Political protest on the net.

Author:Baringhorst, Sigrid
 
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1 Online Protest--Great Impact on Little Resources?

In June 2008, Kirsten Brodde, Greenpeace activist and blogger, responded to an offer made in a newsletter by the German coffee roaster and retailer Tchibo. Brodde asked the company, that had offered T-shirts with individual overprints, to send her two, one with the provocative line "Tchibo Shirts: Gefertigt fur Hungerlohne" (1) and one with "Dieses T-Shirt hat ein Kind fur Tchibo genaht" (2). The company delivered the ordered T-shirts and only afterwards asked the activist not to wear the shirts and to withdraw the photos of them from the Net (Amann 2008).

This anti-corporate act of culture jamming (3) that was reported in "Der Spiegel" on June 19th 2008 was not the first one of its kind. It bears some similarities with an internet provocation that was performed several years ago in the US. On January 5th 2001, Jonah Peretti, then assistant adjunct professor at New York University, wrote an email to Nike Corporation in response to the company's invitation to consumers to express their lifestyle identity by giving the company designing recommendations. (4) "..[A]ll they were really doing was sending instructions to cheap labour in developing countries" (Peretti/Micheletti 2004: 128), Peretti thought and ironically ordered a pair of Nikes with the word 'sweatshop' stitched onto them. By using the same online service that Nike used to strengthen its brand image for creating an illusion of consumer participation and personal freedom he tried to redirect the company's PR-tools against itself. The following dialogue with the customer service of Nike ended with Peretti's mocking request: 'Could you please send me a color snapshot of the ten-year-old Vietnamese girl who makes my shoes?' He emailed his little culture-jamming discussion to about twelve friends who emailed it to their peers and like a snowball virus, the exchange was soon replicated a million of times (ibid. 129). In the end of January 2001, the first offline media outlet, the San Jose Mercury News, reported the story and soon afterwards, Time, Village Voice and Wall Street Journal, and even several European papers like The Guardian, La Repubblica and Liberation followed suit. Finally, the US TV Show NBC Today invited Peretti to discuss the issue of corporate social responsibility with a representative from the attacked company (ibid 136).

The symbolic attack of the culture jammer and netizen consumer Jonah Peretti on the self acclaimed corporate citizen Nike Corporation has not only received much international mass media resonance. His confrontation of a giant corporation is also widely referred to in academic literature on the potential of the internet for the mobilization of political protest.

In the first part of this article, I will argue that his provocative online action is rightly quoted that often, as it represents many aspects of a new kind of political action based on Net-based communication. After having discussed major characteristics of this new kind of protest action, I will show that taking the resonance of his email exchange as representative for cyberactivism and the dynamic interrelation between micro, middle, and macro media (Peretti 2004) in general would mystify the actual realization of the participative potential of net communication. In terms of average use of the interactive possibilities that net technology offers, empirical evidence is--at least as far as the analysis of websites of German-speaking anti-corporate protest actors shows--far less impressive than the often praised example of Jonah Peretti suggests.

2 Advantages and Disadvantages of Online-Communication for Protest Actors

Early reflections on the revitalization of the democratic potential of digital communication media have emphasized the high potential of the Internet to create a virtual political agora that would be particularly advantageous for civil society actors as it would offer new opportunities for counter public arenas as well as for the formation of deterritorialized communities (Rheingold 1993) (5). Compared to the great expectations expressed in the last more than 15 years of intellectual debate on the impact of the Net on political participation in general as on protest action in particular, empirical evidence is still rather limited (Grunwald 2006: 169). In the following crucial assumptions and findings of research on the advantages and disadvantages of transnational protest communication on the net are discussed. In that context, my considerations mainly focus on transnational civil society actors and not on more clandestine, extremist and/or terrorist types of collective actors.

