Social media for activism – Driver for societal change or overhyped myth?

For a while now I am following what seems to be a trench battle between the so-called “cyber-utopians”, who see social media as the guarantor of a new age of equality, democracy and civil rights, and the critical skeptics who point out that they’ve seen it all before and who see social media as an overstretched hype with no real impact on the real world.

The Arab Spring and the related media coverage regarding the role of social media have surely added a new quality to the conversation and seems to have sharpened the above cleavage even more. The debate gained such prominence, that entire training courses are now dedicated on social media activism, like the TechChange course on “Global Innovations for Digital Organizing” which I just participated in during the last three weeks.

A key point of this discussion is the question whether or whether not social media actually helps spurring and supporting social activism, or whether all the protests that occurred lately would have happened anyway, with or without social media.

Personally, I always felt that the assessments by traditional media of the role of social networking tools, blogs, etc. have been rather ad-hoc, guts-based and skewed towards a sensationalist viewpoint in order to create a story. Shortly after the Arab Spring lots of - mostly Western - writers were very quick to praise social media for its breakthrough role in initiating democratic change (see e.g. Blake Hounshell’s Foreign Policy article “The revolution will be tweeted”), followed by a counter-reaction in which the role of social media was dismissed as a mere reflection of the change process, without having much of a role in causing the change itself (e.g. Frank Rich’s OpEd in the NY Times “Wallflowers at the Revolution”).

Of course, this dichotomy did not only show itself with the Arab Spring or the Green Revolution in Iran, but is part of a wider debate around social media. And this debate is itself again part of a much larger picture of culture critique, in which technology pioneers and enthusiast are focusing on the positive potential, the personally experienced benefits and anecdotal successes, while the cautious and skeptic zoom into the potential dangers and limitations. We’ve seen this cleavage all through history (think of book printing, electricity, fuel motor, nuclear energy, microprocessor, cloning, TV and internet). And there are indeed voices which try to tell this larger story, which in turn leads to rather grand conclusions regarding uniqueness of the current moment within the last 2000 years of history (e.g Paul Levinson's blog post “Occupy Wall Street, Direct Democracy, Social Media: A Thumbnail His...”)


As always, when two extreme viewpoints are battling with each other, the truth lies probably somewhere in between. And I would like to think the same is the case with the topic of social media and activism.

Yes, there have been a lot of utopist views around, claiming thatsocial media almost inevitably leads to more democracy, because social media is wiring society that way. But some of these “cyber-utopians” also have some good points. The authors Clay Shirky (“Here Comes Everybody - The Power of Organizing Without Organizations”) makes a compelling case how reduced cost and barriers of group formation lead to increased engagement and activism. Just think of the many niche topics you now can join into respective online groups, say for self-help or special interests, which facilitate interactions which would not have happened in the past (and which often lead to actual face-to-face interactions at some point in time).

And yes, as a reaction to this type of “cyber-utopianism” there have been very outspoken voices against too pink-painted views which ignore the downsides that come with new technologies. Some of the most prominent among them is Evgeny Morozov. In his book “The Net Delusion” he makes a very valid point of highlighting that any social media can also be used by oppressive governments against their citizens (by scanning faces from photos featuring protesters, by tracking communication in social media sites, analyzing sentiments and political opinions of individuals, etc). He even goes so far to state that e.g. in Iran’s ‘Twitter Revolution’ those repercussions “often strengthened rather than undermined the authoritarian rule”.

Others criticize that the exponential growth of communication channels and groups must lead to a depreciation of attention which itself will make activism overall less likely. Mary Joyce brings this up in one of her most recent posts, “Cacophany: Why Digital Activism Isn't Helping America” where she argues that "America’s democracy and pluralism make digital activism less effective at bringing about dramatic change. In a country where everyone is free to speak and mobilize, many will. Attention is divided and the impact of any one initiative represents only one voice among many clamoring to be heard."

In his famous New Yorker article “Why the revolution will not be tweeted” Malcom Gladwell, a prominent voice drawing also on the work of Morozov, takes apart existing success stories of mass mobilization through social media (a prominent one being the case of Ewan Guttman’s friend Ivanna who got her smart phone stolen and through Facebook campaign initiated by Ewan managed to get local police pursuing the case which previously had dismissed the case as closed). Gladwell basically argues, that due to the inherent nature of social media interactions (low cost, loose ties, not centrally organized) compared to the nature of face-to-face activism (high cost, close ties, hierarchical organization), no meaningful activism can come out of social media.


Such voices are supported by a general sense of the rather low cost of online activities, which led to the term ’slacktivism’, describing the tendency to affiliate with causes in a passive manner just for the sake of peer approval, rather than taking real action.

Positions like this draw again sharp criticism of actual activists, who do make use of social media and who strongly object to the outright dismissal of any value in activism through social media.

