If you do not live in the Euregio-zone, a cross-border region between The Netherlands and Germany, the word 'Tihange' may not scare you at all. However, to many inhabitants of this region, Tihange goes accompanied with apocalyptic visions of the future.
One could wonder why. Tihange is the name a nuclear power plant in Huy, Belgium, which is positioned close to both the Dutch and German border. The nuclear plant has been described as 'age old, instable and a ticking time-bomb' (Dichtbij.nl). At the end of 2016 , one of the reactors caught fire, resulting in an explosion. Inspections ascertained sixteen thousand cracks in the reactors. Many inhabitants of the surrounding regions fear this is merely the tip of the iceberg. They fear their area is at risk of turning into the new Chernobyl. If a more serious calamity were to take place, a part of Belgium and also large areas of The Netherlands and Germany would be at serious hazard. The last couple of years, the concern surrounding this subject has grown significantly. This has given fuel (pun not intended) to a movement: Stop Tihange aims to shut down the nuclear plant in order to assure safety in their area and to protect the environment. Various forms of activism have been used regarding the the issue, resulting in the involvement of both large and small institutions of the three involved countries, as well as transnational organizations. This has resulted in the continuous shutting down and re-opening of particular reactors of these plants.
Stop Tihange is an interesting political movement, because of its complexity. It involves various parties from different countries who have partnered up in order to shut down a plant in another country. Furthermore, the movement is fighting both an on- and offline discursive battle in order to shut down the plant.
New media and (offline) activism
New media play a large role in this example of contemporary social activism. For this reason, this will be the focal point I will take in studying the movement. The Stop Tihange movement will be studied by means of digital ethnography. I will use Varis' definition of digital ethnography, which is: ‘ethnographic research on online practices and communications, and on offline practices shaped by digitalisation’ (Varis, 2016, p.1 ) in order to provide an analysis of the movement.
Data will be gathered by observing the (online) movement for a longer period of time. The focus will lay on recent activity and for the most part data of the last year (2016) will be used. In studying the Stop Tihange movement, I will focus the presence of this movement on new media and how the use of new media influences the way the movement presents itself. Since ethnographic research is a learning process (Blommaert & Dong, 2011), it is important to put the data into context. In order to gain a well-rounded view of the phenomenon, I will include a brief discussion of the history of the movement.
I aim to provide an analysis of the online communications the group has made, mainly by focusing on how the movement presents itself. After describing some of these online communications, I will perform a message-image-issue analysis of the movement based on this data. Moreover, I will look at the choreography of assembly (Gerbaudo, 2012) of Stop Tihange. Lastly, a thick description (Geertz, 1973) and analysis of the movement will be provided.
The historic roots of Stop Tihange
In order to understand the Stop Tihange movement, it is important to understand its historical context.
The anti-nuclear movement is a (historically speaking) relatively new social movement that was sparked after the nuclear disasters at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The initial objective of the movement was nuclear disarmament, though since the late 1960s opposition has included the overall use of nuclear power. The two main aims of the movement are; raising awareness and direct action against nuclear power. There are different groups that focus on these two pillars. In The Netherlands, in particular, the movement gained momentum in the 1970s as protests were held against nuclear plant Borssele. The activism at the time included various blockages. Remarkable is that the slogan at the time was: 'Nooit meer Tjernobyl' (Chernobyl: never again), which could be reused in the campaigns of Stop Tihange.
Moreover, it is important to understand that Stop Tihange is a local example of a global movement against nuclear fuels. In other parts of the world, one can find similar movements, both in the past and in this day and age. Remarkable is that they are still motivated by the same reasons and all use similar semiotic materials in their communications. The activism organized in the previous millennium was different, since the new media were yet to arise. Nowadays, online protests and petitions play a large role in the fighting against pollution and the use of hazardous energy sources. This provides a context to understand the role of new media in the Stop Tihange movement as a form of contemporary activism.
The activists of the Stop Tihange movement use new media to organise their social activism. According to Castells (1996), counter movements use both their own and mass media to mobilise their following and to have an impact on society. I will analyse how Facebook is used in Stop Tihange's activism. In doing so, I will focus on the movements' choreography of assembly (Gerbaudo, 2012). Afterwards, I will perform a message-image-issue analysis, followed by a study of the movement's mobilization power (Tilly, 1978). However, the first thing I will briefly look at is the movement's main site, since it is a hub for information about the movement.
