Where the internet and protests collide
Political activism has been in the news more in the last year than in all the years since the 2003 Iraq war. Revolutions in the Arab world, occupations in America and beyond, and student protests and social unrest in the UK have all been hailed as ‘social networking revolutions’. To understand the importance of information and communication technologies to these examples of political activism, we must examine the extent to which these events were actively driven by new technologies. By discussing these cases, we can see that increased use of social networking software and other technological advances is not necessarily a root cause of these events, but rather simply an aspect of them.
There can be no denying that, in the West, if your political event is not advertised on the internet, it is probably not going to be considered much of a success in 2011. In terms of promoting activism through the internet, a small number of websites have basically cornered the market, most prominently Facebook and Twitter. Almost every political event, from protests to organising meetings, to even attempted riots, now comes with a promotional Facebook event. Twitter updates followers in real time of what is happening in volatile situations, and provides a new media platform to activists as it becomes journalists’ first stop for ready-made quotes. Twitter has even spawned its own new form of activism, sometimes called the ‘Twittermob‘, where users can come out of seemingly nowhere to force action from previously near untouchable institutions such as the courts or powerful newspaper outlets. This has been seen prominently in the News of the World hacking controversy, the anger at offensive newspaper articles such as Jan Moir’s homophobic Stephen Gately treasure or the Sunday Express’ insensitive Dunblane article, and the Trafigura oil spill/Ryan Giggs being a mad shagger super-injunction cases.
It is important however not to overstate the importance of websites such as Twitter in recent political events. Reading newspapers and watching television news, it would seem like Twitter is incredibly important to modern day political activism, or indeed pretty much any mundane news story about anything ever. However, we shouldn’t mistake media portrayals of social networking software for reality. The traditional media frequently hype social networking in their reports, but in part this is because they are convenient to access, easy to understand, and important for news output in a world where traditional media is fighting to maintain its relevance and readership. Twitter provides user-generated content for traditional media to exploit while simultaneously cutting the number of paid journalists on their staff, and in this sense it can feed a capitalist agenda.
Creepy winking birds will save us all
An example of a somewhat removed-from-the-truth portrayal of Twitter and Facebook’s importance in groundbreaking political events is the way that the media reported their use in the Arab Spring uprisings of early 2011. It was claimed that “connectedness is becoming a relatively mundane part of people’s lives” and that social networking had toppled the Tunisian regime. But the reality is that social networking is still not as common in the Arab world as the Western media would lead us to believe. In Iran, where a ‘Twitter revolution’ was reported in 2010, the number of Twitter users was estimated at between 7,000 and 20,000 – a tiny percentage in a population of 77 million. It seems crass to call the Arab Spring a ‘social networking revolution’ simply because this is one of the ways that information was shared, when in reality it was the result of decades of social unrest and anger at dictatorial regimes. This Cracked article makes a few good points about the media’s overestimation of social networking in the Arab revolutions.
While social networking’s importance to the Arab revolutions may have been overstated by the media, that is not to say that it cannot be incredibly useful to activists with regular access to its features. The Daily Mail’s online publisher has stated his belief that “Facebook isn’t a threat [to traditional media]… but a gigantic free marketing engine.” This belief is doesn’t need to be confined however to traditional or capitalist modes of information output. If taken on board correctly, the idea of Facebook as a huge resource for marketing your ideas is one that can be utilised to effect by activist groups. The problem for activists seems to come when this is promoted at the expense of other forms of organising. For activist groups, using social networking for organisational purposes can be at best problematic and at worst dangerous. However, what it is undoubtedly useful for is advertising political ideas once they have been organised and put into effect.
