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Empowered by Systems of Surveillance? Critical Reflections on Media Awareness in Networked Protest.

Open Panel

Abstract

As a crucial component of civil society and participatory democratic systems, protests enable citizens to participate in political processes that transcend representative democratic acts (Tilly 2009). The rise of social networking sites has provoked much controversy in cyberactivism, especially with view to recent protests in Moldova, Iran, Tunisia and Egypt, but also with the global student protests unibrennt/ouruni. Both scepticism and support exist for the idea that tools like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have a significant role in shaping a new quality of protest. Whilst one side emphasises the connecting and liberating power of digital media to increase opportunities for civil society others propose that it will not lead to sustainable alliances, nor will they protect net activists from authorities putting down dissent. Moreover, the hype about a social media revolution could distract from the role of capitalism and the commercialization of online spaces. This paper examines the student protest movement (unibrennt) as an example of a new protest quality in Austria with view to participants’ assessment of their media usage. In October 2009, Austria''s largest lecture hall has been occupied by hundreds of students to demonstrate for better study conditions. Further occupations in Austrian and German universities followed. Austria never had a strong civil society or protest culture in the past and is characterized by a very low understanding for political (protest) action (Friesl et al. 2009, p. 211), which makes this case interesting for understanding the context in which the movement could arise. After summarising the characteristics of the movement and governmental reactions, we will focus on the results of our online survey (N=518) that has been conducted between November and December 2009. We asked about students’ perception on the use of social networking tools and, if observable, their critical reflections on the utilization of social media, surveillance and media corporations. We will examine to what extent the utilization of social networking has re-arranged the civic arena and how participants both feel enabled and constrained.