Since the Iranian protests began on September 16, 2022, social media has been inundated with images and videos of women bravely confronting over four decades of authoritarian control over their bodies by cutting their hair, burning their mandatory hijabs, and remaining steadfast in the face of batons and bullets attempting to force them into submission. For people outside this context, digital visual content has been their first point of contact with this movement. They see and learn about the grievances of Iranian people and the government’s continued violence upon its own citizens – in a sense, processing the meanings of dissent, repression, and resistance – as they play out in the images. But outside of their symbolic functions as movement “memorabilia,” social media visuals also play an important role for protestors and affect the evolution of activism itself. Images and videos of the Iranian movement build on over nine years of prior digital visual activism. Past content both formed a script for future instantiations of protest – the likes of which we have seen over the past few weeks – and helped create a foundation for women’s grievances against the regime to take shape. Social movement scholars need to take this content seriously in light of such developments, especially as they relate to the dynamics of on and offline activism that remain of special interest to the literature.
Category Archives: Daily Disruption
From Digital Visual Activism to Mass Public Protest: The Role of Social Media Images and Videos in the 2022 Iranian Movement
Over the past few decades, the combination of economic and political liberalization in many areas of the developing world has promoted the emergence of various forms of collective organizing. This dynamic has been particularly pronounced in Latin America, where drastic neoliberal reforms coincided with an unprecedented period of democratic expansion. One of the most visible examples took place in Argentina, where rising unemployment in the 1990s led community leaders to organize laid-off workers in poor neighborhoods across the nation. Despite their diverse origins, these groups rapidly developed similar repertoires that helped them recruit members and gain influence, giving birth to what came to be known as the Unemployed Workers’ Movement, or piqueteros (Spanish for “roadblockers”). Since their emergence, these organizations have functioned as networks of local groups that use demonstrations to demand the distribution of social assistance, usually in the form of foodstuffs and positions in workfare programs. If successful, they allocate part of these resources among participants and use the rest to develop an extensive array of social services in underprivileged areas.
Do social movements have to be carried out through protests or other contentious means? When protests wane, does the social movement activity also die out? If no, can the non-disruptive, and the less “visible” nature of challenging target entities be explained through possibilities other than abeyance structures which are still deficient in explaining how outcomes are achieved during periods of non-protest? In other words, should social movement activity be theorized exclusively through the cycles of protests? While several studies—theoretical as well as empirical—do suggest the possibility of carrying out social movements through non-disruptive means, a more robust understanding of social movements carried out entirely without obstructive means was lacking. In other words, we lacked a theoretical alternative to the grand contentious politics model to understand the carrying out of social movements. This theoretical monopoly has received a challenge with the recent publication of the article “The Politics of Alignment and the ‘Quiet Transgender Revolution’ in Fortune 500 Corporations, 2008 to 2017” in Socio-Economic Review. This paper has been recognized through the 2021 CBSM Mayer N. Zald Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Student Paper Award.
BY Phillip Ayoub, Douglas Page, and Sam Whitt
Do prides still yield the transformative potential to change society? This month’s Prides, and their cancelation in 2020, invite us to reflect on their contemporary purpose, and return to the ethos of their past.
“Maybe it’s not so bad that Pride is canceled … After all, the silence allows us to stop, reflect, and ask ‘What exactly is Pride?’” – Historian Eric Cervini
Growing student debt, rising tuition, institutional racism, and the concerns over the attacks on universities’ autonomy have triggered protests over the past decade that have opened up further analyses of young people’s political participation (Cini and Guzman-Goncha 2017, Earl, Maher and Elliott 2017, Türkoğlu 2019). As social movement scholars that study movements in the field of higher education, we usually focus on the students or the faculty as the main actors in these mobilizations. It is often harder to study the gray area where potential stakeholders might choose between the roles of bystanders and participants because of their personal ties to the hallowed halls. The alumni stand in this gray zone. When the president of Turkey appointed a former politician from his own party, who has never held an administrative role in a public university, as the rector of Boğaziçi University, the infringement on academic autonomy not only mobilized the students and the faculty but also the alumni.
Government restrictions on academic autonomy and the opposition to these restrictions have become increasingly common in the past few years. In the United Kingdom, the government announced sanctions on universities to “protect free speech” which education unions interpreted as yet another government intervention to limit academic autonomy. In the United States, only a couple of years ago, President Trump signed an executive order to ensure “free speech on college campuses” which was a triumph for conservative student activists. In France, the government announced an investigation into social science research as part of their mission against what Macron and his ministers call “Islamo-leftism.” Government authorities use this label for scholars who advance “radical” and “activist” ideas such as “systemic racism” in France. Not surprisingly, academic institutions issued public statements to convey their opposition to the attacks on academic freedom. As government policies aiming to limit academic freedoms lead to mobilizations big and small in different countries, a noteworthy mobilization for the defense of academic freedom has emerged in Turkey.
