Social Media and the UK Riots: “Twitter Mobs”, “Facebook Mobs”, “Blackberry Mobs” and the Structural Violence of Neoliberalism

Social Media and the UK Riots: “Twitter Mobs”, “Blackberry Mobs” and the Structural Violence of Neoliberalism


“One formula [...] can be that of the mob: gullible, fickle, herdlike, low in taste and habit. [...] If [...] our purpsoe is manipulation – the persuasion of a large number of people to act, feel, think, known in certain ways – the convenient formula will be that of the masses”. — Raymond Williams

 

“What is true of London, is true of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, is true of all great towns. Everywhere barbarous indifference, hard egotism on one hand, and nameless misery on the other, everywhere social warfare, every man’s house in a state of siege, everywhere reciprocal plundering under the protection of the law, and all so shameless, so openly avowed that one shrinks before the consequences of our social state as they manifest themselves here undisguised, and can only wonder that the whole crazy fabric still hangs together”. This passage could be a description of the social conditions in the United Kingdom today. It is, however, a passage from Friedrich Engels’ report about the “Working Class in England”, published in 1845.

In his book “Folk Devils and Moral Panics, first published in 1972, Stanley Cohen shows how public discourse tends to blame media and popular culture for triggering, causing or stimulating violence. “There is a long history of moral panics about the alleged harmful effects of exposure to popular media and cultural forms – comics and cartoons, popular theatre, cinema, rock music, video nasties, computer games, internet porn” – and, one should add today, social media. “For conservatives, the media glamorize crime, trivialize public insecurities and undermine moral authority; for liberals the media exaggerate the risks of crime and whip up moral panics to vindicate an unjust and authoritarian crime control policy” (Cohen, Stanley. 1972/2002. Folk devils and moral panics. Oxon: Routledge. Third edition. page xvii).

The shooting of Mark Duggan by the London police on August 4th 2011 in Tottenham triggered riots in London areas such as Tottenham, Wood Green, Enfield Town, Ponders End, Brixton, Walthamstow, Walthamstow Central, Chingford Mount, Hackney, Croydon, Ealing and in other UK areas such as Toxteth (Liverpool), Handsworth (Birmingham), St. Ann’s (Nottingham), West Bromwich, Wolverhampton, Salford, or Central Manchester.

Parts of the mass media started blaming social media for being the cause of the violence. The Sun reported on August 8th: “Rioting thugs use Twitter to boost their numbers in thieving store raids. [...] THUGS used social network Twitter to orchestrate the Tottenham violence and incite others to join in as they sent messages urging: ’Roll up and loot’“.  The Telegraph wrote on the same day: “How technology fuelled Britain’s first 21st century riot. The Tottenham riots were orchestrated by teenage gang members, who used the latest mobile phone technology to incite and film the looting and violence. Gang members used Blackberry smart-phones designed as a communications tool for high-flying executives to organise the mayhem”. The Daily Mail wrote on August 7th that there are “fears that violence was fanned by Twitter as picture of burning police car was re-tweeted more than 100 times”.

Even the BBC took up the social media panic discourse on August 9th and reported about the power of social media to bring together not only five, but 200 people for forming a rioting “mob”. Media and politicians created the impression that the riots were orchestrated by “Twitter mobs”, “Facebook mobs” and “Blackberry mobs”. After one a few month ago told we had “Twitter revolutions” and “Facebook revolutions” in Egypt and Tunisia, one now hears about “social media mobs” in the UK. So what to make of these claims?

And also, as usual in moral panics, the call for policing technology can be heard. The Daily Express (August 10th, 2011) wrote: ”Thugs and looters are thought to have sent messages via the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service to other troublemakers, alerting them to riot scenes and inciting further violence. Technology writer Mike Butcher said it was unbelievable the service had not already been shut down. He said: ’Mobile phones have become weaponised. It’s like text messaging with steroids – you can send messages to hundreds of people that cannot be traced back to you.’ Tottenham MP David Lammy appealed for BlackBerry to suspend the service“. The police published pictures of rioters recorded by CCTV and asked the public to identify the people. The mass media published these pictures. The Sun called for “naming and shaming a rioter” and for “shopping a moron”. The mass media also reported about citizens, who self-organized over social media in order to gather in affected neighbourhoods for cleaning the streets.

