1: Everyday Grassroots Politics in the Data Stream

Chapter 1 sets the stage for our journey into the relationship between digital media and activism in the quiet times of politics. First, Chapter 1 explains why it is important to study the daily unfolding of grassroots political work, and thus to consider the relationship between activists and digital media when the former are not protesting in the streets. Chapter 1 then discusses the processes of digitization and datafication in relation to activism, introducing the key concept of the ‘data stream’ as a heuristic for unpacking how digitalization and datafication shape activists’ everyday experiences and how activists exercise agency over these two processes. Furthermore, Chapter 1 discusses theories of practice and the specific media-in-practice approach, which is the main analytical lens through which the empirical research presented in this volume is conducted. Chapter 1 then moves on to present some initial research findings by presenting the four main practices that emerged as most relevant for activists in Greece, Italy, and Spain in the quiet times of politics and in relation to their use of digital media: information gathering, political organizing, gaining visibility, and sustaining connections. Finally, Chapter 1 outlines the structure of the book and provides a roadmap for the chapters that follow.

This book is about the subtle, daily interactions that activists have with digital media and digital data during their ordinary political activities, that is, when they are not involved in massive demonstrations in the streets. Once mobilizations have reached their peaks, activists continue to work – day after day – to achieve their long-term objectives. Beyond the short-lived moments in which they manage to involve hundreds of thousands of people in protests, they are constantly immersed in the daily activities that sustain the engagement of their organizations in the political realm. In order to do so, they speak with other activists, write reports, engage with journalists, and talk with their supporters. These and the other countless actions that activists perform on a daily basis are undoubtedly made possible through face-to-face interactions. Even more frequently, though, these actions take place thanks to digital media: activists meet other activists via Zoom, write their reports collaboratively in Google Docs, engage with journalists through their Twitter1 accounts, and talk with supporters on their movement organization’s Facebook page. Consequently, activists – some of whom are the subject of this book – spend a considerable amount of time engaging in a wide array of media. While some of these media are analogue, most of them are digital: together they immerse activists in what we conceptualize as a heterogeneous, ubiquitous, and perpetual data stream with which activists have to come to terms.

In the following chapters, we will examine how activists deal with this data stream, in which digital and non-digital media intersect. We will draw on fieldwork we conducted between 2016 and 2019 and which we will discuss at length in the Appendix at the end of this volume. The empirical research was based on expert interviews, in-depth interviews with activists, maps of the activists’ use of digital media, and a careful reading of their documents and statistical data on digital media usage. We collected these data in three Southern European countries: Greece, Italy, and Spain. Although there are many similarities between the activists in the three countries, we will demonstrate that they all engage in digital media and make sense of the data stream in different ways during the quiet moments of grassroots politics. Depending on the country under examination, the activists we interviewed employ different types of digital media to perform the same kind of action. For instance, while Twitter is deeply intertwined with the practice of gaining visibility in Spain, this is not the case in Greece and Italy; at the same time, Italian activists mainly depend on Facebook to get the information they need, but in the other two countries it is of little value in this regard. Additionally, the activists in Italy, Greece, and Spain interpret the same type of digital media – and the challenges that come with it – in different ways. For example, the Greek and Spanish activists see social media platforms like Facebook as a risk to their privacy, while in Italy they seem to be less concerned with this issue.

Hence, beyond offering an overview of how Southern European activists employ digital media when they are not protesting in the streets, this book also casts light on the extent to which global social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, and instant messaging services, like WhatsApp and Telegram, change their role and meaning depending on where the activists use them. We will demonstrate that, even in countries that are very similar to one another because they belong to the same geopolitical area, the activists’ use of the same digital media for daily grassroots political activities may be different. We will pay full attention to these differences to reveal how activists encounter the data stream in the place where they are located and, in this way, experience the processes of digitalization and datafication in various and sometimes unexpected ways.

At the same time, we also highlight some features that make instead the relationship between activism and digital media in the three countries similar. The most prominent similarity is related to the practices that activists in the three countries engage in when they are not involved in street mobilizations. In the course of this book, we show, in fact, that two practices that are usually little studied by those researching these topics, seem instead to be very relevant for activists, in moments of latency. These are the practice of building connections and maintaining them, and the practice of information gathering. The latter, in particular, seems to be so important as to be able to anchor the other practices to it. We also show how a fairly well-known practice, that of seeking visibility for one’s political exploits during moments of mobilization, nowadays overflows without delay even in moments of latency. We bring to light the importance of building and maintaining a good reputation to cope with the constant care that an always-on visibility requires of activists. Also, we illustrate how traditional media are far from being forgotten: they remain an important reference point for activists. And this in spite of the fact that, as we show in the book, the relationship between activists and journalists working in these media has become complicated over the years, also due to the increasingly precarious working conditions of information professionals. Overall, then, we discuss how, in a highly digitalized and data-driven world, face-to-face interactions acquire an important significance for maintaining activists’ agency in relation to digital media and the data derived from them.

Before getting into the heart of this book and unpacking the findings discussed in the previous paragraph, we will first explain what we have done in the past few years and how we will present what we have learned during this research journey. To begin with, in what follows, we will unveil the theoretical and analytical architecture that lies behind this book. We will start from what we already know about the relationship between digital media and activism in times of protest. Drawing on research that has been conducted on this subject matter in recent years, we will summarize the most relevant changes that digital media have introduced in social movements during mobilizations. After that, we will turn our attention to those moments in which activists are not out in the streets voicing their demands. We will do this by explaining why it is important to focus our attention on these moments of latency and on the ordinary routines of grassroots political engagement. Next, we will describe some of the theoretical tools that we employed to carry out our research, which served as a compass when investigating the activists’ political engagement and their use of digital media in the three Southern European countries. In a nutshell, we will first present the overall media-related processes in which we situated the activists and their daily political work at the grassroots level in the present day: digitalization and datafication. Then, we propose to use the concept of data stream as an interpretative key to understanding how digitalization and datafication occur in the concrete daily experience of activists. Subsequently, we go a step further and focus on the analytical architecture that sustained our research, namely practice theories. We will explain why we decided to rely on practice theories, discuss some of its main developments in the study of media and social movements, and describe the specific media-in-practice approach on which our investigation is based. The next section, instead, unpacks the first relevant finding of our research, presenting and comparing the four main practices that the activists in Greece, Italy, and Spain engage in through digital media: the practice of getting information; the practice of political organizing; the practice of gaining visibility; and the practice of sustaining connections. In the very last section of the chapter, we will present the book’s overall structure.

Activism, digital media, and big data in times of protest

Activists have been using digital media to organize protests ever since the dawn of the Internet, well before the creation of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok. Already in the early 1990s, activists began using emails, Bulletin Board Systems, and dedicated computer networks – such as Peacenet and Econet – to exchange information and support their struggles (Myers, 1994). Since then, the history of activism has always been closely intertwined with technological developments. Digital media have taken on an increasingly important role in enabling activists to support their mobilizations, both nationally and transnationally. It is no secret that the grassroots movement for globalization, which developed in the late 1990s, was supported by the use of mailing lists and the creation of the independent information site Indymedia (Häyhtiö and Rinne, 2008); more recently, the mobilizations of the Arab Springs, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and other coeval protests also leveraged social media platforms and the widespread use of smartphones (Gerbaudo, 2012; Mattoni and della Porta, 2014; Tufekci, 2017; Fominaya, 2020).

