Kaarina Nikunen: Media Solidarities
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Kaarina Nikunen explores in her book “Media Solidarities. Emotions, Power and Justice in the Digital Age” how digital media create, promote, and harness solidarity in a changing global environment. The focus of the book is laid on “how media engage with political struggles and the disclosure of injustice, rather than the ritualistic formation of solidarity through media” (p. 15). By solidarity the author understands “the shared commitment to challenge injustice and social vulnerability” (p. 3). The historical context for the emergence of media solidarities is considered relevant: social changes, political turmoil and digitalization of media are presented as engendering media solidarities. Nikunen identifies a paradox of media solidarity: on the one hand the troubling developments in the world (politics, environmental disasters, economic uncertainty, etc.) seem to leave little space for solidarity, on the other hand, these developments seem to ask for an increased role of media solidarities. There are four arguments relevant to her deciphering of the paradox of media solidarities:
- She first pleads for an expansion of the concept of solidarity drawing on post-colonial and feminist theory.
- Afterwards the embeddedness of solidarity in complex social, political and cultural structures is indicated, signalling that “there is no absolute, inherent purity or goodness in media solidarities” (p. 4).
- Then Nikunen places emotions and affect at the heart of media solidarities and she underlines the importance of concepts such as affective economy and affective practice.
- Finally, while acknowledging the richness of expressions in the new media economy, the author is interested especially in those “ideas, forms and productions that last and that can be created in a fair way with practices of listening and cooperation” (p. 5).
The theoretical framework of the book is built on the ethical turn in media studies (a critical approach towards media representations of injustice, social inequality and suffering), combined with post-colonial and feminist understandings of solidarity and a special attention given to how media represent and mobilize emotions.
Interested in migration issues and media, Nikunen draws on her previous research and approaches anew some of the cases which she tackled also in journal articles, such as the 2015 European refugee crisis, or the 1997 shipwreck of a cargo on the Italian coast. The book contains six chapters, an introduction and a conclusion.
Kaarina Nikunen is Professor of Media and Communication Research at the University of Tampere, Finland.
In chapter 1, “Understanding solidarity”, Nikunen places the origins of the concept of solidarity in the socialist and humanitarian movements of 19th century Europe, while admitting that ideas of solidarity can be found also in the religious teachings of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism (pp. 18-19). She outlines the concept of solidarity as found in sociology (Emile Durkheim, Axel Honneth) as well as in feminist and post-colonial scholarship (Nancy Fraser, Chandra Mohanty, and Jodi Dean). She connects solidarity with emotions (empathy and compassion) and affectivity, whereas both emotions and affect are seen as “part of the meaning-making process and social engagements” (p. 30). At the same time, Nikunen draws attention on what she calls “the political economy of media solidarities”, as care and helping others can be reduced to being a commodity. After pointing out that “solidarities are commodified, sold and recycled” (p. 36), she further discusses media solidarity in terms of waste and sustainability, emphasizing the importance of media solidarities in producing social change for a better future.
In chapter 2, “Producing Media Solidarities”, the author explores the digital media environment and its effects on media productions aimed at enhancing solidarity. She first identifies three factors which influence productions:
- concentration, understood mainly as concentration of media ownership, is seen to endanger media pluralism
- commercialization, driven by cost-efficiency and manifested through standardization and rationalization of productions, is seen to limit productions to mainstream topics and perspectives
- digitalization, manifested through new technologies, online publishing, and an increasing power of the main technology companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft), is seen to have changed profoundly the media environment.
The author goes next to presenting examples of alternative and activist media, such as the blog “Migrant Tales”, as well as NGO-led advocacy media and digital investigative, independent journalism (Direkt36, Journalism++, LongPlay). She further analyses the intricacies of the new media productions. For instance, she points out the power relations between professional media and amateur publication. “Migrant tales” wrote about the mistreatment of asylum seekers in Finland, but it was not until a Finnish national newspaper investigated the issue, that the story gained in credibility and reached a larger public. NGO-led advocacy journalism suffers too from a number of shortcomings: NGOs‘ reporting is done through the lenses of a particular NGO, lacking a critical approach, reflexivity and transparency. The independence of digital investigative journalism might be questioned, if one considers the financial support offered by various foundations and powerful donors. Nikunen looks also into possible solutions to the challenges the new media productions are facing, suggesting for instance more cooperation between mainstream media and humanitarian organization, or crowdfunding. There is, however, one issue which the new media has to deal with according to Nikunen: “how to produce sustainable content with long term relevance that focuses on social processes and root causes rather than sensational, celebrity driven short-term attention […]” (p. 60).
