Social media and the transnationalization of mass activism: Twitter and the labour movement
First Monday

Social media and the transnationalization of mass activism: Twitter and the labour movement by Michael Dahlberg-Grundberg, Ragnar Lundstrom, and Simon Lindgren



Abstract
This paper explores the labour movement organization LabourStart, a digital initiative that, by various means such as e-mail campaigns and social media use, seeks to promote workers’ rights and to strengthen the labour movement on a global scale. The main aim of this study is to analyse a) how LabourStart employs Twitter for communication and organisation and b) how the Twitter-sphere that LabourStart constitutes — and is constituted by — is geographically structured. Our dataset consisted of all tweets containing the word “labourstart” and all tweets coming from or addressing any LabourStart–related account during the period 2008–2015. As theoretical points of departure, the notions of transnationalization/translocalism were used, in part together with the concept of connective action, to conceptualise the research. In terms of methodology, network analysis was the main approach employed to obtain and visualise the findings. Our results indicate that LabourStart’s Twitter use does not seem to have had any effects in terms of creating a decentralised transnational movement with translocal traits, thus suggesting that LabourStart has failed to fully make use of the connective features of Twitter and to establish a decentralized, transnational union movement. This, we suggest, is to some extent caused by LabourStart’s centralized organizational — and thus communicational — structure. In the concluding section, we interpret our findings in broader terms relating to the context and history of labour movements, and we discuss LabourStart’s work in relation to local and global worker issues.

Contents

Background and aim
Media and unions
Media and political movements
Data and analysis
Interaction or broadcasting
The geography of communication
Concluding discussion

 


 

Background and aim

International trade union movements during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries constituted one of the prime examples of large-scale grassroots mobilisation. However, trade unions have been facing a crisis over the last couple of decades. One of the most important aspects of this crisis has been decreasing membership levels and diminished political influence (Oskarsson, 2003; Western, 1995; Upchurch, et al., 2009).

Because of this, developing strategies for the renewal and revitalisation of trade unions has emerged as a key issue for trade unionism (Behrens, et al., 2004; Frege and Kelly, 2004; Hyman, 2013). Consequently, trade unions have tried to further their reach and impact with the help of new means of communication, ranging from e-mail services and non-commercial media channels to social media platforms. These current efforts are also conditioned by new challenges, including mobilizing scattered and fragmented workers during a time of precarious work (Mattoni, 2012; Kalleberg, 2009) and forming transnational coalitions of workers to counterbalance the power resources of global capital. Questions about place and global coordination are crucial for twenty-first century trade unionism.

In this paper we analyse one example of online trade unionism — LabourStart [1] — and we focus on how the use of social media, which can be both of the interactive and the broadcasting kind, influences the organisation of communication within the labour movement, and the ability of the movement to use social media to deal with the geospatial challenges of global capitalism.

LabourStart — launched in 1996 to promote workers’ rights and to strengthen the labour movement on a global scale — was initially a Web site that published and circulated news items relating to trade unions throughout the world. Later, it also became a platform for encouraging, facilitating, and actually carrying out campaigns related to workers’ struggles. While most of the work was initially done by one individual, LabourStart gradually came to involve a large number of volunteers who shared the organization’s workload (Lee, 2010). Since its inception, LabourStart has been using a variety of digital media platforms, methods, and tools to promote workers’ rights. The most prominent strategy is its use of e-mail campaigns targeting corporations and governments all over the world that in different ways are mistreating workers or failing to offer safe working conditions. LabourStart can, as it is using multiple forms of digital media platforms and strategies while simultaneously functioning as a news site, a campaign platform for worker-related struggles, and a form of union movement, be described as a “hybrid form of organization” (Chadwick, 2013). In light of this, it is important to recognize that LabourStart is not an unambiguous representative for, or paramount example of, the labour or union movements per se. LabourStart is rather one particular initiative within the sphere of union politics, carrying within it a diversity of tactics and forms of expression, without having any members of its own.

