Exhibition: Propaganda: Power and Persuasion

The British Library has a fascinating exhibition opening today. Titled Propaganda: Power and Persuasion the exhibition runs from 17 May to 17 September 2013 and – quoting the BL’s website – “explores a thought-provoking range of exhibits” that will make you look anew at “the messages, methods, and media used by different states – discovering how they use propaganda through time and across cultures for both power and persuasion.” Sounds good.

The exhibition resonates well with a great book I’m reading at the moment, Public Relations and the Making of Modern Britain, which reappraises the origins of public relations in a British context. The author, Cambridge Leverhulme Fellow, Scott Antony, argues that contrary to common misconceptions of its hard-nosed Bernaysian origins, PR in the UK emerged from a distinctly cultural and governmental agenda. Education, information and ‘improving’ society were imperatives baked into PR from the outset, Antony argues.

Aside from helpfully taking contemporary definitions of PR full circle, such a conception chimes wonderfully with the rest of the BL’s exhibition narrative:

“It is used to fight wars and fight disease, build unity and create division. Whether monumental or commonplace, sincere or insidious, propaganda is often surprising, sometimes horrific and occasionally humorous. […] Propaganda: Power and Persuasion is the first exhibition to explore international state propaganda from the 20th and 21st centuries. From the eye-opening to the mind-boggling, from the beautiful to the surprising, posters, films, cartoons, sounds and texts reveal the myriad ways that states try to influence and persuade their citizens.”

Tickets are £9 (under 18s free) and concessions are available. Check it!

*UPDATED* March 26th demo: some initial thoughts

This blog post sets out some of my thoughts from Saturday's demonstration against the Government's cuts agenda.

It should be taken in the context of my immediate reaction to some of the things I witnessed; my initial analysis and the resulting insights.

I'll also use it as an opportunity to develop some thinking around ideas related to my PhD, in particular theories of power and the media, using things I saw as case studies. I'll save these for a follow-up post.

What follows is, in part, a narrative and, in part, a series of first-hand accounts and analyses. It's been written quickly so my apologies for typos, errors, etc

Firstly, some observations

1. Mass turn out
Make no mistake, Saturday's TUC march was huge. Thus I was surprised to see the BBC reporting that the estimated figure was only 250,000 [EDIT: the BBC has now revised this to "250,000 – 500,000" which is possibly even more useless]. Frankly, I don't understand how they arrived at that figure. More below

2. The limits to social media showed
While social media and digitally networked activism provides radically different opportunities for movements (e.g. UKUncut growing from and organising around a hashtag) there were some limitations with the 'real-time' web on this demo. Although I should caveat that I used my smartphone sparingly to converse battery-life.

Firstly, I found it difficult to track everything that happened in real-time. This is perhaps less a limitation of social media and more a by-product of the sheer dynamism and fluidity of the demo. 'Real-time' on Twitter just wasn't real-time enough to keep pace with the speed things evolved on the streets.

Secondly, some technologies (at least the official Twitter iphone app I was using) struggled to function appropriately under the circumstances. So, for example, the official Twitter app pushes popular tweets (determined by the number of RTs) to the top of the timeline. Perhaps there's way of turning this off but it meant that the up-to-date information so essential in live situations wasn't instantly accessible. The anti-kettling site, Sukey, too while appearing very useful in mapping the situation on the streets also aggregates important tweets, but crucially without a time stamp.

Essentially, the point I suppose I'm making is that in very dynamic and fluid situations making sure real-time is real-time and knowing just what 'real-time' is becomes of paramount importance and I didn't feel the information I was getting was reliably timely.

Perhaps there's a need for an activist-led Twitter/online info tool that is built around quite specific needs.

As a footnote – and I have some thoughts I need to work up – SMS became a really useful too in this situation.

3. Massive black bloc
The size of the black bloc surprised me greatly. I'm no veteran activist but I was with some when we heard about the size of the black bloc and I think it's fair to say even they were surprised. Newsnight's Paul Mason, tonight said it was the biggest black bloc seen on the streets of the UK for a long time.

Speaking from personal experience, I recall seeing a small black bloc of no more than 20-30 during the G20 in 2009; and if you believe the tabloids these were possibly a European black bloc summit-hopping.

At the Mayday demonstration in Parliament Square in 2010 there was a similarly sized black bloc – or at least a group of activists dressed as a black bloc. From recollection they weren't active.

