Exploring Social Media for Political Activism

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By

Tazeen Bari[1]

I was astounded and inspired as I watched the protests in Tahrir square in Egypt grow each day. A whole nation stood up and poured into the streets. The revolution was live, streamed and online. Each moment was played out on the screen. One of the things that were being reported was that social media like twitter and facebook was a primary organizing tool. This was by no means the first use of social media for political activism. However there is something unique to our networked times about how the Arab Spring influenced the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City and how that went on to influence Occupy movements in other parts of the world. Might we say that despite the unique situation of each country, this could be described as “global” and as “movement” in the most literal meaning of the two words.

There is great contention about the effectiveness of social media for political activism and what this means for our present and future. Manuel Castells says, “Technology does not determine society. Nor does society script the course of technological change, since many factors…intervene in the process of scientific discovery, technical innovation and social applications, so the final outcome depends on a complex pattern of interaction”[i] The scope of communication networks are so broad and there are so many opposing interests involved that the question of effectiveness and even defining the characteristics of these networks is highly complex. But the important point is that we are an information society and Castells says it is not just the information “…but the very structure and organization of information” that is important. So the “network society” is the “specific social structural characteristic of our time.”[ii] So whether a social media enthusiast or skeptic it will inevitably impact the way we go about our lives.

There appears to me to be two ways in which social media is used for political activism. Firstly to provide timely and on the spot organization for protest and resistance i.e. 20 people have been arrested and everyone should gather at that spot or disperse. Secondly, as a tool for long term and sustained organization through creating networks and sharing information. In this paper we will look at some of the critiques of social media and analyze its effectiveness for political activism. We will also consider this in the light of theories about strong and weak ties.

In 2010 Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article in the New Yorker titled “Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.” In this article he wrote about how social media platforms are built on weak ties and how this cannot lead to the kind of high-risk activism that is necessary for social change. He cites examples of successful activism like the civil rights movement that was based on strong tie connections. He states referring to the work of sociologist Mark Granovetter that there is strength in weak ties “Our acquaintances – not our friends – are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvelous efficiency but weak ties seldom lead to high risk activism.”[iii] We will explore this last statement of Gladwell’s by first understanding what is meant by a weak tie.

In 1973 Mark Granovetter wrote the paper “The Strength of Weak Ties” about strong and weak ties in networks. His analysis was that weak ties are more effective in passing on information and influence as they are the bridges in social networks. He said strong ties were less likely to act effectively spreading information, as they are often similar and close, thus the information would only circulate. He writes “…the contention here is that the removal of the average weak tie would do more “damage” to transmission probabilities than would that of the average strong one.”[iv] He defines the strength of a tie to be based on time spent together, emotional intensity, intimacy (mutual confiding) and reciprocal services and says that we intuitively understand whether a given tie is strong, weak or absent.[v] He explained his thesis as “The analysis of processes in interpersonal networks provides the most fruitful micro-macro bridge. In one way or another, it is through these networks that small scale interaction becomes translated into large scale patterns, and that these in turn, feed back into small groups.”[vi] He goes on to define macro phenomena as “ …diffusion, social mobility, political organization and social cohesion in general”[vii] Unlike Gladwell, Granovetter wrote that it was in fact weak and not strong ties that led to organization. He said “…resistance to a risky or deviant activity is greater than to a safe or normal one, a larger number of people will have to be exposed to it and adopt it, in the early stages, before it will spread in a chain reaction. Individuals with many weak ties are, by my argument best placed to diffuse such a difficult innovation…”[viii] Granovetter was not writing about the Internet but one only needs to look at social media and how it has been applied to activism to see the relevance. Most ties on the Internet are indeed weak ties and it is through communication along weak ties that activism is often organized and spread.

Referring back to Gladwell’s idea of strong ties. How many strong ties can one have? And groups of hundreds of people cannot all be friends with strong ties. So some level of activism must be built on weak ties. However on the other hand Granovetter gives much less value to strong ties and in a critique by David Krackhardt written in 1992 titled “The Strength of Strong Ties” he writes that, “Strong ties constitute a base of trust that can reduce resistance and provide comfort in the face of uncertainty. Thus it will be argued that change is not facilitated by weak ties but rather by a particular type of strong tie.”[ix] The idea that strong ties facilitate activism is also true. In the case of Occupy Wall Street it was clear that the people who were spending great amounts of time at Zuccoti Park were forming stronger networks with one another that were built on trust and friendship. There was a sense that the activists felt that they were forming a close-knit community. However if the activism had only been based on strong ties then the movement would not have grown and spread as it has across the United States and beyond its borders. Furthermore the activists with strong ties were able to reinforce their organization and networks through social media.

