New chapter out in Research Handbook on Visual Politics

Research Handbook on Visual Politics, published January 2023

I have a chapter in the recently published Research Handbook on Visual Politics (Edward Elgar Publishing). Many thanks to the fantastic editors, Professor Darren Lilleker and Dr. Anastasia Veneti (Bournemouth University) for the invitation and for pulling together such an excellent volume.

My chapter is entitled ‘Watching the Watchers: Sousveillance as a political response to surveillance society’.

The Introduction to the chapter can be read below.

Scholars such as Thompson (2018) have argued that the growth of digital technologies have led to a new era of ‘mediated visibility’ in which virtually every bystander has the means to provide audio-visual evidence of what they have witnessed. This raises important questions about whether mediated witnessing has the potential to destablise power relations within contemporary societies given that the ‘field of vision’ is no longer limited to specific locales. Put simply, elites are more likely have their actions scrutinised in media environments where they are no longer able to control the images of them that circulate online (Thompson, 2005). This chapter explores this visibility through the politics of sousveillance, a form of ‘inverse surveillance’ said to empower citizens to “access and collect data about their surveillance” through the use of information and communication technologies (Mann et al, 2003: 333). This is a concept developed by engineer Steve Mann, who encouraged citizens to wear cameras in order to counteract the pervasive organisational surveillance synonymous with contemporary societies. The rationale for this ‘undersight’ was that the data generated by corporate and police surveillance of private citizens lacked integrity and was “less than the full truth” (Mann 2017:3). Reductive analyses of sousveillance as a panacea to surveillance have gradually been replaced by more contextualised studies recognising their coexistence within contemporary societies. Both have been conceptualised as orthogonal vectors in the Veillance Plane, an eight-point compass showing how levels of oversight and undersight can be altered by the number of people recording footage on their smartphones within physical locations. 

The chapter is structured as follows. First, the concept of sousveillance will be introduced and the Veillance Plane defined. Second, prominent examples of sousveillant practices will be discussed in order to explore the motivations underpinning the use of technology to record the actions of authority figures, the type of imagery being shared, and the impact of such activity. These will include the Black Lives Matter campaign to focus attention on violent police attacks on African-Americans since 2014 (Freelon et al, 2016a) and loyalist protesters use of social media to highlight police brutality in Northern Ireland (Reilly, 2020a; 2021). Both constitute contexts in which public confidence in policing is traditionally low and marginalised citizens are motivated to engage in ‘inverse surveillance’ due to their prior negative interactions with individual police officers. The chapter will consider how audience responses to these acts of sousveillance are influenced by news media coverage of these incidents. It concludes by considering whether sousveillant practices facilitated via social media actually constitute a shift in informational power from elites to marginalised groups. A future research agenda for exploring the communicative power of sousveillance is elucidated.

The book can be purchased online and you can read a preprint of my chapter here.