Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic & Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic
Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic
The paper presents a case study of the Czech online activist group Žít Brno. The group that challenges local representatives and employs tactics of political satire, parody and culture jamming, evolved from a spontaneous one-off event to an ongoing political project and eventually became an institutionalized political actor. The case study, based on interviews with group members, content analysis of the project website, longitudinal observation of the group's activities and other additional material, enables us to research the limits and the potential of online tactics and the way online practices are intertwined with a more traditional repertoire of collective action. Building on debates about online political participation and the broadening concept of the political, we interpret the group's protest as a reaction to the crisis of institutionalized local politics and we discuss the actual role of new media in such a protest. The conclusion is that online protest and new media, despite their criticized action-less character, could enable a functional bridge to “real” politics but at the same time they do not play an exclusive role in successful protest politics and have to be interpreted within the context of a particular political action.
Keywords: online activism; political participation; culture jamming; electronic repertoire of contention
Current studies on political engagement indicate that twenty five years after the so-called Velvet Revolution that marked the beginning of transition from a communist to a democratic political regime, Czech citizens – similarly to citizens of many other democratic countries – experience a crisis of trust in institutionalized politics (Linek, 2013). In the Western context this trend has been discussed since the 1980s (e.g. Beck, 1992 ). As political parties seem not to offer “real options” and traditional political participation declines, active Czech citizens look for new routes to engagement – the erosion of some aspects of democracy evidently comes with the emergence of alternative democratic paths and new civic agencies. In parallel, since the 1990s new media and computer mediated communication enable a stimulation and enhancement of political communication and participation.
This potential of new media has been examined, as we show below, in numerous theoretical and empirical studies of institutionalized polity as well as non-institutionalized political actors. As the debate suggests, the reality of changing political and civic participatory life does not follow the ideal-typical distinction between institutionalized and non-institutionalized politics. Therefore, we consider it important to focus on the challenges that non-institutionalized actors using new media as tools of and platforms for political action and expression pose to institutionalized politics and how such actors use new media in the process of their own institutionalization.
This study deals with Czech online political activism and specific new modes of political and public agency. In particular, we focus on the tactics of political (culture) jamming and satire that have spread over the Czech internet in the last four years due to the increasing discontent with local political representation. The article explores such new online practices in the case of the local activist group Žít Brno1 and it demonstrates how non-institutionalized actors pursuing social and political change use new media as part of their repertoire of collective action.
More specifically, we focus on an internet-based, participatory-oriented and satirical protest group and show the transformation of their purely activist collective into an institutional political one. The group’s relative success (at the time of writing they launched a local election campaign) illustrates the role of expert knowledge and professionalization in activism. And last but not least – the fact that the analysed group decided to challenge their political counterparts in the 2014 municipal elections enables us to trace the continuous transformation of media-based activism into institutionalized political action.
The case is particularly instructive in that it demonstrates the interplay between institutionalized and non-institutionalized politics and to highlight this we employ Michel de Certeau’s (1984) distinction between strategies and tactics describing the two types of relation to formative political power: While strategies are typical for strong players (typically governments or corporations) controlling and formulating the physical and legal rules structuring the social spaces and agency appearing within, the weak players (typically the individual social actors) employ their tactics to use the strategically structured world for their own purposes and, eventually, to resist or escape the intentions of the strong players. In these terms, the activists gradually intended to become strategic rather than tactical. They started their protests as tactics, as a reaction to existing structures of power and also because they acted within the environment produced by strategic players. However, in the end they aimed for strategies as they became an institutionalized political stakeholder and thus claimed for strategic power: for control over the production of rules forming the municipal public and political space.
Changing Politics and New Political Actors
Impacts of new (digital and networked) media on politics have been theorized and empirically studied for more than two decades – while the first considerations of the possible influence of computer mediated communication on the political sphere have been formulated even earlier (De Sola Pool, 1983; Hiltz & Turoff, 1993; Rice, 1984) and followed older general debates on media and politics (Dahlberg, 2001). Those centred mainly on topics related to institutionalized politics and its crisis on the one hand and the relation between the Habermasian deliberative public sphere and new media on the other (Dahlberg, 2007; Dahlgren, 2005; Kellner, 1998; Papacharissi, 2009). However, these studies, as Bentivegna (2006) noted, arrived at ambiguous conclusions and did not reveal – to use Feenberg’s and Bakardjieva’s (2004) term – any killer implications of new media. Why? According to Bentivegna, the prevalent focus on institutionalized politics (and therefore mainly on strategies) could be blamed as well as the apparent nostalgia for the golden age of party-centred polity that is at the beginning of the 21st century rather detached from actual political reality.
