Connected citizens or digital isolation? Online disability activism in times of crisis

Trevisan, Filippo (2013) Connected citizens or digital isolation? Online disability activism in times of crisis. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This thesis asks whether the internet can at all re-configure political participation into a more inclusive experience for disabled users, enhancing their stakes in citizenship. This issue assumes particular relevance at a time in which, amidst the worst economic crisis in decades, the rights of those traditionally excluded from civic life are at risk of being compromised even further. In an effort to transcend the restrictive access/accessibility framework applied so far in disability and new media research, this project focused on the “digitalisation” of disability activism in the wake of the radical welfare reform introduced by the UK government between 2010 and 2012. A combination of emerging digital methods and established social science techniques were employed to map and analyse the groups involved in opposing proposed changes to disability welfare online. These included: hyperlink network analysis; an “inventory” of online media; content analysis of Facebook conversations; and semi-structured interviews with key figures from a variety of campaigning groups.

Overall, this work exposed an evolution in the ecology of British disability activism involving both changes in the way in which existing organisations operate as well as the emergence of new, online-based players. In particular, three main group types were identified. These included: formal disability organisations (both “professionalised” charities and member-led groups); experienced disabled activists who experimented with e-campaigning for the first time; and a network of young disabled bloggers-turned-activists who operated exclusively online and rapidly gained visibility on both the internet and traditional mass media (i.e. print and broadcast). Each of these phenomena was explored in detail through the analysis of three emblematic case studies (The Hardest Hit; Disabled People Against Cuts; The Broken of Britain). Several findings emerged that invited reflections on both the changing nature of disability activism in the digital age and the significance of the internet as a civic resource for disadvantaged groups more broadly. To assess the influence of contextual factors on these trends, the online experience of British formal disability organisations was compared to that of their American counterparts, which in the same period were opposing proposals for drastic cuts to federal Medicaid funding.

In Britain, established players were found to be blending traditional repertoires with participatory online tools in a bid to “survive” the pressure of changing user-expectations and the fast pace of contemporary politics. Meanwhile, a new generation of self-appointed disabled “leaders” used online media to construct a radically different form of disability activism. This was focused more on issues than ideology, aspiring to redesigning protest in a less contentious and arguably more effective fashion. Nevertheless, the high centralisation and rigid leadership style adopted by these very same campaigners also cast doubts on their ability to promote a more inclusive campaigning experience for online supporters, whose involvement ultimately constituted a form of “peer-mediated” citizenship rather than direct empowerment. At the same time, the comparative part of this study captured a counter-intuitive picture for which British formal disability organisations were ahead of their American counterparts in terms of online innovation. This generated some important reflections on the very nature of “context” in online politics with particular reference to the relationship between systemic and circumstantial factors, as well as the importance of acute crisis moments as triggers of progress in e-activism.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Disability, Internet, Social Movements, Online Politics, Social Media, Activism
Subjects: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
J Political Science > JA Political science (General)
J Political Science > JF Political institutions (General)
Colleges/Schools: College of Social Sciences > School of Social and Political Sciences
Supervisor's Name: Pearson, Dr. Charlotte
Date of Award: 2013
Depositing User: Filippo Trevisan
Unique ID: glathesis:2013-4561
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 02 Sep 2013 12:12
Last Modified: 30 Aug 2016 09:36

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