The Ethics of Algorithmic PR: Social Media, Materiality and Post-Hegemonic Power

This is a summary of an embryonic paper accepted as a poster for the EUPRERA Annual Conference 2014: Communication Ethics in a Connected World, LASCO Laboratory, Université Catholique de Louvain, Brussels, Belgium, September 11th-13th.

This year’s call for papers poses the question: what place does ethics have in today’s communication practice? Moreover, it asks what is the relation between ethical issues, power and rhetorical construction of communication and discourse? This paper will attempt to address these questions by proposing a new conceptual framework for PR: one rooted in today’s digitally mediated landscape but, significantly, challenging existing notions of power and the rhetorical nature of contemporary communications.

This post provides a short overview of this new framework, outline some examples observed through ethnographic study of contemporary practice and consider briefly the ethical implications of this.

First and foremost, this paper offers a critical interpretation of public relations, consistent with the emerging field of critical and cultural scholarship in PR characterised as the “socio-cultural ‘turn’” (Edwards and Hodges, 2011: 1). However, I suggest that to adequately examine questions of power and ethics in a contemporary communications environment it is necessary to adopt a neo-materialist position. For instance, Coole and Frost (2010), argue that from a neo-materialist perspective “the more textual approaches associated with the so-called cultural turn are increasingly being deemed inadequate for understanding contemporary society” (Coole and Frost 2010, 2-3).

As a theoretical framework neo-materialist perspectives build on earlier developments in science and philosophy to turn ontological attention to the material – that is physical elements – constituting the world around us as well as the purely phenomenological. Neo-materialism represents a resurgence in the centrality and validity of matter – understood as “a commitment to the mind-independent existence of reality” (DeLanda 2006,1) – in contemporary society and refocuses analysis on the material’s inter-relation with the hitherto dominant analyses of language and representation.

In such a context, society and its constituent parts can be scrutinized through theoretical lenses such as the ‘critical sociology’ of Bruno Latour (2005), the Foucauldian ‘dispositif’ (Foucault 1977) and Delueze and Guattari (1987) and Delanda’s (2006) semio-material ‘assemblages’. Applying such approaches to strategic communication and public relations we can begin to see how dominant analyses of rhetoric, representation and discourse must be expanded to incorporate and account for the hitherto unseen material components of communication, such as technological infrastructure, computer software and bodily physicality of contemporary media practice (Manovich 1999; Latour 2005; Gillespie, Boczkowski and Foot 2014). The paper proceeds by focusing attention on the increasingly computational nature of contemporary PR, in particular the role of algorithms in influencing and controlling strategic communications (Manovich 2012; Lash 2007).

Accepting such a conceptual framework of contemporary communication grounded in material-semiotic terms, I propose developing the notion of ‘algorithmic PR’ – that is a recognition that PR practice has computational software as an integral and central part. Arguably few – if any – analyses of contemporary PR have addressed this dimension of strategic communication in the digital media environment. Such a gap requires identifying and exploring to fully understand the critical and ethical implications.

 

Identifying Examples of Algorithmic PR

The first step in this process is to identify and substantiate empirical examples of what an be understood as ‘algorithmic PR’. The following are two tentative scenarios where algorithmic PR can be discerned. Data for these examples has been gathered through ethnographic observation and interviews conducted with a number of UK-based, international communication agencies.

Scenario 1 -  Global Brand Crisis Strategy

In this scenario, a global brand had been targeted by an activist group primarily via its Facebook page. The group had initiated its attack strategically on a Sunday evening when the brand’s social media managers were not actively monitoring the Page. By Monday morning the Page was filled with anti-brand messages and calls for the brand to intervene to stop a wider international situation.

At this point, the activists’ communication had only had an impact on the brand’s Facebook presence and a meeting with the brand’s corporate communications team and social media agency crisis team was convened to judge the most appropriate response.
According to best practice, it was agreed that a response to activists’ concerns would be developed and posted on the brand’s Facebook Page. As the crisis was largely contained within Facebook it was agreed that no further external crisis communications activity was required.

Before the statement could be issued, however, claims started to appear on Facebook that the brand was censoring comments made by activists. In an era of social media, where transparency and openness are paramount (and enshrined in the brand’s own organisational policies for participation in social media) this was a serious development. A rapid investigation by the agency and client was initiated to establish whether or who was deleting user comments.