Current politics and citizenship are, as Bentivegna (2006) or Dahlgren (2013) note, far more diverse than in the past and the role of new media in politics and civic engagement has to be analysed in a broader context. They go on to argue that changes related to new media actually do emerge, however, they do so in the sphere of tactics, outside strategic, institutionalized politics. Moreover, new media could hardly be clearly separated from other factors influencing the political. To understand the tenuous and arguably new aspects of the transformation of tactical civic activities, we have to be more sensitive to more general social and political changes.
The broader transformative trends could be framed as an expansion of the political. The prominent sociologists Ulrich Beck (1992, 1996) and Anthony Giddens (1991) reflected on emerging forms of political agency and expression and the decline of established forms of participation (such as party membership or engagement in formally organized civic associations). They emphasise the everyday-level of political agency: Giddens coined the term life-politics – politics of lifestyle linked to reflexivity and to the ongoing reflexive construction of the self. And Beck introduced the concept of subpolitics connecting the political world with everyday practices – subpolitics includes external actors (professional groups, organizations, social movements) as well as individual actors as legitimate stakeholders of the political. Obviously, these authors consider the political in a much broader sense and include areas that were previously not understood as political.
Maria Bakardjieva (2009) goes even further with her concept of subactivism focusing explicitly on small-scale, “invisible” everyday political and civic practices of individual actors. According to her, subactivism “is a kind of politics that unfolds at the level of subjective experience and is submerged in the flow of everyday life” (Bakardjieva, 2009, p. 92). Bakardjieva argues that deliberation, election voting, participation in a movement and other activities usually treated as indicators of civic participation should be studied along with even very subtle, everyday expressions of civic engagement. And specifically in these everyday practices new media could play a substantial role as they can bring the political into everyday contexts in new ways.
The crisis of institutionalized politics is, according to Dahlgren (2013), linked to a distrust of politics and the system of political institutions, both perceived as detached from the lived experience and unable to solve “small but real” issues directly affecting people’s lives. It is worth noting that this explanation seems to be plausible even for the realities of the Czech Republic. Despite its post-transformation character, the Czech political sphere is characterized by similar difficulties as politics in Western countries – a high rate of dissatisfaction with institutionalized politics and a reluctance to engage with it. The initial period of democratization in the late 1990s was followed by disillusionment due to early political crises and corruption scandals related to the political and economic transformation. Emerging forms of participatory and political practices (and attempts to research and theorize these) should thus even in the Czech Republic be understood as reactions to the crisis of legitimacy of party-centred institutionalized polity and its elites: Czech citizens, too, employ – as Dahlgren (2013) suggests in relation to Western countries – new and alternative tactics to engage in political decision-making and to express their opinions.
Such new, more broadly conceived, forms of civic engagement can be characterized by the multiplication and atomization of actions, by increased personalization and individualization of agency, by the emergence or revival of subversive activities or by the rise of specialized, single-issue oriented activism (Dahlgren, 2001; Papacharissi, 2010). On the organizational level, these changes appear through decentralization, informality and grassroots and networked (rather than hierarchical) activist movements and groups (Coleman & Blumler, 2009).
As suggested, all of the above applies to political engagement in the Czech Republic and thus provides a suitable background for the exploration of the Žít Brno case. This activist project is one of the typical reactions to an unsatisfactory state of institutionalized local politics and is in line with the broadened notion of the political and of new forms of political agency.
Cyberactivism and New Repertoires of Tactics
As politics in general, cyberactivism – a wide range of particular online political and activist practices (McCaughey & Ayers, 2003) – is researched with an emphasis on the more or less institutionalized sphere: on formally organized collective actions (on social movements, large-scale protest groups and NGOs) and their capability to spread information, mobilize and organize supporters, fundraise or claim public support through petitions (cf. Ward & Gibson, 2009). New media are thus often studied as tools enabling and supporting the organized activists’ effective tactics (Postmes & Brunstig, 2002; Van Laer & Van Aelst, 2010).
Nevertheless, other civic stakeholders also employ internet-supported tactics and besides a technologically “upgraded” version of conventional practices they even employ those enabled specifically by the online environment, such as hacking (Vegh, Ayers, & McCaughey, 2003) or data-activism (e.g. the case of WikiLeaks) etc. This internet-based activism – described as online direct action, virtual activism or hacktivism (Rolfe, 2005) – and internet-supported activism bring us back to the topic of broadening of the political, here at the level of agency. With the adoption of new media and the transformation of the political sphere, the traditional repertoire of collective action as described in the 1980s (McAdam, Tarrow, & Tilly, 2001; Tilly, 1984) is broadening as well.2
Tilly (1984) argues that from a historical perspective the repertoire of collective action usually transforms rather slowly and that for certain historical and political contexts we can find typical repertoires (local rebellions in the 18th century, mass demonstrations and strikes in the 19th century). Changes of repertoires are decelerated by the character of the repertoire (based on established routines) which proved tactics are used as long as they are effective within a certain context. Indeed, some evolution can be traced. Tactics considered acceptable and standard change in time, mostly in relation to shifts in the wider social, political and technological contexts.
