Wikileaks analysis part 2: Power in a networked society

*This is the second post about Wikileaks and the implications it has on the current political, media and technological landscape. The first one can be found here.*

Michael Trice from Leeds University's Centre for Digital Citizenship wrote an interesting post recently evaluating Wikileaks' impact on the distribution of power in our contemporary, networked society.

Michael suggested that, in the terminology of academic Manual Castells, Wikileaks has used the media as a 'switcher' network – that is, it re-directs or reorients the goals of other networks to ensure it achieves a greater audience for itself and information.

I responded to Michael's blog post with a comment that opposed this perspective and suggested an alternative reading which I've re-posted below.

But before I re-post my [slightly updated and edited] comment here's a quick recap of what Castell's means by 'switching' and 'programming' power within networks:

Castells argues that power within a networked society fundamentally concerns actors' (both individuals and groups) ability to establish and control particular networks.

This control can be achieved in one of two ways:

  1. the ability to constitute network(s), and to program/reprogram the network(s) in terms of goals assigned to the network (largely by setting and controlling the way we perceive issues and information)
  2. the ability to connect and ensure cooperation of different networks by sharing common goals and combining resources (i.e. identifying like-minded networks with which you can work to challenge the dominant program)

Castells calls actors in the first mechanism ‘programmers’ and those in the second mechanism, ‘switchers’.
  
Contrasting Michael's argument that Wikileaks uses the global media to 'switch' power within networks, I suggest that if global media traditionally set the goals of our communication networks, it’s fair to argue that these goals tend to create coverage that a) minimises criticism of government activities b) is increasingly reliant of ‘soft’, entertainment stories and c) increasingly linked to official sources of information through proactive and reactive news management/PR (see point a))

So, if Wikileaks can provide source material for the media to cover issues that are traditionally the preserve of niche and, arguably, radical media then surely Wikileaks is the network switcher, working strategically to ensure the “cooperation of different networks” of traditional media and using it to publicise Wikileaks and its material and achieve its goals (presenting confidential material to a wider audience).

But perhaps more interesting is not the effect Wikileaks is having on media networks, but rather its role as a case study proving Castells’ theory of ‘Networking power’.

Castells believes this abstraction of power in a network society is about the power of those actors that are included in a network over those that are not.

For example, all the benefits of being connected to the Internet are available to those with Internet access. Those without access, lose out.

With this in mind, it would certainly seem that the US government (and no doubt other governments) along with corporate actors are doing their best to exclude Wikileaks [and also Assange] from dominant networks that most of us rely on for participation in our networked society.

If we continue to use the Internet as an example, cutting off Wikileaks from its servers (e.g. Amazon) is about excluding the organisation. From a financial perspective Mastercard, Visa and Paypal are examples of pulling the plug and excluding the organisation from financial networks. From a media perspective counter-briefing & pressuring media to report critically, etc, etc.

A further test of Castell’s hypotheses on power in networks will be the outcome of all this wrangllng between Wikileaks and established power networks.

On the subject of ultimate power, Castell’s is either vague or evasive. He believes that such a question is either easy or impossible to answer.

Easy, because we can say – for example – the US government can pull enough strings with actors within networks to shut down Wikileaks and silence Assange for good.

But also impossible to answer if we accept that even though Wikileaks might be shut down and Assange silenced, the leaked material will still have residual presence on other nodes within numerous networks – plus the Wikileaks model is replicable and will no doubt be imitated by other network actors.

So, while Wikileaks adds to discussion and analysis of Castells' notion of ‘Switching’ and 'Programming' power it also has a lot to offer for empirical validation of Castell’s wider theories of power in a networked society.

Student protests, communication power and undercover police

I’ve been burying my head in books of late trying to map out my first PhD chapter. This has meant some fairly extensive reading around the subject of power.

It’s fair to say that most scholars agree that power can be exerted through two complementary mechanics: violence (i.e. physical force) and discourse/communication (i.e. coercion, influence, etc).

So it was interesting to be on Whitehall last Wednesday during the student demo and to witness both mechanics in operation.

[Slideshow courtesy of ashleydmiddleton on Flickr]

I won’t major on the resultant media coverage (which, is something that could be discussed extensively in another post) but suffice to say that hindsight, the traditional media’s coverage was fairly standard reporting utilising the atypcial frames wheeled out for public disorder, (e.g. any violence is always the work of a “minority”; a false dichotomy is established between legitimate, peaceful protest and illegitimate, violent protest, largely unquestioning of police facts, press releases, etc – although to be fair, the latter is partly a problem with the formalised news production processes, than, say, undue influence).

But two things struck me as worth blogging about.

Firstly, I wanted to write down a personal encounter that got me thinking about the possible use of strategic policing tactics that were potentially used to manipulate the outcome of events and the subsequent media representation of the day.

Shortly after the kettle formed – and it was inevitable from the minute the march arrived at Parliament Square that it would be kettled – I was stood behind the police line when I witnessed a short man dressed in black, with a black hat (or possbly balaclava pulled up onto his head) be ushered through the police line after flashing something small and white resembling an ID card from a retractable lanyard at his waist.

He then disappeared between several police vans parked near the police line.

Now far be it from me to suggest that the police were using the same tactics as were used during the G20 protests when it was revealed that undercover or plain clothes police were being used as agents provocateurs, but the similarities between this scenario and the G20 struck me as a possibility.

