A Look at Smith’s Disaffiliation and belonging: Twitter and its agonistic publics

I was recently asked to talk about an article by one of the lecturers at my university. I was a little wary at first as I didn’t know how to begin, but it was about something I cannot live without: Twitter. I’m glad I did in the end. So this is a brief look at the article in question, with my own examples and explanations for my readers. It is by no means comprehensive, I’m just picking my favourite bits. It was all amazing though, so I may talk more on it soon.

So what is it? Well the politicised and apoliticised breeding ground that is the Twitter feed is finally being recognised and even explored. Dr Angela Smith of the University of Sunderland and Dr Michael Higgins from Strathclyde University have written an article called Disaffiliation and belonging: Twitter and its agonistic public.

Here is the abstract:

This article looks at forms of political and public engagement to emerge in Web 2.0. Focusing on the platform Twitter, the article looks at both antagonistic and agonistic types of political engagement. It discusses Twitter’s capacity for direct contact with main political party leaders as part of an antagonistic public discourse, geared towards creative expressions of individualised disaffiliation. However, in interventions around @EverydaySexism, the article finds collectivising practices more in keeping with an agonistic public discourse based upon involvement and the tactical use of irony and humour. While showing that the platform provides for new forms of antagonistic engagement with political elites, the article therefore offers support for the view that Web 2.0 gives rise to new and shifting formations of non-institutionally-aligned political public.

If you can get a copy, I urge you to read it. It really is fascinating stuff for anyone who uses Twitter as an activist, keyboard warrior or even as a politician. I use my Twitter constantly. In fact, Twitter is the preferred platform for online activism for feminists across the world. From voicing opinions on #Gamergate to the sobering sombre #YesAllWomen and #RapeCultureIs. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I take part in these often. My contributions to #JanetVanCrime, the protest against Marvel’s new Ant-Man movie which fridges Avengers founder Janet Van Dyne, still occasionally resurface in a flood of favourites or retweets.

One are highlighted is the idea of trolling. It is something any outspoken other on the internet has experienced. Whether you are a feminist, queer, POC or disabled, if you can be mocked, you will be. I get it a lot on this blog. Smith and Higgins describe Twitter as “a fertile environment for abuse”. They call to attention the politicians who use social media platforms as a way of voice their stances on issues, often forgetting the social side of the media. The response is something less than stellar and often abusive.

@EverydaySexism creator Laura Bates is often on the receiving end of this kind of abuse. But as a woman, the threats she receives take on a sinister and more aggressive form of violence: rape threats. She is not the only woman to receive this kind of hate. Famed feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian received rape threats, death threats and even the threat of a massacre if she gave her talk at a university in the US. Smith and Higgins comment that the “sexualised nature of the tweets also contrasts with the mainly scatological insults and accusations of insincerity directed at Cameron, Osborne and Miliband”. It is a point I have mentioned time and time again; women are subjected to something more heinous simply through virtue of their gender.

The antagonistic side of the platform is only one of the sides discussed. There is some good to come from it.

Twitter is a platform for “political culture within the emerging post-broadcast environment: a context in which audiences may be less constrained by conventional news”. To me, the best example of this is happenings in Ferguson. In Ferguson, Missouri, an unarmed black teenager was gunned down by a police officer, Darren Wilson. What was initially a small protest grew exponentially. Armed forces were involved when peaceful protests swamped the city, and even when there was a media black-out, news of Ferguson reached people globally through Tweeters refusing to be silenced. This is the power of Twitter at its very best. In 140 characters, a message of love and revolution spread through the world. This happened in August. It is still being talked about now, and will continue to be until Darren Wilson is brought to justice.

This idea of a less-constrained broadcast environment is a valid one. Many news outlets are biased, and it is something we accept as part of our reader or viewership. Would we expect a fair and honest version of a story from Fox News or the Daily Mail is it involved a Muslim man? Of course not. We can expect a certain amount of honesty from Twitter because it is the voices of many forming a vaguely coherent narrative.

Smith and Higgins use the example of fake political accounts and their satire as another instance of a political culture. “[S]trategic clusterings, often motivated by irony and knowingness, provide the discursive settings for activities of disaffiliation from mainstream political culture and its supposed conceits, as well as the pursuit of shared social and cultural ideals”; in other words, satire for its agnostic purposes provides an almost post-political platform for people to both distance themselves from politics and to engage with others who share their dissatisfaction. Satire done right is intelligent and interesting (so not Family Guy). There is an understanding of politics in these faux accounts, but an overarching disinterest that appeals to this new politically agnostic society.

It’s only a short article, but a must read for anyone interested in social media, activism or who just likes a thought-provoking read. Though I do not know much about Dr Higgins, Dr Angela Smith is an interesting and very intelligent woman. I’ve seen her talk on children’s fiction and on women in World War propaganda, but this is potentially my new favourite subject of hers.

I would like to see what she makes of #Gamergate and everything that surrounds it. I think as a linguist and a feminist, it would interest her. You can also follow her at @alegnasmith.

And so, dear readers, we reach the end of another post.

Let me ask you this: what did you think of the article so far? Did you have any questions or examples to add? Or do you have an argument that you’d like to share?

Let me know your thoughts.


About Stephanie Gallon

I'm an author, a blogger, and a zealot of all things written. I work as an English teacher in England, and have a PGCE PCET, a distinction in MA English studies and first class honours in BA English and Creative Writing. I have more degrees than friends
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