New media provide the possibility for new forms of mobilisation and having impact. They offer the possibility for a movement to create a central space, for instance, where information can easily be retrieved, without the user's physical presence being necessary. In the case of Stop Tihange, the 'official' website seems to succeed in fulfilling this purpose. The site: www.stop-tihange.org, defines the movement as the 'Eurogional partnership against Tihange', which is a rather fitting description. It implies that Stop Tihange is an international movement, consisting of different parties fighting towards the same goal. On this site, one can find general information about Tihange, as well as links to dozens of sites of partner organizations. This way, an overview of the movement is created and visitors are directed to a site more specific to them. This allows visitors to find a local political party, for example, that takes action to stop Tihange. This site mostly functions as a one-way stream, where the administrators determine the content of the site and the visitors have little to no input. More prominent interactions take place on Facebook, where visitors take on the role of prosumers; they do not only consume the information available, but provide content themselves as well. Facebook is where the outward activism happens, and therefore I will focus on the Facebook page of Stop Tihange for the following analysis.
Facebook is the activists' largest and most frequently used network and appears to be the most central place for interactions between activists online. The page of Stop Tihange has over 10.000 likes and followers (last retrieved January 2017). These figures consist mostly of concerned residents of the Eurogio zone. These people are German and Dutch for the most part, though there are also a few Belgians and people with other nationalities that like the page.
The online presence of the Stop Tihange movement appears to focused around the two main goals of anti-nuclear movements:
- 1) Take (direct) action against nuclear power
- 2) Raise awareness
I will discuss these in the following sections as I link online data to the movement's choreography of assembly.
Choreography of assembly
Choreography of assembly can be referred to as ‘the mediated scene-setting' and ‘scripting’ of people’s physical assembling in public space (Gerbaudo, 2012, p.40). With regards to the first point mentioned above, one major example of activism on the streets that is organized online is the 'Human Chain', planned on the 25th of June 2017. This tells us something about the way the movement presents itself (Maly, 2016). In this particular case, activists plan to create a human chain, with a length of 90 kilometers, that goes all the way from Tihange to Liège, Aachen and Maastricht. The event is promoted on Stop-tihange.org as well as on the Facebook page. The poster for the event is even used as the banner on the Facebook page, so it is the first piece of information one comes across when visiting it. The choice for this form of activism seems to be a strong one since it shows the the transnational nature of the movement. It, quite literally, embodies this international partnership and cooperation, as the human chain will connect all the different places in which activists are present. They wish to present themselves as a united front on the matter. The banner also shows the word 'chain reaction', as if they wish this action will lead to a chain of events, much like a domino effect, that will result in the achieving of their final goal: shutting down Tihange.
Poster for the Human Chain
Other forms of protest by the Stop Tihange movement are the spreading of posters with the text 'Stop Tihange&Doel'. These posters can be found all over the region. I have seen them in my hometown in Limburg (The Netherlands), as well as in Aachen and Liege. These forms of protest are, of course, found offline. However, these images are visible on Facebook as well and activists ask for donations online in order to continue spreading these signs in the area.
Text: An urgent request: we are very successfully spreading the 'Stop Tihange&Doel' posters and stickers. In order to continue doing this and produce more material, we need your financial support. It would be amazing if you could support us by donating a small (or large) sum of money, so that we can turn the entire Euregion yellow. It would also be really nice if you could share this in you personal circles.
The Facebook page posted this request three times. Once in Dutch, as seen above. The other times the text was translated in German and French, with a link to a German bank number. By doing this, the activists make sure to reach as wide an audience as possible and exclude no one. They take the multiple nationalities of the members of the Facebook page into consideration. Moreover, the poster shown in the image is the exact poster that can be found in various places in and around Aachen and Maastricht. Not only are these images present on social media, they can be found offline as well. This helps with the visibility and reconizability of the movement, as the design is universally understandable.
In order to keep fellow activists on a positive note, the Facebook page posts photos of activism in their region. This can range from sharing photos from protests to examples of the Euregion 'turning yellow'. In order to create a feeling of unison, activists also usethe Facebook page to shares photos of the Stop Tihange signs in their local area.
As for the second point mentioned above, raising awareness about Tihange, the Stop Tihange Facebook page mainly posts links to articles regarding Tihange. These posts mainly contain links to German and Dutch articles that report on the matter and at times these posts go accompanied with commentary. The main goal appears to be to share updates about the nuclear plants, in order to keep fellow Facebook members informed. Many local news outlets report on the matter and Facebook seems to function as the place where this information is collected and can easily be retrieved. Not only are articles shared, petitions circulate as well. Moreover, links to petitions are also shared via this way. The following petition has been signed over one million times by people all over the world. It is addressed to the Dutch minister of infrastructure.
Whenever negative news presents itself on the Facebook page, the discourse has a disappointed undertone. Furthermore, a negative attitude about Belgium's government seems to be present. Many Facebook users are flabbergasted as to how it is possible that Belgium still actively uses these unsafe power plants, putting international citizens at risk.
