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Mediated Speech by Courtney Radsch

media.technology.policy.

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Research

Digital Dissidence and Political Change

My book Cyberactivism and Citizen Journalism in Egypt: Digital Dissidence and Political Change, just published by Palgrave Macmillan, analyses how a youth-led, technologically driven social movement led a collective political struggle for change in Egypt that revolved around the legitimacy of the existing system and demanded rights to expression and participation. It seeks to understand the political impact of new ICTs, namely blogs and networked social media, in authoritarian contexts through the use of Egypt as a case study and by employing new methods of ethnographic inquiry that link the online and the off-line in recognition that they are mutually constituted.egyptfbgrafitti

I propose that focusing on the micropolitics of practices and discourse, with due consideration of structural and institutional dynamics, reveals how epistemological and ontological changes take place when a distributional shift in the primary modes of communication occurs, and thus helps us better understand how ICTs are implicated in processes of political change.

The empirical focus of the book is Egypt but I argue that the mechanisms and dynamics I identified have a much wider domain of application. I propose several new mechanisms drawn from Islamic communication theory including asabiyah, ijma’, and isnad to explain movement dynamics and to account for the technological aspect of cyberactivists’ repertoires of contention, and propose revising the concept of amplification and certification to account for the fact that the algorithmic properties of ICTs now play a role in contentious repertoires.

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Want to review my book? Email chris.Robinson@palgrave-usa.com to request a copy

In the book I argue that Egypt’s young cyberactivists, and particularly citizen journalists, radically shifted the informational status quo by witnessing, putting on record and imbuing political meaning to symbolic struggles to define quotidian struggles against social injustice, harassment and censorship as part of a broader movement for political reform. A central contention i, therefore, is that blogging and social media reconfigure the potentiality for expression and participation, but that it is the particular concatenations of technologically-inflected repertoires of contention that transform potentiality into actuality. This analysis reveals the mechanisms by which this transformation occurs – through activism, news making practices, and collective action.

Throughout the book I analyze specific episodes of contention to explain how ICTs facilitated collective identity formation, organization, mobilization and advocacy, with far fewer organizational and logistical barriers, rendering the dynamics of contentious politics in this case distinctive from other revolutionary periods. This new youth movement created innovative repertoires of contention, which they developed and adapted very quickly, constrained less by structural factors such as economics and distance, which the properties of ICTs help overcome, than they would have been in the past. I argue that it is not sufficient to explore only moments of collective action, because this does not explain how the “maker of claims” came to identify themselves as such, nor how they build consensus around their claims. This is of particular interest in the new communications environment of the post-millennial period, and therefore I also focus on the phenomenological lifeworlds of these cyberactivists to show how networked social media gave opposition and subaltern groups, such as liberal secularists or the Muslim Brotherhood, new tools for individual and collective identity creation and enabled freedom of expression and opinion.

This book is dedicated to the amazing young men and women in Egypt who, against all odds, led a revolution that overthrew an authoritarian leader. I am grateful to everyone  who gave of their time and knowledge to help me understand and learn about the movement they were creating. Although the revolution is not yet over, their peaceful uprising was an inspiration to all, and I am thankful that is some small way I got to know many of them. Tragically, however, some of these young leaders are behind bars, including Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Maher, and countless other in exile or harassed. Egypt has become the world’s second biggest jailer of journalists and engaged in an unprecedented crackdown on civil society and the press that has left many of those featured in this book floundering to figure out what is next.

If you would like to write a review or receive an exam copy please email chris.Robinson@palgrave-usa.com to request a review copy.

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Countering Violent Extremism

In late 2015 I pitched the idea of a report on the impact of the new countering violent extremism agenda on media development because I was seeing the impact on freedom of expression and pressure mounting against tech firms, and had little doubt that as the UN, US and other governments adopted CVE strategies that donor priorities would be affected as well. The result was Media Development and Countering Violent Extremism: An Uneasy Relationship, a Need for Dialogue, a special report for the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA).

Governments have focused their efforts particularly on counter-messaging campaigns, and have provided support to civil society on initiatives aimed at challenging ISIS online by disseminating alternative, non-extremist narratives about current events. Most major donors funding media development also support programming related to countering violent extremism, often with a component related to building the capacity of NGOs to produce content on social media.

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Perhaps more worrying to the international community, however, is ISIS’s
prolific use of media for international recruitment, fearmongering, and
dissemination of its cause. ISIS propaganda is impressive and strategically leverages modern communication platforms in a highly visible way.

Given the prominent roles of messaging and alternative narratives in the CVE agenda, it is no surprise that CVE and international media assistance have become so closely associated. But many are concerned that policymakers will lose sight of the value of independent media in and of itself.

“The emergence of the CVE agenda has caused widespread unease  among a number of individuals concerned with how this new programmatic focus might negatively affect media development work and is already being used to restrict legitimate journalism and free expression.” 

In this report I describe how media development practitioners perceive the expansion of the CVE agenda’s influence into various aspects of their field, and the different and sometimes ambivalent ways in which they respond to these perceptions. There are three distinct views on how the CVE agenda is influencing media development efforts: programmatic critique, pragmatic adaptation, and engaged reassessment.

Two conclusions emerge strongly from these interviews. The first is that the efforts to distance CVE conceptually from media development are not providing the guidance needed to navigate an increasingly blurry line between the two fields in practice. The second is that audience reception studies and investments in media information literacy are needed, yet receive inadequate attention in CVE efforts and funding.

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