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Online Mobilization in Times of Conflict: A Framing-Analysis Perspective

Issue 17, Winter 2013

By Mohamed Ben Moussa

mouvementdesmilitaireslibres.blogspot.com

mouvementdesmilitaireslibres.blogspot.com


Abstract


The pro-democracy popular uprisings gripping the Arab world have ended or are seriously threatening long-entrenched dictatorships and repressive regimes. The uprisings have also been dubbed Facebook and Twitter revolutions, highlighting the role of the Internet in political advocacy and change. The use of the Internet in collective action in the Arab region is not a recent phenomenon, since the technology has marked mediated politics in the region during the last decade. However, scholarly research on the subject remains insufficient and more important, largely under-theorized. To address these lacunas, this article analyzes the role of the Internet in political advocacy in a Muslim-majority society (the Moroccan one) through social movement theory and framing analysis. This article differentiates between various levels of mobilization to which the Internet contributes, and sheds light on its potential as a technology and political medium for collective action framing. Focusing on the case of Moroccan social movements and their framing of the 2009 Gaza war, the piece aims to analyze how the Internet contributes to the capacity of oppositional civil society groups to challenge political, social and cultural injustices at the local, regional and international levels. This article argues that as the Internet becomes the central medium of political advocacy in the region, it increasingly shapes the organizational structure, boundaries and tactics of oppositional social movements and thus contributes to determining the outcome of their struggles.

Introduction

Since December of 2010, the Arab Spring has led to transformations of historic proportions in North Africa and the Middle East, ending an era of political status quo that dominated the region for many decades. From Tunisia and Egypt to Syria and Yemen, the pro-democracy popular uprisings have ended or are seriously threatening long-entrenched dictatorships and repressive regimes. The uprisings have also been dubbed Facebook and Twitter revolutions, highlighting the role of the Internet, and particularly social media, in political advocacy and change.

The use of the Internet in collective action in the region and Muslim-majority societies is not a recent phenomenon, for the technology has marked mediated politics in the region during the last decade. However, scholarly research on the subject remains insufficient and more important, largely under-theorized. While many studies have tackled the role of the Internet in politics within Muslim societies, the vast majority have done so mainly from a perspective of the Habermasian notion of the public sphere. These studies have failed in the process to engage seriously with other theoretical paradigms, particularly social movement theory. In fact, the notion of the public sphere is often invoked to explain the role of the Internet in expanding freedom of expression and in disseminating discourses of dissent. However, such a perspective does not transcend the instrumentalist interpretation of media as vehicles or transmitters of “content,” often coded as “information.”

To address these lacunas, the present article analyzes the role of the Internet in political advocacy in a Muslim-majority society through social movement theory and framing analysis. Williams argues that the most important contribution of framing studies to the field is their focus on the “symbolic” dimensions in the action of social movements, as frames “articulate grievances, generate consensus on the importance and forms of collective action to be pursued, and present rationales for their actions and proposed solutions to adherents, bystanders, and antagonists” (2004, 93). Commentators have maintained that social movements’ framing efforts are the foundation of collective action as a whole, because recognizing particular situations as unjust precedes the collective action that strives to address these injustices (McAdam 1982, 51).

Accordingly, social movements’ framing is not just an anterior process to action; the two processes are interdependent insofar as both the attribution of meanings and the action determine the process of collective action and its results (404). Framing analysis has one other key contribution—namely, its capacity to demonstrate how individuals become involved in collective action, thus highlighting the interplay between agency and structure in the development and action of social movements (Della Porta and Diani 2006; Williams 2004).

This article focuses on the case of Moroccan social movements and their use of the Internet to frame the Israeli war in Gaza in 2009. The war was part of the long Palestinian/Israeli conflict, one of the most mediated and symbolically laden political disputes in many decades. Indeed, since 2009, tension continues to escalate over the blockade of Gaza and repeated attempts by international collations of NGOs and activists to challenge it. More important, the conflict always involves national and international actors that provide an ideal context for analyzing the role of the Internet in today’s hyper-connected societies. Drawing on social movement theory and framing analysis, the current article seeks to answer the following key questions:

(1)   How did the studied social movements (SMs)/social movement organizations (SMOs) frame the Gaza war? 

(2)   How can we understand the contribution of this framing process to overall social movement mobilization? 

(3)   To what extent has the Internet’s potential as a medium and technology been appropriated in framing? 

(4)   What do framing processes in the websites communicate about the studied SMs/SMOs and their ability to engage in oppositional collective action? 

This article differentiates between various levels of mobilization to which the Internet contributes, and sheds light on its potential as a technology and political medium for collective action framing.

