MegaPost on #21M Berkman Workshop

On March 21st, Harvard Berkman Center hold a workshop entitled “Understanding the New Wave of Social Cooperation: A Triangulation of the Arab Revolutions, European Mobilizations and the American Occupy Movement” and the class reflected on this event through this series of blog posts:

Artist As Researcher? Researcher As Artist?

Gabi’s interest in the study of narrative in social movements draws his attention to ask what the role of the artist is. During this workshop they had a discussion that researchers need to be careful in producing stories as the narratives could be crucial in the process of mobilization in movements, and it made Gabi to think the role of artist might not be just poster design or sign painting. Inspired by Sasha’s presentation on individual’s media practices that generate narratives across different media forms and the term of life-course, Gabi concludes the role of artist is “challenging the system using the means with which one is most comfortable—the tools used throughout a creator’s life-course.”

Historical Framing and Solidarity

Nathalie particularly reflects on the point of global wave of movements by a presenter in the Berkman workshop and she asks what the precedent global wave means for future movements. Then she draws on Kennedy’s article “Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Historical Frames: 2011, 1989, 1968” to compare movements historically. According to this article, the 2011 Occupy movement should not be compared with 1989 global wave of movements, but should be compared with 1968 movements because both are the reaction to the separation of the elites from the mass public. After summarizing Kennedy’s article, Nathalie points out the solidarity reached in previous global movements is a good perspective to look at for their own project.

Government’s Social Meddling
David focuses on humor or ridicule used in the narratives of social movements. Specifically he presents here two examples of how US Government and Russian Government use their networks to produce political content to mock the opponents. In the case of US government, they made all forms of messages such as cartoons and caustic jokes against Saddam Hussein, and disseminated through lots of technology devices in Iraq. Similar to the US government, Russia practiced the program through their news outlets: Novosti Press Agency has a global network that could produce politica publications and even games to poke fun at US, and the network is linked with movements actors in the US.

#21M, Earl & Star Trek
Amy is interested in the point made by one of the participants in the Berkman workshop: we should also look at failures of social movement, not just the ones that succeed. It reminds her the work of Garfinkel discussing what constitutes normalcy. To answer the question of what the normalcy in social movements is, she draws on Earl’s point that “an implicit legitimating system determines which social movements are deemed worthy of academic study”. She argues that the movements that are paid less attention to, such as TV shows, actually used the tactics of the traditional social movements that are thought as worthy of study. She calls us to scrutinize our expectations of what makes a social movement normal.

Power of Narrative and Identity
David summarized many topics discussed in the Berkman Workshop including the common theme in these linked protests, the role of media, the authenticity of information, the framing of movements, the technologies and the culture. Most participants identify a common factor to explain the movements in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and the Yemen is “indignation”, and some say these movements are leftist oriented. The framing of the movements is also important to make the actions sustained. Finally he pointed out that the perspective of how governments manipulate messages in movements was missing in their discussion and his later post has great examples of this aspect.

Thoughts on Berkman Workshop
Kelly raised the question of how the diversity of motivations of people in a movement could influence its identity, framing and tactics. Many in the Berkman Workshop said the composition of participants of the Occupy Movement is quite diversified as some people at the camps are to make a difference which some people there do not even know why they are there. Kelly questions if the 99% framing is too inclusive that makes it difficult to have a single outcome for this movement. She is also interested in the concept of permissioning and asks who involves in permissioning. Lastly, she comments on the reasons for comparing the three movements(Arab Spring, OWS and Europe Contention), drawing from Sidney Tarrow’s book, and she points out that the changes of contentions are more prominent in the past and timing might be important as indicated by one of the participants in the workshop.

More notes and information about the Berkman Event:


Artist As Researcher? Researcher As Artist?

The Puerta del Sol square in Madrid May 2011

Last week, I attended a workshop at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society entitled “Understanding the New Wave of Social Cooperation: A Triangulation of the Arab Revolutions, European Mobilizations and the American Occupy Movement.” As is evidenced by the lengthy title, to synthesize a workshop such as this in a single blog post is a difficult task—one I’m hesitant to even try. For those looking for a thorough summary of the event, I believe that full session notes are available here.

