Norah Abokhodair and I participated in the 13th conference of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) at University of Salford in Manchester between 18 and 21 of October 2012. The conference focused on the theme of technologies, considering the impact of the Internet in a context where life is entangled with technologies of all kinds. We were part of a session on Social Movements where four papers were presented. Two of them emphasized on theoretical frameworks to better understand the roles of Internet-based technologies as part of contemporary dynamics of power and political unrest. On one hand, the paper “Conceptualizing Digital Activism: A Theoretical Exploration into Disruptive Spaces” presented by Simon Lindgren, revisited classic cultural theory to suggest a bridge between hopeful and skeptical perspectives on digital activism. On the other hand, the paper “Power and Network Social Movements,” written by Karine Nahon and Manuel Castells, proposed a theoretical framework to understand recent processes of social and political challenges to the power of formal institutions through social networks, the Internet, and wireless technologies. The latter also included an explanation on how the authors are using this framework to analyze two social movements in democratic regimes: the tents movement in Israel and the Indignants movement in Spain. The two remaining presentations, including ours, paid more attention to the results of empirical research that seek to better understand the roles of mass media and social media in social activism and political mobilizations. The paper of “Freedom Tech: The Portrayal of New Media in the Tunisian & Egyptian Revolutions,” presented by Andrea L. Guzman, explored the press’s framing of new media technologies during the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and the Egyptian Revolution of early 2011. And finally, our paper entitled “’Appropriating’ Facebook: Egypt’s April 6th Movement through the Lens of a Social Networking Site,” presented analysis of the different roles of Facebook during the trajectory of Egypt’s April 6th youth movement, one of the important groups that were involved in Egyptian activism, occurring prior to, during, and after the moment of conversion that took place on January 25th 2011. During our presentation, we highlighted three interrelated topics that animated the discussion in our session and provided us with new challenges for our research process:
- The forms in which Western mass media, especially in the US, is portraying both social protests and the roles of social media within those protests, and the impacts that these versions could have in public opinion, public policies, and academic studies. We also discussed the role of these versions and narratives in local, national, and transnational dynamics of mobilization and protests.
- The diverse strategies that social movements and activists adopt not only to respond to different socio-political contexts but also to reach and interact with different audiences in local, national, and international levels. For instance, the different discourses that Egyptian organizations and activists used with national and international actors, regarding the support they received from international organizations, especially from the US.
- The importance of developing multidisciplinary frameworks to better understand the entanglement of information technologies within political processes, but especially the importance of testing these frameworks in particular socio-political contexts in order to create more resources to compare and contrast other sociotechnical dynamics related to social movements and political processes.
During the discussion, we emphasized three aspects which could contribute to the discussions in this session and also animate some other key debates that were going on during the conference:
- The analytical utility of locating social media, particularly Facebook, within larger information and communication ecosystems as well as identifying its interactions with other forms and means of information and communication;
- The importance of relating the uses and roles of social media within larger and longer socio-political processes; and
- The significance of understanding the sociotechnical “appropriations” of social media by particular individuals and organizations within different local, national, and international contexts. This consideration also implicates an understanding of the sociotechnical affordances that some social media provide on the hands of those individuals and organizations.