Constructing digital counter-narratives as a response to disinformation and populism

Eva Giraud and Elizabeth Poole

Over the past three decades, the relationship between digital media and activism has been subject to fraught debate. Though early promise was attached to the capacity of new media technologies to support protest (Kahn and Kellner 2004), there has also always been concern that particular forms of software and hardware can simultaneously undermine the aims of activist groups who use them. Environmental groups, for instance, have long struggled to ameliorate the carbon footprint and e-waste generated by the media they use (Pickerill 2003) while anticapitalist movements have faced well-documented challenges in articulating their ideals in a commercial media system that can cut against their values (Barassi 2015). That said, the promise of digital media was often seen to outweigh any problems. With the rise of social media and its alleged displacement of the alternative and activist media that flourished in the 1990s and early 2000s (Juris 2008; Lievrouw 2011; Gerbaudo 2017), however, critique of mediated activism has gathered force (see Curran et al. 2016; Fuchs 2017).

A growing body of research has suggested that social media are intrinsically problematic for radical or even progressivist forms of politics, lending themselves instead to the tactics of populist and conservative groups (e.g. Schradie 2019). Yet such criticisms are not all pervasive, and other research has shown cautious optimism, pointing to ongoing potentials for digital media in general, and social media in particular, for supporting counter-public and counter-narrative formation that can challenge authoritarian populism (Jackson and Foucault Welles 2015, 2016). Though not uncritical of social media, this work has pointed to contexts in which activists have successfully negotiated tensions associated with the platforms their work is entangled with, in order to push for social change, particularly in the context of anti-racist and feminist activism (Rambukanna 2015; Kuo 2018; Clark-Parsons 2019).

In the first half of this chapter, we trace the contours of these debates, touching on broader questions of de-politicisation, counter-publics, and frictions between activism and digital media technologies. The second half of the chapter then draws together a series of case studies that drill more specifically into the relationship between populism and the mediated activism that is trying to contest it. Before we begin this overview, however, it is important to add a brief clarification; we use populism here as shorthand for a constellation of movements that have emerged in the wake of events including the election of Trump, Brexit, and the rise of the far right in European (notably Hungary and Poland), as well as other contexts (e.g. India and Brazil). What unites these disparate events and contexts is the vitriol targeted at perceived ‘shared enemies’ of particular (xenophobic) imaginaries of the nation-state, as manifested in the rise of racialised hate speech targeted at ethnic and religious minorities. Our overall argument is that although social media do create opportunities to contest hegemonic discourses that perpetuate the marginalisation and exclusion of those who are often the target of hate, these platforms also lend themselves to populist sentiment itself and are often used more effectively by those (broadly speaking) on the right.

Shifting narratives of mediated activism

In the 1990s a number of optimistic claims were attached to the internet in the wake of high-profile instances of its use to both critique and materially resist specific instances of neoliberal economic policy and governance. A number of political developments have resulted in digital media technologies being framed as lending themselves to anti-authoritarian, non-hierarchical politics, in part due to the flourishing of online alternative media in support of the alter-globalisation movements push for a more just ‘other’ or ‘alter-’ globalisation (see Juris 2008).

Perhaps the most influential instance of the radical potential of digital media was found in the tactics of the Zapatista National Army of Liberation. The Zapatistas’ 1994 uprising against the Mexican state garnered international awareness and solidarity after their communiqués, which connected the marginalisation and poverty of indigenous communities in Chiapas to specific transnational trade agreements such as NAFTA, were circulated via online networks such as Peacenet and Usenet (Cleaver 1997). Though the role of digital media has perhaps been overstated in ways that obscure other, more significant, aspects of the Zapatistas’ tactics, they have nonetheless been hugely influential on other mediated social movements themselves and scholarship about mediated activism (e.g. Castells 1997; Hands 2011; cf Wolfson 2012).

The Zapatistas were not alone in their political aims and for the alter-globalisation movement(s) that gathered force in the 1990s and early 2000s, the internet was seen as a counter-cultural space where activists could formulate ideologies and practices that offered alternatives to dominant-socioeconomic systems (Gerbaudo 2017). The emergence of the transnational alternative news network Indymedia, for instance, was an experiment in developing a publishing infrastructure that not only documented anti-capitalist actions but was also organised in accordance with the principles of direct democracy that were central to the alter-globalisation movement (Garcelon 2006; Pickard 2006).

At the same time that Indymedia was rising in prominence, however, early forms of social media were also emerging throughout the first decade of the 2000s. These platforms grew to prominence to the extent that they were seen as displacing grassroots activist-led media. In academic contexts activist media initiatives were often declared ‘failures’ (Ippolita et al. 2009) in the wake of the ascendancy of‘platform capitalism’ (Srnicek 2017). These socio-technical and conceptual developments have resulted in dominant academic narratives about mediated activism effectively flipping, so the internet is no longer seen as lending itself to anti-authoritarian and progressivist narratives but instead is seen as the opposite. As Jen Schradie’s (2019) work on conservative US-based activism or Emiliano Treré’s (2018) analysis of the authoritarian populism of Italy’s Five Star movement suggests, the contemporary media environment means that those with money and power — often groups on the right — often have the necessary resources to use digital media to broadcast their views more successfully than those on the left.

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