Nevertheless, the changes of repertoire can be, according to Brett Rolfe (2005), accelerated by less formalized groups that attract public attention by distinguishing themselves from other political actors exactly through employing non-conventional political expressions and actions. And – to refer back to cyberactivism – we witness a rapid increase of new practices within the electronic repertoire of contention, a term that Rolfe (2005) uses to describe the online-based segment of the repertoire of collective action: the agency that is situated in online, non-physical environments and uses online tools as a means of political action.
Rolfe links the fast evolution of the electronic repertoire of contention to technological developments: firstly, the innovative practices spread over the internet are applied, tested and adopted faster; and secondly, the internet enables a direct connection between technological innovators upholding new ideas and activists adopting these innovations. And we can even add a third possible explanation: cyberactivism tends to be practiced by more flexible, more decentralized, organizationally less formalized and smaller movements and groups than were those originally mentioned by Tilly.
The inevitable general question emerging from the debate on politics and new media relates to actual implications: How does the electronic repertoire of contention actually influence activism and changing politics? Although we focus on a specific aspect of the problem, it is possible to formulate two general positions that we consider useful starting points for our inquiry. The first can be described as reflexively optimistic, although we do not see a radical transformation of institutionalized politics or the emergence of a new online public sphere, new media bring new opportunities as they help enrich the repertoire of tactics and broaden the field of civic engagement (e.g. Bakardjieva, 2009; Dahlgren, 2013; Papacharissi, 2010). The second position is more sceptical. The actual potential and efficiency of cyberactivism in particular and also of solely online forms of civic participation should be approached with caution because they often replace real political action with an action-less simulation of the political (e.g. Morozov, 2011).
To avoid confusion, we consider it useful to briefly sum up the operational definitions of several terms appearing throughout the paper: civic engagement, activism, political participation and political and civic practices. Civic engagement is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of practices (from election vote and party membership through activism to membership in local or public associations and expressions of subactivism) through which citizens actively engage with the polity. We then understand activism as a specific form of civic engagement – as non-institutionalized political agency, both individual and collective – that seeks for participation in the political (cyberactivism thus refers to activism dominantly based on the electronic repertoire of contention). We understand political participation – in line with Carpentier's (2011) notion of participation – as active demand for control over decision-making processes in the political sphere. And as political or civic practices we conceive particular agency constituting the civic engagement.
Goals and Methods
In our analysis we build on the tension between reflexively optimistic and sceptical arguments and illustrate the ambiguous potential of the electronic repertoire of contention both for political tactics and strategies. The case of the Žít Brno group illustrates the gradual transformation of online-based activism into a political movement employing a more conventional repertoire.
Our research questions were:
What was the development of the activist group in terms of a thematic agenda, objectives and level of institutionalization?
What electronic repertoire of contention did the group employ and what was the role of the repertoire in particular stages of the group’s development?
For this case study, we chose the group behind Žít Brno for reasons already mentioned in the introduction: currently it is one of the most visible and influential internet-based activist groups in the Czech Republic and it is linked to a larger number of other domestic civic projects which makes it illustrative of current Czech online activism. The group resides in Brno, the second largest Czech city with a large number of university students and university employees with a cultural and public scene that has been significantly revitalized in the past decade. Members of the Žít Brno group belong to this local social milieu (as we show below) and so does their audience.
We mapped the development of the group and its activities over the course of three years (August 2011 – May 2014). At the beginning, we considered the case a short-term satirical event. However, the group has developed ongoing activities and thus we decided to capture the overall diachronic picture and to cover its most important changes. We collected additional data (quantitative and qualitative) and retrospectively we focused on the milestones (and evidence) in the group’s development. Our approach, based on analyses of multiple data sources, is close to Richard Fenno’s soaking and poking method (Fenno, 1977). A significant amount of data (especially for content analysis) was collected in the first year (2011–2012) of the group’s existence as we needed to understand the basic tendencies in the group: we identified the topics and observed the group with an emphasis on their statements in media and public activities. We were simultaneously observing the group’s and its members’ activities on SNS (mainly on Facebook) and conducted a content analysis of the group’s website, all the 138 articles and press releases published between August 2011 and July 2012 yielded data for analysis. The analysis was intended to identify the structure of communicated topics and its changes during the formative period of existence of the group. Consequently, in the autumn of 2012, one year into the existence of the project, we conducted qualitative interviews with two founding members of the group (M1 and M2) in order to reconstruct the process of group formation, its personnel structure and the members' motivations for participation in the project.
