Convergence, Engagement and Power: Digital Convergence and the Challenge to Global Hegemony

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The 6th Annual PhD Conference at the School of Media and Communication – University of Leeds

Confirmed Keynote Speakers
Natalie Fenton (Goldsmiths College, UK)
Stephen Coleman (University of Leeds)

From Iran to China, Cairo to Oakland, Chechnya to Tunisia, bold claims are being made about the role that new technologies are playing in the emergence, sustenance, and viability of populist political movements.  Empowered by the prosthesis of technical devices, the ‘99%’ appear to have bypassed the monopoly of the mass media through the creation and sustenance of alternative media channels, disseminating information, ideas and political expression unhindered. As such, a question must be asked; how is the authority, legitimacy, and hegemony of the ruling elite being threatened by convergent media?

Focusing deeper on the role of technology, these events are often mediated by popular social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook. These interactive platforms have permeated every aspect of day-to-day life, but questions remain as to the role they play in building and sustaining a true democratic discourse. The innovation of these technologies originates in a global hegemonic system which retains their ultimate ownership through existing corporate and financial systems. On the world stage, Western governments pour praise on so-called technologically mediated movements like the ‘Arab Spring’, yet domestically the same leaders oppress similar political collectives such as the Occupy movement.

In addition to the political and technological dimensions, there is a multifaceted and multi-layered convergence at play which is influencing the ways existing media forms are produced. Consumers simultaneously become producers, and traditional cultural industries now share space with user-created digital domains of production. Has the notion of convergence reinvigorated the cultural industries by making the production process more democratic, or is it undermining their hegemony over the media we consume?

Optimistic expectations and pessimistic disdain are polarizing the debate within academia, hence these issues beg for critical questioning; to what extent are publics, through their engagement with new technology and convergent media, influencing or challenging political, corporate, and social power structures within society? Once the issues are laid bare to analysis, is the global hegemonic landscape really changing in the digital age?

This student-led initiative aims at fostering debate among future academics by bringing together those researching areas related to media convergence in a formal conference environment, to critically engage with this exciting topic while also gaining the chance to hear from leading keynote speakers in the field of political communication.

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Aslan, Billur
Royal Holloway, University of London

The Power of The Internet in the Rising Protests: The Case of the Iranian Green Movement

This research aims to illuminate and evaluate assumptions about the political impacts of the Internet by taking into account the relation of online social networks and political protests. For evaluating the influence of those novel technologies, this research offers two case studies from Iran, where members of the Green Movement have organised spontaneous protests via social networks. Although in the first case study, the movement members succeeded in overcoming state barriers and spreading their movement via social networks, in the latter these social networks did not succeed in resisting state restriction. By exploring the filtrations and censorship attempts of the Iranian government, this research draws attention to the novel capacities of governments in their attempts to restrict the media. These Iran cases show that despite the existence of social networks, the Internet alone cannot bring liberty. On the contrary, governments can utilise it for monitoring their citizens or for spreading their manufactured ‘facts’. Thereby, although the current protests in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya have fortified the power of social networks on protests, claims about their transformative effects require careful and comparative scrutiny. In order to understand the real impact of the Internet, today, one should analyse diverse factors that affect the outcomes of the movements. For this reason, alongside its cases studies, this research revises the theories of social movement scholars. It offers a theoretical framework to help explain the elements that affect the emergence, mobilisation and outcome of collective actions with a particular focus on how the Internet influences these processes.

Child, Danielle
University of Leeds, School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies

Art-activism & Technology: Re-examining the ‘neutrality of machines’ under neoliberalism

Within Italian Autonomist thought, the role of technology in the capitalist workplace is considered to be one of oppression. In his ‘Fragment on Machines’, Karl Marx warned that the social brain would become inherently tied to the production process and ‘crystallised in machinery’ under capitalism. This notion has been taken up by Italian Autonomist thinkers such as Raniero Panzieri, who proposes that the use of technology has increasingly facilitated capital’s control of the worker in each stage of capitalism’s development since the cooperative phase. With the advent of ‘immaterial labour’, Panzieri further argues that informational techniques tend to ‘restore the charm of work’ under late capitalism. Machinery under capitalism is thus inherently tied to the class-based divisions within society. However, new informational technologies mask the oppressive role that machinery has traditionally held. How, therefore, can we understand these new technologies within neoliberalism when the work tool comes into our homes and everyday lives – namely, the internet, the PC and the mobile phone? Do the social and the work brain become one and the same? And what are the alternative possibilities?

