Digital media and civil society networks: national and transnational public spheres

What role do digital communication technologies play in our ability to act together politically and democratically in a civil society that is being transformed by globalization and individualization? The current political landscape is characterized by at least two interesting developments: political problems such as those surrounding the economy and environment are becoming more transnational, and citizens are seeing more flexibility to operate on their own terms rather than as members of traditional hierarchical interest and advocacy organizations. These processes are changing the conditions of civil society, with organizations having to rethink how they relate both to issues and to publics.

The project is based on the idea that we have to evaluate how civil society is changing as a result of increasing market and individualization forces and the creation of social technologies that enable people to organize differently. Previous research on civil society and the public sphere has been largely focused on the study of individual associations and national mass media. This project focuses instead on identifying and analyzing the capacity of civil society networks (consisting of different types of players) to engage even citizens who are less likely to be mobilized by a traditional organization centered participation. More specifically, the project aims to study how networks of civil society are using (or not using) digital communications to engage citizens, and create action spaces, and establish structures in an increasingly fluid and transnational public sphere. The democratic organization and legitimacy of these networks are examined in terms of depth, organizational coherence and capacity to engage publics in sustained actions. The project is based on case studies of protests and networks in the US and the three EU countries with different civil society traditions (Sweden, Germany and the UK). We work on two transboundary problem areas (climate change and environmental policy and the issues of fairness, equity and justice in the global economy. We examine these networks for the period 2006-2015.

The focus is on the analysis of public communication in the form of websites, links, and the array of interactive technologies that organizations and individuals use to communicate with each other. We develop new methods to measure and compare the public engagement signatures of issue networks. The project’s main contribution is to highlight a fundamental building block of civil society in change: civil society networked publics.

Funding is for 5 years (2010-2014) in the amount of approx. $700,000 US from the Swedish National Research Council. Principal Investigator: Alexandra Segerberg, Stockholm University.
Several publications have already emerged from this project, including:

W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg, “Digital Media and the Personalization of Collective Action: Social Technology and the Organization of Protests against the Global Economic Crisis.” Information, Communication & Society (2011) 14: 770-799.

Alexandra Segerberg and W. Lance Bennett, “Social Media and the Organization of Collective Action: Using Twitter to Explore the Ecologies of Two Climate Change Protests” The Communication Review. (2011) 14: 197-215.

W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg, “The Logic of Connective Action.” Information, Communication & Society. (2012) 15 (5): 739-768.

A book project is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press in 2013: Bennett and Segerberg, The Logic of Connective Action: Digital Media and the Personalization of Politics.