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Reflections on Social Media and Political Work

by Carolin Huang

What does it mean to do political work through social media? As someone who grew up with the Internet, I have been privy to the social interactions that the Internet has enabled. The grounds for us to find others with similar politics, visions, priorities and goals are ever-so-expansive. It means that we can have multiple discussions simultaneously and multimedially, and access social networks and information that would otherwise necessitate more time and effort to find.

Our social relationships with one another are transforming with the Internet; we mourn differently, we share differently, and we fight differently. Through the Internet, I’ve been able to watch politically-charged events unravel into calamity in the calm of my own home. We frantically search for the correct hashtag when we cannot be there in person, in the moment, resisting. We worry for our friends and send messages of care, as we see, through social media, the everyday violences surface and implode. The use of Twitter was essential to the Quebec student/anti-austerity movement in 2012 and is essential the Black liberation movement resurging from 2013 to the present. Folks were able to find each other at demonstrations, film the actions of the police, provide live-time documentation of important moments, and set up post-action networks of support – ultimately establishing a kind of online or digitally facilitated activism.

As a millennial of colour, I’ve navigated my way through internet space and embraced new realms of relationship-creating. It was through internet space that I was able to understand the histories and legacies I’ve inherited, witness important political conversations, and connect with other youth of similar histories and politics. Even at geographic distance, we are still able to imagine future worlds together.

Furthermore, the avenues of organizing provided by the Internet have advanced disability justice struggles. Mental health, mobility restraints, lack of access(ibility), responsibilities of care and support, and all the burdens of work, of capitalism, are reasons why most folks cannot be there – physically present, at in-person meetings, at demonstrations. Social media has become so prevalent that we cannot ignore it as an important political terrain for action. It has provided so much space for those neglected by mainstream media.

Yet, what are the limitations of doing political work through social media? There is a profound amount of emotional labour that is expended on the Internet – labour that is often left uncompensated and unrecognized. As Jennifer Pan has demonstrated in “Pink Collar”, the realm of public relations/communications, of which social media is a major component, is highly gendered and relies on the exploitation of emotional labour. She argues that the very reason why this work is often disrespected and undervalued is because it is dependent on emotional labour, a kind of labour that both sustains and is abused by capitalism. This hierarchy of labour is especially apparent in the divide between the ‘real’/material political work of direct action and the ‘less real’/virtual political work of social media, often done by women and people of colour.

Instead of internalizing this divide and with the recognition of social media as work, perhaps we can think about how much of our labour can be exhausted in our social media interactions and on that basis, decide to participate selectively. The political arguments on social media platforms that go on to have +100 replies (which are repeating and circular in meaning) perhaps aren’t worth the labour or the attention. There are ways in which social media work can be effective for and affirmative of social movements. So many actions flourish through social media. As do relationships. We just need to develop effective online/digitally-facilitated activism that recognizes the importance of some social media work and is strategic to more profound social justice visioning.

Rethinking Transformative Media

by: Carolin Huang

What does it say about media activism when we continue to fall short of our political praxis? I ask this question to better frame an issue that wavers in and out of political consideration: that journalism is still dominated by white men. While I am restating what is both hypervisible and hyper-invisibilized, I want to revisit it as a way to retain it in our political consciousness. Such starkness in whiteness and maleness has put into question the palpability of media democracy. As further recognition, I want to emphasize the gendered/racialized division of labour that journalism, and of course, other forms of media, reinforces. Ultimately, I hope these recognitions make evident the importance of transforming the structures and values of our organizing.

The gendered/racialized division of labour is especially reflected in the differentiation of media into categories of more political forms of media vs. personal forms of media. For instance, Tumblr, Twitter, and zines are often considered less reliable sources of media compared to established media outlets, because they are more personal. This begs the question: what is considered political work? Both Tumblr and Twitter have been essential tools for political organizing among queers and millennials of colour. Inasmuch as these social media platforms often serve different purposes than news platforms, they should be acknowledged for the political weight they carry.

