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Refreshing the Revolution: Social media and activism

Refreshing the Revolution: How social media have updated the way we mobilise for change

By Annie McDougall
May 18, 2012

Is the idea that social media can enable and empower us in the real world a pretense generated by media owners and technological idealism, or is it a reality? While human factors such as anger at regimes are the petrol fuelling protest, new media could soon be viewed as the maps leading to victory. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter in particular provide near-instantaneous contact that can be either totally public or (reasonably) private.

The issue at hand is whether these networks merely make for more convenient communication or whether they can they actually get people more involved with causes. Most contemporary academics writing on activism are writhing in discomfort over the supposed takeover of ‘slacktivism’ – where people are lulled into thinking that making a difference is as easy as clicking ‘Like’ on a Facebook group. There is plenty of scepticism that even 10% of social media users would get off their couches and march for most of the causes they supported online. Should we be concerned that social media users may not know how to makes submissions to local council on issues, or even make reasonable and informed arguments longer than stringing together a few words?

Twitter has gained popularity over other social networks for real-world commentary and statistics. The revolution in Egypt last year was often referred to as the “Twitter Revolution”, though social media have been more accurately described not as the driver of revolution but rather as a new model of citizen journalism. Changes made by Twitter encourage its use as a place for sharing things that will be re-tweeted not just by your best-friend, but eventually a bus driver in Bulgaria. In 2007 it changed its tweet prompt from ‘What are you doing?’ to ‘What’s happening?’, discouraging dull tweets such as ‘I’m making a sandwich’ in favour of tweets like ‘There are riots outside my window’.

The massive popularity of Facebook may not result in the ideas of minority groups being filtered out, but instead give instant fame to those that luck out and go viral, even if they have only 15 minutes of it. While we would assume having a large number of people with differing opinions in one place would mean those with radical ideas are pushed to the fringes, research done by Natalie Glance and Bernard Heberman suggest this is not so. Rather a diversity of opinion in a group can actually lead to alignment behind a cause; the initial movements of a few extremists can lead to a domino effect of action. An example of this is how the Kony 2012 campaign against child soldiers in Uganda played out over Facebook. The video was first posted by those involved with the project, which introduced it to a larger group who saw the video and were moved enough to spread it further. Then there were the many who passed it on without watching the whole thing, hoping to be able to claim they were on the bandwagon before anyone else even knew about it.

Facebook allows variance in levels of participation in socially motivated content: from liking a page, to sharing videos or pictures, to actually joining and attending events. The easiest of these, liking a page, is not necessarily the least helpful – campaigns for change have been known to have achieved their objectives through Facebook groups alone. American new media writer Clay Shirky notes that ‘highly motivated people can create a context more easily in which barely motivated people can become effective without having to become activists themselves.’

In the UK, HSBC bank recently recruited graduates by offering cheque accounts with no overdraft fees. It then tried to revoke the policy, as it was costing them money, and assumed that the change would be overlooked by (distracted) students. Within days of the reversal being quietly announced, however, a ‘Stop the Great HSBC Graduate Rip Off’ page popped up, attracting the membership of thousands of students. Members shared information about other banks that offered interest free overdrafts, and HSBC were forced to reverse their policy lest they risk a significant number of graduates moving banks. Joining a group in this case was much easier than writing letters of protest, and allowed collaborative alternatives to be developed. For such protests, Facebook can be the perfect platform.

The gap between Facebook participation and real participation is assumed to be a large one. The popularity of the Kony 2012 video with New Zealanders on Facebook did not result in widespread participation in the April 20 ‘Cover the Night’ event promoted at the end of the video. This may have been due to the fact that by April 20 criticisms of the video had been circulated almost as widely as the video itself, along with footage of creator Jason Russell having a mental breakdown, sans clothes. Malcolm Gladwell argues in his 2010 article ‘Small Change’ that this drop-off in enthusiasm is all we should expect from viral movements, because commitment to causes is generated only by strong, noble leaders that will continue to inspire when the initial waves of adrenaline wear off. Jason Russell, a rather gawky young American lacking charisma, was not someone we were particularly interested in meeting.