This increasingly strong connection between social movements and digital media in various parts of the world has stimulated the publication of a wide range of studies on the matter. Scholars have wondered how and with what consequences digital media support protests, transform social movements and, ultimately, promote political change from unconventional places of politics. As a result, today we know a lot about how activists use digital media to sustain their campaigns and their protests. More specifically, we could say that digital media can be held responsible for four main transformations in the realm of social movements and activism.

First, digital media contributed to the hybridization of their repertoire of communication. Indeed, contemporary politics revolve around media hybridity and activists have to navigate the media logic that characterizes both older media (for example, the mainstream press) and newer media (for example, social media) (Chadwick, 2013). Along the same line, it is possible to argue that digital media sustain different forms of hybridity in contemporary activism, spanning from the more traditional online/offline combination to those forms of hybridity that will become even more important in the near future, such as human/non-human arrangements (Treré, 2018). In this regard, when activists started to actively employ digital media in the late 1990s, most of the time they used these in combination with older media technologies, like the print press, and media outlets with a longer history, like television broadcasts. It is hence basically impossible to consider digital media without inserting these into the broader repertoire of communication (Mattoni, 2012) that activists employ and which have become, year after year, increasingly hybrid.

Second, digital media and the Internet have changed the way in which activists protest in the public space, hence bringing about a deep change in the repertoires of protest of social movements. Not only have these repertoires broadened to include forms of protest that can occur only online, hence creating an additional repertoire of electronic contention (Costanza-Chock, 2003), but they also allow activists to depend less on the sharing of the same space and time of protest (Earl and Kimport, 2011). Additionally, and probably even more importantly, more traditional collective actors – like social movement organizations – become less central in the repertoire of protest that today revolves instead around the political engagement of individuals, often in an aggregated form, far more so than in the past (Earl and Kimport, 2011).

Third, digital media contributed to the modification of some of the social movements’ organizational forms, also changing the way activists coordinate their mobilizations. In this regard, the use of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have considerably changed the organizational structures of contemporary protest. While older forms of collective action persist in the present day, newer forms of connective action where individuals engage online without any collective organization are becoming more and more important (Bennett and Segerberg, 2013). In other words, digital media, and social media platforms more specifically, contributed to reverse the relationship between organization and communication, the latter having the power of shaping the former in contemporary grassroots politics (Gerbaudo, 2012). The constant flow of mediated interactions between activists, their allies, supporters, and bystander publics that occur through Facebook and Twitter generates a form of liquid organization of protest that assigns the most important roles to the communicators within the movements (Gerbaudo, 2012).

Finally, the very existence of digital media and their appropriation by activists have set in motion a brand-new imaginary of what activists can do and how they do it in the framework of their mobilizations. In the anti-corporate globalization movement that emerged at the end of the 1990s, with anti-summit demonstrations taking place in Seattle, a culture of networking arose that characterizes this movement and is deeply tied to the emerging internet technologies of the time and their potentials (Juris 2008). Far from being a mere tool in the hands of activists, then, the emerging Internet infrastructure of the late 1990s already proved to have a strong impact on what activists thought of their grassroots political engagement and its potential. The imaginary that activists construct around the technologies that they employ can be seen at work in other mobilizations as well, as in the case of anti-austerity movements (Treré et al, 2017; Treré, 2018) – which make use of social media – or in that of the so-called movement parties (Mercea and Mosca, 2021).

Beyond these four aspects, scholars interested in social movements and digital media have recently had to confront themselves with yet another relevant technological transformation: the spread of algorithms and big data. In this regard, scholars speak about the emergence of data activism: a form of activism that frames the data and their use as contentious issues, hence focusing on ‘data-as-stakes’ or considering the data as a central element in repertoires of protest, thus defining them as ‘data-as-repertoires’ or ‘proactive data activism’ (Milan, 2017), meaning that activists collaborate, organize themselves, and engage in collective actions through data (Gutierrez, 2019). Existing literature has cast light on how activists integrate data into various types of mobilizations: for example, the use of data to support initiatives against corruption (Mattoni, 2017b; Odilla and Mattoni, 2023); the autonomous creation of a National Index of Male Violence in Argentina, in the framework of the feminist movement #NiUnaMenos (Chenou and Cepeda-Másmela, 2019); and the InfoAmazonia project’s use of data crowdsourcing and satellite images, including data sources, to provide information about environmental threats and related issues in the Amazonian region (Gutierrez, 2019).

Another relevant feature is the activists’ engagement not in big data itself, but in the algorithms that regulate the production and circulation of information on social media platforms. For instance, the Spanish activists who participated in the 15-M mobilizations in 2011 consistently appropriated the Twitter algorithm to create trending topics about their protests to raise the interest of the general public and, even more importantly, of journalists working in legacy media (Treré, 2018). However, algorithms may also alter some of the dynamics that characterize social movements, and the algorithms that support the functioning of social media platforms create a different politics of visibility that put individual activists, rather than their movement organizations, at centre stage (Milan, 2015). Social media platforms can also enhance forms of content production that are individualized and, therefore, contrast with the otherwise collective efforts to craft messages which are the expression of movement organizations (Barassi and Fenton, 2011). Furthermore, algorithms that sustain social media platforms can even create technological barriers to grassroots activism: including the development of filter bubbles for activists and their audiences; and an excessive emphasis on social media metrics in order to gain popularity (Dumitrica and Felt, 2020). At the same time, algorithms might also facilitate collective action, for instance through the creation of links among distant activists; the assemblage of otherwise scattered information; and the augmentation of the reach of activist mobilizations (Etter and Albu, 2021).

In this section, we have given a concise overview of the relationship between social movements and digital media, algorithms, and big data during moments of mobilization. However, some questions remain to be answered as to the quiet moments of grassroots politics in between protests. What happens when the streets are empty, activists go back to the ordinary routines of their organizations, and demonstrations stop being trending topics on Twitter? What is the role of digital media and digital data in the practices of social movement and civil society actors when the spotlights are turned off, and nobody is watching them? In the following section, we will explain why these two questions, which this book seeks to answer, are so relevant.

Digital media and big data during the quiet moments of grassroots politics

Activists do not disappear the moment a public protest ends, and there is a good wealth of literature that teaches us how important stages of latency are for social movements. Indeed, contentious collective action rests on social ‘movement areas’ where we find ‘a multiplicity of groups that are dispersed, fragmented and submerged in everyday life, and which act as cultural laboratories’ (Melucci, 1989: 60). It is exactly during these moments of invisibility that activists engage in the creation of ‘new cultural codes [that] enable individuals to put them into practice’ (Melucci, 1989: 60). Stages of latency, though, are not just moments in which activists take part in the production of meanings. For instance, the impact of small incidents happening in the daily life of an activist group may outline new directions for this group, changing its capabilities to engage in future collective actions (Blee, 2012). There are, also, ‘social movement scenes’ that exist before and beyond the peak of protest; these are networks of different yet interconnected, countercultural spaces, which have the function of promoting an ‘active engagement in the movement as a low-pressure context in which people are exposed to movement norms’ (Leach and Haunss, 2009: 270). In short, those moments in which protesters are in the streets or engaged in some form of visible collective action to make their demands heard are sustained through ‘the crucial, undramatic day-to-day activities necessary to consolidate the work of a movement’s “ritual public displays” into significant impact’ (Reed, 2019: xxi). Similarly, social movement organizations might carefully craft their communication strategies long before the protests took place, as happened in the Spanish 15-M mobilizations that erupted in 2011 (Fominaya, 2020). It is clear, then, that these moments of latency are relevant to social movements since they allow activists to build their political commitment and sustain their future protest activities. Furthermore, these are moments in which potential protest participants may develop an interest in the contentious matters that social movement actors care about and struggle for.