Since the incarnation of neoliberalism, there has been a proliferation of art-activist practices associated with the contemporary art world. Communication technologies are often central to the work of the art-activists, exemplified in practices such as ‘electronic civil disobedience’, ‘identity correction’ through to ‘tactical media’ and ‘hacktivism’. This paper examines the work of the art-activists who utilise informational technologies (and tropes associated with these, such as the network) in their quest to critique capital. How can we understand the use of these technologies for anti-capitalist activity in relation to the apparently inescapable capitalist nature of technologies used for work under neoliberalism? Do these practices, in fact, demonstrate an alternative (and even radical) potential for new technologies, severing the oppressive ties with capitalism?

Dennis, James
Royal Holloway, University of London

“It’s Better to Light a Candle Than to Fantasise About a Sun”: Exploring Slacktivism and the Utopian / Dystopian Divide 2.0

This paper offers a critique of the artificial utopian / dystopian dichotomy that has re-emerged within academic literature examining the effect of social-networking sites on political engagement, and sets out an alternative approach aiming to capture the nuance of mediated citizenship at varying scales. The prevalence of unsubstantiated generalisations, anecdotal case studies, and a lack of empirical testing is exemplified through the scholarly debate surrounding ‘Slacktivism’; that low-threshold forms of political engagement online are inauthentic, narcissistically motivated, and a distraction replacing more meaningful forms of offline mobilisation (The Substitution Thesis).

This paper proposes a number of deficiencies within this approach. Firstly, the problematic emphasis on the medium itself leads to an arbitrary distinction between online and offline, and subsequently lacks appreciation for the complexity of engagement repertoires and organisational structures. Secondly, conceptual clarity is required in regards to what encompasses participation in relation to social-networking site. Slacktivism offers a narrow perspective of what engagement entails, notably end-product, ‘revolutionary’ activism without an appreciation of the informational and discursive stimulants that form part of this process (Carpentier 2011). The utopian / dystopian dichotomy and Slacktivist approach fundamentally miss the key function of social-networking sites as a commercial and entertainment-based medium, i.e. their role as a facilitator for conversations and networking. Finally, a collection of revisions are proposed to re-frame the Slacktivist critique to construct a viable research agenda aiming to systematically examine the effect of routine social-networking usage on political engagement.

Fosu, Modestus/Akpojivi, Ufuoma
Institute of Communication Studies, University of Leeds

Convergence, citizens engagement and democratic sustainability in emerging democracies: the case of Ghana and Nigeria

In this era of globalisation, information accessibility is becoming more and more crucial to empower citizens in their political, economic and socio-cultural engagements. However, in emerging democracies there are certain factors, that is, economic, cultural and political, which are still hindering the vast majority of the population from being included in the media and democratic discourse.

Nevertheless, a new phenomenon of communication convergence is evolving in emerging democracies like Ghana and Nigeria, which is providing platforms for wide citizen engagements in the political and social discourse in societies. Communication convergence here involves the interaction of radio, television, newspapers, mobile phones and audiences as participants at the same forum in the media sphere. This phenomenon, according to Boafo (2009) and Kafewo (2006), has radically enhanced citizens’ participation in the democratic processes in Ghana and Nigeria respectively.

Proceeding from a phenomenological perspective, this paper shall discuss the media convergence practices in Ghana and Nigeria in relation to political engagements as well as citizens engagements using case studies of a regular radio programme (Kokrokoo on Peace FM) in Ghana and a regular TV programme (Sunrise Daily on Channel TV) in Nigeria. The paper will argue that citizens’ engagements as a result of the convergence of the mass media are central to the survival of democracy in both countries if properly harnessed.

Herzogenrath-Amelung, Heidi
Institute of Communication Studies, University of Leeds

Critiquing Convergence: The Formal Bias of ICTs

The recent series of political upheavals referred to as the Arab Spring have refreshed the idea that digital Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), specifically social media, can play a vital role in giving political agency to the people and fostering a culture of true democratic engagement. While in no way seeking to downplay this potential, this paper seeks to call attention to the inherent risks resulting from convergence, with potentially anti-democratic consequences. It is argued that these result from the formal bias of such technologies, resulting in a situation where “rationalized systems or institutions favor […] a particular social group” (Feenberg 2002). However, where Feenberg (2008) argues that this bias is the result of a “relatively neutral system… produc[ing] effects of inequality through its relation to its context” (emphasis added), this paper argues from the position of Critical Theory of Technology that the question of technological neutrality remains unresolved.

