From #MuslimBan protests across the US to this weekend’s anti-corruption rallies in over a hundred cities in Russia, protesters have attempted the same thing: making a statement, capturing the public imagination and showing the scale and the human, affective element of their cause. Social media platforms have been used extensively in each case – but to what ends?
How do protestors make themselves visible? One could argue that the whole point of a protest – a public, uncomfortable act of dissent often exemplified by occupying space and blocking streets – is to capture people’s (and governments’) attention to the point where they cannot look away. The difficulty, of course, comes when protest events and actions are mediated by mainstream news outlets who decide which frame to apply to the protests and which parts and angles of them to make visible – or invisible – to their audience. Not an ideal setup.
But in the hybrid media system, where according to Chadwick, old and new media co-exist and entangle with technologies and actors using them, visibility becomes a more complex concept. The mainstream media no longer hold a monopoly over visibility, as connected mobile devices and social media platforms afford citizens the power to capture, share and consume their own versions of what they see and experience during a protest. Though fraught with risks, such as spreading fake visuals and manipulating social network users through automated accounts (botnets), social media level the playing ground for grassroots activists who seek to contest the dominant state or mainstream media narrative about their dissent, especially in authoritarian, restrictive states.
This new affordance for visibility is tripartite: people can simultaneously participate in protests, witness them, and bear witness to the testimonies of others being shared online. Bodies on the street and the affective narratives of discontent they embody become inextricably linked with their live-streamed and shared selves, their hopes and outrage captured by mobile phone cameras and spread beyond the protest squares.
Some human rights advocates rightly argue that visibility can often be harmful to activists – and indeed, in precarious or risky environments, this may be true. Livestreamers and photographers are increasingly targeted by police at protests, and captured visuals can put in jeopardy the identities of people who seek to remain anonymous. And yet, given proper ethical consideration (see, for example, the video tools from Witness) and with enough knowledge of the context in which the protest occurs, I argue that livestreams and citizen-generated images are crucial to protest visibility, documenting human rights abuses, and the new, hybrid kind of witnessing.
There are several ways social media and live streaming augment protest visibility in constructive ways, while also shaping participants’ understanding of what it means to be co-present and to bear witness. First, they make visible the huge efforts to mobilise, organise and coordinate the protest, as well as to mitigate the damage from the state crackdown. In the US, ACLU and their allies published directories of protest venues in airports and near government buildings across the country. In Russia, the various protest locations actually joined the live stream set up by the organisers, tuning in one by one from the country’s many time zones. Once protesters were arrested, coordinators followed up with an offer of distributed legal help – also through social media. This visibility and transparency of backstage activity is important in environments where trust is thin on the ground, and where showing your work matters.
Second, the live streams and photos shared on social media amplify the numbers of bodies occupying city squares and airport lounges and make them visible across distances and time zones, creating a sense of community that does not rely on physical co-presence alone. This is especially important for contexts like the US and Russia, both countries with vast land mass and citizens scattered across thousands of kilometers. Letting protesters in different cities and locations see each other makes every person both a participant and a witness, affecting morale and giving citizens a more comprehensive understanding of the scale of the discontent.
— Nadene Rehnby (@queennadene) January 29, 2017
— ФБК (@fbkinfo) March 27, 2017
[Translation: “Friends, thanks to each of you who wasn’t afraid to take to the streets all around Russia yesterday and speak out against corruption. You’re all heroes #wewillwin”]
When crackdowns do happen (and in autocracies, they happen sooner rather than later), broadcasting visceral images of police violence and detentions live serves a two-pronged cause: the live visuals show an uncensored picture of how much the government and law enforcement care for the right to free expression their citizens claim, but they also serve as a record of these abuses for future human rights investigations and courts. In Russia this weekend, we saw both police brutality (warning: violent content) and police van selfies by relatively unharmed protesters, including foreign reporters. The latter might seem frivolous, but are important for documenting who was detained and where, so human rights activists can follow up on detentions the next day. Over a 1000 protesters were detained in Moscow, with dozens apprehended elsewhere in Russia, and making each one of them visible was of utmost importance. Public visibility, again, was key.
One more way that live streaming and social media sharing amplify protests is that they create an alternative to the coverage presented by mainstream media – especially if, as in Russia’s case, most federal media happen to be co-opted by the state. Commentators have noted already how, judging by the front pages and nightly news on most state-owned Russian media, the protests against government corruption that brought over 60 thousand people onto the streets in over 100 cities, never happened. With a virtual ban on mainstream protest coverage, the live streams emerged as a key alternative. The main protest live stream, run by FBK, the team of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, ran for over 10 hours on March 26, and attracted over 170 thousand simultaneous views, with almost 4 million people viewing the recorded stream after it was over (Telegram account required). These numbers are significant even when compared to Russian mainstream media, and support the argument that grassroots, social media-based channels that aggregate protest video streams and narratives from numerous locations can emerge as a viable countermeasure to censorship, become a source of protest visibility and help consolidate the feeling of togetherness and unity.
While many citizens recognize the potential of the internet and digital technology for civic and political action, it is important to understand whether citizens perceive these technologies affording them different, augmented modes of co-presence and witnessing, making these activities central to how individuals and communities experience mass protest events. My own research that involved protests in Russia and Ukraine in the last decade shows that social media and networked, live streaming video technology afford protesters new ways to think about the meaning of “being present” and “being together” within the protest movement, creating visual, emotional, and symbolic “connective tissue” between individuals and groups.
I also find that the “real-time” temporal nature of social media and live video streams, combined with the archival possibilities of these platforms, allows people not only to be participants in the protest, but also simultaneously to document protest activity and repressive government action, as well as bearing witness to it and making sense of what they saw and heard. The experience of the event and its mediated narratives enmesh and become one, amplifying the protests’ visibility, while complicating the process of witnessing historic events by entangling offline and online components, thus creating a possibility of multiple protest histories.
These shifts in how protest participants understand and talk about co-presence and witnessing through the lens of digital technology affordances embedded in protest activity contribute to the notion of augmented protest, wherein the offline and the online extend into each other and beyond the sum of the two. Such augmented dissent relies very much on the logics of the hybrid media system to coordinate its activities, document both its failures and victories in the public domain, and make its actions – and its outrage – visible to the broader public.
Cover Image: Protester captures the anti-corruption rally on March 26, 2017 in Krasnodar, Russia, on their smartphone. Image by eguretsasha on Instagram.
Subscribe to FuJo’s Newsletter