Governments repression of social movements during crises: Analyzing the Potential for Resistance and Repression Online

Social Movements in Online Media and States of Crisis From Crises, radical online journalism and the state. In: Siapera, Eugenia and Veglis, Andreas (eds.) The handbook of global online journalism. Wiley, London, pp. 135-154

Online Activism, Surveillance, and Sousveillance

The promise of the Internet for activists has been well documented. At the same time its shortcomings have been less central to academic discourses. In this chapter I outline the transition of one of the most important media activist projects, Indymedia, in the context of political economy in the first instance, and then consider its replacement by much championed social media activism. Social media have gained massive plaudits for their transformational roles, especially in the Arab Spring. However their use in protests in liberal states has been less well received by the corporate media and political authorities, leading to serious questions about the dangers of social media for activists. Government repression of social movements during crises is an ever-present threat. The chapter will compare the corporate media coverage of the protests in the Arab world with those in the liberal Western states, especially the UK and highlight how not only how social media have become key instruments of surveillance for the state[1] and its repressive aspects but also how their use by different protesters is still mediated by the ever-powerful corporate media.

Political Economy and the Marginalisation of Activism Online

The potential of the Internet to facilitate radical movements was clear over a decade ago. The Seattle protests of 1999 tested this potential and the results were impressive. Across the world Independent Media Centers (IMCs) were created by activists with interests in the environmental movement, trade justice and workers rights activists, anarchists, socialists and refugee rights activists among many others. A host of studies pointed to the value of these spaces as well as to their shortcomings[2]. A number of works looked initially at the potential of the Internet for activism[3][4][5][6][7] but also at the difficulties faced by them, such as resourcing and legal issues[8].

Jones and Martin[9] found that despite the worthy intention to create a network of networks that was organizationally horizontal, non-repressive, open, and fair, the reality was quite different – the “iron law of oligarchy” constrained this intent. However, we can see least from Bristol (UK) and UK Indymedia – that the intent was never totalising horizontality but rather a hierarchy of activity where those who held greater sway did so because of their overall contribution to the project, through their knowledge and activity. Thus the “hierarchies” evident in IMCs differed from those in bureaucratic organizations as they were hierarchies of action rather than of office.

In some instances arguments in IMCs did result in splits and people leaving, but then that is the point of their fluid organization. More pressing, however, was the ability to fund and sustain IMCs. While many IMCs felt they needed little in the way of resources, it is likely that this reflects perhaps the most problematic blind spot of many studies of the cyber-world and digital technology – political economy.

Human labor is more often than not omitted from considerations of “resources,” not in terms of getting participants to do things, but in the sense that the vast majority of people around the globe have to labor for their means of sustenance. This means that activists participating in grass roots projects such as Indymedia always have to balance remunerative labor against volunteering. The necessity of the means of sustenance often means that those with more time had more influence, but more pressingly that disposable time would fluctuate and therefore so would activity in any given IMC. The impact of the scarcity of labor is that many of the sites that retained an open newswire couldn’t clear of spam and nonsense quickly enough to maintain an adequately usable service. Moreover if the local community didn’t contribute regularly with interesting quality reports, the sites would dry up.

In some instances it was clear that local communities and activists within them had found new outlets for their news, and in some instances chose not to use IMCs for personal-political reasons. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media began to challenge Indymedia on the activist scene. Social media proved more direct, more responsive, more communicative and more networked than many IMCs.

            Whatever the other reasons for the decline of IMCs the facts of political economy remain – IMCs had to struggle in a commercial online environment. In most of the world it is clear to see how what has been referred to as the “colonisation” of cyberspace[10][11] and online attention[12] have developed. Despite the initial promise of communicative freedom, most credible studies show how corporate media either retains its dominant position or has established new ones.

According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism[13] in 2008 two of the five most popular websites in the U.S.—CNN and AOL News –were both owned by the largest media company in the world, Time Warner. The others were owned by Yahoo, NBC Universal, and the New York Times. Overall, the 10 richest companies owned 28% of the most popular news sites. In 2010 the Project listed the most popular news websites in the U.S. and their owners. The list showed clear corporate domination with Yahoo, MSNBC, CNN, USA Today, AOL, Fox News, New York Times, LA Times, Google, and National Public Radio dominating the top 10 places[14]. By 2012 the top 10 news web sites in the US were Yahoo, MSNBC, CNN, USA Today, AOL, Fox News, The New York Times, LA Times, Google, National Public Radio. In the U.K. the Internet has done little to diminish the power of the old media giants. Newman shows that the old media giants dominate online news audiences – the access rates for the major newspaper and television news web sites were very much higher in the U.K. compared to blogs and social media, though the difference was less significant in the U.S. (Denmark and France were similarly to the U.K. According to Newman’s research 66% of the U.K. population access television news, 56% the websites of those organizations, 50% printed newspapers, 29% ISPs or aggregators, and only 18% social media and blogs as for news. Of the means of sharing news, Facebook, email, Twitter, and Google+ dominated[15].

The particular configurations have shifted over the past ten years, but large corporations, whether MSN and Yahoo in the past or Google and Facebook today, direct the vast majority of traffic to news web sites.  Hitwise’s analysis of Google News U.K. showed that 68% of its traffic is generated by searches for “celebrity” (24%), “sport” (18%), “film and television” (15%), and “music” (11%)[16]. Traffic from “UK news” and “world news” accounted for just 5.6% of overall visits. In 2005 the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 60% of the most popular news Web sites were owned by just 20 media companies. It concluded that ‘in short, despite the attention paid to blogs and the openness of the Internet, when it comes to sheer numbers, online news appears dominated by a handful of traditional big media sites, and for now that domination appears to be increasing.’[17] There has been little change on this front. In fact, despite the possibilities by 2013 the top referrals in the US were from Facebook were the Huffington Post, the Daily Mail, Yahoo, BBC, New York Times, Guardian, CNN, ABC, Buzzfeed, and Fox[18].

