Author Archives: Dana M. Moss

From the Arab Spring to the Muslim Ban: Diaspora Activists Oppose Authoritarianism at Home and Abroad

By Dana M. Moss

The Arab Spring and its early victories heralded new hope for liberal change in the Middle Eastern region. Six years later, its aftermath has wrought unfathomable tragedies. War in Yemen has produced the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe, leaving 19 million (69% of the population) in urgent need of aid and 10 million on the brink of starvation. Thousands have been killed in Libya’s ongoing civil war between government forces loyal to an autocratic general, local militias, and extremists. Syria has become a theater of horrors leaving half a million dead and 13 million in need of humanitarian aid. About five million Syrians have fled, and those who remain risk being bombarded from the sky, starved on the ground, and tortured to death in regime prisons. Continue reading

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Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War – A Review

By Dana Moss

It is now common knowledge that the war in Syria has produced the worst refugee crisis since World War II, but tragically, that is only part of the story. Since the emergence of Syria’s Arab Spring uprising in early 2011, half a million Syrians have been killed and approximately 150,000 are being starved or tortured to death in state prisons. The so-called Islamic State (ISIS, or Daesh) and groups from Jabhat al-Nusra, a branch of Al Qaeda, to Hezbollah continue to kidnap, kill, and pillage across the country. In clear violation of international law, the regime is laying siege to cities and towns and starving their inhabitants. Half of Syria’s total population is now uprooted—over four million have fled and seven million are internally displaced—and refugees are trapped in miserable camps or drowning trying to reach Europe. And there is no end to the suffering in sight. So how did the protesters’ initially humble calls for change in 2011 lead to such mass displacement and death? And for those who feel that Syria is too far away—or too exceptional a case—to warrant our attention, why should we care?

Figure 1 - Book cover

Figure 1: Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami. (London, Pluto Press)

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Target(ing) Practice(s): Social Movements’ Relations, Repertories, and Consequences

By Dana M. Moss

Who activists target and how is an important topic for scholars of mobilization, and one that the Collective Behavior and Social Movements section of the American Sociological Association will discuss at the annual pre-conference workshop in Chicago this summer. My thoughts on the study of movements’ targeting practices and tactics are outlined below.

First, we should think about how movements create relationships with their targets, or why they fail to do so.

Whether movements are seeking to change the public’s consumption of water in drought-stricken California or their position on a particular ballot measure, it is worth considering how movements create—or foreclose—the kinds of relationships needed to enact social change with their intended targets. Movements engage in all types of outreach to change hearts and minds, but some strategies are far more likely than others to garner sympathy. I was thinking about this recently when I witnessed two activists wordlessly handing UC Irvine students pamphlets on veganism during the rush between classes. The students cringed and stuffed the papers in their pockets. It seemed as though the activists were checking off a box: distributed pamphlets to a bunch of random and potentially-impressionable young people? Check! Without having gathered data on this incident, I would wager my JSTOR subscription that zero minds were changed that day. Public education efforts require labor, time, and money—things that movements rarely have in ample supply. And yet, actions such as distributing pamphlets often seem to be all cost and no reward. Continue reading

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How Social Movements Die: A Review

Out this month is Christian Davenport’s book on movement demobilization titled How Social Movements Die, published by Cambridge University Press. In this theoretically-informative and conceptually-rich analysis of the birth and death of the Republic of New Africa (sometimes “Afrika”), a Black nationalist movement that emerged out of Detroit in the late 1960s, Davenport demonstrates how state-sponsored repression and internal movement dynamics interact and combine to bring about a movement’s demise. The book comes highly recommended, for reasons I outline below.

HSMD Book cover

The RNA was founded with four primary goals in mind: territorial autonomy in southern states, reparations for slavery, a separate governance structure, and the democratic participation of African Americans on matters of policy within these liberated territories. The movement relied on mainstream, nonviolent tactics, but also promoted militancy and produced an armed wing.  Regardless of any outside intervention, the RNA was likely destined for dissolution because of the mismatch between its ambitious aims and its limited capabilities. However, what Davenport is able to demonstrate is how state-sponsored repression exacerbated the movement’s weaknesses and to show why it dissolved when it did. Continue reading

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#HashtagActivism: Wannabe Protest, or Something More?

On June 23rd, an Egyptian court convicted three Al Jazeera English journalists—Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed—of aiding a terrorist organization and damaging national security by producing false news. Their sentences range from 7 to 10 years and have sparked international condemnation from journalists, activists, politicians, and non-governmental organizations. In response, the hashtag #FreeAJStaff has become reinvigorated as the touchstone slogan of protest, appearing not just on Twitter, but in mainstream media and on other social media platforms as well. Photographs of journalists, activists, celebrities, and concerned individuals displaying the hashtag with their mouths taped shut have proliferated, like this example below. (A Tumblr collection of protest selfies can be viewed here.)

FreeAJStaff

This hashtag, which emerged after the initial imprisonment of the journalists last year, has itself been a focus of concern and of reporting. Prior to the conviction, concerned Twitter users noted that the hashtag was lagging and urged their followers to keep up the momentum. As Kamahl Santamaria (@KamahlAJE) of Al Jazeera English tweeted on June 22, “The #FreeAJStaff hashtag/trend is way too quiet. Let’s get moving people…” The conviction on the following day prompted #FreeAJStaff to be tweeted over 50,000 times, according to #BBCTrending.

