Disclosing rich information to external audiences when conducing research inquiries : questioning the process of producing a scientific account in a context of surveillance
When I wrote my PhD dissertation about new media activist expertise and emergent political forms of communication from mobs (2012b) as an insider, I knew I had valuable information and insights to deliver to my audience, notably the academic audience.
But I was far to imagine how valuable they would find the production of findings and design I have made about dissent tactics and modes of cooperation into blogs and micro-media, as Twitter, and about their interactions and networks of interdependance with news media and social media platforms.
My purpose, whilst working on the interlinking between new forms of informational expertise and media appropriation by activist media producers opposing political violence, surveillance and the rise of educational fees, during the G20 (2010) in Toronto and the Quebecker Spring (2012) in Montreal, was to identify and to define a specific form of knowledge emerging from the digital activism generated by users with media, blogs and social media production, through the process of sharing specific contents.
This typology of contents was as diverse as cultural contents, media news, insiders’ views, legal informations and collective hashtags and themes and used as a way to coordinate networks of informations against abusive, authoritative and invisible powers coming from big finance, governments and big tech expressed via ads, tags and filters.
As I explain in details in my thesis diss., this work aims at extending the production of specific informations, accessible new forms of knowledge and model designs for producing and sharing news to counter media silence and state propaganda in times of crisis and disinformation, by pressuring representatives and media outlets into disclosing information of public concern.
I also observed, analyzed and designed the multiple ways in which these new types of information, knowledge and news emerge in relation with the production of Canadian independent media (Rabble.ca, The Real News Network), local news (Le Devoir, Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, La Presse), and mainstream media (CBC, RDC, CTV), by multiple interplays of influence and reciprocity.
This work is contributing to enriching the diversity of media views, voices and perspectives portrayed into public debate by focusing on underrepresented and marginals views from the local communities that unveil certain informations kept secret by authoritarian governments, often linked with stories of collusions, scandals, and corruption, and thus encounter discrimination and disqualification.
I made this work accessible to readers by writing down my findings and my research into open formats as I consider that leaking informations in time of political emergency – as police brutality or criminalisation by law enforcement – is a way for people to protect and save their lives, and not merely a tool for influencing public opinion.
But bad intended agents, acting on behalf of anonymous third parties as industrial investors or political actors, are coming here with hidden and personal agenda to disrupt and rather falsely pretend activists are acting under criminal and conspiracy motives to divert their work for further abuses, spoiling over the process of producing and sharing news on social media platforms.
Fortunately enough this didn’t occur at the times I was producing my academic research, as it was before 2012 and before they realize the potential of social media, and specifically Twitter, for manipulation; and even before they use filters or algorithms.
The community under investigation was quite recognized in the past decade for coordinating social justice campaigns into media and technology, voicing concerns about housing problems, education fees or lack of social access to care and as well for denouncing the influence of financial capitalism, via online activism, in the realm of Seattle protests, and they were concomitantly highly criminalised by mainstream media views and in official reports, which is why I chose them to conduct this work.
The richness of the contribution I was making to officials and academics who always have analyzed social and political discourses from the top-down and reified perspective of an elite that was providing the expected narrow-mindedness of a single frame from people who stay in-between themselves and perceive all the new comers as a threat, with a more refined, nuanced and thoroughly documented perspective, was offering quite a staggering contrast.
We say we are even more hated for our merits and qualities than for our faults and errors. Nuance is a concept that is very challenging when confronting a highly polarized political climate and sided media-views motivated by electoral ends or financial outcomes. You’re always asked to be one-sided and choose your camp when the ideas that you’re trying to push through this implacable mindset of certitudes are very much subtle and antagonistic, as say, dialectical.
But emerging out from the comfortable darkness of the cavern was seemingly not an easy process for eyes that have never seen the sun light.
Through the process of research and enquiry, I have been showing how dissents tactics and forms of communication and cooperation with diverse audiences and media news producers can be suitable tools and methods to fight back oppression and repression by sharing expertise and knowledge about political arrests, police abuses as well as jurisdictional resources, stories and news.
Because humanities academia is supposed to at least possess some critical background about collective action or to be a role model for society, it is expected from them to denounce oppression for whose who can’t speak, not to prejudice them by way of increased spying, stigmatisation and criminalisation.
So I organized my work about the conceptualization of terms known from collective and peaceful activists to deliver my message.
Apart of having made sure I wasn’t revealing any secrets that would not have been previously published into public media so to not put any people at risk (!), I certainly revealed unwillingly some more that they had ever seen about insiders’ views, cultural forms of resistance, and local ways of producing news in times of emergency from an insider perspective as they haven’t seen much.
The group under investigation was regularly confronted with police brutality, abusive surveillance and arrests leading to attempts of prosecutions apart of being majoritarily peaceful agit-prop protestors using symbolical scenes to raise awareness – having been in my youth part of a similar community.
Social researchers are often confronted with the tension of conducing well their scientific inquiry – after all, as sociologists, it is expected from them to provide meaningful informations that have not been previously acknowledged – while protecting their communities from harm, and the need to navigate and balance these notions is constant. A researcher needs to cut lines and draw boundaries.
It is of his or her personal responsibility to answer the needs of the study, regardless of people’s preferences or tastes, meanwhile it complies with ethical considerations and laws, but when the work is diverted by governments or private actors for political our economical outcomes, it’s when there is a concern for democracy and human rights as it is both a threat for society and for the scientific community.
Some externals I remember were outraged that I could have shared an intimate relation with people from the inquiry (which obviously was not the case), an anecdote that just reveals the actual richness of my work. I have been immersed for a period of two years and it does create a connexion, but I think it is also a matter of precision and attention to details, and of course some empathy.