Stages of latency are becoming ever more important because the repertoire of contention of grassroots activists is broadening, increasingly embracing forms of collective action that do not require people to go down to the streets to obtain their scopes. Especially in countries that have been struck by the 2008 economic crisis, such as Greece, Italy, and Spain, scholars have observed an increase in what they call direct social actions: collective actions that aim at transforming certain aspects of society by means of the very action itself (Bosi and Zamponi, 2015). Although they might be confrontational, these types of actions do not put the expression of dissent in the streets and squares of contemporary urban spaces at the centre of the debate, in part because they do not address governmental actors in order to change society. Direct social actions became even more relevant, and evident, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when activists across the world could not hit the streets to demonstrate as a result of social distancing measures. Nevertheless, activism did not disappear: on several occasions, it took the form of direct social actions, with people engaging in solidarity actions to sustain the most vulnerable individuals in societies (Pleyers, 2020).

More generally speaking, even those grassroots activists that privilege public forms of protests – including demonstrations, occupations, and strikes – live these stages of intense protesting as punctuated moments in between longer periods of time, during which they remain politically engaged, though not necessarily and continuously in public. It is in these periods that grassroots activists define and redefine themselves, their unwritten norms, and their shared routines. In these moments of latency, digital media and digital data remain in the hands of activists who are engaged in the routine activities of grassroots politics. As we will make clear in the following chapters, it is exactly during these periods of grassroots political engagement – far removed from massive mobilizations – that we may better appreciate how grassroots activists employ digital media at the peak of mobilization, when the streets are full of protesters and Facebook’s pages are packed with posts about demonstrations. This is because it is in these moments that activists also experiment with and reflect on how to use digital media to sustain their activities. In other words, we see the moments in between protest peaks as periods in which activists’ interactions with digital media tend to sediment and stabilize. Hence, it is by looking at what happens during these ordinary moments of grassroots politics that we can truly understand the peculiarities of an activist’s reliance on digital media and the digital data related to them, among which big data, also during protest peaks. In other words, the challenges posed by digital media are always relevant for activists, both when they mobilize and when they decide not to engage in public protest and related activities. In the next section, we will reflect more in depth on this issue by unpacking two relevant transformations in current societies: digitalization and datafication.

Mediatization, digitalization, and datafication

When activists who are involved in movement organizations work toward the achievement of their political projects, they face societies in which the presence of media – and not just the digital ones – is deeply ingrained in all human activities. This phenomenon has been called mediatization and refers to a meta-process according to which the main social processes in our societies are mediated through media of all kinds, ranging from radio and television to the most recent, innovative Internet applications (Hepp, 2013). Obviously, mediatization is not a novel meta-process. Well before the emergence of digital media, for instance, scholars interested in political communication have observed that politics – more precisely, institutional politics – were increasingly mediatized. Already in the 1960s and 1970s, activists had to come to terms with the logic of mainstream media, as in the case of the movement organizations belonging to the civil rights movement in the United States, which had to deal with the need and ability of the press and television to turn the movement’s leaders into political celebrities, with serious consequences for the movement itself (Gitlin, 1980). Similarly, in the 1990s, leaders and members of political parties adapted to the logic of the mainstream press and broadcast television, changing the way in which they interacted with their supporters, colleagues, and opponents (Mazzoleni and Schulz, 1999; Kepplinger, 2002; Strömbäck, 2008).

In the present day, mediatization touches the very fabric of our societies, much more so than in the past decades, because all social processes rely on a wide array of infrastructures of communication not only at the global level but also on a far more limited scale, like the micro experiences of people in their daily lives (Couldry and Hepp, 2016). Mediatization also changes over time, and it does so in waves according to the specific configuration of media technologies that is dominant in a specific epoch. Current societies are characterized by two interlaced waves of mediatization: digitalization and datafication (Couldry and Hepp, 2016).

Digitalization is related to the invention of personal computers, computer networks, the Internet, and mobile phones (Couldry and Hepp, 2016). The rapid diffusion of all three technological innovations brought along several deep transformations, including the convergence of older and newer media in the daily experience of people (Jenkins, 2006), but also the overall increased relevance of the digital in all spheres of individuals’ daily and social lives (Lupton, 2015). Datafication is strictly linked to the proliferation of big data and data analytics, which led to an unprecedented, automated quantification of many aspects of social lives that were not so heavily quantified before (Kennedy, 2018; Couldry and Mejias, 2019). Referring to this process, scholars have spoken about datafication to signal the transformation of information about human beings and their activities into data that can be easily measured, aggregated, and profiled, often for the purpose of producing economic value (Kennedy, 2018; Couldry and Mejias, 2019).

Through this book, we aim to enrich the literature on mediatization – and on the mediatization of grassroots politics more specifically – by looking at this meta-process from the perspective of the activists themselves. This is something scholars have seldom done, although there are of course valuable exceptions. Concerning digitalization, research on ‘subactivism’ puts the ordinary unfolding of grassroots politics at centre stage, capturing ‘a kind of politics that unfolds at the level of subjective experience and is submerged in the flow of everyday life’ (Bakardjieva, 2009: 9). In this case, the attention is directed toward individuals who have no kind of political affiliation, neither formally nor informally. Yet, the author argues, they contribute to the making of politics from the margins of their everyday experiences, with the Internet sustaining their actions. But there is also research that focuses on activists involved in progressive movement organizations to explore what impact their daily use of digital media in Italy, Spain, and the UK had on their self-perception as activists as well as the tensions that arose from the encounter between the activists’ political cultures and the culture of digital capitalism (Barassi, 2015a).

As for datafication, the continuous interaction that people have with data throughout their daily lives has also been a quite marginal line of investigation; scholars have mostly focused either on the power actors who produce and employ big data or on the less powerful, but still technologically skilful, actors who work on the accountability of big data usage (Kennedy, 2018). A promising line of research in this direction lies in the exploration of data activism, which ‘consists in ways of collaborating, organizing and taking action via software and data seeking to create unconventional narratives and solutions to social problems’ (Gutierrez, 2018: 2). Data activists engage in the datafication of our societies, either resisting or exploiting it in the framework of their mobilizations; they do this quite straightforwardly by organizing their collective actions around the negative consequences of datafication, or seeking to employ various types of data – not necessarily big data – to support their struggles (Milan and Van der Velten, 2016).

However, in societies that are highly digitalized and increasingly datafied, all kinds of activists – not necessarily only data activists – stumble upon various types of data in which they are immersed owing to the use of various types of digital and non-digital media. And they also deal with a wide range of digital media, while at the same time still engaging with other types of media, including the mainstream press. Hence, in this book we take a step further and consider all those everyday moments in which activists engage in various forms of data while not necessarily and not always thinking about themselves as data activists in the first place. On the contrary, they frequently consider themselves as promoters of civic actions, political organizers, or activists who simply fight for the causes they care about and, in doing this, attempt to raise awareness and influence policy makers. Yet, while doing this, they cannot avoid engaging in many types of data that are deeply ingrained in their daily routines as activist and go well beyond big data. To capture such a multifaceted engagement with digital media and digital data, we look at activists’ interactions with digitalization and datafication through the analytical lenses of the data stream. The next section introduces this concept and discusses its main features.