On Saturday, word on the street was that a black bloc of between 2,000 – 3,000 mobile around central London.

I've seen a similar number reported by activist media although a smaller number reported by the mainstream media [saw it somewhere but no link just yet]

Aside from the finer detail, I don't think I've ever seen such a significant black bloc in the UK.

3. The black bloc had very, very young elements
I mean seriously young. On the strand we passed a group of young people possibly 16-17 who were clearly 'blacked up' under their day-to-day clothes. The same scenario was repeated through-out the afternoon on Oxford Street.

4. These have possibly been 'radicalised' by the student demos
There's a very strong possibility, IMHO, that the younger elements of the black bloc have had their outlook on the police, state and capitalism changed as a result of a) government policy and b) their experiences from the student demos late last year.

These young people have had their perceptions of democracy (built up through education, media and recent prosperity) challenged by the reality of how liberal democracies in free-market regimes operate and the inter-relation between the state and police.

5. Black bloc violence wasn't mindless or unconnected to anti-cuts demos
It is a mistake to believe the media reports on this as they're based partly on police press releases and official statements and partly on internalised beliefs within which the media operate (more on this in the conclusion).

Reporting that claimed – as the BBC did – that the black bloc weren't connected to the wider anti-government protests are incorrect and misleading [EDIT: since reading the original BBC report I can now only find references to the black bloc as a 'separate group'].

Those in the black bloc were – from what evidence I saw – acutely aware of the reality of capitalism; the government's policies and agenda and its effect on people. This wasn't mindless vandalism. It was very mindful vandalism. Neither was it violence.

Secondly, some ideas and insights…
           
5. What is the role of the internet in supporting the black bloc phenomenon?
Thinking about this, the role of the Internet has been perhaps to play two significant roles:

  1. Educating people about role of the black bloc
  2. Connecting people keen to build affinity groups around black bloc tactics

Perhaps this is a facile point but without the internet, finding out about black bloc history and its tactics and then connecting with others sharing similar aims would be difficult.

For obvious reasons this activity traditionally would be based around small-scale affinity groups and learning would be a rare and practical experience.

For #26March there was a well publicised Facebook event for those wanting to take-part in black bloc tactics – with upwards of 1,000 – 2,000 cofirmed attendees reflecting the younger demograhic mentioned above [again, no link showing on facebook anymore]

Of course, using the Interent to research, plan and implement black bloc tactics will potentially open up other challenges such as online surveillance and data mining, but that's something for a separate post.

Some conclusions
I've got an embryonic conclusion to write up that ties some of these thoughts together within a framework of power and media but I'll save this for a follow-up post.

*UPDATE* I was hoping to get these concluding thoughts around media and power blogged shortly after this post – however, I need to get some more reading and writing done for my PhD and then hopefully I can come back to this line of thought with a more robust and radical argument.

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.

Activism, Clicktivism and the limits of social media in achieving social change

Last month, Malcolm Gladwell published a piece in The New Yorker arguing that social media was preventing real social change taking place by encouraging what he termed 'clicktivism' – a form of engagement and action based on weak social ties, rather than real-life activism based on strong ties.

Of course, Gladwell’s piece was mostly a straw-man argument concocted to earn him some column inches and boost his profile between book launches. And of course it generated a number of impassioned rebuttals from the social movement and NGO communities.

However, while Gladwell was wrong on most counts, the past week has started to reveal the faultlines within social media and activism.

Drawing on the fall-out from the student demonstrations in central London last week (for those wanting a back-story, see the LRB’s fantasic essay on why the government's cuts are driven by ideology rather than economic necessity) we can argubly see clear limitations to the power of social networking and social change.

First of all, there was zero mobile phone signal for many students during the march which meant people were unable to live-tweet, live-blog or upload images and video in real-time. I’m not sure if there was an explanation for the outage, but it had the same effect regardless: people were unable to live-report and co-ordinate actions online from the heart of the demonstration.

And I didn’t see the Home Office intervening and encouraging mobile networks to fix any problems to cope with increased demand as with the 'Iranian Twitter revolution'.