The use of both on-and offline media causes this movement to have significant mobilization power. There have been several protests where activists went out on the streets. These have mostly taken place in Germany and The Netherlands. Moreover, the movement is quite visible in the area. People hang 'Stop Tihange' posters on their houses in order to inform their neighbours. This visibility and activism results in quite frequent media coverage. This appears to work as a (nearly) self-sustaining cycle. An act of activism results in media coverage, which in turn gets shared on Facebook. This post functions as motivation for another wave of activism, which then gets covered by the media, and so on.
The movement has proven before that it has the power to take effective steps towards its goals. Local as well as European and even global organizations are concerned with the issue. Major steps are being taken at the moment. For one, Germany is attempting to activate the European Committee and the United Nations to take action concerning the matter. This way, the problem concerns both small-scale local parties, as well as includes larger European and even word-wide organizations.
Furthermore, even though the issue, in essence, only concerns locals, a petition was signed by over a million people. People from all over the world took a moment of their time in order to support this movement. The media coverage about Tihange is also very frequent and widespread. Smaller (local) media outlets report on the matter as well as (trans)national media. The Dutch news site, NU.nl, uses the hashtag: #TIHANGE to report updates for example. On this site alone, the hashtag has been used over fifty times in the last couple of years. The online-offline dynamic of protest and mobilisation creates a transnational scale that enables activism.
In the last weeks of April 2017, the Dutch news outlets thoroughly covered the fact that iodine tablets will be handed out to households living in close proximity to nuclear plants. The Dutch government will send iodine tablets to households within The Netherlands that live within a range of 100 kilometres of a nuclear powerplant, regardless if this powerplant is located in Belgium or Germany. The tablets will be distributed to people under the age of 40 who live within a range of 20 kilometres of a nuclear powerplant and people under the age of 18 who live within a range of 100 kilometres of one. The tablets are to be consumed only in case of a 'nuclear disaster' and only when the Dutch government tells the regarded households to do so. The tablets will prevent the body from absorbing radioactive iodine, which in turn decreases the chance of tyroid cancer.
To some this may seem like the Dutch government does not see these powerplants, amongst which Tihange, closing any time soon. Overall, people are happy they will be protected to a certain extent, but they are still worried about the mere existence of these powerplants so close to their homes. If you are ever in the south of Limburg, for example, you will still see a lot of yellow in the streets. This goes to show that citizens are very concerned about these powerplants. The march against Tihange, planned on the 25th of June, is still on the agenda.
A transnational activism
In conclusion, Stop Tihange can be considered a typical example of a local issue that has resulted in a transnational partnership. Even though the movement has no official organization, the activists have come to work together. Stop Tihange is a typical case of a local issue and local activism. Activists have reached both local and transnational political organizations in an attempt to shut down Tihange. The movement is persistent and determined to reach its goals. It is apparent that the movement is in it for the long run and not looking to give up any time soon. Even though the movement is not officially organized, the activists have found a way to work together. Social media have played a large role in enabling this partnership.
As previously discussed, much of the activism happens online. Facebook especially plays a large role in informing others about the issue and encouraging people to take action. On Facebook, activists engage with one another by posting updates on Tihange, sharing pictures of protests and signs and engaging in discourse surrounding Tihange by commenting on posts. This engagement creates an atmosphere of togetherness and motivation to continue working towards that common goal. On Facebook, the discourse is mainly aimed towards engaging and activating and informing others on Tihange. The Stop Tihange movement comes across as presenting itself as a transnational partnership against Tihange, which is how they define themselves on stop-tihange.org. As a result of this online engagement, a large range of people are reached, which results in bigger and smaller forms of protest offline. The activism does not stop at signing online petitions. People actually go out on the streets for a cause they believe in.
Moreover, a parallel is present between the aims of the use of new media by the Stop Tihange movement and the general aims of anti-nuclear movements: to inspire activism and direct action. The movement Mostly posts articles from other news sites in order to 1) update members 2) inform others on the matter and 3) inspire activism. In doing so, the discourse focusses on showing disbelief and disappointment towards parties that enable the existence of Tihange. This, in turn, functions as a push factor towards taking action.
As shown, the movement has proven to have a persistent mobilization power. There have been protests in the streets and activists have been engaging local and transnational political parties in order to raise awareness and take action. This becomes evident to the outside world through continuous media coverage. The issue is covered in local newspapers as well as national news websites. Facebook functions as a central point where people can learn about the issue and see an overview of it.
All in all, Stop Tihange has shown to be using new media as a tool to spread awareness and organize protests. However, Tihange closing down forever still seems to be somewhat of a long shot. The same can be said about the activists giving up. The true question remains the same: will Tihange be shut down before it is too late?
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More information on Tihange