Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Core Post #5: Does Convergence Play a Role in Containing Dissent?

In his piece titled “The cultural logic of media convergence,” Henry Jenkins asks us to “Imagine a world where there are two kinds of media power: one comes through media concentration [...] the other comes through collective intelligence [...] Broadcasting will place issues on the national agenda and define core values. Grassroots media will reframe those issues for different publics and ensure that everyone has a chance to be heard” (35). Jenkins goes on to celebrate the power of blogging, noting that during the 1960s and 70s, “it took years to build up the network of underground newspapers, alternative comics and people’s radio stations that supported the antiwar movement,” while today’s digital technology has allowed antiwar activists to “[form] important alliances, [share] ideas, [organize] actions and [mobilize] supporters, with most of the important work taking place in cyberspace” (36). To Jenkins, digital technology provides citizens a powerful mechanism through which they can instantaneously disseminate information to a vast audience, and actively critique mainstream societal structures. Jenkins seems to view this opportunity with much optimism, and to be fair, his argument does not focus so much on citizen intervention in [inter]national politics as much as broader cultural production. However, the fact that Jenkins brings up the role of media convergence in shaping activism triggered my thinking on the ways in which our hypermediated environment works to contain dissent, at the same time that it offers us the promise of amplifying our social movements and our voices. Towards the end of his essay, Jenkins asks “What models of democracy will take roots in a culture where the lines between consumption and citizenship are blurring?” (41). Though I do not mean to come anywhere close to answering this question in my blog post, I would like to offer some preliminary observations on how our interpolation into the culture of social media, and the convergence of so many aspects of daily life with digital media (I am thinking here of the many apps which purport to make our lives more convenient - mobile banking, fitness tracking, email / twitter / facebook etc) has allowed the government and corporations work together with much greater ease to monitor, infiltrate, and co-opt grassroots spaces of activism. This is done in order to discourage and/or contain mass protest, and to redirect public anger towards behaviors that have no tangibly undesirable impact on the political and economic structures of society. 

In March, Lee Fang of The Intercept reported that security staff at the Mall of America “used a fake Facebook account to monitor local Black Lives Matter organizers, befriend them, and obtain their personal information and photographs without their knowledge.” The months long process allowed the security staff to assemble files on “key players” in the area’s Black Lives Matter movement, and after a large public protest at the Mall on December 20th, “the city charged 11 protestors with six different criminal misdemeanors. The city and mall are seeking over $65,000 in restitution for police and mall expenses.” In this example, the mall’s privately employed security staff intentionally infiltrated the Facebook group created by BLM activists in order to keep tabs on the primary organizers of public protests; in doing so, they were quickly able to identify the protesters at a later date, and the city has now leveled heavy charges against these individuals. The costs of going to trial and of being sentenced heavy fines works to discourage other activists (who likely come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds) from continuing to publicly protest, for fear of being fined by the city. Instead, protestors are directed back to the space of the Internet, where they can “freely” voice their complaints. Yet, because we know that the realm of the digital is heavily monitored by the NSA and other organizations, even our blogging / tweeting / etc risks becoming stifled by fear and self-regulation. Social media, which has played a major role in bringing the murder of Michael Brown and the Ferguson protests to national attention, has also been a venue through which authorities (state and private) have been able to mark and identify targets for closer monitoring and potential arrest. 

Somewhat similarly, Feidin Santana, the man who captured the murder of Walter Scott on video, recently stated in an interview with Anderson Cooper that he fears retribution from the police for filming the incident. Although Santana’s access to technology allowed him to prevent the police from covering up Scott’s horrific murder, Santana feels he is now marked as a target, and it is this same technology that will allow him to be easily surveilled. 

Also of interest is a new interactive documentary, Do Not Track, which works to show viewers exactly how their behavior on the internet is being monitored and recorded by a myriad of companies. According to The Guardian, Do Not Track is “An online interactive documentary [that] aims to reveal how you, yes you, are being followed online by a host of companies. And it’s personal. Both the narrator’s identity and language are determined by your location, deduced from your IP address, while data gleaned by inviting you to log on to Facebook, take a survey or enter the address of an oft-visited website reveal how trackers deduce not only who you are and what you like, but use that information to shape your online world.” 

Our constant state of being “plugged in” to our technology, and the growing convergence of these technologies (credit cards linked to cell phones linked to social media linked to online shopping websites, etc etc etc) allows for both the state and corporations to paint very accurate pictures of who we are, how we think, and to predict how we may behave in the future. The state’s growing investment in the ideology of “preemptive justice” is also deeply unsettling, as anything we say or do online may invite our immediate arrest under suspicion of ____. (One infamous example of this is the case of Georgia Southern student Caleb Clemmons, who at the age of 20 was arrested and faced years in prison for making a joke post on Tumblr that read “hello. my name is irenigg and i plan on shooting up georgia southern. pass this around to see the affect it has. to see if i get arrested.” He was eventually sentenced to 6 months in jail and banned from social media for 5 years). Such examples are extremely disconcerting to anyone who believes that the freedom and protection of dissent is vital to maintaining any semblance of a democracy. Although Jenkins is correct in his observation that it took much longer to build dissenting communities before the Internet, the one thing he fails to acknowledge is that these activists had a much easier time maintaining their anonymity. This is not to say that the government was not heavily monitoring activists in the 60s and 70s, but rather to note that these activists may have been able to buy themselves some more time before being discovered (through writing under pseudonyms for example), and perhaps would have had an easier time avoiding capture (since they were not constantly attached to GPS tracking through their phones and the Internet). 

With this in mind, how do the rest of you feel about the role of media / technology convergence in containing and policing dissent?   


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