            Thus Robert McChesney’s suggestion that the corporate giants would roll on seems to be the case[19]. Indeed it is important to note that this is a systemic relation rather than the intention of a single “bad” corporation. These systemic relations come to affect the very technological base itself[20]. Indeed ten years ago Rogers analysed the impact of search engine algorithms on results, expressing concern about the varieties of commercial impact on search results[21]. Though the players have changed, the systemic inequities remain. By 2009 Google had taken over as the biggest search engine, accounting for roughly 73% of searches. Between Google and Yahoo, Indymedia had been all but hidden in searches for “news,” appearing at position 115 on Google but not at all within the top 300 results on Yahoo, despite having more than 900,000 links to the global site. Today, Newman shows that beyond direct access search engines such as Google or Bing are the second most popular means of finding news, followed by portals such as MSN and Yahoo[22].

            Together these statistics are not reassuring for those who’d hoped that the Internet would challenge the material and ideological hegemony of the big media corporations, providing a new deal for activists. Yet the general tendency to use the Internet for activism is also still rather slight. Of those interviewed in Newman’s research while 44% had signed an online petition, 15% had posted on social media, 11% had joined a campaign via social media, 6% made a donation, and only 4% had used the Internet to organise or find a meeting[23].

            However, there are some celebrated cases of online activism around the world. Although in once sense indicative of the corporate colonisation of cyberspace, the likes of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have been employed by activists on a number of fronts. Perhaps the most celebrated examples of this use relates to the so-called “Arab Spring.”

The “Arab Spring” of 2011, which saw revolutions take place in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria, was welcomed by Western corporate media. The revolutions were said to have witnessed the power of media activists to carve out spaces in even the most authoritarian regimes. Activists used blogs, alternative news web sites, Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones and a whole array of online tools to report their struggles and the responses of the state. Of note, the protesters were celebrated across the Western corporate media, or at least some of them were. Reuters, the Washington Post, the BBC, the New York Times, Current TV, in fact almost the entire corporate media celebrated these rebellions, and especially their use of online social media[24]. Regarding Libya, the New York Times told of “Colonel Qaddafi’s supporters, who were using the state-run news media, and Libyan protesters, who were turning to social media and the foreign news media, to win over hearts and minds, inside and outside Libya.”[25] In relation to Egypt the BBC noted that “Social media has played a crucial role in the unrest in Egypt, with many of the protests organised through Facebook. The Egyptian government reacted quickly by blocking social media sites but this act of censorship was spectacularly unsuccessful.”[26]

In contrast to corporate coverage, in many of the online spaces great attention was given to the less “favourable” (to Western interests – particularly Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia) protests and rebellions. Whilst Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen were less visible in corporate news reporting, they were celebrated causes among Western activists, who distributed images of repression, police brutality, army intervention, eye witness reports from mobile phones, cameras and camcorders via social media, blogs and web sites.

Against corporate coverage, one of the key messages on blogs and some of the more radical online publications was that much of the power of the protests in places like Egypt came from trade unions and socialist activists who had been agitating for years. Despite involvement of workers in strikes, occupations, and demonstrations, their role was largely ignored in corporate news, leaving it for the web sites of the Coalition of Resistance, Counterfire, Socialist Workers’ Party, and innumerable blogs to carry for example the 19th February Statement of Independent Trade Unionists in Egypt. Indeed the main information on the enormous involvement of the workers’ movement came from blogs such as, and The Arabist. Alternative news reports erased the picture of peaceful liberal protesters gathering in city squares to ask for subtle changes, replacing it with one of protesters storming and raiding police barracks and using the guns against the police in an armed revolution. The violent aspects of revolution were naturally downplayed when the Libyan army’s (or “Gadaffi’s army” as the BBC called it) attacks on rebels were described as attacks on “civilian areas,” but in contrast the rebels seemed to target only military targets. Given the intensity of the challenge to “public order” presented by the protesters around the Arab world, it is perhaps unsurprising that one of the strategies used by those states was to disrupt the online communication flows (usually with little effect given the international solidarity).

Thorsen’s account of the role of Twitter in the so-called “Arab Spring”–in the revolutions that were underway from 2010 in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya–can perhaps provide an insight into why certain aspects of the Arab Spring were reported in the corporate media and others weren’t. Thorsen cites the celebrated case of NPR’s Andy Carvin’s Tweeting of the uprising as a paradigm example of how to use social media for reporting. However, Benjamin Doherty notes that it would be “difficult to imagine anyone from NPR engaging in similar – apparently symbiotic – interactions with, say, Palestinians organizing protests against Israel and surviving in their job”[27]. There’s a clear delineation of the acceptable forms and topics of protest.

In this sense we might question the ability to use social media to challenge the hegemonic conceptualization of protest. Where routinized corporate journalism tends to reproduce the dominant narratives of domestic state institutions, activists can challenge this. However, whether such challenges are amplified through corporate media is another matter – political economy seems to hold sway.

Indeed study after study seems to indicate that new social media become dominated by institutionalised power. Burgess and Bruns[28] showed how Twitter failed to effectively challenge the dominant media ecology during the 2010 Australian election. Andrew Chadwick’s research[29] seems to indicate that although there may be significant disruptions to the old news agenda, institutions seem to be reconfiguring themselves to meet these challenges and retain control. Similarly Lasorsa et al talk of Twitter use among journalists becoming “normalised”[30]. Poell and Borra’s large-scale analysis of the use of social media in the G20 protests in Toronto, 10 years on from Seattle, found that its use tended to mirror the mainstream’s and to be dominated by a small number of users. They also found that Twitter was used effectively (though by a small number), whereas YouTube and Flikr failed to gain any purchase among activists[31].

Surveying Ourselves to Death?

One of the most significant innovations for activists over the past 20 years has been the development of video and photographic technologies to the point of near ubiquity. Video activism has its roots in the very first days of cinema but came into its own with the development of Hi8 and VCR technologies in the 1980s and 1990s. But digitalization led to an era of pervasive media. The growth of closed-circuit television (CCTV) across liberal democracies in the 1990s led to concerns about permanent surveillance, which are no doubt well founded as the concept of the surveillance society was realised. However, ubiquitous surveillance does not mean continual surveillance – indeed, the distribution of CCTV surveillance had an analogue, hierarchical and centralized character.

