Media activism in the World Social Forum

'Communicate to mobilise to communicate'. The WSF has been referred to as an emergent global public sphere; however, little systematic attention has been paid to how media and communication are implicated in making it ‘global’ and ‘public’.

Since it emerged in 2001 proclaiming that ‘another world is possible’, the World Social Forum (WSF) has been a regular feature of the global civil society landscape. Biennially gathering tens of thousands of activists representing a huge diversity of movements and groups from around the world – most recently in 2011 in Dakar, Senegal – it is widely perceived as having a democratising function, providing a space where previously excluded voices can come together and debate alternatives to neoliberal capitalism. 

The WSF has been referred to as an emergent global public sphere; however, little systematic attention has been paid to how media and communication are implicated in making it ‘global’ and ‘public’. Here, I examine how alternative media activism within the WSF process can contribute to the creation of democratising publics. 

Communication activists at the opening march of the WSF 2011 in Dakar. Photo: Vanessa Silva, Ciranda.

A global public sphere?

In its Charter of Principles, the WSF is defined as an ‘open space’ for ‘reflective thinking’, ‘democratic debate of ideas’ and ‘free exchange of experiences’. Combined with its self-declared ambition to be a global process, this emphasis on discourse and dialogue makes it tempting to characterise the WSF as an emergent global public sphere.

Though appealing, it is however not at all clear that the WSF can or should be characterised in such terms. Critics have (rightly) highlighted the various ways in the WSF falls short of the normative criteria associated with the concept of the public sphere, pointing to the WSF’s lack of transparency, internal hierarchies and various forms of exclusion. Theorising the WSF as a global public sphere is also conceptually problematic, as Janet Conway and Jakeet Singh have shown. Traditionally conceived within the framework of the nation state as a mechanism for holding government to account, the concept of the public sphere cannot straightforwardly be ‘scaled up’ and applied to the WSF, which does not have an obvious sovereign counterpart. Additionally, the WSF’s much-debated politics of ‘open space’ (essentially based on the principle that the forum does not act or speak in the name of its participants) challenges the ideal of consensus that is at the heart of the Habermasian concept of the public sphere, pointing towards an altogether different political imaginary founded on the recognition of irreducible difference and plurality.

What has been practically absent from debates about the WSF and the concept of the public sphere (which I have examined in more detail here) is a concern with the role of media and communication. This is surprising, given on the one hand John Thompson’s widely recognised observation that publicness in large-scale, complex societies is necessarily mediated in character, and, on the other, the prominent place that communication technologies have occupied in writings on transnational social movement networks. 

Making the WSF public 

In looking at the importance of media and communication to the creation of publics within the WSF process, I will focus on how organisers and activists are trying to make it public (and ‘global’) through media and communication. Most obviously, this refers to efforts to disseminate media content about the WSF and ensure this reaches the widest possible audience. However, as is widely acknowledged, the WSF has consistently struggled to gain visibility in mainstream media. Here, instead, I want to show how alternative media activism – in the form of collaborative and participatory processes of media production – can provide a foundation for the creation of democratising publics. In what follows, I outline some key findings arising from ethnographic research carried out at social forums between 2008 and 2011, and consider their implications for how we might understand the idea of a ‘global public’.

‘Shared’ communication

The particular brand of media activism that I will discuss has been developed by a network of predominantly (though not exclusively) Brazilian and other Latin American activists who have used the WSF as a space for network-building and experimentation with new communication practices. The particular concept and practice of communication that they have developed is known in Portuguese as comunicação compartilhada, which can be translated roughly as ‘shared communication’ (though their concept of ‘sharing’ is quite different from that associated with contemporary social media practices).

The idea of shared communication emerged on the eve of the first WSF in 2001, out of a concern that the event would not receive adequate media coverage. Organisers were worried that mainstream media would most likely either present a distorted image of the forum or simply ignore it altogether, while independent media lacked the resources required to produce comprehensive coverage of such a large event. As a solution, a small communication team within the WSF organising committee created a web publication system, which was given the name of Ciranda (a form of circular dance in Brazil). Based on copyleft, Ciranda enabled participants to freely share content, providing a much-needed outlet for independent media at a time before Web 2.0 technologies were widely available. 

Initially having emerged out of a need to facilitate sharing of media content, the concept of shared communication soon acquired a much broader significance. Ciranda not only offered a platform for independent media coverage of the WSF; it also provided the occasion for media activists from different parts of the world to come together, creating spaces of sociality that encouraged dialogue and a sense of common purpose.

Having enjoyed immediate success at the first WSF, with over 300 articles uploaded to the Ciranda site, this exercise in shared communication was repeated at subsequent forums in Porto Alegre. In 2005, Ciranda (which had initially focused on text- and image-based journalism) was joined by other shared communication ‘projects’ providing facilities and equipment for activists working with different media, including the TV Forum (for video producers) and Radio Forum (for independent and community radios). Shared communication projects were also implemented at the Caracas edition of the WSF 2006 and at the Bélem WSF in 2009. In other years, when the WSF has taken place outside of Latin America, shared communication activists have covered the events and developed links with media activists from other parts of the world. Alongside the Ciranda website, online platforms for video (wsftv.net) and radio (www.forosocialradios.org) content relating to the WSF have also been developed by transnational working groups connected to the International Council’s Communication Commission.

