Digital Culture

Connective Action or Collective Inertia? Emotion, Cognition, and the Limits of Digitally Networked Resistance
Saif Shahin and Yee Man Margaret Ng
Social Movement Studies

Connective action, or individuals networking with each other online to form social movements, rarely leads to lasting change. In this study, we argue that such movements are ultimately ineffective because they struggle to sustain themselves over time, and identify the reasons behind their transience. Our analysis focuses on Twitter conversations about Aadhaar, a biometric ID project that has raised concerns about data privacy and civil liberty in India, the world’s largest democracy. A computational mixed-methods approach incorporating social network analysis, sentiment analysis, and structural topic modeling demonstrates that connective action against Aadhaar failed to produce a sustained discourse of resistance, with people’s feelings toward and beliefs about Aadhaar vacillating sharply. The analysis draws attention to the power of brick-and-mortar social institutions, including the state and its agencies, political parties, courts, technology companies, and ‘legacy’ news media, in shaping and reshaping seemingly bottom-up discourses on digital platforms. It also identifies three interlinked weaknesses of connective action—the individualized nature of mobilization, excessive flexibility of social networks, and a negative emotional culture. We contend that in order to be effective, contemporary social movements need to utilize digital technologies for ‘collective’ action by forging collective identities that bind participants affectively and cognitively, empower them against structures of social control, and enable them to commit to non-personal and long-term objectives.

Black Lives Matter Goes Global: Connective Action Meets Cultural Hybridity in Brazil, India, and Japan
Saif Shahin, Junki Nakahara, and Mariana Sanchez
New Media & Society

This study examines the global diffusion of Black Lives Matter as digitally networked connective action. Combining social network analysis with qualitative textual analysis, we show that BLM was hybridized in different ways to give voice to local struggles for social justice in Brazil, India, and Japan. However, BLM’s hybridization stirred right-wing backlash within these countries that not only targeted local movements but BLM too. Theoretically, we argue that both transnational contiguities and intra-cultural tensions shape the construction of meanings—or ‘action frames’—as connective action crosses cultural borders. Resonant frames, which are in harmony with the values of the movement, amplify features of the global movement that resonate with local concerns or hybridize it with a local struggle. Reactionary frames, which are hostile to movement values, may also target the global movement or its hybridization. We theorize the different roles of global and local crowd-enabled elites in transnational connective action.

User-Generated Nationalism: Interactions with Religion, Race, and Partisanship in Everyday Talk Online
Saif Shahin
Information, Communication & Society

This article examines how the nationalist imagination structures cyberspace from the bottom up, or what I call user-generated nationalism. It also looks at the interplay between nationalism and other, non-spatial modes of social identification. My analysis of a month of tweets indicates that religious, racialized, and partisan identities are quite pronounced online, but they also tend to be conflated with nationalism. I argue that nationalism is not simply banal itself: because of its fixity in place and political correctness, it is used to lend legitimacy to and ‘banalize’ other identities. This dynamic is key to understanding the explosion of right-wing populism around the ‘world of nations’ – especially the success of populist leaders in normalizing religious, racialized, and partisan identifications – and the central role being played by digital media in this process.

Access Shrugged: The Decline of the Copyleft and the Rise of Utilitarian Openness
Aram Sinnreich, Patricia Aufderheide, Maggie Clifford and Saif Shahin
New Media & Society

This article maps patterns of interest in key terms associated with copyright and online culture in the US context. Using exploratory factor analysis of data from Google Trends, authors examined patterns in keyword searches between 2004 and 2019. The data show three distinct periods of interest. The first period consists of utopian, cause-driven search terms; the second marks a rise and eventual decline in creatively motivated, maker-fueled searches; and the third is characterized by rising utilitarian and institutional interest in accessible copyrighted material. These data show empirically that the public curiosity about alternatives to strict copyright have changed during the study period. Earlier, more idealistic movements contrast with later, more practical approaches.