A more valuable exercise for me, however, would be calling out the threads that stood out as particularly relevant to my work—both as an academic and as a technologist/designer. I certainly learned a great deal about Occupy, the Arab Spring, and the European based protests—especially considering the first person points of view garnered by listening to individuals such as Nagla Rizk and Lina Attalah of Egypt. Their description of the Tahrir Square uprising’s progression from collective action seeking to remove Mubarak to a polarized populous being controlled by SCAF was enlightening—certainly not a narrative I had considered to that point.

I had previously presented the progression of the Occupy movement as narrative, however. I suppose I hadn’t really thought of it as a technique; it just made sense to tell the story of Occupy Boston from a number of points of view along a timeline. As it turns out, the use of narrative was something called out during the workshop as an important method in social movement research. Something important to remember, as Alice Mattoni pointed out, is that what works as a narrative here in the US may not work in another culture.

But the way that movements spread throughout the world is through the stories they tell. As Laurence Cox noted, these waves pick up passive actors, mobilizing them for a cause. We, the researchers, have an important role in telling the stories of the movement, but, he added, it’s important to remember to tell more than just the stories we like. Rather, we must consider looking even at movements with which we don’t necessarily agree.

So good research is way hard. We know this already. When we were asked to discuss why people joined these movements and I tried to point out that the reasons are varied to the point that they cannot be summarized, I was corrected. Cristina Flesher Fominaya pointed out to me that “people who have studied social movements for years know how to answer” that question. Which sounds reasonable. A bit daunting, but reasonable.

I began—inevitably, predictably—to wonder about the role of the artist—not just in the building of social movements, but in the reporting of them. I’ve already called out a few “instructions”: use narrative, but don’t be too biased, consider how to translate heterogeneity into homogeneity. And these things seem to fit the “researcher” role. But what about the “artist” role? If an artist is telling the story of a movement as she knows how—maybe it’s by writing a novel, or by producing a painting, or maybe writing a song—does she need to consider these guidelines as well? Can’t she get away with a lot more? We call that “artistic license,” and it’s what lets us (me?) be so easily inspired by the Billy Braggs or Margaret Atwoods of the world.

After all, so much of what’s done to build these movements come from artists as well. I was intrigued by the presentation that Sash [Costanza-Chock, of CMS.861 fame] gave which highlighted the media culture surrounding the Occupy movement. As he showed some examples of media elements, Sasha pointed out that social movements have always generated narrative that move across tools and platforms—what he is exploring, however, is both the role of the individual in all of this, as well as that individual’s path (or, “life-course,” as he calls it) to the point of media creation.

Towards the end of the day, Sasha noted that the DDoS attacks began as an art project, I wrote that down in my notebook. Then I highlighted it. Then I circled it. Then I put some stars next to it. Considering what the role of “artist” is in social movements is so easily relegated to poster design or sign painting. But it’s much more: it’s challenging the system using the means with which one is most comfortable—the tools used throughout a creator’s life-course.

Can a researcher use the same means and still be called a researcher?

Historical Framing and Solidarity

The words that resonated with me most during yesterdays conference at Harvard/Berkman was from the second session about why social mobilization happens in so many countries at once. The third presenter simply said that global waves always happen and have happened since the 18th century. Unfortunately I couldn’t quite catch every single case he had to prove that global waves happened but I appreciated the simplicity of his case.  He mentioned imperialism and how in most of history the waves have started from European/North American regions. There is a historical precedent for global waves but what does that mean for future movements? What can movements learn from history? What are the most important lessons to learn?

With that being said, the article “Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Historical Frames: 2011, 1989, 1968” by Michael Kennedy fit in nicely with what the presenter was saying about global waves and history.