While the investigation was underway a high-profile media blogger had picked up on the crisis and criticism of the brand’s alleged ‘censorship’ of the Facebook debate and published a scathing article criticising the brand for adopting an anti-democratic approach to online debate. This initial post was picked up by other bloggers and subsequently traditional media and shared widely. This directed much greater attention and scrutiny on to the issue, exacerbating the organisational crisis for the brand.

After some research it was confirmed that no individual employee of the brand or agency was responsible for deleting activists’ posts and comments. In fact, the content was being ‘censored’ by Facebook’s built-in ‘auto-moderation’ functionality without knowledge of the agency or brand. This algorithmic tool detects profanity and other pre-determined ‘keywords’ appearing on the page and automatically ‘holds’ the comments for approval or deletion. While it can be argued that such a function is beneficial in helping brands and organisations from publishing offensive content, it is notable here that Facebook’s algorithm was responsible for exerting non-human agency to censor online discourse. This ‘unseen’ and material aspect of the communication process at work on the brand’s Facebook Page subsequently damaged the brand’s reputation to a greater extent that the original went. As a result it catalysed the spread of awareness of a critical issue and triggered a much wider crisis for the organisation.

Scenario 2 – Non-representational Communications Strategy

Discussion with a ‘digital reputation manager’ from an international PR agency revealed that a common strategy to help improve the public perception of an organisation with a poor reputation or public record would involve the targeting of Google results page. This approach was chosen due to the central importance of search engine results pages (SERPS) (and Google’s market dominance in particular) in shaping public awareness and perceptions of an organisations. Studies indicate, for example, that the first page of Google results generate 94% of clicks and the top result responsible for a third of all clicks.

Taking advantage of this situation, the digital reputation management activity of the agency would focus on developing a strategy that aimed to push negative, damaging or undesirable content off Google’s initial SERPs. If possible, this content would be replaced with positive – or more usually ‘non-negative’ content. This was achieved by studying (and, to an extent, second guessing) Google’s PageRank algorithm. Anecdotally if you can’t something on Google, it doesn’t exist.

The PageRank algorithm is Google’s the proprietary and commercially sensitive algorithm that determines where websites and content are displayed in Google’s results based on a given search enquiry. While the PageRank algorithm is a tightly guarded secret, a number of tactics can be deployed to ‘game’ or ‘optimise’ the results (see Philips and Young, 2009: 24).

These tactics and – more broadly – the strategic approach I would term ‘non-representational communication’. That is, it is a communications strategy that privileges as its outcome, the material effect of influencing an algorithmic, computational response, rather than exert a representational or phenomenological response by a human. The strategy creates and disseminates content that is designed to interact with and generate a positive outcome in Google search results solely as the desired outcome. This is in opposition to representational communication content which is designed to establish a mutual or communicative understanding based on a textual or visual interaction.

To illustrate this point, a representational approach to communication might be premised on producing information that represents the organisation’s position and adopted phenomena to elicit an emotional or informational response by the individual receiver. In a non-representational approach the individual receiver is only a secondary consideration. Rather the ‘message’ is created purely to trigger a positive (material) response by Google’s material algorithm.

Other examples
There are other examples of Algorithmic PR at work which are currently being gathered and analysed as part of this project. In many instances, the same non-representational strategies are being adopted by PR practitioners and communicators either intentionally or by proxy through the increased adoption of digital technology, such as Facebook, Twitter and other communications activities and processes requiring computational interaction – for example social media monitoring, social media measurement and brand or issue analysis using big data all rely on largely unseen – or at best – overlooked algorithmic or computational processes.

Algorithmic PR, Post-Hegemonic Power and Ethics
Having provided some examples of Algorithmic PR it is now important to explore some of its theoretical and practical implications. In keeping with the primary concerns of the conference this analysis will focus on assessing the usefulness of existing notions of ethics and power within PR.

Existing analyses of PR’s communicative power have tended to focus on the hegemonic potential of strategic communications’ rhetorical and discursive dimensions. That is, the ways in which discourse (as imagery and text) are created to represent specific ideologies and then seek to normalize them through repeated circulation or co-option or rejection of opposing ideologies.
However, algorithmic PR functions at a material level within the algorithmic software embedded in the technological infrastructure of communications tools. As a result power operates prior to and within the formation of conventional hegemonic representations. This is a notion Lash (2007) terms ‘post-hegemonic power’.