Chapter 3, “Imagining equality with politics of hospitality”, deals with two cases of media imaginations: the shipwreck of the cargo-ship Ararat in 1997 on the Italian coast, near the small town of Badolato, and the refugee crisis from 2015. Media imaginations are described as powerful tools, which can shape everyday life and human destinies. For instance, Europe is imagined as open and cosmopolitan, a place which offers many opportunities, but at the same time Europe is described also as a closed fortress, which tries to keep away external threats (p. 64). These media representations affect the lives of migrants, refugees and local people and they enter the social imaginary (Castoriadis, 1987 cited in Nikunen 2018, p. 65) of a certain historical period. Drawing on Harvey‘s concept of geographical imagination and emphasizing the fact that imaginations produce knowledge, Nikunen indicates that “the way in which we gain knowledge over places and their specific challenges, is relevant to how well we might be able to understand the root causes of the problems and possible solutions” (p. 67). Badolato enjoyed extensive media attention (in Italy and also Europe-wide), when its mayor decided to offer housing for the refugees from the Ararat and invited them to stay. Yet, the initial optimism and excitement faded away and by the end of 2000 the refugee and migrants from the shipwrecked ship left Badolato and moved on to other cities and countries. The media coverage of the 2015 refugee crisis led to feelings of emergency and chaos, and “left little room for imagining alternatives: exploring new solutions and practices, listening to refugees‘ and migrants‘ experiences, and lessons from the past” (p. 77). Nonetheless, solidarity and hospitality movements emerged (as it happened in Badolato too) and social media played an important role in organizing help and other public actions. Nikunen points out one essential problem with solidarities created by media: “even if media imaginations are geared to support benevolent efforts to help, they may undermine the capacity of vulnerable groups, such as refugees and migrants, to define their own positions and imagine alternative futures from their own perspective” (p. 83).
Chapter 4, “Feeling good through entertainment”, explores the way emotions are exploited in media productions presenting ‘doing good‘ acts. The case study of this chapter is built mainly around the Australian television series “Go Back to Where You Came From” in which Australian citizens (be it ordinary people, or public figures) experience what it means to be a refugee by retaking the routes refugees usually take to arrive in Australia. As in the case of the media discourse around Badolato, the voices and the perspectives of the ‘real‘ refugees are not at all present, the program only “forefronts the Western self” (p. 96). Yet, by using a multiplatform strategy (the main message is advertised on different channels and platforms), the show enjoys high audience participation translated into high ratings, social media debates as well as a substantial increase of donations towards the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The European versions of the show in Italy and Germany were strongly criticized and the author explains this through “the cultural values attached to reality television as a low, scandalous and unethical form of global entertainment and the contradiction that the combination of humanitarianism and entertainment evoked” (p. 100). Nikunen believes the Australian show does support the understanding of the refugee situation while reaching a large audience. She also sees in it a manifestation of the media solidarity paradox: “they mobilize donations, but emphasize a self-centred feeling of doing good through a media structure that itself advances neoliberalist values” (p.103).
