The Media – how does it influence a movement’s outcome?

The interactions between the media and social movements is seen as a asymmetrical relationship. This is because social movements need to be seen and heard in order to ; mobilise support, validate themselves and project their frame of the given situation. It’s a circumstance where perhaps the activist need the media, more than the media need the activist. Media continues to operate irrelevant of whether there are protests or not, but perhaps movements are unable to achieve large scale change without the media’s assistance .

Here are the three ways in which the media influences political and social outcomes:

  • The extent and the content of media coverage of a social movement, influencing a movement’s effect. The extent of the media coverage of the 1996 White March in Brussels, has been argued as the reason for the March itself. The March was the largest in Belgian history and centered around the failings of the judiciary and police in the Marc Dutroux case. The case was covered by five Belgian newspapers in a period of the three months leading up to the initial demonstrations, causing many to argue that the ‘media co-produced the White March’.(Walgrave and Manssens 2000).


  •  How the news covers a movement’s activities e.g. protests, the media frames for these activities can be crucial to whether or not the public agrees and feels connected with the issue (Smith, McCarthy et al 2001). Media coverage of protests are often communicated through what McLeod calls a ‘protest paradigm‘ and unsurprising this is largely negative, much to the frustration of the protestors. The 2010 student protest against tuition fees where framed as a mob of thugs and anarchists who have embarrassed Britain. The British public may have found it difficult to support an issue cloaked in such violence, in which protestors where thugs rather then members of society, or more importantly people’s children. The media can also choose not to cover a protest at all, silencing the movement from the public agenda.


  • News coverage can have a direct and independent effect on policy making through influencing public opinion. In a democratic society the governmental system observes public opinion, and may alter certain policies depending on how popular or unpopular they are (Fuchs and Pfetsch 1996). An example of news coverage effecting policy is the 2005 hunting act. The banning of fox hunting was extremely popular with the British public, and the media. A MORI poll commissioned by the BBC found that 76% of the public wanted fox hunting band, the Daily Telegraph also carried out a similar survey stating that the majority of the public where in support of the ban as well. These public opinion statistics became an amplifier stating what the public wanted and put pressure on the Labour government to pass the act. Articles in recent years still further the narrative of public opinion against fox hunting such as this article in the Independent.

fox-huntingThese three examples of the media’s influence are indeed important however it’s difficult to measure that importance. The connection between the media’s role in social and political outcomes is largely based on assumption. It’s difficult to separate the media from the context of what is going on in society at that time, as the media only provides a certain perception. The role of the mass media is normally not theorised, nor is there much empirical study of the media in social movement outcomes (Smith, McCarthy et al 2001). We know the media influences the outcomes of social movements because it plays the function of communicating to mass audiences, but to understand the strength of the media’s role in particular social movements requires further research.

We know that media coverage is important and that positive media coverage is a  movement’s goal, however the media only plays a part role in influencing a movement’s outcome. What a movement’s objectives are and how they can be achieved within the political, economic and social structures we operate in can influence a movements outcome far more than anything else. The mass media is just a part of that mechanism.


The framing of ‘Africa’


Campaigns such as Live Aid, Make Poverty History etc provide help to those in need, debating the help given is not the objective of this blog post. The focus is on the framing of the situation in ‘Africa’, how the past ideologies influence the present and whether it is ethical or not for campaigns to use this sort of framing.

Discourse, narrative and ‘Africa’

The title of this blog post is quite ironic and in a way, part of the problem – the crude simplification and generalisaion of the term ‘Africa’. What comes to mind when you think of Africa? A common image of ‘Africa’ in western media is often one that portrays poverty, death and famine. Why might these images come to mind? Well, it’s a very dominant narrative that is part of the historic western portrayal of ‘Africa’ as the ‘dark continent’ full of ‘savagery’ and constant war. This kind of imagery has been argued to be part of imperialist ideology, in which knowledge was produced and circulated to reinforced the concept of non Europeans as uncivilized, justifying the ruling and controlling inflicted upon them. In Edward Said’s Orientalism, he sees this kind of discourse as part of strategies of power and subjection, inclusion and exclusion, the voiced and the silenced. Through this type of post colonialist theory, humanitarianism applied to ‘Africa’, points insistently toward imperialism by creating an image of people who are incapable of helping themselves (Austen and Smith, 1969). These historic concepts partly responsible for the image of ‘Africans’ as Victims, as those who cannot represent themselves and must be represented by others (Said, 1978).

So why is there this particular frame of ‘Africa’? (what is ‘Africa?’)

