Media Activism

Media Activism

If last week’s lecture left you feeling disillusioned about the mechanisms of news media and the problematic influence of media monopolies and political interventions on the democratic process, then this week will be a welcome relief. If mass media inevitably reinscribe hegemonic ideologies, then independent and alternative media outlets can demonstrate the range of ways in which media can provide a counter-hegemonic alternative.

Arguably, alternative media is a vehicle for advancing counter-hegemonic discourse and differs from mainstream mass media in that it is often presumed to have a much greater capacity for transforming spectators into citizens and empowering them to actively participate in social change. In this lesson, we will examine the validity of this presumption and explore a range of activist media tactics such as culture jamming.

Alternative and Independent Media

Alternative and independent are terms often used interchangeably to describe media which is not commercial, publicly funded, or government-owned. Alternative media have been seen as distinctively different from mainstream mass media and have been said to have the capacity for transforming spectators into active participants and empowering them with the capacity to effect change on matters directly relating to their everyday lives. Alternative media also tends to differ from mainstream media with regards to scope and variety of content discussed and the modes of production and distribution it employes.

Alternative media incorporates the full breadth of genres and modalities, such as film, gaming, art, protest, the Internet, music and graffiti. It also includes communicative models of media such as advertising, print, radio and TV, which provide counter-hegemonic perspectives on issues and events that circulate within the contemporary mainstream mediasphere.

Symbolic Power

The following is adapted from:
Cammaerts, B., Mattoni, A., & McCurdy, P. (Eds.). (2013). Mediation and Protest Movements. Bristol, UK: Intellect Books.

The concept of symbolic power [sometimes referred to as soft power] was first introduced by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1991) to account for the tacit almost unconscious modes of cultural/social domination that reinscribe the individual’s place in a social hierarchy. Symbolic power is defined as “the power to make people see and believe certain visions of the world rather than others.” As noted in our discussion around mass media, these messages seek to persuade by offering an interpretation of the world that is seductive, that supports dominant ideologies, but ultimately limits dissenting views.

Symbolic power functions in complex media environments in relation to the opportunities and constraints for unconventional political actors to resist. Of interest here is not only the use made by social movement actors of different media outlets and technologies to frame their recruitment and mobilization efforts, but also the interrogation of a super-saturated media and communication environment influenced by the practice of activism, protest tactics and other strategies.

It is at this level that concepts such as mediation and media practices come alive and help to explain the place of and challenges to symbolic power in contemporary societies. For some years, scholars have begun to examine ‘counter framing’ practices of social movements. There has been considerable interest in recent years in how social movements use media in their attempts to discredit political opponents, including competing social movements, and how they engage in vigorous wars of position, in spinning and counter-spinning and in culture jamming practices and discursive textual and visual subversions.

These latter forms of discursive resistance are aimed at intervening in mainstream public spaces through subversive, counter-hegemonic discourses that reverse what is considered common sense. Some refer to ‘guerrilla communication’ (Blissett and Brünzels, 1997), others to ‘tactical media interventions’ (Lovink, 2002). These are attack strategies seemingly operating from within the logics of the (media) system, but which at the same time pervert it. Guerrilla communication can be understood as “a specific style of political action drawing from a watchful view of the paradoxes and absurdities of power, turning these into the starting point for political interventions by playing with representations and identities, with alienation and over-identification” (Autonome a.f.r.i.k.a. gruppe, 2002: np).

These media practices are not restricted to traditional print and broadcast media; they play out on screens connected to the Internet often appearing as media memes, mash-ups and viral videos that circulate widely on the network. They can materialise in city streets, in the form of fly-postings, street art and subvertisements, which themselves can be retranslated into (new) media memes (cf. how Banksy’s street art, pictured below and in the header image of this lesson, has permeated popular culture).

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Discursive Resistance

In relation to the work of Michael Foucault, discourses are more than ways of talking, thinking and producing meaning. They constitute the ‘nature’ of the body, unconscious and conscious mind and the emotional life of the subjects they seek to govern. Discourse is then not simply language but provides a framework within which we come to understand social relations.

Discourse is a form of power that circulates in the social field and can attach to strategies of domination as well as those of resistance. Discourse is used to shape and constrain public opinion but can come to be used as a site of resistance.

Culture Jamming

Adbusters’ founder, Kalle Lasn, writes that “communication professors tell their students everything that’s wrong with the global media monopoly, but never a word how to fix it” (Culture Jam, Lasn, 2000: 116). In many ways, we could argue that culture jamming is a strategy for resistance to these global media monopolies. A strategy that puts a new spin on the concept of media literacy and how we might go about engaging with commercial media texts. The term culture jamming was coined by San Francisco band Negativeland in 1984, and builds on the french detournement, and German Spassguerilla (‘fun guerilla’). It is also known as guerrilla art or citizens’ art, words that capture the spirit of subversive counter-hegemonic resistance. Culture jamming could be high- or low-tech interactive media but its purpose is clear.

