, something that we might want to think about in relation to this might be that…

2. The selection of @sweden tweeters might be less “democratic” and representative than the rhetoric suggests:

Let’s get to the money quote from the New York Times article:

“Sweden stands for certain values — being progressive, democratic, creative,” Patrick Kampmann, Volontaire’s creative director, said in an interview. “We believed the best way to prove it was to handle the account in a progressive way and give control of it to ordinary Swedes.”

The @Swedens are nominated by others — people are not supposed to put their own name forward — and then selected by a committee of three, including Mr. Kampmann. The qualifications are that they have to be interesting, Twitter-literate and happy to post in English.

So, the @sweden curators are people who are Twitter-literate, can write in English, are nominated by others, are approved by a 3-person panel (including the creative director of the ad agency running the campaign), are deemed to be “interesting” by that panel (whatever that means), and, importantly (though not discussed in a majority of the articles on @sweden), must accept the invitation and be the type of person willing to post their identity, ideas and daily activities to a global audience of 40,000 (a number which can increase dramatically with re-tweets). We are talking a narrow selection, from a narrow selection, from a narrow selection. If we throw the fact that Sweden has a relatively low number of Twitter users per capita (somewhat going against the grain of stats showing Sweden as ultra-cutting edge in terms of tech use) into the mix, then I would suggest that we get a far less “democratic” picture than is painted by ad agencies and journalists.

This is not to say that the @sweden tweeters are dishonest or lying, but rather that the number of “provocative” tweets coming from the account (in terms of subject and language) must be seen in relation to a number of factors far more complex than simply “regular Swedes” just “being themselves.” And, by the same token, the selection process is far more complex than “Sweden” just throwing the keys to the national information car to a citizen passing by on the street. Volontaire describe @sweden as “the world’s most democratic Twitter account.” That’s a hip, sexy statement…but if your nomination has to be green-lit by three people and an ad agency who find you “interesting,” then @sweden might be many things, but democratic isn’t one of them.

Video: The Power of the Microblogs – What is the Significance of Ai Weiwei and other Net Activists for Freedom of Speech in China?

THE VIDEO OF THE TALK DESCRIBED BELOW CAN BE SEEN BELOW AND HERE

I will take part in a panel discussion on net activism at Kulturhuset in Stockholm at 1900 on March 13, 2012. This panel is part of a series of events in connection with the Ai Weiwei exhibition at Magasin 3.

Tuesday March 13

The Power of the Microblogs – What is the Significance of Ai Weiwei and other Net Activists for Freedom of Speech in China?

Michael Anti (Zhao Jing), Chinese journalist, blogger and net acitivist currently at Harvard University.
Marina Svensson, Sinologist and China expert at Lund University with focus on human rights, justice and the Chinese media.
Christian Christensen, Professor at the Department of Media and Communication Studies at Uppsala University.
Moderator: Ulrika K. Engström, Swedish PEN and Enact consulting firm, where she works with sustainable strategies for business development with focus on China and human rights.

Venue: Kulturhuset/Hotade ord, Café Panorama, Sergels Torg, 7 pm.
In collaboration with Swedish PEN. In English.

Research Grant from Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research

I am pleased to announce that the Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research (FAS) has awarded 2.7 million Skr  (€300,000/$425,000) in support of our project, The Social Journalist: News Work and News Organizations in an Age of Networked Sociality. The project, based at the Department of Informatics and Media Uppsala University, involving Professor Christian Christensen (Uppsala), Professor Monika Djerf-Pierre (Gothenburg University) and Professor Miyase Christensen (Karlstad University), will run from 2012 through 2014.

Project Abstract: The explosive spread of “social media” such as blogs, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook has been well-documented in popular media and academia. To date, most research has come in the form of broad, general surveys on who is using social networking sites, and what is being produced. Few studies have addressed the motivations behind the use of social media within specific work/organizational settings, and the broader professional, organizational implications of such use. This lack of concrete data has led to a great deal of theorizing about the social media and social networking phenomena that is not backed up by empirical support. The nature of social networking sites, as places where both professional products and personal information are freely and openly shared, creates new opportunities for professional networking, as well as new possibilities for the surveillance of employees and employers. The proposed project will be a study into news/journalistic work, journalism as a profession and the role of journalism in contemporary society, and the relationship between social media/social networking, individual agency and social capital , thus allowing for a re-theorization of news work and media organizations.

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