Contemplating new media and alternative politics – take two

Firstly what is “new media”? What is new today is old by tomorrow and as Firoze Manji, founder of Pambuzuka News, questioned at the New Media: Alternative Politics conference held at Cambridge University during October – is it even new or is it just old wine repackaged in new bottles? The definition that seems most appropriate for “new media” is connective, interactive technologies which are bidirectional, dialectic and conversational, such as Web 2.0 applications and new mobile technologies. In comparison, traditional “older” forms of media primarily use linear and one-way communication.

The optimism for new media as the golden solution for activists requires a more sober assessment. Translation between online and offline action is not always apparent and other challenges, include issues around authenticity and validity. On the other side of the coin, benefits include virtual public platforms for alternative or on-the-ground voices and an enhanced ability to connect, organise and ideally implement collective action.
However the technologies need to be separated from the content and information communicated. So often new media tools are glorified as the answer, but the technologies are merely the medium for delivery. It is the people behind the new media tools who drive the change – it is their passion, commitment, intent and purpose – that determine the message and how effectively the technologies are used to convey this information. The tool is just a tool – whether it is a pencil, a newspaper or a mobile phone – it can be used to amplify both positive and negative messages – both successfully and unsuccessfully. 

For good or bad, perhaps one of the greatest impacts of new media is the re-defining of citizenship. There is a move towards citizens having dual citizenship, both online and offline, in the virtual and the real world. In this new media space, leaders are selected rather than elected and citizens feel empowered to create change, particularly in subversive environments. 

It’s no coincidence that enthusiastic web use exists in countries like China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia where the political environments are oppressive. As Manji surmised; “war has many terrains.” The ammunition for new media users is information. Historically, power and information, have always been closely aligned. As researcher and conference presenter, Paolo d’Urbano surmised, Victorian England controlled India through information domination.

Today, in the new media battle ground, state and non-state players battle it out. Controversial websites are under cyber attack, hackers and spies interject with misinformation or fake videos, airwaves and signals are jammed, government or advertisers place pressure on service providers to control content, services are banned, and/or licenses are required as a means of state control.

This is particularly notable in the Middle East. Researcher Adi Kuntsman has traced the digital war-fare between Palestine and Israel which has included heavy state and individual investment from both sides in new media. The new media tools document events as they unfold, provide a critique of the war and offer a powerful alternative to both mirror and intensify the war on the ground. Fanar Haddad researcher of the Iraq war as documented on YouTube – argues that despite the challenges of contextualizing and authenticating the data – the combination of mobile phone camera and YouTube has provided a podium for minorities/sub classes to offer “counter-narratives” from “everyday events in conflict stricken areas”.

Alexander Dunn, researcher of the April 6th Youth Movement Group on Facebook, found that the group users created momentum, coordinated responses and satellite activities after the general strike in Egypt in 2008. For the 0,5% who were active members, the group was a means to communicate and get involved. Even though 99,5% of the members formed an inactive audience – joining the group was an act of solidarity. Some would criticize this type of activism as “slacktivism” as all that was required of the members was to click join. But change politics has never been about 100% participation. Despite the group being heavily skewed in terms of levels of participation, political action was successfully mobilized through new media.

Martin Gladwell in his article Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted, argues that “if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy”. But despite this group’s loose ties and flat network based structure, leadership naturally and successfully shifted when certain active members were involved with on the ground activity. Other previously non-active members stepped up to fill the leadership vacuum and the group continued “acting in concert with the intent of reforming the repressive offline political sphere in Egypt”. The powerful potential of these tools may justify why the Egyptian government seems threatened by new media. Recent legislation requires licenses for organisations that send bulk sms’s and there is speculation that Facebook may be shut down temporarily during the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for November 2010.   

In Africa, the power of new media is limited by access. 10% of Africans have access to the Internet, but when you remove countries like South Africa, Egypt and Algeria, the average Internet penetration rate is only 2-3%. The penetration rate of mobile technology is rapidly increasing, as seen with mobiles phones which are often on display as a type of social capital. But penetration rates are very different to usage rates as owning a mobile phone is very different from being able to afford to use it.

Despite these challenges, there are definitely some new media success stories in Africa. Mxit in South Africa has managed to overcome cost barriers by providing a free instant messaging service and the results have included more messages (primarily social) sent per day on Mxit than there are global tweets. In Nigeria, there are over 2 million Nigerians on Facebook, mainly via their mobile phones and civilians report street stories on Sahara Reporters, in an attempt to fight political corruption. In Zimbabwe, Freedom Fone, a mobile tool that bridges the digital divide, has been developed to enable two-way, audio information to be shared through mobile phone networks for people that do not have access to the Internet.  

New media tools are not the golden solution and they certainly have limitations. Tools are just tools, and when it comes down to it, motivated activists will use whatever they can get their hands on. But when citizens do have access to these empowering new media tools, they certainly can be used strategically, effectively and with discipline, for the purpose of political change.