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Andrea Andiloro

Digital Media, Participation, and Agency Essay


Spring Semester 2016-06-03

Social Media Cat Invasion


Social Media political culture jamming or prank?

With this essay my intent is to understand whether online campaigns on social


media can be considered a legitimate form of activism or mere slacktivism
(Glenn, 2012).
I will do so by analysing the online gattini su Salvini (Kittens on Salvini)
campaign, which took place in Italy in May 2015, launched by a group called
Progetto Kitten (http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/matteo-salvini-italian-antiimmigration-politician-hit-by-online-kitten-protest-1500363) , and addressed at
Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right xenophobic Lega Nord party, who was
successful in reviving the party after a series of scandals (Valbruzzi & Vignati,
2014), by radicalizing its proposed policies against EU and immigration, flirting
worryingly with neo-fascist groups (Mancuso, 2015), to the point of proposing
the reintroduction of obligatory conscription so that young Italians would learn
how to
shoot(http://www.repubblica.it/politica/2016/05/24/news/sicurezza_salvini_qua
ttro_mesi_di_leva_e_impariamo_a_sparare_-140514103/), and the abolishment
the torture crime to allow the police force to do its job
(http://www.repubblica.it/politica/2015/06/25/news/salvini_no_al_reato_di_tortur
a_-117679348/) .
Progetto Kitten created a Facebook event on the 05/05/15, announcing a
an invasion of Salvinis Facebook and Twitter profile in the form of cat

pictures, stating that After heated tones on torture and rifle shots, Salvini needs to be
cuddled! Unleash cuddly kittens on Salvinis profile in the name of love. Whoever will want to
participate will be able to do so by posting a cuddly kitty on Salvinis profile, donating words of
love such as: Happiness! Joy! Hugs! Meeeooow!.
The Facebook event gathered more than 22.000 participants, and was replicated on Twitter with the
hashtag #gattinisusalvini.
I believe that by adopting and analysing this case, I will try to demonstrate how social media
can indeed be a venue where oppositional and activist new media can express themselves. With farright xenophobic movements and parties on the rise not only in Italy, but throughout all of Europe
(France, Austria, Sweden, Germany, Hungary, just to name a few), the political scenario in the
continent is getting ever more polarized and unstable, and I personally believe it is important for
who opposes this to demonstrate it. Given the popularity of social media, it can be expected some
form of protest and dissent to be present online, however whether this can be considered a
legitimate form of protest/true activism, is debatable, and it this therefore academically relevant
to further research the topic.
In the next section I will try to give an overview of the literature on the topic so far, hoping
to make some clarity on whether this type of exclusively online activism may indeed be considered
activism, and elaborate more precisely my research question. In the third section I will expose the
analytical framework adopted for this study, in its most important definitions and interpretations,
and how it was adopted by me personally. In the fourth section I will expose my research design
and how reached the answer to my research question, and I will successively expose the gathered
data followed by an analysis.
LITTERARY BACKGROUND
Much has been written on the topic of activism online and particularly on social media. The ways in
which activists used social media during times of physical demonstrations has been explored in
different settings and has focused on different groups: the Indignados in Spain (Cristancho &
Anduzia, 2016), the Anagaktismenoi in Greece (Theocharis, 2016), the Gezi protesters in Turkey,
(Baruh & Watson, 2016), protesters during the Arab Spring in Egypt (Papacharissi & Blasiola,
2016). However, these studies have largely focused around movements that were largely engaged in
physical protests, which were not exclusively relegated to the online world.
Early research on the topic was quite polarized in its findings, with scholars worried about
the possibility of people being trapped in a virtual world without being able to have any sort of

