Are social media a force for good when it comes to social protest?

by | Jun 16, 2018 | Protest and repression, Social Media | 0 comments

photo: AAP (Joe Castro)

by Jessica Peacock

Social media are the defining characteristic of the late modern world. The constant and unconstrained communication they allow has created a completely new form of society, where people, regardless of time or place, can be connected instantly. This allows social protests to become unprecedented powerful, as more people from more parts of the world get involved. Castells called these ‘network movements’ because of the ‘process of communication that enabled the movement to find internal cohesion and external support’ (Castells, 2012). Occupy was just one part of a wider, worldwide campaign against global capitalism, as it drew inspiration from protests such as the Arab Spring and the Spanish indignants movement (Castells, 2012). In turn, many of those who were involved with those movements lent their support to the Occupy movement via tweets. Social media allow achieving a unity that would otherwise be impossible to reach.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that social media are so effective in making protests so successful. One can send out a call and millions of people will hear it, many of whom will then take to the streets: the larger the movement is, the more impact it has. We can see the success of such campaigns in examples like the Occupy movement. Occupy saw demonstrations for their Wall Street branch reach sizes of 15,000 protesters (Castells, 2012) and although they had not systematically laid their goals, they successfully forced lenders to reduce the loans of people whose houses had been foreclosed, and getting ‘nearly 650,000’ people to switch their accounts with major, commercial banks to not-for-profit credit unions (Castells, 2012).

However, those who use social media do not have homogeneous intentions. As has recently become increasingly evident, social media websites, such as Twitter and Facebook, can also be used by far-right groups intent on suppression just as ardently as by those searching for liberation. Social media are a haven for validation, no matter what your political views are. There will always be someone who agrees with you, and it is this validation that inspires us to pursue our ideologies further. Just as with Occupy, the larger a far-right campaign is, the louder its voice is, and social media provides the perfect platform for these groups to meet and organise.

Hasen (2017) writes about the effects of ‘cheap speech’, noting how far-right groups have always existed in America, but that social media enable them in a yet-unseen way. There have always been methods of distributing information, be it newsletters or radio programmes, but social media differ in that they offer ‘increased convenience, dramatically lower the costs of obtaining information, and spur the creation and consumption of content from radically diverse sources’ (Hasen, 2017, pg. 201). The price of looking at a tweet or a Facebook post can be literally nothing if you access free, public wifi. This opens up the Internet to nearly everyone and the larger the pool, the more people there will be like you.

There is also the concern that social media may only be contributing to polarisation (Hasen, 2017, pg. 215). Because social media consumption is so immediate and fleeting, people often have the mindset when they see something that either they agree with it, or they disagree, which limits binary ways of discoursing. You are on one side or the other; you are left-wing or right-wing. This breaks down discussion and just sees the two sides drift further and further apart ideologically, and the social protests that result get more and more hostile and violent. When protest is meant to take us forward, we see the fruits of social media producing movements where we are thrown back to the 1940s as Nazism re-emerges.

Unite The Right march, Charlottesville, August 2017

A recent example is the Unite the Right rally and the march that took place the evening before in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was organised via a Facebook event. On 11 August 2017, reportedly a group of around 250 protesters marched through the grounds of the University of Virginia, wielding torches and chanting white supremacist slogans. They were protesting the removal of a confederate statue, while also intending to unify the various white supremacist movements in the US. In the event, nineteen people were seriously injured and a further three were killed: one from a white supremacist driving a car into counter-protesters, and two from a helicopter that was monitoring the unrest crashing. Could a march of such size, impact, and consequence have been possible without social media? Are the positive results of campaigns such as Occupy worth the lives of the three people who died in Charlottesville?

However, the double-edged sword nature of social media revealed itself after the horrors of the Unite the Right march. In pursuit of justice, those against the protest were utilising social media to ‘[try] to identify people who allegedly participated in the white nationalist rally’, centred mostly around the Twitter account ‘YesYoureRacist’. We see again here how social media can provide effective, positive platforms to organise a protest. The interconnectivity of the Internet allowed the people local to Charlottesville who knew those who were involved to feed information to others who they did not know, but who, thanks to Twitter, had the ability to call out these racists. Further still, this counter-protest was not even a physically organised one, but took place entirely online, though still managed to have real life effects as those who were identified were fired from their jobs.

Social media cannot distinctly be seen as good or bad tools when it comes to social protests. Can platforms where hate campaigns can be organised as easily as equality campaigns ever be forces for good? It is difficult to say since the presence of one does not necessarily negate the other. Perhaps the problem does not even lie in social media, but with how we use them. Perhaps if we approached those we meet online with the same respect we treat those with we meet in real life, we could all be a bit closer united.

Offline references

Castells, M. (2012). Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Hasen, R. (2017). Cheap Speech and What It Has Done (To American Democracy), First Amendment Law Review, 16, pg. 200-231.


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