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Revolution 2.0? Social media and social movements

Jesse McLaren

July 25, 2013

It’s an exciting time for social media and social movements. Egyptian revolutionaries are armed with a new website, last year facebook was covered with red squares from the Quebec student strike, and this year there’s an indigenous sovereignty movement known by its hashtag #Idlenomore. Social media has emerged as an important component of social movements, but there are many debates about how it can best be used. The following article will outline debates, review recent movement experiences, and discuss the broader politics.
Debate: liberating vs destructive
The first broad debate on social media presents it as having special powers, either inherently liberating or or inherently destructive.
From the right there’s the claim that social media is leading a new information economy, that will produce prosperity, freedom and democracy. In 2006 Time Magazine’s person of the year was a computer screen with “you” on it: “We're looking at an explosion of productivity and innovation, and it's just getting started, as millions of minds that would otherwise have drowned in obscurity get backhauled into the global intellectual economy.”
Despite the so-called intellectual economy, the real economy entered massive crisis. But when resistance movements emerged, they too were attributed to social media. When protests rocked Iran in 2009, New York Times article “tear down this cyberwall”, called it:  “the quintessential 21st-century conflict. On one side are government thugs firing bullets. On the other side are young protesters firing ‘tweets.” As Evgeny Morazov, author of The Net Delusion: how not to liberate the world wrote: “Viewing it through the prism of the Cold War, they endow the Internet with nearly magical qualities. Technology, with its unique ability to fuel consumerist zeal—itself seen as a threat to any authoritarian regime—as well as its prowess to awaken and mobilize the masses against their rulers, was thought to be the ultimate liberator.”
Some on the left echoed this cyber-utopianism, like Kalle Lasn from Adbusters, credited with Occupy, who said: “young people, armed with the Internet and its tools, and without the manifesto-driven needs of the 60s, have a real, magical possibility of a global mindshift, a global revolution.”
On the other hand, some on the left have taken the opposite view of social media, a cyber-dystopian view that presents it as inherently destructive. Noam Chomsky has said that twitter: “erodes normal human relations. It makes them more superficial, shallow, evanescent…It requires a very brief, concise form of thought and so on that tends toward superficiality and draws people away from real serious communication. It is not a medium of a serious interchange.”
Debate: substitute vs distraction
A more specific debate is about the role of social media in organizing social movements. This debate often counterposes social media with traditional organizing, seeing it either as a substitute or a distraction.
On the one side, there’s Paul Mason, the BBC economics editor, and author of “Why its kicking off everywhere: the new global revolutions”:  “Truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable.… Horizontalism has become endemic …ideas arise, are very quickly ‘market-tested’ and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they deemed no good they disappear…Not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy—but the ad hoc network has become easier to form…You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations, but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection…Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives of truth…It is, with international pressure and some powerful NGOs, possible to bring down a repressive government without having to spend years in the jungle as a guerilla , or years in the urban underground …. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri. Young people believe the issues are not longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies… they don’t seek a total overturn, they seek a moderation of excesses.”
On the other side, there’s the Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell who in his article “Small change: why the revolution will not be tweeted” wrote: “The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn’t interested in systemic change—if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash—or if it doesn’t need to think strategically…Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birmingham would have been infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail. But networks are messy: think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterizes Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrolled by the white power structure. The things that King needed in Birmingham—discipline and strategy—were things that online social media cannot provide.”
Morazov has gone further with a critique of “slacktivism”: “feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact. It gives those who participate in ‘slacktivist’ campaigns an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group.”
Both of these debates are polarized into reductionist arguments, separating social media from the totality of society. If we look at the experience of recent movements, we can put social media in its context to see its strengths and weaknesses, and how it can best be used.
Experience: Egyptian revolution
Paul Mason’s analysis of social media suggests that dictatorships would be against telecommunications, because “truth spreads faster than lies”. But Egypt is a prime example of the contradictions of “global intellectual economy”. Mubarak developed telecommunications as part of his neoliberal agenda, to turn Egypt into an IT hub that could compete with India.
This infrastructure is often credited with Mubarak’s downfall, and the revolution certainly made use of social media. But while the US supplied the teargas canisters and supported Mubarak to the end, the West quickly tried to frame the Egyptian revolution as another “quintessential conflict” between thugs and tweets, a Western-driven consumer and technology revolution. “Google executive emerges as key figure in revolt”, claimed the Wall Street Journal—referring to Wael Ghonim, who in June 2010 set up a facebook group “We are all Khaled Said,” in memory of young man beaten to death. The site went viral and in January it called for a revolution on January 25. As Ghonim later tweeted, “Revolution 2.0 in Egypt was the first revolution in the history of mankind to pre-announce the time and location.”
But as Egyptian socialist and social media activist Gigi Ibrahim explained in an interview: “We would have used any other technology that was available. What really made the revolution possible was the struggle itself rather than these tools…This was not an Internet revolution, this was not a Facebook revolution, this was simply a people's revolution. Without people risking their lives and going to the streets, this revolution would not have happened. It didn't take a Facebook event to tell people to go and get tear gas. No, it took the sense of struggle and the demand for freedom and social equality and liberty.”