To this end, this paper draws on Martin Heidegger’s philosophy of technology and Friedrich Kittler’s medium theory to address the question “is technology neutral” in a specific application to ICTs. It is argued that philosophy is needed to shift the locus of the debate around the place of technology in society to an earlier stage in the process. It produces a reflective mechanism that can operate prior to “policies and regulations that minimize *technologies’+ risks and their misuse” (Kompridis 2009).

Janes, Stephanie

Players and Puppetmasters – Alternate Reality Games and Consumer Power

Power relations between fans communities and media companies have always been key to debates within Fan Studies. The extent to which fan communities ‘resist’ or remain in thrall to the power of media producers has moved from a resistant/incorporated dichotomy to the suggestion that fandom has become a normative mode of mainstream media consumption. Either way, the relationship has always been a delicate and complex one. As fan communities moved online, notions of digital convergence and collective intelligence were mobilised to argue for fans as empowered consumer collectives, increasing their ability to control decisions around their favoured media products.
This paper uses promotional alternate reality games to problematise notions of consumer/producer power in the age of digital convergence. ARGs have been used to promote films such as A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), The Dark Knight (2008) and Super 8 (2010). Although difficult to define, ARGs may be described as:
‘A cohesive narrative revealed through a series of websites, e-mails, phone calls, IM, live and in-person events. Players often earn new information to further the plot by cracking puzzles… players… typically organize themselves into communities to share information and speculate on what it all means and where it’s all going.
ARGs are unique in that they are explicitly commercial entities, but encourage, and arguably require a mode of engagement which replicates that of a ‘grassroots’ fan community. Feelings of player agency are created via interactivity, but are arguably illusory since puppetmasters always control of the strings of the games they have designed. In this almost paradoxical situation, where an apparently organic fan community can be created by a corporation, who really holds the power? Furthermore, how relevant is the issue of power to such media consumers, if they are willing to collude with producers for the illusion of inclusion?

Lewis-King, Michelle
Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge

Transparencies: A Critical Survey of Contemporary ‘Interfaces’.

As I am beginning my doctoral study, this paper is a work in progress exploring material intersections between art, science and cultural consciousness via a critical survey of contemporary aesthetics in relation to interactive and augmented reality technologies and the implications for the future of art practice as a ‘social’ medium.

This paper provides a critical evaluation of materialism via interactive media, with particular focus on ‘transparency’. The ‘transparent’, for the purposes of this paper, pertains to invisible and embedded material within interactive artworks and events, i.e, programming codes, touch interfaces, sensors, tracking technologies, etc.

In our new ‘Digital Economy’, computer interfaces (as materialisation of ‘human’ experience in contemporary culture -our bodies ‘identified’ and transposed into digital informational flows via tracking technologies) manifest our critical cultural juncture with the post-futuristic, a terminal socio-economic impersonal dictatorship defining and regulating our ‘being’ in the world. (Berardi, 2011)

Interfaces as an artistic transparent medium will be explored through discussing work of selected contemporary artists in order to map out the social contract fast emerging between information technologies and ourselves as ‘users’ (individually and collectively), making transparent the critical shift within contemporary aesthetics as cultural emphasis moves increasingly towards information and its social implications (ethics).

In posing the question, ‘Is contemporary human-computer interfaces (hci) a positive source for social development or the fabrication of a Foucaultian Panopticon machine par excellence, privileging information over ‘being’ and excluding all social and sexual differences outside of its indexical lexicon of measured control?’, my discussion will attempt to determine whether the convergence of interface technologies with artistic practice are truly opening us up to transformative social interactions as media enthusiasts claim; or as Frank Berardi says – we are actually subjects of an impersonal dictatorship. (2011)

McCollough, Kathleen
Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ

Symbolic/Industrial Convergence, the Self-Brand, and the Search for a Loop Stimulus

Particular concepts form in relation to particular problems (Patton, 2000). Top down/bottom up power reflects the problem of limited participation within an asymmetrical media system in which a powerful sender projects out onto a faceless mass of receivers. In this conception, bottom-up power remains a reactive mass, a constituted vs. constituent power (Bratich, 2008). Misconceptions arise when dominant power appears to operate causally, impacting the weaker power rather than looking at power as a relation (Cruikshank, 1999).