Activism, data, and the data stream

In order to fully understand what the concept of the data stream refers to, we propose adopting a broad perspective on data, namely one that rejects the idea that the concept of data is synonymous with big data and also as a shorthand for digital data. The notion of data was not born with the advent of electronic computing devices; over the centuries, it has taken a semantic trip, frequently changing its central meaning in scientific communities. The term ‘data’ was originally considered as the plural of ‘datum’, from its Latin origin, which is a given that refers to a simple and incontrovertible fact (Poovey, 1998). Next, the notion changed its meaning and became almost synonymous with empirical evidence resulting from an experimental scientific process. In the present day, instead, data are mainly defined as pieces of information (Rosenberg, 2013). As is clear from this brief and not exhaustive excursus, regardless of their primary sense, data have never been associated with any specific format or support: we may well have digital data, but data also come in analogue forms, taking many shapes. While this viewpoint on data is nowadays probably not conventional in media studies, it is certainly not uncommon in other fields of research. For instance, Sabina Leonelli (2016) proposes considering data as ‘any product of research activities, ranging from artifacts such as photographs to symbols such as letters or numbers, that is collected, stored, and disseminated in order to be used as evidence for knowledge claims’ (77). While the author focuses on the production of knowledge in the field of biology, her observations resonate with what we understand as data in the framework of grassroots political engagement. Scholars focusing on data activism have already widened their perspective on data suggesting that this type of activism involves not only activists’ interactions with big data but also with various forms of digital data used to create knowledge and increase public awareness about contentious issues as well as to sustain protest campaigns and mobilizations (Milan and Van der Velten, 2016). Broadening our view on data even further, we propose to think of data as a series of any unit of information (Gitelman and Jackson, 2013), coming in a variety of formats – including written texts, quick chats, long conversations, numerical strings, and different types of visuals, to name a few – that activists engage with in their daily political work.

Another relevant aspect of data is that, although activists engage in them in their many forms, not all data may be meaningful to them. This is because an inherent feature of data is their relational nature (Manovich, 2011), which renders them intrinsically tied to the situation in which they are constructed, gathered, and employed, as well as to the interpretation being assigned to them (Borgman, 2016; Leonelli, 2016). Indeed, while some data may mean nothing to one activist, the same data may produce information that is relevant to another activist. This happens because it is not the data that carry information, but the encounter between the data and other actors – not necessarily human – who select, store, process, and combine various types of data to obtain relevant information. Hence, the notion of data is not synonymous with information, in that activists must engage in data and act on them to obtain the information that they need. This can happen through algorithms or manually, that is, through spreadsheets and software or reading and underlining written documents, respectively. Even more importantly, activists seldom engage in just one type of data at the same time. Indeed, activists frequently create data that are not necessarily produced through high-tech tools, but which could be vital for the goals of their movement organizations and their constituencies (Gabrys et al, 2016). Furthermore, these data may at times be scattered, difficult to gather, or not yet gathered; they may be small in comparison to the magnitude of big data, but they require an extended activist effort to be integrated consistently into the activists’ broader repertoire of protest (Mattoni, 2017a).

To take the manifold interactions that activists have with various digital and non-digital data (and media) into serious consideration, we propose employing the concept of the data stream, which is the core element of our analytical framework. Before considering its main qualities, it is worth spending a few words to clarify what we mean by data stream in the context of this book. The data stream is a popular concept in computer sciences, where it is used in connection with real-time analytics and defined as a ‘sequence of items, possibly infinite, each item having a timestamp, and so a temporal order’ (Bifet et al, 2018: 8). Data streams, then, refer to concrete data instances that various types of devices continuously produce, including sensor data produced through devices ingrained in the urban setting, phone call metadata produced by telecommunication companies, and social media data produced by the interactions of their users (Bifet et al, 2018).

In this book, the data stream is a heuristic that we employ to acknowledge and, at the same time, emphasize the interactions that activists have with a broad range of data when they engage in grassroots politics. In short, we consider the data stream as a heterogeneous, ubiquitous, and perpetual sequence of data that are generated through various technological devices – from the most high-tech ones to those closer to the low-tech side of technology – that activists interact with when they engage in grassroots politics, both during the peak of mobilizations and when protests are absent. The data stream therefore not only includes big data: it goes beyond it, in that it also encompasses data that may be simultaneously smaller and thicker, like the information that activists collect about their opponents and the political context in which they are embedded. For this reason, we argue that the data stream – as we understand it – is heterogeneous in terms of both the logic according to which the data are produced and circulated and, of course, the type of data that activists interact with. Indeed, data come in the form of concise and precise numbers about the social world and the social interactions that constitute them, but also in the shape of lengthier descriptions of the same social world that are generated through words and visuals. Such heterogeneity requires activists to deal with pressing challenges, which often leads them to make difficult choices, compromises, and trade-offs that enable them to extract meaningful information and then use these to perform various activities. In this regard, it is important to note that – as we have already stressed when we discussed the notion of data – the data stream, in itself, also does not equate with information: activists have to interact with the data stream to select, aggregate, and transform relevant data so that these can become crucial information. At the same time, the data stream is also ubiquitous, since activists can never position themselves outside it. They may decide to slow down its rhythm, but they are never able to disconnect from it completely. Finally, the data stream is perpetual, because it is constantly unfolding: it rarely stops, and although activists can decide not to engage in it in a certain moment, they also know that, in doing this, they are missing something because the data stream does not cease to exist when they refrain from interacting with it.

These qualities of the data stream are deeply connected to what activists do in their daily engagement with grassroots politics. In the case of activists who belong to movement organizations, as is always the case with the activists discussed in this book, this makes the activists’ experience of the data stream both individual and collective. It is individual because each activist is dealing with data from their unique position in the world, including their demographic characteristics. But it is also a collective experience because what activists do and say about data is always linked to their participation in a collectivity, namely the movement organizations to which they belong, where activists learn from each other, make collective decisions, and orient their actions thinking as a whole and not just as fragmented individuals.

Moreover, the data stream and its qualities place activists in a direct, if somewhat unsettling, relationship with two aspects of social movements: the temporal and spatial dimensions of movement organization, which are relevant even when mobilizations are not taking place and activists are engaged in other, more everyday projects and tasks. While we will discuss the issue of temporality in more detail later in this book, it is worth noting that the flow of data is not necessarily tied to a specific location, as the data involved can be generated at the international, national, or local level. For example, some activists and social movement organizations may well engage with data developed by supranational organizations, such as anti-corruption data curated by the World Bank or labour data curated by the International Labour Organization. But even in these cases, these data are embedded in the efforts of specific movement organizations, which are always located somewhere and therefore have a local dimension. While acknowledging that the data stream undoubtedly has a national and international dimension, in this book we focus on how activists experience it in the local situations from which they engage in grassroots politics.

