Opinions on Occupy: Analysing a Movement that Occupies a Space Outside Past Theorisations

In Gamson et al.’s  Movements and Media as Interacting Systems (1993), the authors assert that although public discourse is carried out through multiple channels, such as “the movement’s own publications and meetings”, mass media’s discourse remains “indispensable for most movements because most of the people they wish to reach are part of the mass media gallery, while many are missed by movement-oriented outlets” (p. 116). Similarly, in Giltin’s The Whole World is Watching (1980), the significance of alternative outlets is overlooked, as seen through his assertion that “political movements feel called upon to rely on large-scale communication in order to matter […] to become ‘the movement’ for wider publics and institutions who have few alternative course of information, or none at all” (Gitlin, 1980, p. 3). Moreover, both Gamson and Gitlin argue that the mass media is imperative for mobilization due to the limitations or lack thereof of alternate channels; however, these arguments were made before the mass adoption of social networking sites (SNS), which played a large role in the Occupy movement’s initial mobilization, as well as its organization and strategies.

The role of SNS can be seen from the Occupy movement’s initial origin, which can be traced back to Adbuster’s call to action. The magazine took to Twitter asking individuals to gather on September 17th. While only 300 people showed up on the first day, social media continued to be a channel where the movement could communicate its motivations and gain supporters. The ‘We are the 99%” Tumblr page became a shared space for the expression of frustrations; an emotional diary that united people with common concerns and broadened the movement’s ability to gain attention and support. Additionally, it is important to note that a lot of recruitment took place in the streets, as many people were inspired by what they saw, and through their face-to-face contact with protesters, found they shared in the common frustrations and hopes of the movement.

It remains undeniable that the mass media played a strong role in spotlighting the movement and mobilizing supporters, as exemplified by the outpouring of pubic sympathy and protesters after news broke of the 700 arrests on Brooklyn Bridge; however, both the role of new media channels and the community-feel of Occupy campsites were irreplaceable in their ability to attract and organize supporters. The hegemonic power of mass media as articulated by Gitlin and Gamson is bound to the existing media environments at the time of their publication, thus limiting their application to movements originating in today’s network society. Online spaces allow protesters and supporters of a movement to have a voice, and to contest mass media framing. This counter power does not trump the public’s trust and reliability in traditional media, but it does provide mass audiences with alternative sources of information, and can serve as a tool to pressure media institutions into being more conscious of their framing.

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In more recent scholarship, Cottle’s (2008) Reporting demonstrations: the changing media politics of dissent, Cottle (2008) emphasizes the importance of acknowledging that protests “are invariably a means to an end, not the end themselves, and we therefore need to understand how their communicative aims have been realized or derailed in their encounter with media” (Cottle, 2008, p. 866). Applying this assertion to Occupy is problematic, as the movement never made any ‘tangible demands’, making it difficult to determine, by Cottle’s definition, whether the movement achieved its goals. Cottle goes on to say that “the politics of spectacle does not subsist in spectacle alone” (866). In other words, occupying a physical space is simply tactic to draw public attention; it is part of a larger strategy to achieve specific aims. However, the various campgrounds of Occupy often became much more than a spectacle for the media to consume, they became fully functioning communities and homes to the protestors.

The lack of specific demands made by the movement frustrated many and lead to the criticism that the movement was unorganized, and unfocused; however, much of Occupy’s success can be seen in the successful day-to-day upkeep of its encampments, and the hope this inspired in others. The camps or ‘occupied areas’ were equipped with everything from libraries to medical tents, and the General Assemblies (GAs) and people’s mic were aimed at fostering consensus and cohesiveness amongst members. The success of the Occupy movement cannot then be measured or quantified strictly by Cottle’s definition, or as a ‘means to an ends’, as it did not aim to immediately impact specific policies. Instead, Occupy focused on shifting attitudes, and by bringing people together through the creation of communities that could thrive (even if only for several months) outside of the institutions they distrusted. We should look to better understand the successes of the movement by polling both the changing attitudes of citizens and issues at the forefront of political debate, as well as talking to those who were both involved with and impacted by the movement. The construction and maintenance of Occupy camps served to show the public that alternative systems were possible; Occupy gave the world a glimpse of a society that at the very least caused many to reflect and even question the one we live in today.

 
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