While the technologies of surveillance developed, we saw at the turn of the century the development of what Steve Mann referred to as “sousveillance.”[32] For Mann the term “surveillance” referred to a centralised age where people were watched from above by authorities, wherein “the capture of multimedia content (audio, video, or the like), by ahigher entity that is not a peer of, or a party to, the activity being recorded”. On the other hand, for Mann digital technologies enable “sousveillance,” surveillance from below, enabling ordinary citizens to survey police, shops, and other authorities. Mann was particularly interested in its capacity to bring “cameras from the lamp posts and ceilings, down to eye-level, for human-centered recording of personal experience.”[33]

Jean-Gabriel Ganascia developed this idea by contrasting the Panopticon with the Catopticon, which reveals a total transparency of society, “fundamental equality, which gives everybody the ability to watch – and consequently to control – everybody else… total communication, which enables everyone to exchange with everyone else”[34]. For Ganascia “In the logic of surveillance that was introduced by Jeremy Bentham, some supervisors had to control the whole society. Here is a totally different logic, where everybody is watching everybody”[35]. As an example of the virtues of this arrangement, Ganascia offers,

On 20 June 2009, during the demonstrations against the results of the Iranian presidential elections, a young woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, was shot. Immediately, her tragic death was video-captured and broadcast over the Internet, which drew immediate international attention; in old totalitarian countries, such information would have been totally ignored[36]

Very well. Yet there are plenty of examples of state brutality and violence that get passed by or lack amplification by the corporate media. It has been a preoccupation for corporate media ever since its inception to promote and amplify certain voices at the expense of others, and some rebellions but not others. Whilst there is much complexity to this process, decades of research have made it an indisputable fact that within hegemonic confines the voices that get amplified tend to be those that accord with a given hegemony. The dominant ideas are best understood as those associated with the interests of a dominant class under a given system[37].

Crisis, Sousveillance and Repression

Although under relatively stable conditions a liberal state may allow more or less sousveillance and its media more or less plurality, it is also the case that when threatened a liberal state is disposed to quelling opposition, though it remains less obvious than in authoritarian states. This is to say that power in liberal states is decentralised and distributed, and therefore less recognisable. This power works in two ways.

In the first instance censorship through omission takes place, in which key stories are ignored by the corporate media, as we’ve seen with the rebellions in the Arab Spring. Moreover, radical protests and activism in liberal states are often excluded or at least that they have to pass a much greater threshold to be deemed newsworthy. Cats stuck up trees, on the other hand, have no such problems.

When they do manage to get onto the agenda – usually as a result of violence – such movements tend to be framed as curiosities, exceptions and problems, and are “othered.” This is to say they and, crucially, the interests they represent, are marginalised and abstracted from their context in the ordinary interests of ordinary people[38].

In the second instance there are some important examples of sousveillance gaining purchase. The raid on the media centre of the Genoa Social Forum in 2001 was observed and recorded by many participants with Indymedia taking a key role in getting footage of the brutal near massacre out to the corporate media and around the world. Ian Tomlinson’s killing at the hands of the police in the 2009 anti-G20 demonstration in London was also captured on film by citizens and amplified by the corporate media. Both of these examples of sousveillance had significant implications, and in both case resulted in the assailants facing trial–though none facing significant charges. Other cases can be brought to light–images of the brutal repression of Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park spread rapidly around social media, as did the swathes of occupations and protests in Spain in 2012, student demonstrations in the U.K. in 2010, and the 2013 protests Portugal.

However, despite the occasional successes of sousveillance, and despite the occasional amplification by mainstream media, it must be understood that these are exceptions. More often than not the very sousveillance that may be championed by activists can also contribute to their repression, especially when conditions of crisis pertain.

The German jurisprudentialist Carl Schmitt famously suggested that in modern states the “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” It is this concept of the exception that ought to be at the forefront of understanding the limitations to online activism. Liberal, undialectical enquiries into activism and political radicalism sometimes suggest that activist strategies can move the state and the political hegemony in which it is situated as a result of pressure from the street.

Such one-dimensionality hardly does justice to our investigations. Protest – serious protest – takes places amidst a range of countervailing powers. Indeed, the state as one of these powers may allow greater or lesser dissent depending on its own sense of security. The circumstances under which the state gives way are also important to consider. Whether in regard to slavery, working class enfranchisement, women’s rights, or the civil rights movement, in many respects the victories of these movements were contingent on their co-option by the state. Habermas explains this very clearly in reference to the welfare state compromise that quelled the workers’ uprisings in the first half of the twentieth century[39]. This is to say that a racist, sexist, and classist state can be rather flexible when those prejudices threaten to undermine its fundamental interests.

When a state cannot coopt or incorporate demands it may turn to evoke “emergency laws,” such as those enacted in South Africa in the 1980s and in Egypt from the 1950s onwards, but also in liberal states, such as in France in the 1960s and in 2005, in Ireland from the 1970s until 1994, and in the U.K., where they were last used in 1974. Faced with both natural disaster and political challenge, only the state can declare a state of emergency that suspends normal constitutional limits, civil liberties, and the like. It is in such times that state power can be seen in its rawest form. We have seen an increasing use of emergency laws in everyday life over the past quarter of a century, and in policing what McPhail and McCarthy call the ‘militarization of policing’[40]. It Italy the Berlusconi administration notoriously extended emergency laws including the suspension of political and civil rights and the extension of the power of the state to “grandi eventi” (great events) which include political summits and conferences. The use of emergency powers in the US has been even more worrying.

            Writing some 80 years after Schmitt, Agamben argues that the “exception” became frequent throughout the twentieth century, with increases in surveillance, military, and domestic and foreign “intelligence” expenditure, alongside increasingly flagrant human rights abuses, whether in Northern Ireland, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Belmarsh prison or the “black sites” where kidnapped “suspects” are transported outside liberal jurisdictions to be tortured. Indeed, for him the anomie in which the state operates during the exception has become the norm. For Agamben

The state of exception has today reached its maximum worldwide deployment. The normative aspect of law can thus be obliterated and contradicted with impunity by a governmental violence that – while ignoring international law externally and producing a permanent state of exception internally – nevertheless still claims to be applying the law[41].

