#blackout: the viral counterpublicity of online protest – Dr Tessa Houghton

Dr Houghton is Assistant Professor in Media and Communication in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. Her co-edited book Nexus: New Intersections in Internet Research (Peter Lang, 2011) brings together collaborative research from the alumni of the 2009 Oxford Internet Institute Summer Doctoral Programme, and she is currently co-editing a volume on flows of online control and resistance. Her research interests include public sphere theory, online activism, digital politics and rights, and the digital divides.

In this talk, given as part of the Open Media series and the Creative Activism Class at Coventry University, she discusses the web blackout that took place on 18/01/12. On this day numerous websites, including Wikipedia and Google, ‘blacked out’ in protest against the ‘Stop Online Piracy Act’ (SOPA) currently being heavily lobbied for within the US political context. This massive online protest will have been many netizens’ first encounter with the #blackout form; however, it is borrowed from previous ‘digital rights’ campaigns in other locations. In 2009, ‘the lights went out’ all over the New Zealand internet as NZ and international netizens participated in the ‘NZ internet blackout’, a ‘performative hacktivist’ campaign (Samuel 2004) that catalysed viral online protest against the threatened domestic implementation of ‘3-strikes’ or graduated response-style anti-filesharing legislation. Despite the eventual passing of the legislation (albeit in much-modified form), the blackout garnered extensive global participation, illustrating the latent counterhegemonic power inherent in hacktivist campaigns.

This presentation interprets the blackout through a critical discourse analysis and a public sphere theoretical framework built upon the radical or agonistic tradition. It shows that socially-mediated counterpublicity can generate successful counterhegemonic projects and even bring about legislative change, and in doing so, makes the argument that our understanding of what the modern public sphere is should allow for more unruly forms of democratically legitimate communication.

Find out about the Digital Media BA (Hons) Degree at Coventry University