media economy politics

Kony2012: networks, activism and community

In the short history of social media, Kony2012 is now the most viral video ever, having reached 100 million views inside six days. Its success has been quickly examined by media analysts and some of the early findings are fascinating for what they reveal about the spread of information in the new media economy.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project details (as I noted in my earlier post) how the spread of the video shows “that young adults and their elders at times have different news agendas and learn about news in different ways.”

SocialFlow undertook a data visualization (see above) of the first 5,000 Twitter users who posted the #Kony2012 hashtag. What the clustering of connections reveals is that the hashtag started trending on 1 March before the video was posted online, and the trend came from Birmingham, Alabama. SocialFlow reports:

This movement did not emerge from the big cities, but rather small-medium sized cities across the Unites States. It is heavily supported by Christian youth, many of whom post Biblical psalms as their profile bios.

This fits with Elliot Ross’s assessment of Invisible Children as a missionary organisation coming out of the American Evangelical tradition.

This is the basis of SocialFlow’s analysis that a pre-existing network of activists was the driver for Kony2012’s success. Those activists were primed for the video’s release prior to its posting, and it was they who used their social media channels to bombard celebrities with mentions as a way of getting attention. This means that while celebrity retweets were important in fuelling the spread of Kony2012, the campaign did not begin with celebrity action.

The Civic Paths research group at the University of Southern California has been studying Invisible Children’s campaign strategies for some time, revealing how they use transmedia storytelling to mobilise and train young activists. When the Kony video talks of an eight year campaign and shows young activists throughout, this is what it is referring to. All this leads Henry Jenkins of Civic Paths to write:

The Kony 2012 video did not “go viral”; rather, its circulation depended on the hundreds of thousands of young people who already felt connected to the organization and to this cause through their participation in school based clubs and grassroots campaigns over almost a decade. These young people were among the first to receive the video, pass it along through their social networks to their friends and classmates, and thus, start a process which ultimately got the attention of millions around the world.

The Kony video did not go viral in the sense of magically taking off just because it was placed on social media platforms or because it was championed by celebrities alone.

It went viral because there was a pre-existing network of activists, built up over years through Invisible Children’s media strategies, who used social media channels to spread it far and wide.

Above all else, it shows that in the many different contexts of the new media economy community is an essential concept for all. Far from simply being the poster child for a new generation of social media activism that overtakes and replaces more conventional campaign strategies, the Kony2012 campaign collapses boundary between new/old modes of activism.

Picture: [Data Viz] KONY2012: See How Invisible Networks Helped a Campaign Capture the World’s Attention, 14 March 2012.

photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.16: Osama Bin-Laden and the pictorial staging of politics

The killing of Osama Bin-Laden is another of those issues in which politics is located in or around the image. However, the debate about the rights or wrongs of releasing the post-mortem photograph obscures the fact that any such image will inevitably have been staged.

I’ve read the many arguments calling for the release of a picture of the dead Bin-Laden (see Pete Brook’s post of many links, as well as Joerg Colberg’s and Michael Shaw’s considered statements). In principle I would opt for openness and transparency, but in this instance I have a difficult-to-articulate unease about the calls for the Obama administration to disclose what they have got.

My unease stems from the fact that the killing was not an act of justice. Needless to say (but let’s say it anyway, just to be clear) this is not to suggest Bin-Laden should be mourned. The issue is how we think about our actions in the world. Watching crowds in the US come out on the streets to celebrate a killing is to see an ironic reversal. It’s easy to imagine many of those individuals scorning mourners at, say, Arab funerals for their ‘barbarism’ in the exultation of death. I imagine the release of the post-mortem photograph in this context, where it might function as the bounty hunter’s evidence that the outlaw is no more. I’m not sorry Bin-Laden is gone. I just don’t feel the need to see an image that will close the circle that began with George W Bush’s call to get him ‘dead or alive’ and effectively render the operation as just.