If one considers Jurgen Habermas’s charge that Western liberal states have been facing “legitimation crises” since at least the 1960s, the notion of exceptionalism-as-normal comes into starker perspective. For Habermas, a legitimation crisis exists when states still have the power to rule but are unable to boast active support from populations, resulting in dwindling consent. The crises take place in three realms – the economic, the political and the socio-cultural. The capitalist economic system has an inbuilt tendency towards a declining rate of profit, which results in periodic crises. The political system faces crises as its inability to control the economic system and the contradictions between labor and capital are exposed, resulting in the withdrawal of mass loyalty. Faced with these inadequacies, socio-cultural crises emerge when faith in the economic and political systems is not maintained, thus resulting in motivational crises among workers and citizens[42].

Together these crises generate significant challenges to the economic and political order, resulting in the development of complex systems to manage the public, most notably in the form of public relations, a critique of which forms the foundations of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and The Theory of Communicative Action. It is also, contrary to so many interpretations of Habermas’s work, during crises that public spheres are most effective. And it is radical public spheres that can act as a motor for political change[43], especially in an online environment[44].

Unable to rely on whole-hearted consent of the people, governments perceive a permanent underlying threat to their legitimacy and their authority. This threat is manifested, or at least becomes most notable, in times of explicit crisis, such as during war, recession, constitutional crisis, major scandal, and so on, especially when met with disruptive protests. Furthermore, it is during such crises that systemic contradiction and political hypocrisy becomes most evident, further undermining the legitimacy of the political order. As we shall see below, on one hand the internet and digital technologies offer great potential to facilitate protest, but on the other hand the potential is also afforded to states and security forces to stymie protest.

The economic crisis that began in 2007 had the potential to prompt serious political upheaval, as it did in Greece most notably. The task states faced in retaining if not mass loyalty then at least apathy was enormous. Despite the blame for the crisis initially being laid at the feet of the banking sector (and some rumbles about broader economic problems), it was soon turned to “public debt” alone. Citizens were told by politicians, economists, journalists, and other “experts,” that the crisis was not the fault of an economic system facing a crisis of profitability, exposed through increasingly risky investment decisions made by banks. Neither, apparently, was the problem that of an impotent political system unable to manage international capitalism without deepening the crisis. Rather, the problem was that governments had spent “too much” on the people who allow them to govern (rather than even the multi-trillion dollar invasions the West had embarked upon in the early twenty-first century). Thus, beyond the economic and political crises, there was the risk of a huge socio-cultural crisis, necessitating careful management.

The delegitimation of the economic system had been an undercurrent for many years, manifesting itself in protests against G8 meetings, World Bank, and World Trade Organization meetings, which Indymedia centres played a key role in mediating[45][46]. The realisation of the undemocratic nature of such organizations, and their clear objectives of broadening and deepening capitalism, meant that the 2007 collapse of the economic system had the potential to strip the last vestiges of legitimacy from capitalism.

The banking and finance sector in London and New York diverted enormous resources to defend its interests through lobbying and PR[47], governments around the world rallied to punish the poor for the failure of the rich, and state security forces manned positions to defend capital. Against this we see a range of movements, which indicate a number of problems being faced by media activists in these times of crisis.

Student Demos, Riots, and Social Media Dragnets

In the midst of the Arab Spring, the UK saw massive student protests against the government’s desire, against half a century of progressive social policy, to subject education to the whimsical will of the “market” – by charging young people £9000 ($14,000) per year to be educated.

Students organised demonstrations, direct actions and occupations throughout the country, during which social media played an enormously important role. Spontaneous demonstrations were organised via Facebook, which was also used to arrange and publicise occupations via occupation “pages.” Twitter was also useful for those seeking to quickly publicise actions, and activists communicated via video chat technologies as well as secure email lists on Rise Up[48].

Crucially the student movement was based on a broad range of connections with other nodes in movement networks, such as anti-cuts activists, socialist parties, and trade unions. Many of these connections were facilitated by publicity via social networking alongside more traditional activist links.  The organization of protests was curious, from an analogue perspective. In Bristol activists would set up several pages advertising protests and demonstration, the timing and location of which would often conflict with each other. There was often a lack of communication between activists as groups would arise and actions be arranged spontaneously. This mode seemed rather indicative of the digital mind-set, of those raised in a virtual world where the supposed concreteness of the world is shattered, of a population habituated to simulacra. Given the flexibility of this mindset, the apparent lack of organization and coordination seemed to work in favour of the protestors. Students would arrive at the several declared starting points but via Twitter, Facebook, and especially phone text messages would eventually congregate. The routes of the marches would be decided spontaneously, simply by going where the protesters wanted to go. At the same time actions would take place spontaneously – the passing of a college building by students who studied there may result in a temporary occupation of the space.

This form of “wildcat” protest was in marked contrast to “analogue” protest. In the U.K. the tradition in policing has been for the police to dissipate the power of political action by the facilitation of protest rather than direct repression and confrontation[49]. One method of so doing was for the police to work with protest organisers to coordinate timing, assembly points and routes, effectively allowing police to assemble their forces and strategize to control protest. Without this collaboration the ability of police to control the students was markedly lost. Police liaison officers would contact those on Facebook who were marked as administrators of action pages, or those who simply appeared to be more active posting on protest pages to ask for details of actions. Of course the young activists, some of whom had been on few if any actions previously, were oblivious to such “requirements,” leaving the police on the back heel.

A change occurred on the first student mass demonstration in November 2010 when a curiously low level of policing meant they were unable to prevent protesters raiding the Conservative Party Headquarters at Millbank Tower in London.  Whilst corporate media coverage was not wholly opposed to the student protests, their framing followed a predictable pattern – a focus on violence, that was initiated by students, the principle of opposing fee rises imposed by a government coalition that included a party that had a manifesto commitment to eradicate fees was understood as long as it would take non-violent and ineffective form. The focus then turned to giving space to calls by the ineffective student union leadership for ineffective “lobbying” whilst marginalising the more effective forms of direct action.

