This post is a presentation/intervention written for Dr Alessandra Renzi’s Alternative Media graduate class at Concordia University.
On May 18 2017, as part of the surge in protests following Donald Trump’s inauguration, America Ferrera led a panel discussion co-hosted by Twitter and Cosmopolitan called #ActivismIRL (Ruiz-Grossman, 2017). Featuring members of Black Lives Matter and Women’s March, the discussion was focused around so-called “front line activists” with the intent of teaching people how to turn “hashtags into action.” In a pointed statement during the event, Ferrera noted that:
“It’s one thing to sit on a computer and read about issues, or watch someone’s story. But what changes us is being in a relationship to other people face-to-face. So whether that’s having a conversation in your community, attending a town hall, attending a local organization’s teach-in, or leading or holding your own, building community is transformative” (Moreno, 2017).
Ferrera’s statement highlights a tension that often exists among activists about the merits of online activism, particularly through social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. At worst, social media activism has been criticized as being “slacktivism” or “clicktivism”, a lazier alternative to “real” activism undertaken in physical spaces. At other times, it is viewed as a strictly complementary element to direct action such as marches, protests, sit-ins, and occupy movements. However, such characterizations usually fail to acknowledge the important, invisible labour that takes place in online spaces and across social media. Additionally, for many, such as disabled persons, social media is a critical way — in some contexts, the only way — in which they can take part in social movements. Alice Wong, a disabled activist and founder of the Disability Visibility Project, was quick to highlight these objections — co-opting the #ActivismIRL hashtag in the days following the initial event. She noted that the online campaign devalued the labour of online activists and presented an extremely ableist viewpoint when considering the privilege often required of in-person activism (Ruiz-Grossman, 2017). Not all people have the ability to travel or the requisite time/resources for frontline activism, and many places of protest are not accessible for those with mobility disabilities or prove hostile for those with anxiety or mental illness.
I would like to connect these issues with broader discussions we have had in this class, specifically two of the readings from this past week. First, Eve Ng and Sophie Toupin’s Feminist and Queer Practices in the Online and Offline Activism of Occupy Wall Street, and second, Elise D. Thorburn’s Networked Social Reproduction: Crises in the Integrated Circuit. As the first article is not on the required reading list for this week, I will first provide a brief overview.
Ng and Toupin’s paper is a summary and analysis of research conducted during Occupy Wall Street that highlights the contributions of feminist, queer, and trans groups, with a focus on the Trans World Order Affinity Group (TOAG). As these groups were involved in the movement since its inception, the paper proves to be an insightful case study on the challenges and contributions of feminist and queer activists to Occupy Wall Street — particularly how they challenged gender norms, heteronomativity, and transphobia in both physical and online spaces. Additionally, the authors outline how the Occupy movement negotiated differences between diverse activist groups, the efficacy of digital activism, and the relationship between online and offline strategies.
Some of the issues that tie together Wong’s activism work with the research of Ng and Toupin involve notions of space, privilege, and security. As mentioned earlier, many disabled protesters and activists were quick to point out that in-person activism can be difficult or impossible for them. Wong notes that there is often a pressure to “show up” to rallies, town halls, marches, or protests, without consideration of whether those spaces are livable or safe for marginalized groups. Ng and Toupin also elaborate on this topic by discussing how feminist, queer, and trans folk similarly hold concerns about their ability to participate in public-facing aspects of the Occupy movement, such as the encampment at Zucotti park or at the front-lines of protests. Despite claiming a decentralized, horizontal, and networked organizational structure, the authors note that the Occupy movement often favoured those who already enjoyed “gender, class, and race privilege” (Ng & Toupin, 2013, p. 92) and that physical spaces were generally dominated by white, middle-class, male protesters. Thus, much of the work of feminist and queer groups within Occupy Wall Street involved resolving tensions and educating others in regard to intersectional issues, gender identites, and essentialism — systems of inequality along the same lines that the movement ostensibly claimed to be challenging. As Ng and Toupin highlight, “the resistance to issues of privilege, oppression, and discrimination that women and queers sought constantly to foreground was very draining and tiring, leading to complicated feelings towards Occupy” (2013, p. 100). Similarly, Wong notes that online activism provides similar opportunities to shift discourses to be inclusive of disabled persons — in the context of the Trump administration, this often involved changes in Medicaid (Obamacare) coverage rolled out by the Republican party.
Additionally, while many protesters often put a high value on in-person action, they also do not recognize the risks such actions pose to various groups in terms of physical safety and security. Through interviews with TOAG members, Ng and Toupin outline what common “throw your body on the line” discourses meant for trans women who have a long history with violence and discrimination imposed by the criminal justice system:
“Militant folks [were] saying why are you not willing to put your body on the line? White cis-male guys would say, ‘It’s not that bad to be arrested.’ Having no idea what it is like to be in jail for a trans-woman” (Ng & Toupin, 2013, p. 105).
