Urban Struggles, Digital Obstruction

Urban activism’s problems with the “bouncer” effect of social media algorithms and new “smart city” measures of control in the Asia-Pacific region

Convener: Mark Philip Stadler, Dept. of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen

This panel is concerned with how urban activism struggles with the obstructive effects of social media and smart city applications in the realization of transformative change. Worldwide, urban activism is gaining relevance in the wake of the fact that by 2050 more than half of the world’s population will reside in cities. At the same time, urban activism’s use of the social media is very extensive, especially in the Asia-Pacific Region.

Over time, the internet has hugely contributed to social gatherings and has helped to organize public uprisings, already during the 1998 anti-Suharto movement in Indonesia. With social media, a new dynamic has arrived that has contributed to the recent developments in the so-called Arab Spring and anti-austerity movements in the West. However, most of the movements have not had a long-duree effect and have not contributed to a permanent change of political regime or systemic hegemony. The internet and social media helped to make a significant disruption, but it has not contributed to the implementation of demands: on the “day after” the uprisings a state of vacuum, a void in content was apparent. In most cases, old regimes are still in place and are thriving well. Disruption has been absorbed quickly and co-opted for the staying in place of political and financial elites. The “echo effect” in the social media limiting the reach of demands to a small circle of people has a disrupting effect.

Moreover, digital smart city programs have been implemented by various city governments to help run the city with programs to enhance security, stability and control. The Jakarta City Government for example introduced the app “lapor” (“report” in English) whereby citizens can report fellow citizens’ “misbehavior” and send photos of people, locations and happenings in the sometimes very inaccessible urban villages/settlements. Everybody with a smart phone can contribute to the city’s digital control center, but at the same time everybody can easily be blamed and shamed for allegedly disobedient behavior. It is, however, not specified what kind of behavior is regarded as disobedient. In this case, the availability and accessibility through mobile internet has the potential to endanger activist undertaking from its very start.

The panel’s main question is: what are the measures from urban activists to adapt to and overcome forms of digital obstruction from social media and smart city applications? The two leading questions related to the two topics addressed are: 1. What are concrete examples of how activists use social media algorithms and counter the echo effect in order to struggle for transformative change? 2. What are activist efforts to go against the obstructive effects of smart city apps and re-introduce forms of control alternative to them?

This panel shall bring together scholars from a variety of backgrounds discussing the use, problems and counter action against social media and smart-city apps by urban activists. Narratives from the activist perspective are the preferred angle. The emphasis shall be on cities in the Asia-Pacific region but scholars researching other parts of the world are encouraged to contribute relevant presentations if both conceptual questions (or either of them) are addressed.

Copenhagen ADI Conference 2017
9th annual international ADI conference
Asian Dynamics Initiative
University of Copenhagen 26-28 June 2017