Whenever new social movements and social media activism are in discussion, there are inevitably those who feel the need to frame their opinions with references from the past, as if the construction of this historical dialogue is an obligatory act. This need results from both a failure to understand the current climate, and the laziness of interpreting new phenomenon using methods entrenched in the past. The same laziness appears in the exercise of examining focal points that threaten, and at the same time utilise, the new media and the flow of information it creates. In fact, both social media activism and the optimism regarding possibilities created by the new media are technically fed by the same stream; that is, from a standpoint that is largely bereft of criticism towards the new and ignores current experiences.
Pessimistic notions put forward by Malcolm Gladwell and Evegeny Morozov about the future and effect of the new media, together with the circumstances of people like Assange who have set up the most libertarian web projects, show that as much as the new media is a threat to states, it is also a medium they can quite comfortably use to their advantage. Eternal optimism and viewpoints that have been simply carried over from the past into the present day cannot adequately unravel the ‘freedom’-based role of the new media. In my opinion, shared by most of those who look pessimistically on the new media, only discussing it within the bounds of a state/commercial monopoly contains some problems in itself; because in today’s daily life we are subjected to the power of mechanisms outside the state and commerce (communities, family, friends groups, political organisations, civil society groups etc.).
In 2013, when I was completing my Masters thesis, the common feature of the interviews I conducted before and after the Gezi Park events, was that no matter how much the state’s sanctions on new media had come onto the agenda in this period, the role of the family and other institutions was more conspicuous amongst reasons for anonymous, almost anonymous or half anonymous social media usage. As we know, when describing the nature of power, Foucault referred to its transformative effect, finding it more appropriate to define it as a transformative and regulatory force, rather than a ruling or ‘repressive’ mechanism. When logging contrary factors in social media activism, it is therefore necessary to list some categories of regulatory forces: family and friends, organisations and communities, the state’s ideological apparatus and the state’s general apparatus of force or repressive mechanisms – all of which need to be discussed. In this respect, it is not only the state or commerce that is at issue in the process of creating content for the activity we call social media activism.
Let’s continue by corroborating the fact that there are other factors causing the individual to feel vulnerable. One of the activists I spoke to explained that he/she had started using a pseudonym a long time ago, following problems that had arisen with the family because of news shared on social media. Later, the activist found out that he/she was under police surveillance and realised how shrewd that decision had been. Another user was, on numerous occasions, warned about their written content by representatives of the political movement they belonged to. In the end, the person started to use a pseudonym, creating content and building associations without giving away any personal information.
Both examples show that social relations (family, lover, partner, friends etc.) and organisations (NGOs, political parties, unions etc.) that we are reluctant to see as repressive mechanisms do operate as another factor in our daily lives.
Organising and the New Media
In the light of the basic premise above, the next part of this article examines the micro-power relations of new media within the framework of social relations and organisations, rather than the state and commercial monopoly, and discusses the effect of this on political organising processes, particularly in Turkey.
Is Pravda still a valid model?
During our conversation with Tweets and the Streets author, Paolo Gerbaudo, he explained:
‘I think Leninism reached the end of the road already, a long time ago. This is year 2014, almost one hundred years since the Russian revolution. We cannot continue operating with the imaginary and organisational techniques of the early 20th century. Lenin’s politics are not only unfit for the current political conditions and social structure; they are also ethically reprehensible on a number of levels.’
In fact, when considered against the backdrop of anonymity created by social networking and its potential for transparency, equality and horizontalism, these sentences are particularly meaningful with regard to the demise of Leninism after the blows it suffered during the Stalin era. Nevertheless, we can say that there are serious problems, not just from the point of view of organising, but also in the historical function of Leninist propaganda in agitation and propaganda models and particularly on the subject of its press base. The rot of a propaganda perception that is parallel to that of the USSR is reflected in the social media usage of Leninist party/group members. In fact, if we dig a bit deeper, in Turkey we see that outside of the Leninist propaganda and Pravda mechanism, except from some Islamic factions and the Justice and Development Party during the period of its emergence, we have not seen many alternatives in the field of creating propaganda and communications models. At this point, an examination of the Pravda model and the meaning of Pravda as a communicational strategy in the age of new media would be worthwhile.