Blaming technology or popular culture for violence – the Daily Mirror blamed “the pernicious culture of hatred around rap music, which glorifies violence and loathing of authority (especially the police but including parents), exalts trashy materialism and raves about drugs“ for the riots – is an old and typical ideology that avoids engaging with the real societal causes of riots and unrest and promises easy solutions: policing, control of technology, surveillance. It neglects the structural causes of riots and how violence is built into contemporary societies. Focusing on technology (as cause of or solution for riots) is the ideological search for control, simplicity and predictability in a situation of high complexity, unpredictability and uncertainty. It is also an expression of fear. It projects society’s guilt and shame into objects. Explanations are not sought in complex social relations, but in the fetishism of things. Social media and technology-centrism, both in its optimistic form (“social media will help our communities to overcome the riots”, “social media and mobile phones should be surveilled by the police”, “Blackberrys should be forbidden”, “more CCTV surveillance is needed”, “CCTV will help us find and imprison all rioters”) and its pessimistic form (“social media triggered, caused, stimulated, boosted, orchestrated, organized or fanned violence”), is a techno-deterministic ideology that subsitutes thinking about society by the focus on technology. Societal problems are reduced to the level of technology.

Let’s talk about the society, in which these riots have taken place. Is it really a surprise that riots emerged in the UK,  a country with high socio-economic inequality and youth unemployment, in a situation of global economic crisis? The United Kingdom has a high level of income inequality, its Gini level was 32.4 in 2009 (0 means absolute equality, 100 absolute inequality), a level that is only topped by a few countries in Europe and that is comparable to the level of Greece (33.1) (data source: Eurostat). 17.3% of the UK population had a risk of living in poverty in 2009 (data source: Eurostat). In early 2011, the youth unemployment rate in the UK rose to 20.3%, the highest level since these statistics started being recorded in 1992.

The UK is not only one of the most advanced developed countries today in economic temrs, it is at the same time a developing country in social terms with a lot of structurally deprived areas. Is it a surprise that riots erupted especially in East London, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester?  The UK Department of Communities and Local Government reported in its analysis “The English Indices of Deprivation 2010”: “Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Manchester, Knowsley, the City of Kingston-upon Hull, Hackney and Tower Hamlets are the local authorities with the highest proportion of LSOAs amongst the most deprived in England. [...] The north east quarter of London, particularly Newham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets continue to exhibit very high levels of deprivation“ (pages 1, 3). Decades of UK capitalist development shaped by deindustrialization and neoliberalism have had effects on the creation, intensification and extension of precariousness and deprivation.

Calls for more police, surveillance, crowd control and the blames of popular culture and social media are helpless. It is too late once riots erupt. One should not blame social media or popular culture, but the violent conditions of society for the UK riots. The mass media’s and politics’ focus on surveillance, law and order politics and the condemnation of social media will not solve the problems. A serious discussion about class, inequality and racism is needed, which also requires a change of policy regimes. The UK riots are not a “Blackberry mob”, not a “Facebook mob” and not a “Twitter mob”; they are the effects of the structural violence of neoliberalism and capitalism. Capitalism, crisis and class are the main contexts of unrests, uproars and social media today.

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26 Responses to “Social Media and the UK Riots: “Twitter Mobs”, “Facebook Mobs”, “Blackberry Mobs” and the Structural Violence of Neoliberalism”


  • Comment from Kevin Healey

    While I agree with your overall point (that blaming social media tends to render invisible the responsibility of existing social-economic structures), I disagree with the implication that the demonization of social media is the most pervasive media discourse. The more pervasive discourse is the optimistic suggestion that the Internet is inherently “democratizing.” That discourse (seen in recent coverage of the use of social media during the so-called Arab Spring) is deployed by corporate and political entities to argue against the regulation of industry. Deregulation then strengthens corporate power and exacerbates existing inequalities. What the British situation demonstrates is that social media is not inherently “democratizing,” at least if we understand democracy as a delicate balance of rights and responsibilities. The most we can say is that Internet technologies are inherently “massifying” in the sense that they involve greater numbers of people in ever-more-complex processes. The process of massification exacerbates existing tensions and disrupts whatever balance had already been tenuously achieved (or should I say “simulated”?). The result usually tends toward the dual extremes of authoritarianism and anarchism. Though I’m framing the issue a bit differently, in the end I agree that the primary focus should not be on technology itself (and claims about its inherent character) but on the underlying political-economic context in which such technologies are developed, deployed, and used.