The images that have emerged around the killing of Bin-Laden show how much of the pictorial record of politics is staged. Staging is not the same as faking. Political photography records events in front of the camera faithfully. But political events are often photo opportunities in which politics becomes theatre. Photography is complicit in this act when it doesn’t look beyond the immediate frame.

The White House’s release of a series of photographs on its Flickr stream showing the President and his national security advisers in and around the Situation Room (see above) was a fascinating but carefully managed insight into the conduct of Bin-Laden’s killing. If the post-mortem photo were to be released, it would also be part of this managed stream. But it was a small detail around another picture in the Flickr stream, of President Obama addressing the media, that showed how central the photo-op is to politics.

In a fascinating account, Donald Winslow reveals how some of the photographs of the President delivering his television statement were “from a re-enactment of his 11:45 p.m. EDT speech, performed minutes later strictly for the benefit of still cameras.” The image shown here is from one of the official White House photographers in the room during the speech. Excluded from the live event were photographers shooting for the Associated Press, Reuters, AFP, The New York Times and a freelancer who was filling the ISP (Independent Still Photographer) pool photographer’s slot. As one of the four photographers present recounted:

President Obama continued his nine-minute address in front of just one main network camera, the photographers were held outside the room by staff and asked to remain completely silent. Once Obama was off the air, we were escorted in front of that teleprompter and the President then re-enacted the walk-out and first 30 seconds of the statement for us.

Many newspapers overlooked that detail in the photos caption and ran it as record made live. When they discovered it had been staged there were some angry responses, but as Winslow reported “the ‘photo op’or re-staging of a Presidential speech for the benefit of still cameras has been a long-standing practice for various administrations.”

The concern about the production of this picture deflects attention from a wider issue. If we take a step back we can see that most of the formal moments that feed news photography are theatrical and thus effectively staged. Things like a politician’s press conference, campaign speech, factory tour, walkabout, and voter meet-and-greet take place in order to produce images. (As someone who used to work as a Senator’s press secretary in Australia, I’ve participated in the organisation of these various devices). If the lens is only trained on what is in front of it that construction is missed. Those that are railing at this moment from Obama’s speech generally fail to expose the endemic conceit of daily politics and its visual coverage.

Some photographers do pull back, take in the wider scene, and show how our pictures are often of staged events framed in particular ways. From extreme situations we have Paul Lowe’s 1992 photograph of the Somalia famine victim, Alex Webb’s 1994 picture of photographer’s in advance of US troops landing in Haiti (Magnum reference PAR112713), Nathan Webber’s image of photographers with the dead Fabienne Cherisma, and other examples of what some in photography inelegantly call a “goat fuck.”

From domestic politics, I recall (but cannot at the moment find) some great David Burnett photographs showing US presidential campaign stops where a vast auditorium hosts a tiny crowd of party faithful who, when pictured, look as though they fill the place. From the UK we have this great image (above) by Simon Roberts from his 2010 Election Project (which he discusses in a podcast here, starting at 51:30). This reproduction cannot do justice to the details of the large print version, but it nonetheless shows Brown in the center being interviewed by a television crew in the ‘press pen’ while other journalists and staff mill around the edges, greatly outnumbering voters. This image shows the context of a campaign stop, and happened to record one citizen, Gillian Duffy (centre, on the footpath in a blue skirt), starting to shout at the Prime Minister, precipitating an encounter that escalated into a major political crisis for Labour.

Images that address the construction of images, pictures that reveal the pervasive nature of the photo-op in our political culture, are essential to photography’s critical purpose. Calling for more of them, as opposed to a post-mortem document, might be the best response to a week in which the political and the visual have once again been enmeshed.

UPDATE 7 MAY 2011: I have revised paragraph 7 above in line with the Jeremy Nicholl’s final point in his first comment below. It now makes clear the official photo used above is from the live speech, and that it was the five news photographers who had to capture the reenactment. Jason Reed of Reuters wrote about these events on the Reuters blog and included a photo he made showing the others news photographers capturing the reenactment. After initial publication he also added a final paragraph clarifying the reasons he was asked to work this way.