The absence of women, people of colour and LGBTQ people in journalism should make us question the transformative potential of journalism in its current form. This is not to overlook the many white male journalists and few non-white, non-male journalists who are doing essential work, but to highlight the new paths that have emerged because the current structures have not served many groups of people. Autonomous media groups that centre particular politicized identities have been formed in response to professional journalism. Sometimes these groups emerge out of a refusal to work with certain individuals/institutions and at others times, out of a desire to transform our social relationships in our work. We can look at these groups as espousing a form of ‘strategic essentialism’, a political aligning based on identity, that recognizes different points of convergence and divergence. These groups work against a politics of inclusion in the field of journalism, particularly for the reason that structures never transform for the sake of mere inclusion.

Even in the content of mainstream and alternative journalism outlets, hierarchies can be formed through the valuing of certain discourses over others – a valuing that ultimately casts certain voices as less prominent than others. Certain issues relating to economics (government spending, austerity, class war) are still prioritized, whereas issues relating to colonialism and feminism are sectioned off, scarcely present, or rendered unconnected to issues of economics. But as Wendy Brown explains in her new book Undoing the Demos, the condition of neoliberalism has already cast all aspects of society, including non-economic parts of society (education, culture), as marketable, consumable, and measurable in capital. Thus, the divide between economic and social issues is as blurry as ever. New perspectives and voices are needed for understanding our current sociopolitical context; in alternative/activist media, where the exclusionary structures of mainstream journalism are mirrored, this means recognizing voices/perspectives outside of the usual white men speaking about class war.

The exclusionary structures in journalism are very much embedded in its labour dynamics, and unpaid internships have come to represent the epitome of this exclusionary structure. We forget in our social movements that writing is a form of labour. Many believe that ‘writing for the revolution’ should be free labour but this neglects how writing for free comes from a position of privilege. As a result of this kind of neglect, only certain individuals are enabled as journalists. In this way, these kinds of organizing structures can often affirm the status quo, particularly if we do not put our political praxis into practice in our everyday relationships. As activist-writer Yasmin Nair asserts in her essay “Make Art! Change the World! Starve!: The Fallacy of Art as Social Justice”: “We need to stop asking ourselves only: Are these projects going to change the world? Instead, we ought to ask: Are these projects fair and equitable and just in the way they treat artists as workers?” I realize that fully engaging with the issue of unpaid labour goes beyond the scope of the blog post but I want to make evident the connection between the issue of race and gender in media and the issue of unpaid labour in media. If we are hoping to make any revolutionary shifts in our organizing and society as a whole, we need to be open to transforming the structures of organizing themselves.

On the of Fractures of ‘Community’

by Carolin Huang

Consider when mainstream media, and much alternative media uses the word ‘community,’ particularly in the framing of what the (insert ethnic/cultural/racial) community thinks/does. ‘The __ community’ agrees with this. ‘The ___ community’ disagrees with that. ‘The ___community’ is in conflict with ‘the ___ community.’  While it may seem obvious what problems might arise, I want to emphasize some of these problems to underline the persistence of faulty (and often violent!) journalistic practices, even in ‘giving voice to the voiceless’.

When we are attempting to shed light on a particular social issue (such as homelessness, police brutality, environmental degradation), it is frequent that we want to centre those directly affected by the issue. But herein lies the possible danger of simplistic framing – offering a perspective as expressed by ‘THE ___ community’.  This not only frames the so called ‘___ community’ as a unified, homogenous group, but also as always the victim (as opposed to fighter) of oppression. Voices lose their nuances in the framing of community, especially when these voices are of those with less institutional power – those often being spoken about. It would look very different if we decided to shift the focus from harm to resistance when we talk about violence. But that might actually challenge our beloved politics of representation, if we want something more than having our voices, or more accurately, the voice of ‘our community’, included.

During the recent Canadian elections, in which Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde urged Indigenous people to vote, media debates were obsessed with the question of ‘the Indigenous vote’. It was assumed that all Indigenous peoples were politically aligned and supposed to want the same political future. But there were different parties that Indigenous peoples would vote for. Indigenous peoples in Canada were only legally allowed to vote in 1960, and did not have to renounce their treaty rights and status, as determined by the Indian Act, to vote. The electoral system is thus one of the very tools used by the state to disenfranchise Indigenous peoples. Because of this, there were still Indigenous folks who still did not want to vote and participate in a settler colonial state system.