Participants in the Radio Forum at the Belem WSF.
Photo: Hilde C. Stephansen.

These shared communication projects have formed the basis for the development of permanent activist networks and the idea of a politics and practice of shared communication. Over the years, Ciranda has developed from an annual exercise in producing shared coverage of the WSF to a permanent initiative for alternative news relating to the Forum’s thematic areas. Under the motto ‘another communication is possible’, shared communication activists have had as a key objective to develop a model of communication that is in keeping with the principles of the WSF and which follows a different logic from that of mainstream media. 

A movement-building approach to communication

How might we understand the significance of this particular form of media activism? First of all, I think it lies in the way that activists conceive shared communication as a process that is inextricably linked to political practice, and very different from the ‘public relations’ approach commonly adopted by mainstream NGOs. As one Brazilian activist I spoke to put it, the shared communication projects are ‘nothing more, nothing less, than processes of mobilising groups that have the aim of doing another communication within the Forum’[i].

Shared communication, in other words, has a strong movement-building dimension. By using social forums to engage in a prefigurative politics that demonstrates their model of democratic communication in practice, shared communication activists envisage the gradual proliferation around the world of their practices as new people are exposed to them. As another Brazilian activist explained, ‘we believe that from the moment a group comes to the Forum and enters into contact with this kind of process of knowledge production, they can take this idea with them beyond the Forum, return home and put into practice this exercise of collective knowledge production in the place where they do this on a daily basis’. 

An important part of activists’ efforts to spread the practice of shared communication has also been to share their skills and experience with movements and groups in the locations where the WSF is held, thereby enabling them to communicate on their own terms. This is closely linked to a conception of the WSF as an ongoing political process, not simply an event to be publicised through media coverage. As a Ciranda co-ordinator explained, ‘If I go there, do my thing, and go home, and leave it at that, I will have treated the Forum as an event, I will have done communication as an event and this will not have contributed anything towards the social movements and organisations of the region where the Forum is held having more tools for communicating, with a new concept, a new perspective’.

An activist at the 2010 thematic social forum in Porto Alegre. Photo: HIlde C. Stephansen.

The crucial point here is that shared communication activists – many of whom are organically linked to the movements they report on – see themselves as acting together with rather than simply disseminating information about the movements that participate in the WSF. In such a conception, communication and mobilisation for collective action are two sides of the same coin, forming a mutually reinforcing relationship captured eloquently by the motto ‘communicate to mobilise to communicate…’

Because the independent journalists and communicators who participate in the shared communication projects are not only reporters but themselves members of various movements, they become important nodes in inter-movement networks. Ciranda and the other shared communication projects not only facilitate information sharing through online communication, they also offer occasions for activists from different movement backgrounds to exchange knowledge and experience, and construct relations of solidarity. As a Radio Forum participant explained, ‘our participation in the [shared] coverage always has as a consequence that we are a living network’. Such networks of solidarity among media activists have an important role to play in creating links between different movements, constituting the social infrastructure of what might be understood as a different kind of global public in the making. 

Rethinking the idea of a global public

The kind of global public that is slowly being forged by these activists is more subterranean, less spectacular than that made visible by the mass gatherings at social forum events. Its continuity and expansion does not depend on the capacity of the WSF to gain mainstream media attention. As I hope to have shown, making the WSF public through shared communication involves mobilisation, movement-building, and the proliferation of alternative communication practices as well as the circulation of media coverage about the WSF. It involves a laborious process of constructing relations of solidarity, involving new actors in the production of media content, and setting in motion dynamics in the places where the WSF is held.

The practices that I have described above suggest that what is at stake in construction of ‘global’ publics is not the construction of a unified communicative sphere at the self-evidently global scale, oriented towards the formation of a general ‘public opinion’ which in turn can hold state power to account. 

What is discernible in the practices of shared communication activists is a different sense of globality. For them, the construction of a global ‘WSF public’ is about the proliferation of shared communication practices which enable movements and communities around the world to construct their own publics on different scales. These publics might be linked and overlapping, but they are not subsumed within an overarching ‘general’ global public sphere in a hierarchy of scale. What connects them is a sense of solidarity across difference and a willingness to engage in dialogue and collective knowledge production.

 


[i] All activist quotes have been translated from Portuguese by the author.

This article is part of the Creating Publics, Opening Democracies partnership, funded by the Open University. Read more about openDemocracy's editorial partnerships programme.

About the author

Hilde C. Stephansen is a Research Associate in the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance and PoLIS at the Open University. Her research focuses on how communication practices can contribute to the formation of publics and to processes of knowledge production. Her role at the Open University is connected to the Creating Publics project and the Public Engagement with Research Catalyst project.