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'Mind the Gap: Bridging Knowledge and Practices of Activism' at the Fourth Arab Bloggers Meeting

[Image from the Fourth Arab Bloggers Meeting in Amman, Jordan. Image courtesy of Hisham Almiraat/Flickr.] [Image from the Fourth Arab Bloggers Meeting in Amman, Jordan. Image courtesy of Hisham Almiraat/Flickr.]

Since the political movements known as the Arab Uprisings erupted in late 2010, some of them leading to the toppling of a handful of long-lived authoritarian regimes in the area, the influence of networked communication technologies on social change and activism has taken center stage in an animated debate spanning across multiple communities and discussion sites. More specifically, the Internet, because of the participatory and social dimensions suggested by web 2.0[1] platforms and social networking sites (SNS), has often been depicted and celebrated as if it were a quintessential technology of freedom. This way, the Internet was quickly turned into the ideal environment for the promises of open access, participation, and free expression—values that all come in one package with the idea of democracy—to come true. 

Yet, given the rather gloomy turnaround of the Arab Uprisings—in some cases leading to the restoration of authoritarian and military rule, and in other cases generating civil wars and sectarian violence—many observers have begun casting doubts on the effects of new media in relation to processes of democratization. Significantly Marc Lynch, one of the first who had positively highlighted the Arab bloggers' attempts at bringing social and political change in the region, authored in 2012 an article called “Twitter Devolutions,” which stressed the negative role social media played in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Yet, how can we think of networks as political technologies, and of politics in terms of networks without risking to dismiss such an important question to a partisan debate between those who are “in favor” of social networking sites, and those who blame them for undermining the promises of change the Arab Uprisings brought? The never ending debate between authors such as, on the one hand, Clay Shirky and, on the other hand, Evgeny Morozov is revelatory of how this discussion can easily degenerate into a clash of Internet cultures, with techno-optimists fiercely opposed to techno-pessimists.[2]

This critical reflection was at the core of “Mind the Gap: Bridging Knowledge and Practices of Activism,” a panel that was co-organized with Amis Boersma and the Dutch NGO Hivos at the Fourth Arab Bloggers Meeting in Amman (20-23 January 2014). In order to start thinking critically about how networked communication technologies reshape civil society and social movements, the workshop brought together Arab bloggers and techies who are immersed in daily-life activism, and three international scholars—Jon Anderson, Jodi Dean, and Korinna Patelis—who have theoretically reflected on the question of networks and politics in different ways and from different academic backgrounds, from political science to anthropology.

The Arab Bloggers meeting, which prominent activists Sami Ben Gharbia (Tunisia) and Alaa Abdel Fattah(Egypt) founded in 2008 served as a regional platform for Arab techies, content creators, and activists with different skills, backgrounds, and political beliefs, to get together, consolidate connections, and exchange daily practices of activism, mobilization, and resistance. Because it was an established site for discussing the nexus between networked communication technologies and activism, the Arab Bloggers Meeting has been the ideal venue to set up a critical roundtable discussion. The panel was held on 20 January 2014 and engaged with several activists spanning across the Arab region in a lively debate with guest scholars, civil servants from various NGOs, and media professionals. Several topics emerged as key points to be put at the core of future reflections on the role of technologies in contemporary social movements, particularly in the context of the Arab world.

Social interaction and Individualism in the Context of Web Activism

During the meeting, both in the panel discussion and in more informal conversations on the side, a recurrent issue was that of the tendency of new technologies to shape an environment strongly marked by individualism. At the core of this debate lies the question of whether the practices that characterize blogging today are to boost support for collective action in the region or, rather, to hinder it.

The reflection on how blogging can shift from an individual act to a more comprehensive collective performance was at the core of the talk Jon Anderson gave during the panel. The anthropologist stressed on how communities of bloggers act as neighborhoods of strong-ties able to process and refine the content which circulates throughout networks of weak-ties. In Anderson’s view, this process enables communities of bloggers to formulate a sort of “diagnosis” on specific issues. 

