Information and social contention

Steve Walker, The Open University, UK

The proposed paper examines the relationship between information and social conflict. Information and the technologies in which it is embodied and transmitted have long been intertwined with such conflict. The printing press, it is repeatedly asserted, was instrumental or even causal, in the European reformation. Castells (1997) in particular has sought to explain the emergence of new social movements including feminism, environmentalism and various nationalisms, and the simultaneous weakening of the older, universalist moments, typified by organised labour, in terms of the ‘network society’. More recently widespread claims were made for the causal impact of contemporary social networking sites as information conduits in the ‘Arab spring’. Information and its availability have themselves become the subject of contentious politics, as in the recent high profile cases of Wikileaks’ release of US intelligence data and Edward Snowden’s release of information about the surveillance activities of the US and other intelligence agencies. 

We can distinguish three aspects of information in social conflict. Firstly, we can information as a resource in the co-ordination of actors in social conflict. This has become more significant in an increasingly globalised world where the actors and domains of conflict are remote from each other. This co-ordinative use of information has been closely associated with the spread of ‘asymmetric’ social conflict analogous to the asymmetric warfare of contemporary military doctrine. Secondly we can see information as a tool or even weapon in protagonists’ struggles ‘hearts and minds’. Thirdly, information itself can be seen as the terrain of contention as social movements take up issues such as government surveillance and censorship. 
These themes have emerged from the study of the internet in social conflict. This paper will explore these themes in a longer perspective drawing particularly, though not exclusively, on the history of organised labour.