Empowering local communities through collective grassroots actions: The case of “No Al Progetto Eleonora” in the Arborea District (OR, Sardinia)

Maria Lgcrvaura Ruiu & Massimo Ragnedda (2017) Empowering local communities
Abstract. This article explores both how local social committees may contribute toward generating collective actions, leading local communities to empower their environment, and how new information communication technologies (ICTs) may alter the collective action. It focuses on a case study, represented by the “No al Progetto Eleonora” local committee that operates in the Arborea district of Oristano, in Sardinia, Italy. Here, the community has become progressively cohesive in the face of an external environmental threat represented by the proposal for a drilling project. In this context, the role played by the Internet has been marginal in promoting community cohesion, even if it has indirectly enhanced it. In other words, the Internet played a marginal role in promoting the protest and reinforcing community cohesion, but it played a primary role in attracting external solidarity and support, thus indirectly reinforcing the sense of community against an external threat.

Introduction

Social movements have been described and interpreted in many different ways. One of the most common and accepted definitions of social movement has been provided by Diani, who describes social movements as “networks of informal interaction between a plurality of individuals, groups and/or organisations, engaged in a political or cultural conflict on the basis of a shared collective identity” (1992Diani, M. (1992). The concept of social movement. The Sociological Review, 40(1), 125. doi:10.1111/j.1467-954X.1992.tb02943.x[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], [CSA], p. 13).

A large part of social movement theory focuses on what makes an idea persuasive in a social movement according to the “frame theory” (see, e.g., Snow & Benford, 1988Snow, D. A., & Benford, R. B. (1988). Ideology, frame resonance, and participant mobilization. In B. Klandermans, H. Kriesi, and S. G. Tarrow (Eds.), From structure to action: Comparing social movement research across cultures (pp. 197–217). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.; Snow, Rochford, Worden, & Benford, 1986Snow, D. A., Rochford, E. B., Worden, S. K., & Benford, R. D. (1986). Frame alignment processes, micromobilization, and movement participation. American Sociological Review, 51(4), 464481. Retrieved fromhttp://www.jstor.org/stable/2095581[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], [CSA]), which “denotes an active, processual phenomenon that implies agency and contention at the level of reality construction” (Benford & Snow, 2000Benford, R. D., & Snow, D. A. (2000). Framing processes and social movements: An overview and assessment. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 611639. Retrieved fromhttp://www.jstor.org/stable/223459[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], [CSA]). This means that those frames within which social movements operate both affect and are influenced by collective actions. Social movements have also been classified in relation to their scale of action (Almeida & Stearns, 1998Almeida, P., & Stearns, L. B. (1998). Political opportunities and local grassroots environmental movements: The case of minamata. Social Problems, 45(1), 3760. Retrieved fromhttp://www.jstor.org/stable/3097142[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], [CSA]). Here, the question is related to how social movements are able to involve and activate people’s reaction and what role communication plays in both promoting and contributing toward organizing them (Freeman, 1999Freeman, J. (1999). On the origins of social movements. In J. Freeman and V. L. Johnson (Eds.), Waves of protest: Social movements since the 1960s (pp. 7–24). Lanham, MA: Rowman and Littlefield.). There are a variety of ways through which a social movement can reach potential new members: mass media, e-mail and mail, connections with diverse organizations, friendship, word-of-mouth, etc. More recently, the attention of many scholars has focused on the role played by information communication technologies (ICTs) and, more specifically, on the Internet. The Internet has become a cornerstone of environmental communications, due to its low cost, speed, usability, and freedom of expression and information (Elin, 2003Elin, L. (2003). The radicalization of Zeke Spier: How the Internet contributes to civic engagement and new forms of social capital. In M. McCaughey and M. D. Ayers (Eds.), Cyberactivism: Online activism in theory and practice (pp. 97–114). New York, NY: Routledge.; Frantzich, 1999Frantzich, S. E. (1999). Citizen democracy: Political activists in a cynical age. New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.; Leizerov, 2000Leizerov, S. (2000). Privacy advocacy groups versus Intel: A case study of how social movements are tactically using the Internet to fight corporations. Social Science Computer Review, 18(4), 461483. doi:10.1177/089443930001800409[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], [CSA]). This assumption is valid not only for the mass movement protest, but also, as in the case analyzed in this article, for small grassroots movements. In fact, even small community-based social movements express collective voices through communicating via the Internet within and outside local boundaries. The Internet gives them the possibility to network with other similar groups and bigger organizations, recruit new followers and activists, directly interact with institutions, facilitate the flow of information, and overcome local boundaries (Kutner, 2008Kutner, L. A. (2008). Environmental activism and the Internet. In K. R. Gupta, A. Jankowska, and P. Maiti (Eds.), Global environment: Problems and policies (Vol. II, pp. 181–190). New Delhi, India: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors.). This article attempts to shed light on the communicative dynamics within and between a specific community-based social movement. Moreover, it aims to understand whether ICTs were relevant for organizing and coordinating protests and if these contributed toward reinforcing the community internal cohesion.

