Gitlin about media coverage of Occupy Wall Street

The Strength of Peripheral Networks:
Negotiating Attention and Meaning in
Complex Media Ecologies
W. Lance Bennett1, Alexandra Segerberg2, & Yunkang Yang1
1 Department of Communication, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA
2 Department of Political Science, Stockholm University, Stockholm, SE-106 91, Sweden
Networked content flows that focus or fragment public attention are key communication
processes in multimedia ecologies. Understandings of events may differ widely, as
networked attention and framing processes move from core participants to more distant
spectator publics. In the case of the Occupy Wall Street protests, peripheral social media
networks of public figures and media organizations focused public attention on economic
inequality. Although inequality was among many issues discussed by the activists,
it was far less central to the protest core than problems with banks or democracy.
Results showed how public attention to inequality was constructed through pulling and
pushing interpretive frames between the core and periphery of dense communication
networks. Various indicators of public attentionsuch as search trends, Wikipedia article
edits, and legacy media coverageall credited the protests with raising public awareness
of inequality, even as attention to problems with banks grew at the protest core.
Keywords: Attention Economy, Social Movement Communication, Media Ecology,
Networked Framing, Hybrid Media.
The subprime mortgage market in the United States began to collapse in 2007, and
by 2008, the Lehman Brothers investment bank became insolvent, producing a cascading
banking crisis. Bank failures, home mortgage defaults, and loss of liquidity in
dubious mortgage-backed investment products soon spread to Europe, where more
bank failures and impending national defaults led to a sovereign debt crisis that
threatened the Euro currency. The resulting global economic downturn was commonly
called the Great Recession, reflecting its status as the worst financial crisis
since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Citizen anger also swept the world, taking
different forms, from the Tea Party in the United States to ethnic nationalist movements
and parties on the right in Europe, and vast mobilizations, such as the
Corresponding author: Lance Bennett; e-mail: [email protected]
Journal of Communication 68 (2018) 659684 The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of 659
International Communication Association.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://, which permits unrestricted reuse, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
provided the original work is properly cited.
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Spanish M-15 (indignados) and Occupy Wall Street (OWS). While some of those
citizen initiatives became enduring movements and parties, the legacy of OWS
remains more enigmatic.
This article examines the legacy of the Occupy protests as recorded in social
media traces and other indicators of public attention and participation in the framing
process in the United States, where OWS began and attained the largest scale.
The empirical questions are variations on classic queries about social and political
communication surrounding disruptive events such as protests: what were the predominant
societal understandings of these social mobilizations and how closely did
those public understandings correspond to the primary messages projected by the
protesters themselves? These questions take on new theoretical importance in contemporary
media ecologies, which are less dominated than in the past by official
framing of events that cued mass audiences through traditional journalistic gatekeeping
in highly-institutionalized media systems. Multimedia ecologies are characterized
by more porous information flows across social and legacy media, offering
publics opportunities for selective attention and active content production.
The article makes three general theoretical contributions, based on modelling
the interactions among different layers of Occupy protest communications and
peripheral social attention. First, the study shows that establishing the popular significance
of events such as OWS in complex media ecologies involves the iterated
negotiation of attention and meaning across many types of media and content
sources. The push and pull of content through differently-located networks is at the
core of networked gatekeeping and framing processes. Far from consisting of
minimally-involved clicktivists, such peripheral networks can play a significant
role in defining and responding to social events. A second, and related, contribution
is showing how these networked attention and framing processes can have a variety
of outcomes affecting the public reach of a movements messages and concerns,
including amplifying, burying, or distorting them. This sets up our third general
point: as public attention flows become shaped by participatory media embedded in
hybrid systems (Chadwick, 2013), standard communication constructs such as
media effects, agenda setting, and framing become challenging to define and measure
(Bennett & Pfetsch, 2018; Neuman, Guggenheim, Mo Jang, & Bae, 2014). We
show how introducing various types of attention measures based on digital trace
data can help sort out some of these challenges.
The puzzling legacy of Occupy Wall Street
The Occupy protests began in New York on September 17, 2011, and soon swept
through cities across the country and around the world. Crowd-sourced estimates
of events recorded demonstrations in 951 cities, located across 82 countries, including
some 600 locations in the United States (Wikipedia, 2017a). Tens of thousands
camped in public spaces and took part in protest actions, and millions more followed,
interacted with, and cheered them online. Many added to the evolving
660 Journal of Communication 68 (2018) 659684
The Strength of Peripheral Networks W. L. Bennett et al.