Hey Chris Sibbald, I still want my bloody banner back
Local politics in Glasgow provide a stark example of this principle in practise. Two notable recent examples of occupation tactics used by activist groups in the city have yielded quite different results, and much of this can be traced back to the manner in which they were organised. The ‘Free Hetherington’ occupation of a Glasgow University building for 7 months in 2011 was organised largely by a mixture of preliminary broad based student activist meetings, and secret organising meetings to plan the taking of the building without the police or university intervening. Once the occupation was established, the internet was utilised extensively to promote the occupation’s activities. It finished having reached agreements with the university to implement several of its demands, and it played an important role in the establishment of activist links and left wing unity in the Glasgow community.
By contrast, the ‘Occupy Glasgow’ event, which has been ongoing since October 2011, was organised via a small number of activists acting upon the suggestion of a Facebook event, in response to the much larger Occupy Wall Street camp in New York, USA. The Glasgow camp has been plagued with problems of low attendance to the point of the unsustainability of campsites, poor relationships with the rest of the activist community in Glasgow, misogyny amongst the campers in the wake of a gang rape that occurred onsite, and the notable presence of too many off-the-charts batshit conspiracy theorists in the camp.
The difference in support amongst, and usefulness to, the activist community in Glasgow is clear, and it could be said that the way in which these occupations have approached the internet has played a large part in this. If activist groups continue to utilise the most useful aspects of both traditional organising methods and the newer opportunities afforded by modern technology, this can produce better results than treating internet organising through social networking websites as the be all and end all of political organising, or a substitute for coherent, well-supported politics.
The Occupy Movement provides an interesting example of where the political origins of Facebook and less well-thought out applications of online activism meet. Where pre-internet social movements like the women’s movement and the civil rights movement in America brought social change out of decades of political discussion and action reaching a peak, new movements like the Occupy phenomenon are not prepared with a coherent message. The reason for this is the context in which they have been formed. Occupy protests around the world have sprung out of calls on social networking sites to replicate the actions of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab revolutions, regardless of whether these tactics are in reality applicable to smaller towns and cities with no discernible widely-felt revolutionary atmosphere. It is important to note that the political ideology behind Facebook actively supports the promotion of this kind of unfocused approach to political issues.
Mark Zuckerberg: the friendly hipster face of pure fascist evil
It has been stated by one of the three members of Facebook’s own Board of Directors that Facebook is a ‘social experiment‘. In his essay ‘The Education of a Libertarian‘, Peter Thiel says of his investments:
“By starting a new Internet business, an entrepreneur may create a new world. The hope of the Internet is that these new worlds will impact and force change on the existing social and political order.”
While Mark Zuckerberg is the public face of Facebook, venture capitalist Thiel is considered to be the brains of the operation. Described in The Guardian as a “neocon activist” and a member of a right wing internet pressure group called TheVanguard.Org, it must hold true that if his plans for Facebook as a social experiment which can make money out of people’s interpersonal relationships are working, then this internet monopoly is certainly proving that it can successfully foster neo-conservative activism. When the brain behind Facebook openly states that he “no longer believe[s] that freedom and democracy are compatible”, it is not a great leap to judge that his strong right-wing ideology will have found itself into the design and purpose of his social experiment. There is bound to be consequences for left-wing activism utilising Facebook in this wide scale manipulation of its users. One way in which these consequences have manifested is known as ‘clicktivism‘, where online activism reflects principles of advertising and engages only in short term goals such as acquiring signatures for single issue petitions. Clicktivism is essentially the reduction of activism to throwaway, commodified ideas that require little political engagement, and as someone who regards democracy as undesirable and dislikes women being allowed the vote, it follows that this deconstruction of traditional activism can only be seen as a positive for Thiel’s ideology. This position on Facebook definitely falls into the realm of ‘cyber-scepticism‘, but it is hard to argue that this is not the ideological root of aspects of Facebook’s design when its own investors and directors are openly stating that this is the case. It is important for left-wing activists who seek to fight traditional power models to bear in mind the philosophical roots behind some of the software that dominates the information sharing market on the internet, and to challenge this where possible. When activism allows itself to be reduced to clicktivism, it plays into the hands of the capitalists who seek to deconstruct human interactions for marketing purposes.