Finally, the data stream is produced partly inside and partly outside movement organizations. Activists are not the only ones producing data that converge in the data stream. Many of the political actors with whom they interact also participate in the construction of data: a politician’s speech broadcast on television, a journalist’s article in a national newspaper, the images posted on Instagram by activists’ supporters. These are all examples of data that activists do not directly produce, but that nevertheless converge in the stream of data they encounter in the course of their daily grassroots political engagement. From this perspective, activists are simultaneously in the position of producers and consumers of the data stream: they contribute to it when they create and share social media content, but they also consume it when they read newspaper reports or receive instant messages, among other possible data. It is therefore worth noting that the data stream is not something that only activists experience and contribute to: other actors also come into play and engage with the data stream, from their specific perspectives and not always necessarily in the context of political participation. However, in this book we focus specifically on how the data stream is a relevant analytical lens for understanding many types of activities that shape activists’ political engagement, including activists’ use of data to organise their next political campaign; activists’ production of data when participating in public debates; activists’ collection of data on potential allies to facilitate gaining their trust; or activists’ search for data to understand the current political situation.

While being a relevant heuristic for our research, the data stream is not the book’s direct object of study. Indeed, we do not seek to measure the data stream, for example through its magnitude and velocity. Rather, we aim to understand how activists deal with the data stream as a whole and in its components, the challenges that it poses to them, and the agency that they exercise in its regard. In other words, we look at the extent to which the activists’ interactions with digital media during their daily political engagement allow them to interact with the data stream or, to be more precise, with the various sequences of data that constitute it – ranging from social media data to legacy media data, from website generated data to data coming from face-to-face interactions. The presence of different sequences of data within the data stream is a direct consequence of the coexistence of various forms of mediatization in our societies. As Couldry and Hepp (2016) point out, mediatization developed in waves throughout history: mechanization put printing technologies at its core; electrification revolved around broadcast media; digitalization was strictly linked to the development of the Internet and the Web; and datafication is, instead, centred on all those applications and platforms – including social media – that produce, aggregate, and profile user data with the help of algorithms. Despite having developed in different historical moments, these four waves of mediatization do not exclude each other. Rather, they tend to live side by side and, in some instances, even overlap. This is also what happens to the data stream: sequences of data created through social media platforms and, more generally, various types of digital media develop in parallel – sometimes also overlapping – with less high-tech and non-digital sequences of data in various activist practices. Before briefly outlining the types of practice that emerged as relevant in our research, the next section explains in more detail the theoretical approach that underpins this book and the research on which it is based.

A practice approach for the investigation of activism in the data stream

So far, we have discussed the main conceptual tools that we will employ in this book. In this section, we will illustrate the analytical architecture that sustained our research. Again, our objective was to understand how the activists in Greece, Italy, and Spain embed digital media and other types of media in their daily political work: which digital media they use, to perform which actions, and for what reasons. To reach this goal, we decided to start not so much from the digital media in themselves, but from the actions that the activists perform; this will allow us to see what the role of digital media – and other types of media – in these actions was. Hence, we put the activists’ practices at the centre of our investigation and mainly relied on practice theories to sustain it.

Practice theories first emerged about five decades ago. The work of prominent sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu (1977) and Anthony Giddens (1979) set the basis for a so-called first wave of practice theorists; these attempted to resolve certain prevailing dichotomies in the social sciences, including those opposing agency and structure, individuals and societies, subjects and objects. A second wave built on the previous one, while also expanding both the conceptual vocabulary and the fields of application of practice theories (see Postill, 2009). In what follows, we will draw on this second wave of practice theories, with the purpose not of providing an exhaustive presentation of its qualities and features but, rather, of leading the discussion toward the main topic of this section: the application of practice theories in studies that deal with media, at large, and with grassroots politics in particular, including social movements and civil society actors.

Although practice theories display a diverse collection of assumptions about the place and role of practices in societies, they certainly share some relevant characteristics. To begin with, they all consider practices as the most significant locus of the social; in so doing, they promote an understanding of societies that focuses on the analysis of how social actions are enacted, performed, and produced, rather than on the actors’ intentions (Cohen, 1996). Practice theories therefore partially shift the attention from the actors to the things that the actors do. Although they do not deny the existence of social actors, social processes, and social institutions, practice theories indeed consider practices as the constitutive elements of societies or, to use Kevin McMillan’s words, ‘as one of the main building blocks of social reality: they are the basis upon which institutions persist, social structures depend and historical processes unfold’ (McMillan, 2017: 21). From this viewpoint, practices – while they are, of course, inherently social – do not wither away in the social realm, other levels of existence being equally important in practices, as we will discuss in more detail later.

Several fields in social and political sciences have begun to explore the potential of practice theories. Scholars in international relations (Bueger and Gadinger, 2018), the sociology of consumption (Warde, 2005; Halkier et al, 2011), ecological economics (Røpke, 2009), science and technology studies (Gad and Jensen 2014), and organizational studies (Orlikowski, 2007; Nicolini, 2010) have developed their own perspectives on how a practice approach may foster a more grounded understanding of the topics that pertain to each of their fields of reference. A similar direction has been taken in the sociology of media (Bräuchler and Postill, 2010), in which several scholars have started to investigate media through a practice theory lens, focusing on diverse media-related phenomena such as journalism (Ahva, 2017), videogames (Roig et al, 2009), and political communication (Driessens et al, 2010).

A terrain that has proved fertile for the development of a practice approach is that located at the crossroads of the sociology of media, political sociology, and political sciences: this book is situated at the same interdisciplinary intersection. In the past decades, studies on media practices in grassroots politics and social movements have flourished. Taking on Nick Couldry’s suggestion to look at media as neither texts nor institutions, but rather as a nexus of doings and sayings that goes beyond the usual distinction between media producers and media consumers (Couldry, 2004, 2012), scholars with different disciplinary backgrounds have employed a media practice perspective in order to investigate the multifaceted relationship between media and social movements. This literature has three clear merits: it has contributed to rendering studies on social movements less centred on one specific type of media device or platform at a time, less inclined toward a generalist understanding of the relationship between media and movements, and less prone to a deterministic, structural reading of the role of media in social movements (see Mattoni, 2017b). As a result, studies on the subject matter that have developed in recent years acknowledge the interconnected use of different types of media within social movements, take into account the contexts in which activists use media, and highlight the agency that social movement actors exercise over media, including mainstream media.

By analysing the media practices of social movements, scholars have certainly moved away from a media-centric perspective that puts media – and digital media – at the forefront of theoretical explanations of how social movements develop in societies, hence avoiding deterministic conceptions of media technologies. This shift from a media-centric to a media-centred approach to the study of grassroots politics has had its positive sides: scholars not only stopped – to a great extent – treating digital media as a force capable of determining the shape of a social movement, but they also constructed rich narratives of the many types of interactions between grassroots activists and digital media. However, when looking at this body of knowledge, it is clear that those studies that embrace a practice approach do so in different ways.

In the first instance, certain scholars study media as practices in the framework of social movements and grassroots politics, thus focusing on certain types of media that are different from mainstream media, like alternative media (Atton, 2002) or citizen media (Stephansen, 2016). By looking at these media from a practice approach, scholars pay attention to how, among other things, citizen media come into being through practices, how citizen media practitioners interpret these practices, and how citizen media as practices may orient other practices that are not directly linked to citizen media (Stephansen, 2016). A similar approach can be detected in some studies of hacktivism, which is not only considered in terms of its direct intervention in the so-called cyberspace, but rather as a radical media practice based on certain types of technological objects and entrenched with specific meanings related to what technologies are and should be (Milan, 2015).