A nice recent example how proliferation of online activism is not damaging but rather unleashing the potential for engagement is theTar Sands Action campaign, which has brought together a number of environmental groups, first nation tribes, farmers, and people from across the US party specturm. @daryncambridge uses this example in the TechChange course to demonstrate that “through online organizing of the kind that Shirky refers to in his book, the largest civil disobedience campaign for the environmental movement in a generation was born and continues to this day.


One highlight of rebutting the above critics is Maria Popova’s essay “Malcolm Gladwell Is #Wrong” in which she makes the point that online activism is in fact very high-stakes for many political bloggers in totalitarian countries. She also accuses Gladwell of not understanding the online world, in which social media reputation does lead to the natural formation of hierarchies in which communication influential opinion leaders trickles down through a pyramid of follower bases to a large number of individuals. (Of course, one can also argue that Maria tries too hard to fill the gaps identified by Gladwell instead of questioning some of his assumptions, such as whether hierarchies are in fact necessary for activism to succeed).

What I think is particularly interesting is Maria Popova's statement that "Ultimately, Gladwell's mistake is seeing online and offline social networks as disjointed mechanisms". Sudanese human rights activist @daloya put it in an online discussion board of the TechChange course on social activism mentioned above, “what Popova is telling us here is that the new technology will not replace traditional forms of activism, but will rather tranform them. And this moves the conversation away from the extreme rejection or acceptance of digital technology for social change, to the more practical terrain of how to use this technology strategically and smartly, and how to create lasting and effective linkages between online activism and offline traditional activism.” Questions which articles like How Cyber-Pragmatism Brought Down Mubarak touch on in more detail.

Also, my colleague @bkumpf pointed out that “Gladwell´s assumption that online activism ‘shifts energies’ seems intuitively wrong and was contradicted in real-life by the Arab Spring. Many of those who participated in online discussions and mobilizations in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya actually went to the streets. And there the support of other social and political movements was crucial to bring about change.

In particular when looking at the Arab Spring it is quite clear that we can find numerous instances that support both cases: (a) where Facebook wasn’t the effective logistical tool it was taken for (e.g. "The Secret Ralley that Sparked an Uprising: Cairo Protest Organizer..."), and (b) where it was a powerful instrument to strengthen indirect support, building awareness and a social environment that is conducive to activism.

Regarding the latter, I was very inspired by the many examples that I’ve come across which tell the stories where social media did make a difference for activism in the uprising of Tunisia and Egypt. In her comprehensive article “Egypt's Revolution 2.0 The Facebook Factor”Linda Herrera makes an excellent point in describing how “Digital communications media have revolutionized learning, cognition, and sociability and facilitated the development of a new generational behavior and consciousness”, something which Tunisia’s and Egypt’s “old guard simply did not get”. This goes beyond just the practical application of tools, but points to a deeper change, a “generational rupture” within the fabric of society that seems to be a factor for the change movements we have witnessed the recent past. Herrera describes how in politically authoritarian states like Egypt, Tunisia and Iran, “youth have been fashioning Facebook into a vibrant and inclusive public square. They use it to maintain their psychological well being as a space to metaphorically breath when the controls and constrains of the social world become too stifling”. And indeed, Facebook with millions of users in Egypt alone became a central part of a youth culture of open self-expression. Herrera explains that as the tensions with the government grew, “many young people were worried that the government would close down Facebook”, explaining that the government “feared the flurry of critical political activity that would invariably precede an election”. Though many expressed that turning off Facebook would be akin to suffocating them, as one young man put it, it would be like “blocking the air to my lungs”.

Her conclusion, far from being utopian, is that “what is happening in Egypt is not a Facebook Revolution. But it could not have come about without the Facebook generation, generation 2.0, who are taking, and with their fellow citizens, making history.”


As with any case of intellectual debate, first of all I believe that some of the positions featured above are to some part deliberately extreme, for the point of filling a niche in the debate that guarantees visibility and audience. But all of them add valuable dimensions to the conversation, which otherwise would be missed out, thus successfully fulfilling the role of either a forward-looking pioneer or a devil’s advocate (both of which are always needed).

Eventually, we will all arrive at pragmatic approaches for tools and methodologies which to a large part have become mainstream elements in the middle of our post-modern world (a fact that social media thought leader Brian Solis points to in his blog post “The state of Social Media 2011 – Social is the New Normal”).

I won’t hide the fact that I find myself mostly on the optimistic pioneer’s side, so when I look at the debate above, it will come as no surprise to you that it seems to me the actual benefits do outweigh the negative effects to date. But then again, this is more based on collected anecdotal evidence, rather than scientific research. I would love to see some thorough studies done on this to understand better the actual effects for a larger number of cases, and compare the actual variables that were involved in making protest successful. Another interesting PhD thesis I will never get to write... Any researcher out there up for the task?

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