More recently, LabourStart is increasingly turning to social media platforms, and this article focuses specifically on how it employs Twitter. The aim of the study is to analyse how LabourStart uses Twitter as a platform for communication, mobilisation, and organisation and to analyse how the communication on this platform is geographically structured. We seek to answer two sets of research questions:

  • In what concrete ways is LabourStart using Twitter? How can these uses contribute to making international trade unionism less centralised and rigid?
  • What countries are mentioned, and how often, in the tweets? How are user accounts tweeting about LabourStart geographically distributed? How do the patterns affect the understanding of trade unions in global terms? To what extent is LabourStart contributing to interlinking geographically detached grievances and struggles? And to what extent does LabourStarts’ usage of Twitter establish transnational connections between actors? And what are the characteristics of such connections?

At an overarching level, this study addresses in what sense, if at all, social media use can aid in the revitalization of the labour movement in general, and how social media can influence, and perhaps even transform, the organisational dynamics of trade unionism.

 

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Media and unions

Although there is great confidence among some trade unionists in the benefits of communicating online (Stevens and Greer, 2005), and although many scholars have been optimistic regarding the possibilities for digital media to change the conditions for unionism (Lee, 1997), knowledge about the role of the Internet and social media in such processes is limited. In short, “union scholars and observers disagree on the potential benefit of information technology on union organizing” [2]. Some researchers have failed to show any positive effects of using Internet tools for union work (see, for instance, Fiorito and Gallagher, 2013), and it has been shown that developments in general are slow and that membership interest is limited (Ward and Lusoli, 2003; Gibney, et al., 2013). It has also been pointed out that transformation processes in unions, such as increased use of digital communications, are conditioned by the traditions and leadership of specific organisations (Martínez Lucio, 2003; Martínez Lucio and Walker, 2005; Panagiotopoulos and Barnett, 2014) and that conservatism within trade unions might inhibit any advanced use of novel technologies (Lee, 2003).

At the same time, positive outcomes of using online communications among unions have also been observed (Fiorito and Bass, 2002; Fiorito, et al., 2002; Kombol, 2012), for instance in relation to improving services and attracting members (Diamond and Freeman, 2002). Some scholars argue that new communication technologies might give unions the necessary tools with which to disseminate information while they also “may open new doors for unions to connect with members, employees, and the public generally to promote their mission” [3].

More recently, we have seen some evidence that organizing and communicating online, through social media for instance, has strong potential for being a driving force for trade union renewal. This has been evident in widely embraced, sometimes global, labour rights campaigns such as the Occupy movement (van Stekelenburg, 2012) and in relation to a number of whistleblowing initiatives, of which LabourStart constitutes one of the primary examples.

These new technologies can be used for more than just strengthening conventional labour actors: “The potential of the electronic media is not so much their capacity to ‘mobilise’ working people within and for the old labour institutions, but to make them ‘more mobile’ under and against a globalised and networked capitalism more generally” [4]. These new patterns — emerging through new strategies, novel modes of organization, and increasingly online with the help of social media — are quite striking in relation to the repeated claims that the labour movement is “an unlikely place to find the use of new disruptive tactics” [5].

The use of digital communication might also transform the organizational conditions for unionism. For instance, they might contribute to increased union transparency and to challenges to union leadership (Panagiotopoulos and Barnett, 2014). Furthermore, as new Internet-based labour movement organizations emerge, their activities might begin to replace those of traditional unions (Diamond and Freeman, 2002), and their online networks might introduce new means for making connections among both members and professionals outside the traditional union structures (Panagiotopoulos and Barnett, 2014). Whether this is the case or not is, however, still somewhat unclear, and there is a need for further studies because “[o]ur knowledge of how unions are planning to use social media, what communication channels they prioritize and what factors affect their decisions to do so is limited” [6].

 

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Media and political movements

With the advent of digital media communication in general, and later social media in particular, the political, cultural, and economic struggles of activists and political movements have changed (Bimber, 2000; Earl and Kimport, 2011; Bennett and Segerberg, 2012). However, there is some discord among scholars and pundits about the consequences of this development. Even though upheavals and revolutions have been claimed to be induced by Facebook or Twitter, reality seems to offer a more complex picture (cf., Christensen, 2011; Fuchs, 2012). While some studies have shown connections between online dissent and off-line struggles (Harlow, 2012), others have reached opposing conclusions (Morozov, 2009), refuting the idea that online protests have any strong effects on their off-line counterparts.