It is helpful to compare movements by thinking historically. According to Kennedy, it can help us reframe our expectations for global transformations too. The first portion of his article focuses on making the distinction that the global wave in 2011 is not the same global wave as in 1989. There are important parallels between the two. In both movements, the Western elites were unprepared and did not expect protest mobilizations to spread with such speed or to endure for very long. The dynamics of the relationships between politicians and people changed.  Kennedy argues that there are three big differences between 1989 and 2011 and therefore, if we are seeking historical parallels, we should look to 1968 as a better comparison to Occupy.

His main argument is that 1968 is better to look at when comparing Occupy historical movements because during 1968 the normal was defined by imperialism struggling to hold on to the world defined to elites alienated from mass public. The Occupy movement has no clear road map but like 1968, public demonstrations for dignity and justice are expanding across the world,  “the normal has become insufferable.” Without a clear map, some say that Occupy movement is doomed to fail and for his end point, Kennedy looks back to 1980 for his final historical frame.  Poland’s Solidarity movement of 1980-81 is what Kennedy believes should inspire the future movements. Solidarity is especially important in 2011.

After reading Kennedy’s article and listening to the conference at Harvard/Berkman I thought about my final project with Kelly about comparing the historical frameworks of the Bonus Army during the Great Depression and Occupy movement.  Global waves occurred during both movements but what is the impact of the global wave on the movements itself? Is solidarity gained through knowing that the rest of the nation is facing a depression or “occupying”? Can these global waves give the world a solidarity that Kennedy believes is the greatest good to be realized in 2011? While solidarity might not have been reached after the Great Depression it will be interested to see if this solidarity can be reached in the future.

Government’s Social Meddling

Yesterday’s conference at Harvard/Berkman suggested that humor or ridicule could be used as part of a social movement’s narrative or “story”. Although no examples were presented, everyone seemed to agree that a making “fun” of an opponent or position could be effective. I am aware of two occasions where this happened from an unlikely sponsor.

As part of the US Government’s “dialog” with Saddam Hussein, it produced a considerable amount of news feeds through such outlets as Voice of America and other media. Apart from the “western” news feeds, other elements of the US Government produced custom feeds to technology devices in Iraq. Such devices as telex terminals, FAX machine, telephone message systems, eMail accounts, RTTY, military secure communication, private WANs, etc. were bombarded with custom messages. In most cases the messages (in Arabic), poked fun at Saddam, personally. Visual content was in the form of cartoons, text messages were caustic jokes, and many were disinformation. In one case, a message included an order to Saddam’s Swiss bank (including account number, telephone numbers, names, etc.) to transfer several hundred pounds of gold bullion bars from the bank of Iraq to his personal account. All of the messages were fairly short, presumably they could be read quickly and destroyed. However, these messages were delivered to all communications simultaneously. It had the effect of a denial of service attack, with a dash of humor. During this period of time, the telecommunications ministry frequently changed account numbers and only activated some accounts at specific hours. However, media accounts of all types conform to international standards. Thus, it was possible to poll all the “vacant” or unassigned numbers. When these accounts became activated, they received a message. During this period of time, international record carriers (IRCs) did not have the technology to propagate such traffic directly. Instead, the US Government appears to have used a series of unaffiliated accounts through little used back channels of communication — normally used as redundant lines. Moreover, few providers in the USA had the technology to produce messages in Arabic. Then, only ASCII was available. It seems that similar programs were conducted “against” North Korea, Sudan, Syria. Some of these governments complained to the foreign press and a few obscure articles appeared abroad. When I was visiting the ITU in Switzerland, Iraqi embassy and technical staff were visiting trying to track down the source of this traffic.