Beyond a sender/receiver model, convergence shifts relations and opens up new problems. In particular, this paper focuses on the problematic convergence of self and brand for craft designers within the U.S. scrapbook industry. Sarah Banet-Weiser (2011a) argues that the process of branding has created a “new set of relationships” that “circumscribe and shape” our conceptions of “participation” and “identity” (p. 280). Banet-Weiser (2011b) also asserts the importance of looking at these “new set of relationships” as a set of cross determinations through the “concept of relay” and “feedback.” Bernard Steigler (2010) extends this notion through a discussion of Bergson’s “loop stimulus.” A “loop stimulus” is not response but, rather, a form of participation achieved through an emotional engagement that allows for an exchange at the level of feeling and the chance for both parties to exit.
Nonetheless, Stiegler points back to the original problematic of a mass-mediated top-down system as he asserts that mass media has created the development of a new “organology” in which the “production of the symbolic becomes industrial,” a convergence that short-circuits the process of “transindividuation.” At the center of this “new organology” is the convergence between self/brand/industry and the symbolic inherent in the process of self-branding. What possibilities for emotional exchange (or mutations) remain in the self-brand convergence? An exploration of this question becomes critical to those seeking an exit out of a short-circuiting symbolic/industrial convergence.

Neumayer, Christina
IT University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Constructing Alternatives: A Critical analysis of Online Media in Anti-Fascist Movements

This article investigates the textual representations of power and ideology in contestation within the theoretical framework of counter public (Fraser, 1992; Negt & Kluge, 1972) in democratic pluralism (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985; Mouffe, 2005). The article is based on the results of three qualitative case studies about marches planned by neo-Nazis in East Germany, accompanied by counter-protests of anti-fascist groups, NGOs and civil society. The data-set includes coverage of the events in alternative online media and institutionalized online media, and public comments. This includes alternative media supporting anti-fascists such as indymedia but also the neo-Nazis such as altermedia. The question asked within this framework is: How are power and ideology in these protest events reproduced and constructed in textual representations in alternative and mass media online? The identification of the different social realities constructed in different online media leads to a user-centred conclusion about the potential of alternative online media platforms for contestation. The reproduction and construction of different political positions in the events are analyzed as interplay between affordances of the technology and the political, i.e. socio-cultural, context. The publics created do not differ essentially in their values and believes, i.e. the political ideology they are based on. The different discourses about the events are based on historically grounded values that are renegotiated in digitally mediated discourse. The social realities constructed about the events are thus interwoven in an existing network of power and political ideology. The article concludes with the identification of strategies by activists for contesting power and constructing and reproducing ideology in online media. The aim of the article is not to deny the emancipative potential of the web, but it has to be used in a certain way and free from power relations to foster social change.

Ogun, Nukte
University of Western Sydney

Mediator Or Arbitrator? The Role Of Social Media Platforms In Labelling The Ottoman-Armenian ‘Genocide’

Convergence across media environments is not simply changing the platforms via which information is disseminated and viewed, but also the manner in which individuals view themselves and their cultural identity. Social media networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs, have allowed the development of citizen journalism, but at what cost? This study analyses whether such networks are portals for democratic discourse, or barriers to political communication.

Technological advancements in the new millennium, particularly the development of Web 2.0 platforms, support the dissemination of emotive exchanges that ignore empirical evidence and have the potential to create an ‘other’ – an enemy. Arguably, such naive and ill-informed discourses spread to parliamentary debates, which often mirror constituent concerns.

The struggle to label the deaths of Ottoman-Armenians in the early twentieth century as ‘genocide’ is merely one example of a spreading, reductive argument. The struggle is deeply felt by Armenian and Turkish migrant communities, for each of which the reframing is a question of cultural identity and a source of tension. Yet, one glance at France highlights the death of democratic discourse regarding this debate. French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, made 2012 the year denying the ‘Armenian Genocide’ became a criminal offence. The French Parliament passed this bill in the name of human rights, ignoring a simple fact; freedom of speech is one of the most basic rights.
This study analyses interactions in the lead up to and following the passing of the ‘Armenian Genocide’ bill. It will track developments on three online modalities – blogs, mainstream press and local ethnic press – in order to consider how the removal of barriers to allow for citizen journalism can form barriers in political communication. It will examine how advancements in social media platforms can degrade contentious debates and stigmatise the ‘other’; decreasing their sense of belonging and social cohesion.

Olufenwa, Motilola

Challenging hegemonic media practices: of ‘alternative’ media and Nigeria’s democracy

This paper interrogates the extent to which the collaboration between professional journalists and the ‘people-formerly-known-as-the-audience’ is influencing journalistic institutional practices in Nigeria. Using the Occupy Nigeria protests as a conceptual anchor, this paper questions whether other forms of ‘alternative’ journalisms, as advocated by populist narratives on new media, are creating a shift in the balance of power between professional journalists and the audience on the one hand, and facilitating discourse about Nigeria’s democratisation project on the other.
Hinged on the developing body of theories and literature around ambient journalism, network journalism and networked journalism, this paper employs an ethnographic approach. Using semi-structured interviews with professional journalists working for newspaper organisations in Nigeria alongside newsroom observations, it critically examines the extent to which ‘alternative’ journalisms made possible by new media technologies are impacting on the media agenda and negotiating spaces within Nigeria’s mainstream media.