A second way of looking at media and social movements from the perspective of practice theories is by focusing on practices that are related to the media, that is to say, media-related practices. Scholars seem to have privileged this viewpoint when analysing the activists’ engagement with media, hence examining the extent to which activists simultaneously do things with and say things about a broad range of media: from mainstream to alternative, from digital to non-digital media. Scholars have focused on the way activists reacted to the presence of mainstream media during their protest actions (Couldry, 2000; McCurdy, 2011), explored ‘activist media practices’ and the implied interactions with media professionals and media objects (Mattoni, 2012), investigated the multiple tactics that activists scout when creating alternative media and interacting with mainstream media (Jeppesen et al, 2014: 24), and considered how activists appropriate and develop media technologies (Kubitschko, 2018).

Finally, it is possible to approach media and social movements by considering media in practice. To study media in practice means both to consider how different types of technological devices and services that sustain media intermingle with a given practice and, at the same time, to examine how such devices and services are actually used in the practices as they happen. Despite this stream of research being the least explored in the extant literature, there are some valuable exceptions. In this regard, scholars have focused on the role different types of media have in the practices of information production, distribution, and consumption that social movement organizations engage in (Kaun, 2016) and looked at how various types of media, mostly digital, are included in activists’ practices during mass protests (Dumitrica and Felt, 2020).

In a similar way, in this book we investigate how the media interact with and affect different types of practices that are performed in the daily life of grassroots activists. However, we expand the media in practice approach to capture, at the empirical level, the data stream that simultaneously constitutes and is constitutive of the activists’ practices. This decision is linked to what has emerged from the analysis of our data: while we started from the activists’ practices and the role that digital media played in them, we soon realized that other relevant aspects emerged from these materials, namely the activists’ daily interactions with many types of data through their use of digital media, social media platforms, and algorithms. For this reason, we decided to broaden our perspective to include not just media, but also data in practice.

In order to do this, we will draw on the work of practice theories scholars who consider practices as a dynamic heuristic device that is made up of several elements. Despite the existence of many types of practice theories, there seems to be a certain agreement among scholars, who tend to consider practices as heterogeneous bundles of multiple elements within which the activities that individuals perform in their daily lives are just one of many features. For instance, Andrea Reckwitz (2002) suggests that a practice is ‘a routinized type of behaviour which consists of several elements, interconnected with one other: forms of bodily activities, forms of mental activities, “things” and their use, a background knowledge in the form of understanding, know how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge’ (250). Similarly, Reijo Savolainen (2008) argues that practices are ‘embodied, materially mediated arrays of human action (or activities), centrally organized around shared understanding’ (24). Finally, Elisabeth Shove and her collaborators also outline three main elements that characterize practices: material features through which individuals perform practices, including their bodies; knowledge and skills related to how a practice could, and sometimes should, be performed; and the meanings that individuals assign to what they do and the contexts in which they do this (Shove et al, 2012). Finally, Theodore Schatzki (2002) also stresses that practices are an ‘organized nexus of actions’ (77) that are linked through a practical understanding of how to perform those actions, explicit rules on how those actions should be performed, a teleoaffective structure that presupposes the ends of the practice, and general understandings about specific aspects related to the practice. According to these authors, the various elements that constitute a practice are interconnected up to the point that it cannot be reduced to any one element; in other words, it is not possible to understand a practice simply by focusing on the mental activities that it entails, or on the background knowledge that is mobilized to sustain it. It is only by considering a practice as a whole, composed of all its elements, that we can access, analyse, and understand it.

With this aim in mind, in this book we will employ a definition of practice according to which practices are a nexus of actions. Actions and practices are linked because the former are the ‘concrete, particular, datable events’ of which ‘practices are simply their generalized form – a class of such events whose various members share certain attributes’ (McMillan, 2017: 21). However, limiting practices to the actions that belong to them would be reductive, for when we look at practices we also see the bodies of those who perform the actions, the objects they use, the other people they relate to, the motivations behind the action and, additionally, the perceptions that guide them (Reckwitz, 2002; Schatzki, 2002). Furthermore, as Reckwitz (2002) argues, practices are never simply focused on the individual who performs them: not only the individual who acts knows how to implement and understand practices, but also those who observe the individual. Drawing on Schatzki’s understanding of practice (2002), we argue that activists who perform a certain practice seem to know how to engage in specific actions (for example, producing a post for Facebook), follow rules that are related to that practice (for example, choosing the right moment to post content on Facebook), draw on a teleoaffective structure that somehow defines their end goals (for example, becoming visible beyond the social movement milieu), and start from a general understanding of certain key dimensions that characterize the social world in which they act (a general understanding of politics, journalism, and their mutual relationship).

At the more operational level, we need to make an additional move. Drawing on Susan Scott and Wanda Orlikowski’s reading (2014) of Kate Barad (2007), we too will consider practices as ‘constitutive entanglements’ of different dimensions that present themselves as deeply interlaced, with each of them being constitutive of the other and of practices as well. However, while the two authors focus on the connection between the social and the material, we look at practices as constitutive entanglements of three aspects: the social, the symbolic, and the material (Figure 1.1).

An illustration of the interplay between the dimensions of constitutive entanglements.
Figure 1.1:

Socio-material practices as constitutive entanglements of the material, the symbolic, and the social

In our operational definition of practices, then, we consider practices as social because they imply a series of actions that are performed through interactions between social actors, but also because they are foundational elements of the social world as we know it. Furthermore, they need social recognition to be performed (see Gherardi, 2009). At the same time, we consider practices as material because they also include non-human actors, such as technologies and protocols. Indeed, when individuals perform practices, they always use various types of objects that become an integral part of the practice (Haddon, 2011). Finally, we consider practices as symbolic because they are imbued not only with meanings that individuals assign to social actions and to the technological objects that they employ to perform these actions, but also with a broader knowledge – either implicit or explicit – of the way practices themselves should be performed (Siles and Boczkowski, 2012). The social, material, and symbolic traits of practices are therefore all entangled in the more concrete and tangible bundles of actions that activists perform on a daily basis; we can also see such entanglements at work in the practical understandings, rules, teleoaffective structures, and general understandings that organize the practices. In the next section, we will briefly introduce the first pivotal finding of our investigation, that is, the four practices that appear to be most central in the daily political engagement of the activists in Greece, Italy, and Spain.

Four practices of grassroots politics in the data stream

Our investigation and the related data analysis have revealed that activists employ digital media and other types of media to perform four main practices throughout their daily grassroots political activities. Overall, activists pay a lot of attention to the coordination of such activities in the first place, although they also want their movement organizations to be visible beyond the inner circles of fellow activists; and they want to stay updated on what other political actors are doing and, at the same time, create and nurture a wide set of relationships. Starting from the activists’ purposes, then, we have named the four practices as follows: the practice of political organizing; the practice of gaining visibility; the practice of information gathering; and the practice of sustaining connection.

While in the following chapters we will describe more in depth what role the data stream and different sequences of data play in each of these four practices, this section provides a bird’s eye view of the four practices as well as their general differences and similarities. On the whole, each of the four practices entails both activities that are specifically tied to that practice and others that encompass different practices. Indeed, while boundaries between different practices may exist – as Schatzki also observes when discussing practices – they are often tied to one another in complex configurations; the reason for this is that they could share the same activities. However, practices are ultimately distinct from one another, because in each of them the nexus of doings and sayings that belong to them is kept together by specific combinations of practical and general understandings, rules, and teleoaffectivities (Schatzki, 2002). Furthermore, what stands out as a particularly relevant finding of our empirical investigation, is that the practice of information gathering plays an anchoring role towards the other three practices. It is hence quite surprising, as we will stress more later in the book, that there is scarce literature on activism and such practice. Going back to the four practices, we consider two main dimensions according to which we can differentiate between them and, in so doing, put an emphasis on what renders them similar (and dissimilar) to one another (Table 1.1).

