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The politics of social media

By: 
Chris Bruno

April 20, 2012

Now that 985 million people use facebook and twitter, having a facebook account has become almost as ubiquitous as having a phone number. Social media has entered our social lives and become indispensable. With mainstream media outlets using phrases like “the twitter revolution” to describe the Arab Spring, social media has entered our political lives as well.

Despite the inaccuracy of such phrases–implying that a website was the cause for an international uprising–the general message, that social media plays an important and necessary role in social change, deserves attention. Among the left today, we will often see two deeply polarized attitudes to social media and internet activism, often divided by generational lines.

Debates

The first, is the dismissal of social media: that it is but a fad and shouldn’t be taken seriously. The idea of “harnessing the power of the internet” for political ends is seen as wasting time and effort. Instead we should focus on tried-and-true outreach and organizing methods.

The second, is the heralding of twitter as a “messiah,” or more generally, the idea that social media, by its collaborative, democratic, and anarchic nature, will inevitably produce social change. The use and abuse of social media then becomes the most important thing in the world. Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring are cited as the proof of this strategy’s success.

Both of these views (however exaggerated) are equally dangerous because they assume internet activism plays an antagonistic role with regards to traditional “on the ground” activism. It assumes that we can only do one or the other.

Today, one cannot exist without the other. While long time activists may not see the merit in this new form of organizing, arguing that we managed to do “just fine” before this fad, they miss the point. Just as an online chat supplements but cannot replace a face-to-face meeting, a twitter post can add to, but can’t replace, a protest.

Occupy Wall Street

Let us take Occupy Wall Street as our case study. Could the Occupy movement be as successful as it was (or still is) without the use of social media? Without the use of facebook, with an online network of activists and as a forum for discussion? Or without twitter as a organizing tool and a source of grassroots reporting? Would we have even made a blip on the mainstream media’s radar without our viral YouTube videos of police brutality? Would anyone care about the movement if “Brooklyn bridge” and “Occupy Wall Street” had not made the trending topics on Twitter? No, honestly I don’t think it could have, not in 2011.

But could it also have been as successful as it was without the constant outreach and agitation in every major city in North America, without especially the massive support from labour unions and religious organizations, without the posters and leaflets that covered every square centimeter of our cities for months? Or without the general assemblies–the flesh and blood examples of direct democracy and consensus decision-making taking place in our downtown squares? Most certainly not.

And furthermore, the Occupy Movement did not just spring up out of nowhere. It started out as a simple web page and call-out by Canadian group Adbusters in the summer of 2011, which inspired months of planning, organizing, and collaboration–in the context of the Arab Spring and the Wisconsin occupation. General Assemblies met months before the day the occupation officially began. In a few weeks, the occupation of Wall Street grew from a few dozen earnest activists willing to spend the night, to a few thousand participating in daily demonstrations and occupying a park indefinitely. Until labour unions got involved after week two, the mainstream media paid no attention. And that’s just in New York City.

Occupy Oakland only received widespread attention after they were able to mobilize more than 20,000 people to the November 2 General Strike and shut down the port of San Francisco. A feat they were only able to accomplish by acting on public outrage at the Oakland Police Department’s tear gassing of occupiers, by collaborating with community organizations and local labour unions representing the workers at the heart of the struggle.

We can see through these, and other recent struggles, the importance of the strategic use of social media along with traditional tactics.

With the use of twitter we were able to quickly–often within minutes–mobilize for urgent actions (as in the November 15 attempted eviction of OWS). When the mainstream media didn’t feel the need to provide coverage of the movement, and when the police refused to allow the press to report on their abuses of power, we were there with our phones to tweet it to the world.

Contradictions

The importance of social media–to distinguish it from the traditional media channels–is that it is able to bypass the institutional barriers inherent in the old forms of dissemination. Now, everyone is a reporter. The paper you work for is your blog or your twitter feed. Now your news isn’t just what the New York Times or CBC decided to cover–for we have the likes of facebook and reddit.

We can’t ignore that the websites and technologies we now know and love are the properties of massive corporations whose interests lie in private profit and not social change; we understand that the 1% own, control, and use it for their own means.

The illusion of social media is that it is built up and sustained by its community, while its financial backers simply maintain the servers; it is our job to do the work; we collectively take the role of entertaining and informing ourselves. However, ultimately the control rests with the businesses that own social media. They can shut down individual accounts or postings, and they could shut down their whole service, if the interests of the 1% were in immediate danger. That’s exactly what happened in the early days of the Egyptian revolution, when the telecommunications companies shut down the service, yet the so-called “twitter revolution” continued through outreach in neighbourhoods, mosques and workplaces. The institution of social media, then, is both a stroke of financial genius and an experiment in anarchism, insofar as we are allowed such an expression under our benevolent (capitalist) dictators.

Social media added more democracy to the movement. With multiple easy ways of getting involved, and with a movement that used the technology available to them at its fullest, we were able to receive praise and criticism from anyone and everyone. You could find out about the movement without ever going to the park, but the tens of thousands who joined Occupy in parks and streets across North America were the ones who changed history. The internet made Occupy accessible to all.

As a supplement to, not a substitute for, old tactics, social media plays an important role. It has the ability to reach those who had neither the time nor desire to participate in the existing political infrastructure thus far. It provides another effective way to organize and mobilize for our actions, and it provides a truly alternative media—one that is organically created by the masses and gives us a more complete picture of what’s going on beyond our doorsteps.

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