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protest discourse online, for example by posting their own stories to the We are
the 99% Tumblr blog, which launched the popular slogan that was coined for the
movement. Like many movements in the digital age, OWS used an impressive array
of social media and digital platforms to reach and include large audiences. As with
other such protests around the world, the growth of large online support networks
on the periphery made OWS highly visible and difficult for authorities to manage or
ignore (Barber et al., 2015). In addition, mediated interaction processes between
direct and online participants accomplished various kinds of organizational work,
such as publicizing legal services for arrested protesters, offering food or shelter,
coordinating protest actions, and reporting on events. High volumes of media content,
from activist videos to legacy news reports, flowed in and out of these multilayered
networks (Bennett, Segerberg, & Walker, 2014).
Like many observers, we were initially persuaded by the idea that the legacy of
OWS involved sparking attention to problems of inequality in society. Indeed, as
our data show, that was the main legacy of the protests with respect to public understanding.
A consensus emerged fairly early in online media, legacy media, and other
pulse points of societal attention that the protests deserved credit for establishing
inequality on the public agenda. However, our data also show that inequality was
far from the main concern at the core of the protests. Inequality was certainly one
concern raised by the protesters, but among the activist core, it was vastly outweighed
by other issues, such as fixing banks, the economy, and democracy. It is
not surprising that the dominant issues in social media exchanges involving the
most mentioned and followed group protest accounts (such as @occupyla or
@occupywallst) were mainly focused on banks and the banking crisis. After all, the
movement named itself Occupy Wall Street, and the first camp was in the heart of
the Manhattan financial district. Even our examination of social media communication
surrounding the broad We are the 99% meme (see below) showed that the
theme of inequality was similarly outweighed by other issues there, as well.
This suggests a puzzle about Occupy Wall Street and its public legacy. The protests
succeeded in gaining positive societal attention, and influenced the public
agenda. Yet various indicators of public attention, along with framing in the legacy
media, focused on an issue that was not the most important at the protest core. It
appears that, as growing public attention focused on interpreting the meaning of
the protests, the inequality frame captured the greatest social attention, and this
shaped longer-term public understanding. Our point is not that inequality was of
no concern to many activists, or that the inequality frame was simply imposed on
the protests by legacy media or other actors. Rather, it appears that something more
intriguing took place: complex networked processes of negotiating and focusing
societal attention shaped the broadly-enduring public meaning of the movement.
The puzzle of the Occupy legacy, therefore, revitalizes a classic set of questions
to do with communication between movements and broader society. In the mass
media age, impressions of protest movements formed by spectator publics were
often cued by officials in mainstream news reports that typically framed protests in
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negative terms (Benford & Snow, 2000; Gitlin, 1980). In the multimedia age, as
Tufekci (2013) has argued, the capacity of movements to shape public attention has
changed with access to social media by citizens. Activists have, in some ways, gained
more control over their public messages, yet the processes shaping societal understanding
of events are complex and require better understanding.
We suggest that the processes of negotiating attention and meaning are intertwined,
and that social media networks interact with legacy media, and other platforms,
in ways that depart from earlier mass media research. The interpretive
puzzle of what were the OWS protests about? points to a key underlying dynamic:
how things appear to some observers in multimedia communication ecologies is the
result of densely-networked framing processes that may look quite different from
other network positions. The construction of attention and meaning between the
core and periphery in technology-enabled crowds involves an iterative mix of selective
attention, network interactions, narrative construction, and selective uptake by
legacy media. The resulting narratives are networked productions that blur the lines
between conventional journalism and citizen reporting (Papacharissi & de Fatima
Oliveira, 2012; Russell, 2016), and between social and legacy media. In all, this
dynamic interrelation of attention and meaning can combine to amplify, bury, or
distort the key protest message. Even in relatively supportive public environments,
networked information flows can translate and transform key ideas as they move
from the most committed direct participants to the most distant spectator publics,
who pay attention and contribute through a combination of social and legacy
So how did densely-networked information flows affect public attention and
understanding of the Occupy movement? Answering this question involves tracking
information moving through complex media networks, as variously-positioned
actors and their networks pushed, pulled, and shared content through digital
intermediaries. In this case, we argue, selected movement messages were both
amplified and transformed in the networked flows. Among the many networks
shaping attention surrounding OWS and other events were prominent public
figures with large followings (celebrities, writers, film makers, politicians). These
peripheral actors fed their support intoand pulled meanings out ofthe protests,
while sharing their interpretations with large social followings. Journalists from
both alternative and mainstream news organizations drove the inequality message
to even larger publics in a second wave of framing that followed the attention curve
shaped by public figures. This process of selectively translating the concerns of the
protesters into terms that drew the attention of more distant and successively larger
media networks, produced the disparities that we see between the priorities of the
core protesters and the narratives that captured the attention of much of society.
The next section presents the theoretical model for understanding and operationalizing
the attention and framing processes underpinning this analysis. Later sections
test the evidence for these propositions, along with offering empirical demonstrations
of how these networked attention and framing processes worked.

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