As Shirky notes, ‘collective action is different to individual action, both harder to get going, and once going, harder to stop’. It is sadly the case that those with influence often have little more than charisma and perfect swishy hair. It wasn’t Barack Obama’s tweet in support of Japan after their earthquake last year that made #japan take off as the biggest hashtag for updates and support, but Justin Bieber’s.

The main fault of social networks for activism, according to Gladwell, is the lack of strong connections between people involved, which have always been crucial in historical cases of protest. He bases his case on one of the early sit-ins in the Black Civil Rights movement, at a Woolworths in Greensboro, Northern California in 1960. The sit-in was started by four students with very close ties to one another – the four shared a dormitory, three of the four went to the same high school, and had a long lead up to action of late night meetings. Gladwell sees social networks as based on weak ties, as we sometimes ‘friend’ people that are really only acquaintances. The conclusion Gladwell jumps to here is that this makes it an inappropriate platform for linking up with those who inspire us to make a difference. But he does not take into account the use of EdgeRank, which means most of the information that comes up in our Facebook feeds is from those whom we respect, admire and interact with most, our ‘strong tie’ friends. Secondly, the more intimate functions of Facebook, the private messaging and event co-ordinating functions, are private and tend to be a convenient hub for interacting with those whom we would in real life anyway. Thirdly it allows us to feel closer to leaders like politicians, and interact with them in ways we would otherwise be unable to. The Occupy movement which saw huge numbers of people come together across 82 countries, stands in total contradiction to Gladwell, as for most of those committed to the movement weak connections that had brought them there were turned into strong ones that lasted beyond the occupation.

Social media may by default facilitate greater participation. While EdgeRank makes activities of close friends easier to see, Facebook groups often act as slightly more subtle platforms for advertising and so Facebook (concerned as any business with generating revenue) will be motivated to promote them. Cause groups can exploit the levels of visibility that are given to ad groups.

Facebook has its own official space for cause groups,, where links take you directly to instant donation pages. Causes has been relatively unsuccessful for fundraising for most non-profit groups compared to other methods of fundraising. However, it has been shown that people tend to be more altruistic if they get social credit for it, so Causes provides incentive for donating in that it is public. Separate from Causes, Facebook has recently invited American users to sign up as organ donors through official channels via the site, a move that saw 6000 people sign up in a few hours.

The read-write nature of Web 2.0 has evolved a long way from simply text and image sharing. There are now millions of applications available for almost any purpose we can think of, and a large number of them allow people to collectively generate new content to support and facilitate action. is an online database service where users connect sensor derived data to apps based on the data. In Brooklyn users have set up a system to monitor sewage and other contaminants with the aim of encouraging locals to get local waterways cleaned up. In Japan similar apps were used to crowd source data about radiation after Fukishima, which was organised via blogs, Twitter and Wiki sites, on the grounds that data drives activism.

The emergent capabilities of cellphones let us post video to a friend’s pocket and allow them a visual and aural window into where we are and what we are doing; bringing us closer together, strengthening our ties. It is some way off telepathic communication, but maybe not that far off. With other animal species, swarm intelligence triggered by chemical trail markers (as with ants) and following neighbours (as with flocks of birds) creates large-scale co-ordination which is close to flawless. Such displays of emergent intelligence are awe-inspiring even if we understand how they operate. With new media allowing us to synchronise our individually highly-advanced minds, who is to say that we may not see a new consciousness emerge that is not only beautiful, but also more powerful than anything we have ever seen before?

New technologies are often hyped beyond their actual value but the use of social media in last year’s Arab Spring and Occupy movements supports the notion that social media not only inform and connect but also involve and draw in those that may have previously been apathetic or impartial. While large-scale involvement in protest can still be officially ignored (John Key’s claim of total ignorance of the recent Asset Sales hikoi despite it having 6000 participants being a pertinent example) it raises awareness and will surely result in more action through legally recognised channels such as making submissions to the council. We can be confident that we have a lot more reason to be excited about social media for change than we did about, say, the fax machine. They matter because they make strong links out of those that would otherwise be weak, and allow distance and oppression to be overcome.


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