In order to discuss these issues, we refer to a specific rural case study, the Arborea district (province of Oristano, central Sardinia, Italy), in which a local committee (called “No al Progetto Eleonora”) has been progressively able to involve the wider local community in a collective action against a drilling project proposed by an Italian petroleum-refining corporation (Saras Corporation) for searching for hydrocarbons. The Arborea case study represents an example of a community dealing with environmental risk. In this rural context, the “No al Progetto Eleonora” (NPE) movement arose as a local grassroots movement that fights a specific instance represented by an environmental threat (Freudenberg & Steinspar, 1991Freudenberg, N., & Steinspar, C. (1991). Not in our backyards: The grassroots environmental movement. Society and Natural Resources: An International Journal, 4(3), 235245. doi:10.1080/08941929109380757[Taylor & Francis Online], [Web of Science ®], [CSA]). The questions that this article aims to answer are the following: How have the NPE activists been able to mobilize and raise awareness of the local community toward the Saras project? How did they frame the event in a way that pushed people to mobilize (Merry, 2006Merry, S. E. (2006). Transnational human rights and local activism: Mapping the middle. American Anthropologist, 108(1), 3851. doi:10.1525/aa.2006.108.1.38[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®])? What role has the Internet played in making their efforts successful within and outside the community? Overall, this article assumes that environmental communication strategies include multimedia platforms for reaching as many people as possible, sharing information, connecting, coordinating, and attracting solidarity. However, their role should not be overestimated. In fact, as we will see throughout the article, ICTs, in our specific case study, have been useful in attracting external solidarity and informing “external” citizens, but have only been marginally useful in organizing and coordinating the protest and reinforcing the internal cohesion. The article is organized as follows: The first section refers to a brief review of the main approaches and research in the field of social activism and new media; the second introduces and describes the methodology adopted; the third analyses the NPE movement and its activities. The fourth section refers to the results obtained by interviewing a group of students (external to the Arborea context), who were asked to analyze the movements’ activities by only retrieving information from the Internet. Finally, before drawing conclusions, the role played by ICTs (mainly social media) will be highlighted as marginal in “directly” promoting community cohesion, even though it has indirectly enhanced it.

Theoretical background

A large part of the literature focuses on the concept of environmental justice in approaching the “environmental question” (for a literature review of the concept see, e.g., Walker, 2012Walker, G. (2012). Environmental justice: Concepts, evidence and politics. London, UK: Routledge.). Some authors highlight that the exposure to environmental hazards results from the interest of powerful bodies in taking advantage of vulnerable communities, which have limited resources, contacts, and tools to defend both themselves and their territory in a proactive way (Foster, 1998Foster, S. (1998). Justice from the ground up: Distributive inequities, grassroots resistance, and the transformative politics of the environmental justice movement. California Law Review, 86(4), 775841. Retrieved fromhttp://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/californialawreview/vol86/iss4/2[Web of Science ®], [CSA]; Pais, Crowder, & Downey, 2014Pais, J., Crowder, K., & Downey, L. (2014). Unequal trajectories: Racial and class differences in residential exposure to industrial hazard. Social Forces, 92(3), 11891215. doi:10.1093/sf/sot099[CrossRef], [PubMed], [Web of Science ®]). By contrast, others argue that shared discriminatory conditions may become the basis to develop collective action (Bullard, 1993Bullard, R. (1993). Confronting environmental racism: Voices from the grassroots. Boston, MA: South End Press.; Westra & Wenz, 2001Westra, L., & Wenz, P. S. (2001). Faces of environmental racism: Confronting issues of global justice. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.). Findings obtained by Ireland and Thomalla (2011Ireland, P., & Thomalla, F. (2011). The role of collective action in enhancing communities’ adaptive capacity to environmental risk: An exploration of two case studies from Asia. Plos Currents Disasters, 24(3). doi:10.1371/currents.RRN1279[CrossRef]) show the relevance of local government, interest groups, and private and public actors in supporting or hampering collective action. The role played by these bodies might positively or negatively influence the effectiveness of local community action. In the same vein, Almeida and Stearns (1998Almeida, P., & Stearns, L. B. (1998). Political opportunities and local grassroots environmental movements: The case of minamata. Social Problems, 45(1), 3760. Retrieved fromhttp://www.jstor.org/stable/3097142[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], [CSA]) found that external ties, together with political instability, play a very important role in influencing tactical choices and outcomes of collective actions.

More specifically, we are interested in the role played by ICTs in helping social movements to reach their goals. An increasing number of studies have been carried out on this topic. Van de Donk, Loader, Nixon, and Rucht (2004Van de Donk, W., Loader, B. D., Nixon, P. G., & Rucht, D. (2004). Cyberprotest: New media, citizens, and social movements. London, England: Routledge.) and Bob (2005Bob, C. (2005). The marketing of rebellion. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.[CrossRef]), among others, underline how the Mexican Zapatista movement in the 1990s represents one of the first cases in which ICTs played a key role in both attracting global solidarity and building transnational alliances. Indigenous peasants of diverse Mayan origin, based in the southern state of Chiapas (Mexico), made their appearance in the international media on January 1, 1994, progressively gaining support from countries across the globe. The dynamics of this uprising have shown how ICTs might be extremely useful in order to mobilize, coordinate, and attract international solidarity. Since then, the number of cases in which social movements have been supported by ICTs has increased dramatically.

