In our digital age the notion of media forensics evokes two ideas. 1) One is the material nature of media, the physicality of technologies and infrastructure that enable the mediation of communication across vast distances and at enormous speeds. 2) And one is how digital technologies are becoming increasingly important in the witnessing, investigation and countering of human rights violations. The intricate relationship between the two is crucial, but often overlooked.
Despite continuous attempts in the social sciences and digital humanities to draw attention to the material dimension of media and mediation, it is still often disregarded. Ignoring the materiality of media means also ignoring the immense power inequalities ingrained in this materiality, which is nicely visualised in the short documentary “Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors” by Ben Mendelsohn (2011). The video looks into the materiality and the physical infrastructure of “the internet” – a global network that is sometimes still considered a “virtual” space free of cables, connections, switches and hubs as well as independent of political and economic institutions and organizations aiming to control it. It also illustrates how “new” media technologies and infrastructure build on “old” ones, which nicely translates into involved power hierarchies and how they are not replaced but rather sustained.
Looking into media practices and what people actually do with media (Bräuchler & Postill 2010), anthropologists have taken great efforts to explore the material dimension of people’s media engagement as well as its intangible entanglements. Both the material and the immaterial side of media and mediation are key in conceptualizing, analyzing and understanding media phenomena, such as the highly elusive and complex relationship between media and conflict (Budka & Bräuchler 2020).
As ethnographic evidence suggests, media can be used to exert or mediate physical violence, for instance through attacks on computer systems, online trolling (Marshall 2020), the visualisation of violence (Kummels 2020), or the materiality of sound that makes our bodies resonate (Sumera 2020). But we also need to look into another aspect of media materiality that is often overlooked as it leads to a less visible kind of violence, and that is structural violence in terms of (lack of) media access, literacy and skills or the way in which people are represented in digital media (Bräuchler & Budka 2020: 14).
The second idea evoked by the notion of media forensics has attracted quite some scholarly attention, in particular emphasizing the empowering aspect of social media in protests against authoritarian regimes and in witnessing their oppressive machinery or terrorist acts (Udupa & Budka 2021). It kind of started with the Indignados movement and the so-called Arabellion (Werbner, Webb & Spellman-Poots 2014), led to the YouTubed revolution in Syria (Wessels 2019) and continues to evolve in the witnessing of ongoing wars and the ongoing misrepresentation, criminalization and targeting of people of colour (Hinkson & Fullenwieder 2019).
However, none of these movements is a mere social media revolution, as sometimes claimed by media deterministic observers. Such a view not only ignores the fact that people physically take to the streets and risk their lives, but also issues of structural violence as introduced above. It disregards issues of participation and access, resulting in issues of representation (Juris et al. 2012), the reproduction or the reinforcement of power hierarchies through, for instance, Internet shutdowns (Stremlau 2020) or the infrastructural marginalisation of certain areas (Budka 2015), which risks the production of new inequalities rather than inclusive and empowering revolutions (Bräuchler 2021).
By considering the materiality of media and mediated communication, anthropologists have been looking for “how media enable or challenge the workings of power and the potential of activism; the enforcement of inequality and the sources of imagination; and the impact of technologies on the production of individual and collective identities”, as Faye Ginsburg, Lila Abu-Lughod and Brian Larkin (2002: 3) noted two decades ago.
Today, this includes the embedding of Internet and social media usage into broader media ecologies and their sociocultural and everyday contexts (Miller & Slater 2000, Treré & Mattoni 2016). A “holistic” view towards media is needed to identify, challenge and counter various types of violence involved in or underlying media practices or their absence. It is needed to make use of the full potential of critical media forensics.
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