However, in conclusion of the above arguments about strong and weak ties, one of Krackhardt’s criticisms of Granovetter is that he fails to define what is meant by a strong or a weak tie. [x] We do indeed intuitively understand what this means but to understand if this leads to high risk or involved activism is not possible as there are many phenomena social and psychological that are not taken into account and are hard to analyze. Granovetter himself is aware of the limitations of his model and says that in his own conclusion. It is also important to understand that his theories about networks referred to more than just political activism. Also, each type of information flow and group activity is defined by its own unique chacteristics which effect the way ties function. However the idea of weak and strong ties is very useful for understanding flow of information and how networks are organized. But the idea that strong or weak ties are mutually exclusive in their impact on political activism fails to take into account the complexity of peoples motivations to take action. Political action rests on much more than just the interpersonal ties between people and groups. It also rests on notions of justice, ideology etc. However importantly it is clear that these ideas about weak and strong ties are explained to understand patterns of organization and organization is the necessary step before action.

As mentioned above networks are complex and although weak ties can lead to activism that does not mean that all weak ties lead to activism. There are inherent problems with the way weak ties function. One of the paradoxes of social media lies herein. Gladwell says in his article “…where activists were once defined by their causes now they are defined by their tools.”[xi] With the steady growth of social media more of the worlds causes are appearing on the Internet. There is an emergence of laptop activism where one can support a cause through a click or a “like”. Gladwell says that these networks are effective in increasing participation and not motivation and “facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.”[xii] Social media enhances awareness but simultaneously creates a false consciousness that we may be doing more than we actually are. Evgeny Morozov in a conversation with Clay Shirky expresses concern about how in a authoritarian regime the internet is changing the nature of political opposition by referring to a time in history when cafes and newspapers were on the rise in Europe and the public sphere was expanding “…Kierkegaard was growing increasingly concerned that there were too many opinions flowing around, that it was too easy to rally people behind an infinite number of shallow causes, that no one had strong commitment to anything. There was nothing that people would die for. Ironically, this is also one of my problems with the promiscuous nature of online activism: it cheapens our commitment to political and social causes that matter and demand constant sacrifice.”[xiii] Despite the relevance of these arguments it also brings forth a question: What is the power of information? There is more information so there is more awareness. There are more social media channels through which to express concerns brought to light by this awareness, thus there is more online activism that may never make it to the street. However what we know and the information we consume is part of our consciousness and who we are. It is very difficult to assert whether this does or does not lead to political activism. A laptop activist today may be on the streets five years from now.

Even though we live in a time where we are oversaturated by information and bombarded by signs and symbols, social media plays a crucial role in diffusing information through ties that are between people and not media conglomerates. This can serve to inspire, motivate and create solidarity amongst activists. The sense of community and kinship a person from OWS in New York City feels with a person from Occupy Dublin in Ireland is a strong connected tie of solidarity and action. It is clear that events within countries of the Arab Spring inspired each other. This sense of strong ties is not based on direct interpersonal “strong tie” relationships as described above but they are strong in solidarity. In the light of a reawakening of political activism in the ‘network society’ maybe there is a need to redefine what is meant by strong and weak ties and include this in a new analysis where strong ties do not have to be based on amount of time spent or intimacy. Furthermore Castells says “…social interaction used to be territorially based and territorially bounded; now it resides in the flood of information over digital networks.”[xiv] Giddens says referring to the nature of how time is compressed on the Internet “Compressed time is what creates our sense of global, supranational community.”[xv] Whether there is a supranational community is debatable however there certainly is a “sense” of it. The fact that the internet is a space where people can communicate across the globe in a parallel as opposed to top down way and share information independently is a huge change from the past and has significant implications on our perception of the global and the notion of global activism.

This brings us to another significant paradox of social media, which is that of independence versus restriction and freedom versus privacy. Much is said about the democratic nature of the Internet and social media. Indeed it feels like a tool of the people and has reinvented the way individuals can express themselves in a shared space. Connections can be established independently from person to person and group to group. In terms of activism there is power in numbers and in a political system where power is monopolized by the corporate and political elite, the forming of networks is key to reclaiming this power. Knowledge is also empowering and it is more easily accessible, available, deliverable and communicatable. Castells says digital media encourages what he calls mass self-communication which he defines as “…the process by which individuals generate their own content, decide who can access the content, and directly disseminate the content to recipients who themselves can self select whether or not to receive the content.”[xvi] He goes on to say that, “ the emergence of mass self communication offers an extraordinary medium for social movements and rebellious individuals to build their autonomy and confront the institutions of society on their own terms and around their own projects.”[xvii] This is the way a lot of social media functions particularly networks such as Facebook. Facebook relies on weak tie phenomena in Granovetter’s terms to disseminate content. So in this way there are two types of independence and autonomy through social media. Firstly, independent generation and receiving of independent content in open forums i.e. youtube. Secondly, the independence to choose where your content goes or what content you receive. This kind of independence and autonomy allowed by social media has been key in organizing political action and disseminating information. However, despite this networks are often owned by huge corporate conglomerates that have their own interests. The nature of independence is questionable when on a site like Facebook everyone’s information is collected and given to advertisers for market research and in turn is used to target advertisements at them.[xviii] In some ways the very social media that is being used for political activism supports the opposite ideals of the movement particularly in the case of OWS. Morozov says about Google and twitter “These companies have their own commercial agendas; they’re primarily interested in making money…” However open source software and alternative social media sites do not fall into this trap and are growing. There is also an irony in the fact that social media made available by certain corporations can be used to target the practices of those very corporations.