Interpreted as such, post-hegemonic power isn’t constructed from the outside and imposed on people through representative communication created and crafted by human agency, but rather generated from within through non-representative, material and non-human elements present in digital platforms (Beer 2009). This raises potent questions for scholarly understandings of PR, ethics and power.

For example, the notion of ethics and ethical values are traditionally understood as socially constructed and thus rooted in the individual agency – and processes – of practitioners. Read from  the ontological perspective of neo-materialism and post-hegemonic reading of power, ethical concerns need rethinking as they immediately become entangled in complex semio-material assemblages constituted through human and non-human agency – that is, through socially constructed practitioner decisions (i.e. doing the right thing’) and the augmentation by computational behaviours embedded in algorithms.

Take for example, the crisis case study discussed above. Practitioners were attempting to operate ethically by engaging with critical activists whereas Facebook’s algorithm had other “intentions’.’ How can practitioners, tasked with applying and adhering to ethical standards, such as consciously “protect[ing] and advance[ing] the free flow of accurate and truthful information” and “foster[ing] informed decision making through open communication” (PRSA n.d.), ensure that this occurs when algorithms can now be seen to play such a central role.

The Facebook brand crisis case study cited above illustrates this point neatly. Practitioners, believing they are operating as openly and accurately as possible, find their actions undermined by unseen software embedded within the platform. In turn, this type of challenge raises additional questions about social media and communication ethics. Some practitioners and scholars superficially suggest that social media is fostering a corporate and social environment requiring increased transparency and openness – values broadly supportive of ethical communication (Wright and Hinson 2008; Bertot, Jaeger and Grimes 2010) . Recognising algorithmic PR’s potential to exert hidden post-hegemonic power challenges this ‘ethical turn’ of social media.

More significantly from a macro-perspective, given the increased significance of non-human agency in shaping communicative power and PR practice, where can power be located? Where does it operate and who or what can influence or shape it?

The ‘flat’ ontological status of neo-materialism prevents ascribing a permanent reading of post-hegemonic power as either rooted a priori in human or non-human agency. Rather, its presence lies dispersed within complex and continual interactions of the material and semiotic. For example, when humans interact with algorithms, both the algorithmic software and human ‘software’ (that is, the brain’s computational capacity) both respond to each other and adapt accordingly (Manovich 1999).

We can see such a scenario in the context of algorithmic PR when, for example, a communications manager will craft content designed to respond optimally with Facebook’s Edgerank algorithm and in return the Edgerank algorithm will respond in a situationally specific way to make the communicator’s content or message more or less visible to the Facebook user network. This is a concern faced and addressed by many PR practitioners on a daily basis when planning messages and content for distribution through Facebook.

In such material-semiotic assemblages (Deleuze and Guattari 1987; DeLanda 2006) tracing agency becomes a much more complex and multifaceted task that PR scholarship must recognise and take steps to address.

References:

Beer, D. (2009) ‘Power Through the Algorithm?’ New Media Society. 11: 985.

Bertot, J. C., Jaeger, P. T. and Grimes, J. M. (2010) ‘Using ICTs to create a culture of transparency: E-government and social media as openness and anti-corruption tools for societies’ Government Information Quarterly. 27, 3: 264-271.

DeLanda, M. (2006) A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. London and New York: Continuum.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Edwards, L. and Hodges, C. (2011) Public Relations, Society & Culture: Theoretical and Empirical Explorations. London: Routledge.

Foucualt, M. (1977) ‘The Confession of the Flesh’ in Gordon, C. (1980) (ed.) Power/Knowledge Selected Interviews and Other Writings. 194-228.

Gillespie, T., Boczkowski, P. J. and Foot, K. A. (2014) Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality and Society. Cambridge, MA. And London: MIT Press.

Lash, S. (2007) ‘Power after Hegemony: Cultural Studies in Mutation?’. Theory, Culture, Society. 24: 55.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Manovich, L. (1999) ‘Database as Symbolic Form’. Convergence. 5: 80.

Manovich, L. (2012) Data Stream, Database, Timeline. Software Studies Initiative blog. Online. Available at: http://lab.softwarestudies.com/2012/10/data-stream-database-timeline-new.html [Accessed 23rd February 2014)

Phillips, D. and Young, P. (2009) Online Public Relations. London: Kogan Page.