After the initial identification of topics, aims and functioning of the group, we focused more on its public appearance in media, on its members' individual activities and on changes in the group's agenda. The group’s public and political roles were central for the latter multi-sited observation (including observation of the group on Facebook – its prominent tool of public communication, on blogs, in mass media as well as in public events organized or co-organized by group members) and reflected shifts in its repertoire of contention and the group's relationship to Brno city municipality. In addition, we analyzed interviews published with other members and their public statements available in mass and online media and we collected data from readers and Facebook fans of the group (focusing on readers’ reception of the group’s activities).
The structure of the empirical part of our study is diachronic: we follow the continual development of the group and focus on particular moments and events we consider crucial and illustrative for the analysis as well as for the general debate on politics and new media.
Žít Brno: It All Began as a Joke
The group itself dates back to 2011 but it was essentially prompted by the publication of the Brno City Municipality’s marketing strategy in the spring of 2010. The marketing strategy was to achieve a new unified representation of the city and catchphrases like Žít Brno (To Live Brno) were introduced as part of a communication strategy (Žít Brno, n.d.). So-called verbal priorities expressing the city’s preferred values such as Bezpečí [Safety], Rozvoj [Development], Nápaditost [Creativity] and Otevřenost [Opennes] formed key elements of the strategy. While the public and media immediately criticized the study, the municipality accepted the branding strategy. However, from that moment on, the catchphrase and the strategy remained unused and the domain zitbrno.cz was not registered.
The domain was later registered by a young local journalist expecting that the city would have an interest in obtaining it. However, the municipality contacted him after a year of inaction and at this moment he decided to use the domain in his own way: to make fun of the catchphrase, the whole strategy and the municipality’s inaction. In summer 2011, he assembled several friends and acquaintances known for their critical opinions on municipal politics and confronted them with a simple, open plan.
[...] then we all slowly started to understand that he [the journalist] really decided and that he stood for it, that he was going to do it. And that the web he kind of has and that the city wanted after one year, that he will not give it to them. And that he will parody it harshly and he assembled there [at the meeting] those guys who could help with it. (interview with M2)
So in August 2011 the new website was launched, claiming to be the “official portal of the Brno City identity” and promising “to fructify its verbal priorities”.
The group earned broader public attention a month later when it published an article entitled “Brno mění své priority – Musí se kvůli tomu přejmenovat na Krno“ [“Brno changes its priorities. So it has to be renamed Krno”] (Žít Brno, 2011, September 12). The municipality at the time announced a decision to change the first of the verbal priorities from Bezpečnost [Safety] to Blízkost [Proximity]. And as the municipality was, since the 1990s, repeatedly planning to move the main train station from its current location in the city centre, the group argued that Blízkost [Proximity] is hardly a plausible priority; on the contrary, the group noted that the missing Koncepce [Concept] would be a more accurate choice, and so it would be obviously better to replace B with K and rename the city to Krno.3
The public reaction was partly confused, as some did not get the joke, and partly amused. The Krno case gained increased visibility when it was reported in national media and on TV channels. Krno was quickly and widely accepted as a symbol of the group and it went viral in the online and even the physical space.
Moreover, the group extended the Krno case by launching a functional mirror copy of the official municipal web portal and of the portal of Brno public transport company, both consistently using Krno instead of Brno. The Krno case earned the group visibility, the catchphrase Žít Brno unused by the city was symbolically stolen and resurrected and the group was encouraged to further its activities. It all started as a joke – and the joke was a protest.
Tactics: Parody and Satire as Protest
Political protest can be broadly defined as an expression of political disagreement with someone else’s opinion or actions, and it can take many forms and have a wide range of objectives or scope. More specifically, protest politics
usually denotes the deliberate and public use of protest by groups or organizations [...] that seek to influence a political decision or process, which they perceive as having negative consequences for themselves, another group or society as a whole. (Rucht, 2007, p. 708)
The group’s initial joke is an example of using parody and satire4 as local political protest (that eventually became protest politics). As their basic tool, the group used the website http://zitbrno.cz to replicate and exaggerate the official communication style of the municipality. At the same time their electronic repertoire of contention included several particular practices: press releases, news and interviews, usually partly fictional and partly based on actual texts and statements of the municipality. Through that satire the group was pointing at certain steps, decisions and inactivity of the municipality and, later, of the regional assembly and the governor. However, from its beginning the protest extended beyond a purely symbolic expression – the registration of the domain zitbrno.cz and the creation of a Facebook page with the name Žít Brno could be seen as a virtual version of a sit-in tactic, as the municipality was not able to use the domain or Facebook page for its own purposes. And the tactic was enhanced by the symbolic takeover of the catchphrase: the group successfully relabelled its meaning by recirculating its articles on SNS and getting it into the mass media agenda. The catchphrase became a symbol of protest against municipal politics rather than of the intended official unified city identity.