Another well-known hashtag campaign, #BringBackOurGirls (sometimes #BringOurGirlsBack), emerged in response to the May kidnapping of hundreds of young girls by the now infamous extremist organization Boko Haram in Nigeria. David Cameron and Michelle Obama were just two notable figures who publicized this hashtag along with expressions of concern and calls for action. The same #BBCTrending article cited above noted that #BringBackOurGirls has been tweeted over 4.5 million times to date.

Michelle Obama joins in.

Tweets and retweets, it is commonly acknowledged, are an indicator of global concern and signify critical events that warrant our attention and action. But the question remains: does hashtag activism actually matter? If so, how might it matter?

The question of whether online gestures matter elicits groans from scholars and activists, partly because such activities come off as Protest Lite. After all, it only takes a second (maybe less) to retweet a call to action or a news byline. As journalist and former Labour MP Dan Hodges wrote recently for The Telegraph, it’s fast, transient, and comes off as superficial. Hashtag activism focuses our attention on certain issues to the neglect of others—such as the 60 women and girls and 31 boys kidnapped by Boko Haram this week, and the 16,000 political prisoners currently languishing in prison, tortured, or disappeared in Egypt. In addition, activists’ time and resources may be disproportionately focused on accruing retweets. The hesitation to ascribe any importance to this form of collective activism reflects legitimate concerns over how fleeting and narrowly-focused online activism can be.

But before we lambaste hashtag activism as useless—or even harmful—let’s consider what it can do. The creation of online publicity by organizations and individuals is a form a collective action that raises awareness about a particular social problem. It is true that some crises get hyped at the expense of others, and that hashtag slogans lack nuance. But these are problems that exists in all forms of media and activism, not just the online variety. We also know that raising awareness in and of itself does not solve social problems. Sympathetic publics alone cannot usually produce meaningful outcomes for the victims of injustice and violence. As Hodges writes, “Boko Haram didn’t #bringbackourgirls.” In the absence of real-world action, hashtag campaigns look weak, and even foolish. But this activism also lets people with at least some capacity to raise a fuss, such as politicians, know that the public (however briefly) cares. And we shouldn’t assume that the tweets stand alone. On the contrary, this form of activism is often partnered with offline actions and diplomatic efforts. Online activism often compliments, rather than substitutes for, mobilization in the form of protests, lobbying, and direct action.

NIGERIA-UNREST-PROTEST

Consider a parallel example from the pre-internet age: television and print media coverage of violence enacted against peaceful Civil Rights Movement protesters did not by itself produce policy changes. But it has been widely credited in sociological literature with turning the tide of public opinion against southern segregationists and justifying federal intervention. Rather than thinking of internet-based awareness as an insufficient condition for action, it may be more accurate to think of it as a necessary condition that prods external actors into taking concrete actions in some cases.

Rarely, if ever, is a Twitter campaign going to produce policy change or direct intervention on behalf of victims across borders. But maybe what it does—if only for a few days or weeks—is to signify that people care. This kind of global solidarity may never produce immediate, tangible results (which is, ironically, what hashtags call for), but it can provide much-needed moral support for grieving family members and for activists who aim to take direct action, especially for those who face risks in doing so. It may also signal to media outlets, whose articles on the subject are being bitly’d and retweeted along with the hashtag, that they should continue to commit resources to the issue at hand.

Perhaps more than anything, hashtag activism suggests the limits of symbolic gestures. But aren’t most protests symbolic gestures? And isn’t online outrage more productive than no outrage? Share your thoughts in the comments, or tweet them with the hashtag #dohashtagsmatter.

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Beyond the Repression-Dissent Nexus: Putting Violence in Its Place

By Dana M. Moss

Studies of mobilization have long been preoccupied with understanding the effects of repression on protest. However, as Mark Lichbach remarks, the search for models—whether linear, U-shaped, S-shaped, or otherwise—leaves scholars “forever correlating the total aggregate level of one output (government repression) with the total aggregate level of the other output (opposition activity)” (1987: 288). Furthermore, conceptual and analytical inconsistencies persist; aggregated event counts and indicators denoting low, moderate, and high levels of repression vary based on what type of crackdowns “count” as severe and have been accounted for in the media or NGO reports (Davenport 2007).

Because the question “does repression increase or decrease protest?” has dominated the research agenda, I suggest that we revisit our orienting questions. For example, what kinds of repression do activists perceive as severe? Which governmental agents, entities, and affiliates do the repressing, and what does this mean for the short-term outcomes of movement-government standoffs? Which social movements are most at risk for violent repression?  And how does the character of a regime shape its propensity for violence?  In an effort to expand our conceptualization of the repression-dissent nexus in potentially fruitful and specific ways, I outline several suggestions below. Continue reading

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The People Demand the Rise of a Regime!

The aftermath of the revolution has proved to be a harrowing time for Libyans across the country as serious deficits in the rule of law and security persist. Government officials, journalists, and other civilians have been assassinated by nameless villains; embassies have been attacked; violent crime have become a part of daily conversation. While working on a piece of my dissertation in and around Tripoli in September 2013, my Libyan friends and colleagues lamented these facts with despair. I asked one of my most well-informed friends, a life-long resident of Tripoli, if he would ever consider calling the police when, say, experiencing a burglary. Oh no, he replied with surprise. Absolutely not. We handle this problem ourselves. And if you yourself have a problem, or just scream. Yes, scream! Don’t bother with the police.  A thousand men will come pouring out of their houses to rescue you. At this last point, I laughed. He chuckled, but halfheartedly. Continue reading

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