News Column

Social Media Video Can Work For, Against RNC Protesters

August 20, 2012

Keith Morelli

The protests at the Republican National Convention will be watched from every angle imaginable, perhaps more than any political convention to date.

There will be images from cameras atop utility poles and from security cameras on bank buildings and hotels. Media will converge on downtown Tampa, churning out video for television, sound for radio and pictures for newspapers.

What changes the game is that everyone with a smart phone is now acting like themedia. Videos can be posted on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook in an instant. Confrontations with police will be published in ways never before seen at a national political convention.

That technology is causing a revolution among the revolutionaries and changing the way they stage protests, experts say.

The prevalence of social media and upgrades in mobile technology provide more exposure for protesters trying to be heard -- and more importantly -- seen.

"Ideally, they (protesters) would deliver their message to people inside the building, but that is increasingly unlikely, said Deana A. Rohlinger, associate professor of sociology at Florida State University. "There is a lot of security between the two, and that makes it difficult to deliver messages directly. It's created a bubble between those representing the people inside and the people outside."

Rohlinger, who focuses on mass media, collective behavior and social movements, said that bubble makes some protesters switch to Plan B, which is to "try to be outrageous enough so that the media picks up what they are doing."

But who can wait for the media when action is occurring?

So, with cell phones in the air and record buttons pushed, crowds can publish their own stories.

"They can craft their own vision of what happened and put it on YouTube," Rohlinger said. "What they've also done, interestingly, is create a tool to monitor the authorities. Now, everyone can see how the police are interacting with them."

Whether those changes will result in more or less violence is hard to predict.

"You have to think about how violence happens at big events," she said. "Usually, it's the minority that starts it."

But the widespread use of cell phone cameras and video recorders also means those who spark conflict will not escape the lens.

Image is the important thing in sculpting a sympathetic face, Rohlinger said.

"All these groups are so incredibly focused on image," she said. "They all are trying to grab people's attention."

Ariel Fernandez helped organize Occupy Tampa and did the same with Occupy St. Petersburg. The presence of cameras and video equipment, he said, might quell violence at the RNC.

"I'm 33, and everywhere I go, everything I do, I know there could be a camera on me," he said. "People who go to these events, they can't act out because the whole world is watching. There are eyes on you."

He said protesters striving to create a favorable image might shy away from prompting police violence if they are being photographed and those images are put online.

"It may dissuade some behavior that is not becoming," Fernandez said. "When it comes to police officers, getting videotaped brings a certain sense of responsibility."

The presence of smart phones will keep confrontations civil, predicted Jeanette Castillo, an assistant professor of digital media at Florida State University who has been following the Occupy Wall Street movement.

"A lot of this will depend upon how the authorities react to the protesters and the tactics the protesters use," she said. "One would hope that it (cell phone camera use) would encourage everyone to exhibit their most civil behavior, but this has not necessarily been the case.

"For example, the officer with the pepper spray at UC Davis ultimately lost his job. It is hard to believe he was unaware that he was likely being recorded, but perhaps these examples will influence both police and protester behavior this year."

Castillo was referring to a November clash in which a police officer at the University of California at Davis doused 20 students with pepper spray. The students appeared to be sitting passively with arms linked.

The incident later became a rallying point for the Occupy movement.

Castillo expects little or no violence at the RNC in Tampa because of the omnipresent technology.

"We have seen very large protests on both the left and the right in recent years," she said, "and they have been overwhelmingly peaceful. My own research leads me to believe that most Americans have internalized the idea that in this country we fight our political battles with words and ideas. And perhaps signs and puppets and parodies, but I think violence is always the exception rather than the rule."

Protesters at the RNC in Tampa will be breaking social media ground, she said.

"I think that people have always been particularly creative when it comes to political protests. This has a long tradition," she said. "But the ability of anyone and everyone to instantly share the art and theater of protest is new.

"A viral message can reach millions at no cost, she said, "and attract the attention of media outlets."

Her advice to demonstrators: "Be funny, be clever, be creative. Keep your message succinct and to the point. Make noise but remain non-violent. Use art as much as possible because it is memorable. Having a sense of humor will always disarm the hostile and make a positive impression on the impressionable."

Source: (c)2012 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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