  • Comment from christian fuchs

    While I agree with your overall point (that blaming social media tends to render invisible the responsibility of existing social-economic structures), I disagree with the implication that the demonization of social media is the most pervasive media discourse. The more pervasive discourse is the optimistic suggestion that the Internet is inherently “democratizing.” That discourse (seen in recent coverage of the use of social media during the so-called Arab Spring) is deployed by corporate and political entities to argue against the regulation of industry. Deregulation then strengthens corporate power and exacerbates existing inequalities. What the British situation demonstrates is that social media is not inherently “democratizing,” at least if we understand democracy as a delicate balance of rights and responsibilities. The most we can say is that Internet technologies are inherently “massifying” in the sense that they involve greater numbers of people in ever-more-complex processes. The process of massification exacerbates existing tensions and disrupts whatever balance had already been tenuously achieved (or should I say “simulated”?). The result usually tends toward the dual extremes of authoritarianism and anarchism. Though I’m framing the issue a bit differently, in the end I agree that the primary focus should not be on technology itself (and claims about its inherent character) but on the underlying political-economic context in which such technologies are developed, deployed, and used.

    Kevin Healey, Ph.D.
    Institute of Communications Research,
    University of Illionic at Urbana-Champaign

  • Comment from christian fuchs

    Hello Kevin,

    We do not have a big disagreement here. I rather agree that the techno-optimistic social media + democracy discourse is predominant today. The history of new media has in most cases been accompanied by both techno-optimistic and techno-pessimistic discourses. It is of course a question of the circumstance and context, which discourse is present to which extent. In the posting, I wanted to talk only specifially about the context of the UK riots. You have the moral panic discourse linked to social media pessimism. At the same time you find the techno-optimistic discourse: We will use CCTV to catch them, surveillance will be the solution, brave citizens organize themselves as clean-up troops over social media and will save democracy from the rioting mobb, etc. So both discourses are present, but my observation is that the techno-pessimistic one is predominant if you take a look at the media coverage.
    We definitely agree that techno-determinism works as ideology in a lot of contemporary discourses about “social media”.
    Thank you for your comment.
    Best, Christian

    I disagree with the implication that the demonization of social media is the most pervasive media discourse

  • Comment from Darren Stephens

    Interesting, but I’m not convinced it’s the whole story. If the picture were only about poverty and unemployment, why didn’t rioting break out in Middlesbrough, Bradford, Newcastle or Hull. Both places have very high levels of inequality and poverty (in relative terms).

    Middlesbrough in particular, on would think of as a prime candidate as it contains all of the above problems and, like some of the places that have had trouble, a relatively wide ethic mix.

    It strikes me that it also boils down not to social media, but real social cohesion. This may be a function of culture, but also of relative size. Middlesbrough only has around 150000 people, so perhaps wouldn’t have the critical mass for this to blow up. I also rather suspect that real world communities are stronger in the places where trouble has not happened and that communities don’t need the high profile ‘community leaders’ whose names have been bandied around in the last few days.

  • Comment from christian fuchs

    Thanks for the comment, Stephen. I think the question is how social movements come about. I have once written an article about this question. My opinion after reading a lot of social movment theory is that there is no causal law when exactly a riot of protest emerges. There can be certain preconditions, but it is never determined, if, how, where, when, etc collective action takes place. So what we can only observe is that social, economic, political or cultural or any combination of problems must be present as a pre-condition, but that these pre-conditions do not automatically result in collective action, and that objective conditions are in some cases transformed into subjective action (but not always) and there are often triggers, spill-over, intensification and domino-effects here.

  • [...] però danno tutti la colpa al medium. Ma lui, dico, come poteva sapere che le sue previsioni si sarebbero [...]

  • [...] William Wall. Potlatch. Riot Psychology. Andrew Gilligan. Simon Nixon. Rosamicula. Paul Lay. Mark Vernon. Group Psychology. Zoe Williams. Alex Aldridge. Aspirational Looting. Will Wiles. Sangat TV. Richard Seymour and Darcus Howe on Democracy Now. Anthony Paul Smith. Dana Goblaskas. Kevin Sampson. Christian Fuchs. [...]

  • [...] per capire per quale motivo l’Inghilterra è una pentola a pressione basta leggere alcuni dati: The United Kingdom has a high level of income inequality, its Gini level was 32.4 in 2009 (0 means [...]

  • [...] Social Media and the UK Riots: “Twitter Mobs”, “Facebook Mobs”, “Blackberry Mobs” and th… [...]

  • [...] not the first time technology has been blamed for chaos, disorder or social unrest. Christian Fuchs cites Stanley Cohen’s 1972 publication, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, which details how popular [...]

