New Chapter: Routledge Handbook of Critical Public Relations

I’m happy to s51aGYgBRcPL._SL500_ay that my chapter, ‘Algorithmic PR: Materiality, Technology and Power in a Post-Hegemonic World’ has been published in the newly launched Routledge Handbook of Critical Public Relations.

The book was officially released last month at the recent Public Relations: Critical Perspectives, Edgework and Creative Futures conference held at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh

It’s a mammoth text – standing at 446 pages – but having browsed a copy there is not much that isn’t innovative, instructive or inspiring about the content. Here’s the official blurb:

Critical theory has a long history, but a relatively recent intersection with public relations. This ground-breaking collection engages with commonalities and differences in the traditions, whilst encouraging plural perspectives in the contemporary public relations field.

Compiled by a high-profile and widely respected team of academics and bringing together other key scholars from this field and beyond, this unique international collection marks a major stage in the evolution of critical public relations. It will increasingly influence how critical theory informs public relations and communication.

The collection takes stock of the emergence of critical public relations alongside diverse theoretical traditions, critiques and actions, methodologies and future implications. This makes it an essential reference for public relations researchers, educators and students around a world that is becoming more critical in the face of growing inequality and environmental challenges. The volume is also of interest to scholars in advertising, branding, communication, consumer studies, cultural studies, marketing, media studies, political communication and sociology.

More info from Routledge here.

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]

 

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)

 

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!

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.

*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.

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.