Social media and political activism: the big debate


10:37 pm - October 3rd 2010

by Sarah Ditum    


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All debates about the influence of social media come down to this. It is just fast paper. Was anyone expecting anything else? I mention this because The Observer today contains a summary of the Gladwell v Shirky spat over the power of Twitter, and while it’s presented as an argument, both of them are basically offering versions of the ‘fast paper’ argument.

Gladwell’s thesis is that social media campaigning doesn’t change anything. Retweeting a hashtag, clicking the ‘like’ button and slapping a twibbon (ick) on your avatar are all heart-warming acts of self-congratulation – a little pat on your own back in recognition of your very fine moral nature – but they don’t have any influence on the real world.

The Shirky response is, more or less, ‘Duh.‘ Some people overstated the case for Twitter activism during the Green Uprising in Iran, but just because social media couldn’t overthrow a government doesn’t mean it isn’t good at other stuff.

It’s a communications tool: it’s good at conveying information and emotions. Gladwell is just arguing with the Quixotic extreme when he says, “”Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that [Martin Luther] King’s task in Birmingham, Alabama, would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail.”

But campaigners aren’t now using social media instead of direct action; they’re using it to inform and motivate direct action, and to change attitudes. One good example is the It Gets Better Project, launched by Dan Savage in response to the suicides of bullied gay teenagers.

It’s a very simple civil rights campaign, in which gay adults upload videos to YouTube describing how their lives have improved since the grim days high school.

Pre-social media, it’s the kind of guidance that could perhaps only come about through personal ads and penpal friendships: YouTube makes it possible to broadcast support. You could criticise it for not being the Stonewall riots, but a first-person account of a happy adult life probably beats smashing up a nightclub when it comes to helping these kids.

The truth is that all causes everywhere come with a lot of badge-wearing hangers-on, and even street level activism is enormously inefficient. I don’t think I’m doing myself a disservice when I say that my contribution to the anti-war movement (shuffling around Sheffield city centre, wearing a pillowcase skirt with “NOT IN MY NAME” screen printed on the arse) could have been left undone without harming the overall cause of the Stop The War Coalition.

Bluntly, if you’re involved in a protest it’s probably because you’re basically powerless, and you’re not going to get everything what you want anyway. 60 years on from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, there are mainstream media organisations pimping the deceit that ‘black’ is synonymous with ‘unamerican’, and 50 years post Stonewall, gay teens are still being bullied to death. Even the most powerful campaigns are only skirmishes in long, slow and sometimes sorrowful struggles.

Yes, social media gives a lot more people the opportunity to be telescopic philanthropists, sitting at our desks plugging our email addresses into petition forms. But that’s purely a function of campaigns being able to reach a lot of people – and useless as these pixel-level gestures may be at bringing about the object they’re supposedly aimed at, they do at least demonstrate and encourage a movement of attitudes leading to long-term change.

In terms of campaigning, you’d be a goddamn fool to keep organising flyer drops and forget to update your Facebook group, just because Facebook gives you the dispiriting ability to see who’s lost interest, whereas your flyers never report back when they end up in the bin. And in terms of places to wear a political slogan, I’m going contra Gladwell and saying that ‘in my Twitter feed’ is probably an improvement over ‘on my arse’. Neither does much. But fast paper does it where a few more people will see.


Photo by arimoore, used under Creative Commons

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About the author
Sarah is a regular contributor and a freelance journalist and critic. She blogs at Paperhouse.
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Reader comments


Can’t help thinking that the focus on quantitative effect of tweets n stuff rather overlooks the cumulative qualitative impact of the change they bring about… networked society and all that stuff. Wood for trees, etc.

While this is one of the more reasonable responses to Gladwell’s article, it is still (like most of what I’ve read in this “debate”) based on a complete misrepresentation of his argument.

All the rebuttals I’ve read follow the same laborious pattern. Firstly, they falsely position Gladwell’s argument as being “extreme” – i.e. saying social media activism is worthless (he doesn’t say this). Next, they basically rephrase Gladwell’s own assertion that social media is a great tool for communication and passing on ideas. This is then followed up by a quick anecdote or case study which shows exactly the kind of light-touch, ‘weak ties’, social media campaign Gladwell was talking about. The rebuttal concludes by summarising Gladwell’s own argument, while somehow also saying he’s wrong.

All the while, the obvious, uncontroversial, and important message from Gladwell’s essay is being ignored: to shake the world you need a two-tiered strategy (at least) – with greater emphasis placed on building a “strong tie” network of activists willing to take the risks necessary.