agency in the physical world (Nie & Erbring, 2000) on one hand, and other scholars being
enthusiastic for the opportunities that the new technologies could offer to people for social life and
relationships (Rheingold, 1993) on the other hand. Already in 1989, Downing (1989), wrote in very
favourable terms about the opportunities for grass-root activist participation potentially enabled by
e-mail and other online conferencing systems, arguing that they wouldve lowered cost for activists.
During the 1990s the technology started becoming more elaborate and new opportunities
were in sight. However academic positions around the topic continued being polarized, especially
surrounding the emerging hacktivism phenomenon. Wray (1998) wrote about electronic
disobedience in terms of electronic civil disobedience and hacktivism (meaning politically
motivated hacking), arguing that those practices wouldve favoured and offered new opportunities
for groups intending to engage in the technology for political purposes, while Ayres (1999) warned
about digital mobs and riots. When considering non-hacktivist online activism, Gurak (1997)
documented successful campaigns against Lotus, Yahoo, and U.S. governmental regulations,
suggesting great potential for the social movements with regards to the speed with which intitiatives
could be started (Earl & Kimport, 2011).
Earl and Kimport (2011) write about the two major school of thought that have emerged
within the field of online activism in the last decade. The first one, which they call supersize model
of activism argues that ICTs indeed had an impact on activist initiative, by increasing the size,
speed, and reach of activism, but not changing the underlying process. Activism expands, but the
process enabling organization and participation doesnt change. Belonging to this school of thought
we can find van de Donk (2014) who writes about the reduction in messaging cost and the increase
in speed and reach of messaging made possible by ICTs, outcomes which allow and aid activists
and social movements in pushing claims forwards, giving an instrumental view of ICTs, which
change the scale of activism, but not the processes of activism themselves. Other authors argued
that the Web, as a new media, had the potential to allow activists to reach their target audiences by
bypassing traditional media (Rucht, 2004), and to allow activists to create micromedia themselves
(Carty, 2002). Circumventing the traditional media is a function of the new media that has been
lauded by Fandy (1999) and Norris (2002), in their study of activist group acting in hostile settings,
respectively in Saudi Arabia and China. However Pierce and Gulyiev (2016) in their study of
Azerbaijani opposition, found out that this is not always the case, when state control is strong
enough. Other studies have been made in Latin America around the Zapatista movement (Hasian,
2001) and in Burma (Danitz & Strobel, 1999). All this studies seem to come to the conclusion that
ICTs are of a certain importance for activists groups and social movements, but this is limited to an
instrumental function which is not strictly confined to the online environment.

The second school of thought as described by Earl and Kimport (2011), is what they call
Theory 2.0, and in its theoretical approach it argues that some innovative uses of the web can lead
to changes in the underlying theoretical processes that drive activism. They stress the need for a
revised version of theoretical approaches to understand what is happening on the Web today, and to
reinforce this idea they bring examples of what they call e-movements, meaning movement almost
exclusively run through the Web, specifically the strategic voting movement, during the 2000
American electoral campaign, aimed at maximizing the electoral influence of voters. Generally
speaking e-movements are characterized by being managed primarily and almost exclusively online
and for highly leveraging the affordances of the Web, which as described by the authors are 1)
sharply reduced cost for creating, organizing, and participating in protest, and 2) the ability to
aggregate peoples individual actions into broader collective actions without requiring participants
to be co-present in time and space, to the point of allowing solo organizers to create and run
movements.
Shirky, without describing this phenomenon as Activist theory 2.0, seems to hold a similar
position when he writes about social tools allowing the ability to share, co-operate, and act together,
and is very optimistic about the potential for change that these tools have (Shirky, 2008). Similarly,
Papacharissi has also high hopes for the way in which ICTs may enable social change, while
fundamentally changing the dynamics through which political activities were pursued. She argues
that the activities once pursued in the public realm are today practiced in the private realm, allowing
for more autonomy, flexibility and expression, through social media, which allow for more
connection and not exclusion and the connection of the personal to the political. Political
participation and activism online would therefore consist also in tweeting, participating in online
protests, expressing political opinions on blogs or discussion forums and so on.
Strongly opposing Papacharissi we can find Fuchs (2014), who argues that Papacharissi
assumes a collapse of the boundaries between private and political-public sphere, where the private
incorporates the public, overlooking the co-presence and physicality importance of an activist
action and fundamentally ignoring the materiality of protest action. Other scholars strongly
opposing Shirky and Papacharissi are Dean (2005) who argues that sending e-mails, signing
petitions, responding to articles on a blog, may trick people into making them think of themselves
as being political, but in reality it is a refusal of taking a stand and dealing with the more dangerous
aspects of politicization, Gladewell (2010), who claims that real-life activists face dangers which
are incomparably bigger then social-media activism, and Morozov (2009), who refers to online
activism as slacktivism.