Pravda can be considered as one of the real building blocks of the 1917 revolution. This publication, which was first pressed in Vienna in 1908 under Leon Trotsky’s management, and smuggled into Russia, went into publication in Saint Petersburg in 1912 as a secret newspaper. The newspaper was continually closed down by the Czarist regime security forces, and each time appeared again under a different name. Later on, following the October Revolution, it became the party’s official media organ. Technically, this positive introduction might depict a largely ‘revolutionary’ and ‘progressive’ broadcast organ; but Pravda’s status in history changed over time. As the state’s ideological tool, like every other party broadcast organ, it turned into a publication that stuck rigidly to the party’s general agenda and details about the outside world that the country wanted to see. What a tragedy that today a similar sickness has struck Turkey. Whenever any political party or grouping of any persuasion is inclined to set up a broadcast mechanism for itself, we see it turning into nothing but a ‘party broadcast’ or becoming part of the existing ruling party’s pool of resources.
Despite the ever developing content management systems and the increasing amount of content generated by their widespread adoption, these news and commentary sites are making no advances from the viewpoint of content produced, either qualitatively or quantitatively. In fact, they take on no democratic function at all, apart from reiterating the statements of the founders and providing a vehicle for rehashing existing discourses.
Even more, despite presenting themselves as alternative media, these new media projects and internet newspapers are fed from the same news pool, and mostly have a similar agenda to the bourgeois press; they provide no realistic formula with regard to language used, management of the news generation process, or providing adequate recompense for the intellectual labour.
The Rise of the Discursive Clone
Of course, the problem is not just the emergence of these news sites, all cloned from each other and nested under the label of ‘new media activism’. As pointed out at the start of the article, the traditional viewpoint, especially regarding activism and agit-prop, is reliant on references to times long past. In all my observations on the political function of new media and users that subscribe to these references, I discovered some common ground in content production processes, from the point of view of language used, sources used and shared images which were structured according to the level of loyalty of the faction connected, age group and the level of competence of those inside the grouping; but there were also important differences amongst the factions or parties.
Except for the daily reiteration of discourses traversing outwards from the centre of a rotten wheel, it is almost impossible to find any potential originality amongst the content produced by these individuals on social networks. No matter how much the Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s paid hands, commonly known as Ak-trolls, are a subject of derision, the rehashing of socialist discourses by different parties and opinion leaders is, for many Twitter users, no different. Tweets are retweeted in thousands of different versions by different people, with a plagiarising technique which some users call ‘somersaulting’ – a term borrowed from journalism even if as a working model and method it is not professional in the true sense of the word. Whilst copyright and labour issues related to visual content are inherent in every activity, creating a new discourse becomes impossible. In particular, left intellectuals producing content in the left microcosm are prone to the illusion of being in demand in social networking between antagonistic husks keeping each other warm with their constant friction.
However, serious network analysis shows clearly that much Twitter content, including the general Gezi theme, becomes trapped in certain spaces. Periodical though it may be, new interactions instigated by current affairs sometimes arise. However, when you compare Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga with ‘our martyrs’ or ‘our heroes’, it is glaringly obvious that they have a much wider coverage amongst our target public. The problem we come up against is that individuals who inhabit the grey space between Lady Gaga and Ali Ismail Korkmaz on the microcosmic agenda, and feed off both fields, are not interested in members of the public who are constantly engaged in a political agenda. This is a general result of both the creative famine produced by a sterile organisational outlook towards new media, and boredom with arguments between communities that have simply tipped over into the new media.
The largely unsuccessful efforts of socialist groups to organise after the Gezi Resistance can be explained with similar justifications. As Foucault said, on the subject of forming the agenda and the discourses relating to it, the effect of the party or group’s actions in constraining, transforming and keeping its members in line does not stop at stultifying every new characteristic of the new media together with the possibilities of using it to develop a radical democratic platform; it seriously represses it. At this juncture, the following question springs to mind: for independents not directly connected to existing political tendencies, does the new media, in a political sense, represent a radical arena of freedom or is it even possible to build such a space? However simple it may be to pose the question, creating a discussion in a horizontal and egalitarian context, and keeping it at a safe distance from factional fanaticism, seems so much more difficult.
This article was originally published in Turkish as part of a collection of essays for the Interaktivist project of the Turkish foundation Green Thought Association.
-Gerbaudo, Paolo (2012) .Tweets and Streets. Pluto Press.
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