One activist group that seems to have worked out how to utilise social networking without falling prey to its more obvious flaws has been UK Uncut, a loosely organised group which protests tax avoidance by large businesses, and opposes cuts to public services. Where clicktivism utilises the internet to reduce people’s political involvement to a minimum, the ethos of UK Uncut is to enable people who may not have been involved in activism before to organise whole protests themselves. By using a basic organisational template – information disseminated by UK Uncut on websites such as Twitter and Indymedia – anyone can engage with UK Uncut and take its ideas from the internet to their local area, combining protest with the internet’s potential to make ideas ‘viral’. The Guardian states that “new technology has facilitated decentralised, non-hierarchical, horizontal networks” as UK Uncut embodies. This clearly has ramifications for the nature of modern day protest, and in this sense information and communication technologies can encourage short bursts of well organised protest anywhere activists decide to facilitate it, instead of protest being largely confined to tightly controlled large demonstrations in population centres such as was seen during the 2003 Iraq war protests.
Jody McIntyre wheeling menacingly towards Ben Brown
Technologies such as the Blackberry Messenger encrypted messaging service have the potential to be useful to activists in the future. The ability of the BBM service to inform a massive number of people, undetectable to the police and government, of fast-moving events has already been seen in the 2011 English riots. If this technology is developed in future in a way specifically designed for activist use, and is utilised by the likes of UK Uncut, it will be harder for the police to track and arrest activists. The correlation between access to plus understanding of social networking for political agitation purposes and the rise of activism that is harder for police and governments to control and monitor is worth noting. Because protests can be organised quickly, at the drop of a hashtag, the police can find it difficult to estimate how many people will turn out and which target they will pick, which gives UK Uncut protestors a strategic advantage. This has also been a positive development for campaigners who wish to highlight police brutality or miscarriages of justice. They now find that when the police behave inappropriately such as in the case of Jody McIntyre, despite the mainstream media continuing to portray this in a way that is favourable to the police, protestors are quickly able to put across an alternative viewpoint to a much wider audience than ever would have been possible previously. If traditionally organised Non-Govermental Organisations like Greenpeace felt in the past that they were receiving rough treatment from the police, it was unlikely that many people would ever hear about it. For these NGOs, the internet can have the advantage of letting them put across their ideals in their own words in a way that is easily accessible to potential recruits, rather than people hearing about their activities solely through a negative media portrayal.
Activists for whom the value of information and communication technologies cannot be overstated are those who traditionally have been denied access to mainstream political engagement, such as women and disabled people. Websites like Mumsnet have allowed mothers in the UK to not only have a space in which to discuss their own political views in a way that can be adaptable to their schedule as mothers, but also to a limited extent have those views taken in some ways seriously by the media and, at election time, by politicians. Disability campaigners can promote alternatives to the exclusive nature of physical protests, and reclaim some agency over protests surrounding the issues that personally affect them. The internet can provide support networks, that often develop into activist groups, for disenfranchised people – a “virtual civic society”.
While social networking and other communication technologies have certainly made a visible impact on political activism, to claim that they have fundamentally changed them in the way that much media output over the last year has done seems little more than hyperbole, at least at this early stage. It is clear that the way activism is marketed and in some cases approached is changing with the advent of new technologies. But this change has not yet amounted to much of significance, if we consider the vague nature of the Occupy protests and, thus far, the lack of explicitly political mass applications of technologies like encrypted messaging services. What we have seen with the development of these technologies however is the potential that they hold for future political activism all over the world, from local anti-cuts flashmobs to regime-toppling revolutions. If political activists, particularly those on the left who have been embracing the internet and incorporating it into their activities for years, can utilise the best aspects of these technological advances – while managing to avoid the pitfalls of poor applications such as has been seen in the Occupy movement and over-reliance on Facebook – political activism will be strengthened, not hindered, by the internet and other communication technologies.