PRSA. (n.d.) ‘Ethical Guidance for Public Relations Practitioners’. PRSA website. Online. Available at: http://www.prsa.org/aboutprsa/ethics/#.UxBj615Rndh [Accessed 23rd February 2014)

Wright, D. K. and Hinson, M. (2008) Examining the Increasing Impact of Social Media on the Public Relations Practice. Institute for Public Relations. Online. Available at: http://www.clayton.k12.mo.us/cms/lib/MO01000419/Centricity/Domain/2/NSPRA/SM_ImpactOf.pdf [Accessed 7th September 2014]

 

New Journal Article: Boundary-Drawing Power and the Renewal of Professional News Organization

I’m very pleased to report that Professor Andy Chadwick and I have a new co-authored article published today in the International Journal of Communication.

The article, Boundary-Drawing Power and the Renewal of Professional News Organizations: The Case of the Guardian and the Edward Snowden NSA Leak, explores the ways in which – despite the apparent democratising and disruptive potential of digitally networked media – traditional news organisations are responding to the changing landscape and reclaiming a powerful space for their continued existence. We look at the #NSAFiles revelations and focus on the Guardian’s innovative news production strategy.

I’ve pasted the full abstract and citation below:

Andrew Chadwick and Simon Collister “Boundary-Drawing Power and the Renewal of Professional News Organizations: The Case of the Guardian and the Edward Snowden NSA Leak” International Journal of Communication 8, 2014.

Abstract

We argue that the Edward Snowden NSA leak of 2013 was an important punctuating phase in the evolution of political journalism and political communication, as media systems continue to adapt to the incursion of digital media logics. We show how the leak’s mediation reveals professional news organizations’ evolving power in an increasingly congested, complex, and polycentric hybrid media system where the number of news actors has radically increased. We identify the practices through which the Guardian reconfigured and renewed its power and which enabled it to lay bare highly significant aspects of state power and surveillance. This involved exercising a form of strategic, if still contingent, control over the information and communication environments within which the Snowden story developed. This was based upon a range of practices encapsulated by a concept we introduce: boundary-drawing power.

The full paper can be downloaded here.

Call for Papers: Public Relations and the Visual

Myself and fellow colleagues/members of the The Network for Public Relations and Society have been busy planning our Summer conference over the past few months and we’re delighted to reveal the date and theme of the event and issue a call for participation as well.

Titled Public Relations and The Visual: Exploring Identity, Space and Performance, the conference is a one-day event being held on Wednesday 9th July 2014 from 10am-4.30pm at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London.

The aim of the conference is to bring together PR industry experts and academics to explore and debate the role of visual dimensions in public relations theory and practice. From media representations of PR professionals to branded spaces; issues of identity and performance, the conference will explore these and other visual themes from a societal perspective.

Participants will explore a variety of viewpoints to conceptualise the industry and debate new ways of thinking about and visualising practice. The overarching aim of the event is to encourage collaboration and partnership between practitioners and academics to develop new thinking across the field.

We welcome proposals undertaking an analytical and/or critical examination of the PR industry and practice focused on any aspects of the visual or representational dimensions of public relations. Submissions can be made by individuals, groups or organisations.

Moreover, we encourage challenging and thought-provoking proposals from both practitioners and academics that seek to critique existing areas of PR and help the industry and practice move forward.

The event will be led by two keynote speakers (currently being confirmed) and two broad themes each containing three debates will be explored in greater detail during a morning and afternoon session.

We are looking for academics and practitioners from a range of disciplines who are interested in presenting 15-20 minute papers covering some of the following areas:

Stream 1: Visualising the PR Profession

a) Public Relations in Popular Media
How is PR and its practitioners represented in fiction, television and film? What impact do these visualisations have on the way PR practitioners see themselves and the ways in which the public comprehends PR? Does this change professional and personal identities and the way practitioners behave?

b) Public Relations Identities
How do PR practitioners view themselves?  What are their self-identities and how do these identities shape contemporary professional and personal practice? Moreover, what are the dominant and marginalised identities in PR and how do they shape the industry and the wider professionalisation project?

c) Visions of Future
 Practice
With the boundaries between PR, advertising, digital marketing and search engine optimisation blurring at a frenetic pace what does the evolving landscape of PR look like? Is it possible to sketch a vision for PR practice in a digital world? What knowledge, skills and competencies does such a vision require?