First photo: P050111PS-0210. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Second photo: P050111PS-0918. President Barack Obama delivers a statement in the East Room of the White House on the mission against Osama bin Laden, May 1, 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Third photo: Gordon Brown, Labour. Rochdale, 28 April 2010 (Rochdale constituency). 122x102cm. Copyright Simon Roberts.

Fourth photo: Photographers take pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama after he announced live on television the death of Osama Bin Laden, from the East Room of the White House in Washington May 1, 2011. Copyright Reuters/Jason Reed.


Gaza: Israel’s mythical withdrawal

The Israel Defense Forces have completed five investigations into claims of war crimes during the war on Gaza and concluded, unsurprisingly, that those claims are unfounded.

As an IDF spokesperson said: “The bottom line is that the IDF conducted itself in an appropriate manner within the limits of international law.”

Given the points raised in my earlier post, that may be right, though it demonstrates more about international law than the nature of the violence.

One striking feature of the IDF presentation of its findings is a video containing a 3D animation of the urban landscape in Gaza designed to reinforce the idea that any alleged crimes were the product of the battlefield’s complex geography rather than IDF desire. In a simulation that resembles commercial war-games, the IDF video claims to detail the war-fighting strategies of Hamas forces that endangered civilians and their infrastructure.

The video opens with a narration designed to set the scene for the war in December 2008 that contains this claim:


Few statements could be more untrue. As I noted in my first post on Gaza, quoting Adi Ophir, Israel has maintained a stranglehold on the territory for the last decade or more. While the settlers and associated soliders were withdrawn, nothing for the civilian population moves in or out of Gaza without Israeli consent. What moves, when, and how much, is tightly controlled. The destiny of Gaza’s local population is therefore very much in the combined hands of Israel’s government, the elected Hamas administration and the Palestinian Authority. Until Israel accepts its part in creating the conditions of insecurity it faces, long-term solutions are going to elude all parties to the on-going conflict.


Gaza: terror without mercy, in the shadow of the law

“The underlying meaning of the attack on the Gaza Strip, or at least its final consequence, appears to be one of creating terror without mercy to anyone.” That is the conclusion of an independent study jointly commissioned by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and the Palestinian Medical Relief Society.

It chimes with The Guardian’s investigation into possible war crimes committed by Israeli forces (this being a good example of investigative, multimedia journalism), as well the testimony of Israeli soldiers gathered by the veteran’s organization Breaking the Silence. Medical personnel, hospitals and civilians were all targeted, despite the Israeli Defence Force’s surveillance technology giving them the capacity to see individuals and targets clearly from some distance. Not only was the death toll high, but the destruction wreaked on Palestinian infrastructure – some 15% of all buildings in the Gaza Strip were destroyed, and half of all hospitals attacked – made this a clear case of urbicide, meaning the destruction was a goal of the offensive rather than a by-product of the fighting.

Israeli authorities have defended their actions claiming that their forces act within the rules of war. And they may be right about that. International humanitarian law does not prevent war; it tells combatants how to conduct war. In the attack on Gaza the IDF employed international legal experts in great numbers to work out how to prosecute the offensive by establishing when, where and how they were “entitled” to attack civilians and their infrastructure. This means the assault on Gaza was a case of “lawfare.”

Hamas, through its indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilians, is also guilty of acting illegally, and deserves prosecution along with those Israeli forces that targeted medics, civilians and urban infrastructure. But there are limits to what a discourse of legality can achieve in this context. As Eyal Weizman has concluded, “rather than moderation or restraint, the violence and destruction of Gaza might be the true face of international law.”

As such opposing the continuing occupation of Palestinian lands and the perpetual blockade of Palestinian society – note the on-going control of PA funds by the Israeli government as evidence of the continuing strangulation that makes a mockery of the idea Israel has “withdrawn” from Gaza – might be better opposed in terms of colonial power rather than legal rights.


Obama @ 50 days

Early indications about the emerging Obama doctrine in foreign policy are positive. As Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian, repudiation of the Bush legacy, some plain talking and a few imaginative diplomatic initiatives are all good. 