Protest websites are a typical example of the electronic repertoire of contention, using a webpage for mobilization, engagement and spreading information is a tactic with a relatively low participatory threshold and costs. However, the success of the protest depends on its public visibility and a website potentially receives low attention and generates low impact. The group solved this problem not only by occupying the catchphrase but also through continuous synergic work with SNS and mass media: group members used a Facebook page, a Twitter account and their individual profiles to recirculate content among their online connected social peers and at the same time they utilized journalistic contacts. It was, however, mainly the Facebook page that played a crucial role also in reaching the mainstream mass media.5
The content of the website and its increasing public visibility soon attracted the attention of the municipality. The representatives of the city first rejected any criticism claiming that the group’s activities were destructive and they merely intended “to break down and destroy”. Characteristically, the group immediately used the phrase as their motto. City officials also accused the group of copyright infringement in relation to the use of the city logo and images on the website. A lawsuit never materialized though. On the other hand, the municipality successfully erased the Krno versions of the official municipal and public transport company websites.
The ‘Žít Brno’ Group: Its Structure, Motivations and Objectives
The group was established spontaneously as a one-off event without detailed objectives. Some of the members first met at the initial meeting. And the group, as it evolved, was not formally organized, it had a rather loose organizational structure (which is one of the symptomatic features of current internet-related activism, see Dahlgren, 2001; Papacharissi, 2010). The core of the group consisted of about ten individuals – a journalist, a sociologist, a graphic designer, PR specialists etc. – connected through cultural capital as well as a shared interest in local politics and the shared social milieu of the city’s cafe and pub culture, on the one hand, and the dense network of diverse NGOs and academic and independent cultural institutions, on the other.
This shared cultural, professional and political milieu and its importance in a city with six public universities seems to be one of the specific factors that influenced the success of the group’s tactics. And the group members reflect on it:
Prague [the capital] is too big for something like that. [...] Smaller cities probably don’t have enough people and topics. [...] Brno is of ideal size. We have enough space and topics here and still everybody knows each other and people meet. Then consider that four hundred thousand people live in Brno but a hundred thousand students come here. That affects the atmosphere a lot. (čilichilli, 2014)
The way the group members formulated their common objectives is as symptomatic as the loose organization and the character of its milieu: the objectives crystallized gradually in time and they never actually took a solid form.
What did we expect? I don’t know, for me it was just fun. I was just there with extremely funny and interesting people. [...] These guys were well informed about their stuff and at the same time they were quite social because although they didn’t know each other, they very quickly found a shared language. [...] The decisions were made very fast. [...] Because they understood each other. (interview with M2)
An agreement on the objectives was then formulated retrospectively: “I think that when talking about the idea, it was not like we had a concept and four points we wanted to achieve. But retrospectively we checked it. What happened did somehow happen spontaneously.” (interview with M1)
The first of these retrospectively formulated objectives was to make the public aware of those cases and of information that could have been overlooked in mass media or that could have been quickly forgotten (Žít Brno, 2011, September 22). In this respect the protest meets civic journalism with its accent on complementing the mass media in setting a public agenda (Allan & Thorsen, 2009). The second general aim was to give the city’s identity back to the people, to let them experience identity formation as a grassroots activity, not as a top-down passively accepted concept (Žít Brno, 2011, September 22). Specific objectives, however, were formulated rather ad hoc and they differed among group members. At the beginning the group simply agreed on mocking and upsetting the officials and politicians whom it found irritating and a consensus was negotiated gradually. The group considered itself an oppositional voice motivated by unsatisfactory local politics, it launched the protest at a time when the two strongest political parties formed a coalition and effectively marginalized other elected representatives. In an interview for the national weekly Respekt (Kavanová, 2011) a group member characterized the situation as “the big coalition rules Brno and the opposition doesn’t exist”. The group thus aimed – as one among others – to speak out on behalf of the local civil society and it stylized itself as a tactical counterbalance to the municipality’s strategic power. The initial critical focus on a missing strategic plan remained one of the leitmotivs of the project’s agenda but it eventually gave way to more general topics.
And what were the individual motivations of group members? The group members present their participation and interest in public and political issues as obvious and natural. However, it would be naive to take the inclination to democratic or participatory agency for granted. We suspect that this is where the participatory potential of the already mentioned pro-active social milieu manifests itself. In another article focusing specifically on the motivations for participation, we argue that these are closely linked to activists’ cultural and social capital (Macek, 2013). Moreover, participation is also motivated by the need for performative self-expression. As one of the group members (M2) noted: “I just never expressed myself about it before. And here with this medium I realized that I actually like to express myself about it.” And in this particular case, self-expression along with the aim to inform citizens finds an obvious adversary. “To attack the idiocy of power satirically” – the most general objective of the group as defined by one of its members (M1).