The Egyptian revolution was not a facebook event, but the process of a decade of struggle: from solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada in 2000, the anti-war movement in 2003, the Kifayah movement for civil liberties in 2005, a strike wave started by women textile workers in Mahalla in 2008, outrage at the killing of Khaled Said in 2010, and inspiration from the Tunisian Revolution at the start of 2011.
Some of these campaigns included social media: April 6 Youth movement used social media to amplify strike solidarity, “We are all Khaled Said” facebook group built opposition to brutality, Asma Mahfouz’s youtube video helped mobilize people for January 25. But corporations who control social media also restricted the movement: Youtube shut down the account of anti-police brutality activist Wael Abbas, Flickr removed photos of secret police officers posted by Hossam El-Hamalawy, Facebook threatened to shut down “we are all Khaled Said” group.
After the revolution began, Mubarak shut down telecommunication, but the revolution continued through more traditional means: in workplaces, mosques, streets—including an explosion of street art. Some have gone to the other extreme and argued that shutting down the internet helped the revolution because it drove the “slacktivists” out of their homes and into the street.
The importance given to “NGOs and lawyers with laptops” ignores working class, whose critical role in overthrowing Ben Ali in Tunisian and Mubarak in Egypt was not through “horizontal, ad hoc networks” but democratic centralized strike. When all eyes were on Tahrir from January 25, the revolution spread to the factories on February 8, including Suez. While these workers may have lacked the “magical power” of the internet, they had the economic power to shut down the economy and oust Mubarak on February 11.
This produced debates about whether people only wanted to “mess up hierarchies” or a complete overturn of society—revealing it’s not “simply power” but also class and economics that matter, and that social media spreading “truth” can’t substitute for strategy/tactics.
As Egyptian socialist and prominent blogger Hossam El-Hamalawy wrote in May of 2011: “Attempts are already under way by middle-class activists to place limits on this revolution and ensure it remains only within the realm of formal political institutions. Look at Wael Ghonim's famous tweet following Mubarak's overthrow saying ‘mission accomplished’. I have a lot of respect for Ghonim and what he has done for Egypt but he represents a certain type of middle-class politics where the sentiment is "thank you, now go back to work, invest 100% of your energies into building the new Egypt and don't make trouble.’ … This is phase two of the revolution, the phase of socio-economic change. What we need to do now is take Tahrir to the factories, the universities, the workplaces. In every single institution in this country there is a mini-Mubarak who needs to be overthrown.”
The Egyptian Revolution was not a facebook event, but a revolutionary process connecting political and economic demands, street protests and workers strikes, driven by the struggle itself—which social media helped amplify.
Experience: Occupy movement
When Occupy exploded, Kalle Lasn saw it as following Egypt’s social media revolution: “We saw how young people in Egypt were using social media to get tons of people out to the streets and pull off regime change. So let’s try to create a Tahrir Square moment in America. The messy, leaderless, demandless movement has launched a national conversation. This revolution is run by the Internet generation, with egalitarian ways of looking at things, and an inclusive process of getting everyone involved. That’s the magic of it.”
Social media did play a role in Occupy, but counterposing the “magic” of social media with the “manifesto-driven needs of 60s” ignores important political debates. Following the occupation of Wisconsin, there was an occupation in New York called "Bloombergville," a protest camp opposing mayor Bloomberg's cuts. People camped for weeks, but without outreach to broader community and labour allies the occupation was isolated and disintegrated.
Occupy Wall Street learned the lessons, as a participant in both told The Real News: "What the unions and community groups bring along with them is a lot of people who have been organizing in marginalized communities and a lot of people who are hardest hit by economic crisis and also racism and sexism and all the other oppressions that we all face. So they bring those struggles here, and they also bring concrete demands because they fight around those concrete demands all the time. That's incredibly important for this kind of movement to ground itself in really concrete struggles that are actually taking place all the time."
As a result, a mass arrest on Brooklyn Bridge failed, mainstream media couldn’t ignore, and bus drivers refused to transport arrested protesters. But the media tried to counterpose “demandless revolution of internet generation” with traditional organizing. There were articles on OccupyTO in major newspapers before it even started but not 8000 labour/community members who marched against Rob Ford. There was a danger of Occupy reinforcing this, seeing the park and the minority inside as the agent of change, livestreaming GAs as substitute for active participation of the 99%, and either focus on process without demands, or simple top-down reforms. Lasn’s call for leaderless demandless revolution became focused on reforming taxes and call for radical economists to solve the world’s problems.
We tried to help bring lessons from Cairo/Bloombergville to Occupy: helping connect the radicalism inside the park with struggles/demands outside the park, not only through social media but connections to labour/community groups like the anti-war movement, disability pride march, labour/student movements, rally for Tamil Eelam, and marches on City Hall against austerity of Rob Ford. But the best example of “taking Tahrir to universities” came in Quebec.
