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Unaffiliated Socialization and Social Media Recruitment: Reflections from Occupy the Netherlands

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Unaffiliated Socialization and Social Media Recruitment: Reflections from Occupy the Netherlands
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  1 Unaffiliated Socialization and Social Media Recruitment: Reflections from Occupy theNetherlands Dan Mercea, Paul Nixon and Andreas Funk This paper has been accepted for publication in the edited volume by Paul Nixon,Rajash Rawal and Dan Mercea (eds.) (July 2013) Views from the Cloud: Politics, Citizensand the Internet in Comparative Perspective , London: Routledge. The final (edited,revised and typeset) version of this paper will be published by Taylor and Francis Ltd,All rights reserved. © Taylor and Francis, 2013. It is a topic of lasting interest for social movement scholars and political scientists alikewhether the ubiquitous media environment in which citizens now operate has an imprinton the scope and quality of their appetite for civic engagement (Bimber, 2003; Jenkins,2006; Coleman & Blumler, 2009). In particular, there has been continued querying of social media usage as an avenue for renewed political socialization. A ‘mobilisation effect’leading to a swell in the number of participants in activism and specifically in physicalinstances of participation such as demonstrations continues to be disputed (Fisher &Boekkooi, 2010; van Laer, 2010). Moreover, much skepticism has been voiced about theenabling role social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, have had in the notso distant popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East (see Morozov, 2011).Fresh ethnographic evidence suggests that in a highly censored media environment,those platforms served a key twofold initial purpose: to distribute viral appeals toparticipation as well as to provide participants with an effective coordination tool, i.e.Twitter (Gerbaudo, forthcoming).With the present paper, we seek to contribute recently collected evidence from a specificcase study to this on-going discussion. In particular, we aim to shed new light onto thequestion of a hybridity in social movement mobilisation in the digital age. For thatpurpose, we build upon emerging evidence that social media can contribute to protestparticipation (Tufekci, Wilson, 2012; Margetts, 2012). In what follows, we discuss thisnotion in relation to the mobilisation of unaffiliates into the Dutch Occupy Movement.  2 Unaffiliates are people not involved in activist organizations, whose lack of socialembeddedness in such organizations makes them less susceptible to mobilisation thanthose already affiliated (McAdam, 1986; McAdam & Paulsen, 1993; Verhulst andWalgrave, 2009; Somma, 2010).We consider unaffiliate mobilisation in the context of the wave of Occupy Protests thatswept the world in the autumn of 2012, whilst focusing on the issue of the sustainment of protest over time (Saunders et al., 2012). It has been pointed out that the Occupyprotests have had to face the problem of participant attrition in their ranks due to themultiple pressures -in terms of weather conditions, personal security, employment- towhich the occupations were subjected (Juris, 2012:269). In that context, the mobilisationof new recruits to compensate for participant attrition can be central to direct actionprotests (c.f. Doherty et al., 2007) such as the encampments erected by the Occupymovement.We deploy the notion of hybridity in the same vein as Chadwick (2007) who signalled anamalgamation of deep-seated and emergent practices driving political mobilisation aswell as the organization of both entrenched and amorphous actors; all ostensiblypowered by their heightened application of social media platforms in order to facilitateparticipation. Social media have made a substantial contribution to the appropriation of social movement strategies for mobilisation and the articulation of organizationalinfrastructures (Chadwick, 2007). Specifically, Chadwick points to a devolution of capacities to organize and mobilize political support outside the established framework of party-run political campaigns (2007: 288). Established political actors seem able toexpand their support bandwidth once they plug their hierarchical organizations into theloose network of sympathetic groups and individuals that gravitate online and outsidetheir normative organizational confines (see also Flanagin et al., 2006). By so doing, theyare expanding the potential for inclusion and participation due to the viral nature of social network communication (Castells, 2007).Chadwick (2007) suggests that whilst this process has been coming into full swing inmainstream politics, it has characterized for longer the organizational as well as  3 mobilisation strategies of disparate yet interconnected social movement organizations. Inwhat follows, we seek to probe new empirical evidence gathered at the site of theOccupy protests in the Netherlands for the purpose of offering new comments on thequestion of the degree to which loosely connected forms of organization andmobilisation underpinned by social media are taking root principally in reference to therecruitment of unaffiliates.Two key features may render social media amenable to civic and political participationthat obviate its underlying commercial logic (Fenton and Barassi, 2011). The first derivesfrom their bandwidth for what Castells (2007) termed ‘mass self-communication’. Massself-communication is the capacity of individuals to virally reach mass audiences withtheir messages, an attribute of networked communication amplified by social media.Although there are divergent accounts on the questions of the accessibility, usability andreliability of the information circulated through such platforms as Twitter (Morozov,2009; Segerberg & Bennett, 2011), it seems that accounting for variability in socio-political context, social media are not solely a conduit for information but also a‘networking agent’ for activist causes (2011:200). In