White Twitter: Tracing the Evolution of the Alt-Right in Retweets, 2009-2016
Saif Shahin and Yee Man Margaret Ng
Proceedings of the 53rd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences

The alt-right White Nationalist movement, which emerged in response to the election of America’s first Black president, adopted Twitter from the outset. Tracing its evolution over eight years in retweets, our study suggests that the movement was relatively small and factionalized until 2015—but its subgroups closed ranks following Donald Trump’s candidacy and became a blowhorn for his campaign. Integrating social network theory with the emerging view of race and politics as dynamic processes, our study advances a “technosocial” understanding of White Nationalism and its journey from the fringes to the center stage of American politics.

Friend, Ally, or Rival? Twitter Diplomacy as ‘Technosocial’ Performance of National Identity
Saif Shahin and Q. Elyse Huang
International Journal of Communication

Drawing on the constructivist tradition in international relations, we examine the influence of national identity-or how a nation views itself in relation to other nations-on the tweeting practices of its diplomatic missions. Our analysis focuses on the use of Twitter by U.S. missions in Britain, India, and China over a four-month period brimming with diplomatic activity: June-September 2018. We find that not only do the three U.S. missions use Twitter in vastly different ways, but that their tweeting practices reflect and reproduce the specific identities the United States professes vis-à-vis these nations: a friend to Britain, an ally to India, and a rival to China. We argue that (1) Twitter is an emergent “technosocial” arena that enables nations to perform their identities online and (2) different national identities-friend, ally, and rival-derive their meanings in and through such practices. In addition, we distinguish a variety of tweeting practices and their symbolic significance in terms of national identity performance.

Understanding Public Engagement with Global Aid Agencies on Twitter: A Technosocial Framework
Saif Shahin and Zehui Dai
American Behavioral Scientist

Social networking sites can help global aid agencies converse with the communities they work with as well as listen to public conversations on vital issues. This study develops a technosocial framework that specifies how different affordances of Twitter—from the topical content of tweets to replies, retweets, hashtags, and hyperlinks—relate to different levels of public engagement with aid agencies. We combine computational and qualitative methods to examine tweets posted by three aid agencies—USAID, SIDA, and ICRC—as well as public tweets that mention these agencies (N = ~100,000). Results indicate that when an agency (1) replies to or retweets public tweeters, (2) includes publicly-oriented hashtags and hyperlinks in its tweets, and (3) tweets about topics that the public is also interested in and tweeting about, the social network that develops around the agency is more interconnected, decentralized, and reciprocal. Our framework can help aid agencies and other development institutions build more participatory social networks, bolstering the possibility of multiple voices helping determine collective goals and strategies of collective action for sustainable social change.

Social Media and Social Mobilization in the Middle East: A Survey of Research on the Arab Spring
Adam Smidi and Saif Shahin
India Quarterly

The role of the media, and especially the social media, in the Arab Spring has been extensively debated in academia. This study presents a survey of studies published in scholarly journals on the subject since 2011. We find that the bulk of the research contends that social media enabled or facilitated the protests by providing voice to people in societies with mostly government-controlled legacy media; helping people connect, mobilise and organise demonstrations; and broadcasting protests to the world at large and gaining global support. Some scholars, however, argue that social media played only a limited or secondary role, which ought to be viewed alongside other social, political, economic and historical factors. We also identify the spatial and temporal focus of the research and preferred theoretical and methodological approaches and draw attention to several blind spots that require further investigation.

Social Media and their Impact on Civic Participation
Homero Gil de Zúñiga and Saif Shahin
New Agendas in Communication: New Technologies and Civic Engagement

In this chapter, we draw on empirical studies to understand the implications of technological advancements and the changes they have wrought for civic life and civic participation. We show that digital technologies such as SNS may indeed have a benign influence on civic participation, but under particular circumstances, for instance, when individuals use SNS to seek news and information about public affairs rather than simply for entertainment. We also show that the size of an individual’s social network, as well as the frequency of discussion with those people with whom they converse about public affairs and social issues, are good predictors of civic participation.

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