In other words, by filtering and curating raw content, bloggers help produce what media studies and social movements literature refer to as a “frame:” a shared interpretation that attempts to make sense of complex issues. “The people want to topple the regime,” Anderson explained, provides an important example of a collective diagnosis that new media helped produce and, later, disseminate. This potential in shaping common views is what makes bloggers play a role in social movements in the Arab world. 

Particularly in a moment when social movements tend to mobilize people around specific issues and campaigns—shaping a sort of “lifestyle politics”[3] rather than ideological or organizational affiliations[4]—the production of a shared frame is even more crucial to making actors from multiple backgrounds come together. Within this framework, technology takes center stage as it enables “connective action," [5] i.e. the mobilization of individuals and loose networks without the material resources that traditional organizations provide. In leaderless movements, such as those which marked the initial phases of the Arab Uprisings, bloggers can be assimilated into “soft leaders”[6] who are capable of shaping a common framework and producing information directed both at individuals and organizations.

But what if, in the context of always evolving networked technologies, the social interaction which used to lie at the core of this process does not work anymore and bloggers lose their connective power? During the panel several activists echoed Jodi Dean and Korinna Patelis’ concerns and offered a critical view on the ability of web activism to foster collective action today. Individualism as an aspect widely boosted by social networking sites–they pointed out—turns out to be a hindering factor when it comes to collective action. The Internet inevitably tends to create micro-celebrities and to generate social media stars, i.e. activists or bloggers who get to acquire more visibility than others. This phenomenon is largely encouraged by traditional media, which tend to highlight some bloggers and activists at the expenses of others, as if they were spokespersons for the entire movement. 

Blaming new technologies for shaping the newfound stardom of web celebrities might seem paradoxical at first glance. It seems quite logical, in fact, that in an environment awash with content such as the Internet, an economy of reputation would develop to select information and attribute value to it. Forms of folksonomy such as tagging, labeling, liking, and linking have developed precisely to enable users filtering and attributing more importance and value to a piece of content rather than another. This process is closely connected to assigning more credibility and trust to some web activists rather than others.

Three years ago, during the Third Arab Bloggers Meeting (Tunis, October 2011), Tunisian activist Sami Ben Gharbia noticed that the management of information cascades by the blog collective at Nawaat–a prominent and already visible group of activists–had successfully enabled them to use new technologies as tactical tools, both before and during the Tunisian uprising. Yet, the latest development of the uprisings in the Arab region might have pushed web activists to rethink the economy of reputation in the Arab blogosphere in a more critical way.

Excessive visibility can be a hindering factor to collaboration between activists; as NoonArabia, a moniker for a Yemeni blogger, pointed out. In the long term, web activists with a stronger reputation gain more power as they can travel, publish in prestigious international outlets, and get interviewed, while others remain in the shadow. 

Interestingly, these considerations made by activists during the Arab Bloggers Meeting match the idea of a networked communication environment dominated by a “winner takes-it-all” effect, as Jodi Dean observed during the discussion. The long-tail structure of the Internet theorized by Chris Anderson, the political scientist argued, rewards just a few; while everyone is encouraged to produce more free content using social media, just a very limited number of people get some sort of gain or visibility. At the same time, commercial platforms such as Google or Facebook make profits out of this free, voluntary-based labor. In the end, the long-tail ends up boosting inequality rather than more access and participation. Moreover, it fragments net communities and reformats them into loose networks of dispersed individuals who compete against each other in order to get more media “hits.”  

Bloggers as “Displaced Mediators?”

During the panel, Palestinian activist and blogger Abir Kopty brought up the example of the evolution of the Palestinian blogosphere in recent years. At the beginning, she noticed that a small number of Palestinian web activists were able to secure visibility for a handful of relevant campaigns, such as the hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners detained in Israeli jails, or the boycott of goods produced by Israeli settlers. The success of these campaigns, which was, according to Kopty, widely boosted by new technologies, had pushed more people to join the Palestinian blogosphere. However, by growing exponentially, this space became more chaotic and fragmented. As a result of this phenomenon, the Palestinian blogger observed, the first generation of web activists became less capable of working in this new context: the Palestinian Internet sphere has turned into a “noisy” space where the voices of these activists are crowded out and became much more difficult to hear. 