the latter guise, informed by anactor-network conception of the relation between human and machine (Latour, 2005),social media are active contributors to the diffusion of social relations, their upkeep andthe maintenance of the activist communicative ecology they engender.Although we acknowledge that such a concept does verge on the edge of reifying socialnetworks, we deem it to be of value in conceptualising our understanding of our casestudy protests and the part played by unaffiliates in their activities. We envisage the roleof social media viewed as ‘networking agents’ to be to facilitate a ratcheting up of interest and involvement in collective action. Those, as yet unaffiliated may, as a result of exposure to a variety of messages on social media platforms, from their friends and thewider networks of those friends, decide to embrace hybridity and add physicalparticipation in the cause to empathetic social media attunement to protests. Thisexpectation is rooted in evidence that unaffiliates may be successfully mobilisedindirectly through the mass media, in times of high public emotion (Jasper and Poulsen,1995).  4 The second enabling feature of social media may thus lie in the scope it affords to themitigation of structural constraints to civic participation. That potential might be realizedin as far as social exchanges (e.g. Facebook wall posts, ‘shares’ and ‘likes’, (re)tweets,shared Youtube clips) galvanize the participation of unaffiliates in protest. There areconsistent indications that individuals involved in an activist organization are most likelyto partake in activism (McAdam & Paulsen, 1993; Verhulst and Walgrave, 2009; Somma,2010). Those not involved in an activist organization may come to participate in activismif they are recruited into it by an affiliated friend (Snow et al., 1980). If in the latter case,personal loyalties to friends may act as a catalyst to participation in a social movementaction (1980:792), in the former it is an organizational context in which personal ties arelodged that is key to mobilisation (1993:663). In both instances, however, both themindset and the motivation to participate are fostered by people’s prior socialization.More specifically, by socialization we refer particularly to the initial stages of theinteractive process in the course of which new recruits to a group are introduced to itscognitive, affective and behavioural norms (see Levine et al., 2001). The social circulationof information (Margetts et al., 2012) on social media platforms may illustrate howsocialization germane to protest participation unfolds. Through social circulation,information rich in descriptive meta-data can spread the reach beyond existingparticipants, with insights into participant numbers acting as a tipping point forinvolvement in collective action (2012:19).We might expect to see social media utilized as an arena for the transfer of ideas leadingunaffiliates to participate in protest on the basis of communication with their socialmedia ‘friends’. Unaffiliate mobilisation through social media may be a remedy toparticipant attrition that characterizes direct action groups. Such groups often have toconfine participant recruitment to a tight circle of friends, to safeguard the integrity of their action plans. Thus, the renewal of the activist contingent can be a concern in directaction groups who may come to see social media as key to outreach work beyond activistcircles (Mercea, 2012). With social media, activists can circulate non-sensitive informationpertinent to protest participation to ‘non-activist’ friends who could not previously be  5 targeted with other activist media (e.g. because they were not signed up to a relevantactivist listserv or had not physically attended activist recruitment events; Mercea, 2010).Social media have been viewed as a stepping stone for offline participation because theycontribute to raising the profile of offline activism (Harlow & Harp, 2012:206). Yet,activism on these platforms does not seem to automatically translate into offline activism(2012:206; see also Christensen, 2011). Notably, Harlow and Harp (2012) drew on asample of activists who may be classed as a group much like the affiliates in this study,i.e. individuals with an accumulated experience of activist socialization. Nonetheless, thenotion that exposure to mobilizing online content may perform a similar role to that of face-to-face communication has been recently upheld, i.e. that such content is conduciveto alterations in the knowledge, disposition and behaviour pertinent to involvement in anactivist cause (Hooghe et al., 2010:422).Concurrently, whilst deliberation over the significance of social media for civic activismrages on (Gladwell, 2010; El Hamamsy, 2011; Morozov, 2011; Harlow & Harp, 2012),evidence points to both similarities and distinctions between the use of the key twoplatforms, Facebook and Twitter. First, both Twitter and Facebook appear to function as a‘buzz-tool’, a broadcasting medium for the timely viral circulation of activist content(Jensen et al., 2009; El Hamamsy, 2011; Small, 2011). Secondly, Facebook and particularlyTwitter seem to provide latitude for the crystallization of personal connections betweenpeople that do not share any pre-existing and direct social bonds (Ellison et al.,2007:1163; Java et al., 2007). Thus, they may offer extensive scope for the creation of bridging social capital, i.e. social connections which nourish information sharing withoutproviding the emotional sustenance that is characteristic of the bonding capital found inclosely-knit family or friendship relations. On the other hand, Facebook has beendescribed as a tool for building bonding capital through continued socialization primarilybetween individuals that share both an online and an offline social connection, regardlessof its intensity (Ellison et al., 2007:1153).By facilitating the circulation of bridging capital, both social media platforms maycontribute to the rapid expansion of activist content beyond the confines of closely-knit
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