CISECO - Centro Internacional de Semiótica e Comunicação

:: Notícias

Circulation as a productive metaphor for the study of mediated practices of resistance - an interview with Bart Cammaerts

Bart Cammaerts is associate professor in the Media and Communication Department of the LSE and director of the MSc in Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE, UK). He is the former chair of the Communication and Democracy Section of ECREA and former vice-chair of the Communication, Technology & Policy-section of IAMCR. His current research focuses on the relationship between media, communication and resistance with particular emphasis on media strategies of activists, media representations of protest, alternative counter-cultures and broader issues relating to power, participation and public-ness. He publishes widely and his most recent books include: Youth Participation in Democratic Life: Stories of Hope and Disillusion (co-authored with Michael Bruter, Shakuntala Banaji, Sarah Harrison and Nick Anstead, Palgrave MacMillan, 2015) and Mediation and Protest Movements (co-edited with Alice Matoni and Patrick McCurdy, Intellect, 2013).

In this interview, Cammaerts speaks about his forthcoming book and explains how the concept of Circulation, linked to the dialectic concept of Mediation, contributes to the study of resistance practices, especially in social media. 

What can we expect from your new book? 

My forthcoming book is entitled ‘The Circulation of Anti-Austerity Protest’ and will be published later this year by Palgrave MacMillan. In the book I present a conceptual framework, denoted as The Circuit of Protest, in order to theorise as well as study the various ways in which social movement discourses and frames circulate through a society. It is argued that this circulation is increasingly mediated and shaped by what I call the mediation opportunity structure. I argue that the Circuit of Protest has four core-moments, 1) the production of movement discourses, frames and a collective identity, 2) a set of self-mediation practices to disclose and examine the movement frames, as well as create memories. 3) the mainstream media representations of protest and the movement and 4) the reception of the self-mediation practices and mainstream media representations by non-activist citizens. I studied each of these moments in the context of UK’s anti-austerity movement (Occupy, UK Uncut and student protests) by using frame analysis, interviews with activists, two content analyses, a survey and focus groups with non-activist citizens. 

In terms of the discourse of the movement, I concluded, that the UK’s anti-austerity movement was not necessarily a radical movement, rather reformist. The movement calls for a renewed politics of redistribution through higher taxes and more state regulation, but it does not aim to abolish capitalism or does not advocate for a revolution to overthrow the powers that be, so to speak. The movement also employs a populist meme to implicate as many people as possible in juxtaposition to the elite, the establishment - the 1%.  

When it comes to media practices, we can see how internet, mobile technologies and social media played a pivotal role to push the various movement frames, to communicate independently, to document police violence, as well as to mobilise for direct action. Also other 'older' media such as print and radio were still present. But, through the internet and alternative media a movement narrow-casts, and tends to preach to the converted.

Mainstream media representations matter too, in other words, and they were mixed. The so-called protest and public nuisance paradigm was certainly present, but there was also a degree of understanding for the anger and frustration which gave rise to the anti-austerity movement, even in the rightwing media. At the same time, derision and demonization and the construction of good and bad protesters could also be observed, especially when things turned violent or disruptive. 

The survey and focus groups amongst the general population showed that while not that many people knew about Occupy UK Uncut, or the student protest organisations, there was considerable support for the aims and goals of the movement. However, when it comes to blame attribution people not only kick to the top 1%, they also kick to the bottom of society, many considering not only the banker wankers as the problem, but also the immigrants and the poor, those on benefits. Also, while support for the frames and the movement is quite high, people do not like the disruption and some of the more militant tactics that are used by the movement to contest and protest.  

So, overall, I think that my data gives some explanation as to why the leftwinger Jeremy Corbyn became so popular, but it also gives some indications as to why someone like Farage and Brexit became possible, why the populist rightwing was able to highjack the populist slogan ‘99% vs 1%’ by linking it to anti-immigration through scaremongering.

You have been researching and publishing about the relationship between communication and resistance, especially about protest movement and activism. How do the concepts of circuit and circulation contribute to the understanding of these phenomena?

Circulation is a productive metaphor, I think, because it implies a dynamic process, which can have counter-intuitive and unexpected outcomes; it does not have a starting nor end point and it avoids being deterministic in terms of privileging one moment of the circuit over and above another or one side of a dichotomy over another. In terms of media, communication and resistance, circulation links well to mediation as a dialectic concept bridging mainstream and alternative media, symbolic and material struggles and production of meaning and the reception thereof. 

Resistance and circulation inevitably invokes and implicates power – as Foucault pointed out, resistance is the ‘odd term in relations of power’. I approach power thus in a Foucauldian sense, by which I mean that we need to acknowledge a complex interplay between generative and restrictive aspects of power, between hegemony and counter-hegemonies, between structure and agency. This is especially relevant in the context of social movements, dissensus and contentious politics and the various roles that media and communication plays both at a symbolic level, but also at a material level, at the level of media and communication technologies and the varying affordances as well as limitations they provide to resist. This last point also has a power and resistance element to it, in terms of shaping technologies, regulation by the state, surveillance, etc. 