Some researchers have argued that the Internet and social media communication have offered political movements new abilities to disseminate information (Kavada, 2010; Vissers, et al., 2011; Micó and Casero-Ripollés, 2014), to coordinate protests and mobilization (Theocharis, 2012; Mercea, 2013), and to construct their own media channels that are not dependent on mass media logistics (cf., Indymedia: see Kidd, 2003; Garcelon, 2006). For instance, the revolutionary events associated with the Arab Spring (Howard and Hussain, 2011; Lotan, et al., 2011), Occupy Wall Street (Gaby and Caren, 2012; Tremayne, 2014), and the Indignados demonstrations in Spain in 2011 (Fernandez-Planells, et al., 2014; Vallina-Rodriguez, 2014) have all been described as being at least partially dependent on social media.

Criticisms of these perspectives abound (cf., Gladwell, 2010; Fuchs, 2012), and it has been argued that the media sites most often associated with politically radical occurrences (e.g., Twitter and Facebook) are still in the hands of financial interests (Fuchs, 2011, 2008). This means that radical political alternatives might be inhibited or curtailed by existing power structures. For instance, the leaderlessness that some researchers have imagined will inform contemporary political movements has come into question (Tufecki, 2011; Gerbaudo, 2012). Regarding Twitter in particular, social and political movement scholars have presented a range of interesting findings. The literature has targeted a variety of aspects when it comes to how social movements have used the platform, for instance, by exploring how online spaces and communication and off-line spaces and protests are related (Croeser and Highfield, 2014). Other studies have explored how Twitter might affect the geographical composition of off-line protests (Theocharis, 2012) or how Twitter hashtags might be helpful in the framing and construction of counter, or ad hoc, publics (Bruns and Burgess, 2011; Poell and Darmoni, 2012; Bastos, et al., 2014; Dahlberg-Grundberg and Lindgren, 2014). Other features of Twitter, such as retweeting, make it possible not only to disseminate information but also to implant a common discourse among participants that results in a collective identity (Choi and Park, 2014) or a “conversational ecology” that creates a sense of shared context [7].

At the same time, Twitter is in no way a one-dimensional tool that is always in the hands of progressive forces — the platform can always be used by repressive actors working to counteract the initiatives of different political movements (Christensen, 2011; cf., Morozov, 2009). In addition, some studies suggest that even though Twitter might be useful for protest movements in order to disseminate information, it might fail in creating a conversational and dialogical environment among protestors (Vicari, 2013).

Of special interest for this study is that some analyses have suggested that the use of Twitter might establish horizontal, decentralized movements as opposed to movements with more conventional (vertical, centralized) structures (Penney and Dadas, 2014) and that Twitter networks are informed by a connective rather than a collective form of action (Bennett and Segerberg, 2013; cf., Bennett and Segerberg, 2012; Theocharis, 2013). Connective action is more individualistic and less dependent on the hierarchically ordered logic of collectivity. Therefore, such an organizational structure is becoming differentiated from formal organizations and movements (and at the same time being informed by many-to-many rather than one-to-many communication) with centralised structures and fixed group identities. This development also might help the establishment of transnational movement structures, as some studies have made a case for (Vicari, 2014; Dahlberg-Grundberg and Lindgren, 2014).

A transnational movement, as argued by Tarrow [8], interconnects contentious actors from different geographical locations. They are, differently put, “interactions with opponents — national or non-national — by connected networks of challengers organized across national boundaries.” Via transnational connections, a particular social movement can thus, as the involvement in certain contentious transnational networks can interconnect a variety of actors, conflicts and protests from different geographical places, transgress its primary location.

This is also of interest in terms of translocality. While globalisation points to a development where social relations and phenomena — for instance social movements or labour struggles — go from the global down to the local, translocality addresses the reverse route, i.e., where the local goes up to the global [9].

