Hackgate, Power & Communication

.This is from my  column for the University of Bath’s student paper, a lighthearted look at my placement job.

Please excuse me, I’m about to gush.

I went to see a public lecture at LSE last week (check out their calendar and go to one if you can, they have a lot of great events) called ‘Social Movements in the Age of the Internet’. The speaker was Manuel Castells. He was introduced as one of the leading experts on the internet in the world today, a winner of a startling amount of academic awards and prolific publisher of books. He’s a pretty big cheese. The room was completely packed and, despite the lecture being held in a sort of internet resistant bunker, quite of lot of people excitedly retweeted the majority of what Castells said. I’ve put together a short summary of some of the responses on Storify (click the link below).

View the story “Governments Hate the Internet” on Storify

He wrote a rather terrific book in 2009 called Communication Power (which I bought after the lecture so he could sign it = geek) in which he laid out how he saw the world: a world of interaction, of power struggles and technology. He describes the local/global modern world as ‘the network society’, where knowledge is no longer power; the ability to communicate knowledge is power.

Power is more than communication and communication is more than power. But power relies on the control of communication as counterpower depends on breaking through such control. And mass communication, the communication that potentially reaches society at large, is shaped and managed by power relationships, rooted in the business of media and the politics of the state.

That ‘business of media’ phrase immediately made me think of the Murdochs, phone-hacking and, inevitably, Hugh Grant.

Grant has been attacking tabloid journalists for years but even more so in the last few months. He hates them snooping on him and his famous chums – a standpoint that mostly made people shrug and mutter ‘your career IS hugely aided by being in the papers all the time’ until it turned out that Murdoch & Sons have been spying on other people as well. Pretty much anyone, in fact, often with horrible consequences.

Celebrity involvement in the official inquiry on ‘hackgate’ has resulted in a not insignificant amount of hand-wringing in recent weeks. The problems people seem to be having with celebrity involvement with the Leveson inquiry are similar to the ones I have highlighted with regards to celebrity third sector advocacy. Basically, any time celebrities get tied into a news event more substantial than the Oscars people start navel gazing. Fair enough: the intrusion of entertainers into the moral/political consciousness of the every day world is both intensely disturbing and a pretty rich seam for comedy mining (all hail Marina Hyde, Trey Parker and Matt Stone).

The mainstream media, it is now well established, has helped to create a network of influencers who are mostly North American entertainment stars. They tweet! They blog! They sing! The new triple threat.

Why, then, hasn’t the Occupy movement or, for that matter, any of the various Arab revolutions picked, for instance, Justin Bieber to be the face of their movement?

One of the most notable thing about the huge protest movements of 2011 has been the distinct lack of leaders. In his lecture, Castells made two points on this: one was that, particularly in dangerous, oppressive countries, if you promote a leader, you create a target. (It’s probably a good thing J-Biebs isn’t involved, I don’t think the world could handle his loss). The second was broader:

The fact that there are no leaders means that everyone is a leader and everyone is responsible.

These are, first and foremost, populist movements. Self-evidently, the majority of the Tunisians, Libyans and Egyptians supported the revolutions. A more fascinating statistic comes from America where almost 60% of the population identifies with and supports ‘the 99%’. Why isn’t that bigger news? Castells pointed out that the greatest danger facing freedom or counterpower, particularly in new media, is the vested interests of media conglomerates, big business and repressive governments. They have control and they will play dirty to keep it.

Castells pointed out that, while the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt used the mainstream media, social media was vital – these movements, just like Occupy, are social much more than they are political. Political movements seek to change the existing systems of political and public life. Social movements aim to change the underlying values of society – Women’s Lib wanted to change how gender was viewed, how men and women treated each other, what being a man or being a woman mean in your everyday life; these are huge, fundamental alterations to how society functions.

Therefore, the ability for the revolutionaries themselves to discuss and spread their messages of subversion without the patronage of an outside media company meant the movements were much more likely to succeed. Not only do they exist outside of the existing political paradigm – something that puts governments on the back foot – but, also, they utilise non-traditional means of communication which takes their movement away from the existing structures of power that underpin the media as it exists now (or existed then). Luckily enough for them, that means they used the internet, and the internet is bloody fast.

They were, in fact, too fast for the ruling powers to react to – in Egypt they tried to jam the whole domestic internet but gave up after five days because a) it cost too much and b) people just got around their jamming in a variety of ways. If power is the means of controlling communication then social media, mobile phones, the internet all make that process rather difficult. Maybe those Anonymous chaps are quite useful after all…


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