Table 1.1:

The four practices that emerged from the analysis

Mundane practices Political practices
Backstage practices Information gathering Political organizing
Front-stage practices Sustaining connection Gaining visibility

Backstage and front-stage practices

While all practices are performed in public through bodies and with the involvement of various objects, some of them are specifically oriented toward people who are outside the inner circles of the movement organizations that activists belong to. Others, instead, are oriented toward people that are part of the movement organization of which activists are part of, like other fellow activists and the movement organization’s members. In this regard, we differentiate between front-stage practices, which aim at reaching a broad range of distant actors, and backstage practices, which mostly involve actors who are already tied to activists and their movement organizations. Indeed, although the boundaries of an activist’s organization may be blurred, and even more so when we are dealing with grassroots and informal types of civil society actors, it is always possible to identify certain activities that remain mostly in the backstage, as opposed to others that are performed front-stage. Activities that are part of the practice of political organizing are oriented toward the coordination of the activists’ daily work; planning a meeting or setting up an assembly are activities that allow movement organizations and activist groups to continue to exist day after day. These activities, often happening backstage, are hidden from the public eye and even taken for granted by those who perform them. As such, they go unnoticed and remain invisible. Activities related to the practice of finding relevant information also mostly occur in the background, and they imply activists’ search for pieces of news that could be useful to them; reading the news and watching television could be included in such activities as well as browsing the web and looking for specific types of data related to the activists’ interests.

Directly oriented toward the establishment or maintenance of the activists’ relationships with journalists, supporters, and potential allies are, instead, what we have called the practice of sustaining connections that are meaningful for activists and their political work. This practice includes activities of the following kind: replying to comments on the Facebook pages of activists’ organizations, taking a weekly informal beer with a policy maker so as to maintain a potentially useful relationship, but also keeping the conversation going in WhatsApp group chats or meeting with members of the activists’ organizations in order to learn more about their needs and hopes. Finally, the practice of gaining visibility is oriented toward the development and preservation of a public presence through which activists and their organizations can be followed by other actors, including their (protest) targets, the bystander public, potential supporters, and fellow activists. Almost by definition, then, this type of practice focuses on the front stage of activists’ organizations. More related to the use of media technologies and interactions with journalists than to the other three types of practices, the practice of gaining visibility include activities such as producing videos about the activists’ initiatives, holding press conferences, and publishing content on Twitter.

Political and mundane practices

When discussing practices, Schatzki makes a difference between dispersed and integrative practices (2002: 88). The former are somewhat simple and can be found in different domains of social life: describing and questioning, for instance, are two practices that can be related to several realms, some of which are also very different from one another. The latter are complex practices that are usually performed in specific domains of social life, such as voting and cooking (Schatzki, 1996). When analysing our data, we found a similar difference. While none of the four core practices that turned out to be relevant can be considered as dispersed in the strictest sense, it is true that two of them are core practices of activists’ movement organizations, whereas the other two – although relevant for activism – can also be linked to non-political, mundane realms. From this point of view, the nature of these practices is, so to speak, generic and not strictly related to the field of political participation. In fact, activists perform these practices even outside their movement organizations, when they are not directly engaged in their daily political activities.

The practices of political organizing and the practices of gaining visibility are strictly tied to the domain of grassroots political participation. The organizational patterns that civil society actors may follow are many, diverse, and changing over time, but the presence of some kind of coordination plays a pivotal role for activists. The same can be said for visibility; whether obtained through the coverage of the mainstream print press or thanks to trending hashtags on social media platforms, popularity beyond the circles of fellow activists and their movement organizations is a precious resource. Both organizational patterns and visibility are intimately tied to the political work that activists and their movement organizations perform on a daily basis. Thus, the quest for visibility puts the activists’ grassroots political engagement at the centre, and not their private lives or other activities that they may carry out independently from politics. Similarly, the organizational work that activists do is inherently political, linked to the reach of specific – albeit sometimes shifting – political objectives. This is what renders the two practices strongly related to the realm of politics, and not to the other sphere of social lives in which activists are also situated.

The practice of sustaining connections and the practice of information gathering, instead, can also be performed in other, more mundane domains of the social lives of activists that are not necessarily tied to the realm of grassroots politics. Hence, although being relevant for grassroots politics, both these practices are performed well before and beyond the political commitment of activists. In other words, when activists perform activities such as reading website content or listening to radio programmes in search of information that could be useful to them, they also do so for reasons other than that of supporting their daily political work: they may want to know how to cook something properly, what the latest weather forecast is, or how to fix a broken window. Obviously, each of these types of information can also be linked to the activists’ political engagement: knowing how to prepare a social dinner to raise money for their organizations; checking the weather to estimate how many people will join a sit-in they have organized; fixing a broken window in the organization’s headquarters without paying money for it. Nonetheless, it is undoubtedly true that activists knew how to find information even before becoming activists, and they will continue to do so independently of their activist commitment. At the same time, activists do not reply to text or email messages that they receive on their phones and laptops only to maintain relationships that are useful to reach their political goals. Rather, their practice of sustaining connections may support their affective networks of kin, friends, and acquaintances; engaging in a continuous exchange of messages can help to continue family conversations when living far away from one another, or strengthen a relationship that will become central to providing care for activists beyond their political engagement. Again, we are dealing with something that does not necessarily pertain to the realm of grassroots politics, and that activists knew how to deal with even before they started their political engagement.

Organization of the book

So far, we have sketched the overall theoretical and analytical framework that guided the empirical investigation on activists’ daily engagement with digital media and digital data in Greece, Italy, and Spain. We have also presented one preliminary finding of our fieldwork: the fact that four practices are particularly relevant during latency periods for activists in the three countries, as outlined in the previous section. The rest of the chapters in this book present in more detail how activists deal with the data stream in the context of each of these four practices.

Chapter 2 focuses on the practice of information gathering. Throughout the chapter, we argue that a relevant part of the daily political work of activists entails the constant collecting, assembling, and storing of various types of data that activists try to transform into relevant information. We will illustrate how activists seek to retrieve data from a multiplicity of media devices and services, spanning from newspaper articles published in printed media and radio programmes that they listen to when driving to social media platforms accessed through smartphones and tablets. We will also show that the type of data they seek to retrieve is related to different political actors. For instance, legacy media may provide information about the ongoing political debates within the ruling political parties and other institutional political actors; and social media are useful to check how the public debate is developing within activist circles. Finally, we will describe two challenges that affect the practice of information gathering: the multiple temporalities that characterize the data stream, and the data overload that activists experience in the practice of information gathering. Activists are constantly immersed in data sequences of mediated information, which they complement with face-to-face interactions either to verify what they have learned through media or to access information that would otherwise remain hidden from the public space. Activists use the presence of multiple temporalities to their advantage; the slowness with which they manage to collect data through their face-to-face relationships is crucial in giving activists those interpretive tools that enable them to derive information even from data arriving at a higher speed. At the same time, in this chapter we demonstrate that the practice of information gathering cannot be accomplished without all the filtering activities through which activists bring order to the abundant (and fast) set of data that they interact with on a daily basis.