Frames or framing is a way in which a chosen problem is presented and the ‘norms, habits, and expectancies of the decision maker’ that operate in conditions of bounded rationality (Kahneman and Tversky 1986:257). Framing for a campaigner is a process by which the aims of a campaign are linked with individual interests, values, and beliefs. Linking this back to post-colonial theory, and this image of the ‘Africa’ as the ‘dark continent’ is part of a  dominant discourse that has played a part in shaping our beliefs and preconceptions of Africa. Therefore this discourse plays a role in influencing the construction of a frame, as ‘effective frames accord with familiar stories and belief systems’ (Gamson 1988). Practically everyone has a preconceived notion of ‘Africa’, despite the fact that most of us have never have been there to experience it. Our preconceptions come from an historical discourse of neo-colonial beliefs that influence the way that social change campaigns have framed ‘Africa’. Philo would argue that perhaps it is the absence of other explanation in the media that causes audiences to fill in the gaps with these preconceived neo-colonial beliefs about ‘Africa’ and lays the blame on Africans themselves (Philo 2002, pp. 185–6).

Example of the dilemma of using popular frames:Make Poverty History campaign: “on one hand the Make Poverty History actors didn’t want to enforce negative images that would bolster collective beliefs about Africa as a place of poverty and despair. On the other hand, they realised that these were images the public understood and hence may have been the most effective way of getting a message across”. (Sireau, 2009 p117)

What kind of frames have been used?

Frames exist in 3 types

Diagnostic: framing of what the problem or situation is and who is the target to blame.

  • problems: famine, starvation and disease.
  • civil war, racial and religious tensions and oppressive political regimes are seen as being the fault of the countries and their people, who are not anymore the helpless victims.
  • Corruption, the inability of poor countries to pull themselves out of poverty because of rampant corruption
  • Trade agreements/ economics/debt.

Prognostic: what can be done to achieve change:

  • donations to for materials such as food, medicine, (band aid effect)
  • awareness of diseases, prevention.
  • lobbying for better trade agreements
  • grassroots organsiations.

Motivational/action: what can be done to convince individuals to take action/mobilise

  • identification with the issue
  • raise awareness
  • feel change can be achieve.

Negative effects of limited Diagnostic framing :

Portraying a stereotyped representation of the causes and consequences of poverty in developing regions such as ‘Africa’, can lead to a sense of hopelessness about what actions can make a difference. A 2005 poverty study about people perceptions found that when people thought of  ‘third world’, they connected this term with images of ‘Africa’ created by campaigns such as Live Aid. The results showed that parts of the audience felt that these countries are in a ‘permanent state of poverty’, leading the audience to disconnect into those who think that these problems can and will never be solved (Fenyoe and Fowler 2005). This type of diagnostic frame can effect the motivational/action part of framing as it can damage the audience’s ability to feel that they can contribute to change, therefore diminishing their motivation to act.

Perhaps a more ethical frame for campaigners to use, would be more complex messages that explain the structural causes of poverty. A different and more complex frame has the potential to change people’s beliefs about poverty more so than a simple one promoted in marketing campaigns.

Modern campaigning for Africa should be about abolishing the stereotypes of ‘Africans’ and improving our understanding of world poverty. Part of this is giving people from different countries in Africa (47 countries) a voice, there is not one ‘Africa’ and one ‘African’ problem, but rather many different complex problems which effect countries in different ways. And who understands the solutions better then people from African countries.

“They are active, vibrant, living people. And I’d really like more positive images than white people talking about black people dying. (Allen, interview, 15.04.05)”

Here is a trailer for the documentary called ‘framed’ which is all about people from different nations in Africa, framing themselves:

Campaigning tactics: is it all as simple as power vs counter power?


indexAfter reading Tim Gee’s Counterpower, I was left asking myself if the notion of counterpower/power to a campaigner was so straight forward. I decided to compare Gee’s concept of power/counterpower, with the ideas of power from other theorists to see whether or not different concepts of power can limit counterpower tactics.

counterpower_cover_pressBut firstly what is exactly is Counterpower?

Counter Power is a concept that according to Gee, “explains why social movements succeed or fail”. A bold claim, but one made by an experienced campaigner.

Gee sees Counterpower as the power of the ‘have-nots’ in opposition to every aspect of power held by the ‘haves’. He divides the power of the ‘haves’ into three types: ideas, physical and economic. Gee maintains that if a movement can challenge these three aspects of power then those in power will agree to what they must in order to maintain their rule- and thats how you win a campaign.

  • Idea power – haves: the ability to persuade us of their right to rule. Have nots : challenging common held truths, norms and values.
  • Physical power – haves: the ability to punish us if we do not obey. Have nots: Nonviolent and violent direction action and acts of resistance.
  • Economic power– haves: the ability to extract land, labour and capital from us. Have nots: the refusal to work or the refusal to pay and building of alternative economic power bases e.g unions etc.

Beyond these categories of Counterpower Gee refers to power in a sense of quantity. It’s about the ‘have nots’ wielding more power then the ‘haves’ to create social change. It draws back to the traditional notion of power, in which A makes B do something that B would otherwise not do, so the ‘haves’ wielding power to control the ‘have nots’. To place power in the hands of the ‘have nots’, Gee argues that a ’bargaining chip is needed and this can only be achieved through Counterpower’ (p38). He also states that the common alternative to Counterpower is simply to accept power as it is.

