On SAGE Insight: Images of protest in social media

Article title: Images of protest in social media: Struggle over visibility and visual narratives

From New Media & Society

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While political protest is essentially a visual expression of dissent, both social movement research and media studies have thus far been hesitant to focus on visual social media data from protest events. Researchers in this study follow a scene through the lens of a camera pointed out of the window of the Frankfurt am Main police station. The image is shaky, giving the impression that we are looking at a scene filmed on a mobile phone. Through the lens, they observe what is occurring outside the window: activists dressed in black, running in groups, throwing small objects (most likely stones and fire crackers), and setting police cars parked outside the police station ablaze. The 30-second-long video ends on a scene with a burning police car. Police and press photographers arrive and take pictures of the burning cars.

This is the most retweeted audiovisual content on the day of action of the Blockupy Frankfurt protests against the opening of the European Central Bank (ECB) on 18 March 2015. The video, originally posted by the Frankfurt am Main police, was retweeted 1286 times, accompanied by the tweet: “Here a video showing the attack on the police station #Frankfurt and it’s self-explanatory #18M #18nulldrei.”1 The hashtags are those that the Blockupy activist alliance identified as for use by participants in the protests against the ECB opening. The video was also posted on the Frankfurt am Main police’s Facebook page, viewed 1,907,591 times, shared 23,829 times, received 4900 reactions, and attracted 3959 comments.

This research is the second phase of an analysis of Twitter data collected during the Blockupy Frankfurt action using event-specific hashtags (#Blockupy, #Destroika, #NoTroika, #M18). The data were collected using DiscoverText which uses both REST and STREAM Twitter API to gather data. It is understood contributions to the spectacle of violence as part of a relational process that is intrinsic to the struggle over visibility and hegemonic narratives between activists and authorities. Combining methods allowed them to empirically observe (a) the structural and quantifiable elements of images becoming visible on Twitter, (b) different actors sharing images containing violence, and (c) the contentious narratives emerging from Twitter images in the wider context of social movements and protest events.

This study used a unique set of methods to examine the visibility of image tweets from the Blockupy Frankfurt actions. The results suggest that image tweets mainly maintain the status quo of the politics of visibility. These visualities not only push activist grievances into the background but also delegitimize them and undermine activists’ legitimacy as political actors. Rather than rupturing the hegemonic visuality of protest, the images shared on Twitter amplify and reinforce existing classifications and shift focus from social movements’ grievances to the spectacle of violence. This study has attempted to conceptually advance the inquiry into images of protest in social media as well as develop a unique combination of methods to empirically tackle the problem. Further research is needed to understand and conceptualize the consequences that the visual in social media has for social movement practices and to advance analytical awareness within social movements studies.

Abstract

While political protest is essentially a visual expression of dissent, both social movement research and media studies have thus far been hesitant to focus on visual social media data from protest events. This research explores the visual dimension (photos and videos) of Twitter communication in the Blockupy protests against the opening of the European Central Bank (ECB) headquarters in Frankfurt am Main on 18 March 2015. It does so through a novel combination of quantitative analysis, content analysis of images, and identification of narratives. The article concludes by arguing that the visual in political protest in social media reproduces existing visualities and hierarchies rather than challenges them. This research enhances our conceptual understanding of how activists’ struggles play out in the visual and contributes to developing methods for empirical inquiry into visual social media content.

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Article details
Images of protest in social media: Struggle over visibility and visual narratives
Christina Neumayer, Luca Rossi
First Published April 26, 2018 Research Article
DOI 10.1177/1461444818770602
New Media & Society


     
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