Resistance, visibility and contestation. The discursive contruction of collective identities in popular online spaces
Studies on social movements and social movement organisations (SMOs) in an online realm tend to centre on their strategic uses, e.g. for mobilisation purposes. Popular online spaces such as social networking and file sharing sites are often considered key spaces for reaching broader publics. This thesis explores popular online spaces both as scenes of politicality and as sites of collective identity formation for two reasons. First, to understand the role of popular online spaces within the broader role of the Internet, in conditioning the opportunities for visibility and political engagement of SMOs connected to the Global Justice Movement. Secondly this thesis probes the interplay between SMOs’ strategic endeavours and collective identities, asking whether the communicative practices facilitated by popular online spaces in any way come to reposition collective identities at an organisational level. More specifically, central questions to the study are: what kinds of confrontation occur in the organisations’ outbound communication? What kinds of ingroup/outgroup distinctions are promoted? How are these distinctions debated and negotiated among members? To answer these questions, the study draws on the concepts of radical democracy (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985; Mouffe, 1992) and social movement framing (Snow et.al., 1986; Gamson, 1992) as theoretical and analytical lenses. In examining the dialectic of strategy and collective identity formation in the context of popular online spaces, the study draws on the cases of the World Development Movement and War on Want and adopts a twofold approach: 1/ it addresses SMOs’ communicative practices towards external actors. Here, agonism entails attempting to destabilise the discursive structure of neoliberal globalisation. And 2/ internally, agonism relates to framing as the process of the formation of collective identities and entails possibilities for intra-organisational contestation. In doing so, the study relies on an understanding of political engagement in new social movements that is conflictual, passionate, sometimes irrational and consisting of manifold, fluid identities (Mouffe, 2005; Fenton, 2009; Cammaerts, 2007). At the same time, the promotion of coherent frames is important to gain visibility in relation to external actors. We need to appreciate both processes to understand the relationship between strategic communication and the underlying dynamics of intergroup tension (Snow et.al., 1998), the interconnections between strategy and passion, coherence and diversity. By analysing how SMOs use different online spaces as locations for strategic framing and identity formation, we can begin to study how the Internet may contribute to an agonistic public sphere where also contestationary voices can form and potentially gain legitimacy among and beyond the hardcore activists.