The fact is that the political, media and academic milieux appeared to be quite disinformed about the activists’ technicality and expertise as they historically denied them as a group of knowledge, preferring to paint them as ignorant, manipulated and emotional crowds, than to concretely address the issues they were pressing on the agenda or to answer their questions, which is actually the core subject of my work (2012b) : how to fight media silence and collusion in an open media landscape.
In a way we had a common concern.
By refusing to answer questions and by ignoring pressant issues, politics and economics are hacking our ways of doing science to legitimate their own modes and values.
We can see today that the situation hasn’t evolved much from the perspective of the mainstream and officials dealing with social media polls and disinformation campaigns that keep portraying and labelling any digital activist groups as suspects or in some extreme cases related to violent contexts, criminals, spies and terrorists, instead of basing their views on more nuanced, refined and comprehensive options.
As I also demonstrated, digital activists and social campaigners are pretty good at organizing campaigns, by rallying people under concerns for oppression, social justice and freedom and by managing information flows and sources (Debaveye, 2012b). They deserve to be heard rather than vilified, dismissed or ignored as mere agitators.
In fact, most of the troubles come from whose who polarize views and manipulate crowds online by ways of advertising, discriminative tools and incentives based on stereotypes. As I mention in my PhD, the organical production of knowledge is threatened with the risk of disappearance with the use of filters, ads and segmentations.
Online communities are also increasingly at stake with data surveillance and the tracking of their activities and behaviors for predictive policing and enforcement (2015); they have to deal with the issue of having their views misappropriated and distorted by the lens of officials or by for-profits companies having interests in silencing them.
Leftist activists targeted by authoritative and abusive surveillance developed multiple tactics I qualified tactics of sousveillance in order to counter silencing, parasiting and censure, that aim at revealing the practices of surveillance from the power into mass media and at protecting themselves as credible sources when faced with disinformation provided by abusive tagging and criminal enforcement (2015).
By conducting a qualitative inquiry of the anticapitalist coalition in Montreal @CLACMontréal and by analyzing their mutual interactions and networks of influence with other groups as @CLASSE and with media outlets, I produced a contextual design of the specific nature of the new modes of news production and socialisation that occur into social media to make legitimate claims more visible and to pressure governments into a much needed social change.
This account aims at showing the ways for people to emancipate from the rhetorics and narratives of financial power to empower or re-empower themselves in order to improve their conditions of living with renewed access to education, health and wealth.
Never it has been in my intention to monitor or track at the ends of malveillance or for commercial purpose (this work is by the way distributed under a non-commercial license agreement and I am supposed to be the only person who can decide of its future uses. I can attest I have never given my consent to any use or misuse by third parties – just saying ahem).
All the scientific procedures have complied in conformity with the law and with the respect of the ethical guidelines and procedures implied by the Ethical Committee of Laval University. It is based on public data only, excludes all forms of personal and sensitive data from data collection, which I recommend as a form of privacy at the source.
The issue at stake here is the disclosure of rich, valuable and qualitative information produced by the research inquiry in the formats needed for producing scientific knowledge in a free accessible media, without the researcher being confronted with malevolent acts of plagiarism, and diversion we are experiencing with academic publishers and private corporations.
Tweets despite being a very potent tool for promptly framing a response to an attack or to correct flows of flawed information also need to be shared inside a community that is both well informed, benevolent and equally educated to protect the integrity of the contextual interpretation, especially when representing insiders’ contents and sensitive views, and not the mainsworld views.
If my work reached such a large audience and such public attention (even if not being adequately quoted as a source by the many commentators), it’s because it caused a schock at the times of its publication by presenting the dissymetry of views from an insider perspective, then I argue that scientific production is being instrumentalized by whose in power to control and coerce new ways of producing news and knowledge.
The switch I have made by considering non-experts as regular citizens and dissents as experts and experts as mainstream media, experts and academics as non-experts about the issues addressed (social justice, police violence, housing, education, care, etc) (2012b) were not fully appreciated by the elites.
This lack of reflexivity is causing elites having insufficient or superficial knowledge about grassroots movements and social grounds, to create disembodied, stereotypical and arrogant and dominant views about digital tribes and social activists, that promote disinformation and criminalisation, with the means of grotesque caricatures about the communities experiencing oppression, that they advertise into the media and politics.
What I underevaluated indeed is the little science these guys have about real life problems, or regarding of the individual and collective logics for repression and oppression, as well as their complete lack of acknowledgement of the street spirit of rebellion caused by abusive policies.
It is normal to contest truths that are highly detrimental and prejudicial for communities under oppression. And I consider they are expressing their right to answer and correct disinformation in concordance with their right to information and privacy.
Our fragile ecologies of information and knowledge are under threat.
We need to end up with this culture of entitlement and privileges causing social inequalities and gaps into access to digital ressources and knowledge, and to finish with this culture of violence that uses discriminative technologies to hurt and to exclude people on the basis of race, age, sex, gender, ethnicity in order to support the ones the more in needs and with the most merits.
So now the crisis is here to stay and we need to organize out of the corrupted institutions that target innocent citizens, victims and information producers with the help of big corporations and unknown agents.
By being challenged with more scientifically produced and informed views, the elites – by the time completely compromised with financial interests – are desperately trying to get back control over the cultural production they once used to be the tenants of.
Nevertheless, with the conscientisation we’re observing into social media from the educated people, via independent sources or leaks, local informations and the tremendous work and investment of alternative journalists, independent researchers and investigative lawyers, I think this time is over, which is making me very proud. A new ecology has emerged and there is a need for protecting it. Pass it on !