Transnational social movements engage in communication processes as well as the creation of media products in their strategic work toward social change. Media attention to these efforts as well becomes part of the ongoing struggle to promote social justice, political opportunities, and economic equality. The bridging of social movement interests across national boundaries signals the importance of issues beyond narrowly defined territories along with the coordinated efforts of actors across political boundaries.
Social movements offer a critical vehicle for engaging in strategic change across a variety of circumstances and for promoting varied goals and processes. The wide variation across these collectives and organizations that exists is worth noting, given the impact this has on constructing generalizable analyses from the particular historical and structural conditions of any given group. Some of the potential distinctions to consider might include the degree to which the social movement’s agenda resonates with dominant or competing ideological tendencies, the potential to mobilize financial as well as social and cultural resources toward political gain, and other elements of the context within which the movement is attempting to achieve critical change. At issue here are those movements united by transnational interests, coordinating and acting across politically defined nation-states.
Given the transnational character of these social movements, the strategic efforts of these groups demand coordination across communities of participants who are not directly known to one another. Communication technologies help these processes through facilitating the mobilization and coordination of plans as well as actions. Many antiglobalization movements, such as protests against the G8 meeting in Genoa in July 2001 and the planning of the European Social Forum in Florence in November 2002, relied on email as well as web-based communications to organize protests, coordinate transportation, and offer accommodation to engaged activists.
The use of communication technologies also provides a vehicle for discussion and networking, beyond the functional aspect of planning, thereby promoting a sense of shared purpose and identity. Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), a group based on principles of global feminism, was able to promote this spirit of collectivity through a combination of communication processes based in email and web systems as well as fax machines.
In addition to promoting the internal functioning and identity of the transnational social movement, communications also represents a text, recognizing the potential for asserting claims on interpretations of social struggles. As a product, activist media offer distinct visions of social problems and possible solutions not typically present in the mainstream media. When dominant interpretations of communities and events in the media are deemed limited or problematic, the importance of creating alternative texts is imperative. IndyMedia groups, for example, employed a variety of video and textually based formats to counter dominant trivializations of groups protesting in Seattle in 1999. Similarly, the World Social Forum offers a virtual information sphere in order to publicize and legitimize alternative visions of crises and justice.
While some social movements focus on producing their own mediated texts, such as radio programs, video installations, and web-based sites of information, other groups engage in media advocacy, attempting to inspire media attention as well as legitimize their efforts in mainstream media industries. Transnational social movements advocating better conditions for workers in sweatshops were able to gain media attention through disseminating information on devastating conditions through the Internet.
The Zapatista community was also able to leverage broad public support for resistance to injustices suffered in the Chiapas region in Mexico. Gaining legitimacy outside of the local territory was possible through the electronic networking of several groups, such as Global Exchange, Mexico Solidarity Network, and others. Attention to clear human rights violations and military coercion gained traction as first-hand accounts traveled through web-based systems toward other media.
The following case studies illustrate some of the ways in which transnational social movements have integrated media into their internal communication processes, as well as creating or attracting media as texts signifying the struggles of these groups. Specific illustrations remind us of the importance of contextual factors in understanding the nature of social change and the potential for active engagement, rather than positing social movements or processes as somehow universal.
Global Social Justice Movement
As a first case, paramount were the historical conditions giving rise to the mobilization against the World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in 1999, as well as the particular communication technologies available toward promoting the process and vision of these groups. Diverse groups, mostly but not entirely based in the US, coordinated efforts in these protests through the use of the Internet and web-based systems. In addition, digital media were used to document the activities and intentions of the groups, in order to offer subsequent media texts countering a dominant vision of protestors as trivial or marginal. These texts included video, audio, and print in a variety of formats, distributed through the web, radio, magazines, newspapers, and other forms of communication. IndyMedia, as one organization devoted to the principles of resisting neo-liberal capitalism embodied by the WTO, offered a media outlet for different groups of participants to organize and chronicle their work in this broader effort.
Subsequent protests against the G8 summit in July 2001, along with the advent of the European Social Forum the following year, exemplified similar applications of media systems, as representing both functional value in facilitating internal communication toward planning strategies, and critical value in composing a site for political engagement. Participants heavily relied upon computer-based technologies for email, online dialogues, and web-sites to engage in networking and publicize their interests, positioned against opposing views presented in mainstream media. For example, IndyMedia offered a vision of peaceful, ordinary citizens engaging in protests countering a mainstream version emphasizing violent, chaotic mobs.
Transnational Feminist Movements
Just as resistance to global agencies promoting neo-liberal capitalism necessitates mobilization across national boundaries, so feminist movements engage in transnational action in response to patriarchal policies and actions. Although the particular conditions circumscribing the role of gender in power dynamics are recognized as integral to experiences of oppression, connecting gender with issues of ethnicity, class, sexuality, and other circumstances, these groups are united in their interest in promoting social justice and equality. Some of these social movements, including DAWN, Network Women in Development Europe (WIDE), and Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), have used a variety of communications technologies, including fax as well as email and websites, to promote women’s rights in the region they refer to as the global south.
Constituted through the work of participants based mostly in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, DAWN works with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in supporting feminist analyses of globalization, sustainability, and sexual and reproductive health and rights, among other issues. WIDE includes a policy component in its work, attempting to influence European and other international policies on issues of gender equity, building from a network of NGOs based in European Union countries. WLUML attempts to foster a sense of community among women living in Muslim countries, coordinated through regional offices in Pakistan and Nigeria, such that experiences can be shared and strategies invoked to resist patriarchal control. These feminist groups share an interest in reinforcing transnational communities of feminist activists, through their use of communications technologies to share experiences and permit dialogue. Each of these organizations offers documents and news of their work through its website. Some also incorporate subscription-based services toward supplemental types of information exchange.
Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement
Another social movement demonstrates how one local effort grew into more broadly based global groups through connecting activities and information through media. The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, initially enacted through local leadership and participation in Sri Lanka, has since evolved into a network of global participants (across Asian, African, American, and European regions) interested in creating “eco-villages” or communities creating practices alternative to usual approaches to modernity.
Internet systems have offered networked participants the opportunity to share information on past practices and organize conferences, while those with access to these technologies are able to view projected information on selected projects and ideals.
Concerns And Limitations
Although communications offer important processes as well as products critical to the struggles articulated through the work of transnational social movements, some concerns and limitations remain. Computer-based technologies appear to be integral to the coordination of transnational collectives, yet many other formats and technologies, encompassing attention to popular culture, news and community radio and newspapers, and electronic listservs, remain central to the broader context of social change.
Concerns about the digital divide in access to computer technologies remind us of the limitations of access not only to computers and to the infrastructure supporting them (such as reliable systems of electricity), but also to the languages and literacies of practice and to cultural capital supporting use. Newer technologies presuppose a structural basis of social, financial, and other forms of capital that privilege elite participants, yet the agenda of social change needs to include those participants without access to such resources. Thus the conditions that underscore the very problems engaged by transnational social movements may be inadvertently reinforced by practices of resistance. The careful strategic use of media and communications must be engaged with in order to address global concerns with inequality and injustice.
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