Boğaziçi University campus in Istanbul has hosted faculty and student protests for two months. Student protests are quite common in Turkey and elsewhere. Faculty protests are less frequent but still not too extraordinary. However, it is quite uncommon for all faculty to protest the appointment of a university president turning their back against the rectorate -rain, shine, or snow [see the photo above, credit: Can Candan]. Furthermore, they have refused to take part in administrative duties until the newly-appointed rector resigns. To put these protests in context, I should note that the higher education system in Turkey has taken a turn towards hyper-centralization since 2016, when the government consolidated all of the decision-making powers regarding the inner workings of universities through government-appointed rectors. Boğaziçi has had a somewhat unique position because it was able to maintain a decentralized consensus-based governance structure in a public university and enforce a merit-based system that kept the university among the highest-ranking research universities in Turkey. What is also quite uncommon within the global context of mobilization for academic freedoms is to see students arrested, LGBTQ students demonized, academics targeted in delegitimization efforts, and the university gates handcuffed.
Nevertheless, these repression tactics and the attacks targeting prominent faculty seem to have backfired. The faculty of prominent public and private universities issued public statements in support of Boğaziçi university faculty and students, college students in various universities organized solidarity protests and issued public statements, even the high school alumni from different cities signed open letters. The international community including the EU raised concerns that carry political weight as 60% of the Turkish citizens still favor EU accession. More importantly, the majority of the Turkish public favor university-held elections for rector appointments, including those who voted for the governing party.
Amidst all these developments, the alumni of Boğaziçi University also mobilized. Alumni associations issued a joint declaration to voice their disapproval of the government-appointed rector and articulated their commitment to Boğaziçi values including academic freedom. They have organized petition campaigns and coordinated protest activities online. Only a small number of alumni have been allowed on campus due to the pandemic restrictions but alumni associations have been sending representatives to stand with the protesting students and faculty in front of the rectorate. In a survey I conducted with 1,131 alumni who graduated from different departments in different decades, more than 99% favored a mechanism that involve an election within the universities (see in Turkish Türkoğlu 2021). This is an important finding because the sample included alumni who voted for different parties, left and right. While protests in the streets are a high-risk activity due to the pandemic and government restrictions, a majority (around 70 percent) participated in online protests/campaigns. Even those who did not participate in the protests approved of the opposition for the most part. These surprising results, in a country where the political culture is deeply polarized, indicate an important venue for the study of social movements that aim for higher education policy change.
 Rector is the highest administrative position in a university in Turkey. The position holds extensive administrative and academic powers such as faculty and staff hires, budget allocations, revisions of university regulations, and approval of academic activities including grant applications and academic conferences.
BY Joshua Bloom
Scholars of social movements have a crucial role to play over the next four years. In some ways we are just like everyone else. We each have stories from the last four years about what we would like to leave behind. The day after Trump’s inauguration, a swastika was etched onto my office building at the University of Pittsburgh. And I remember Antwon Rose’s mother’s pain, so tangible at his funeral, that she ‘had not been able to protect him from the police.’ A few months later came the largest anti-Semitic massacre in U.S. history at the Tree of Life Synagogue where many friends worship three blocks from my house. Following police orders during the massacre, while it was unclear whether other shooters were at large, I pulled down the window shades, and held my Jewish/mixed-race kids close – as far away as we could from the windows and doors. Three days later, when Trump had the audacity to use our grief to advance the politics of hate, making a mid-term election campaign stop at the temple, I sat down in front of his motorcade.
Any journalist will tell you: report the story, but don’t be a part of it. But, without a concerted effort to avoid “business as usual” on November 3rd, American journalism will be one of the most consequential characters in the story of the 2020 Election. In this election, the horserace has been weaponized.
Elections equal horse races to the media. Even if “decision desks”—the set of people who help “call” elections—have proclaimed their patience, their news desks and opinion desks, and the companies that own them, may not be so patient. For business, the more drama, the more viewers, readers, and/or likes, the better. But, the 2020 election is highly unlikely to be decided on Election Night itself.
When drama-hungry media howl for a winner on Election Night and/or dramatically cover a horserace, instead of a democracy, in the days, or weeks, after November 3rd, it will create a needless sense of urgency that those willing to subvert democratic institutions are counting on. For instance, an important justification for Supreme Court intervention in the election could come from pretending that the American people can’t wait for our votes to be counted, even while so many people (disproportionately people of color) are willing to wait for hours to vote in hopes they will be counted. A key way to legitimize state governments casting aside ballots and deciding on their own electors is to cite the media’s rush as an indicator that voters lack patience.