As the university occupations went on, the police were moved in to clear some, while others petered out. The mass demonstration on the day of the vote on fees in Parliament on December 9, 2010 saw the state turn to repressive techniques. Over the previous 10 years, in order to “contain” anti-capitalist protesters the police had developed a method of “kittling.”  Kettling is a strategy of “allowing” a protest to take place but entirely surrounding it by police, thus completely controlling its movements.

Although many activists were aware of the illegality of this method of repression, naturally the corporate media was unwilling to describe it as the outrageous human rights abuse it was – effectively preventing freedom of association. In the December 2010 protest, the police kettled thousands of students, many of whom were only children, for up to seven hours. Early on in the kettle the police launched a cavalry charge against the children, and at least one protester – Alfie Meadows – was beaten almost to death[50]. 

All of these repressive instances were photographed, filmed, written about, and distributed through YouTube, Twitter, Flikr, and Facebook. While perhaps many lacked the vocabulary and legal knowledge to understand the police repression as human rights abuses, at least a light was shone on it. However, none of this was reported as repression in the corporate media. Moreover, the increase in fees was never articulated as a human rights abuse, in breach, as it was, of Article 13/2/c of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Rather, the usual process was explicated by the corporate media – a group of violent thugs, egged on by an “anarchist minority” and “professional troublemakers” decided to attack the police for no reason! For example, the Daily Mail reported ‘Defacing the Cenotaph, urinating on Churchill… how young thugs at student protest broke every taboo’[51], while the Telegraph[52] explained (after children had been cavalry-charged, beaten and held en mass) ‘Gangs of anarchists joined student protests against tuition fees that turned into violent attacks on police and systematic vandalism of property, the Cenotaph and even Trafalgar Square’s Christmas tree’

A year later, in 2011, on the back of growing youth unemployment and impoverishment, educational policies that manifestly excluded the poorer sections of society, cuts to public investment, almost total political and economic exclusion, and after a local suspected drug dealer was executed by police in the street, the London borough of Tottenham rioted. The riots spread around London and then to other cities around the U.K. including Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, and most of the major cities.

Within hours of the riots starting, the elite explanatory framework was set. The Prime Minister, Home Secretary and much of the corporate media had realised: lazy but greedy young people with bad parents had spontaneously decided to go stealing because they were bad people. This was made possible by Facebook, Twitter, and Blackberry Messaging. As a consequence Prime Minister David Cameron announced on 11 August 2011,

Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill…

And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their history of selective coverage[53], this latter suggestion of shutting down social media almost was completely ignored by media rights organizations.

In both the student demonstrations and the 2011 riots, social media were clearly useful for organising and for reporting on the actions. Particularly in relation to the student demonstrations as well as the anti-cuts movement, tax justice movement and of course the global Occupy movement social media filled a gap for publicising and arranging actions, reporting on them and communicating internally and externally.

The use of social media became part of the corporate media discourse on protest. At home it could now rail against the “violent minority” and these dangerous new media. Abroad the Arab Spring protesters were celebrated, their actions championed, and any problematic elements obscured by the dominant rhetoric about the core and shared motivation for the revolution being a commitment to liberal democracy. In one indicative piece a BBC reporter reports with great enthusiasm (and positioned among the protesters) that Egyptian protesters were throwing rocks and collecting Molotov cocktails to throw at police. The protesters who’d been attacked were treated sympathetically, almost as home soldiers returning from a tour of duty. In contrast not a single violent act in the U.K. was explained or understood, and certainly not championed, and those who were beaten, assaulted, locked up, and falsely imprisoned in kettles were roundly ignored.[54]

Social Media as Panopticon: protest and the freedom to be watched

The core of studying social movements in online media and states of c crisis can be seen in terms of their freedom. While social media may well be useful for activists, it is also perhaps the greatest surveillance opportunity offered to the police and security services. In the first instance the police have become significant users of social media. Gorringe and his colleagues[55] and Waddington[56]  have shown how social media can be used to gently influence, manage, and direct protesters (in keeping with the British tradition of policing[57]) and Denef and his colleagues[58] comparing effective strategies of “consensual” policing using Twitter during the 2011 U.K. riots.

More crucially the police began to monitor social media. As mentioned, during the student protests police liaison officers were monitoring Facebook and other sources to find contacts with whom they could liaise. The visibility of certain activists would prove costly – they became targets of police repression. In Bristol a number of activists were arrested and held, in many cases identified through their social media interaction, resulting in dawn raids, arrests and confiscation of equipment. Such surveillance was not new, with IMCs having been subject to such repression for many years[59]. However, the difference was that raids and arrests at IMCs saw a significant reaction from journalist and media rights groups. In contrast as many individual activists were acting precisely as individuals, there was far less recognition of their plight.

The selective recognition of repression in liberal states comes into the starkest relief when compared with coverage of repression elsewhere. The behaviour of ‘official enemies’ towards online activists is well documented. In 2005 Reporters Without Frontiers listed some 15 states it considered to be “enemies-of the-Internet” and 70 “cyberdissidents” imprisoned by oppressive regimes, though dissidents repressed in “non-oppressive” regimes, such as those in the table below, seem not to register. Raids on IMCs in the London in 2004 and Bristol 2005, were hardly on the radar of international “media rights” organizations, even though we can see in table 1 such actions are not rare.