  • [...] trade union) about to appear on CITY blog: http://www.city-analysis.net/ Roger Keil passed on: http://fuchs.uti.at/667/ Social Media and the UK Riots: “Twitter Mobs”, “Facebook Mobs”, [...]

  • Comment from cube

    Your post ceases to be completely relevant when you have a large number of “rioters” (the name really is not appropriate) who are educated,middle-class,some of them wealthy,people with steady jobs,11-year olds,primary school teachers,university students involved in the picture.The social media becomes then VERY relevant in the discourse.

  • [...] Nel 1972 Stanley Cohen scrive un libro in cui sostiene che è da lungo tempo che esiste un discorso pubblico di stampo conservatore che attribuisce ai media e alla cultura pop, la capacità di incitare alla violenza. Cinema, fumetti, musica rock, pornografia: tutti sono protagonisti di questo panico morale. Nel 2008 Alice Marwick riprende questa argomentazione e la applica ai social media attualizzando il termine definendolo tecnopanico, ovvero la paura della violenza o – nella fattispecie – della pornografia che circolerebbe su internet attraverso MySpace. Secondo Cohen – e di conseguenza Marwick – non c’è nulla di vero in questo discorso, se non la voglia di controllo di tipo illiberale tipico di una mentalità conservatrice dedita esclusivamente a tutto ciò che altererebbe l’ordine sociale. Paura dei media (social), conservatore, Cameron: c’è bisogno di dire altro? [...]

  • [...] Social Media and the UK Riots: “Twitter Mobs”, “Facebook Mobs”, “Blackberry Mobs” and th… (tags: riots socialmedia society) [...]

  • Comment from christian fuchs

    Hello Cube,
    I think that stratification not necessarily determines who is involved in riots and collective action. There can be people involved because they are angry because they are themselves poor or work/live precariously, there can also be educted and middle-class people, who are dissatisfied with the state of society, etc. There can be all different sort of individual motivations and backgrounds. What I am claiming is that – as the Financial Times claimed yesterday – that the larger reason behind the riots is not criminal and deviant intent (this is also a very old assumption of conservative collective action theories that mainly speak about deviance and try to psychologize collective expressions of deviance), but that rather it is the result of discontent and anger arising in the context of neoliberalism and crisis. The material context does not make “calculable” when, where, how riots or protests emerge and also not who exactly is involved. I think we should avoid psychologizing the riots and look at their socio-material foundations…
    Kids are normally not unemployed in the UK because they are not working, but just like adults kids can also live under miserable conditions and/or can be angry towards society.

  • [...] Is The Message Big Question: What Effect Does Social Media Have on Real-World Social Unrest? Social Media and the UK Riots: “Twitter Mobs”, “Facebook Mobs”, “Blackberry Mobs” and th… Riot Mapping and Social Media, from the Open University Social Media Used to Spread Britains Riots [...]

  • [...] Social media here [...]

  • Comment from Earl Mardle

    Agree with Christian here Cube. For the extreme form, Bin laden was the scion of a very wealthy family whose wealth gave him the luxury of political action. Similarly Mohammed Atta was a privileged member of society with a degree in Town planning and the ability to conceive and carry out a complex “business” that would have been beyond an uneducated, visceral “protester” about the issues both men wished to change.

    We live in a society that glorifies status objects and processes that enable people to have them without real work; be they “clever” bankers or lottery winners or gangsters. Unearned income is a cornerstone of the financial capitalist system, one so fundamental that we mostly don’t even see it. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t grind down those from whom opportunity is constantly removed, nor make angry those whose social conscience leads them to act.

    And when the riots are focused on looting, then looting is what you do, if only as an expression of solidarity.

  • Comment from Christian Fuchs

    Slavoj Žižek on the meaning of the UK riots and their connection to the rebellions in Egypt, Spain and Greece.

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/2011/08/19/slavoj-zizek/shoplifters-of-the-world-unite/print

  • [...] the core of an unprecedented moral panic for their alleged role in fuelling UK August 2011 riots. In a recent post, Christian Fuchs rightly maintains: Even the BBC took up the social media panic discourse on August 9th and reported about the power [...]

  • [...] the phenomena and foster the discourse on the use of social media tools (I appreciate the commentary on it by Prof. Christian Fuchs), which has doubtlessly increased with the larger distribution of smart phones and the like. But [...]