On the other hand governments can block or censor social media as was seen during the Iranian elections in 2009 and the protests that followed it. These protests were called the “twitter revolution” because people were using social media to communicate and organize. Prior to and during the elections from January 2009 till June 2009 the Iranian government blocked and unblocked facebook many times. Morozov who is a social media skeptic says, “…to me, the fact that they blocked facebook doesn’t mean anything. All it means is that they could block facebook – and they did.”[xix] Similar blockages to social media were seen during the Cambodian elections in 2007 when text messages were banned and in Singapore with regards to blocking blogs. It is clear as Clay Shirky says “…conditions under which a public can self-identify and self-synchronize, even among a relatively small elite, is in fact a threat to the state.”[xx] And they are ready to shut it down. However expertise in programming is becoming more widespread and people are coming up with more innovative ways to make the Internet more independent. In the Iranian example protestors figured out ways to unblock and communicate. [xxi]

Another issue with regards to political activism is privacy. Governments or regimes can use information that they find on social media to thwart and pre-empt blockades on citizens. Furthermore the more authoritarian the regime and the more flexible the rule of law, citizens could be arrested and targeted due to social media. Governments also have links with corporations who provide them with information as Morozov sites the example of how Google provides information to the National Security Agency in the US.[xxii] Morozov says “…one of the reasons why the Iranian authorities have been so seemingly ineffective at blocking the web is that they…see tremendous value in watching anti-government Iranians coordinate their actions…they might be learning about the kind of groups and threats that are emerging. This intelligence value is something that we often tend to forget.”[xxiii] So although there is ample freedom on the Internet to organize the lack of privacy can be a counter productive force.

Another criticism of social media for political activism is the lack of leadership. This was expressed by Gladwell in his article where he says that traditional activism is characterized by hierarchies within the organizations where as networks are the opposite. He says that the lack of “…centralized leadership and clear lines of authority…have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals.”[xxiv] This sentiment is echoed by Morozov in his conversation with Clay Shirky.[xxv] However the need for a particular kind of political structure and hierarchy is a matter of opinion, not an absolute fact and truth of how political activism is effective. Many activists today are disillusioned by the traditional hierarchical structures whereby accountability can get lost and power monopolized by the leaders. The debate about whether a strong leader is necessary is an opinion based on ones ideas about politics. Many of the activists at Occupy Wall Street believe in anarchist principles whereby groups join together autonomously and take decisions collectively. In the case of the Occupy Wall Street movement it was clear that there are flaws in this method but it is also an evolving strategy. Hierarchical structures have their own inherent problems such as the voices of people being drowned out by those in powerful positions. Certainly there is no doubt in Gladwell’s statement that activism requires “discipline and strategy” which social media cannot provide. But the reality is that it is not social media’s job to provide it. Maybe we have become so technologized that we forget that these are links between real people and it is the people who create discipline and strategy. Furthermore social media is just one step along the way towards reaching any kind of political goal or change, and every step is important. To discount the importance of this medium is to ignore reality and to believe that the medium is the means and the end is to fool oneself.  Castells says, “…social movements are not originated by technology, they use technology. But technology is not simply a tool, it is a medium, it is a social construction with its own implications.”[xxvi] It is important to be aware of these implications particularly as we move into the future.