The transnationalization of social movements is not made possible by the emergence of social media platforms; such movements have existed long before present technological innovations. But said media can have effects on the process in question. By changing the conditions for communication and networking, social media make the diffusion of information and contention, through scale shifts where — sometimes never before interconnected — movement actors join forces, easier (Dahlberg-Grundberg, 2016). Given certain problems that the contemporary union movement worldwide is facing (with, for instance, a global capital flow), increased transnationalization might be a desired development. So: given the notion of transnational movements, what does this mean for contemporary unions? Can we, in the particular case of LabourStart, see a tendency toward — an increase in — transnational connections?

In light of these evolving characteristics of contemporary protest cultures — with the possibility of decentralized, horizontal movements that, at least potentially, might make use of social media in order to, via scale shifts, form movements that transgress national borders — it is of interest to analyse whether LabourStart bears transnational traits. Does it have a connective structure where a myriad of localities, rather than a few geographical centres, together constitute its organizational core?

 

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Data and analysis

The data used in this study were collected through searches in the Twitter database. There are several ways of doing this. Twitter offers a Search API and a Streaming API that can both be queried for historical data. These sources are limited, however, because there are rate limits for how many results can be returned within a certain window of time. Furthermore, the Search API uses an algorithm for selecting tweets by “relevance”, which also contributes to search results being incomplete. At the time of writing, the most complete search results could be achieved not through any of the offered APIs, but by querying the search function at twitter.com directly.

We posted queries to twitter.com, and the returned results were scraped and parsed with the help of a Python script. Queries were made in two rounds. First, all accessible tweets mentioning “labourstart” between 2008 and March 2015 were collected. Second, all accessible tweets that were posted by any of LabourStart’s affiliated accounts were collected. After removing duplicate entries, this rendered a dataset consisting of around 80,000 tweets. Before proceeding with the analysis, an additional scrape of user-entered location data was made.

LabourStart’s presence on Twitter has several dimensions. There are various different — albeit somewhat interconnected — LabourStart accounts that sometimes share similar material in their tweets. There is one primary account, with a global approach (@LabourStart), and there are several local, national accounts (@LabourStart followed by a country specific suffix). In addition to these accounts and their activities, there is also the #labourstart hashtag that is widely used by numerous actors trying to, for instance, disseminate labour-related news and campaigns by connecting their tweets to a larger labour collective or movement. We will focus on both of these dimensions. When analysing mentions of countries, we will study tweets from the LabourStart accounts, and when analysing the geographical distribution of other actors than LabourStart, we will look at tweets from users who in different ways relate to the LabourStart Twitter-sphere (for instance, by using the hashtag #labourstart or by addressing the LabourStart accounts). Table 1 lists the distribution of collected tweets between non-LabourStart and LabourStart accounts respectively. The table shows that tweets from LabourStart accounts comprise most of the data. Of the 79,666 tweets collected, 45,756 emanated from one of the official LabourStart accounts.

 

Number of tweets by account type
 
Table 1: Number of tweets by account type.

 

Taking into account that the rest of the data also contains retweets of tweets originally published by LabourStart, it becomes clear that LabourStart dominates the LabourStart-related Twitter-sphere. While this fact in itself is not necessarily a particularly surprising finding, it does suggest that the Twitter activities relating to LabourStart are primarily characterized by a one-to-many form of communication. Furthermore, the table shows that only six of the included LabourStart accounts have tweeted more than 1,000 times during the selected time period and that eight have tweeted less than 100 times. This activity pattern also indicates that the communication patterns being analysed here are characterized by a predominantly centralized organizational structure.

 

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Interaction or broadcasting

As mentioned earlier, the first part of the study analyses the structure of the communication from and about LabourStart on Twitter. This issue is addressed in order not only to study if there is a relationship between movement organization and modes of communication, but also to explore whether or not a — purportedly — decentralised communication medium might aid contemporary labour organisations to move beyond the rigid and centralized structure that, according to some theoreticians and scholars, has characterized it in the past (Voss and Sherman, 2000).