  • C.S.H.N. Murthy wrote a comment on my posting and the subsequent comments.
    Source: http://journal.cyborgsubjects.org/2011/09/techno-optimism-pessimism-micro-blogging-%E2%80%98effects%E2%80%99-all/

    Be it Techno-Optimism or Pessimism, does Micro-Blogging have ‘Effects’ at all?

    By Dr.C.S.H.N.Murthy

    I read the blog of Christian Fuchs (http://fuchs.uti.at/667/) very critically as also 22 the responses posted there. As I can not understand responses posted in languages other than English, let me confine myself to discuss the primary issues raised by Christian Fuchs which were debated among those who posted their replies in English. From the reading of Christian Fuchs piece, which was well articulated by citing excellent reference work of Stanley Cohen-“Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972)-I would like to enlist the primary issues for the debate were as follows:

    i. that there were riots in London and its suburbs, besides near by towns,

    ii. that the rioters were youth who indulged in rampage, arson and loot

    iii. that the British media-The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The BBC and The Daily Mirror had blamed the microblogging-Face book, Twitter, and Black Berry as responsible for fast spreading of violence across the cities of England.

    The arguments of Christian Fuchs and a few of those who concurred, though differed with him in certain quarters of the popular discourse of social movements theory, were that

    the blaming of micro-blogging as responsible for the fast spread of violence and riots by the traditional media is unacceptable,
    the riots happened due to the mass upsurge against the growing inequality in society and poverty triggered by lack of employment and opportunities.
    the exact cause as to how, when and where the social movements erupt can not be predicted and the essential tools of democracy like micro-blogging-facebook, twitter, etc have no violent implications.
    the UK riots are not a “Blackberry mob”, not a “Facebook mob” and not a “Twitter mob”; they are the effects of the structural violence of neoliberalism and capitalism. Capitalism, crisis and class are the main contexts of unrests, uproars and social media today.

    Pitched against these arguments are the implications of the arguments of Kevin Healey of Univ of Illionis at Urbana-Champaign and Darren Stephens (Aug 10,2011) who differed largely with Christian Fuchs on two basic issues: that there is an implication of demonization of social media as a pervasive media discourse and the other is that of Darren who argued that similar riots did not take place at Middlesbrough, Bradford, Newcastle or Hull; both places have very high levels of inequality and poverty (in relative terms).

    Here lies my point of view that (though Christian Fuchs gave a very evasive answer, which only goes to conform to the techno-deterministic or techno-optimistic role of social media), if one looks at the broader side that is the universality of implications of micro-blogging or social media in all social movements across the globe, there are fundamental differences as to the very efficacy of social media even as a democratizing tool per se.

    One might argue that different parts of the globe such as those countries (techno-advanced and affluent) with high internet density have more chances of implicating social media during social movements though Christian Fuchs argues that such a use may not be necessarily for violent purposes. But there were social movements in other parts of the globe such as Iran, Indonesia, India and China, etc where the social movements have not been driven by either social media or have been leading to violent riots.

    For instance the LTTE movement (In Sri Lanka) largely driven by the support of Tamil diaspora from techno-savvy countries through the implication of social media (such as blogs, websites, micro-blogging, e-mails, sms messages etc) did not lead to any success of the movement though the movement was the most violent one ever recorded in the world history. Similarly the social movement against the fundamentalist pursuits of Mohammad Ahammad Nijad of Iran did not succeed during the elections as the electorate returned the Iranian President with a massive mandate.

    In India there were a good number of social movements, of late launched by–India Against Corruption—spear headed by Anna Hazare supported by civil society activists like Prashanti Bhushan (a former Attorney General of Supreme Court of India), Kiran Bedi (former Director General of Prisons, New Delhi) and Arvind Kezrival (the latter is a Raman Megasasay Award Winner for his active role in the legislation of Right to Information Act). Though Anna Hazare launched his hunger strike two times in the same year with thousands converging in Delhi to express solidarity and support, there was not an act of violence, rampage or riot any where. Thousands of youth all over India carried out silent candle light processions and rented the air with the echos of eradication of corruption in public life as ‘corruption’ has been often identified by the Indian sociological structuralists as the main cause of under-development and deprivation besides increasing the inequality and unjust. The poverty and unemployment rate in India is much higher than in the UK (based on the statistics quoted by Christian Fuchs from Euro Stat). Yet the social movements led by Anna Hazare had earned a great respect for his ability to lead the agitation free of violence despite the fact that it was a youth driven agitation than other age groups.