Stream 2: PR as Visual Practice
a) Dramatising society: creating immersive environments
How can PR practitioners use theatre and performance as a communications tool? What role does creating new physical realities play in changing behaviour, beliefs and galvanizing word of mouth?

b) Branded spaces: PR as place identity and spatial communication
How can space be used as a PR tool?  PR practitioners are used to creating and using exhibition and event space but what more can be learned about the way the built and designed environment creates narrative and discourse?  How can this be used as a creative PR component?

c) Designing stories: PR as visual communications
How can the PR and design relationship be used to full effect?  From traditional graphic design to poster and film; from comic strips to animation; how can visual storytelling be used to persuade, influence and stimulate relationships?

If you would like to present please email: s [dot] collister [at] lcc [dot] arts [dot] ac [dot] uk by 30th April 2014 to express interest in participating. Fuller papers and presentations will be due by 31st June 2014.

Let me know below if you have any questions!

Launching the Network for Public Relations and Society

Last week we held a small event to officially launch a new research network based out of the Public Relations department at London College of Communications, UAL. The Network for Public Relations and Society aims to explore – academically and alongside practice – the social role of PR.

This is an area which has received renewed interest in recent years from scholars addressing the discipline from a range of perspectives united by the view that PR operates beyond the organisation in making, shaping and influencing society. These directions extend the more dominant and conventional academic accounts of PR as a management discipline. You can see more about how we contextualise our research areas in the Slideshare below:

The event featured a presentation by myself and my colleague, Sarah Roberts-Bowman, and some short talks from the University of Cambridge’s Dr Scott Anthony and our colleague from Central St Martins, UAL, Dr Paul Rennie, on some of the historical aspects of PR.

Paul, in particular, gave a fascinating account of the role posters played in the early era of PR focusing on the work of the artist (and LCC’s first ever head of design) Tom Eckersley. An exhibition of Tom’s work was on display at LCC and after the event guests were able to see some of the ground-breaking visual communications work which Tom created for the GPO, RoSPA, Ministry of Information, Shell and others.

Our other speaker, Scott Anthony, provided guests with a revisionist history of PR practice in Britain based on his fantastic book form last year, Public Relations and the Making of Modern Britain. Scott began by discussing how, contrary to earlier histories of modern PR which locate the discipline’s origins at the feet of early – mainly US – C20th capitalists, modern PR in a British context was initiated primarily by a group of “idealists” led by Sir Stephen Tallents.

These PR pioneers, Scott suggested, were “Asquithian liberals” who began their professional life attempting to counter the sensationalist and alarmist information presented to the public by the early press barons. More ideologically, as he makes clear in his book on the history of the PR profession in the UK, Tallents and his network of film-makers, artists and designers sought to conjure up and ‘project’ a vision of a progressive Britain where democratic enfranchisement, improving living standards and liberal values were at the heart of a new and exciting Britain.

PR’s practical role is this project, Scott argued, was more than news management – the perspective from which PR is all too often understood and practiced as today. Rather, PR began as a socio-cultural endeavour drawing in cultural and artistic avenues such as art, architecture, design, film, posters. Moreover, these weren’t seen as “instrumentalist” delivery channels or media platforms, they were a core constituent of what it meant to communicate publicly.

And while much of this early PR activity was located and sponsored by big, state owned organisations – the GPO, BBC, London Transport and Ministry of Information are obvious examples – the “social mission” of PR, as Scott described it, extended to corporations, such as Shell, BP, Guinness, Gillette, too.

Referring to the aim of his book, Scott remarked that its sought was to “recover the history of PR” as a practice that really mattered – socially, as well as personally, to the early British practitioners. This neatly captures, too, the aims of the Network for Public Relations and Society.

Although time and society has been transformed since Tallents’ day – the state-owned industries have disappeared, the public service role of local authorities has all but been obliterated, the role of the ‘public’ has been displaced or lost in many areas of society and the media – there is a growing impetus, we believe, to renew interest in and scholarship of a range of areas related to the ‘social’ role of PR.

The specific aims and scope of the Network can be understood in more detail in the slides above but we feel that areas of particular interest include: the interpolation of social theory in understanding PR; the exploration of the social history of PR (in a UK and globally comparative context); the role of PR in communicating socially aligned, as opposed to corporate, narratives (such as through social change and activist campaigns) and the increasing rise of social media and the expansion of the social into hitherto unexplored domains of public communication.

