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Social media and political action? - Christian W. Chun




Social media and political action? - Christian W. Chun

By Christian W. Chun
Assistant Professor, Department of English
City University of Hong Kong

My workshop entitled “Critical language in action,” conducted in November 2011 at the Occupy Los Angeles encampment at City Hall during the height and frenzy of the Occupy Movement in the U.S., was video-recorded and posted on YouTube a month and a half later. While the actual attendance at the workshop numbered less than a dozen active participants (details are provided in my 2014 book chapter “Reflexivity and critical language education at Occupy LA” in J. B. Clark and Fred Dervin’s Reflexivity in Language and Intercultural Education: Rethinking Multilingualism and Interculturality, published by Routledge), the video itself has now garnered over 2,500 views.

The rise and use of social media has been well documented, discussed, and debated in both mainstream media and academic publications. Various claims have been made by some in the media and academia that social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook helped facilitate the networking and information dissemination in the numerous uprisings and protests in the past five or so years: Iran in 2009, the Arab Spring of 2011, Occupy Wall Street the same year, and other lesser-known protests around the world since then. One central issue at the heart of the debate is the actual role of social media in prompting political involvement and action. It seems fairly obvious to even the most casual observer that disseminating basic information through social media about the locations and time of planned events and protests is far more effective in terms of reaching a greater audience in less time than say, posting notices on telephone poles or bulletin boards in the not-so-distant past. Or is it?

What is a whole lot less clear perhaps is the impact — and how we would assess this impact, if any — of social media on the actual participatory levels of personal and mass political engagement, action, and continuing mobilizations. In other words, compared with the numerical figure of a dozen or so people participating in my workshop on critical language awareness and analysis sounds about the average attendance number in any academic seminar or conference setting, are the 2,500 plus views (and counting) of a video of the same workshop that much more impressive in terms of audience participation? This question leads to several other important questions here in the context of advocating for systemic change in the name of social justice and equality (however broadly defined): Are all these views of the video on YouTube significant in the sense that perhaps more people are becoming engaged with (or at least the initial step of being introduced to) critical notions of language and its material actions and practices in society? Are these potential critical engagements though safely contained within the corporatized spaces of social media such as the all-too-often and predictable political rants of the day posted by people on their Facebook status updates and Twitter feeds? Although this may seem to some as a legitimate form of political engagement and activity — complaining about, or criticizing on your Facebook page the latest government and or corporate policies and actions, be they domestic or international — does this type of activity actually lead to people becoming involved in fighting for social progressive change?

My workshop was originally conceived and intended for the context of the immediate physical and symbolic space of the Occupy encampment at Los Angeles City Hall. There, in a corner of the lawn surrounding City Hall was a space marked “The People’s University.” This space contained makeshift bookcases crammed full of volumes on history, current events, political philosophy, and media studies. Workshops were regularly scheduled and well attended. Their purpose was educational of course; but also more than this, for the attendees, participants, and activists, having informed discussions in such a setting right on the grounds of a government building intended to represent a representative democracy seemed to be a good example of critical praxis. One could not help but notice the immediacy and its facilitation of the nexus between intellectual engagement and political action right at that site of civic and democratic activism.

This public space pedagogy in this charged atmosphere and environment would seem to have immediate effects — perhaps people who may have been novices to political activism might have been spurred (or even inspired) to follow through and take to the streets, literally in those heady days of Occupy protests and marches in the Autumn of 2011. It was right there for the taking. Yet, with the move of this public space pedagogy in its workshop form to its recontextualized video materialization housed in the online environment of YouTube, accessible worldwide to only those who have access to it, and yes, viewed by thousands, and potentially thousands more, what now? I claimed at the end of my chapter, “Reflexivity and critical language education at Occupy LA”, that the trenchant critiques by the workshop participants of the economic system commonly called ‘globalization’ by many in the mainstream media would be taken up by others around the world in searching for and forming their own sociopolitical critiques. However, if there is no immediate physical context in which they could follow up after engaging in this activity of critical language analysis, other than just viewing the video and perhaps posting a comment, what would be their next possible moves?

This is not to suggest that the viewers of the YouTube video of the workshop, or any other video for that matter, are passive consumers. However, the eventual move of the workshop to the spaces of social media does raise the issue of whether or not the critical views expressed have become safely contained and neutralized. Aside from the possibility of careful monitoring of the video and its viewers by the you-know-who — and if so, what would they find anyway? — can this workshop actually spur any further action for change? Are there ways in which the virtual spaces of social media can become sites in which debate and discussion lead to political involvement, engagement, and action in the material physical public spaces of governing, community, and society? We need to continue to think about and explore ways for this to actually happen.


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