Studies on the new media and journalists in Nigeria have broadly been based on what journalists do or should do with new media technologies. There is however a gap in scholarship on the Nigerian media as to whether or not ‘alternative’ media are influencing and challenging power structures within mainstream media for instance with reference to the media agenda and whose voice(s) are heard in the news. Some scholars have suggested that journalists have lost their identities as gatekeepers and should now be referred to as ‘gatewatchers’. Have the gates indeed been opened? To what extent have hierarchies in the news production process been broken? Are ‘alternative’ media in Nigeria encouraging counter-hegemony on news discourse that will be useful for the country’s democratisation project? These are some of the issues this paper seeks to critically examine.

Pothong, Kruakae
Institute of Communication Studies, University of Leeds

NetNeutrality: A challenge to the hegemonic promarket approaches to provision of information services across the US and UK?

The convergence of telecommunication and computing has sparked a multitude of information distribution platforms while enabling corporate convergence, which is as economically induced as politically enabled (Lax, 2009: 170). The new bandwidth‐intensive online multimedia products and services, such as Internet TV, video on demand (VOD) as well as similar usergenerated content, are the results of such convergence: ones that put increasing pressure on the
‘best effort’ approach to the existing IP Network, and thus spur an intensifying debate on net-neutrality across different countries. Therefore, convergence has not only highlighted the increasing importance of network upgrade investment, but also regulatory issues regarding content providers’ access to Internet end‐users and potential discrimination in that access (Marsden, 2010: 29, Noam, 2010: 4). This may undermine the fundamental human right of free speech to the speakers, the audience, the public and their interests in exchanging not only the information and views of their choice, but also information that carries important public good or value that enables individuals to perform their duty as responsible citizens in a democratic society (Barendt, 2005: 25 ‐ 30).

Against the backdrop of convergence and the subsequent increase of information platforms and services, this paper seeks to critique, review and analyse the net‐neutrality debate. It argues that the pro‐market approach to provision of products and services has been used to justify both sides of the debate. However, there are other values that the market cannot optimally provide, yet which need to be recognised and accommodated. The key points for further consideration should therefore be, as Marsden (2010: 59) stated, the extent of the discrimination following
deviation from net‐neutrality, its justification and implications for the vested interests in the debate.

Robert Mason, Luke
Director of Virtual Futures, United Kingdom

Infomorphology: The Dominance of Non-Human Agents on the Social Web

From the stock-market’s algo trading to the emergence of the filter bubble, the amorphous algorithm has led to the rise of information being allowed to flow through our machines, independent of human intent creating new ontologies based on speed, complexity and the changing perceptions of the importance of the rhizomatic network and it’s role in our societies.

It is commonly believed that Web 2.0 technologies are social and are designed with the abilities, inabilities, interests and needs of the human user in mind. Thus, when they exhibit behavior that is irritating, intrusive or even inappropriate it is considered the fault of the owner or designer. But as information becomes the dominant metaphor for power and attention becomes the new economy, both are increasingly controlled by non-human agents that work behind the web 2.0 interfaces.

These have taken various iterations from Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm to sockpuppets (online identities created for the purpose of deception.) Thus, it is important to understand the algorithmic processes that govern the infosphere before we ask, not who holds power but what? More than simulations of humans, social web bots (infomorphs) create a new ontology through which we, as inforgs (informational organisms), interact with and understand the increasingly robotic infosphere.

Twigg, Larenda
Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford

Beyond the Zapatistas: Questioning Information and Communication Technology use by Indigenous Social Movements

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have impacted multiple spheres of society and created fluid boundaries between politics, cultural values, identity and collective self-reliance. For groups on the margins these new forms of participation and alternative public spheres have been seen to offer an empowering potential to bring about social change, highlighted most strongly by the use of the emerging technology in the 1990s by the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico and their supporters. As ICTs grow it is important to re-examine the possibilities and significance of this technology for indigenous social movements beyond the Zapatistas. Questioning assumptions made by proponents and detractors of new forms of ICT, including social media, will get us beyond the what and how of the tools to the very value of these technologies for indigenous movements. Taking full advantage of online organizing requires defined goals and focus as social media alone cannot transform desire for social change into a movement. Therefore the questions to be explored are: whether hype surrounding the revolutionary potential of ICTs distracts from needed social change efforts and analyzes? And what is the meaning of a global indigenous movement for local activists?