This sounds so obvious I feel almost embarrassed writing it. However, Gladwell was saying nothing more than this. The persistent and misguided “debate” over the article does nothing more than muddy the waters and help propagate the myth that social media activism is the “future”.

This wouldn’t normally bother me, except I’d hate to see organisations campaigning for serious social change tricked into giving social media more importance than it warrants.

Pretty much with Simon Davies on this, though I’m not sure if the piece really disagrees either; there isn’t a debate here.

I read the first 1100 words of the New Yorker piece, and decided that it wasn’t worth the process of reading another 5000 word article that was really just a cry for attention. It’s just a move on to version B of circular arguments now that the “they are all narcissistic twits” line is stale.

Far better to get on and use Twitter to organise something, as those students in Alabama used the telephone.

I’m just glad that Andrew Spleen hasn’t come up with counterfactuals explaining why they are both wrong.

Gladwell’s precise point is that people are getting on Twitter *instead* of organising anything substantial.

I think the original post author and Gladwell would agree on one thing: there’s plenty of ineffective activism out there from relatively powerless people who want to make their voice heard.

This is going to be particularly obvious as ‘coalition of resistance’ responses to the Government’s cuts take off.

http://tom.acrewoods.net/2010/10/01/on-ineffective-venting-twitter-and-the-cuts

If anything, the internet can further distract people from useful strategic campaigning by making it that much easier to vent our feelings and half-worked-out arguments.

The question is whether there are any examples of activism that were significantly strengthened, or perhaps couldn’t even have happened, without the tools that the internet provides us.

6. the a&e charge nurse

“Gladwell’s thesis is that social media campaigning doesn’t change anything” – I’m not sure that is correct, in fact doesn’t Gladwell cite the example of a young man with leukemia who needed of a bone marrow transplant who used facebook (amongst other media) to great effect to track down a donor?

Surely Gladwel’s central point is that “weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism”, the sort of protest exemplified by the North Carolina four who requested breakfast in the whites only section of an American diner?

Gladwell looked into the background of different groups who did very courageous things (in the name of change) and found that a common theme was the strength of ties between the protagonists, a factor that is hardly likely to present amongst those with hundreds of facebook ‘friends’ (or acquaintances as they should be more accurately known).

Gladwell highlights another trend – the propensity to big up the effect of social media amongst those who are more concerned with the media itself rather than the true social or political effect it has led to.

This from the original article in the New Yorker – “As for Moldova’s so-called Twitter Revolution, Evgeny Morozov, a scholar at Stanford who has been the most persistent of digital evangelism’s critics, points out that Twitter had scant internal significance in Moldova, a country where very few Twitter accounts exist. Nor does it seem to have been a revolution, not least because the protests—as Anne Applebaum suggested in the Washington Post—may well have been a bit of stagecraft cooked up by the government. In the Iranian case, meanwhile, the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote, this past summer, in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”

my contribution to the anti-war movement (shuffling around Sheffield city centre, wearing a pillowcase skirt with “NOT IN MY NAME” screen printed on the arse)

……..in very small letters I presume………..

Surely, the changes from then (whether Alabama or Usmanov) are in ubiquity/speed/autonomy of communication. In some places this can be fundamental, but that’s perhaps more due to new possibilities opened up by invention of printing / telephones / blogs / twitter – i.e., the process of technological change.

Whether people do anything with it is still down to them.

There’s are more areas where “online activists” can contribute. Someone stuck at home in Lower Twistleton under Piddle can now help in myriad ways, where this was not possible before.

A useful point to remember the lessons Evgeny Morozov pointed out during the Usmanov flash-campaign?

http://www.mattwardman.com/blog/2007/10/01/the-alisher-usmanov-schillings-affair-as-a-training-school-for-activists/

Summarised:

1. Make copies of the initial post widely available on third-party web-sites.

2. Document all developments related to the story via a single resource; make it easily accessible to non-blogging audiences

3. Tell supporters of your campaign how they can help.

4. Leverage social news and community web-sites.

5. Put meta-data on everything; it makes your posts/pics easier to discover.

6. Encourage and facilitate intra-campaign communication.

7. Crowdsource, crowdsource, crowdsource!.

8. Find partners to build coalitions.

9. Find ways to form language hubs thus getting access/spreading your story to non-English language communities.

10. Be prepared!

Bah. Typo. Sorry.

there’s / there are


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