Of course, it is apparently standard procedure to sue undercover police to gather intelligence at demonstrations but it would interesting to scour the footage of the first people to start trashing the controversial police van, allegedly planted as bait for riot porn, to see whether the same person was involved.

The second thing worth mentioning is that while a lot of people present on Wednesday were confident the van *had* been left as bait (similar tactics were possibly used during the already mentioned G20 protests when the only building left unprotected by horading was a branch of RBS, then the UK’s most hated bank) most presumed that this angle to the story would not make mainstream news reports.

But in that assumption they were only half right. While the story didn’t make any main bulletin,  Sky News’ Frontline blog comes right out and asks the question whether the van was intentionally planted.

What’s interesting to me is that here is a classic example of professional journalists using informal, social media platforms to publish stories not deemed sufficiently news-worthy to make the headlines – or at least mainstream headlines. Not only that, but this story actually challenges the dominant media narrative based on ‘official’ reporting of events.

So, what are the conclusions and implications here? I’m not entirely sure really. But it’s worth considering the argument that the police don’t just use communications strategies to best report what’s happening, but rather stage-manage events to shape the communcitive outcome.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that while big new outlets remain dominant in shaping the agenda, social media not only provides (potentially mutiple) counter-arguments it seems that this counter-voice can also come from within media corporations.

I guess this latter point seems like common sense, but it’s always nice to spot and note a case study.

MyDavidCameron: some post event analyses

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With the buzz about the remixed Conservative Party election posters and Clifford Singer’s MyDavidCameron website a few days old I thought I’d reflect on the debate and offer up some analysis about what might be going on here and what it means for political parties ahead of the election.

But before I can do that I need to jump back to September last year when I discussed Manuel Castell’s theory of networked power and suggested how it could be applied to the UK’s political blogosphere.

In a nutshell, Castells argues that power in networks is fundamentally about the ability to establish and control particular networks.

This can be achieved by one of two ways:

  1. the ability to constitute network(s), and to program/reprogram the network(s) in terms of goals assigned to the network (largely by setting and controlling the way we perceive issues and information)
  2. the ability to connect and ensure cooperation of different networks by sharing common goals and combining resources (i.e. identifying like-minded networks with which you can work to challenge the dominant program)

Castells calls actors in the first mechanism ‘programmers’ and those in the second mechanism, ‘switchers’.

I argued that Conservative and right-wing blogs were successful because they had programmed the UK’s political network by a) adapting early and b) creating a broad anti-government debate which resonated with the media and wider public.

This meant that left and liberal bloggers had to find common issues and threads with each other and the public with which to try and switch the dominant power in the network away from anti-government/right-wing debate.

So what does this tell us about the MyDavidCameron success? Firstly, I think it supports my original hypothesis. That is, Labour have identified a wider – albeit smaller – network outside of the UK political blogosphere with a shared value (mocking David Cameron/the Conservatives and graphic design).

They are then co-opting this network, forming a strategic partnership but letting the idea and content go where it goes, as opposed to trying to centrally plan and control what happens with the David Cameron imagery.

In my opinion, a political party having the foresight and ability to spot an opportunity like this and use it to help try to ‘switch’ the dominant discourse in the political blogosphere is smart.

Yes, there may be those that say: “well, who wouldn’t jump on an opportunity if it arose?” But I’d argue that the traditional approach to this kind of online meme would be to try and own it: take it in-house.*

I think Labour have deliberately avoided doing this, having learnt the lesson from last summer’s #Welovethenhs grassroot campaign that which Labour co-opted, arguably tried to centralise and quickly destroyed the value in the network. Compare how they're currently using a Labour Party version of MyDavidCameron (i.e. becoming another node in the network) versus their mini-campaign site for #Welovethenhs which argubly tries to own the decentralised campaign network.

But thinking logically about the MyDavidCameron campaign: would Labour seeking to ‘own’ the network really kill it in the same way that it killed #Welovethenhs?

I’m not so sure for two reasons:

  1. Firstly, the #Welovethenhs campaign was not a pro-government campaign; nor was it an anti-tory campaign. It was a pro-public healthcare system campaign. It’s an issue that traditionally has a shared value for with liberal/left networks but not solely. Labour arguably killed this campaign as it tried to go further than switching and instead reprogram the networks’ values as pro-government/pro-Labour.
  2. Secondly, network alignment based on shared opposition to David Cameron and/or the Conservatives is one thing, but the reality is that only Labour can defeat the Conservatives at an election. Therefore, Labour trying to reprogram the goal of the networks driving the MyDavidCameron campaign to be pro-Labour is actually a smart move.

What this says to me is that now we’re entering the run up to an election, the political discourse is no longer split broadly between anti-government/right-wing ideology and pro-Government goals (that were largely indistinguishable form Labour policy).

Instead, Labour is starting to reprogram the UK’s political networks through creating a discourse of Conservatives vs Labour. It’s early days and the Conservatives still have the upper hand but I’d argue that the MyDavidCameron campaign plus the recent emergence of distinct left and Labour-aligned voices is starting to re-balance the pro-right-wing goals of the UK’s political networks.

Footnote:
* What this reveals is Labour’s ability to switch between a traditional command and control political party and a node in a fluid, participative network. Something Andrew Chadwick has defined as “organisational hybridity” – the internet driven phenomena that enables organisations and institutions to switch between being member-led hierarchical institutions, single-issue campaign groups or temporary, loosely joined networks of like-minded individuals. I believe this is what political parties of the future will look like: political parties in all but name, But that’s something for another post.