The evolution of mediated counter-publics

Perhaps one of the most prominent frameworks for conceptualising these shifts has been Habermasian theories of counter-publics. Following Nancy Frasers definition (1990), counter-publics operate as a separate (counter) public sphere, constructing alternative narratives that may not be in line with mainstream debate. While early online activism was seen as holding potential to support the formation and spread of counter-public opinion (Ruiz 2014) — even though this process was complex (Downey and Fenton 2003) — today opportunities for exerting this influence are perceived as increasingly fleeting (particularly for the left). Since the early 2000s, these issues have only intensified, and it is not just the efficacy of progressivist counter-publics that has been called into question or even their capacity to form — though these concerns have indeed been raised — but the ongoing pertinence of Habermasian theory itself.

As activism has shifted from alternative media infrastructures (developed by the activists who use them) to social media, protest is argued to have become more ephemeral. Unlike the close-knit relationship between alternative media and activist identity formation that characterised initiatives such as Indymedia and McSpotlight, social media like Twitter have served as platforms for more instantaneous forms of mobilisation in relation to specific issues. Bruns and Burgess (2011), for instance, describe how ‘ad hoc’publics regularly emerge on Twitter and form collective responses to specific social and political developments (see also Dawes 2017). Rather than the collective identity-building that is necessary to sustain counter-publics, what emerges is much looser networks of individuals who coalesce temporarily around specific issues before dissipating. These dynamics are not wholly negative and have potentials as well as drawbacks (as discussed next; see also Jackson et al. 2020).

Two particular issues, however, complicate wholly positive appraisals of these tactics. Firstly, as we elucidate shortly, such approaches lend themselves to authoritarian populism as much as progressivist critiques of contemporary political development. The second complicating issue relates more to the implications of Habermasian speech ideals. Despite well-documented concerns, social media platforms still often present themselves as contributors to ‘public conversation’ (Poole et al. 2020); such narratives evoke a Habermasian ideal that more speech equates to good speech and that if the fragmentation created by social media could be overcome — and different voices brought together - then a healthier public sphere would emerge. What is missing from such arguments is the fact that on platforms such as Twitter, different publics are often already brought together, converging on particular hashtags to engage in debate (Siapera et al. 2018; Poole et al. 2019). Yet these engagements rarely result in dialogue and mutual understanding but instead lead to what Karlsen et al. (2017) describe as a ‘trench warfare’ dynamic in which pre-existing standpoints are reinforced through argumentation. Before engaging with examples that can be used to conceptualise these problems in more depth, however, it is useful to turn to a slightly different body of work that can be used to point to some more hopeful political and theoretical trajectories.

Frictions and entanglements

For all the concern about social media, as internet use has shifted from being counter-cultural to everyday (Gerbaudo 2017), there has been a growing sense that contemporary activism is necessarily entangled with technologies that might create tensions but whose use is difficult to avoid. For this reason, a growing body of work has departed from deterministic narratives about how particular media constrain or enable activism. Instead, the focus is placed on how activists navigate tensions — or ‘frictions’ — associated with the communications platforms their work is necessarily entangled with (Shea et al. 2015; Trere 2018; Giraud 2019).

Shea et al.’s 2015 edition of Fibreculture, for instance, contains a range of articles that examine moments when particular media platforms clash with the needs of activists, who are then forced to develop workarounds for these problems. Here friction is not merely a problem to be overcome but a site of agency; when confronted with tensions generated by their media use, activists are often forced to reflect critically on their practice and craft alternative ways of doing things. Commonplace tactics, for instance, included juxtaposing public-facing social media with alternative activist media or limiting how and why commercial platforms are used. These approaches have often created space for activist perspectives to be propelled to wider audiences. Others in the special edition use the concept of productive friction in a slightly different sense, in reference to discursive frictions that arise when hegemonic social norms conflict with online counter-narratives on social media (Rambukanna 2015). As with frictions associated with technologies themselves, here, too, space is often created for more critical voices to gain visibility beyond the communities from which they originate.

Although social media activism is seemingly less radical than the grassroots, participatory alternatives that inspired so much hope at the end of the millennium, therefore, perhaps it offers a slightly different hope for narratives against populism to reach beyond the activist communities in which they originate and make incursions in the public sphere. Indeed, in the examples we focus on next, these potentials have been borne out. At the same time, these platforms’ concurrent use in spreading hate speech offers a reminder that any such hopes should remain modest.

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