First, we performed a descriptive analysis of the data and the accounts connected to it with the aim of answering how Twitter was used both by and about LabourStart. While this might perhaps appear to be a trivial question, Twitter can in fact be used in a multitude of ways (e.g., to communicate out to a large audience or to establish a conversation involving several actors) and for a variety of purposes (e.g., to disseminate information or to establish something similar to a counter-public). With better knowledge regarding the general patterns of Twitter use, we could, as a second step, start to explore the organisational and interventional consequences of that use.

To get a more manageable dataset for qualitative review, we chose to look closer at all tweets from two different time periods — 2008–2009 and 2014–2015 — that had been retweeted two times or more. This amounted to about 4,730 tweets. We then read these tweets and assigned them to thematic categories. While some tweets from LabourStart accounts concerned how the union network should best use digital media, most of the tweets contained information — often with links — about news media items regarding conflicts and struggles from different parts of the world. Such tweets often started with the name of the country reported on in the news item followed by the title of the article. The most important insight from this initial coding was that the main LabourStart account rarely, in fact almost never, retweeted anything. Instead, it functioned as a transmitter of labour-related news on the one hand and campaigns created by LabourStart itself on the other. Also, there was hardly any dialogue between any of the official accounts and their followers. When dialogues did take place, they most often took the form of short thank you notes regarding suggestions about which news to disseminate or which struggles to support. As mentioned, the large majority of tweets were produced by LabourStart accounts. This, taken together with the fact that most of the LabourStart accounts did not retweet content from other actors, demonstrates a quite centralised communication structure.

Based on the patterns of use, the interactive features of Twitter, which are often highlighted as the aspect that gives the platform political potential when used by contemporary political movements (cf., boyd, et al., 2010; Small, 2011), were basically absent from the larger accounts (although the primary U.K. account, as well as both Canadian accounts and the the American account, did some retweeting). Furthermore, when looking at the dataset as a whole, the numbers of tweets that were acted upon through retweets and being marked as a favourite also follow a power law distribution whereby seven percent of the tweets account for 50 percent of the activity. This is illustrated in Figure 1, where a score (retweets + favourites) has been calculated and the tweets generating the most activity have been highlighted.

 

Tweets with score (retweets + favourite markings) larger than 2
 
Figure 1: Tweets with score (retweets + favourite markings) larger than 2. Sizes reflect score.

 

As this figure illustrates, all high-scoring tweets, but one, are calls to action that do not really invite any dialogue. Also, most tweets have low scores. This pattern does not change when looking at favourite markings and retweets separately. In addition to this, dialogical communication is also largely absent when looking at directed tweets in the dataset as a whole.

 

Mutual connections filtered by number of exchanges
 
Figure 2: Mutual connections filtered by number of exchanges.

 

Figure 2 shows, on the far left, all accounts mentioning other accounts as nodes with all mutual connections shown as lines whose widths represent the frequency of bi-directional communication. Eighteen percent of the accounts were engaged in one or more mutual connections, meaning that they are mentioned by, or mention, at least one other account in the dataset.

Moving further to the right, the figure shows that only a very small share (0.6 percent) of these accounts are involved in 10 or more dialogues, and that an even smaller fraction (0.05 percent) are involved in 40 or more exchanges. While numbers like these might be hard to interpret, one can under any circumstance conclude that bi-directional communication is a minor activity in tweets from and about LabourStart. We have come to expect power law distributions (Adamic and Huberman, 2000) and long-tail patterns (Anderson, 2006) in social media platforms, and our dataset roughly follows “the 80–20 rule” [10].

In sum, our analysis showed that LabourStart, despite the potentially dialogical and decentralizing characteristics of Twitter communication, largely maintained a one-way broadcasting form of communication that would tend to contribute to a centralisation of movement communication. However, to get a more thorough understanding of this tendency, we also performed an analysis of the material focusing on mentions of cities and countries in tweets from the LabourStart accounts and focusing on the geographical locations of users engaging with LabourStart.