ICTs have been seen as a crucial tool in the change of political regimes, such as Ukraine (Goldstein, 2007Goldstein, J. (2007). The role of digital networked technologies in the Ukrainian Orange Revolution. Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. Retrieved fromhttp://cyber.law.harvard.edu/sites/cyber.law.harvard.edu/files/Goldstein_Ukraine_2007.pdf) and the Philippines (Castells, Fernandez-Ardevol, Qiu, & Sey, 2007Castells, M., Fernández-Ardèvol, M., Linchuan Qiu, J., & Sey, A. (2007). Mobile communication and society: A global perspective. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.). In the latter case, scholars, such as Shirky (2011Shirky, C. (2011). The political power of social media. Foreign Affairs, 90(1), 2841.[Web of Science ®]), analyzed the central role of mobile phones in coordinating protests to oust President Estrada in 2001. In the same vein, some scholars and commentators underline the key role played by social media in the “Twitter Revolutions” in Moldova and Iran in 2009, as well as the so-called Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 (Mungiu-Pippidi & Munteanu, 2009Mungiu-Pippidi, A., & Munteanu, I. (2009). Moldova’s “Twitter Revolution.” Journal of Democracy, 20(3), 136142. Retrieved fromhttp://www.journalofdemocracy.org/moldovas-twitter-revolution[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®]; Stepanova, 2011Stepanova, E. (2011). The role of information communication technologies in the “Arab Spring.” Ponars Eurasia. 159, 16. Retrieved fromhttp://www.gwu.edu/~ieresgwu/assets/docs/ponars/pepm_159.pdf). Finally, some scholars emphasize, more broadly, the crucial role played by ICTs in the antiglobalization protests (Castells, 1996Castells, M. (1996). The rise of the network society. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.[CrossRef]; Hardt & Negri, 2000Hardt, M., & Negri, A. (2000). Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.; Rheingold, 1995Rheingold, H. (1995). The virtual community. London, UK: Mandarin.). More specifically, Castells underlines how mass protest movements, such as in Tunisia and Egypt, shifted from cyberspace to urban space (2012Castells, M. (2012). Networks of outrage and hope. Social movements in the Internet age. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.). ICTs and, more specifically, the Internet, allowed online movements to work in a “rizhomatic way,” beyond centralized and hierarchical command structures. Even leaders may operate with higher freedom within movements, asking for cooperation, participating in online discussion, and adding legitimacy to their leadership. Furthermore, it might be argued that ICTs are contributing toward changing the concept of activism. Indeed, it seems that the difference between political action and political communication is blurring, since the process of communication itself becomes activism, also known as micro-contributions (Garrett, 2006Garrett, R. K. (2006). Protest in an information society: A review of literature on social movements and new ICTs information. Communication and Society, 9(2), 202224. doi:10.1080/13691180600630773[Taylor & Francis Online]), micro-activism (Marichal, 2013Marichal, J. (2013). Political Facebook groups: Micro-activism and the digital front stage. First Monday, 18(12). Retrieved fromhttp://microsites.oii.ox.ac.uk/ipp2010/system/files/IPP2010_Marichal_Paper.pdf), or sub-activism (Bakardjieva, 2009Bakardjieva, M. (2009). Subactivism: Lifeworld and politics in the age of the Internet. The Information Society, 25(2), 91104.doi:10.1080/01972240802701627[Taylor & Francis Online], [Web of Science ®]).

