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Transnational activism contra user-generated nationalism? What the 2008 Tibetan uprising tells us about collective action

Alexander Wentland
WZB Berlin Social Science Center
Alexander Wentland
WZB Berlin Social Science Center
Open Panel

Abstract

In recent years, new opportunities for collective action and democratic practice through digital media have sparked the imagination of activists and political scientists alike. With the current political upheaval in the Arab world, the internet has proven itself once more to be a powerful facilitator of political protest and the struggle for basic liberties. Digital media, however, have not simply opened the global stage to the “power of the people”. Political and ethnic tensions persist both on the screens and behind the curtains. Conflicts might even gain magnitude and velocity when they enter the digital realm. In my paper, I consider the violent ethnic uprising in Tibet of 2008 as one of the first grassroots media events that not only originated in a geopolitically marginal region, but also mobilized human rights advocates and Western audiences far beyond its local context. Transnational advocacy networks and the uncontainable force of user-generated images have empowered Tibetan activists to articulate their claims within earshot of a global audience, thereby evading Chinese censorship authorities. Internet users continued watching the dramatic course of events even while Western news correspondents were prevented from reporting. The Tibetan case illustrates a shift of power relations in what has been called “transnational civil society”. It also indicates the ambivalent nature of web-accelerated discourse, which political theorists have often neglected in their accounts of online publics and collective action. I would like to use the phenomenon of internet-based transnational activism and the unexpected comeback of ethnic nationalism through the backdoor of “user-generated counter-propaganda” in order to show how digital media might facilitate new forms of exclusion and marginalization. I also suggest that new forms of media pose challenges to how we understand collective action: Will the emerging digital media landscape become the fertile ground for an enhanced civil society or a global civil battlefield?