As the Palestinian example shows, the first generation of web activists may not be able to play the same role today that they performed before 2011. The panel discussion shed light on how the Arab Internet is turning from a space once populated almost exclusively by tech savvy elites and politicized activists to a much wider environment inhabited by all sorts of actors, including those who are neither interested nor engaged in politics. While the first generation of Arab bloggers was able to create strategies and practices and adapt them to their political objectives, this very objective appears to be far more challenging today.

Activists at the Arab Bloggers Meeting have emphasized the extent to which supporters of authoritarian regimes have become technologically capable and now have their voices widely represented across all media platforms, including the Internet. In Tunisia, as blogger Malek Khadraoui pointed out during the meeting, conservative political Ennahda party has mastered the use of social networking sites as tools to promote its political vision and undermine its opponents. In fact, traditional political subjects and parties together with state institutions are increasingly investing in social media strategies these days in order to gain representation online to compliment their broad representation offline. 

The fascination with the rhetoric of “Facebook and Twitter revolutions” has pushed many in the Arab world to join social networking sites. In a pre-uprising context, the Internet was a highly politicized playground for an elite of tech-savvy activists and politically engaged actors interested in mobilizing against human rights violations; campaigning on freedom of speech; and exposing regime abuses and arbitrary arrests. Yet, at present, the Arab cyberspace has been populated with several other actors, many of whom are not politically engaged; while some of them are actually regime`s supporters. 

This presents a huge challenge for activists and bloggers who want the web to remain primarily a space to cultivate and organize social and political change, as the first wave of Arab web activism understood it.

This challenge is at the crux of Jodi Dean’s point from her book Blog Theory[7], where she argues that bloggers should be considered as “displaced mediators” who are unable today to perform their initial function. “Even if they are not dead yet,” Dean explains, “their role in inciting practices of online disclosure, discussion, and surveillance has both already been displaced by other Web 2.0 platforms such as social networks and video-sharing and itself displaced attention from the profound inequalities produced and amplified by global financial and entertainment networks”.[8] 

During her talk, Dean emphasized how blogging now risks to be reduced to a mere act of signaling that which does not produce knowledge but only contributes to the endless flow of content in what she calls “communicative capitalism”[9], whereby “the ideological formation wherein capitalism and democracy converge in networked communication technologies.” The attempt to use blogging as a tool for the implementation of democratic change and social justice risks becoming a “displaced” practice in the long-term. Meanwhile, other tech savvy actors can use networked communication technologies for other, less noble goals. 

Digital Neo-Orientalism

One of the perverse effects of activism that relies on networked communication technologies in the Arab world is the production of a fetish for the “disempowered other” that is finally being “re-empowered” thanks to the Internet. This is how Greek scholar Korinna Patelis described, during the meeting, the Arab activist who blogs, tweets, uploads videos on YouTube, and who the mainstream media eventually quotes or interviews. The scholar noticed during the panel discussion that “the hegemonic discourse of global media aims at promoting the idea that social media made it possible for authentic stories to be produced by dis-empowered others.” Thus, only apparently re-empowered by social media, Arab activists are turned into labor at the service of this global industry which pushes them to produce an endless flow of data, following the pattern of what Patelis calls “blockbuster software.” At the end of the day, the content that gets to be produced is no more relevant. What becomes important is the process of nonstop self-disclosure of the user’s identity with the user’s complicity; which, in the end, responds to the requirements of a pre-set software, i.e. a set of rules that standardize the production of the self and turn the latter into a commodity. 

Arab celebrity bloggers are caught in this pervert mechanism. In order to have their voices heard and gain international support to their causes, they need to get hits on global news outlets, and to be widely shared, retweeted, quoted, and interviewed by mainstream media. This way, they involuntarily contribute to building the fantasy of the Arab blogger, the activist who was once prevented from having her voice heard by repressive authoritarian regimes but who is now, thanks to networked communication technologies, finally able to re-seize her right to self-expression and to share her thoughts. 

