It took about a minute and a few brush strokes for artist Jean Jullien to create the symbol that within twenty-four hours of the terrorist attacks in Paris had spread across the globe. In what he describes as a spontaneous response to the news of the attacks, Jullien combined the peace symbol, originating in the anti-nuclear movement of the late 1950s, with a silhouette of the Eiffel Tower, iconic emblem of Paris. Shortly before midnight on that Friday, he posted his sketch on Twitter and Instagram. The ’Peace for Paris’ symbol quickly spread to Facebook and other social media, appeared on T-shirts, flags and banners, and has been part of all the manifestations against the terrorist attacks, regardless of location. Jullien has a collection of these images in his smart phone: the symbol as a formation of candles, as being held by Malela, being raised by crowds gathered in stadiums, as displayed behind newscasters, and on screens in public space. The artist wants it to be used as widely as possible. He has taken out a copyright in order to protect the symbol from commercial use; any money made from the the ’Peace for Paris’ emblem goes to charity.
The origins of this symbol and its appearance across an expanding sphere of manifestations is directly relevant to my study in the Screening Protest project. I am looking at how symbols arise and are used in protests and how these appear across media, and particularly in news. I am especially interested in how some of these symbols evolve and attain new meanings in different places, as they become attached to new issues of protest. ’Peace for Paris’ is an example of this, carrying the power of its earlier uses as a symbol for peace, into its contemporary incarnation, where it has become charged with additional layers of meaning in response to the current tragedy. As is evident in the amount of coverage the symbol and its artist have received, ’Peace for Paris’ itself has become a topic of news.
The media use of social movements in different moments of US history was in focus when Anne Kaun from Södertörn University presented her research at the Screening Protest seminar on November 6th. Although they shared similar repertoires of contention and claims targeted against capitalism, mobilizations by the American communist party in the 1930s, the tenants movement in the 1970s and Occupy Wall Street in the 2010s had to deal with different time regimes of communication in their protest. In the 1970s, the tenants movement had to adapt to what Raymond Williams described as ‘the perpetual flow of television’ – a challenge the Communist Party in the 1930s did not have to face. The Occupy Movement, in turn, had to deal with the immediacy of social media, and its even faster pace. In light of this acceleration, Kaun argues, movements and their different forms of communication (amongst each other and towards the public) have increasingly become caught in a conflict between synchronisation and desynchronisation. The consequence is that, while social media have certainly provided a new space to reach public audiences outside the movement, it comes at a price: the slow time needed for deliberation within a movement like Occupy risks ending up out of synch with its necessary presence on platforms characterised by more immediacy. Apart from creating new spaces, new media technology thus also regulates space by imposing distinctive time regimes. Kaun suggests that, in addition to adapting to such new circumstances, protesters find themselves having to choose between attacking and abstaining from them, and instead try to find alternative ways of communicating. This raises interesting questions for the Screening Protest project. What could happen with the struggle for visibility on the ‘public screen’ – discussed at earlier seminars – as protesters seek out new alternatives more amenable to synchronization with their intentions, and newsrooms find it more difficult to find them? Has digital immediacy induced a time crisis for political communication, leaving the political in a stage of uncertainty?
When ‘protest’ is mentioned, the image that tends to come to mind is of a large group of people in an open space calling for change. After several months of coding global news broadcasts, however, we realized that manifestations of dissent take on quite different forms, and decided to make distinctions between ‘protest’, ‘rally’, ‘march’ and so on. The demonstrations that took place in Romania this week underline the usefulness of these differentiations.
What started during the weekend as a peaceful rally, in honour of the people who died or were injured in a fire in a nightclub in Bucharest, turned into an anti-corruption protest last night, ending with the resignation of prime minister Victor Ponta and his government. The protest did not only take the form of a gathering in a square. It also involved a march, with demonstrators following a designated route and stopping in specific places (e.g. in front of the government building, in the square next to the Parliament building, or the office of local authorities).
The episode gives food for thought for our research in another respect. The protest had a very powerful trigger: the death of at least 32 young people attending a concert in Bucharest on the weekend. When developing our research design, we have talked about coding for what triggers a protest, as well as the issue involved. They are not always the same thing. In this week’s Romanian protest, the trigger (the nightclub deaths) is clearly identified, but in many of the protest reports we analyze, they aren’t. We have thus decided not to code for protest triggers in our quantitative analysis, which seeks to capture the denotative content of reports and avoid interpretation as much as possible, although triggers will feature at the next and deeper level of analysis.