The fracture in ‘community’ is especially evident in the media coverage of Akai Gurley’s murder. The ‘Asian-American community’ was divided between supporting or opposing the indictment of Peter Liang, the Chinese-American officer who shot and killed Gurley, an African-American man. There was no one single community when some opposed his indictment because they believed he was charged based on his race, whereas others supported his indictment because they believed that he should be held accountable for his systemically anti-black actions. What radical critiques get lost when we try to fit people with SOME similar experiences but MANY different beliefs into ‘community’?

Perhaps we hold on to the idea of community because we are attached to the possibility of political unity. However, assuming that ‘the oppressed’ are ideologically unified through the framing of ‘the __ community’ erases the multitude of dissenting, contesting, and consenting voices that resist, conform, and shift. Linda Alcoff (1991), in “The Problem of Speaking for Others”, reminds us what it means to ‘speak for’ and ‘speak to’. As she says in the paper, a more radical act of speaking would abandon the presumption of an “authenticity of the oppressed” (23), a presumption so adamantly rooted in the use of ‘community’. The act of ‘speaking to’, though still thick with uneven power relations, cannot be reduced to established speaking roles and can open up to new (counter-)narratives. To reorient ourselves in our alternative/activist/independent media would mean to understand how we locate ourselves in relation to each other, but never to fix ourselves to these locations.

Call for Proposals: Media Activism Research Conference

Call for Proposals

Media Activism Research Conference:

A Gathering for Grassroots and Transformative Media

May  12-15, 2016

Lakehead  University, Orillia, Ontario, Canada
Deadline for proposals Jan 15, 2016

Mark your calendars! The Media Action Research Group (MARG) is organizing the Media Activism Research Conference (MARC), in Orillia, Ontario, Canada from May 12 – 15, 2016 and we want to see you there! The Conference will bring together researchers, activists, students, and community members interested in strengthening grassroots media through networking, knowledge sharing, and skill-sharing.

MARC is an opportunity to develop collaborations and networks among anti-capitalist, feminist, anti-racist, trans, queer and Indigenous alternative media activists and activist-researchers by  sharing knowledge, skills and experiences on grassroots and transformative alternative media. How do media activists intervene against dominant media voices? How do women, people of colour, queer, trans and indigenous activists work to resist dominant discourses in media and to report on and support social movements? How do we practice anti-oppression politics to challenge power dynamics in some alternative media spaces? How do we develop capacities, build skills, and share or access resources in our communities of resistance? How do researcher-activists challenge dominant modes, methods and theories in order to engage with community and alternative media activism and activists in ways that amplify and support their/our work?

The conference will emphasize knowledge co-production, reflection, collaboration, creativity, and the development of theoretical frameworks derived from practice and experience. It will explore autonomous, grassroots media production practices and voices typically excluded from mainstream media, across a range of genres including: community radio, zines, video activism, print media, online media, digital media, documentary film and video, hacktivism, media art, graffiti, podcasts, silkscreening, banners, blogs, and more. There will also be theme-based workshops on current activist campaigns allowing for participants to network, share knowledge and information, and collaborate across platforms and genres on the same topic.

We will be organizing a pop-up art show on the last night of the conference, where participants can bring their media and art to showcase it, and we will also be showing any media work created during the conference.

We encourage workshops to be participatory and interactive, and we are open to any and all formats, particularly those that disrupt or challenge the typical academic conference format. A computer lab is available for skill-shares requiring online access, and various technologies may be used–just let us know what you need.

We are inviting proposals for workshops on the following topics, and more:

  • Video activism
  • Community radio, soundscapes, podcasts
  • Print media
  • Collective dynamics in media production
  • Feminist media, Sexuality and gender
  • Anti-racist and anti-colonial media
  • Queer and trans media
  • Online activism, hacktivism
  • Anti-capitalist & Anarchist media and culture
  • Protest media, Social movement media
  • Culture jamming, Politics of graffiti
  • Activist research in media & communication studies
  • Media arts and research creation
  • Media skill-sharing
  • Tar sands & pipeline activism in media
  • Missing and murdered Indigenous women in media
  • Police brutality and impunity in media
  • Sex work activism in media

Proposals should be 250-300 words in length, describing the content and format of your workshop. You should also include a short bio of 50-75 words of each person presenting or facilitating the workshop. The deadline for proposals is January 15, 2016, and notifications of acceptance will be sent out mid-February. Please submit proposals to: info@mediaactionresearch.org

Our goal is to make the conference an accessible space and to facilitate the participation of anyone who would like to attend. The university is accessible to those with mobility needs, and accessible rooms are available in the residence. Please contact us if you wish to discuss accessibility needs. Travel subsidies are available to those with financial need. Food will be provided throughout the conference, and dietary preferences will be accommodated. Registration fees will be on a  sliding scale with reduced rates for students, under-employed and unemployed people, and early-bird rates. Parking passes will be provided and we encourage carpooling. We are committed to co-creating a zero waste conference.