Table 1 Police actions against Independent Media Centers

Seattle, USA, May 2001FBI demand IMC logs and impose gag order on IMC
Ohio, May 2001IMC domain owner served subpoena to appear before Ohio grand jury and release IP logs
Genoa, Italy, August 2001Raid of IMC centre & hospitalisation of journalist at anti-G8 protests
Ottawa, Canada, November 2001IMC camera operator arrested at anti-IMF/World Bank demonstration
Georgia, USA, November 2001Arrest of IMC journalist at demo against School of the Americas
Copenhagen, January 2002IMC journalist arrested at EU Summit demo
Italy, March 2002Police raids on ‘IMC offices’ in Bologna, Florence, Turin, Taranto
Israel, May 2002Investigation into IMC Israel after publication of ‘Factories of Death’ article
South Africa, September 2002Arrest of IMC journalist, dispute over accreditation
Washington DC, September 2002Two IMC journalists arrested in anti-WTO/World Bank demonstration
Argentina, October, 2002Two IMC journalists shot with rubber bullets while covering arrest of environmental activists
Sydney, Australia, November 2002Arrest of IMC journalist in anti-WTO demonstration
Urbana, USA, May 2003Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center closed down for fire code violations
St Louis, USA, May 2003Police search IMC St Louis offices
Argentina, June 2003IMC participant beaten covering demonstration outside textile factory
Evian, June 2003Raid of IMC offices, IMC journalist shot in leg at anti G8 demo
Dublin, July 2003IMC journalist arrested at EU Summit demo
Miami, USA, November 2003Assault and arrest of 4 IMC journalists during demonstrations against the Free Trade Area of the Americas
Miami, USA, November 2003Arrest of IMC journalist covering a jail solidarity rally
Israel, December 2003Investigation of IMC Israel for ‘incitement’
Thailand, April 2004Arrest of IMC journalist
Cyprus, July 2004CIA ask U.S. embassy to instruct Cyprus Criminal Investigation Division of police to investigate IMC participant for posting information to Web site
New York City, August 20045-7 Indymedia participants arrested at Republican National Convention
New York, August 2004U.S. Justice Department subpoena ISP Calyx for the IP address of a post on the New York IMC Website
New York, September 2004NYPD subpoena NYC IMC for an IP address relating to the posting of a purported internal NYPD memorandum during the Republican Convention
New York, November 2004New York City subpoena NYC IMC list of information relating to a civil suit related to suppression of Animal and Earth Liberation March.
Trafalgar Square, London, October 2004Arrest of IMC participant at European Social Forum
London, October 2004IMC server seized
San Diego, January 2005.IMC journalist arrested during ‘Reclaim the Streets’ action
Goiania, Brazil, February 2005Arrest of two IMC journalists during eviction
Warsaw, Poland, May 2005Arrest of IMC journalist after filming anti-war demonstration
Bristol, England, June 2005Seizure of IMC server and arrest of journalist
Tomball, Texas, June 2005Arrest of IMC journalist at anti-KKK rally
California, USA, July 2005Arrest of IMC participant for littering.
Manila, Philippines, July 2005IMC journalist arrested during protest at U.S. Embassy
Arizona, July 2005IMC journalist arrested for trespass
Paris, August 2005IMC journalist summoned to court over publication of anti-Jewish spam & republication of revolutionary leaflet
London, Oct 2005IMC journalist arrested at anarchist book fair
Oaxaca, Mexico, Oct 2006IMC reporter shot and killed filming armed assault on a Popular Assembly

Though many of the actions against IMC participants resulted from their dual role as protesters and media activists, the raids on IMCs certainly serve to mark out a key difference between them and social media – the raids took place precisely because IMCs consciously protect activists and their online interactions. Both the London and Bristol raids were preceded by requests from security forces to disclose IP addresses, something that IMCs fought against on principle. In contrast, commercial social media have no such scruples.

That social media content may be under surveillance is sometimes recognized by activists. Certainly during the occupations many activists would have a public profile while using “safe” discussion groups and email accounts as well as private Facebook pages. Indeed it was telling that Cameron’s assertion that the 2011 riots were organised via social media was found by researchers not only to be false, but it also presumed the rioters and other activists weren’t aware of police surveillance. Indeed, the research into the riots conducted by The Guardian and the London School of Economics found that

while politicians, journalists and police were constantly tweeting about the disorder, rioters were not. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those taking part in the looting and violence were mostly avoiding communicating on public forums….

“The Internet and that is a bit too bait, so no one really broadcasts it on the Internet,” said one Hackney rioter. “Like in Twitter there’s like a hashtag innit, like if someone hashtags riots you can go to that certain page and see what everyone has been saying about the riots. Police could easily go to that page there and see who’s been setting up or organising groups to come.”[60]

The concerns expressed here were not without foundation. After the riots the state clampdown was swift, broad, and disproportionate. The corporate media celebrated with relish that more than 3000 people were swept up in a post-riot dragnet. They enthused about the lack of judicial process and cheered the fact that poor inner-city youth would be sent to prison without the “privilege” of adequate legal representation. International media rights groups were silent when one youth received 3 years in prison for posting on Facebook while four others received 4 years in prison for “incitement” on Facebook (when no riots actually resulted from their comments). Indeed police engagement with social media that had preceded the riots enabled them to sharpen their surveillance skills, which could now be turned to repressive means.

In fact Cameron’s suggestion that social media should be shut down in response to the riots ran counter to the very British method of permissive policing. Permissive policing acts in one sense to dissipate power but in another sense to give protesters enough confidence to show themselves for identification. This is to say that shutting down social media would have disabled the police more than anyone else. Moreover it would also have shut down two aspects of civilian social media use – to assist police in their surveillance and to maintain hegemonic understandings of the riots.

In both instances sousveillance played a crucial role. Social media provided a wealth of information for police forces – in the main through people innocently uploading photographs and videos, sometimes in attempts to publicise the struggles, but with the unintended consequence of drawing police attention to participants. Moreover social media were used to “name and shame” protestors and rioters. Denef et al[61] found that the police in the U.K. made significant use of social media to “crowd source” surveillance during the riots. 

[Greater Manchester Police] further promoted their crowd sourcing efforts and launched a campaign entitled ‘shop a looter’. Large posters in the city showed the faces of suspects and asked people to help with their identification. Twitter was used to announce the campaign and also to introduce the hashtag #shopalooter

In addition to this use of social media by state security services, less formal means were used to maintain hegemonic understandings of the riots. As with other forms of protest that turn violence, the overwhelming preoccupation with corporate media is to prevent any attempt to explain or understand what happened at home, encouraging the mythical understanding of violence as caused by pathological individuals bent on violence. This understanding pervaded social media, the most common use of it was to condemn the rioters and forbid understanding and explanation. Indeed, Procter and his colleagues found a constant repression of such attempts to understand. They point to a Tweet that tried to explain, “This is what happens when you consistently opress [sic] the youth, have some of your own medicine #londonriots’ but suggested this reflected a ‘tiny fraction of tweeters’ and those who did to explain, understand or support ‘were typically swamped with a deluge of overwhelmingly negative responses… The broader reaction was simpler still: such messages were overwhelmingly ignored”[62].