 

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The geography of communication

In this second step, we analysed geographical aspects of LabourStart Twitter communication by mapping places mentioned in tweets by LabourStart as well as the self-reported locations (in Twitter profile biographies) of users tweeting about LabourStart. Figure 3 shows a map displaying the country names occurring in tweets by the primary (London, U.K.) LabourStart account. The sizes of the nodes reflect the number of times that a country is mentioned.

As the map shows, English-speaking countries in the global North (most clearly the U.S. and the U.K., but also Ireland, Canada, and Australia) are frequently occurring in LabourStart tweets. This also goes for export economies of the global South — primarily in South East Asia (such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, India, and Cambodia), but also Africa (South Africa and Nigeria), and to a slightly lesser extent South America (Argentina and Brazil). Some European countries (Turkey, Greece, Germany, and France) also occur quite often in the material.

These patterns suggest that LabourStart’s tweets point to a geographically wide range of workers’ rights conflicts in the global South, focusing primarily on events and issues relating to the manufacturing of export goods. The tweets also direct ample attention to the situation for workers in the global North, albeit limited largely to the English-speaking countries (with the exception of France and Germany).

 

Self-reported (Twitter profile) locations of accounts mentioning LabourStart
 
Figure 3: Self-reported (Twitter profile) locations of accounts mentioning LabourStart.

 

Comparing the occurrences of country names in tweets by the primary LabourStart account to the local LabourStart accounts shows that the local accounts predominantly tweet about events relevant to their respective national contexts. Figure 4 shows the relationships between tweets mentioning locations inside and outside of the respective home nations. As can be seen in the figure, all of the local accounts that have mentioned places more than 1,000 times have tweeted quite extensively about domestic issues. The most active of LabourStart’s local accounts — the U.S. and Canadian accounts — have both mentioned domestic locations much more often than international ones. In other words, it is important to note that the U.K. LabourStart account fills an important role both locally and nationally.

The relationship between mentions of domestic and international locations among the more active LabourStart accounts in the top half of Figure 4, and the less active ones in the bottom half, shows that low degrees of activity correlate strongly with the absence of tweets about domestic issues. Conversely, this also points to a link between higher degrees of activity among local LabourStart actors and their ability to distribute or produce content distinct from that of the primary (U.K.) LabourStart account, and, presumably, that they have established connections with their national labour movements. Furthermore, as we will discuss shortly, there also seems to be a link between the existence of local accounts tweeting actively about domestic events and the engagement other domestic users in LabourStart’s Twitter communication.

 

Percentages (bars) and numbers (labels) of tweets from LabourStart accounts that mention locations inside and outside their home nations
 
Figure 4: Percentages (bars) and numbers (labels) of tweets from LabourStart accounts that mention locations inside and outside their home nations.

 

We now turn to the geographical locations of Twitter users (other than LabourStart) mentioning LabourStart in their tweets. Based on the locations that users themselves have specified in their Twitter profiles, Figure 5 shows three maps illustrating from which locations in the world people have tweeted about LabourStart. The figure is divided into three time periods — the early years of LabourStart’s Twitter activities: 2008–2010, 2011–2013, and 2014–2015.

With the observations discussed above in mind, Figure 5 shows that people tweeting about LabourStart generally are located in the same countries that LabourStart themselves mention in tweets. The maps all show locations mainly in the English-speaking global North, as well as in export economies of the global South, predominantly South East Asia, and to a slightly lesser extent Africa and South America. Most significantly, however, all three maps show that people tweeting about LabourStart are heavily concentrated to the U.K., Ireland, and the U.S. While these general patterns are common for all three maps, the figure nevertheless also clearly shows a fairly small, but generally increasing, number of users in an increasing number of different countries mentioning LabourStart over time.

 

Self-reported (Twitter profile) locations of accounts mentioning LabourStart
 
Figure 5: Self-reported (Twitter profile) locations of accounts mentioning LabourStart.