However, as some authors recognize, the power of the mass media in activating people, in particular in the context of high risk/cost activism, is limited (Klandermans & Oegema, 1987Klandermans, B., & Oegema, D. (1987). Potentials, networks, motivations, and barriers: Steps towards participation in social movements. American Sociological Review, 52(4), 519531. Retrieved fromhttp://www.jstor.org/stable/2095297[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], [CSA]; McAdam, 1986McAdam, D. (1986). Recruitment to high-risk activism: The case of freedom summer. American Journal of Sociology, 92(1), 6490. Retrieved fromhttp://www.jstor.org/stable/2779717[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], [CSA]). A similar idea has been applied to the new media, which, according to the techno-critics, play a partial and limited role both in organizing and coordinating the protest and in reinforcing the internal cohesion of the group. Indeed, according to Van Laer and Van Aelst (2010Van Laer, J., & Van Aelst, P. (2010). Internet and social movement action repertoires. Information, Communication and Society, 13(8), 11461171. doi:10.1080/13691181003628307[Taylor & Francis Online], [Web of Science ®]), Gladwell (2010Gladwell, M. (2010, October 4). Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. The New Yorker. Retrieved fromhttp://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/04/small-change-malcolm-gladwell), Fenton and Barassi (2011Fenton, N., & Barassi, V. (2011). Alternative media and social networking sites: The politics of individuation and political participation. The Communication Review, 14(3), 179196.doi:10.1080/10714421.2011.597245[Taylor & Francis Online]) and Morozov (2011Morozov, E. (2011). The Net delusion. How not to liberate the world. London, England: Allen Lane.), the role played by ICTs has been overestimated by the “techno-evangelists.” This technological determinist position tends, according to the techno-skeptics, to both miscalculate and overemphasize the benefits of communication technologies in terms of organizing and promoting the protest. Not only have some authors underlined the limited power of ICTs in social protest, but ICTs might themselves contribute toward damaging it. In this direction, according to Withe (2010White, M. (2010, August 12). Clicktivism is ruining leftist activism. The Guardian. Retrieved fromhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/aug/12/clicktivism-ruining-leftist-activism), Morozov (2011Morozov, E. (2011). The Net delusion. How not to liberate the world. London, England: Allen Lane.), and Gladwell (2010Gladwell, M. (2010, October 4). Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. The New Yorker. Retrieved fromhttp://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/04/small-change-malcolm-gladwell), the risk is that this virtual activism or micro-activism might become a simple “clickactivism,” by asking participants to merely click or share information, without any grounds or physical activism. In this sense, communication cannot be seen as a form of activism (Gladwell, 2010Gladwell, M. (2010, October 4). Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. The New Yorker. Retrieved fromhttp://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/04/small-change-malcolm-gladwell; Morozov, 2011Morozov, E. (2011). The Net delusion. How not to liberate the world. London, England: Allen Lane.; Shulman, 2009Shulman, S. W. (2009). The case against mass e-mails: Perverse incentives and low quality public participation in US federal rulemaking. Policy & Internet, 1(1), 2252. doi:10.2202/1944-2866.1010[CrossRef]), but both the information and action phases should still be considered as diverse and separate activities.

Going beyond this dispute between techno-evangelists and techno-skeptics, we will focus on the role played by ICTs in both helping and supporting an environmental protest carried out by a community-based social movement. As we have already underlined, ICTs can enable efficient communication and deliberation within social movements (Bimber, Flanagin, & Stohl, 2005Bimber, B., Flanagin, A. J., & Stohl, C. (2005). Reconceptualizing collective action in the contemporary media environment. Communication Theory, 15, 365388. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2885.2005.tb00340.x[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®]), even at a small community level. In fact, ICTs facilitate the preservation of geographically disseminated face-to-face networks (Elin, 2003Elin, L. (2003). The radicalization of Zeke Spier: How the Internet contributes to civic engagement and new forms of social capital. In M. McCaughey and M. D. Ayers (Eds.), Cyberactivism: Online activism in theory and practice (pp. 97–114). New York, NY: Routledge.). According to Norris (2004Norris, P. (2004). The bridging and bonding role of online communities. In P. N. Howard & S. Jones (Eds.), Society online: The Internet in context (pp. 31–41). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.), members involved in “online communities” feel that their “online experience” tends to reinforce existing social networks. However, in a community-based movement, face-to-face interaction sounds more relevant than in a larger movement. Finally, it is still unclear whether new ICTs play a key role in reinforcing the “sense of community” in a community-based movement. This topic seems to be largely absent from the literature, which is why the present article attempts to fill this gap.

Methods

The present article results from a study of the three and a half years of activities of the NPE local committee, which operates in the Arborea district against the “Eleonora Project,” a drilling proposal delivered by an Italian petroleum corporation for the search for hydrocarbons in the Arborea district. This study involved members of the movement (formally and informally interviewed) and participation in both local public meetings and in Arborea’s local life. It is based on an innovative approach, which considers on the one hand the effects produced by the NPE at the local level, by considering the point of view of both activists and the local community, and, on the other, the effects produced outside the local boundaries by considering the objective point of view of people who, for the first time, have approached the movement through Internet technologies. In order to better understand the role played by ICTs both in informing the nature of the problems in the Arborea context and in generating opinions outside the local ambit, a group of 11 students (from the Department of Natural Sciences—specialization in territory and environment management, University of Sassari) was asked to analyze the movement’s activities by only retrieving information from the Internet. This group was selected for their specialized competencies in territory and environment management. For this reason, they were considered both sensitive to the environment management theme (as students) and “ICT users” (as digital natives). They were asked to collect information on the social movement from the Internet and to express their opinion on its work. From November 2014 to January 2015, six meetings were organized in order to discuss the information retrieved from the Internet and what they felt was missing in the NPE strategy of communication. This process aimed to investigate how the NPE used ICTs to influence public opinion. In particular, the involvement of natural science students aimed to capture the influence of the NPE strategy of communication on people who are particularly sensitive to environment-related issues. It is important to underline that, before starting this experience, only a few students had any awareness of what was happening in the Arborea district. In order to capture how students interpreted the context as presented by the Internet platforms, they were divided into four groups and asked to draw rich pictures (Avison, Golder, & Shah, 1992Avison, D. E., Golder, P. A., & Shah, H. U. (1992). Towards an SSM toolkit: Rich picture diagramming. European Journal of Information Systems, 1, 397408. doi:10.1057/ejis.1992.17[CrossRef], [CSA]). This activity aimed to identify how much their opinion was influenced by the communication strategy of the NPE committee in interpreting the sequence of events.