Novosti Press Agency (Russia) routinely practiced disinformation programs through its media outlets and through direct delivery like the US. It’s foreign offices were involved in coordinating with movement contacts to feed them customized information. Much of the information was provided in Cyrillic. I remember receiving a call from Daniel Ortega who asked me to send him such traffic in Spanish. The press offices were part of the Embassy and not subject to traditional restrictions as all workers had diplomatic immunity. Movement coordinators were regularly present in Novosti’s world-wide offices to coordinate news feeds and coordinate on delivery matters. In these cases, Novosti had a world wide staff of about 35k employees stationed in Moscow and abroad. It delivered the news via satellite, through its own encrypted Ku band (geosynchronous) systems, and via all other channels — Telex, Fax, WAN systems, data links, undersea cable, electronic mail (AT&T/MCI/RCA WorldComm). It’s Moscow headquarters was a vast building with many corridors that stretched for 1 mile. Keep in mind that Novosti was only one of the official news media of the Government. It’s role was to release the “official” news of the Government as well as other matters. One of its little known functions was to feed party information and news to the world-wide network of “official” communist party members, who were linked to movement coordinators in most countries, including the USA. Novosti distributed politically inspired computer games that poked fun at US/SALT negotiators and US diplomatic efforts. It included humor pages in all of its 25 world-wide news media outlets and its direct publications in most countries. In the USA, one of these publications was Soviet Life, later Russian Life. All components of the “news” were manipulated to present the Soviet Perspective. Custom news feeds for “friendly” media outlets had their own political and editorial managers. The majority of cold war peace activists in most countries had some direct or indirect (clandestine) contact with Novosti including financial support. Today, Novosti is still operating. You can see its offices on Google Earth — near Park Culturi subway station. Its involvement with movements has probably not changed. Humor is a part of all Russian newspapers and magazines.


#21M, Earl & Star Trek

In that weird synchronicity that sometimes surfaces in life, this morning in one of my other classes we spoke about Harold Garfinkel, the sociologist famous for establishing ethnomethodology and questioning the pervasiveness of normalcy in social interactions. This afternoon, at the #21M event, one of the participants (it was difficult to identify people via the livestream) emphasized the problems inherent in studying only social movements that succeed. A broader debate about what constitutes success and whether or not that’s a relevant outcome descriptor followed. Lost in the debate was the participant’s point: in order to unpeel social movement dynamics, it’s worthwhile to consider failures. And even if we debate measures of success and argue about outcome goals, we can often still identify and agree on failure. Garfinkel would contend that we should study the conflict, the failure, the unexpected break from normalcy.

But what is normalcy with regard to social movements? Jennifer Earl, in her 2010 article entitled “The Dynamics of Protest—Related Diffusion on the Web” raises an interesting point: an implicit legitimating system determines which social movements are deemed worthy of academic study and respect. She argues that the web enables not just diffusion of information but also diffusion of innovation and “infectiousness,” leading to spillover in the development of repertoires of contention from traditional social movements (i.e., the kind deemed worthy of study, tackling big serious issues like the environment and justice) to nontraditional ones (e.g., the movement to save the TV show Angel). She contends that social movement activity on the web not only draws in social actors who have not previously participated in activism, but also triggers the spread of movement tactics across other kinds of borders.

Without disputing the power of the web in enrolling new actors as allies and spreading practices, I question whether movements such as those to save television programs are new forms of social movement. After all, they have been going on at least since Star Trek, which was slated for cancellation after two seasons, only to be saved by a fan campaign organized in part by CalTech students. This, and other similar movements, drew on tactics also used in more traditional social movements, such as letter writing campaigns and demonstrations. It is, perhaps, not coincidental that the Star Trek movement occurred contemporaneously with the other, more traditional movements of 1968 (e.g., students at Columbia, in Paris, etc.).

To me, this suggests two things: 1. It isn’t the web that’s triggering this diffusion (although it may be amplifying it or otherwise influencing it), it’s something else; 2. When considering normalcy, we need to scrutinize our expectations of what makes a social movement normal and why—and ask not only why it succeeds, but also why it does not fall apart.

Power of Narrative and Identity

The Berkman workshops today have paid considerable attention to the role of narrative and group identity. I was happy to have read Castells, “Power of Identity” and Benford’s work on Framing Processes and Social Movements. Every commentator shared and reinforced views on importance of these and other movement processes. Although there were many variations, here are some of the key “explanatory factors”.