 

It should also be noted that the number of large nodes in the maps — illustrating locations from which a larger number of tweets have been posted — are very few. While the sizes of these nodes in some cases represent tweets from several different users, and in some cases many tweets from individual users, all three maps are dominated by smaller nodes representing locations from which only one or two tweets have been posted. In other words, the dataset is dominated by users who only rarely mention LabourStart, something which in relation to the previously noted observations can also be argued to reflect the centralised structure of LabourStart’s Twitter communication. While this structure could be argued to reflect LabourStart’s somewhat non-dynamic use of Twitter, it is interesting to note that the predominantly one-to-many form of communication observed here also reflects the negative, yet common, view of trade unions as being heavily centralised and hierarchically structured.

 

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Concluding discussion

In this paper we have addressed in what sense Twitter use by and about LabourStart — an initiative working to revitalise trade unionism with the help of Internet technologies — has the potential to establish transnational ties between actors within the LabourStart network. We have focused more generally on Twitter’s role in relation to LabourStart’s strategies and impact, and more specifically on how this relates to the transnationalization of labour activism. Taken together, the findings discussed in relation to the different geographical aspects of LabourStart’s Twitter communication presented in Figures 3, 4, and 5 indicate that the activities of LabourStart on Twitter have not in any obvious way created new conditions for trade unionism to bridge the North–South divide. While LabourStart’s Twitter communication provides a significant volume of information about issues of workers’ rights in the global South to people in the U.S. and the U.K., it has not yet been able to reach and engage any larger number of Twitter users outside of these countries. The observed patterns do suggest, however, that LabourStart’s use of Twitter might contribute to new conditions for worker mobilisation within the national contexts of the U.S. and the U.K.

One conclusion of our analysis is that LabourStart’s Twitter use cannot be described as “connective action”. This is because of its highly centralised and hierarchically structured form of communication where individual users and their “personalized action frames” play a very limited role. Although Twitter could potentially introduce more connective forms of organisation and communication to the workers’ movement, there is little evidence in our data for any such transformative processes.

The analysis presented here shows that the content of LabourStart’s Twitter communication is dominated by events and issues located within the English-speaking global North and the export economies of the global South. Moreover, it also shows that more people are tweeting about LabourStart in countries of the English-speaking global North, more precisely in the countries where LabourStart is tweeting about both global and local issues. These observations suggest that successful labour mobilisation on social media depends on communication strategies through which the everyday grievances and needs experienced by workers both locally and globally become interconnected, thus creating translocal or transnational coalitions. Another conclusion of our analysis is that this rarely seems to be the case because LabourStart’s Twitter use is centralised and highly defined by the larger, organisationally sanctioned accounts.

While the smaller number of users tweeting about LabourStart outside of the U.S. and the U.K. could be partially explained by barriers introduced by the predominant use of the English language and less widespread use of Twitter among the general public in these countries, the maps shown in Figures 3 and 5 share some common traits suggesting that the conditions for trade union mobilisation using social media primarily depend on conditions other than these. Figure 3 shows that some nations are significantly less frequently mentioned in tweets by LabourStart, of which two groups of countries in the global North are of specific interest to note here. First, this relates to countries from eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc, and secondly to the Scandinavian countries. Figure 5 also shows that there are very few users tweeting about LabourStart in these countries. Both Scandinavia and the former Soviet bloc represent regions where trade unions have traditionally been considered — both in terms of membership rates as well as political power resources — to be significantly more well-established actors than they have been in the countries that are mentioned most often in LabourStart tweets, and this suggests that the conditions for labour mobilisation on social media are also affected by the historical development of trade unionism in different national contexts. This suggests that media use cannot be viewed as independent of contextual settings but is rather conditioned by historical and material circumstances.

In particular, it could be argued that these observations reflect the significance of both institutionalisation and crisis in the processes of transforming trade unions (see also Lundström, et al., 2015). In international comparisons, the political strength of trade unions is often highlighted as a very important component of the Scandinavian labour movement’s political power resources. Especially in comparison to the situation in the U.S. and the U.K., trade unionism in Scandinavia is characterised by very high membership rates as well as high levels of political and labour market integration — but also by a heavily centralised organisational structure and a focus on consensus and negotiation rather than conflict (Thullberg and Östberg, 1994). Perhaps as a consequence of these particular features, it should also be noted that while trade unions are arguably facing difficulties in Scandinavia too, the situation is not as serious as in many other countries (Kjellberg, 2011). While the history of trade unionism in the Eastern European and former Soviet bloc countries is very different from the history of their Scandinavian counterparts, it could be argued that they both have centralised organisational structures and high levels of institutionalisation, especially in the form of state integration.