The “No al Progetto Eleonora” local commitment in the Arborea district

The NPE committee arose in 2011 against the “Eleonora Project,” delivered by the Saras SPA to the regional government for the search for hydrocarbons in the Arborea district. The committee consists of local people who are opposed to the project for three reasons: (a) defense of environment, (b) health, and (c) economic reasons. First, they claim that the main risk related to drilling projects is the contamination of groundwater and soil, since the drilling project is supposed to be located in a “natural protected area” (S’Ena Arrubia pond). Second, they identify the main health risk as a possible hydrogen sulphide leak and the emission of other dangerous substances. Moreover, some houses are located close to the potential drilling project. Third, the environmental degradation might damage the local economy, which is mainly based on agriculture and farming (Comitato Civico “No al Progetto Eleonora,” 2011Comitato Civico “No al Progetto Eleonora” (2011). Perché no. Retrieved fromhttps://noprogettoeleonora.wordpress.com/perche-no/). In fact, Arborea is an area of intensive dairy cattle farming and the per capita milk productivity is one of the highest in Europe. Furthermore, various other activities take place in the area, such as tourism, agriculture, fishing, etc. However, dairy farming represents the predominant economic activity. The relevance of dairy production is also highlighted by the adoption of a milk brand, “Arborea,” named after the community. The local economy is mainly based on a cooperative system, which consists of four organizations: the 3A and the Produttori Cooperatives (livestock farm and farm activities); the Fishermen Cooperative (fishing activities); and the Bank Cooperative.

In 2005 the Arborea district was also identified as a unique Nitrate Vulnerable Zone in Sardinia, in relation to the water nitrate pollution of groundwater, derived mainly from agricultural and livestock activities. This environmental “instability” has contributed toward increasing the environmental awareness of the local community.

The Saras proposal was rejected in September 2014 by the Regional Agency for Environmental Sustainability, Impact Assessment, and Environmental Information System (SAVI), because it was considered out of line with the local planning strategy. However, the controversy may not be completely resolved, because the Saras Corporation filed new objections to this decision, invoking national government intervention.

The NPE is a group of volunteers who are not formalized as an association. By contrast, this is spontaneous civil committee without any specific legal form. It involves various actors who have competencies in a variety of disciplines, such as environmental engineering, geology, medicine, biology, communication, etc. They have been progressively able to involve the Arborea local community, which in turn supported the mission of the movement by both becoming an integral part of the movement and sometimes financing activities. In fact, the local committee decided to communicate and finance activities by selling gadgets (such as a T-shirt with the slogan “No al Progetto Eleonora”) and self-financing all the actions. The increasingly positive response of both local people and cooperatives has been unexpected by the original NPE group. The whole community and the cooperatives turned out to be very active in promoting collective approaches for managing natural resources. Their engagement is mostly related to the potential economic damages to the image of the “Arborea brand.” In fact, as underlined above, the main economic activities in the area are represented by dairy cattle farming and other farming activities.

It is possible to identify at least seven phases along the process of involvement of both the wider community and the local/regional institutions participating in the movement (see Table 1). Each phase refers to the involvement of a specific entity: (a) local community, (b) local municipality, (c) regional government, (d) local economic bodies (local cooperatives of fishermen, farmers, and dairy cattle farmers), (e) university, (f) other social movements, and (g) external audience. A founder member (who has been both the facilitator of the dialogue between the committee and the local authority and the coordinator of communication and dissemination activities aimed at engaging local community and economic bodies, other associations, and movements) stated that the Internet and social media (such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube) were used to reach the local, regional, and national public. At the same time, they were not employed for dialogue with local and regional authorities and other institutions such as economic bodies and the university. The original group believes that the integration of face-to-face (mainly public meetings and demonstrations) with online interaction produced important effects in terms of both informing and recruiting people in the short run at the local, regional, and national scale. The Internet was also a very useful tool for both identifying other similar cases and contacting their coordinators. The online interaction was combined with face-to-face meetings (in particular with other movements from Emilia Romagna and Basilicata). This activity was relevant to understand how other groups operate in the face of drilling threats.

Table 1. Actors and role players in the process.

Furthermore, the group was able to create new spaces for dialogue within the local community. In fact, a member of the original group highlighted that public meetings were also useful to discuss problems of a different nature (local needs, requirements by population and workers, etc.). Thanks to the connections also created outside, the movement organized a number of cultural events and activities (photography exhibitions, conferences on the history of Arborea, census of the bird species that live around the local ponds). The increasing resonance of the movement also brought support from artists and local prominent personalities, who actively participated in some activities.