Social media plays a key role in constructing this fantasy of the re-empowered one. As Greg Burris has stressed in an article with the meaningful title of “Lawrence of E-rabia: Facebook and the New Arab Revolt,” overemphasizing the technological and networked aspect of the Arab uprisings, and of Arab activism in general, “is not as innocent of a gesture as it may initially appear.” It suggests that the dis-empowered other, “having no agency of his or her own, is compelled to action as a response to superior Western technology.” This way, media narratives are created and circulated so that, as Burris notices, people like the New York Times editorialist Roger Cohen can safely state that the Ben Ali regime “had fallen in perhaps the world’s first revolution without a leader. Or rather, its leader was far away: Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.”

Both new technologies and “the” Arab activist become pop icons on the cover of global magazines. In 2006, the TIME person of the year was “You,” the anonymous producer of an endless stream of user-generated content on social networking sites. Five years later, in 2011, in the midst of the Arab uprisings, it finally had a face. The once anonymous producer was now turned into “the protester” represented by a veiled woman whose veil was used as a face cover to mimic the stereotypical outfit worn by protesters in order not to be identified by the police.  

US corporations such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter are turned into tools of freedom in the hands of the dis-empowered, now re-empowered ones, so that the marriage between technology and democracy can finally be celebrated. Not by chance, the director of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen, who served as an aide for both Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton at the State Department, has praised this liberating effect of networked communication technologies among the Arab youth. Cohen writes, in an article that Jodi Dean has cleverly brought to the activists’ attention during the panel at the Arab bloggers meeting:

Because the digital and technological world offers young people opportunities to generate their own media and entertainment, they are learning critical thinking through self- exploration, and they are practicing digital democracy on a daily basis, even if they claim to despise the very concept of democracy. Without their keyboards, remotes, and telephones, they assume a real-life political, religious, ethnic, or nationalist identity. Behind the technology, many of these “digital natives” are beginning to identify with a transnational youth identity.

Here computer keyboards are described as antidotes to terrorist threats potentially growing out from the frustrations of an unemployed, hopeless Arab youth. This idea matches perfectly with the “ideals of access, inclusion, discussion, and participation” heralded by communicative capitalism and materialized into networked communication technologies. It is, in fact, the belief that “enhanced communications access facilitates democracy,”[10]which nurtures the idea of re-empowering the dis-empowered. This manner of thought has generated hundreds of training sessions, workshops, and seed funds programs. Most of these are from the US government (here it is important to remember Obama`s speech in Cairo back in summer 2009, and the role it assigned to technology in making Arab society progress) and, to a lesser extent, from US and EU-based tech-NGOs and civil society organizations.  

Through the fetishization of both technology and “the” Arab activist as a dis-empowered and then re-empowered subject, a sort of digital Neo-Orientalism is born. If the previous forms of Orientalism were produced to a large extent, albeit not only, by non-Arab actors, now it is the disempowered Arab who–involuntarily and, probably, unwillingly–gets to actively contribute to nurturing and shaping the Orientalistic discourse. He does so by using those very tools that have allegedly re-empowered him and enabled him to tell his story by his own words, i.e. technology. This does not mean that the possibility to shape counter-narratives is completely precluded; yet, as long as they operate in an environment of networked communication technologies which, as noted above, strengthens communicative capitalism, these counter-narratives bear the risk of being absorbed and digested by the latter`s endless data flow. To this extent, although the Arab activists who attended the panel discussion were well aware of giving their unwilling contribution to nurturing a digital neo-Orientalism, none of them has been able so far to identify a way to counteract this process[11].

Thus, by using networked communication technologies, and by blogging, tweeting, sharing, posting their stories on all sort of social networking sites, Arab activists continue to be caught in the very mechanism of communicative capitalism. At the same time, they fall into the trap of co-authoring this new form of Orientalism; which is far stronger than before, this time being consciously written by those who were once only passive objects of the Orientalistic narrative.

Rethinking the Neoliberal Language of Empowerment and Participation

Activists and scholars at the panel have raised the concern that ideas of participation and empowerment—which networked communication technologies allegedly enable—should be critically questioned before being accepted as quintessential attributes of the Internet.