With these arguments in mind, our third and final conclusion is that the patterns regarding Scandinavia and Eastern Europe observed in Figures 3 and 5 could be interpreted as reflecting that the union cultures in these regions do not provide the same conditions for alternative labour mobilisation strategies as the more politically radical and organisationally less centralised U.S. and U.K. contexts. Furthermore, it could also be the case that a more widely spread notion of crisis in the U.S. and U.K. has created a different set of incentives within the labour movement for engaging with new media platforms and for developing new strategies for mobilisation. The relatively high degrees of success that LabourStart’s Twitter strategies have had in export economies of the South and in the U.S. and the U.K. could also be related to higher levels of worker discontent or to a more acute awareness of the global labour movement crisis among workers in these contexts.

If this line of reasoning is relevant to the relationships and patterns analysed in this article, then a particularly important challenge for creating new transnational labour alliances is to connect local knowledges to each other in ways that contribute to an increased global awareness about the interconnectedness of labour conflicts in different parts of the world. The analysis presented here suggests that such processes could be facilitated by the use of social media tools such as Twitter, for example by furthering more interactive, decentralized modes of communication patterns that increases transnational forms of organization.

It is important to remember, as was pointed out previously, that LabourStart is not to be viewed as the union movement: it is one example of a contemporary type of union and labour rights initiative, working to circulate information about violations of workers’ rights and support for workers in struggle. Still, the results here presented can be of importance within a larger frame, partly helping us understand how digital forms of communication might aid future revitalizations of the labour movement. End of article

 

About the authors

Michael Dahlberg-Grundberg (Ph.D.) is a Lecturer of Sociology at Umeå University, Sweden. His research has focused on political activism, social movements and the political use of digital media.
Direct comments to: michael [dot] dahlberg [at] umu [dot] se

Ragnar Lundström is Lecturer of Sociology at Umeå University, Sweden. His previous publications have primarily focused on public discourse about welfare cheating, and news media portrayals of crime victims. His current research interests relate mainly to the topics of labour movement activism, and self-organisation online.
E-mail: ragnar [dot] lundstrom [at] umu [dot] se

Simon Lindgren is Professor of Sociology and director of the Digital Social Research Unit (DIGSUM) at Umeå University, Sweden. His research is about social interaction, participation, power, and self-organisation in networked online media. He also works with developing methodological tools and strategies for analysing discursive and social network aspects of the evolving digital media landscape. He is the author of New noise: A cultural sociology of digital disruption (2013) and the editor of Hybrid Media culture: Sensing place in a world of flows (2013).
Web: www.simonlindgren.com
E-mail: simon [dot] lindgren [at] umu [dot] se

 

Notes

1. http://www.labourstart.org/.

2. Masters, 2013, p. v.

3. Masters, 2013, p. iv.

4. Waterman, 2010, p. 260.

5. Voss and Sherman, 2000, p. 304.

6. Panagiotopoulos and Barnett, 2014, p. 2.

7. boyd, et al., 2010, p. 1.

8. Tarrow, 2011, p. 241; Tarrow, 2005; cf., Flesher Fominaya, 2014.

9. Cf., Carpentier, 2007; Hepp, 2009; Bosch, 2010, p. 273.

10. Meraz, 2009, p. 691.

 

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Editorial history

Received 28 April 2016; accepted 22 July 2016.


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“Social media and the transnationalization of mass activism: Twitter and the labour movement” by Michael Dahlberg-Grundberg, Ragnar Lundström, and Simon Lindgren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Social media and the transnationalization of mass activism: Twitter and the labour movement
by Michael Dahlberg-Grundberg, Ragnar Lundström, and Simon Lindgren.
First Monday, Volume 21, Number 8 - 1 August 2016
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6729/5601
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v21i8.6729





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