By: Dr. Laura Stein
In this essay, Dr. Laura Stein reflects on her experiences as the moderator of a video conference on Challenges and Prospects of New Media Activism and outlines an agenda for research on new media activism. In the conference, students of Centre for Culture, Media & Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi and York and Ryerson Universities of Toronto, Canada shared their presentations on different aspects of new media activism. A Visiting Faculty with CCMG & Assistant Professor at College of Communication, University of Texas, Dr. Stein may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On November 21, 2012, the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi held the second of three virtual (video) conferences with faculty and students from the York University, Toronto. I was asked to moderate the conference, whose theme was Challenges and Prospects of New Media Activism.
Since I had never participated in a transnational, video call-enabled, meeting of this kind, and the format was not predetermined, I tried to think about the purpose and forum in order to devise a productive format for discussion and exchange. I began by consulting the Centre’s graduate students. I met with half a dozen students the week before to ask them about both how the previous conference had gone and what they would like to take away from the next one. The students wanted fewer presentations and more time for dialogue and discussion with their Canadian counterparts. They also wanted to address a range of questions about activism in India, Canada, and around new media. Specifically, they wanted to know about the history and practice of media activism in Canada, how the experience of digital activism might be expected to differ in a country like India, how digital activism fits within activist practices more broadly, and its likely influence on both the mainstream press and on social movement practices over the long term.
Taking their interests into account, I devised a format that I hoped would facilitate a cross national dialogue about developments and trends in new media activism in India, Canada and elsewhere. My plan was to have the students make two brief presentations (5 minutes each), and then to moderate a discussion using a list of questions suggested by the students. Students and faculty assembled 30 minutes before the virtual (video) conference, and I briefed them on the format. After the brief presentations, I would open the room up to discussion and draw on the prepared questions as appropriate. Students should not hesitate to jump into the discussion at any point to raise new issues of follow up on something that was said.
Once the conference began, however, the need to improvise became clear. York University students had also prepared some short presentations on the topic, and their moderator Prof. Daniel Drache invited discussion after each presentation. The presentations and their ensuing discussions became the improvised format. The Centre’s alumni Devi Leena Bose & Susan Koshy gave presentations on Broadening the Voice of Community Radio and students (of 3rd semester of MA in Media Governance) Monisha Bhatnagar & Tanima Mehra on Digital Activism in India. York University students presented some of the tensions facing contemporary media activism, both theoretically and practically. Some of the central issues discussed included:
- how does digital media affect our experience of space, time and social practices (including those of activism);
- the legitimacy, viability and policy problems facing community media in India;
- the legitimacy and impact of digital media in India given the low rates and somewhat elite socio-economic profile of digital media subscribership (smart phones and internet); and
- the kinds of conversations activists themselves are having about the promises and pitfalls of digital media activism.
These discussions covered some interesting territory. Although time ran out before participants could fully explore any of these lines of discussion, everyone was left with some provocative ideas and questions that will hopefully continue to inform their work.
An Agenda for Research on New Media Activism
My own thoughts, which were sometimes mirrored in the discussion, are that new media allow activists to leverage certain affordances in their work. Most notably, they allow for collective knowledge production and collective projects, they convey information, and they enable the logistical organization of protests. They also create more opportunities for activists to produce their own messages. When activist initiated messages are able to generate enough interest and attention to filter up to the mainstream media, the medium has been successfully leveraged. However, new media are less effective at doing other types of activist work, like setting collective agendas, building programs, facilitating political advocacy, or enabling programmatic and organizational resource generation.
Although I didn’t have a chance to raise some of the questions originally posed by the students, I think they provide a good research agenda for anyone interested in new media activism. For this reason, I present them below:
- What are some of the significant developments around new media activism in Canada?
- What is the context/history of media activism in Canada? How is digital media activism interacting with the larger field of activism in Canada?
- Are there digital divides around media activism in Canada? Is there a rural/urban divide?
- How would you expect digital media activism to differ in developing and developed (Global North/Global South) countries?
- How does digital media activism interact with the mainstream press? What issues are picked up/ignored and why? How does digital activism affect press coverage?
- Are there any systematic differences in the coverage of particular issues, events, or modes of address between new media activist and mainstream media coverage? Are there any studies of these differences? What role is online media playing in the conflict in Gaza?
- What are the different dimensions of media activism online? What counts as activism? Protest/mobilization? Sensitizing/awareness building? Others?
- What are the long-term repercussions of online activism? Will it change the nature of activism? Will it change the structure of social movements? Create new divides? Encourage slacktivism?
- What are some of the challenges to new media activism? Technological? Cultural? Social? Political/governmental? What challenges will India face? How have governments responded to new media activism?
- What policies support/hinder new media activism?
- What perspectives are being used to study new media activism in India/Canada? What is some notable/useful work in this regard?
- What are the most pressing questions to address around new media activism over the next 10 years?