Seeking information is certainly relevant for activists in times of quiet politics, and this is often the first step before engaging in other practices. These include the practice of gaining visibility, which is important for activists also when they do not need to make their public protests visible beyond the streets and squares where they physically happen. Chapter 3 explains how activists and their movement organizations follow different patterns to make themselves visible beyond the inner circles of their supporters. We argue that legacy media like television, radio, and newspapers, far from being neglected media of the past, remain a crucial venue for activists to gain visibility. In this regard, we will discuss the trade-offs that activists have to face if they want to become data sources for legacy media. Next, we will consider the important role of social media platforms for activists and their movement organizations. Finally, we will discuss alternative media that often take the shape of a non-digital soapbox for their political views. In this case, too, we argue that alternative media still play a role for activists and their movement organizations also when it comes to granting them visibility among specific types of audiences.

Chapter 4 focuses on another crucial aspect for activists and their movement organizations: algorithmic visibility. Using commercial social media platforms on a regular basis, activists have daily experiences with the algorithms that govern their operations, also in terms of gaining visibility for their published content. However, activists do not control these algorithms and, more importantly, rarely understand how they work. As we will explain in the chapter, activists implement three different strategies in order to manage algorithmic visibility: first, they aim at acquiring and maintaining a good reputation for their movement organization; second, they constantly and carefully manage the individual dimension of their movement organizations, which embodies a meticulous and strategic curation of the activists’ social media accounts; third, activists may prefer the quality of the content they produce and pour into the data stream to its immediacy. They therefore choose to use stationary digital devices – such as computers and laptops – to process the data related to their activities, producing high-quality content. In short, caring for the reputation of their movement organization, paying attention to the online behaviours of the individual activists who are part of it, and producing high-quality content are three strategies that the activists in the three countries under examination implement to increase the possibility of being visible on social media platforms and, more generally, online, thus exceeding and countering the logic of algorithmic visibility as much as possible.

Chapter 5 shifts the attention to a practice that, unlike the practice of gaining visibility, takes place primarily in the backstage of movement organizations: the organization of one’s own political work, which is vital for maintaining a movement organization and preparing it for those times when it is necessary to take to the streets. In this chapter, we will show that it is primarily digital media that lead the way in this practice. The widespread use of digital media, in particular smartphones and certain services such as instant messaging, is not without problems, though. The chapter focuses on three challenges that activists face in their daily political actions: the acceleration of the time of politics; the dissolution of the boundaries between the sphere of political engagement and other spheres of activists’ lives; and the risk of privacy breach through surveillance activities. These three challenges have an important impact on the daily organization of political activities, even at the collective level. Nevertheless, we will demonstrate that activists manage to exercise a certain level of agency by developing strategies that allow them to cope with these challenges. A particularly relevant strategy is the ability of activists to reduce the pace of the data stream in order to rediscover a slower tempo of politics. Moreover, activists make a differentiated use of various digital services to restore those boundaries that otherwise disappear, namely between public and private life, between political activities and activities not primarily dedicated to politics. Finally, activists resort to face-to-face, unmediated interactions to secure a higher level of privacy and to escape surveillance. However, these types of interactions are a luxury that few movement organizations can afford on a stable basis, especially when it comes to movement organizations acting on a national scale. Paradoxically, in a world where digital media are pervasive and facilitate many organizational tasks, sharing the same physical space for an organizational meeting becomes a valued activity, even if it is not widely practiced in the absence of resources that can move activists across the country, from one city to another.

Chapter 6 considers another very important practice for movement organizations during latency stages: the ability of activists to establish relationships with other social actors, both inside and outside the environment of their movement organizations. In other words, this chapter focuses on the practice of sustaining connections. We will again show that, although several activities may help to generate trust through the use of various media technologies, including instant messaging applications, the activists in the three countries put face-to-face interactions at the centre stage. More specifically, we will focus on the actions that are directed at three types of audiences, at the same time discussing – for each of them – the various ways in which activists embed digital and non-digital media in the practice of sustaining connections. First, we will examine how they keep alive their connections with other movement organizations and potential allies, like political parties and policy makers. In this case, the activists in the three countries assign a primary role to face-to-face interactions. Second, we will consider the relationship between activists and those who are already supporters of their movement organizations. In this case, the activists’ choices vary: while some movement organizations privilege face-to-face interactions, others prefer digital media, in particular social media platforms, and still others consider various types of digital media as complementary to each other. We end the chapter with a discussion of one relevant finding of our research, namely the strong emphasis that activists put on writing as a means of sustaining their connections, also because of their widespread use of instant messaging platforms and emails, and the consequence that this has for their grassroots political engagement.

The three publics that we have previously outlined are not the only ones with whom activists connect. There is at least one more actor that is extremely relevant for movement organizations, given its central role in the practice of sustaining connections: journalists and their media organizations. In Chapter 7, we will describe how activists first perceive the broad, multifaceted, and changing field of contemporary journalism, and then engage in activities to handle and nurture at best their daily connections with journalists, especially when they are free from the pressure of participating in street protests. More specifically, we seek to understand how activists deal with three specific challenges that they have to face when seeking to establish long-lasting connections with journalists in Greece, Italy, and Spain. First, we will consider the strong political parallelism between legacy media and institutional politics. Activists are aware of the fact that it may not be enough to nurture a relationship of trust with journalists who work in highly politicized news outlets, since the news-making process also involves news values that are imbued with political considerations. Things become even more complicated when we consider the employment conditions of the journalistic workforce in the three countries: journalists are increasingly precarious and mostly work freelance outside the newsrooms. This means that activists also need to adjust to news-making routines that are dramatically different from those of journalists in permanent employment. Both these aspects have an indirect relationship with the data stream; in this case, activists seek to become relevant data sources for journalists, feeding them the data that their movement organization elaborates on the contentious issues that they care about. Doing this amid the political parallelism of news organizations and the labor precarity of the journalistic workforce is particularly challenging for activists. Finally, the chapter deepens one aspect that has already surfaced, when we spoke about the practice of political organizing: the relevance of privacy and the protection of personal communications. We will discuss this topic from the perspective of the relationship between activists as data sources for journalists.

Chapter 8 works as a conclusion and summarizes the main findings of our research from a theoretical perspective. First, we will separately discuss the four practices concerning both digitalization and datafication, considering them not as separate from one another, as we have done in the previous chapters (for analytical reasons), but as practices with many points of contact that in fact frequently intersect with each other. In this regard, we also argue that the practice of information gathering anchors the other three practices, as it has both theoretical and empirical consequences for the study of daily grassroots politics in stages of latency and, also, of social movements in times of mobilization. We will subsequently shift our focus to the issue of the activists’ agency in the data stream, recalling its three features, namely the fact that it is heterogeneous, ubiquitous, and perpetual. In light of these three characteristics, we will discuss an aspect of the activists’ agency by considering the role of hybridity for the activists in the three Southern European countries, their skilful recourse to face-to-face interactions, and their ability to slow down the fast pace of the data stream when necessary. Finally, starting from our research, we will formulate a number of hypotheses about grassroots politics, social movements, and the data stream, suggesting further lines of research on this subject matter.

  • Figure 1.1:

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