Research assumptions are summed up and critically discussed according to different social functions of mediated communication of political protest. The following functions are particularly highlighted:

* The logistic function of protest mobilization;

* the cognitive function of knowledge production and communication in Net-based publics;

* the affective function of virtual community formation;

* the tactical function of using the internet as a weapon and target of political protest;

* the function of social organization in terms of an enabling of transnational network formation.

2.1 Logististic Advantages

Computer-mediated communication media have significantly increased the frequency and participation in transnational protest events. They have enabled collective actors to organize protest rallies at the same time in many different places, as it could be seen in worldwide protest actions against the War in Iraq, on February 15, 2003. Other examples are single events with vast numbers of transnational participants like counter summits or World Social Fora. The Net reduces transaction costs of protest mobilization due to its speed and spatial range of communication. Many argue that these characteristics are particularly beneficial for resource poor political actors like protest actors. John Street und Alan Scott (2001: 46) sum up the logistic advantage of Net communication: 'High impact on little resource'. The Net offers, they argue, particularly communicative advantages in heterogeneous networks. Dieter Rucht argues similarly: Micro-media of protest like emails, list servs and online newsletters enable individuals as well as groups to exchange information rapidly and independently from particular locations, to organize interactive processes of communication and to coordinate collective protest action (Rucht 2004: 50). Della Porta et al. have interviewed participants of G8 protests in Genoa 2001 and of the European Social Forum 2002 in Florence. Particularly foreign participants interviewed confirmed the immense importance of websites of social movement organizations and networks for information and coordination purposes. Della Porta et al. conclude the general hypotheses: "If CMC (Computer Mediated Communication, SB) is used by the organization an individual belongs to, accessing the Internet tends to become an important activity for previously 'unwired' individuals." (delia Porta et al. 2006: 98) Thus, they confirm an assumption that has been expressed already in the 1990ies by researchers of the Zapatista movements in Mexico (Cleaver 1998, Olsen 2005). (6)

Logistic advantages regarding the transnational mobilization of resource-poor protest actors should not be underestimated. However, we have to be careful with one-dimensional expectations of benefits. Using the Net presupposes a lot more resources than often assumed. Even big movement organizations or networks like Attac concede high costs of adjusting mobilization to changing protest environments despite simplified software. Additionally, the benefit of Net use is also highly socially selective. The thesis of a "digital divide" (Norris 2002 also applies for protest actors (see also Rucht et al. 2004: 90-91). Selectivity of Net access occurs according to geographical and socio-demographic factors. Centers of transnational social movement networks are mostly located in the Northern hemisphere (Katz/Anheier 2006). In all world regions, Net access is also unequal in terms of age and gender as well as education and income criteria. Apart from that, the Net strengthens the position of active citizens compared to politically disinterested and inactive citizens.

2.2 Production of Knowledge and Communication in Net-based Publics

The Net differs from former communication media in its disintermediation (della Porta et al. 2006: 93). Meso-media of protest, e.g. websites and Weblogs of protest organizations, can compensate for logistical deficits of traditional offline alternative media like most of all problems caused by low circulation figures, limited volume, fixed periods of publication and little opportunities to archive information (Atton 2002: 139).

Communities of protests can also be conceptualized as "epistemic communities" (Lipschutz 2005) and networks of knowledge production and transfer. Elaborating on cognitive practices of social movements Eyerman und Jamison define "knowledge production" primarily as a process by which social movements generate identities and meaning for themselves and their members (1991: 55). Internal knowledge of social movement actors refers to debates on action frames and agendas, slogans of rallies or theoretical and strategic writings. Knowledge producers are movement organizations or whole movements as well as individual actors like "counter-experts", "grassroots engineers" and "public educators" (1991: 104-106).

Lipschutz has shown with regard to transnational anti-corporate campaigns that even geographically dispersed and culturally heterogeneous actors use the net to mutually observe their actions and to generate shared patterns of meaning. Communicative exchange in Net-based media, Doerr and Mattoni argue (2007) with reference to the "Euromayday Parade against Precarity", does not only lead to the diffusion of shared...

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