An interesting view, which will be central for my analysis, is the one brought forward by
Lievrouw (2006, 2013), in her discourse around oppositional and alternative/activist new media,
which she describes as employing or modifying the communication artifacts, practices, and social
arrangements of new ICTs to challenge or alter dominant, expected, or accepted ways of doing
society, culture and politics. She identifies 5 genres of oppositional and alternative/activist new
media, different for social domain, form and purposes. The first one is Culture Jamming, which
pertains to popular culture, mainstream media, and corporate advertising, and adopts forms of
appropriated images, sound, text from popular culture, and aims to bring forward cultural critique,
and political and economic commentary. The second is Alternative Computing, which pertains to
computing, telecoms, and media infrastructure, expressing itself through hacking, open source
system design, and file sharing, and aims at providing open access to and use of information and IT.
The third genre is Participatory Journalism whose domain is reporting news, commentary, and
public opinion, adopting as a form online news service, blogs, and Indymedia, and has as main
purpose that of covering under-reported groups and issues and investigative reporting. The fourth
genre is Mediated Mobilization, which pertains to social movements, identity, cultural politics,
and lifestyle, and express itself through social media, mobs, virtual worlds, and blogs, and is aimed
at activist mobilization and setting lifestyle examples. Finally, the last genre is Common
Knowledge, pertaining to expertise, academic/technical disciplines and institutions, and socially
sanctioned knowledge, taking form in tagging, bookmarking, wikis, and crowdsourcing, and is
aimed at mobilizing outsiders, amateur knowledge, comprehensive collection and organization of
diverse, and arcane knowledge.
Of the 5 genres, the one that is of particular interest for me is culture jamming, as my
argument is that gattini su Salvini may be considered a form of online political culture jamming,
and thus I am able to pose my research question: can a social-media campaign be considered a
form of legitimate activism in the form of alternative/activist new media?
ANALITICAL FRAMEWORK
I will adopt a mediation and remediation theory perspective to analyse my particular case.
Borrowing heavily from traditional mediation theory, especially from McLuhan (1964) and his
intuition that the content of any medium is yet another, different, medium, Bolter and Grusin
(1999), argue that remediation is the representation of one medium into another and a defining
characteristic of the digital age and the new media, a process that is enabled through the logics of
immediacy (the users desire for immediacy in access, understanding and interaction to and with the

medium, which the authors exemplify with virtual reality, to clarify the transparent and seamless
connection with the media) and hypermediacy (the opposite of immediacy, in the sense that it refers
to the interface of the media, acknowledging images, sound, text, animation and video, making the
users aware of the interface, which the authors exemplify with WWW pages, desktop interfaces,
multimedia programmes, and video games).
Lievrouw (2013) refers to mediation as the use of technological channels to extend or
enhance communication, and interpersonal process of participation or intervention in the creation
and sharing of meaning, and as being comprised of two interrelated modes of communicative
action: reconfiguration (the actions that users take to modify media technologies and systems as
needed to suit their various purposes or interest) and remediation of content, forms, and structures
of communication relationships (the actions that users take to borrow, adapt, or remix existing
materials, expressions, and interactions to create new and expanding ideas). Lievrouw perspective is
the one that proved crucial for my study. She argues that culture jamming is one of the most
dramatic and entertaining examples of remediation, its main logic being the pastiche and subversion
of common cultural images and ideas. I argue that in this particular case we can consider cats a
form of media, having them been an established Internet meme for several years (Shafer, 2012).
Culture jamming is a practice that traditionally aims at targeting the marketing rhetoric of
multinational corporations, through media hoaxing, corporate sabotage, billboard liberation, and
trademark infringement (Harold, 2004). Lasn (1999), founder of Adbusters, a Canadian
organization dedicated to culture jamming activities, wrote about how the organization would jam
the pop-culture marketers and bring their image factory to a sudden, shuddering halt. However
being culture jamming a form of critique targeting mostly businesses, the market and mass media, I
had to adopt a political branding and political marketing perspective in order to apply the concept to
my case.
The concept of political branding is not new to political communication, with politicians and
parties in various countries often relying on branding experts in the past, to manage their external
presentation (Adolphsen, 2010). Scammel (1999) writes about political marketing as being
increasingly what democratic parties and candidates do to get elected, in a different fashion from
the past, claiming that applying marketing to politics as a specific form of economic rationality
offers insights into strategic options and behaviour of parties. Scammell (2007), also writes that in
marketing, a brand is defined as the psychological representation of a product or organization,
having a symbolic rather than tangible value. She gives four main reasons for the contemporary rise
of the brand: the first is economic, and the recognition that a respected brand name translates into
financial value; the second is promotional, and the growing scepticism about the efficacy of mass

advertising in a world where there is an abundance of media and audience fragmentation; the third
is the perception of increasing consumer power as the new centurys consumerism bring heightened
demand for value-for-money and new concerns for corporate social responsibility; the fourth is
consumer research, which insists on the importance of emotional engagement in shopping
behaviour to explain repeat purchases. The general value of branding to campaigners is both
conceptual a practical, providing a conceptual framework to identify links between the skills an the
emotional attractions of politicians.
By adopting the aforementioned perspective I was able to analyse my case an example of
online political culture jamming (with an inherently activist component), which works in a similar
way to traditional culture jamming, that is by disseminating dissident images with messages
designed to provoke the same type of deviation or subversion of the dominant meaning (Warner,
2007).