“Based on this belief, in fact, practices such as digital training, peer-production, and sharing are naturally implemented and encouraged by international NGOs active in the Arab world and, even if involuntarily, paradoxically also by conferences such as the Arab Bloggers Meeting,” Ramzi Jaber from Visualizing Palestine pointed out. This concern was shared by Lina Atallah from the Egyptian online publication and journalists’ collective Mada Masr: “I ask myself: why are we doing a training about digital storytelling if we are not even able to write a political communiqué when our main goal is to get more people to Tahrir square?”[12]

"Wafa Ben Hassine from the Tunisian web portal Nawaat echoed this preoccupation when reflecting on her experience in training local media collectives in Tunisia. “After investing in the training we realized that, although more local stories were produced, they did not get any attention or visibility. We take for granted that we should train more people to produce more content, because it is good to empower citizens and have more stories out, but is this really needed?” Walid al-Saqaf, a scholar from Yemen, reminded the participants that social media training conducted in the region often does not take into account the needs of local societies: “according to the findings of my PhD research, circumvention is not a big issue here; yet we heavily invest in training on such tools in every single event, conference, and gathering held in this region””.[13]  

The discussion around the use of a language of participation and empowerment, and the practices that this very language historically encouraged in the context of the Arab world, has put into bold relief a need to rethink the way in which digital activism is largely understood. Scholars and activists should make a joint effort to critically approach networking communication technologies, trying to detach the latter from any “democratic” value of a sort that might have been pre-assigned to them; something that Jodi Dean has dubbed “the fantasies of abundance, wholeness, and participation”[14] that communicative capitalism pushes forward.

Conclusion

This panel, entitled “Mind the Gap: Bridging Knowledge and Practices of Activism” was aimed at raising key questions in order to reflect theoretically and critically on the relation between networked communication technologies and political movements in the context of the Arab world. Moreover, the panel tried to connect scholars and activists and to encourage them to exchange live experiences, thoughts, ideas, and theoretical frameworks within a network of peers.

The fourth Arab Bloggers Meeting has provided an ideal context for a first experiment in reflecting critically on the Internet and its rhetoric. It is our hope that this be the beginning of an open, peer-produced dialogue, and a first step toward encouraging activists’ meetings in the Arab world to host more workshops and roundtables with the aim of reading beyond the promises of empowerment, participation, and freedom attached to networked communication technologies.


[1] Tim O`Reilly has defined the characteristics of web 2.0 in “What is web 2.0”, 30 September 2005, see here.

[2] Clay Shirky has authored Cognitive Surplus. Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (Penguin Books, London, 2010) and other works which praise the role of social media for social change and political participation; while Evgeny Morozov has penned The Net Delusionthe Dark Side of Internet Freedom (Public Affairs, New York, 2011), a gloomy critique of networked communication technologies. To get a sense of the debate between Shirky and Morozov, see here.

[3] W. Lance Bennett, “The UnCivic Culture: Communication, Identity, and the Rise of Lifestyle Politics”, PS: Political Science & Politics, December 1998, 741-761.

[4] Steven M. Buechler, “New Social Movement Theories”, Sociological Quarterly, 36:3, 1995, 441-464.

[5] W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg, “The Logic of Connective Action”, Information, Communication and Society, 15:5, 2012, 739-768.

[6] Paolo Gerbaudo, Tweets and the Streets. Social Media and Contemporary Activism, Pluto Press, London, 2012.

[7] Jodi Dean, Blog Theory, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2010.

[8] Jodi Dean, Blog Theory,  29.

[9] Jodi Dean, “Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics”, Cultural Politics, 2005 Vol. 1, No. 1: 51-74.

[10] Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics, Duke University Press, 2009,.23-25. 

[11] See Sami Ben Gharbia, “The Internet Freedom Fallacy and the Arab Digital activism”, 17 September 2010, see here.

[12] Quoted in  Donatella Della Ratta, “Mind the Gap: bridging knowledge and practices of activism at the fourth Arab Bloggers Meeting”, February 2014, see here.

[13] Quoted in Ibidem.

[14] Jodi Dean, “Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics."

 

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