So is power a concept you can measure within it’s self, would having more power be better and what would more power mean? Is power the play off between A vs B, a matter of who has the most amount of power. Does A dominate B because A has more power, or is it more about the type of power A has? Perhaps it’s beyond both A and B, maybe power is about a whole structure of knowledge and understanding that formulate A and B’s standpoints, and even creates the notion of A and B at all. Seeing power in this way may allow the notion of power to be spread beyond, ideas, economic and physical notions.

Castells-communication-space-power-media-Meetville-Quotes-86176Castells: The power of Communication

We can understand in today’s technological era that use of ‘global digital communication networks are a fundamental source of power in modern society’. Seeing an interactions as communications possessing power within itself is a bit of an abstract idea, but one that provides a better analysis of the actors involved. Castells states that there is no deterministic control of the power structure by any one group and that “whoever has enough money, including political leaders, will have a better chance of operating the switch in its favour” (p. 52). So in Castells’ view your focus to achieve social change would be to try to influence/change the communication structures that are used by powerful actors. To be effective in this you would need to understand why is the media powerful? Peter Braham’s explains the power of the media as the ability of mass media to influence the political agenda, and shape our concept of reality. As Carr states, think of the mass media’s role as a modern day church.

So in comparison Gee may see Counterpower in communications as the ‘haves’ vs ‘have nots’,or for example Rupert Murdoch vs activists. However the suggestion here is to not see Rupert Murdoch as holder of power (haves), but to rather see Murdoch as someone who establishes the space where power is decided through his ownership of media networks. Seeing power through communications in this way opens up a tactic, which is not discussed in Gee’s work and is hard to conceive with his notion of Counterpower. That is the building of autonomous communication networks to challenge the power of the media industry. It’s doesn’t need to be about, this company or that individual possessing power in a form media; it’s about harnessing that power that exists within communications. Communication networks are starting to play a huge role in social movements, such as the protests in Egypt (2011), and Hong Kong (2014) . Power will always exist through communications, so to focus on just targeting individuals or corporations, distracts from tapping into power of communications and trying to occupy more of that space where power is decided.

So if power exists beyond individuals and institutions…what about everywhere?


Foucault: Power is everywhere

No discussion about power can take place without the ideas of Foucault being discussed. Foucault saw power as; dispersed rather then concentrated, expressed and acted out rather then possessed, and as more wandering then forceful. Individuals or institutions do not hold power, rather their actions may contribute to the operation of power, but it is not power itself.

“Power is everywhere: not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere. … Power is not an institution, nor a structure, nor a possession. It is the name we give to a complex strategic situation in a particular society.” (Foucault History of Sexuality p.93)

In short, Foucault sees power as a thing or a capacity that people have. Power is a relation which exists when it is exercised. Resistance therefore can be encountered at every point, in attempts to evade, subvert or contest strategies of power.

To see power as everywhere, means that resistance can be channeled everywhere by using any means. For me, this conception of power, although abstract, opens campaigners minds to thinking outside of the box in regards to resistance strategies and techniques.

negrihardt_s_0Hardt and Negri: Understanding power through an International framework

Hardt and Negri analyse power on an international level by arguing that sovereignty has become supranational and no longer based within nation-states. Instead they suggest that a new global ‘Empire’ has emerged based around international institutions, treaties, capital flows, military interventions, media, and even NGOs. Using Hardt and Negri theory it’s important to not just view the structure of power within states, but to look at the relations of power on an global level. Using a political example, the uprising in Syria can be seen beyond the notion of the regime’s power vs the power of the people. International factors have played a vital role in this power struggle( which started as a protest for greater freedoms), in the form of Russia’s support of Assad and western unwillingness to intervene. 

Associations of power

It’s doesn’t have to be about power itself but the association of power. Those who are powerful are not those who ‘hold’ power but those who are able to enrol, convince and enlist others into associations on terms which allow these initial actors to ‘represent’ all the others: (Law and Whittaker 1988: 179). This view of power suggests that If power ‘lies’ anywhere, it is in the resources used to strengthen the bonds . We need to analyse how these resources are defined and linked and how actors impose definitions and linkages upon others to have a greater understanding of who holds power.


Power is an extremely complex concept and one of the most problematic. Power is theorised in almost all aspects of human study; politics, sociology, international relations etc, and in these studies, what constitutes power is fiercely debated. It is the ubiquitous nature known of power which caused me to question Gee’s simplicity.

However Gee’s book contains many excellent tactics and methods in order to build an effective campaign. Where Gee fails for me is his philosophical approach to power which is a bit too simplified, and designed to support his theory on how campaigns can win. By perceiving power as existing in three forms (ideas, economic and physical), the methods of resistance are mirrored and therefore limited. If Foucault is right in his perception of power as everywhere, then only seeing power in some forms will limit the scope of power and make it more difficult to alter power relations.In order for campaigning for social change to be successful, our perception on the world around us must evolve. Campaigners need to think outside of the box, and find new ways to achieve meaningful and lasting change.