Culture jamming is a counter-hegemonic discourse that repurposes and reassembles the semiotics, myths, representations and rhetoric of mainstream media, advertising and popular culture as a method of ideological critique.

As the images below highlight, culture jamming is about doing rather than theorising the media. Or, as Naomi Klein puts it, culture jamming is “writing theory on the streets” (No Logo, Klein, 2000: 284).

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Culture jamming refers to a form of social and political activism, a resistance movement to the hegemony of popular culture which utilises the mass media to criticise and satirise those very institutions that control and dominate the mass media. Culture jammers regularly sabotage of corporate or public property for political purposes. Culture jammers promote the right of the public to utilise public space in order to intervene in corporate messages. It is evidence of an audience’s engagement with texts, and refusal to accept that any media is a one-way communication device. Ultimately, this form of media critique is an example of what we refer to in media theory as an ‘active audience’.


Can you decode and summarise the counter-hegemonic message below? Post a comment and share it with the class using the ‘comments dialogue box’ in the menu bar to the right of this page in Campus Online.

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Methods of Media Activism

Sniping or Subvertising involves undermining the authority of corporations and politicians that impose capitalism and consumerism and sabotaging their efforts to control the minds of the public.

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Guerrilla Communication is the intervention in the more conventional processes of communication in order to grab the audience’s attention and express unconventional views. One form of guerrilla communication is the creation of a ritual via participative public spectacle to disrupt or protest a public event or to shift the perspectives of passers-by. Such spectacles often take the form of street and guerrilla theatre. Another way to create such spectacle is via tactical frivolity. Pie-throwing as performance art is a form of guerrilla communication (see Spassguerillas). Other forms of guerrilla communication include adbusting, graffiti, hacktivism cybersquatting and reclaiming.

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Pirate Radio is illegal or unregulated radio transmission for entertainment or political purposes. If you want to know more, check out this video for an interesting take on the history of an influential (if not antiquated) form of media activism.

Pirate Radio

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Media Hoaxing involves hoodwinking journalists into covering exhaustively researched, elaborately staged deceptions. The media is the primary vehicle by which advertising functions, so by exposing the media’s incompetency it delegitimises the entire process. Clever isn’t it?

Humour and media hoaxes put social justice ideas on the map

Last fall, the New York Times announced the death of one of the world’s most celebrated and irreverent media hoaxers: “Alan Abel, Hoaxer Extraordinaire, Is (on Good Authority) Dead at 94.” For a public satirist who had once falsely announced his own death (published by the Times in 1980), news of his passing was met with some initial skepticism.

Billboard Liberation is the art of remediating large public billboards and leveraging the power of the space (public, outdoors) in order to reconstruct the advertising message that once appeared. It is an act of defiance against the notion that public space is not actually particularly public, in the fact that it requires large sums of money to send a message via a public space, and the only people who can afford these spaces are large private corporations. So culture jammers seize back the idea of the public by making ‘renovations’ to existing billboards.

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Shop Dropping or (also called droplifting) essentially refers to reverse shoplifting: leaving products in store. A somewhat bemusing concept, but generally effective for confusion, hilarity and sending a message. The video below shows the process of street artist Banksy altering Paris Hilton’s debut album Paris (2006) to include a more ‘accurate’ representation of her talent and then droplifting copies of the altered artefact back into record stores.

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Hacktivism is a form of semantic assault that makes an attack on the human/computer interface by targeting the relationship between networks and users. Hacktivism can take many forms, but one recent prominent example is Operation Payback. Orchestrated by the group Anonymous, Operation Payback targeted opponents of Internet piracy via distributed denial of service attacks, which is where a website is bombarded with so much traffic that it is not able to effectively handle each request and has to be taken offline.

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Hashtag Activism refers to the use of Twitter hashtags as a kind of digital protest or Internet-specific activism. It can quickly raise awareness of a political or social issue and through the use of the hashtag, people all around the world can show their support for the cause and connect with a community of protesters. Some of examples of hashtag activism include #occupy, #UmbrellaRevolution and #BlackLivesMatter.

Case Studies in Creative Media Activism


Cultural jamming was introduced in popular discourse by the ‘audio-Dadaism’ band Negativeland on a cassette recording called JamCon84 released in 1985 and reissued on CD in 1994. On the tape, one of the band members referred to so-called Billboard activists—altering billboards with subversive meanings—as the archetypical cultural jammer:

As awareness of how the media environment we occupy affects and directs our inner life grows, some resist. The skilfully reworked billboard […] directs the public viewer to a consideration of the original corporate strategy. The studio for the cultural jammer is the world at large. (Negativeland, 1985/1994)

[Negativland & Seeland Records]

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To ‘sample’ Berry (1995), jammers ‘create with mirrors’. Besides this, jamming is very much about what Gramsci (1971, p. 417) called a ‘new way of conceiving the world’ and ‘modifying [ . . . ] popular thought and mummified popular culture’. In doing so, he referred to the construction of a counter-hegemony as a strategy to challenge dominant forces and discourses in society. By placing resistance, the war of position, within the realm of (mass) popular culture, Gramsci also refers to the need to translate these counter-hegemonic discourses beyond the like-minded intellectuals…

One of the classic examples of a cultural jam is an album by Negativeland called U2, with a U2-spy plane on the cover. By reversing the pop-brand U2 and relating to its original meaning, as well as using a sample of U2, Negativeland deliberately confused the audience and challenged stringent copyright regulations. They were sued by the management of the rock band U2 and as a consequence went bankrupt (Negativeland, 1995).