At the same time, though, Procter explains, ‘we do find strong evidence that Twitter was a valuable tool for mobilising support for the post-riot clean-up and for organising specific clean-up activities’. Indeed in their analysis of riot Tweets, they found that of the 10 most retweeted messages, three were from Piers Morgan (living in the US and with no knowledge of the riots whatsoever), one was a campaign to get Blackberry shut down, two were links to sites to identify rioters, three were imploring people to help “tidy up” after the riots and one was a corporate news report. All were intensely negative toward the rioters, amplifying the notion that they were simply “yobs”, not protesters, “scummy wankers” and so on[63].

Since the riots, police in the U.K. and elsewhere have continued to sharpen social media surveillance. In the run up to the funeral of former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, parties were held across the country to celebrate her death. In the first instance, social media was again used to attack those in attendance. The right wing press did its best to “name and shame” those in attendance – especially those organising the parties and administering the Facebook pages, as a form of social tyranny that J.S. Mill had pointed to a century and a half before. Given the levels of animosity toward Thatcher held by vast sections of the population the corporate media attempt to stimulate hostility toward the parties failed. On the other hand, the parties saw the policing of social media return. One person in Bristol was arrested and held without charge for 23 hours for posting onto his Facebook wall that he was attending the party. Moreover, the police were monitoring social media sites for details on arrangements.

From all this came the call for a professionalization of social media surveillance, with the “liberal left” think tank Demos calling for the establishment of

one central command for monitoring social media intelligence and encouraging local constabularies use social media to work with law-abiding members of the community would go a long way to ensure officers are better equipped to meet the challenges of 21st century policing[64].

While the presumption is that social media simply provide yet another space for surveillance, activists in liberal states ought to take note of their own security. Whereas the “old” new media, such as Indymedia were in every way activist media, and the participants upheld a strong commitment to protecting the identity of other activists and protesters, the newer social media have no such commitments – a judgement recently confirmed in the Edward Snowden case.

[1] This chapter was written before the spy controversy in which former NSA employee Edward Snowden released details of the US and UK governments’ massive spy operations in which it was shown how Microsoft, Facebook and Google were cooperating with governments in universal surveillance.

[2] Janet Jones and Royston Martin, “Crypto-hierarchy and its Discontents: Indymedia UK”, in Making Our Media, Global Initiatives Toward a Democratic Public Sphere: Vol. 1 eds. Clemencia Rodriguez et al. (New Jersey: Hampton Press, 2010)

[3] Lisa Brooten “Digital Deconstruction: The Independent Media Center as a Process of Collective Critique” in Global Media Goes to War edited by Ralph Berenger (Spokane: Marquette Books, 2004)

[4] Victor Pickard “United yet autonomous: Indymedia and the struggle to sustain a radical democratic network” in Media, Culture and Society 28(3) (2006) pp.315-336

[5] Jenny Pickerill ‘“Autonomy online”: Indymedia and practices of alter-globalisation’ Environment and Planning (39) (2007) pp.2668-2684

[6] Lee Salter “Democracy & Online News: Indymedia and the Limits of Participatory Media” [online] Scan: Journal of Media, Arts, Culture. 3(1) (2006)

[7] Lee Salter Conflicting Forms of Use: The Potential of and Limits to the Use of the Internet as a Public Sphere (Saarbrücken VDM Verlag, 2010)

[8] Salter Conflicting Forms of Use

[9] Jones and Martin “Crypto-hierarchy”

[10] Lee Salter “New Social Movements and the Internet: a Habermasian analysis” in Cyberactivism: Online activism in theory and practice Michael Ayers and Martha McCaughey (New York: Routledge, 2003) pp.117-144

[11] Salter Conflicting Forms of Use

[12] Lincoln Dahlberg “The Corporate Colonization of Online Attention and the Marginalization of Critical Communication?” The Journal of Communication Inquiry 29(2) (2004) pp.160-180.

[13] Project for Excellence in Journalism State of the News Media 2008. Accessed July 16 2013

[14] Project for Excellence in Journalism State of the News Media 2010. Accessed July 16 2013

[15] Nic Newman Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2012: Tracking the Future of the News (Oxford: Reuters, 2012).

[16] Hitwise Celeb and entertainment searches dominate Google News Accessed June 13 2011 2009.

[17] Project for Excellence in Journalism State of the News Media 2005. Accessed July 16 2013

[18] Project for Excellence in Journalism “Digital: As Mobile Grows Rapidly, the Pressures on News Intensify” Accessed May 2013

[19] Robert McChesney ‘The Titanic Sails On: Why the Internet won’t sink the media giants.’ In Gail Dines and Jean Humez. Gender, Race and Class in Media. (London: Sage, 2002).

[20] Lee Salter “Structure and Forms of Use: a contribution to understanding the role of the Internet in deliberative democracy”. Information, Communication and Society. 7(2) 2004 pp.185-206

[21] Richard Rogers (Ed.) Preferred Placement. (Maastricht: Jan van Eyek Akademie, 2000)

[22] Nic Newman Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2012 p.46

[23] Nic Newman Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2012 p.34

[24] Lee Salter “Crises, Radical Online Journalism and the State”. In Siapera, E. and Veglis, A. The Handbook of Global Online Journalism (London: Wiley Blackwell, 2012).