Gladwell wrote “In the Iranian case meanwhile the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the west” and he goes on to quote Golnaz Esfandiari as saying that “…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.”[xxvii] Whether this was the entire situation requires more research and there is also a case to be made for the merits of expatriate people being involved in events in their countries. However this highlights an important issue about access to social media and who actually uses it. We live in an unequal world. In a place where people do not have electricity, talk of social media like facebook is absurd and irrelevant almost to the point of being ridiculous. The world is at very different stages of technological development. Despite the global nature of the Internet and social media and its ability to communicate beyond territory there are still huge populations that do not have access to social media, particularly the Internet. Undoubtedly cell phone use is seen in the most remote rural corners of the globe. During the Lawyers Movement in Pakistan in 2007 text messaging was one of the key ways to inform people about when and where actions would be taking place. However most of the people involved in these protests had some level of literacy. Literacy indicators are very low in poor areas so social media cannot function in the same way and cell phones are generally used between people with strong ties. However this does not mean that there aren’t ways to adapt social media in places that are poor and have low literacy. Jeffrey James says, “ Far from replicating the online behavior of highly networked societies…we must conceptualize…technologies to meet local needs and solve local problems.”[xxviii] He sites an example of kiosks in rural areas in India as being the intermediary “…who uses the internet not for his or her direct benefit, but rather for the purpose of making relevant knowledge available to illiterate consumers…”[xxix] The kiosk functions as a weak tie, a bridge for information. In very poor rural areas media generally resides in collective public space. In Pakistan in a village where very few people have a television it is common to find one little shop or space out in the open where everyone is gathered watching television. Spaces such as these can be and already are in some cases vital places for political organization.

In conclusion social media with all of its inherent complexities and contradictions is simply an expansion of public space to include another platform. In this way it will inevitably be used by people for activism, however people will only be motivated towards activism by the actual material, political and social conditions of society.

Bibliography

Christensen, Christian. Iran: Networked Dissent. Counterpunch, July 2nd 2009.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2009/07/02/iran-networked-dissent/

Granovetter, S, Mark. The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology, Volume 78 Issue 6. May 1973, 1360-1380. JSTOR

Gladwell, Malcolm. Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. The New Yorker. October 4th2010.

Howard, N, Philip. Castells and the Media. Polity Press, 2011.

James, Jeffrey. The global digital divide in the internet: Developed countries constructs and Third World realties. Journal of Information Science 2005 31:114. Sage Publications.

Krackhardt, David. The Strength of Strong Ties: The importance of Philos in organizations. 1992. N. Nohria & R. Eccles (eds.), Networks and Organizations: Structure, Form, and Action: 216-239. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

http://www.analytictech.com/mgt780/topics/dyadic.htm

Rose, Ian. Facehooked. BBC News. December 20th 2007

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/7151690.stm

Shirky, Clay and Morozov, Evgeny. “Digital Power and Its Discontents” in Culture: Leading Scientists explore societies, art, power and technology edited by John Brockman. Harper Collins, 2011.


[1] The author is a documentary filmmaker, a teacher and engaged in media theory and analysis.


[i] Howard, N, Philip. Castells and the Media Pg.18-19

[ii] Howard, N, Philip. Castells and the Media Pg.19

[iii] Gladwell, Malcolm. Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.

[iv] Granovetter, S, Mark. The Strength of Weak Ties. Pg.1366

[v] Granovetter, S, Mark. The Strength of Weak Ties. Pg.1361

[vi] Granovetter, S, Mark. The Strength of Weak Ties. Pg.1360

[vii] Granovetter, S, Mark. The Strength of Weak Ties. Pg.1361

[viii] Granovetter, S, Mark. The Strength of Weak Ties. Pg. 1367

[ix] Krackhardt, David. The Strength of Strong Ties: The importance of Philos in organizations. Pg. 218

[x] Krackhardt, David. The Strength of Strong Ties: The importance of Philos in organizations. Pg. 216

[xi] Gladwell, Malcolm. Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.

[xii] Gladwell, Malcolm. Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.

[xiii] Shirky, Clay and Morozov, Evgeny. Digital Power and Its Discontents Pg.216

[xiv] Howard, N, Philip. Castells and the Media Pg. 81

[xv] Howard, N, Philip. Castells and the Media Pg. 81

[xvi] Howard, N, Philip. Castells and the Media Pg.75

[xvii] Howard, N, Philip. Castells and the Media Pg. 75

[xviii] Rose, Ian. Facehooked

[xix] Shirky, Clay and Morozov, Evgeny. Digital Power and Its Discontents Pg.201

[xx] Shirky, Clay and Morozov, Evgeny. Digital Power and Its Discontents Pg.202

[xxi] Christensen, Christian. Iran: Networked Dissent.

[xxii] Shirky, Clay and Morozov, Evgeny. Digital Power and Its Discontents Pg.200

[xxiii] Shirky, Clay and Morozov, Evgeny. Digital Power and Its Discontents Pg.203

[xxiv] Gladwell, Malcolm. Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.

[xxv] Shirky, Clay and Morozov, Evgeny. Digital Power and Its Discontents Pg.217

[xxvi] Howard, N, Philip. Castells and the Media. Pg.75

[xxvii] Gladwell, Malcolm. Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.

[xxviii] James, Jeffrey. The global digital divide in the internet: Developed countries constructs and Third World realties.

[xxix] James, Jeffrey. The global digital divide in the internet: Developed countries constructs and Third World realties.