The above text is an excerpt from the following source:
Cammaerts, B. (2007). Jamming the political: beyond counter-hegemonic practices. Continuum, 21(1), 71–90. doi:10.1080/10304310601103992

U-2 (Special Edit Radio Mix) - Negativland

The Barbie Liberation Organization

A group of culture jammers known only as the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO) pranked the infamously litigious Mattel Corporation through its most prized brand: Barbie. Barbie and Hasbro, Inc.’s military action figure G. I. Joe are notorious for reinforcing unrealistic, even dangerous, gender stereotypes.

Barbie, enhanced with a computer chip “voice box,” was programmed to giggle random phrases when a button on her back was pressed. Mattel’s chosen phrases included: “Math class is tough!”; “I love shopping!”; and “Will we ever have enough clothes?” (Culture Jammer’s Encyclopedia,

In response, the Manhattan-based BLO organized a prank that continues to generate discussion on feminist and culture jamming websites.

Taking advantage of the mechanical similarities between Teen Talk Barbie and her male counterpart Talking Duke G. I. Joe, the BLO purchased hundreds of each doll from local stores, took them home and switched their voice chips. At the height of the Christmas shopping season, they returned the dolls to stores so they could be resold to unknowing shoppers.

When children opened their toys on Christmas morning, instead of Barbie chirping cheerful affirmations of American girlishness, she growled, in the butch voice of G. I. Joe: “Eat lead, Cobra!”; “Dead men tell no lies!”; and “Vengeance is mine!” Meanwhile, Joe exclaimed: “Let’s plan our dream wedding!”

Barbie Liberation Organisation


Have a go at hacking the gender role rigidity of children’s toy advertisements yourself using this awesome online remixer app. Make sure you share what you create. Post it in the discussion forum, pin it or tweet it.

The Brandalism Project

Following on in the guerrilla art traditions of the 20th Century and taking inspiration from Agitprop, Situationist and Street Art movements, the Brandalism project sees artists from around the world collaborate to challenge the authority and legitimacy of commercial images within public space and within our culture.

Brandalism starts from the democratic conviction that the street is a site of communication, which belongs to the citizens and communities who live there. It is a rebellion against the visual assault of media giants and advertising moguls who have a stranglehold over messages and meaning in our public spaces, through which they force-feed us with images and messages to keep us insecure, unhappy, and shopping.

All the artwork is unauthorised and unsigned. This is not a project of self-promotion, and none of the artist’s names (we forgive you Ludo!) or websites appears on the works: we believe there are already enough private interests taking ownership of our streets.

Brandalism 2014: 40 street artists. 10 cities. 365 ad takeovers. 2 days.

Buy Nothing Day

The following statement is from Adbusters, the founders of Buy Nothing Day, and outlines the ideological core of their cultural intervention. Until we challenge the entrenched values of capitalism – that the economy must always keep growing, that consumer wants must always be satisfied, that immediate gratification is imperative – we’re not going able to fix the gigantic psycho-financial-eco crisis of our times. The journey toward a sane sustainable future begins with a single step. It could all start with a personal challenge, such as this: make a vow to yourself to participate in Buy Nothing Day this year. This November 29th, go cold turkey on consumption for 24 hours … see what happens … you just might have an unexpected, emancipatory epiphany!

Adbusters - Kalle Lasn on CNN for Buy Nothing Day

Maybe you would like to buy some ‘buy nothing day’ merchandise to support the cause?…. Hey!

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Corporate ‘Culture Hacking’: The Post-advertising Mediascape

Read the blogpost below and establish your own opinion on the following hypotheticals:

● Why would we suddenly move beyond advertising? What might be the catalyst or cause?
● Is a post-advertising mediascape something we can even imagine? If so, what could it look like?
● How will it change our everyday Western capitalist lifestyle?
● Does the idea of corporate culture hacking seem contradictory? Why? Why not?

Culture Hacking: America’s next big industry?

This is how I see it. And it isn’t rocket science: 1. If you want to change your business, you also have to change your culture. If you want to change your culture, you also have to change your art. 2.

We will use your responses to lead our in-class discussion, so please make sure that you come prepared with thoughtful responses.


Your set reading for this week is Harold, C. (2004). Pranking Rhetoric: “Culture
Jamming” as Media Activism.
Critical Studies in Media Communication, 21(3), pp. 189–211.


And don’t forget to check out the Pinterest resources corresponding to this lesson which you can find below.