Demonstrations, Riots, and Uprisings

Mediated dissent in a changing communication environment

6.30-8pm, Wednesday 29 February 2012
Speaker: Professor Simon Cottle, Chair: Dr Bart Cammaerts

Professor Simon Cottle visited the LSE on 29 February 2012 to discuss both the theory and practice of the relationship between media & communications and demonstrations, riots & uprisings. In particular, he addressed the issue of the new media ecology and its implications for the reporting and representing of various forms of dissent.

Professor Cottle set out to:

1. Interrogate earlier findings from the research literature
2. Discuss the changing media environment; in particular the interpenetration of new and old media and their dynamic interaction over time.

He started by setting the discussion in a historical context of media and protests, in particular the historically unequal power relations between the media and protestors: the implications of the fact that activists require media attention in order to gain legitimacy and to reach a wider audience; and the way in which the media have used language to denigrate the politics and personalities of those involved in protests.

Next, he examined the way in which the media have used images to empty out the political message of protests and, by and large, successfully relegated protests and their participants to the realm of gratuitous violence. In particular, Professor Cottle expressed amazement that even in the current media environment, most British daily newspapers used the same violent image to represent the first night of the summer 2011 riots in London.

Considering the new media environment in more detail, Professor Cottle asserted that Twitter and Facebook have not been as instrumental in recent protests as first assumed, particularly in the context of the Arab Spring. Research shows, he claimed, that Twitter tends to trend after the event rather than before. In many ways, Cottle stated, it was really a mobile phone revolution and not a social media one and that the same can be said about the British Summer 2011 riots.

In addition, Professor Cottle stressed the importance of time in the study of recent protests and noted the case of the summer riots. He discussed how the frame of violence was predominant during the riots themselves and in their immediate aftermath and how since then space has opened up to consider alternative frames such as social (in)justice.

This discussion led to a review of Lance Bennet's (1993) indexing model and Chomsky's (1988) theory of manufacturing consent. He agreed that in Western democracies the media do tend to follow the elites' line but contended that in times of disruption, cracks are created in which contestation of elite frames can be formed more easily. He then considered whether indexing theory is too nationally prescribed, especially in the case of transnational protest.

In the transnational context, Professor Cottle further considered whether spectacle and dramaturgy can now become vehicles for politics, to make us think and feel. This was discussed especially considering the new media ecology. He also asked whether new social media can be considered as the new public sphere or whether they are, in fact, just new public screens.

To conclude, Professor Cottle stressed that the important thing to consider in the discussion of mediated dissent in the new media environment is the interpenetration and interaction between new and old media and the question to ask is: are new media changing mainstream reportage of dissent and if so, is this a change toward a mainstream media that is more engaged with protests and their participants?

To find out what was said about the event by Twitter users using the suggested hashtag, please click here: #lsecomms

Watch or download a podcast of Prof Cottle's presentation.

Professor Cottle is the author of numerous books examining mediated dissent including: TV News, Urban Conflict and the Inner City (1993), The Racist Murder of Stephen Lawrence (2004), Mediatized Conflict (2006), Global Crisis Reporting (2009), and, with co-editor Libby Lester, Transnational Protests and the Media (2011). He is General Editor of the Global Crisis and the Media series for the publisher Peter Lang and his latest book, Disasters and the Media, will be published later this year.