Alice Wong, when discussing participation in anti-Trump protests in 2017, noted that such ideas of “showing up” are ableist as they presume a normative human body type capable of certain forms of action, and ignore systemic barriers of participation in public spaces:
“Living in a world that is physically and socially inaccessible (e.g., micro-aggressions, lack of transportation, lack of accessible buildings and venues) and living with a body that has significant energy and assistance needs, makes it difficult for me to ‘show up’ the way most activists imagine what ‘showing up’ means” (Wong, 2017).
Despite such objections, the goal of these groups and individuals was not (and is not) to devalue the importance of in-person protest and activism. Rather, they are interested in pointing out the oftentimes hidden or unspoken challenges inherent to such direct actions, reforming discourses to include marginalized groups and ideals, and finding ways to meaningfully contribute without putting themselves at physical risk. TOAG pointed out that its members shifted their efforts toward online writing, tweeting, and coordination efforts — essential behind-the-scenes work that kept the Occupy movement going (Ng & Toupin, 2013, p. 104). Wong outlines the importance of letter writing, phone calls, Twitter chats, and storytelling — valuable activities that each possess a unique purpose and power within larger movements (Wong, 2017). Both groups see their work as contributing to larger social justice movements while, simultaneously, reforming them to include the perspectives of marginalized stake-holders.
However, such groups are not composed entirely of techno-utopians, and are not uncritical of online platforms. For example, TOAG members have noted that the online realm has been rife with harassment and discriminiation for those with feminist principles (Ng & Toupin, 2013, p. 106) and disability activists have long criticized platforms for their reluctance to implement accessibility features (Pulrang et al., n.d.). Additionally, there is a folly in taking an uncritical, technologically deterministic viewpoint that presumes certain technologies such as Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr have been largely responsible for the success of Occupy and similar movements and, therefore, can be leveraged for emancipatory purposes without consequence.
We can complicate these sorts of ideas by considering Thorburn’s conceptualization of social media platforms as contradictory arenas of social reproduction that “simultaneously [produce] workers for capital and human beings antagonistic to capital” (2016, p. 383). Thus, rather than being spaces that inherently oppose or foster liberatory possibilities, we can instead take a more nuanced look at the contradictions that they embody. Networked communication technologies enable the transmission of social bonds and bodily affects, can be useful venues for organization and communication, and offer new methods for building solidarities across diverse groups. However, participation in such platforms also subject participants to the gaze of networked surveillance that subsumes them (Thorburn, 2016, p. 390). While providing opportunities for participation and care for marginalized groups, it also commodifies them through their socially reproductive activities, turning activities (even ones as innocent as hitting a ‘like’ button in Facebook) into capitalised labour (Thorburn, 2016, p. 386). Additionally, such platforms are inequitable, othering groups of users through barriers to access and ineffective moderation and safety policies.
The notion of labour is an interesting one when considering disabled activists and protesters, as, due to systemic biases, disabled persons have been historically framed as being unable to contribute productively to the workforce. Thus, the contradictory nature of networked spaces are further exacerbated for them, presenting higher stakes than other participants. As many do not have the same opportunity to participate in in-person activities due to systemic barriers, they may feel that opting out of such networked communications would render them incommunicable — unable to shape discourses and contribute to the reproduction of the social. However, despite their alienation from the labour-force, such systems will still readily capitalize on their free labour as it is “monitored, collected, aggregated, parsed, and archived for later use, potentially for purpose of manipulation, value extraction and control” (Thorburn, 2016, p. 391). Thus, the notion of “opting out” of such systems becomes fraught, making participation in networked communication almost a prerequisite for protest and antagonism, while also rendering such activities susceptible to subsumption under capitalist processes of production from which they are usually excluded.
Moreno, C. (2017, May 19). America Ferrera Wants To Change The Way Americans View Activism. Huffington Post. https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/america-ferrera-wants-to-change-the-way-americans-view-activism_n_591f27e8e4b03b485cb1470e?ri18n=true
Ng, E., & Toupin, S. (2013). Feminist and Queer Practices in the Online and Offline Activism of Occupy Wall Street. Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network, 6(3). https://doi.org/10.31165/nk.2013.63.307
Pulrang, A., Beratan, G., & Wong, A. (n.d.). Disability Advocacy and Twitter: Why Use It? Disability Visibility Project. https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/2016/05/07/disability-advocacy-and-twitter-why-use-it/
Ruiz-Grossman, S. (2017, May 25). You Don’t Have To March To Be In The Resistance. Huffington Post. https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/disability-activism-resistance-alice-wong_n_59270f76e4b061d8f8201e8f?ri18n=true
Thorburn, E. D. (2016). Networked Social Reproduction: Crises in the Integrated Circuit. TripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society, 14(2). https://doi.org/10.31269/triplec.v14i2.708
Wong, A. (2017, April 5). Valuing Activism of All Kinds. Rooted in Rights. https://rootedinrights.org/valuing-activism-of-all-kinds/