In general, there was some attention to the possibility that the various social movements, especially in the middle east might be connected. Though there were many elements of commonality or diffusion, many spent the time to identify distinctions rather than a common organizing factor that explicitly linked protests in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and the Yemen. The common theme was one of public “indignation.”  Indeed, the term was commonly used by most participation.

Indeed, some time and attention was given to a theme that social movements were somehow leftist oriented. Indeed, this notion was combined with the observation that movements at least in the Middle East appeared to be motivated more by political objectives than economic circumstances. Authoritarian vs. totalitarian regimes were discussed. Finally, one media expert thought that it — the media — had a tendency to gentrify the movements and their adherents in out of ignorance or some conscious intent to diminish its importance.

Some discussion concerned issues of authenticity. Apparently, many participants knew of or had experienced those who use movements open communication channels as a way to spread false information.

A common element of that ran though most discussions concerned framing. Indeed, several speakers had identified at least three frame elements that appeared to apply to many or most movements. A key distinguishing factor concerns underlying narratives and/or motivating examples that motivate or inspire collective action. Without these themes or stories, movements appear to loose energy. Indeed, one speaker thought that examining groups that had not been able to survive and eventually died or did not persist outside of their locale. Indeed some thought that the absence/presence of stories might be motivating and even tactical.

Some discussion on emerging technologies surfaced both in the technical tools arenas as well as in the social interaction sense. Some thought that young participants preferred to text rather than meet in person — something I’ve noted within my own family. Along different lines, there was encouragement to look and compare old vs. new technologies. For example, physical vs. electronic, media dominance — trans media mobilization — and differences between media types.

The notion of culture, while indirectly addressed, was not a common element. Moreover, the common use of English in foreign language environments was noted.

Two overall comments: global injustice — i.e., act-up — and notions of “success” and failure. How we distill a sense of progress was important.


The future depends on the internet.

Democracy is an endless meeting

This was a very long meeting that seemed to cover most of the key issues that are common to movements here and abroad. One item that did not seem to surface is how governments have used movements, unwittingly, to manipulate the “message”. It was part of the authenticity discussion, but not addressed directly since no one had that direct experience.

Thoughts on Berkman Workshop

Great to hear about Occupy in comparison with other movements to get me geared up for the project!

I am fascinated by the cleavages within movements and the diverse composition of movements.  One participant was explaining the composition of OccupyPhilly. He said that there are some people there who identify as Quakers.  However, not all Quakers are there supporting the movement.  Therefore it is difficult to generalize when talking about the composition of a movement.  Furthermore, who is there to be involved and make a different and who is there to ‘be there’ and ‘be a part of the action’?  One participant pointed out that some people at Occupy camps do not even know why exactly they decided to come.

How does the diversity/heterogeneity within a movement affect its identity, framing, tactics and appeal? Indeed, this is connected to what Jeff Juris was saying in his presentation about what does the 99% framing mean as a representation?  Since the 99% is so inclusive, how can the Occupy movement have a single outcome that it works towards?

The concept of permissioning was brought up.  Is permissioning identified as a step towards legitimacy in social movements?  I have just not heard this term before and immediately upon hearing it, it resonated with me so I am just curious as to the origin and study of it.  Is it elites who are always involved in permissioning?  Is it large groups?  It is dissemination of information?  Is it mainstream media’s acknowledgment?

During one of the sessions, a man, aware of the fact that he was countering the entire conference’s purpose, questioned whether these three movements (OWS, Arab Spring and European Contention) can even be compared since they are so different.  There were various responses.  One of which explained that it is important to compare these movements because of their similar timing!  In Sidney Tarrow’s book Power in Movement he notes that there are more people acting contentiously nowadays than in the past.  It is no longer just students or peasants or workers.  Women (who have probably always been active but not been seen) are more visible, the middle class are mobilizing, priests in the Netherlands are mobilizing.  Forms of contention are changing and the tools being used are changing as contention increases.  Are we entering a period of great turbulence and these three movements are representative of that?  Or are we entering a period of time in which contention and social movements are commonplace and will become institutionalized?