[25] Emad Mekay “One Libyan Battle Is Fought in Social and News Media” New York Times February 23 2011 accessed April 2011

[26] BBC “Did social media create Egypt’s revolution?” 11 February 2011 accessed April 2011

[27] Einar Thorsen “Live Blogging and Social Media Curation: Challenges and Opportunities for Journalism” in Journalism: New Challenges Karen Fowler-Watt and Stuart Allan eds (London: Pearson 2013, forthcoming)

[28] Jean Burgess and Axel Bruns “(NOT) The Twitter Election: The dynamics of the #ausvotes conversation in relation to the Australian media ecology” Journalism Practice. 6(3) 2012 pp.384-402

[29] Andrew Chadwick “The Political Information Cycle in a Hybrid News System: The British Prime Minister and the “Bullygate” Affair” The International Journal of Press/Politics 2011 16(3) pp.3-29

[30] Dominic Lasorsa, Seth Lewis & Avery Holton “Normalizing Twitter”, Journalism Studies, 13(1), 2012 pp.19-36

[31] Thomas Poell and Erik Borra “Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr as platforms of alternative journalism: The social media account of the 2010 Toronto G20 protests” Journalism 13(6) 2012 695–713.

[32] Steve Mann ‘Sousveillance’ 2002 accessed May 21 2012

[33] Steve Mann ‘Sousveillance: Inverse surveillance in multimedia imaging’ International multimedia conference: proceedings of the 12th ACM international conference New York, 10-16 October 2004 p.620

[34] Jean-Gabriel Ganascia ‘The Great Catopticon’ 2010 accessed May 23 2013

[35] Jean-Gabriel Ganascia ‘The generalized sousveillance society’ Social Science Information 49(3) 2010 p.498.

[36] Jean-Gabriel Ganascia ‘The generalized sousveillance society’ p.494

[37] See Stuart Hall et al Policing the Crisis (London: Palgrave 1978), Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. (London: Vintage, 1994) Graham Murdoch ‘Large corporations and the control of the communications industries.’ In Culture, Society and the Media. Michael Gurrevitch et al.  (London: Routledge, 1982); Peter Golding and Graham Murdoch “Culture, Communications and Political Economy” In Mass Media and Society. James Curran, J. and Michael Gurevitch (London: Arnold 2000); Deepa Kumar ‘“What’s good for UPS is good for America”: Nation and class in network television news coverage of the UPS strike’, Television and New Media, 6(2) 2005 pp. 131–52.

[38] Jilly Finola and Lee Salter “Framing the Cuts. An analysis of the BBC’s discursive framing of the ConDem cuts agenda” Journalism: Theory, Practice, Criticism 2013 Forthcoming.

[39] Jurgen Habermas The Theory of Communicative Action: The Critique of Functionalist Reason. Trans. Thomas McCarthy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987).

[40] Clark McPhail and John McCarthy “Protest Mobilization, Repression and Their Interaction” in Christian Davenport et al Repression and Mobilization (Social Movements, Protest, and Contention). (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).

[41] Giorgio Agamben State of Exception. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) p.87

[42] Jurgen Habermas Legitimation Crisis. (London: Heinemann, 1976).

[43] Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge The Public Sphere and Experience: an analysis of the bourgeois and proletarian public sphere Trans. Peter Labanyi, Jamie Daniel and Assenka Oksiloff(Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1993)

[44] Lee Salter Conflicting Forms of Use

[45] Dorothy Kidd “Carnival to Commons” in. Confronting Capitalism: Dispatches from a Global Movement. Daniel Rose, Eddie Yuen, and George Katsiaficas Eds (New York: Softskull Press, 2004)

[46] Sasha Costanza-Chock ‘The Globalization of Resistance to Capitalist Communication’ in Media in the Age of Marketization. Graham Murdock and Janet Wasko Eds. (Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2007)

[47] Michael Chanan and Lee Salter Secret City (London, E2Films, 2013)

[48] The following account is based on three months of observation of in particular the occupation at the University of the West of England and student demonstrations and actions in Bristol and London, UK. See Lee Salter and Jilly Finola ‘The UWE Occupation’ Social Movement Studies 10(4) 2011 pp.423-429.

[49] Lee Salter ‘Crises, Radical Online Journalism and the State’

[50] Michael Mansfield “A dangerous use of police force to quell protest” accessed July 03 2013

[51] Daily Mail ‘Defacing the Cenotaph, urinating on Churchill… how young thugs at student protest broke every taboo’ accessed July 04 2013

[52] Telegraph “Tuition fees protesters attack police and vandalise buildings” accessed July 04  2013

[53] Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman. The Political Economy of Human Rights Volume II After The Cataclysm (Nottingham: Spokesman, 1979); Connor Foley “Beware human rights imperialism” accessed July 04 2013 The Guardian; Silvio Waisbord “Can NGOs Change the News?” International Journal of Communication (5) 2011 pp.142-165

[54] I’ve provided a link to a collection of indicative news clips here: Egypt: UK student protests

[55] Hugo Gorringe, Clifford Stott and Michael Rosie “Dialogue Police, Decision Making, and the Management of Public Order During Protest Crowd Events” Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling­­­ (9) 2012 111–125

[56] David Waddington “A ‘kinder blue’: analysing the police management of the Sheffield anti-‘Lib Dem’ protest of March 2011” Policing and Society: An International Journal of Research and Policy, 23(1), 2013 pp.46-64

[57] Lee Salter “Crises, Radical Online Journalism and the State”.

[58] Sebastian Denef, Petra Bayerl and Nico Kaptein. “Social Media and the Police – Tweeting Practices of British Police Forces during the August 2011 Riots” CHI 2013, April 27–May 2, 2013, Paris, France.

[59] Lee Salter “Independent Media Centres and the Law: Some problems for citizen journalism”, in Citizen Journalism: Global Perspectives, Stuart Allan Einar Thorsen Eds. (New York: Peter Lang, 2009).

[60] James Ball and Paul Lewis “Twitter and the Riots: how the news spread” in The Guardian 2011 accessed 17 July 2013

[61] Sebastian Denef et al. “Social Media and the Police”

[62] James Ball and Paul Lewis “Twitter and the Riots”

[63] James Ball and Paul Lewis “Twitter and the Riots”

[64] Demos “Hire social media chiefs to put ‘Twitter snooping’ on a legal footing, think-tank tells police” accessed on 17 July 2013

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