Chapter 5, “Sharing suffering on social media”, examines digital sharing and witnessing as means of solidarity creation through social media. It starts from presenting shortly the #BringBackOurGirls (#BBG) campaign, which was launched after the terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 young women from a school in Nigeria. The practice of sharing (news, images, profile pictures) is described as a routine, which can easily become a manifestation of slacktivism, showing solidarity on social media with just a click. Nikunen speaks of the “impatience” of sharing. Moreover, sharing is depicted as a self-oriented action, as well as an action which decontextualizes images and news. As such, the #BBG campaign had its own fallacies: it was used by some as a means to fight for women‘s rights and against gender-based violence, some supporters of the campaign lacked any understanding of the Nigerian context and proposed “solutions” involving a military support from the US troops, and the campaign poster had nothing to do with the case. Nikunen quotes professor Innocent Chiluwa and argues that one should look beyond the shortcomings of the campaign and acknowledge that it added pressure on the Nigerian government, and therefore the campaign was successful from the Nigerian perspective. The second part of the chapter is dedicated to the practice of witnessing, expressed for example in amateur videos, it introduces the concept of “connective witnessing” according to which acts of witnessing are shared on the connective networks of social media (pp.120-121) and it presents how collections of witnessing are available online as digital archives (e.g. the Syrian Archive, the Rwandan “Stories for Hope”). Though archives are deemed important, as “the openness of archives offers an alternative to the authoritative production of testimonies and memories by educators, cultural institutions, and mainstream media” (p. 125), they may also “provide only more to forget” (p. 126).
Chapter 6, “Participating and protesting online”, looks into craftivism defined as a practice in which crafts (such as knitting, sewing, crocheting, spinning) are used for political activism. Craftivism enjoys increased popularity and this is due to social media, Ravelry being an example of such social media sites. What craftivism adds in comparison to other forms of media solidarities is the ‘practice of making‘ which requires time, communication with other craftivists and reflection towards the political message it carries. Nikunen describes the “Welcome Blankets” for refugees and the Pussyhat project as examples of craftivism, but she also points out that “craftivism occupies a vast terrain of political action from demonstrations to personal memorial projects, from industry critique to art exhibitions and aid work” (p. 130). She emphasizes the “politics of care” of craftivism as embodied in craftivist objects, such as aid bunnies, welcome blankets, or memorial moccasin vamps. However, Nikunen signals that craftivist solidarities are not spaces devoted of power and hierarchy and though craftivism stands for community-building, “craftivist sites shouldn‘t be understood as harmonious sites of universal solidarity” (p. 138). Similarly, the work of tech activists is another form of craftivism aimed at producing “new ‘fair‘ spaces of media such as free software or community radio” (p. 144). Though Nikunen admits that the outcomes of craftivism and tech activism can be questioned (what is the value of knitting a blanket for an unknown person), she concludes that “there is value in showing compassion and care and providing space for imagining alternatives” (p. 148).
Discussion and Summary
Kaarina Nikunen offers in her book “Media Solidarities. Emotions, Power and Justice in the Digital Age” a richly detailed view on how digital media shapes and conveys solidarity. Worth highlighting are the case studies and the many examples she uses to illustrate media solidarities across a full range of genres, from mainstream media to NGO activism and collective projects of witnessing. The book certainly speaks for Nikunen as a connoisseur of the new media environment today and her critical approach gives a nuanced understanding of what she calls the key dimensions of contemporary media solidarities: producing, imagining, feeling, sharing, witnessing and participating. Yet, the text is sometimes overloaded with concepts which impedes the flow of reading and sometimes makes you wonder, if introducing three or four concepts describing the same thing is of any help for the reader.
In some chapters the theoretical framework, though extensively presented, is only partially used in the interpretation of the case study. For instance, David Harvey‘s concept of geographical imagination remains mostly detached from the interpretations of the case study Badolato. Despite these drawbacks, Nikunen‘s book certainly brings interesting insights for media and communication scholars, encouraging the readership not only to critically approach media solidarities, but also to acknowledge their value.
Iuliana Ancuţa Ilie
Iuliana Ancuţa Ilie, Academic Assistant for International and Intercultural Management and Management Accounting at Pforzheim University
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Iuliana Ancuţa Ilie. Rezension vom 20.11.2019 zu: Kaarina Nikunen: Media Solidarities. Emotions, Power and Justice in the Digital Age. SAGE Publications, Ltd (London) 2018. ISBN 978-1-4739-9409-6. In: socialnet Rezensionen, ISSN 2190-9245, https://www.socialnet.de/rezensionen/25974.php, Datum des Zugriffs 02.04.2020.
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