If you would like to find out more or get involved drop me an email s [dot] collister [at]. lcc [dot] arts [dot] ac [dot] uk. If you’d like to be kept informed of developments please sign up to the Network’s mailing list: http://eepurl.com/Ljt-j

We look forward to hearing from you!

Report: PRCA State of Digital PR

I’m really late getting around to posting this, but last month Ketchum’s Danny Whatmough presented the findings of the PRCA’s State of Digital PR report.

The report, which surveyed 136 agency and in-house teams, highlights a number of key themes which for those in and observing the UK’s PR industry should make interesting findings.

It’s a good report but at the moment I just want to pull out a couple of revealing results:

  • Nearly half (46%) of PR practitioners surveys spend only 1-10% of their budget on digital
  • The top activity that measly budget is spent on is web design and build
  • Followed by social media monitoring
  • … and then SEO

I find this interesting partly as while optimists might say that PR is adapting is also highlights the fact that the core digital services undertaken by PR agencies overlap with wider – perhaps more specialised – sectors.

Great that PR is competing on more levels, but does it have the specialist knowledge to compete and win? See my previous post about PR, social media and specialisation.

ICA Pre-Conference: ‘Power through communication technology’

I sat in on an interesting ICA pre-conference session earlier this week that sought to identify and address a series of questions around the issue of power and communication technology in a globalised society. There were a good range of speakers and topics up for discussion, including:

  • Michael L. Kent, University of Oklahoma, USA – Taking a Critical Look at Technology in Public Relations: We Have an App for That
  • Dean Kruckeberg, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, USA – Another Inconvenient Truth
  • Erich J. Sommerfeldt, University of Maryland-College Park, USA – Social Media Silos and Civil Society: A Role for Public Relations in Contemporary Development Communication Efforts
  • Katerina Tsetsura, University of Oklahoma, USA – In @ We Trust? Public Relations Realities of Fake Online Personalities
  • Chiara Valentini,  Aarhus University, Denmark – Social Mediars: The New Online Stakeholders for Public Relations?
  • Stephen Waddington, European Digital Social Media Director at Ketchum and President-Elect CIPR – Public Relations and New Communication Technologies – A Professional Perspective

 

I’ve embedded a Storify stream above for tweeted highlights but it’s I’ve added my own post-event reflections below:

  • Stephen Waddington remarked that many of the academics there were notably pessimistic about the potential of social media. I think this was partly due to the way the session was framed – and there were some definite critical perspectives explored, but there was also a number of pragmatic questions asked about social media which is needed. Some, such as whether communicators are measuring their organisation/client’s ‘sociability’ or building small, deep networks around customers/stakeholders, are being realised in certain areas; meanwhile other critical questions, such as attempting to unpick  social media’s role in driving a deeper marketisation of society, are worth exploring further
  • There was some agreement that scholars need to move beyond existing models of PR and communications when exploring social media. Stephen Waddington highlighted the apparent unsuitability of Grunig’s work to social media (despite Grunig’s protestations to the contrary) while Erich Sommerfeldt highlighted the centrality of technology and technological affordances in mutually shaping personal and organisational identity and behaviour among activist groups. I mentioned Bruno Latour and Actor-network Theory which offers a really interesting account of the role technology plays in mediating society. These are issues largely far from PR and communications scholarship and need rethinking as a matter of urgency
  • It also occurred to me how many participants – certainly those from US-oriented universities – have read their Marx. There were two particularly impassioned critical accounts of technology and its potentially negative role in society from Dean Kruckeberg and Michael L. Kent. But some of the most pertinent points and questions raised (e.g. technology’s role in creating social and economic precarity; in further reorienting social relations around capital/the market, etc) are squarely addressed – or least acknowledged – by Marx and groups of contemporary Post-Marxist scholars, including Terranova, Beradi, Negri… even Castells
  • Finally, speaking of Castells… while he had his name dropped a few times there was a definite dominance of interpretive research. Giddens’ Theory of Structuration was covered extensively by Erich Sommerfeldt and Chiara Valentini invoked Alan Kirby but a bit more theoretical underpinning of some of the ideas discussed wouldn’t have gone amiss (but then again, I am a bit of a theory fan)

 

Demos’ Virtually Members report is virtually useful

The centre-left [sic] think-tank, Demos, has a new report out presenting some interesting insights about the virtual ‘membership’ of the UK’s three main political parties. Titled, Virtually Members: The Facebook and Twitter Followers of UK Political Parties, the briefing paper is the latest publication to come from Demos’ Centre for Social Media Analysis. I’ve embedded the full paper below:

Virtually Members by Simon Collister

Despite, however, the snazzy name and Demos’ past reputation for leading-edge research into social media (I can remember attending a number of briefing events about social media and political engagement back in 2009/10) the report feels fairly lightweight – even if it is a vaguely dressed up corporate sponsorship vehicle for Tweetminster which provides the authors with analytics technology.