RESEARCH METHOD
The data used for this research was gathered through netnographic qualitative observations
(Kozinets, 2013) of Matteo Salvinis Facebook profile. Most of the data was from the 7th of May
2015 and the following day. Also the Twitter hashtag #gattinisusalvini was analysed within a similar
time frame.
The analysed data was for the most part composed by photo-shopped and non-photo-shopped
images.
Comments on and posts on the Facebook event page were also analysed to have a deeper
understanding of how the action was perceived by those who took part in it. In addition to this,
information regarding the organizers themselves was tried to be found, and was mainly gathered
through a few online interviews they took part in (http://www.smartweek.it/progetto-kitten-allascoperta-dei-gattini-che-hanno-invaso-i-social/#) (http://velvetpets.it/2015/05/14/ideatore-diprogetto-kitten-intervista-a-velvet-pets/) (http://www.ilvivipadova.it/progetto-kitten-una-protestanon-violenta-suon-di-fusa) to try and understand if there was indeed a an activist/political
motivation behind the campaign . Virtually all of the data was in Italian, and tried to report it as
faithfully as possible.

After gathering a certain amount of pictures, I proceeded to isolate those who had a clear
link to some of Salvinis political ideas, mantras, and/or political branding. Most of these pictures
were photo-shopped. Some other pictures were also included in the analysis because of particular
texts (with which they were posted, either as part of the picture, or as part as the posters post or
Tweet) containing references that can easily be seen as parodic or ironic, two features which are
very common in traditional culture jamming.

EMPIRICAL DATA AND ANALYSIS


Many of the pictures had references to Italian pop-culture and to Salvinis political mantras.
A couple of them were pictures of scraper machine produced by CAT, referring to Salvinis frequent
proposals to use those machines against Roma camps. Other figured black kittens on rafts, referring
to the all too common tragedies involving migrants, happening in the Mediterranean, and to what
many claim are Salvinis manipulations and exploitations for political purposes. One of the
participants who posted such picture also wrote How can you look them in the eyes and tell them
to go back to their country?. Another popular image was that take from Oggi, one of Italys most
popular gossip magazines, which featured a cover of the upper half of Salvini, laying in bed with
just his tie on. The pictures were either modified to include kittens in the bed as well, or to replace
Salvinis head with that of a cat. Another modified picture featured Salvini holding a Telegatto
(gatto meaning cat in Italian), which is a prize awarder to particularly successful Italian
television programmes, hinting at the fact that, amongst Italian public opinion, a very common
criticism against Salvini is that he spends most of his time appearing in talk-shows instead than in
the European Parliament where he was elected. One picture featured Salvinis face replacing that of
Edgar, the villain of the popular 70s Disney cartoon movie The Aristocats, while fighting with a
bunch of cats.
With regards to the organizers, in earlier interviews, the main organizer preferred remaining
anonymous, stating that he organized the campaign as a form of protest against the overly violent
and exasperated tones used by Salvini. He successively made his persona public, and came out as a
media and communication student at the University of Padova (Italy).

CONCLUSION

After my analysis, I was able to draw my conclusion and try to give an answer to my
research question, whether a social media campaign as the one described can be considered a form
of legitimate activism. I did so by taking the concept of culture jamming and adapting in order to
apply it to a political discourse. Through a remediation process, participants were able to
incorporate old media (movies, magazine covers, Internet memes and so on), into social media,
participating in what I believe may be considered activism, in the form of political culture jamming.
This particular form of activism may not be intrinsically dangerous as the more traditional forms of
activism, but is nevertheless able to provide citizens which may not consider themselves overly
politicized or simply afraid to engage in more radical activities (or may not agree with perhaps
violent forms of activism) a tool for expressing themselves against certain politicians. I suspect that
the campaign had a political undertone from the beginning, even though the organizer initially
claimed there wasnt anything strictly political about the whole action. The fact that he is a media
and communication student, makes me believe that he may have had a clear picture in mind about
how this action couldve taken a political declination.

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