In previous posts we have discussed the fact that the Irish Water protests and movement has continued to grow despite being written off numerous times by mainstream media. Moreover the movement has sustained itself against overwhelming media bias, sensationalism and negative framing, in what has seemed an almost overt attempted to de-legitimise the movement.
Yesterday Rory Hearn of the Geography department of Maynooth University published a paper which sheds some light on this process by (in part) looking at attitudes towards media among water activists and the use of social media as an organising tool, something we previously discussed here. This gives some empirical evidence towards the suspicion of waning media power among at least a significant segment of the population. A survey was conducted with over 2,500 anti water charge activists on their reasons for becoming involved, their attitudes towards the current government, tactics and future political preferences. Here we will highlight the reports findings about the media. The full report can be found here.
The report highlighted the mistrust of the mainstream media by the activists, and their preference of social media as a source:
The issue of the media was repeated as a significant theme in the respondents’ answers throughout the survey. They referred to the media portrayal of protestors as ‘biased’ and that the media was acting as ‘government supporters’. They criticised the media for its ‘failure to be objective’. They expressed strong feelings of contempt and anger at the coverage of the protests by the mainstream media. 86% of respondents described the media portrayal of the anti-water movement as negative. This composed of 45% describing it as ‘undermining the campaign’ and 41% saying it was ‘unfair’. Significantly Q 14 shows that protestors’ principal source of information about the campaign is overwhelmingly coming from social media as opposed to the traditional media. 82.6% were most informed about the campaign from social media. Only 6.4% of respondents were most informed from traditional media outlets
This is hardly surprising given the sensationalist nature of the mainstream coverage that would have been very much at odds with the lived reality of activists. Moreover the report states:
In particular it was noted that they have used social media very effectively as a way of providing information that the mainstream media has not covered. The movement has, according to respondents, overcome the ‘propaganda’ from the mainstream media, gained attention of foreign media, and ‘brought the issue to national attention’. It has done this through ‘the effective use of social media to discredit mainstream media’. Respondents are concerned that ‘lies in the media with the help of the Gardai about the real number of protesters is unjust and unfair and if others knew how many were really there they might get interested and get educated about it’.
The report highlights issues that have been debated over the last number of years as traditional media (print, television, radio) has been challenged by newer forms of publishing, social network sites and blogs that allow alternative views to be broadcast at a fraction of the traditional cost. Easy access to alternative or external (extra national) forms of media through the internet allows people to escape the dominant media of their country if they wish, and on rare occasions so called ‘citizen journalism’ on the internet may break through dominant frames or agenda. However some research suggests that most news sourced on the internet comes from the websites of mainstream media groups (Castells 2009 p. 196). However looking at the number of hits on youtube from uploads on by Irish water activists (sometimes in the hundreds of thousands) this may not be the case, though further research is necessary to confirm this one way or another.
This so called ‘communication revolution’ may represent a paradigm shift in communications as new forms of broadcasting through the internet have allowed for new forms of mass media and new forms of audiences and alternative forms of communication (Castells 2000, 2009). The contemporary media sphere sees numerous ‘entry points’ which can be utilised by producers/writers/reporters or political activists and has the potential of a mass audience. The technological revolution for McChesney offers historical possibilities in other words the possibility that the internet might finally herald the advent of an open and inclusive ‘public sphere’ (Schuler and Day 2004 p. 3). And this has been certainly been the most extensive and effective use of social media in Ireland to date. However it is important to remember that dominant groups have successfully usurped (or more commonly co-opted) such potentials many times before, and to date the traditional mass media still holds a vastly dominant position. The success of the Irish movement’s use of social was made possible by the mass dissemination of facebook in the Irish population with reports that up to half of the entire population have facebook accounts. This of course has inherent dangers as it gives a single company with little democratic oversight considerable powers.
