[-empyre-] In politics, there are no "internet users"
cherian at cantab.net
Thu Dec 18 10:24:29 EST 2014
Thanks, Renate and Tim, for including me in this conversation. I’m Cherian George, an academic and journalist with an interest in freedom of expression issues, censorship, social movements and the like. I live in Hong Kong, a few minutes’ walk from the Causeway Bay shopping precinct, which until a few days ago was one of the main Occupy HK sites. Already, the use of social media in Hong Kong’s so-called Umbrella Movement is emerging as a hot topic for research.
But, witnessing the protests these past weeks confirmed the sense that I’ve had for a while, that it’s quite unhelpful to think of "internet users” when studying protest movements or political participation in general. I prefer to think in terms of people who happen to use the internet alongside other means of communication. Internet use does not define them, and it isn’t even the most exciting thing about such movements – though it may be the most novel. By focusing on the technology, we tend to overlook other important and interesting ingredients, such as human creativity and cooperation.
If you visited the Occupy sites in Hong Kong, you wouldn’t have just seen students on their smartphones and laptops. There were also film screenings, walls plastered with cuttings from newspapers (yes, physical papers are not dead yet), handwritten posters, sculptures, and origami classes teaching visitors how to fold tiny umbrellas. In New York a few years ago, I happened to visit the Occupy Wall Street site within its first couple of weeks, and there too I was struck by the multimodality of protest communication. Sure, there seemed to be a nerve centre with organisers on laptops, but there were also unplugged musicians, and hardcopies of the “Occupied Wall Street Journal” being distributed.
Studies of the internet and political participation have done a poor job of capturing this easy, fluid mixing of media that you’ll find in any such event. Many researchers frame their investigations as if protesters are wedded to a certain medium or platform, when in fact people are wildly promiscuous in their media use.
One implication of this is that the internet tends to have a powerful effect when other pieces of the puzzle are also in place, which means that simply investing more and more in social media won’t make a difference when other capacities are undeveloped. This is what I found when I studied the use of the internet for democratic communication in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Internet penetration rates are highest in Singapore and lowest in Indonesia. Yet, in the late 1990s, the most politically impactful use of the internet was taking place in Indonesia, followed by Malaysia. Singapore’s online space – despite being the most technologically developed – was a political desert.
The paradox could be explained by the fact that Indonesia and Malaysia had a far more vibrant political and civil society, whose activists were thus better able to make use of even limited internet resources. For example, they would use internet kiosks on university campuses for “wholesale” distribution of tracts, which would then be printed out and photocopied for “retail” distribution to the majority of people who had no internet access. The killer app was really pre-existing civil society networks like student associations, political parties and civil society groups. This is just another example of how activists quite naturally deploy a range of technologies, in ways that are sometimes lost on internet-centric research.
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