Watching the “No al Progetto Eleonora” local commitment from the “outside”

The natural science students who were interviewed agreed on the potential of the use of the Internet and social media by the movement, such as the wider and quicker broadcast of information, in particular addressed to young people. This interpretation is also confirmed by Facebook statistics, which show that the majority of followers (66%) belong to the 18–44 age group.

Some elements were identified by students as successful in clarifying and persuading people on the main points claimed by the movement, such as the use of a simple and understandable language, the use of images, videos, and examples concerning daily life, the usability of the website (blog), the quick update of information on the blog, the discussion of clichés about drilling projects, the presence of useful digital informative documents, and a list of the potential disadvantages of the drilling project. The protest reasons were recognized as clear, referring in particular to the uncertainty as to the real presence of underground gas; the availability of gas (limited to a short period); the contamination of the environment, and the need to protect local environmental heritage; and the threat to local economic activities. At the same time, the students perceived that the communication strategy was mainly oriented toward the local community, which, however, was also effective, thanks to the activities organized in loco. In fact, they stated that some limits might be identified in the capacity to reach the external public (at the regional and national level). In this vein, a student highlighted the risk that the movement might appear to be only focused on a specific problem in relation to a limited geographical context. By contrast, the same student underlined the need to reach a wider public due to the importance of the issue, which also concerns external contexts and communities.

The Facebook page registered around 5,700 “likes,” the Twitter profile 563 followers, and the YouTube channel 85 subscriptions (with around 14,600 views of 30 videos published) (March 2015). Considering that the Arborea community has around 4,000 inhabitants and the wider Oristanese district has around 166,000 inhabitants, an external observer is inclined to believe that the majority of followers are from the area. However, 96% of the Facebook followers are from Italy, but there is a small percentage of people who follow the page from the UK (1.6%), Spain (0.6%), Germany (0.6%), the USA (0.3%), France (0.3%), Australia (0.2%) and Switzerland (0.2%). Among the followers in Italy, only 18% of followers are from Arborea and 41% of “likes” are from the Oristanese province. Although the majority of followers (out of the Oristanese area) are from Sardinia (mainly from Cagliari), 12% of people are from other Italian regions (Milan and Rome).

Finally, the students interviewed believe that concrete local actions, such as dissemination in schools, demonstrations, dissemination through informative materials, and cultural events, are much more effective than the Internet. They assume that the Internet started to be used as a tool for facilitating the organization of events and demonstrations and exchanging information after the local committee had already created a local network. At the same time, the Internet is used to show outsiders the activities taking place and the reasons why the Arborea community rejects the project. Three students stated that the potential positive effects of online communication are undermined by the lack of an integrated multimedia communication, in particular through the national TV channels and newspapers.

In order to capture how students interpreted the context as presented by the Internet platforms, they were divided into four groups and asked to draw rich pictures (Avison, Golder, & Shah, 1992Avison, D. E., Golder, P. A., & Shah, H. U. (1992). Towards an SSM toolkit: Rich picture diagramming. European Journal of Information Systems, 1, 397408. doi:10.1057/ejis.1992.17[CrossRef], [CSA]). This activity aimed to identify how much their opinion was influenced by the communication strategy of the NPE committee (see Figure 1). They stated that they only perceived negative impacts caused by the drilling project. The main local concerns are related to the potential damage to the ecosystem, the environmental pollution, and the human health consequences. These are, in turn, strongly connected to potential damage to the Arborea’s production activities, which are mainly based on agriculture, dairy cattle farming, and fishing activities. One group identified windmills as an alternative energy production system, although the group also underlined negative aspects in relation to this system (in particular related to land degradation). Another group created two kinds of pictures: One related to the current situation, the other to a future scenario in which the drilling project is approved (see Figure 2). They stated that, even if the current situation does not change, Arborea’s social-economic and environmental status might nevertheless be negatively affected by the intensive dairy cattle production. Hence, even though it is quite difficult to estimate the “environmental impacts” of the current activities (related to the intensive dairy production) in addition to the use of fertilizers in agriculture activities, these practices might in the same way influence the sustainability of the system. The group identified two main consequences related to the two possible future scenarios: In the case of the realization of a drilling project, this might drastically modify the local social-economic framework (in positive, but especially in negative terms), causing a possible loss of traditional habits; in the case of maintaining the current situation, this might cause a “paralysis” of the social-cultural-economic system (with negative consequences as well), because of the limited introduction of innovation.

Figure 1. Rich pictures drawn by students on the possible impacts of a drilling project in the Arborea context.

Figure 2. Possible scenarios identified by students in relation to the approval and rejection of the drilling project.