It has also been argued that the online alternative media are at the core of (rather than simply reporting) the alternative social movements as they act as a force for organisation rather than simply reporting their actions and opinions (Coyer, Dowmunt and Fountain 2007). This of course is nothing particularly new, as political newspapers were often seen firstly as organising tools and secondly as newspapers, or as Lenin (1901) expressed it the newspaper acted as the organisational ‘scaffolding’ for political movements or parties. The southern Mexican Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) movement were probably the first group to do so on an international scale in the mid-1990s. Since then many movements, most notably indymedia, have been able to use cheap production tools and cheap distribution on the internet to disseminate their views often breaking into the mainstream. However it is important not to confuse the dissemination of counter hegemonic views with counter hegemonic power, while sub-altern groups may be given a voice this does not guarantee political or economic power. For example the anarchist Worker’s Solidarity Movement (WSM), an organisation counted in the dozens, but with savvy programmers, is the second most popular political party on Facebook in Ireland with over 50,000 followers, this compares very well to Fine Gael (Ireland’s largest political party and major coalition partner) with only 10,000 followers. While the WSM is second only to a resurgent Sinn Fein (with 65,000 followers), nobody would argue that this popularity translates offline into political power.
Others are cautious around recent developments. For example theorists Chakravartty and Schiller (2010 p. 677) maintain that:
‘it would be at best naïve to assume that the authority of economic science that underpins digital capitalism and is reinforced across academic, policy and media fields can be simply undone through the transformative power of blogs, social networking and other user generated content’.
Moreover Blumler and Gurevitch (2001) also warn that the internet’s potential to facilitate more participatory political communication is dependent on considerable resources such as time and finance. David Simon in his testimony on the future of journalism discussed the need for a funded full time media workers:
But democratized and independent though they may be, you do not – in my city — run into bloggers or so-called citizen journalists at City Hall, or in the courthouse hallways or at the bars and union halls where police officers gather. You do not see them consistently nurturing and then pressing sources. You do not see them holding institutions accountable on a daily basis.
Eugenia Siapera (2013) warns that some of the windows of opportunity for citizens and political activists opened by the new forms of media production and distribution are closing. This is due to the development of the new online media ecosystem that sees an increased concentration of distributive power on internet platforms such as Facebook or Google (Siapera 2013 p. 14). The new powerful internet distributors operate by the logic of what Siapera defines as infomediation. This can be defined as a process of bringing together information producers and information users to exchange contents and secondly to record as much data on users as possible to sell onto third parties – the process of immanent commodification. This leads to not only an introduction of new categories of news and information content but also the likelihood that the hierarchies will be related to how the infomederies may ‘value’ and monetise their readers; as different audiences will be of different value to various advertisers. This according to Siapera is likely to impact on the actual distribution of news contents customised to fit the appropriate type of audience (Siapera 2013 p. 16). While on the one hand social media allows the easy dissemination for alternative views and politics it may be also argued that political activists must be cautioned against establishing isolated echo-chambers rather than engaging with wider society.
Blumler, J.G. and Gurevitch, M. 2001. The new media and our political communications discontents. Information, Communication and Society, 4(3), pp.435-457.
Castells, M. 2000. The Rise of the Network Society. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell.
Castells, M. 2009. Communication Power. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Chakravartty, P. and Schiller, D. 2010. Neoliberal newspeak and digital capitalism in crisis. International Journal of Communication, (4), pp.670-692.
Coyer, K., Dowmunt, T. and Fountain, A. 2007. The Alternative Media Handbook. London: Routledge.
Lenin, V., I. 1901. Where to begin. Iskra,
Preston, P. 2009. Making the News: Journalism and News Cultures in Contemporary Europe. New York, NY: Routledge.
Schuler, D. and Day, P. 2004. Shaping the Network Society: The New Role of Civil Society in Cyberspace. Cambridge, Ma ; London: MIT Press.
Siapera, E. 2013. Platform infomediation and journalism. Culture Machine, 13pp.1-29.
 Castells (2009 p. 55) calls these new form of communication mass self-communication, as they are potentially broadcast to a global audience and because the production of the message is self-directed and often the reception of the media is self-selected. These new forms of media hold a potential for subaltern groups and ideologies previously excluded from the mass media
 ‘The role of a newspaper, however, is not limited solely to the dissemination of ideas, to political education, and to the enlistment of political allies. A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organiser. In this last respect it may be likened to the scaffolding round a building under construction, which marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, enabling them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organised labour’ (Lenin 1901).
 Number of Facebook followers correct as of 22/04/2015.