Development of the Group: A Repeated Joke is More than Fun
In the next two years the group further developed the topics considered important and also evolved its electronic repertoire of contention. The content analysis of the group’s articles published between August 2011 and July 2012 shows some deflection from the initial position, i.e. from the simple ad hominem critique of the politicians. The group started to address other topics more systematically: widespread availability of gambling, planned move of the main train station away from the city centre, political clientelism, the city’s Comprehensive Plan or the municipality’s information disclosure practices. The overarching topic then was transparency and the municipality’s attitude to citizens (the municipality was depicted as unresponsive and supercilious, as despising and ignoring the unelected citizens).
The group kept its sharply satirical style and employed a wider range of data-activism and civic journalism practices when publishing leaked sensitive information about municipal politicians and officials. The omnipresent humour then served not only as a carrier of the critique but indirectly also as a platform for the consolidation and eventual professionalization of the group.
The municipality’s initial reaction to the combination of humour and information forced the group to focus more on the legal aspects of their tactics:
[...] and that sometimes something doesn’t work [...] leads to a kind of professionalism. [...] That in months of rough jokes – and I don’t know where the limits are – it was just about the first round of shots. So [...] as they [group members] were under increasing attacks from official power, they rallied and handled some critical issues when they had to decide whether to go for a lawsuit or not, you know, if we go on. (interview with M1)
In addition, activists had to negotiate more clearly not only the limits and the style of their humour but also the purpose of the project as a whole. The humour attracted a growing online audience and made the group visible enough to abandon older topics and focus on a new agenda. Yet, at the same time the group understood that many people read them just as humour, not as a political protest. “One section [of the audience] takes it as fun and then they don’t like that we write about one topic for the third time... They expect another joke. But this is actually not our primary goal, the humour, I mean, so... and then there are others who understand it and understand it the way we mean it.” (interview with M2)
This raised a question about the efficiency of jokes which led to more sophisticated practices. After a while the straightforward humour evolved into a more complex tactic described as culture jamming. Culture jamming, based mainly on the satirical alteration of widely known content and messages such as billboards, posters, ads or even TV formats, is usually linked with subversive symbolic attacks on consumer culture and cultural industries (Bennett, 2003; Cammaerts, 2007; Lievrouw, 2011). As the Žít Brno group illustrates, culture jamming has successfully found its place even in political activism and in the online environment and it is not limited only to the sphere of cultural critique or anti-consumerism activism. The politically oriented variant of culture jamming is focused rather on society, government or other political groups, than on the corporate world, and it often strikes political opponents instead of mainstream opinions or values (Cammaerts, 2007). Even NGO professionals, political parties and other institutionalized stakeholders employ it in their campaigns, nevertheless, most commonly it is practiced by political activists – such as the Žít Brno group.
For political culture jamming the group mainly used a discursive bricolage of the municipality’s visual materials, official documents (such as the official city website) and officials’ public statements. The group reframed these within a new context or altered them to various degrees in order to underline the formality, emptiness or meaninglessness of the communication. One such example is the online application launched in September 2012 that targeted the mayor’s official promotional campaign for the city. The campaign used posters containing the mayor, a city sight and the catchphrase “Brno is not just a city, it is a lifestyle” (Picture 3). The application launched by the group enabled internet users to replace the background of the poster with a picture of their own choice and thus to alter the meaning of the poster (Picture 4). Such counter-campaigns trended on Facebook for days and engaged the audience in an act of sabotage.
Another tactic (partly extending beyond the electronic repertoire of contention, as it involved the distribution of a material artefact) involved the Karta Krňana [Krno City Card]. In December 2012 the municipality announced the intention to introduce a Brno City Card that would enable residents discounted entry to publicly funded institutions. The group considered the idea an attempt to discriminate against non-residents. Within a few days the group introduced and began distributing their own free plastic card, they altered the design of the proposed official card and launched a website (http://kartakrnana.cz) and a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/KartaKrnana). During 2013, the group distributed more than 1,500 cards. In 2014, one of the group members commented:
A year and three months later many businesses applied on the website www.kartakrnana.cz, they wanted to be involved and offer discounts on the card. In contrast, the [official] Brno City Card doesn’t exist yet. And we don’t even comment upon the fact that the official card is registered by a private person who is at the same time the mayor of one of the city’s districts. (čilichilli, 2014)
These two examples underline the group members’ focus on web technologies and graphics, these members played the role of innovators as described by Rolfe (2005). Yet, while technological skills were important, it would be rather short-sighted to understand them as an exclusive contributor to the group’s success. It could be possibly illustrated on other projects directly inspired by Žít Brno which were launched in several other Czech cities and which did not last for long. We suggest that these other projects were, in the first place, not so accomplished in using satire as a coherent tactic, they did not deal with explicit political issues and share the intentions of civic journalism, rather they focused solely on being funny.