Secondly, the pitfalls of being a digital native became all to clear to students involved in potentially criminal activity whose actions were uplaoded to social networking sites and shared with the world – especially the media who had a field day harvesting and publishing photography and video of students engaged in direct action.The BBC reports in lurid – and somewhat pointless – detail about this while the Telegraph set up a distasteful 'shop-a-student' section [No link, sorry. Refuse to]. As this was the first action for a lot of students, many failed to ‘mask up’ or conceal their identity.

Thirdly, once the media witch-hunt began and the police started rounding up suspects support and solidarity networks sprang to life via blogs and Twitter offering advice for people involved in the demo as well as  campaigning to raise funds for those facing charges.

However it would seem that the police are pretty good at spotting these websites – largely hosted on corporate blogging platforms or hosting providers – and pressuring the provider to pull the entire site. The most high profile example to date has been Fitwatch, a blog dedicated to reporting on the police Forward Intelligence Teams who take photos of people suspected of being linked to all manner of lawful protests and adding their profiles to a huge database.

Fitwatch (re)posted advice (widely available on the web) providing guidance on how to deal with the fall-out of the demo which resulted in the entire site being removed by its host, Just Host – purely on the say so of an acting detective inspector, Will Hodgeson, from the Met Police's CO11 section.

As of tonight Fitwatch is still offline, despite the Guardian taking up their case.

So, while Gladwell argued that the "revolution won't be tweeted", he sadly might be closer to the truth then he intended – and definitely more than social change campaigners hope he is.

History, historiography and Wikipedia

The Iraq War: Wikipedia Historiography


I’ve been doing some talking and thinking about post-digital recently. A big part of this involves how our
everyday lives have been – and are being – shaped by exposure to online networks and how this
immersion in networks of practice permeates into our real-world thinking.

Usually this is best revealed through our behaviour
and expectations, but colleague and friend Chris Applegate pointed me towards this
awe-inspiring blog post
by James Bridle that seems to neatly invert the notion of post-digital by
re-imagining a very digital product through a very non-digital channel.

Specifically, the James has published in book-form the entire series of edits made to the Wikipedia article on the Iraq War across a five year period from December 2004 to November 2009 – from invasion/liberation to retreat/victory. 

The series totals 12 volumes and incorporates a total of 12,000 changes and almost 7,000 pages. It's truly awesome.

This idea absolutely inspired me. It sets out and makes tangible the idea of history not as a fixed entity of knowledge for knowing, but as a historiography; a
fluid discourse; a body of knowledge in flux.

Ex-Cluetrainee and Berkman Center Fellow,
David Weinberger, in his book Everything is Miscellaneous, terms this process social
knowledge
while
the blogger in question, James Bridle, puts it more eloquently when he states that Wikipedia is:

"not only a resource for collating all
human knowledge, but a framework for understanding how that knowledge came to
be and to be understood; what was allowed to stand and what was not; what we
agree on, and what we cannot.

I cannot agree more.

Call it what you will, the sooner we – and particularly those in positions of authority, influence and power – can recognise and accept that the representation and manifestation of knowledge and
power is a dynamic, fluid, process that yields meaning and suggests outcomes that change over time, the sooner contemporary society will
benefit.

Wikileaks: 10 Theses by Lovink & Riemens

Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens have posted a really interesting analysis of Wikileaks – which is well timed given the current traditional mass media attention.

Their 10 theses begins with some basic reading for those new to wikileaks or crowd-sourced, collaborative investigative journalism that paces it firmly in a time-worn tradition:

These 1:

"[…] Disclosures and leaks have been of all times, but never before has non state- or non- corporate affiliated group done ever before has a non state- or non- corporate affiliated group done this at the scale Wikileaks managed to with the 'Afghan War Logs'.”

Given the current media hype around Wikileaks and the War in Iraq, Lovink and Riemens inject some critical reflection into the debate:

“Nonetheless,” they argue:

“we believe that this is more something of a quantitative leap than of a qualitative one. […] In the ongoing saga termed "The Decline of the US Empire", Wikileaks enters the stage as the slayer of a soft target. It would be difficult to imagine it doing quite the same to the Russian or Chinese  
government, or even to that of Singapore – not to speak of their … 
err… 'corporate' affiliates. Here distinct, and huge, cultural and  
linguistic barriers are at work, not to speak of purely power-related ones, that would need to be surmounted."

Lovink and Riemen's Theses are broad and searching and help any social media evangelists place the current Wikileaks phenomenon into perspective. A must read.