    Thousands of face-book/twitter postings were recorded right from the first day of Anna being arrested by the Delhi police under the preventive detention. Messages filled the mobiles though not Black Berries. Yet, the youth did not go on rampage. Nor did they become frenzy as in London. I understand the youth in India are hundred times deprived and victims of discrimination of various kinds than the youth in London. However, thousands and thousands courted the arrest and had been led to jails. The jails in and around Delhi had become full. The police on its own had to release Anna again by the same day evening sense the pulse of public outrage. For nearly 12 days, after the release from jail, Anna carried the hunger strike till government of India agreed to bring the Jan Lok Pal bill in a more comprehensive way so as to up-root the corruption from the public life.

    This goes to prove the argument of Darren Stephens who argued that the effects of micro-blogging have been zero in respect of other places in England at the same time when riots were happening in London. I do realize the argument of Christian Fuchs in his counter to Darren. But it does not explain really whether social media has any effect on social movements-be it techno optimistic or pessimistic. Can we use any of the known theories of media effects to explain social movement theory by using social media?

    My view is that as of now there is no evidence of the direct role of social media in promoting or demoting a social movement-be it Egypt or Iran or Libya. What so ever one may imply by saying demonisation of social media as a pervasive media discourse, the fact of the matter is that social media does not come under either ‘magic bullet’ theory for a direct and linear effect or under ‘minimal effects’ theory of Paul Lazarsfled.

    It may certainly be thus a short-sighted judgment of conventional media as well as the government of UK to infer/blame that social media was responsible for the violence in the first instance and for the staggering or sustained riots that wrecked havoc in London and in its suburbs for nearly a week.

    Dr.C.S.H.N.Murthy is Associate Professor in Mass Communication and Journalism, Tezpur Univesity, Napaam, Assam, India and, as well as Christian Fuchs, a member of the editorial board.

  • Reply to Professor Murthy

    Prof. Murthy is asking the question of how we should, given that techno-optimism and techno-pessimism are wrong, actually explain the relation of political change and the media. I think we should not use media effect theory or any other traditional bourgeois uncritical media theory as means of explanation. I think, as I have tried to explain in my book “Foundations of Critical Media and Information Studies”, that we should use dialectical philosophy for understanding the relation between media and society and between media and politics and make connections to the approach of the Critical Political Economy of Media and Communication Studies (see the recent debate between Dwayne Winseck and me that can be found on both my and Dwayne’s blogs).

    My point is that social media DO NOT CAUSE revolutions, they are not the causal source of rebellions, demonstrations, riots, uproars, violent outbreaks etc. It is a question about the relation between technology and society. Techno-optimists and techno-pessimists tend to neglect the dialectic of technology and society. This does not mean that social media or any other media are always unimportant in political changes, it only means that it is an ideology, as Marx knew, to fetishize technology or commodities and to explain phenomena by referring to things as causes and not to actual social relations between humans (that are in heteronomous societies always power relations). My argument is that technology and media, no matter if Internet, Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones, the book, the telegraph, TV, radio, the telephone, records, tapes, CDs or whatever, are never, have never and will never be the CAUSE of political change. They can enforce or dampen the activities of movements, but not cause these movements. Society brings about technology, uses technology, is itself the cause of intended and unintended consequences of technology. Complex media technologies can have unintended consequences and they can be used in not initially planned ways, but technology can only be used and have consequences based on the enmeshment into social relations between human beings. And it can only be used as a means of communication in political changes (not as CAUSE of political changes, but as MEANS of COMMUNICATION, which is something far less relevant). Power is not only and not primarily communication power today (Manuel Castells claims in his false theory of “communication power” that communication is the central power structure today, which is a techno-deterministic assumption; the more Castells got detached from Marxist theory, the more techno-deterministic his arguments actually became), there are all sorts of different power, like political power, economic power, symbolic power, etc – media power is just one form of power that is coupled in complex ways to other forms of power.

    I think Prof. Murthy somewhat misunderstood my argument: I do not say that inequality necessarily results in violence. I do say that all forms of collective action need to have societal problems as their foundation, but that it is a) undetermined if collective action emerges based on this (ideology can forestall it), b) if collective action emerges, it is not determined, which forms it takes (which depends on the concrete political conditions, the degree of mobilization and power of different political groups, etc). I think that too many people, including Professor Murthy, are looking for causal deterministic laws when discussing politics and social movements. But social movements are so complex that we cannot find any laws that allow us to calculate when a movement emerges and what character it takes. Politics is complex and not calculable with mathematics and does not accord to natural law. The uncertainty of the development society and politics is the big chance for human creativity to create a better world – a socialist participatory democracy. The question is of how to come to term with chance in society. What I exactly mean by appreciating and embracing the uncertainty and indeterminateness of societal development can be read in an article by the Marxist theorist Immanuel Wallerstein here http://www2.binghamton.edu/fbc/archive/iwendcrt.htm. That society is complex creates the uncertainty that we do not know what the outcome of a crisis will be. Therefore citizens have to act politically, to organize collectively in order to bring about a more humane society. There is no certainty, but socialist political action is the attempt to increase the likelihood that we can humanize the inhumane societies we live in.