For example, in 2013 after two US election cycles and a UK general election with social media playing a central part; the coalition embedding edemocracy into parliamentary process; not to mention the numerous examples of social media empowered social movements, such as UKUncut, 38 Degrees, etc, the report’s opening statement hardly sets the pulse racing:

“The internet and social media are having a profound effect on British politics: it will re-shape the way elections are won and lost, how policy is made, and how people get involved in formal and informal politics.”

Equally disappointing is the report’s focus on evaluating social media quantities (fans, followers, etc) for main political parties and attempting to equate these with some comparable measure of party membership. Didn’t we move beyond such quantitative fixations years ago? Even with caveats adopting such a straw man position risks undermining the overall findings – which do make some salient points about political participation and mobilisation – from the outset.

More worryingly, I can’t see any attempt in the analysis to account for the spam followers we know most (if not all) Twitter account accrue; not to mention the phantom ‘Likes’ Facebook (or third parties) seem to generate, thus boosting fans and skewing quantitative analyses. And this isn’t a particularly low key phenomenon at the moment.

Maybe I’m being overly harsh, but a failure to acknowledge and engage with the messy realities of social media in a post-IPO world make the Demos paper difficult to take too seriously, which is a shame as the CASM (and the team behind it) appears to have a lot of potential.

Conference presentation: Re-Assembling Mediated Power

I was meant to give this presentation last week at the SEDTC conference at Royal Holloway last week but unfortunately wasn’t able to. I thought I’d share it here anyway.

The original abstract is here to give the presentation some context and I’ll hopefully uploading the full paper in due course.

Anarchism & Social Technology: Contextualising the (non?)-field? – Full conference paper

I blogged a couple of months ago about hosting and facilitating a conference stream at the Anarchist Studies Network’s conference, Making Connections, about the relationship between anarchism and social technology. We had two presenters come along and discuss their research which focused on and explored some novel theoretical approaches to social media and technology from a distinctly anarchist or libertarian communist perspective.

Aaron Peters spoke about the network society, public-private spheres and Paolo Virno‘s ‘Soviets of the Multitude‘ in relation to the networked social movements we’ve seen emerge around the globe post-economic collapse. While Thomas Swann discussed the potential for cybernetic theory to be brought into play to account for the decentralised organising seen during last year’s riots and what this might mean for a conceptual model of anarchist organising. You can get download Aaron’s paper via Scribd here and Thomas’ paper here.

Aside from facilitating, I presented a short paper that aimed to contextualise what Gordon (2008) has described as the “ambivalent relationship” between anarchism and technology. This ambivalence as one of the reasons we proposed the stream originally as despite the conference organisers citing the #Occupy and Arab Spring movements as powerful, contemporary anti-authoritarian social media-enabled forces rising from the grass-roots, there were few attempts to engage with and analyse technology directly within the conference’s extensive agenda. My paper attempts to understand why this is and suggest what might might be done:

Ultimately, the paper – and the wider conference stream – aimed to kick-start a debate about the role technology plays (and the potential it possesses) in political resistance and social struggles as well as to stimulate renewed theoretical as well as practical engagements with the topic. What this might look like, I’m not entirely sure yet – although I’m fairly soundly convinced it will need to include a greater level of scholarly and activist reflection and praxis – but I’d love to hear any suggestions.

Frames-as-Assemblages – Full conference paper

I’ve eventually found time to finish writing and editing a full version of the conference paper I presented at the Caught in the Frame conference at the University of Leicester last month.

You can see the presentation that accompanies this paper in the post below, but this fuller paper give a more detailed overview of the context in which I’m seeking to develop the notion of frames-as-assemblages. It also draws attention to a number of specific features within assemblages that might offer potentially powerful routes for analysing mediated communications in networked environments.