Can digital media predict riots?
Do they allow a better understanding of the internal dynamic between conflict and violence (violence is the contrary of conflict, which does allow a negotiation) in a mobilization and the possibility of violence avoidance in most social mobilizations, which can be violent in a deep social crisis context? Why this question?
We have studied this dynamic between the youth and the police in urban areas in the past years (Community Policing, Urban Violence in both France and Spain). Recently, within our “Habilitation à Diriger des Recherches”), HDR which will be defended in September 2014 in front of an international jury at EHESS, the PI has already carried out an extensive research on such issues, and he has shown that it is indeed possible, from a sociologist viewpoint, to “predict” upcoming events and to identify explicating factors leading to urban violence during social mobilizations, such as mismanagement, bad communication between the police organizations.
We have already been able to model the role of reasonings and bad police intelligence, and shown that such observations can lead to violence and counter-reasonings, before, during and after the mobilizations. The challenge is now to more precisely know how the proliferation and the naturalization of these emerging digital networks in an informational society can or not modify the confrontational dynamics between the police forces and the youth in the street and what leads to violence / non-violence in social mobilizations.
State of the art: limitations
The rather natural tendency to describe the relations between police’s forces and digital mobilizations is first sensationalist and catastrophic prediction journalism but also “technological doom watch” that heavily feeds general thoughts on issues such as cybercrime or cyber-activism as for instance the “Anonymous movement”, such as threats and punishment related to the malicious “misuse” of the new internet technologies. In the meantime, Surveillance Studies or New Critical Studies are denouncing the intrusion of police forces in the world of social media and the dangers of a society of total surveillance.
Far from these general opinion and public media classical attitudes the new line of research we want to explore and pursue with this project aims at establishing a new contribution towards the understanding of social media effects on the production and organization of social mobilizations. In fact, without including the more technical publications written for instance by computer scientists on the emerging social medial tools and platforms, in the social sciences literature alone, some previous works can be identified that has actually prepared the ground and paved the way for the issues we want to address in our own research approach. Much has already been written on social control and policing of physical spaces, whether public, private, hybrid. The Social mobilizations studies or Contest Policing Studies do not take into account the role of police forces and policing in general in an interactional way.
Social sciences remains confined to rather classical visions of policing of social mobilizations and contestations and even if the Arab spring or the « Indignados » movement have led to the slow emergence of new studies in 2012, social sciences research still does remain short of arguments when requested to address such a phenomenon.
Furthermore, in the currently available literature, social sciences researchers are not yet considering the notion of digital interaction and co-construction between: a) actors (often youths), their critical sense, combined with technologies, uses and meaning production in a real continuity between real life and the virtual world, and b) interactions between actors who are socialized in part with the use of social media / the cyber world and the social control by States and mainly police forces in a dynamic and empirical situations like social mobilizations.
Therefore, Social mobilizations sociology, and in particular the policing of mass recognized that it has not yet sufficiently entered into the details of this dynamic, and is aware of its main focus being on physical ripostes, in particular of police violence, while the more symbolic dimensions have so far been forgotten, or considered « out of the frame ».
The hypothesis developed by Gary T Marx but also and especially those promoted by Randall Collins are offering some promising research perspectives. On the other side, both digital and computational studies are also opening some fascinating perspectives, as suggested by Procter or others, or social simulations scientists. However, these studies are not based on historical and empirical, ethnographic data.
With this project we want to analyze the effects of digital technologies on the existing conflicting and violent dynamic between police forces and the youth street mobilizations. We want to go further that the current state of the art and understand how the distance digital exchanges and the circulating information are able to engage individual and groups towards either pacification of violence. To do so, we will follow a new central hypothesis (Collins & Ferret, upcoming publication): the role of digital media plays an essential role in the birth of such street gatherings, but physical and real interactions do still remain of the highest important. We therefore aim at studying the role of digital media during a mobilization, and especially during confrontational conflict phases. Our analysis will comprise three complementary levels:
1) Situation intelligence from the police forces viewpoint: does digital communication allows better police forces intelligence? Is there a better communication among police forces members with the use of digital communication means? Is there a better understanding of the social mobilizations? Which type of exploitable knowledge is produced and how does it circulate through hierarchies and in organizations?
2) Between police forces and activists: does the information exchange through digital media help to clear up any misunderstandings, to install a negotiation climate? Does it allow an identification of the mobilizations leaders, especially the “unusual suspects”, and the development of a communication with them?
3) Among activists groups themselves: does the dialogue through digital media between the protesters lead to some kind of collective self-discipline through the message? Some sort of auto-pacification, an emotional and non-violent solidarity? Towards the public opinion? To give a more favorable image to the social movement?
Written by Jérôme FERRET, sociologue chez Université Toulouse 1 Capitole and CREC contributor.