Social Movements and the Internet

Providing one of the most detailed existing reviews of the literature in the field, Garrett identifies three key types of “mechanisms” linking the technology to social movements, namely “reduction of participation costs, promotion of collective identity, and creation of community” (2006, 204). Despite the development of important literature on the use of the Internet in advocacy and collective action within the last decade, research addressing the issue from the perspective of social movement theory itself remains scarce (Stein 2009). This lacuna is even more serious in the sub-field dealing with collective action in Muslim-majority societies. The bulk of the literature in this domain addresses the use of the Internet by religious groups and for religion-oriented discourse (Anderson 2003; Bunt2005; Echaibi 2011; Ibahrine 2007; El-Nawawy and Khamis 2009; Hoff 2005; Kort 2006; Sands 2010; Varisco 2010).What’s more, existing literature subscribes to the dominant discourse on collective action in Islamic countries that is strongly marked by a descriptive approach. As Wiktorowicz astutely remarks, “the study of Islamic activism has, for the most part, remained isolated from the plethora of theoretical and conceptual developments that have emerged from research on social movements’ contentious politics” (2004, 3). Indeed, until recently public opinion and the public sphere in the region have often been framed in terms of the “Arab street,” an epithet that connotes “passivity, unruliness, or propensity to easy manipulation” (Eickelman and Anderson 2003, 62).

Collective action frames and framing analysis

More important, a majority of studies within the existing literature have examined the textual content of websites under the category of “information” (see Stein 2009). Analyzing web content production as information is a reductive perspective that fails to recognize the complex processes involved in social movements’ collective efforts for action. By appreciating the link between social movements’ frames and mobilization, framing analysis provides a basis for bridging the gap between the ideational and symbolic dimensions of collective action and direct forms of mobilization. Moreover, framing analysis provides a suitable framework with which to link online communication with offline action, and allows us to better analyze how the Internet’s potential and specific technological characteristics contribute to social movements’ mobilization efforts.

Methodology

For the purpose of this article, Benford and Snow’s seminal work on framing is employed, namely their breakdown of the core tasks of framing into three categories: “diagnostic framing,” “prognostic framing,” and “motivational framing” (2000, 615–617). Diagnostic framing deals primarily with “problem identification and attributions,” wherein “injustice frames” (i.e., identifying victims and amplifying victimhood) constitute the main part of the framing process (615). Diagnostic framing also pinpoints the “sources of causality, blame and culpable agents” (616). Prognostic framing involves the “articulation of a proposed solution to the problem or at least a plan of attack and the strategies for carrying out the plan” (617). As for motivational framing, it is a “call to arms” of sorts—a “rationale for engaging in ameliorative collective action, including the construction of appropriate vocabularies of motive” (617).

Furthermore, this study draws on the concept of “frame resonance” that “describes the relationship between a collective action frame, the aggrieved community that is the target of mobilizing efforts, and the broader culture” (Noakes and Johnston 2005, 11). Thus, Noakes and Johnston identify three variables that affect a frame’s resonance: the makers of frames or “entrepreneurs,” the receivers of a frame or targeted audience, and the frame qualities—i.e., their cultural compatibility, consistency, and relevance. Both quantitative and qualitative methods are used as a part of the framing analysis. Despite the widespread use of quantitative methods within framing analysis, especially in media studies, Hertog and McLeod point out that 

one shortcoming of quantitative text analysis methods, however, is that many very powerful concepts, central to frames, need not be repeated often to have a great impact. One or two references may be enough to set the frame for a large amount of content [italics added]. (2008, 154)

In the same vein, Kitzinger notes that frames are often condensed in powerful symbols or images, and that “the whole frame does not have to be spelt out in every detail in order to invite readers/viewers to recognize and place the issue within the frame” (2007, 141). 

This article combines representative and purposive sampling at various levels in the process of selecting websites for analysis. According to Patton, “the logic and power of purposeful sampling lies in selecting information-rich cases for study in depth…Information-rich cases are those from which one can learn a great deal about issues of central importance to the purpose of the research” (1990, 169). Two levels of sampling were used to conduct this study. The first level dealt with identifying social movements that were to be the subject of study. Applying the above criteria to the plethora of groups and organizations active within Moroccan civil society and extensively discussed in existing literature on the topic, eight social movements were identified:

1)        the Islamic-oriented movement;

2)        the alter-globalization movement; 

3)        the human rights movement;

4)        the feminist movement;

5)        the Amazigh cultural movement; 

6)        the unemployed graduates movement; 

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[1] Some of these links have changed recently because websites ceased to exist or were replaced by new ones. 

[2] According to Alexa.com, YouTube is the second most visited site by Internet users in Morocco after Facebook.