Accommodation will be available at a reduced rate at the university residence, or in local hotels. Camping is available at the nearby Bass Lake Provincial Park. Some limited billeting in local homes may also be possible.

Orillia ON is about 125km north of Toronto in the heart of cottage country. There will be opportunities for outdoor activities such as canoeing or kayaking, collaborative sports, hiking, etc.

For more information, check out: mediaactionresearch.org/event/summer-gathering/
or email us at: info@mediaactionresearch.org

Save the Date for the Media Action Research Conference

May 12 – May 15, 2016

Lakehead  University,Orillia, ON

*travel subsidies available*

Mark your calendars, the Media Action Research Group (MARG) is organizing a summer gathering called the Media Activism Research Conference in Orillia, ON from May 12 – May 15, 2016 and we want to see you there!

If you are engaged in alternative, grassroots media, we invite you to join us for this exciting opportunity to develop collaborations and networks with like-minded alternative media activists who produce queer, trans, anti-racist, feminist, indigenous, and anti-colonial media with community media activist-researchers across geographical boundaries.

The conference will bring together experienced and aspiring media activists to share skills, projects and ideas to support and help grow media activism. We are open to any form of activist media including zines, graffiti art, podcasting, theatre and dance. This is a gathering for those engaged in or committed to grassroots and transformative activist media (anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, pro-feminist and more). This conference is hosted by Lakehead University made possible through funding from SSHRC.

We aim to make the Conference as accessible a space as possible. Conference fees will be on a sliding scale. We will also be offering travel subsidies. Please contact us to discuss accessibility needs.

Stay tuned for a callout for proposals and registration information!

For more information, check out mediaactionresearch.org/event/summer-gathering
or email us at info@mediaactionresearch.org


Toronto Media Activism Mixer Recap

On March 18, 2015 MARG hosted the latest of our Media Activism Mixers in Toronto. About 15 of us gathered to discuss barriers and challenges to media activism; the connection between media production and movement building; and resources or conditions we want for media activism to thrive in Toronto.

In the breakout group I sat in on, one of the main issues that came up was the struggle for funding and sustainability for media activism centered around a critique of neoliberal capitalist forms of measuring and valuing knowledge and work. While a lot can get done with few resources (as marginalized communities have creatively shown throughout history), sustainable core funding would go a long way for community-based/social justice media. In addition to the lack of public funding allocated to grassroots media initiatives that create a context of individualistic competition, part of the struggle for funding is rooted in the tension in arguing the merits of our media within capitalist and colonial frameworks of worth that often prioritize deliverables to the exclusion of creative process.

Engaging in media activism under these conditions, media activists become used to unpaid labour such that sacrificing emotional and physical wellbeing becomes a normalized quality of media production and activism. The question came up as to how we could not reproduce this dynamic in our organizations, collectives and projects, as the ongoing problem of burnout in media activism continues to be a major challenge when the focus on the final product can push people to their limit and bring groups to their end.

Our group called for the redefining of what comes to count as “media” or a “movement” by highlighting the importance and difficulty of building resilient and trusting relationships and communities as a critical part of creative activism. Whether it’s taking the time to orient new people into a group, collectively learning and visioning, or just having fun together, spending time with others can be foundational and complimentary to the more tangible outcomes of media activism. Especially as marginalized people who often organize from places of trauma and pain, experiencing pleasure in our struggles can be a way of sustaining our movements.

In this spirit, our group expressed the need for improving relations between media activists and groups. In particular, having spaces to meet in person, collaborate, pool resources, skill share together could break the isolation a lot of media activists feel and help to build better networks of mutual support. With the desire for these spaces also comes a need for media activism to be accessible (physically and financially) as well as founded on trust and care.