A strongly felt and long drawn anxiety is shared by many World Social Forum organisers and supporters. Its relevance vis-a-vis global politics and even vis-a-vis global progressives seems to be unstoppably fading away after a very promising start and exhilarating first few years. Why? And what, if anything, can be done about it? These are crucial questions and questions that need careful consideration especially while approaching what promises to be one of the most inspiring WSF global events, Dakar 2011, an event that could deserve way more attention that it can, as things stand now, possibly get. An event that wishes to convene women and men, organisations and communities to contribute to the articulation of what the organisers have suggested to call “The New Universality”.
To address the questions above it might be useful to wonder in which way this fading relevance is assessed. Who says that the WSF impact is fading and how is such assessment conducted? These questions are worth books, but here I will reflect only on an oft-repeated refrain in the International Council and among commentators and participants of the WSF events: mainstream media do not care about us any more, we are not news any more.
Incidentally (or perhaps not), at the latest WSF International Council meeting in Dakar, in November 2010, a European participant responded energetically to the allegations that European movements, just like the WSF, were in deep crisis stressing that they were indeed alive and fighting but they chose to do so outside the WSF framework which they judged marred by “old” hegemonic politics conducted by members of the authoritarian left. This to say that perhaps media disaffection might be only a minor issue that the WSF participants and organisers should concern themselves with.
Let me come back to the concerns about mainstream media blackout and the anxiety of irrelevance it is creating. The WSF is not able any more to engage the global public sphere: this diagnosis of its impact and relevance seems damning and several International Council members and local event organisers converge on this assessment.
As early as 2003 the WSF Secretariat was reflecting, in a seminal document, on these issues: “WSF impact and expansion depend, to a large extent, on how our way of reflecting on the world impacts the large media”. Similar assessments were reiterated and discussed at the latest International Council meetings in 2009 and 2010 to which I participated as representative of the Finnish based Network Institute for Global Democratization.
Such an assessment of the conditions of relevance and impact can ignite a vicious cycle of demoralisation and exodus from the WSF. But, perhaps more importantly, some of the considerations related to the role of mainstream coverage and the engagement (or contribution to the creation) of global public spheres are perhaps not coherent with some aspects of the vision of the WSF which imagines its space as a “framework for the exchange of experiences” that “places special value on the exchange among [participants]” as stated in its Charter of Principles. Crucial is here the communication, the exchange among participants to which it is given special value over forms of hierarchical communication mediated by powerful actors (like, perhaps, mainstream media).
How should the WSF be communicated to fulfil its vision of horizontal communication?
Is it pertinent to ask in this context what is it that elicit mainstream media attention? Compelling analysis on the nature of mainstream media voyeurism and activism have been conducted by more informed commentator than this one. Those analysis convincingly expose instrumental manipulation of news for particular persona, political and commercial interests, contribution to hegemonic cultural politics that the WSF’s activists are actively struggling against or vigorously opposing, distortions, censorship, transformation of information in commodities, and the list could continue.
Is the WSF’s impact, then, going to be measured on the basis of its engagement with mainstream media, or perhaps of its ability to generate alternative public spheres in which the determination of what constitutes media is alternative to that shared by mainstream and commercial media?
What is true though, is that in all circles that WSF organisers and participants seem to engage in or traverse, they report less enthusiasm towards the WSF than it used to be the case. So often we hear questions like “is it still going on?”.
How is the WSF going to outreach to potential participants and partners? How is the WSF going to make its voices resonate before, during and after Dakar 2011? What, most importantly (and perhaps provocatively), has happened to movements’ and organisations’ internal communication? I was thinking, and that’s why I am writing this note, how many million members do the organisations of the IC, let alone those who participate in the events, have? Isn’t that perhaps one of the biggest public sphere existing?
Think about the aggregate number of just the International Council membership: one of them claims in excess of 170 million members, another 150 million, and these are just two. Add their friends, those to whom they would tell about the WSF if they knew about such an initiative is (still) going on. And add those who would be involved in their conversations perhaps at the pub, coffee house or at the workplace. They would, by far, be a greater audience than that of any mainstream media. They would match and outnumber those who might read about the WSF in mainstream media. Indeed, perhaps, after a while mainstream media might pick up the “talk of the city”, isn’t that what they also do?
But I was surprised, more than once, in my decade long engagement with the WSF, to hear by members of organisations whose representatives are either in the International Council or participate to WSF events, that they have no clue about what the WSF was. Like that member of that trade union who told me that they had no idea that their leadership travels often to the meetings of a WSF International Council and even organises delegations to global events of that Forum. Or those peasants who stared at me blank-faced when I asked them what did they think of their organisation’s engagement with the WSF. “The W what?”
But what if that European activist was, even partly, right in saying that movements (at least in Europe) don’t join the WSF because uninterested in its hegemonic politics? And what if it is true that member organisations do not share with their members news about the WSF? Could this have anything to do with the (alleged) fading relevance of the WSF?
Is the WSF become something different from what he wished originally to become? Is it possible that even the most enlightened mainstream media, the one that the WSF might be interested in getting coverage by and might indeed be interested in covering it (some would mention perhaps the Guardian, the New York Times, Al-Jazeera, BBC World and the local avatars of such, at times, progressive media), have perceived this change and do not find that the WSF is fulfilling it promises of innovation and it is, therefore, not worth their coverage any more (if ever, to whatever limited extend, was)?
Is it possible that movements’ leadership (and NGO’s and Trade Unions and Churches’ organisations etc.) use the forum as a space of elite political engagement with potential strategic partners at a far removed level from the grassroots? But then, if that were true, perhaps engaging the mainstream media could be a way to bypass those leaderships to fulfil the vision of horizontal communication mentioned above. But, certainly, the WSF, such an innovative convergence of world progressive activists, the biggest and most sophisticated ever as it has often been described and likes to think of itself, could do better than this.
Some of its activists and the members of the Communication Commission have been experimenting with some of the most current digital tools to allow participants interactions, to ensure access across the planet to events the participation to which proves financially impossible to the vast majority of its “virtual” constituency. Extended methodologies try to reach where physical participation stops, alternative and community media networks reach where digital infrastructure is less developed. Social networks and word of mouth contribute to generate interest and curiosity. But this may prove only minor, if ambitious, attempts to bridge the perceived growing gap between WSF and its potential participants. Or maybe, alternative media (community radio for instance) and social networks (like the beloved, and hated at the same time, Facebook) can relegate to obsolescence both “reserved” movement leaderships and commercial and mainstream media? Or, perhaps, there is still space and time to travel all avenues of communication: networked digital communication, alternative media, mainstream media and internal communication between movement leadership and their membership?