AJPS Symposium: International approaches to online political participation and connective action

This symposium in the Australian Journal of Political Science highlights how scholars are engaging with cutting edge research questions on the transformative effects of online political participation and new forms of online collective action. First, we hope to shape contemporary debate in Australian political science, as it has generally been reluctant to understand fully how central political communication processes are now to our understanding of political participation, mobilisation and organisation. Second, we also intend to contribute to international debates on the theory of connective action via papers that critically engage with the approach’s central tenets, through novel theorising and empirical analysis.

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In this symposium we demonstrate that the internet has brought profound changes to citizen engagement with politics, and changed the practices of mobilisation and organisation. One theory, though, has animated recent research more than any other: that collective action is increasingly replaced by processes of online-led and enabled forms of connective action. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg’s (2013) book The Logic of Connective Action argued that the digital context had fundamentally changed how we should understand collective action. Connective action social movements are contrasted with conventional collective action protests and movements. Connective action is predicated on the use of digitally enabled personalisation of action frames.

This means that individual actors use and share digital media content that they adapt to suit their own political frames and meaning. In contrast, conventional collective action relies on building a shared sense of collective identity frames. Connective action movements are also characterised by: scaling up quickly; producing large, and sometimes record-breaking, mobilisations; having flexibility in terms of political targets and bridging different issues (e.g. economy and environment); and creating new protest repertoires, sharing open source software development, and embracing an ethos of inclusiveness.

The five articles in the symposium were all presented at the 2017 workshop of the Australian Political Studies Association’s Participation and Political Organisation research group, organised by Andrea Carson. The group was established in late 2013 to create a pluralist space for researchers of political participation, political parties, interest groups, social movements, and political communication. We have aimed to share ideas on cutting edge research and build a critical mass for new research agendas, especially but by no means exclusively among Australian-based, early-career researchers.

This symposium critically engages with the transformative effects and potential of online forms of political participation and new connective action social movements. Connective action has mostly been observed in advanced democratic contexts; here, the concepts are applied not only in developed democracies like Australia and the United States, but adapted for nascent democratic regimes and authoritarian states such as Taiwan and Bahrain. We also look at how widespread online practices are in both feminist and disability-focused forms of connective action.

First, Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s analysis of the Shi’i dominated opposition protest groups to Bahrain’s Sunni Al Khalifa family provides an under researched case study of political action frames during the 2011 Arab Spring pro-democracy protests. Moore-Gilbert explains that like other Arab Spring-inspired uprisings, Bahrain’s pro-democracy protests took place both online, through social media and chat forums; as well as offline, taking the form of street protests in the capital Manama.

Second, Shiau Ching Wong and Scott Wright’s article examines the relationship between online and offline protest. But they put the spotlight on the role of old and new media in facilitating political action frames in their examination of the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement (2012-13) in Taiwan – a protest against media concentration, censorship and biased reportage.

Third, Filippo Trevisan, analyses rapid response connective action protests by disability activists that occurred after the election of President Donald Trump in the USA and during his inauguration in January 2017. Through an analysis of this unique ‘virtual’ disability protest march he shows that inclusion of voices matters for those traditionally excluded from both politics and offline protest movements.

Fourth, Verity Trott, presents research to develop a new theory of feminist connective action. She argues that organisational shifts have been driven by digitally equipped individuals who use digital tools and their personalised extensive digital networks to organise and drive protests.

The symposium concludes with a theoretical exploration by Max Halupka on how online ‘clicktivism’ challenges definitional understandings of political participation, and forces us to reconceptualise the relationship between political communication and democratic systems.

Find the special issue here

Andrea Carson is lecturer of Political Science at the University of Melbourne and Ariadne Vromen Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Sydney