To be sure, we are not claiming that situation we are in is the result of the media. We are in an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine that was set in motion years ago, and everyone looks on amazed and surprised while the pieces continue to fall as researchers anticipated. But, the media’s part in this Goldberg machine is critical for the machine reaching its conclusion in a failed democracy. All that has to happen for the media to play Victor Frankenstein to our democracy on election night is for journalists and reporters to ignore the warning signs and continue with a horserace as usual, ignoring its weaponization.
What can the media do to avoid this and how can social movements help? The media-related steps are easy to identify but require significant discipline.
Step 1: The media must practice patience. Media broadly—decision desks, news desks, and opinion desks—need to commit now to practices that will facilitate patience on election night and afterwards. The decision desk’s patience must not be undermined: having one part of your organization committed to patience and the rest fanning the flames of impatience is making your media organization very much part of the story. Committing to patience isn’t going to get easier as we get closer to Election Day. The likelihood that media that don’t commit to organization-wide patience before Election Day will embrace patience afterwards is vanishingly small.
Step 2. Media should follow evidence-based guides on reporting like these from the Election Coverage and Democracy Network. Practices like “distinguish[ing] between legitimate, evidence-based challenges to vote counts and illegitimate ones that are intended to delay or call into question accepted procedures” and “don’t use social media to fill gaps in institutionally credible and reliable election information” are critical to maintaining patience and to starving the fire that may well burn on Election night, threatening to engulf our democracy.
Step 3. The media can use their reporting to help communities “Hold the Line” on defending democracy. Social movements are already trying to address key concerns about the Election. For instance, organizers are already working to preserve our democracy by protecting three basic principles: all votes must be counted; allegations of voter suppression and election irregularities must be impartially investigated and redressed; and the final result must be peacefully respected. Not only do we need media to refuse to spread chaos, we need prior reporting that helps their audience understand local voting practices and protections and evaluate how well their community is doing at ensuring that all voters are able to freely vote and have their votes counted.
Is the media up to the test? On the one hand, the willingness of journalists to be assaulted to tell the story of protests this summer says yes. But, on the other hand, media have been unwittingly weaponized before, delivering Trump $2 billion dollars in free media coverage, 2.5 times more than Clinton in 2016. Social movement organizers around the country are working right now to encourage the media, and other key actors, to ensure the integrity of the American election. In the days that follow it, it is possible that non-violent collective action will be necessary to have Election results fairly counted and/or honored. Movements need to remember during the weeks surrounding the Election that they may achieve their short-term election goals by encouraging the media to follow the steps above.
We will find out over the next 2-3 weeks whether journalists are going to be the story, pretending that normal practices in abnormal times are neutral. We hope the media will indeed rise to serve as the Fourth Estate.
Note: The opinions represented in this piece are our own views and do not represent the views or positions of our institutions or organizations.
Collective action is alive during the pandemic. But in which social movement areas? One obvious category is public health: Those who demand more public health measures might take online action, and those who oppose protective measures might take to the streets. Either side might target state actors or fellow citizens. The second category that comes to mind is labor. As the pandemic disrupts life, the measures were taken against the spread of the virus (or their lack thereof) lead to economic depression and rising unemployment. We would expect labor-related protests as a result. These are the usual suspects, how about the unusual ones?
Environmental emergency, democracy, anti-racism, and women’s rights seem to trigger protests across the globe. The activists’ perception of urgency might lead them to take to the streets amidst a pandemic. Despite the restrictions. Despite the de facto media blackout on news not related to Covid-19, especially in the first few months of the pandemic. All the while, the pandemic driven state of emergency measures and media’s focus on Covid-19 related news might lift some of the pressures policy makers face in other policy areas. In other words, social movements face more obstacles to be heard and politicians risk less punishment for ignoring the movements’ demands.
As scholars of social movements, we need to focus on the indirect impact of Covid-19 measures on collective action as well. Across the globe. Here are two strikingly similar cases of urban development and environmental policy from my comparative project: Brazil and Turkey (see here for a snapshot on collective action in Turkey). In both of the countries, during the first months of the pandemic, the national governments continued their “development” policies, which environmental groups vehemently opposed. In Brazil, the topic was the deforestation of the Amazon. In Turkey, it was the Canal İstanbul project that aims to create a second Bosphorus in İstanbul. Ricardo Salles, the Brazilian environment minister, argued that the pandemic was a great opportunity to push for unpopular measures, which might likely get blocked in congress. For him, the pandemic was the right time for these policy changes because media focused solely on Covid. Similarly, in March, the Turkish government held a tender for the Canal İstanbul project at a time when schools were shut down and weekend curfews were introduced in Turkey. It lead to an outcry from environmentalist groups claiming that the government took advantage of a public health crisis.
These examples show just one aspect of the indirect impact of the pandemic on the ability of the social movement actors to pressure state actors. Their room to maneuver is severely restricted as it is harder to gather media’s attention, coordinate protests on the streets, or influence agenda-setting in general.