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Sasha Costanza Chock at Sun Yat Sen University

Friend and colleague Sasha Costanza-Chock leads off the morning at Sun Yat Sen University’s conference on Civic Media with a talk titled, “Transmedia Organizing: Social Media Practices in Occupy Wall Street and the Immigrant Rights Movement”. Sasha begins with his personal journey towards a scholar of activism. He started his story with his work as an electronic musician in Boston as a student at Harvard, working to create multiracial and multicultural spaces around electronic music as a way of addressing some of the long-term cultural divides in Boston. That work led him to work on film audio for the Independent Media Center and work with Indymedia, documenting

This work on filmmaking turned into an investigation of distribution methods, which led him to work with the Transmission Network, a group focused on bringing independent media from around the world, especially to Southeast Asia to global audiences. He moved on to UPenn Annenberg, where he focused on media policy and went on to work with Free Press, an international NGO focused on participatory interventions into media policy.

Pursuing his PhD at USC Annenberg, Sasha found himself working with the immigrant rights community, a key community in LA, which has a massive immigrant population. His work with immigrant groups led to the Mobile Voices project, which has gone on to become vojo.co. This platform, which allows people to share their stories via mobile phones, is an example of a tool for transmedia activism, activism that uses a variety of media tools to seek change.

Sasha suggests that a broad view of media ecology suggests we take the new affordances of digital media seriously. Social movements have always used new media to express their identity and articulate their issues. But we need to look beyond tools and platforms, and consider the political economy of media systems. What companies are involved with these new spaces, how are they regulated, who benefits from these new systems? What are the new affordances of these tools? Who has access to tools and skills in these new spaces?

We are seeing the emergence of read/write/execute media literacies – the ability to consume media, to produce it and to lead from media to action. Those skills are distributed unequally – existing axes of inequality around race, gender, sexuality and geography influence those literacies. Norms matter as well: a conversation yesterday about WeChat and Weibo suggested that WeChat may be more private because the norm is that you follow everyone on Weibo, but you can be highly selective about who you follow on Weibo.

Transmedia organizing is build on the proliferation of participatory media practices. Social media movement practices make the most of the new media ecology, but they also understand the importance of visibility in new media spaces. Smart social movement activists are very intentional about making media through participatory tools, but reaching audiences through mass media. Transmedia organizing is participatory, cross-platform and looks for paths to action from the media produced.

Sasha asks who in the audience has heard of the Occupy movement – most of the audience has. He explains that Occupy is rooted in rising inequality, and the breakdown of a social bargain where advanced economies agreed that they would take money from wealthy firms and give that money to the general public through social services. Political developments in the 1990s, and austerity have challenged that bargain. And Sasha places Occupy within a global set of uprisings, led by the Arab Spring.

Working with the Occupy Research network, Sasha studied the media practices of the Occupy movement. He shows us the Media Tent at Occupy Boston, where tools and skills were shared by members of the Occupy media working group. This method precedes Occupy – he shows us an Indymedia center from 2002, which looks a lot like the Occupy Boston center, only with much larger computers.

Movements like Occupy often feature new media practices. Video streaming was a key way of documenting Occupy. The Global Revolution livestream had up to 80,000 viewers watching during key moments of the protests, including the clearance of the Wall Street encampment. Again, this practice isn’t unique to Occupy, but the movement made it especially visible as a way of acting as a check to power. As far back as the 1980s, networks like Deep Dish TV would produce live satellite feeds from a movement perspective, documenting major social actions.

The Occupy movement also got involved with producing new tools. Sasha points us to Occupy.Net, a collection of free software tools useful for activists. Activists produced mobile aps, films, as well as a wide variety of news coverage. Tools like PageOneX help us see how this media may have impacted mainstream media and helped change agendas on the front page of newspapers.

A survey of Occupiers reached over 5000 respondents. One of the questions asked was what media Occupiers turned to for information about the movement. The most important form of communication for the movement was word of mouth – this shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s done work on social movements. We can win small, short-term victories through digital media, Sasha tells us, but deep, long-term victories require face to face communication.

As a second case study, Sasha turns to the immigrant population in the US, particularly low-wage, working class immigrants. In the US, these immigrants primarily come from Mexico and Central America. In the US, roughly 10-12 million people are in the country without papers. There’s a virulent anti-immigrant backlash from the right that characterizes Latinos as non-American, whether or not they have documentation. Sasha notes that, while the Obama administration is seen as being left-leaning, the Obama administration has been worse for immigrants than previous administrations, arresting approximately 300,000 people per year.

Sasha considers “Secure Communities”, a national program that’s trying to compel local police forces to focus on arresting illegal immigrants. Local police forces don’t like this, as it pulls them away from law enforcement duties, and from building relationships with their local immigrant communities.

The good news: there’s a movement that’s starting to gain real traction in the US. We’re seeing meaningful legislation that would move us towards a more fair immigration system, starting with the DREAM act, which creates a path to citizenship for immigrants brought to the US as young children. While the administration continues arresting many immigrants, there’s a policy that has asked law enforcement not to deport young people who might be affected by the DREAM Act.

Anglo mass media is hostile or indifferent to these immigrant communities, and they are largely invisible to the Anglo blogosphere. But they have a great deal of power in Spanish-language media outlets, and they are having more visibility in social media. Some media has been actively hostile towards immigrants, like Fox News, which suggests mass arrests at pro-immigrant rallies. But there’s a change in the space – TIME magazine put Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who is also undocumented, on the cover of their magazine as an act of “coming out” as undocumented.

Social media is important to immigrant activists in part because it’s a path to speak with mainstream media – activists report that they get much better responses by tweeting to journalists than in sending press releases. DREAM activists have a wide range of media practices. They borrow strategies from the GLBT movement, like “coming out”, showing that many people share an identity. This strategy has won major victories in the US, including rights to marriage and to military service. Undocumented youth are also using strategies from the civil rights movement, documenting their actions via video and live streaming. They use tactics like sit-ins, both in Senator’s offices and in Obama campaign offices, as a way of pressuring the Obama campaign to create an administrative order to prevent deportation of child arrivals.

DREAM activists also created new tools, although it’s less of a hacker-enabled movement than Occupy. A tool called “Own the Dream” helped undocumented people build a tool to register for protection against deportation. They conduct research and trainings to work with the press to tell their stories. Their strategies are explicitly cross-platform: rallies and events are designed to gain television coverage, and the coverage is then shared via social media. “Story-based organizing” begins from the idea of creating a winnable narrative for their activism. Activists reacted to stories about being personally blameless (we were brought to the US by our parents, so it wasn’t our fault) by recognizing that this narrative shifted blame to their parents. They shifted to a narrative about their parents taking brave action to bring their children to a land where they had more opportunity, looking for a path to citizenship for their parents as well.

Sasha leaves us with key points and questions:
– Successful movements organize across media platforms. They consider community media, traditional print and broadcast as well as new media.
– Movements are participatory and self-documenting. They don’t rely on a single storyteller. Movement advocates need to move from “speaking for the voiceless” to amplifying voices
– Social movements need to think about explicit paths of engagement. Occupy generated a lot of attention, but may have failed to provide paths towards policy shifts, connecting to levers of political power

He closes with these questions:
How do we transform attention to meaningful action?
How do we balance participatory media with narrative power? – professionally produced media might have more narrative power than individual voices working at low production values
How do remain accountable to the base of these social movements?