    I can only repeat what I wrote once in an article about the origins and emergence of social movements. I recommend reading the full article that can be found here:
    http://fuchs.uti.at/wp-content/uploads/SM1.pdf

    The emergence of social movements is not determined, but a complex result of crisis, resource mobilization, cognitive mobilization, self-production – searching for singular laws of the emergence of movements is an expression of onedimensional, linear, and deterministic thinking. Protest and social problems are nonlinearly related. [...]

    important aspects of social movements [are]:
    • The negation of dominant values, institutions, and structures
    • Social change
    • Collective action
    • Adversary
    • Resistance
    • Dissatisfaction
    • Hopes and wishes for change
    • New sensitivity
    • The search for new identities, collective meanings and collective values
    • Methods of protest
    • Goals
    • Extra-parliamentary opposition
    • Civil society
    • Public sphere
    • Reactivity and proactivity
    • Alternative political issues, values, goals
    • Protest events and protest campaigns
    • Communicative practices and strategies
    • Social problems and grievances
    • Networks of activists and networks of groups
    • Perception and interpretation of social problems
    • Mobilizing and demobilizing structures
    • Moral outrage
    • Triggers of protest and contagion effects
    • Mobilization
    • Conditions of opportunities and constraints/repression
    • Degree of penetration of society with one-dimensional consciousness and
    technological rationality (degree of introjection)

    [...]

