Journalists should be attentive to these processes, and not assume that something “going viral” is a purely organic, uncoordinated process. For example, campaigns routinely host conference calls with bloggers to coordinate messaging, sometimes create content that is designed to look like the work of amateurs, and cultivate online allies to promote content on sites such as Digg and blogs such as Daily Kos. Much of what we take to be the political production of amateurs is not what it seems.
Expectations in Charlotte are that protests like the Occupy movement will have large, loud presences during the Democratic National Convention later this year. Media outlets have the ability to amplify the messages of these new organizations, and new technologies like independent streaming video often play a large role. What kind of interplay between new sources and traditional media do you expect in the coverage of such events in North Carolina?
There is an excellent recent book on exactly this subject, Sarah Sobieraj’s Soundbitten. Sobieraj is rather pessimistic about the potential of civil society groups to contribute in meaningful ways to the professional press agenda. That said, a number of recent pieces by social movement scholars on Occupy have suggested that the movement has been very successful at setting the professional press agenda, in part by providing the rhetorical space for Democratic Party elites to embrace the movement’s rhetoric of the 99%.
In terms of the movement’s own media, no doubt activists think a lot about how they represent themselves, their message, and the channels they have for this symbolic work. And yet, movements need the professional press for mobilization and validation. Movements also need the professional press to widen the scope of conflict outside of their ideological niches, particularly with regard to the elected officials and interest groups that may share similar policy and strategic goals but are not expressly affiliated with the movements.
Your past work has explored the idea that new social media tools can level the playing field and help create a more participatory democracy. With the increasing effect of big money on campaigns, do you think any media outlets, new or old, have the power to truly level the playing field in 2012 and beyond?
I have actually always been skeptical about the possibility of new and social media tools to level the playing field. Indeed, my colleague Mike Ananny and I actually wrote a piece arguing that this is because, in large part, of financial disparities that enable producers to differentially address publics. We called for a way to subsidize citizen media production through an alternative to copyright, what we call “public domain journalism.”
The resource story is still very much the central one. Money helps get message out, although it does not wholly determine the ability of groups to do so. We argue there are still systematic disparities in terms of which voices are heard in the public sphere that often break down on class and race lines, and that new media has not necessarily brought about a qualitatively different conversation about public life or a more inclusive set of participants in this conversation. Even more, with the erosion of the resource base of the professional press, there are fewer intermediaries responsible to the general public able to fulfill the traditional watchdog function.
You’ve also explored the relationship between new media and collective action. For 2012 in North Carolina and other swing states, what kind of collective action among media do you expect? Do the characteristics of new media facilitate cooperative work? And is there a separation between “new,” independent new media and “old” new media like Huffington Post and Daily Kos? Certainly traditional and new media influence each other, but how do you measure and capture influences? How do you determine where ideas and narratives originate?