This year, Ciseco’s main discussion topic is Discursive Circulation and Social Transformation. Do you believe activism on social media can transform power relations in contemporary societies?

I am going to give a typical academic answer to this: At some level, yes. But, fundamentally? Not really, in my view. Let me explain this further. Social media offers activists many very useful affordances in their respective struggles. In my interviews with activists, the registering of a Twitter account and a hashtag is often denoted as the official start of an organisation or mobilisation. In my book I mobilise Foucault’s Stoic Technologies of the Self – disclosure, examination and remembrance, as a way to structure these affordances and related mediation practices. It is a platform that enables activists to disclose their movement frames, to circulate information and to mobilise for direct action very easily, and at minimal costs, potentially across time and space too, inducing movement spill overs. Social media can also serve as an immediate way to coordinate direct actions on the spot and to organise the movement by enabling real-time communication and inter-personal communication. Finally, it makes the recording and archiving of protest artefacts, such as videos, photos possible, enabling self-representation and remembrance.

Just as with Foucault’s technologies of the self, social media as a technology of self-mediation, has to contend with the technologies of domination, limiting these opportunities and possibilities. Social media can very easily become an illiberal space, deciding to close down profiles and accounts, especially when it concerns anti-systemic contestation. People also need to self-select to receive information from the movement, usually it concerns a very limited number of people who follows or likes a social movement or direct action page. This invokes issues such as filter-bubbles and narrow-casting. 

Media and communication technologies in themselves do not transform power relations, on the contrary power relations offline tend to be replicated or even strengthened online. It is people who can potentially change the distribution of power in a society, and media and communication technologies such as social media can play a modest role in this process, but it is not the technology that changes power relations. The arab spring uprisings were not twitter revolutions, in Egypt a mere 1% of the population was on Twitter back them, they came about because enough people said ‘I'm mad as Hell and I'm not going to take this anymore’ to refer to the movie Network

In the text “Social media and activism” (2015), you pointed out that ‘[w]hile networked technologies have the potential to reduce certain costs and to lower barriers to participation, there are new barriers such as the uneven distribution of access and the need for specific digital skills’. How does the distribution of access to internet and social media interfere in the transnational aspect of social movements?

Some of the barriers I already mentioned, but access is certainly also one of them. This is certainly highly problematic in the global south, especially given that social media consume ever-larger volumes of bandwidth due to its video content and the ability to telephone and videophone via social media. And as we know bandwidth is costly and unevenly distributed. Furthermore, even in the West, penetration of social media platforms varies and not everyone is on social media, nor does everyone use it to look for political information or do politics. 

Lilie Chouliaraki (2010) wrote that self-mediation (and its supposed democratisation potential) is a ‘deeply ambivalent process’ especially because of ‘…its discursive articulations between politics and the market, expressive citizenship and consumerist authenticity, activism and therapy, solidarity and narcissism.’. Can self-mediation, in a neoliberal context, escape appropriation and commodification?

I agree with my colleague. Social media as platform, their algorithms, their function and their use are intrinsically embedded and part of the neo-liberal project and thus social media are deeply implicated in the power structures that activists aim to contest and resist. We can and should ask ourselves the question, if this still leaves an opening for escape from the neoliberal and capitalist hegemony. From a discourse theory perspective a total hegemony is an ontological impossibility, but at the same time we also need to acknowledge that capitalism and its neo-liberal agenda is very entrenched and has managed to naturalise and de-ideologise itself, the ultimate stage of common sense, it has in a way invisibilised itself whereas all the alternatives do all in their power to visibilize themselves. Neo-liberalism has been so successful at this, that the question has become to which extent is there still a constitutive outside to capitalism and neo-liberalism. To put it in political terms within the Brazillian context, even 12 years of PT-rule has arguably not fundamentally altered the capitalist and neo-liberal logic of how Brazilian society operates, how power/land/capital is distributed. 


Cammaerts, B. (2015) Social media and activism. In: Mansell, Robin and Hwa, Peng, (eds.) The International Encyclopedia of Digital Communication and Society. The Wiley Blackwell-ICA International Encyclopedias of Communication series. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, UK, pp. 1027-1034. ISBN 9781118290743.

Chouliaraki, L. (2010) Self-mediation: new media and citizenship, Critical Discourse Studies, 7:4, 227-232, DOI: 10.1080/17405904.2010.511824.


Submit to DeliciousSubmit to DiggSubmit to FacebookSubmit to Google BookmarksSubmit to StumbleuponSubmit to TechnoratiSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedIn

Todos os direitos reservados para CISECO - Centro Internacional de Semiótica e Comunicação

Top Desktop version