    Complexity thinking stresses that there are non-linear relationships between causes and effects: one cause can have many different effects and one effect can be the combined result of many causes, small causes can have large effects and large causes small effects, i.e., effects are conditioned, but not determined by given structures, they have a certain degree of unpredictability and chance (Fuchs, 2003b). Applying this idea to social movements shows that there can be no singular social condition (such as deprivation or resource mobilization) that automatically results in the emergence of protest. The emergence of social movements is not determined, but a complex result of crisis, resource mobilization, cognitive mobilization, self-production—searching for singular laws of the emergence of movements is an expression of one-dimensional, linear, and deterministic thinking. Japp (1984) has argued that social movements are not caused externally, but are self-organizing systems because they would produce themselves. Social movements would not have rational and external causes, they would be their own
    cause. Social problems would not be the cause of social movements, the latter would rather try to construct problem interpretations. Social movements cannot be explained by singular objective conditions, it is not determined if and when a social movement will emerge, if certain social conditions are given. But social movements are not fully autonomous and closed systems, they are connected to social problems and the antagonistic subsystems of modern society. They are based, but not determined by social antagonisms. That they are complex and non-linear means that they have complex and non-linear causes, not that they are autonomous: a certain state of antagonistic social structures can have different effects, protest is one of many possible effects that will emerge if certain other conditions such as resource mobilization and cognitive liberation can be achieved. Social movements are self-producing because they produce their own identity, structures, goals, and collective practices in cyclical, reflexive and self-referential processes, but they are open and not closed systems.
    [...]
    Social movements are collective actors and social systems, they are part of the civil society system. They form dynamic social systems that permanently produce and reproduce events and political topics that signify protest against existing social structures and the search for alternative goals and states of society. Social movements are a reaction to social problems, an expression of fear and dissatisfaction with society as it is and a call for changes and the solution of problems.
    The ecology movement is a reaction to the problem of ecological degradation, the women’s movement is a reaction to gender-specific oppression, the anti-racist movement is a reaction to the problem of racial discrimination, antifascism is a reaction to the problem of right-wing extremism and neo-fascism, the human rights movement and the civil rights movement are reactions to the problem of human rights violations, the anti-globalization-movement is a reaction to the global problems of poverty, lack of political participation and to the negative consequences of neoliberal policies, indigenous movements and landless movements are reactions to the problem of land expropriation, the homosexual movement is a reaction to the problem of sexual discrimination, the antipsychiatric movement is a reaction to the discrimination of the mentally ill, the disability rights movement is a reaction to the discrimination of the disabled, the open source movement is a reaction to the problem of the valorization and privatization of knowledge and public goods, the peace movement is a reaction to the global problem of war, the student movement is a reaction to the problem of cutbacks in the educational sector, the unemployment movement is a reaction to the problem of unemployment, the youth movement and alternative (sub)cultures are reactions to the problem of the lack of perspectives for young people in late capitalism, esotericism, sects, and spiritualism are reactions to the crisis of religion and belief systems caused by individualization processes, Third World initiatives are a reaction to the problem of poverty, fundamentalist movements are reactions to global cultural homogenization, neofascist movements are reactions to the failures of overcoming fascist traditions and thinking and to the problems of modernization, etc.
    Social movements are political answers of civil society to ecological, economic, political, social, and cultural problems of modern society. The problems produced by the antagonistic structures of society are a condition for the emergence of protest that organizes itself within the civil society subsystem of the political system. Social problems and protest are couplings of societal subsystems with the political systems (or a self-coupling of the political system in the case where protest is an answer to political problems).
    Each social movement is reactive in the sense that it reacts to strains and protests against the existence of certain social structures, but each is also proactive in the sense that it wants to transform society and holds certain values and goals that shall guide these transformation processes.
    The emergence of a social movement presupposes social problems as a material base. Protest is a negation of existing structures that result in frictions and problems and a political struggle that aims at the transformation of certain aspects of society or of society as a whole. Protest is the essential activity of social movements, hence “protest movement” is a term that is similar to the one of “social movement”, but stresses the central activities of such social systems. Neither the aggravation of problems nor the structural opening of new political opportunities or the increase of resources for protest movements results automatically in protest.
    “In some cases strains will persist for decades, only giving way to movement formation when a shift in opportunities or resources makes this possible. In other cases opportunities and resources may be in abundance, but there will be no movement until new strains emerge. In other cases still all the pieces may be in place save for a precipitating event which sets them alight, and so on” (Crossley, 2002, p. 188). The transition in the Soviet Union and the student movement of 1968 are examples of protests in situations of increasing political opportunities and resources, whereas the emergence of the labour movement and the anti-globalization movement can be considered as reactions to aggravating social stratification.
    Only if social problems are perceived as problems and if this perception guides practices, protest emerges. Hence “cognitive liberation” and rebellious consciousness are necessary (McAdam, 1982). The difference between objective structures and subjective expectations is an important aspect of protest. “When the ‘fit’ between objective structures and subjective expectations is broken the opportunity for critical reflection and debate upon previously unquestioned assumptions is made possible” (Crossley, 2002, p. 185). As long as one-dimensional consciousness dominates a social system, protest cannot emerge even if social problems get worse. That protest and social problems are non-linearly related has been one of the central insights of Herbert Marcuse (Fuchs, 2005b). In late capitalism ideologies such as racism, the performance principle, consumerism, esotericism, and competition are factors that limit and constrain the possibilities for social protest. Protest presupposes social problems, the perception of these problems as problems by human actors, the assessment that these problems are unbearable and a value-based indignation that activates and mobilizes practices.
    That a problem is perceived as a problem that should be solved does not automatically
    result in the emergence of protest, but maybe in attempts to organize protest. Such attempts are only successful if possibilities and resources for protest can be found and mobilized.

  • [...] The riots that occurred in the summer 2011 sparked nationwide unrest with looting and destruction by the masses, the cause of the rioting by verdict of media outlets who claim that it was the likes of new social media platforms Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger (BBM) who triggered such events. Yet I feel to be mislead in the accusations by the “media” and that they have failed to consider other social pressures which caused reaction amongst the people and rather used social media as a scapegoat as they have done previously as Christian Fuchs explains. [...]

  • Comment from Ellie

    It is very interesting to see the vast significance of social media in these recent riots. The use of social media creates instant,worldwide communication that is totally free and almost uncensored. The worry is that it is becoming too clever, too instant and too broad for society to maintain. Even the police resorted to Twitter to discover the latest news of riot breakout during these riots. Does the shift power and status? I think so. Generalisation of the demographic users of social are that of young people. With printed media making comments about ”mobs”, only further generalises the behaviour and actions of social media users. I don’t have any research to hand but yes I do believe that over 50% of social media users are under 30, but there are still those that aren’t. During these riots the media only talked about the young people involved and the social media “mobs” being teenagers. But what about those that were of the older generation? They weren’t mentioned, because it is easier to stigmatise a generation in the making.


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