Discussion

Referring to those features identified by Benford and Snow (2000Benford, R. D., & Snow, D. A. (2000). Framing processes and social movements: An overview and assessment. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 611639. Retrieved fromhttp://www.jstor.org/stable/223459[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], [CSA]) as constant variable components of collective action frames, it is possible to describe the NPE committee in relation to the following issues: Problem identification and direction/locus of attribution; flexibility and rigidity, inclusivity and exclusivity; interpretive scope and influence; and degree of resonance. The NPE social committee identified a very specific issue that is related to the drilling threat in the Arborea district. This problem also enhanced the development of a larger network thanks to the connections with other local social movements, which operate in Sardinia and in Italy against a variety of threats (such as militarization of some areas, land consumption, health threats, etc.). However, defining the Arborea movement as an example of “decentralised communitarianism” (Harvey, 1999Harvey, D. (1999). Justice, nature and the geography of difference. Oxford, England: Blackwell.) might be misleading. In fact, the “decentralised communitarianism” refers to a self-sufficient community based on egalitarianism, participation of all members and nonhierarchical decision-making. This only partially happens in the Arborea district: even though the community is entirely involved in defending the local environment against the “drilling threat,” this does not necessarily mean that the local intensive dairy cattle production is free of long-term environmental and economic impacts. In fact, there are a number of drawbacks that might threaten the sustainability of the system, such as, for example, the excessive production of nitrate and phosphorus deriving from the input of organic matter into the fields, GHG emissions, livestock–water interaction, hyperspecialization of the economic system, and European Directives (e.g., European Nitrate Directive, 1991European Nitrate Directive (1991). Council Directive 91/676/EEC of 12 December 1991 concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources. European Commission. Retrieved fromhttp://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:31991L0676). By contrast, the work of the NPE committee might be described as goal-oriented “action” aimed at fighting a specific threat to the local economy. In fact, the movement focused on a specific issue that might represent a common threat to the equilibrium of the system. At the same time, they have only partially considered other possible drawbacks deriving from the current situation, which might cause a “paralysis” of the social-economic system.

Some of the most important features to be considered here concern the degree of resonance and the capacity of the movement to be inclusive. The NPE may be described as a flexible and inclusive group. This is because it aimed to create the largest group possible by involving local people while trying to attract external attention at regional and national levels. Even though the NPE movement has been able to create a large network of relationships, the scope of its collective action frame is limited to the interests of the Arborea community and against a very specific threat. In this sense, some limits of the Internet communication strategy can be highlighted, such as the limited resonance given to possible advantages produced by a potential drilling project in the area, the limited communication with the counterpart (Saras), and the scarce visibility given to the connections (which they created) with other similar contexts, movements, and environmental issues relating to the problem faced. To put it another way, thanks to ICTs they attracted the solidarity of other social movements, but they did not use all the potentialities of the ICTs to communicate this solidarity outside the movement network. In so doing, while having a strong support from other movements, they appear a little isolated. Both the original members of the movement and the students agree on these limits in the communication and information strategy of the local committee, in particular related to the limited attention given to the counterpart (Saras). In fact, the communication focused on the cons of the project, while often ignoring potential pros. Even when the Saras corporation was invited to meet the local population and discuss with the local committee (May 30, 2013), a very hostile attitude was recorded and the Saras representatives found it very difficult to describe and explain the project and the reasons upon which it was based (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCncwPtCynE).

These “limits” might be seen by an external observer as elements of “closure.” In fact, contrary to what really happened, the Internet-based communication might show that the Arborea community worked alone by only referring to internal specific forces, without collaborating with external actors and entities. By contrast, the big resonance obtained by the movement, at least at the local and regional scale, might be explained in relation to a number of reasons: They operated in a very cohesive community, which is the only one in Sardinia characterized by an efficient cooperative system. The majority of the population depends on agricultural and livestock activities and belongs to at least one of the cooperatives that operate in the area. The NPE members stated that, at the beginning of their work, the greatest difficulties were represented by the scarce information about drilling projects among local people. They have been able to inform and “persuade” the local community about potential damages to the local economy, environment, and health. Local community support has been obtained through a very long process, during which the activists visited their neighbors home by home in order to illustrate the possible negative impacts of the “Eleonora Project.” This has been a successful formula that led the population to become cohesive against a common threat. Local community support has also been instrumental in persuading the local municipality (initially in favor of the project) to change its position on the project. However, one of the most important examples of support might be identified in the local cooperatives’ participation in the movement’s initiatives. Their intervention is connected to the potential consequences of the drilling project on both their economic activities and brands (in particular the “Arborea” milk brand). For this reason, especially, they actively supported the NPE.

The ability of the local committee to persuade local people and cooperatives brought it increased attention, not only at the local level (by influencing the local municipality position on the project), but also at the regional level. In this vein, it is possible to state that the work of the movement in loco (through word-of-mouth, home-by-home visits, demonstrations, and local public events and activities) has contributed toward reinforcing the bonding social capital of the Arborea community by increasing the community cohesiveness against a common threat. Moreover, the increasing number of people who became part of the protest has produced a higher resonance, at least at the regional level. In other words, the NPE work created favorable conditions for reinforcing those internal ties already existing within the community. In fact, the NPE members are strongly persuaded that, even though they were not able to influence the final decision of the SAVI, they showed the regional governors the cohesiveness of the community in rejecting any kind of extractive activities in their territory.