The Municipality Strikes Back: From Tactics to Strategies
The group (although still often perceived as controversial) became one of the emblematic actors in Brno’s local public sphere and its individual members were very active in a wide range of other public and political activities, often involving a national context and mostly combining the electronic repertoire of contention (mainly data activism) with more conventional tactical practices (advocacy, active attendance of town-hall meetings, lobbying or organizing festivals etc.). Some members were involved in a long-term campaign against gambling, in a movement for the transparent funding of independent culture in Brno, in anti-corruption projects, in anti-Nazi blockades, in the 2013 presidential campaign, or, for example, in projects involving socially excluded neighbourhoods in Brno. The website and the Žít Brno Facebook page repeatedly served as a supportive platform for these projects and the group’s scope extended beyond its original aims of delivering information, parodying and “attacking the idiocy of power satirically”. In 2013 the group began to move from a tactical position to strategies – from attacking the holders of strategic power to aiming to change the formative settings, to gaining strategic power. As the group signalled via the name of an anti-corruption festival Projektovat a stavět [To Design and Build] it organized in October 2013: the time “to break down and destroy” was over. Žít Brno embarked on the road to institutionalized politics.
The actual trigger for this change was a series of events leading to the vote on the city’s Comprehensive Plan (CP). In the fall of 2013 the municipality initiated a public consultation on the CP. However, according to the group, the CP was intentionally too complicated in its structure in order to discourage citizens from participating in the consultation. Therefore, in cooperation with twenty NGOs and local initiatives and with support from the local political opposition, the group members helped to launch a simple online application Mám připomínky [I have suggestions, http://mampripominky.cz] enabling citizens to more effectively evaluate the CP and easily deliver their comments to the municipality. Two months before the council vote in February 2014, 2,351 emails containing 43,379 suggestions were submitted through the website (http://mampripominky.cz).
The municipality rejected this activity as unjustified, as a waste of time and resources and as non-transparent and thus legislatively void (Urbanismus Brno, 2014). The actual motivations for the municipality’s further actions remain rather unclear, nevertheless, the group as well as the majority of media commentators unsurprisingly interpreted these as political censorship. On February 8, 2014, Facebook, Inc. removed the Žít Brno Facebook page announcing that it was reported by the municipality’s lawyer as infringing the rights to the city’s logo (Taušová, 2014).
Without considering the case in its entirety, we would like to focus on the consequences. It attracted enormous media attention5 and made the group more visible than ever before. Within days the group’s new Facebook page Žít Brno RIP had more followers than the original one.6
The conflict with the municipality and the public attention forced the group to a reconsideration of its objectives and repertoire of action and the group publicly announced its decision to enter institutionalized politics. Two days after the original Facebook page was removed, the group members organized a happening in the town hall patio and the next day they announced that they would run in the October 2014 local elections. “We were thinking of it for a long time and the municipality brought an end to our hesitation when it organized this fantastic campaign for us,” the media quoted the group (Černá, 2014). In other words, the municipal politicians attacked critical activists and subsequently (and perhaps unwittingly) created a new political rival.
In March and April March 2014 the group collected one thousand signatures as required by the law and officially applied to be registered as a political movement. At the same time it began organizing a series of public pre-election meetings addressing local political issues, negotiations on candidates and the election program and kept publishing satirical articles about their political opponents. However, the jokes were not a protest anymore: the group kept its humour but the jokes became part of a political campaign and hence of institutionalized politics.
It is yet unclear whether the group will follow the examples of the Italian Five-Star Movement or the Icelandic The Best Party, both using humour and citizens’ political disappointment on their road to electoral success. But this is not the primary concern of this article.
In many aspects the case of the Žít Brno group could serve as a typical example of the new type of civic engagement and activism as described by Dahlgren (2001, 2013), Papacharissi (2010) or Coleman and Blumler (2009): the small, non-hierarchically organized group emerged as a single-issue oriented movement that in its satirical and subversive protest expressed a significant distrust of institutionalized municipal politics.
The group is illustrative also in its general political motivations and objectives. Using satire it attacked the municipality of Brno exactly for those flaws that, according to the scholarly debate (Dahlgren, 2013), are at the core of the crisis of institutionalized politics. The municipality – a representative of party-based politics – was blamed for its detachment from citizens and their needs, for avoiding deliberation and being non-transparent, for privatizing the local political space and being corrupt. The group formed itself as a critical, sarcastic and self-ironic counter-power that understands its opponents and at the same time is not understandable for them.
