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Fickle Commitment. Fostering political engagement in ‘the flighty world of online activism’

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In the wake of increasing disillusion with the potential of alternative online media forproviding social movements with a virtual space for self-representation and visibility(Atton, 2002; Downing, 2001; Rodriguez, 2001) activists have been adopting onlinesocial media into their media practices. With their popular appeal and multimodalaffordances social media such as YouTube and Facebook have reinvigorated hopes forthe potential of the internet for providing social movements such as the Global JusticeMovement, which is often misrepresented as a homogeneous and in a negative light inthe mass media (Gamson and Wolfsfeld, 1993; Juris, 2008), with new possibilities forpromoting self-representations to wider publics – beyond the echo chambers ofalternative media (Cammaerts, 2007; Sunstein, 2001). In the mediation of institutionalpolitics the increasing use of popular online spaces has brought about the term’YouTube‐ification of Politics’ (Turnsek and Jankowski, 2008). However, two challengesremain: the first relates to fragmentation – the internet’s properties as a ‘pull-medium’is argued to merely connect likeminded users (Cammaerts, 2007: 138). The secondrelates to ’lazy politics’ – the internet’s ephemeral properties are argued to facilitatebrief participation in single-issue campaigns that fails to foster political engagement(Fenton, 2008a: 52). This thesis focuses on the latter. It addresses the possibilities ofpopular online spaces for fostering collective solidarity and political engagement insocial movement organisations. It explores how these possibilities are played out inthe online arena of popular sites employed by the two London-based social movementorganisations: the World Development Movement (WDM) and War on Want. Drawing on the cases of WDM and War on Want, the thesis addresses threedimensions of these practices, exploring (1) rationales for using popular online spacesto promote the SMO agenda; (2) the social movement organisations’ onlinecampaigns; and (3) members’ identifications with the campaigns through discourseanalysis and interviews with SMO directors, campaign, outreach and web officers aswell as SMO members. It is by analysing how SMOs use different online spaces aslocations for strategic framing and the formation of political identities that we can begin to study how the internet may contribute to an agonistic public sphere wherealso voices of dissent are heard.The thesis is based on Mouffe’s understanding of politics and the political as groundedin discourse but also based on a view of political engagement as conflictual, affectiveand sometimes irrational (Cammaerts, 2007; Fenton, 2009; Mouffe, 2005). Eventhough this does not mean that SMOs do not apply rational considerations in planningtheir strategic agendas for public visibility and legitimacy, it does mean that the studyof these considerations need to take into account this dual character of politicaldiscourse as both rational and affective (Hajer and Versteeg, 2005). Therefore, weneed to consider instrumental and affective issues to understand the relationshipbetween strategic protest and the underlying dynamics of intragroup commitment(Griggs and Howarth, 2002; Snow et al., 1986) – the interconnections between strategyand identity, external resonance and internal commitment. In this way, the democraticpotentialities of the internet can be seen as not only related to the ways in whichSMOs communicate their agenda but also to potentialities for forging politicalidentities and commitment (Fenton, 2008a).

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Julie Uldam

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