Although the activities organized in loco contribute toward reinforcing the internal ties of the Arborea community, the Internet has played a significant role in enlarging the resonance of the protest and consequently increasing the number of external ties. The Internet is considered by activists to be a useful additional communication medium. In fact, even though the local community was mainly involved in face-to-face meetings and activities, the Internet was used to organize activities, giving them visibility outside. Moreover, the Internet did not play a crucial role in interacting with regional institutions: the dialogue between the movement and the regional government took place in private/public meetings. However, the Internet was used as a platform for dialogue with the outside, which contributed toward creating relationships with other movements and the wider public (at the national, but in particular the regional level).

Finally, although the role played by the Internet was marginal in reinforcing the local “sense of community,” it indirectly enhanced cohesion. In other words, the Internet played a marginal role in promoting protest and reinforcing community cohesion, but was useful in attracting external solidarity and support, thus indirectly reinforcing the sense of community against an external threat. At the same time, the scarce communication through traditional media, such as national TV and newspapers, limited the local committee resonance by contributing toward restricting its space of action at the local scale.

Conclusions

The case study illustrates at least four contributions for enhancing local community empowerment.

First, even though the use of ICTs may facilitate the communication strategies of environmental grassroots movements, these represent only an element of a more articulated strategy of dissemination and recruitment. In this, the Internet and new social media, in addition to traditional media, might help to reach a larger number of people. The case study shows how the lack of use of traditional media (in particular, national TV and newspapers) limits the resonance of the protest. Hence, on the one hand it is clear that ICTs have limited the influence of traditional media over the formation of the public agenda (Brosius & Weimann, 1996Brosius, H., & Weimann, G. (1996). Who sets the agenda: Agenda-setting as a two-step flow. Communication Research, 23, 561580. doi:10.1177/009365096023005002[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], [CSA]); on the other hand, ICTs might help, but cannot substitute for traditional media.

Second, when a problem is geographically restricted (as, for example, happened in Sardinia), local grassroots movements need to be supported by a collective voice at a wider scale (at least national). This may enhance the possibility to be received and heard by political representatives. By contrast, dialogue with political governments is not always easy to achieve through the Internet. In this sense, an on-site protest and consequently a direct dialogue with governors and powerful stakeholders increases the probability of success.

Third, in small local communities in which the social cohesion is already high, people primarily communicate face-to-face. In fact, the Internet represents a very useful tool, in particular to engage new followers from the outside, but concrete local action seems to produce outcomes that are more effective and successful. At the same time, ICTs represent useful tools, in particular in organizational terms, for organizing internal strategies and networking with groups that work on the same issues. Furthermore, several researchers have outlined how the role of opinion leader, first analyzed by Katz (Katz, 1957Katz, E. (1957). The two-step flow of communication: An up-to-date report on an hypothesis. Public Opinion Quarterly, 21, 6178. doi:10.1086/266687[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], 1994Katz, E. (1994). Forward. In G. Weimann (Ed.), The influentials: People who influence people (pp. ix–xiii). Albany: State University of New York Press.; Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1955Katz, E., & Lazarsfeld, P. F. (1955). Personal influence: The part played by people in the flow of mass communication. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.), is changed with the advent of ICTs (Nisbet, 2005Nisbet, E. C. (2005). The engagement model of opinion leadership: Testing validity within a European context. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 18(1), 127. doi:10.1093/ijpor/edh100[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®]; Nisbet & Myers, 2007Nisbet, M. C., & Myers, T. (2007). The polls—Trends: Twenty years of public opinion about global warming. Public Opinion Quarterly, 71, 444470. doi:10.1093/poq/nfm031[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®]). It has been rightly underlined (Stromer-Galley, 2014Stromer-Galley, J. (2014). Presidential campaigning in the Internet age. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.[CrossRef], p. 15) how “the principle of two-step flow was mostly lost to campaigns in the mass media era but has returned in the age of the Internet.” This is particularly intriguing and opens up a fruitful discussion over the rebirth of a “classic” fluctuation in media theories. However, what we have noticed is that in small local communities, the role of opinion leaders is mainly related to interpersonal communication skills and social status, rather than to social media skills.

Fourth, the case study shows the importance of local economic bodies (such as cooperatives) in supporting collective action. When communities are characterized by solid and integrated economic systems, thanks to the presence of powerful organizations (such as, for example, cooperatives), that collaborate with each other and support a common instance, the resonance of the protest increases.

Finally, it is difficult to measure how much the intervention of the local committee through local actions and Internet-based communication influenced the final decision of the SAVI in rejecting the Saras proposal. In fact, the Saras proposal was rejected for “technical reasons.” At the same time, the local community, thanks to the internal cohesion and a collaborative system, was able to reach the regional government in order to explain its reasons for rejecting the project. This might become significant in relation to the objections filed by Saras to both the regional and national governments.

Thus, the Internet and social media may be defined as very important supportive tools for implementing effective grassroots interventions, but local actions, face-to-face communication, and social cohesion appear to be the stars around which small grassroots movements revolve.

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