More importantly, the case of Žít Brno suggests that the critical remarks on the efficiency of cyberactivism, as expressed, for example, by Morozov (2011), should be viewed with some caution. When an electronic repertoire of contention is employed in a more complex way, it does not replace “real” (non-virtual) political action but it precedes and supports it. It thus seems more accurate to be reflexively optimistic in line with the approach that stresses the potential opportunities of new media for civic engagement (Bakardjieva, 2009; Dahlgren, 2013; Papacharissi, 2010). Žít Brno shows that initial, low-threshold tactics open access to audiences and mass media and that practices based on the use of webpages and SNS can work effectively. However, the actual efficiency of these practices is obviously conditioned by the cultural, communication and technological skills of the actors, by the addressed public and by the immediate as well as broader social and political contexts surrounding activism. From this point of view, new media play an important albeit fractional role as sources of particular tactics.
Therefore, when summing up the case of the Žít Brno group, we suggest that its success should not be interpreted as the result of the tactical power of new media. On the contrary, we see it as a result of a unique combination of several factors outlined in the article:
Firstly, the context of the local public milieu combined with the group’s ability to address municipal politics in line with the expectations of the local public play a significant role. In other words, the group met and at the same time challenged the demand for local public debate – and we can speculate that such demand was conditioned by the size and the socio-cultural background of Brno with its universities and a population of four hundred thousand. (Indeed, such speculation calls for comparisons of similar expressions of activism emerging in different socio-cultural contexts.)
Secondly, the group efficiently employed its members’ symbolic and creative skills: their capabilities for satire and for explicit political critique.
Thirdly, they efficiently applied technological skills and innovation in their repertoire of tactics.
And fourthly, the group successfully applied its members’ professional knowledge in communication with mainstream mass media especially in the course of events leading to the institutionalization of the movement. In other words, as some group members were skilled in PR, marketing or journalism, the group employed communication practices typical of professional political and crisis communication.
As we see, only one of the factors is directly related to new media. To understand the role of new media in such political activism and to understand the development from ad hoc protest through systematic protest politics to institutionalized politics thus means that we have to admit that we are dealing with a complex phenomenon and we should avoid any simplified assumptions about clear and identifiable effects of new media.
In general then, the case of Žít Brno indicates that at the core of the ongoing transformation and broadening of the political remains the old problem of democracy: the struggle between the municipality and the satirical protest group is a struggle over the concept of politics, the role of deliberation and the position of the unelected citizen.
The authors acknowledge the support of the VITOVIN project (CZ.1.07/2.3.00/20.0184), which is co-financed by the European Social Fund and the state budget of Czech Republic, and of the project “Proměna veřejné a politické participace v kontextu měnících se mediálních technologií a praxí” [“Transformation of the Public and Political Participation in Context of Changing Media Technologies and Practices”] financed by Masaryk University (MUNI/A/0903/2013).
1. We refer to them as a group, which we think is less confusing than the term movement used by Czech media as the group only became a movement – in terms of legal status – in May 2014. The most appropriate term would probably be “a bunch of friends doing something fun” but that is too long and too informal a description for the purposes of this article.
2. The repertoire of collective action can be understood as a set of possible tactics (Tilly, 1984).
3. Krno also refers to the verb krnět /zakrnět [stunt] and to the adjective zakrnělý [stunted].
4. Political satire is traditionally based on a humorous critique of power holders and of political opponents (Bal, Pitt, Berthon, & Des Autels, 2009). The genre – quite variable in its particular expressions – generally deals with stereotypes, simplifications and negative framing (Baumgartner, 2007). It is worth noting that historically political satire has a specific place in Czech culture (usually it is linked to Jaroslav Hašek’s novel Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války [The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk During the World War, orig. publ. 1923] but through the five decades of Nazi and communist regimes political satire largely disappeared from the public sphere and political humour was mainly in the service of state propaganda. Political satire re-emerged in the 1990s and found a place in mainstream media, dealing mainly with current political issues contrasting them to negative and positive national self-stereotypes: “They [Czechs] see themselves as petty-minded, intellectually limited, and mediocre, and yet consider the Czech nation highly cultured and well educated.” (Holý, 2006, p. 77) The decline of political satire in mass media in the 2000s went hand in hand with its migration to the internet.
5. An activist said in an interview that Facebook enabled him to bypass press releases and other formal communication channels as the journalists themselves were actively tracing activists’ Facebook activities and used them in their reporting (Jelečková, 2012).
6. 26 articles in national newspapers, 17 in regional newspapers, 7 appearances on public service TV, 4 articles in national weeklies, 48 articles on online news websites within the first week.
7. In May 2014 the new page had more than 21,000 followers.
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Department of Political Science
Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University