But last week there was a disturbing turn, in the withdrawal of Charles Freeman’s appointment to the National Intelligence Council. Freeman was forced out because — in the words of NY Democrat Senator Charles Schumer — “his statements against Israel were way over the top.” Apparently Freeman declared that until “Israeli violence against Palestinians” is halted, “it is utterly unrealistic to expect that Palestinians will stand down from violent resistance”. Against Israel? Way over the top?

When it comes to Israeli policy, plain speaking is not acceptable in Washington. Whether Obama dumped Freeman or simply failed to fight on this behalf, this —  as the background to this story makes clear — is a bad sign for future American policy on the occupation of Palestinian territory and the strangulation of Palestinian life, not to mention the long term guarantee of Israeli security.


Gaza, from the beginning

How one thinks about Israel’s war on Gaza depends on where one begins the story.

For conservatives like Alan Dershowitz, Hamas declared war against Israel with its rocket attacks in late 2008, meaning that Israel had the right under the UN charter (despite its long history of ignoring UN Security Council resolutions) to take whatever military action was necessary to stop the attacks.

For critics like Avi Shlaim, it’s a matter of setting it all in an historical context that goes back to the establishment of Israel in 1948. One then sees in Gaza “a uniquely cruel case of de-development” the stripped the occupied territory of a reasonable future. In 2005, after Israel’s settlers were withdrawn, continued Israeli colonial control meant “Gaza was converted overnight into an open-air prison.”

For Adi Ophir, the noose around Gaza that has made it a “laboratory of catastrophization” can also be dated from that time. The post-2005 military siege, building on the closure begun during the 1991 Gulf War, strangled the flow of people, goods and resources and created a zone of permanent emergency that functions like a “human pen.”

Taking the broader historical view is the only way forward. Looking back even a few years paints a different picture. An analysis of ceasefires in Israel/Palestine has shown that the vast majority have been broken first by Israeli military actions. The unwritten, six-month ceasefire of 2008 was effective in almost eliminating Hamas rocket attacks. But between an Israeli attack on November 4 and the ceasefires’ conclusion on 19 December, Israel charged Palestinian groups with firing more than 300 rockets into Israel and Hamas claimed more than 70 military incursions by Israeli forces (see the International Crisis Group report of 5/1/09 for a good analysis).

Imaging a more permanent end of hostilities and inequalities in Gaza and the West Bank requires a rethinking of their causes. It is not about blame; it is about inescapable responsibilities. And it requires that all parties recognize and engage each other without preconditions. Looking at only the most recent actions will not get us very far in that direction.


Obama, week 1

It was all about the expectations. Would Obama be true to the progressive ethos of his campaign, or would entering office dull the prospects for change? At the end of week one – too early to offer any definitive conclusions, to be sure – things are looking unexpectedly good.

Obama was never going to be a progressive in the sense of even a centre-left, European social democrat. Being American president means embodying the narrative of exceptionalism, individualism and patriotism of that country. But when an inaugural address pays heed to the need for “the tempering qualities of humility and restraint” in American power, its possible something different is afoot.

And the first week quickly and decisively brought many good things with regard to America’s position in the world. The “rule of law” was installed as a motif for the new administration; liberty and security are no longer seen as a zero-sum game; the dubious military trials of terror suspects have been suspended; Guantanamo is to be closed in no more than a year; CIA prisons and other ‘black sites’ (see map from The Guardian, below) in Bush’s war on terror are being shut; torture is ruled out; rendition is no more; and the Geneva Conventions are to be respected.

The new administration’s foreign policy statement contains other promising moves: Iran is to be engaged without preconditions and nuclear weapons development is to be curtailed (though whether the details of this position match the headlines is open to question). And his support of US missile strikes inside Pakistan shows that not all Bush administration strategies are going out the window.

In short, a more ethical American leadership is emerging. Yet what is striking is how this return to a liberal internationalism is so heartily welcomed as progressive. This euphoria reveals how much the destructive radicalism of the eight dark years of the Bush administration has distorted our perspective.

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