Experience: Quebec student strike
In March of 2012 it was difficult to build solidarity in English Canada for the tens of thousands of students on strike in Quebec because few had heard of it. Like Occupy, it eventually broke through mainstream media and then surged on social media. By May everyone’s facebook wall was plastered with red squares and photos of marches, making it seem like the strike had emerged and spread through social media, prompting a debate about how to spread the strike. But disseminating information over horizontal networks is different than organizing a democratic strike.
The Quebec student strike arose when the global mood of resistance combined with local experience of mass movements and student strikes, and a critical mass of students who organized and led general assemblies. Student activists built the strike over two years. From petitions to student newspapers that engaged students face-to-face with a movement built from the bottom up, CLASSE then used social media—and massive banners—to disseminate information, using cyberspace to mobilize students previously organized on the ground.
In English Canada, social media helped disseminate news of the strike and mobilize the casserole demonstrations across the country. It would be wrong to dismiss the online-driven casseroles as simply “making a splash” through “feel-good activism” of facebook groups. These were really important for showing solidarity with Quebec, and that the desire to fight austerity was not isolated to Quebec. For a few weeks social media helped bring people into the streets. But it could not substitute for the grassroots organizing on campus required to build a strike of hundreds of thousands of students.
An open letter was circulated online, calling on the Canadian Federation of Students to immediately start organizing for a general strike. This online intervention directed at CFS leadership, ignored how Quebec strike was built. Quebec activists responded with their own online letter: “Open Letter to the CFS assumes that strikes can be organized by ‘elected student leaders’ and masterminded provincially, if not nationally. Certainly, the Federation can and must support strike initiatives. However, these have to be built from the ground up and through structures of direct democracy… Strike campaigns or votes must not be imposed by student federations, or even individual unions. They must be organized by activists on the ground and discussed in regular general assemblies to involve the broader student body.”
This echoes Gigi Ibrahim’s point that what really made the revolution was the struggle itself, and online tools can help magnify but not substitute for struggle on the ground.
Politics: technology, corporations and the state
Social media is just the latest telecommunication tool under capitalism, whose strengths should not be divorced from their limitations.
Claims that the internet represents a “global intellectual economy” of freely flowing ideas parallel right-wing claims of the free market or left-wing claims by Hardt-Negri of a diffuse Empire of capital. But the internet has followed every other industry in capitalism through the growth of massive corporations tied to the state.
There is one main service provider, Google (based in the US), whose chairman responded to charges of tax evasion by stating “it’s called capitalism. We are proudly capitalistic.” There are two main social media sites, facebook and twitter (based in the US), one main online transaction company, Paypal (based in the US), one main online bookstore, Amazon (based in the US), which lobbies the US government on intellectual property laws. While state capitalist regimes in Iran and China have been criticized for cyberbarriers, Amazon/Paypall followed orders of the US government and cut ties with Wikileaks.
Politics: capitalism and ideas
Because the internet is tied to capitalism like everything else, there’s no reason why its ideas would inherently “spread truth faster than lies”, or “market-test” and promote progressive ideas. The progressive blog HuffingtonPost sold for billions but relies on unpaid writers and as the Feminist Frequency video blogger Anita Sarkeesian has pointed out, it uses sexist images to entice viewers and generate ad revenue.
Social media doesn’t inherently “erode normal human relations” any more than it has magical powers. It simply reflects the ruling ideas, and as the German socialist Karl Marx argued: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.”
These ruling class ideas don’t completely dominate: most people have contradictory consciousness—and the experience of collective struggle can expose the contradiction and through the process people’s ideas can change.
Politics: how ideas change
When the civil rights movement organized a mass multiracial movement, it challenged the racist system and dealt a blow to racist ideas—and I’m sure King would have harnessed social media to the movement had it been widely available. When Tahrir was filled with women and men fighting side by side, Muslims and Christians protecting each other’s prayer spaces, it fought back against the regime and its sexist and sectarian divisions. When a mass strike spread across Egypt including Suez, the revolution toppled Mubarak and inspired the world.
Ultimately a global revolution will not come from technological “mindshifts” but from working class revolution transforming the material basis of society and the ideas it produces. As Marx wrote: “Revolution is necessary not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”
The revolution can be tweeted, as long as it’s connected to movements on the ground. As Hossam el-Hamalawy explained in a discussion on the role of social media in Egypt: “There were numerous occasions where strikes and protests were organized online, but they materialized because there were activists on the ground who can implement this. And there were numerous occasions where calls for general strikes or mass protests happened on the internet but nothing materialized on the ground.”
Politics: revolutionary paper/website
That’s why we need revolutionary organizations on the ground: to learn and generalize from historic and current struggles, and intervene to build movements.
For more than a century socialist organizations have used newspapers, not only to spread ideas but also to build activist organization. As the Russian socialist Vladimir Lenin wrote: “The role of a newspaper is not limited solely to the dissemination of ideas, to political education, and to the enlistment of political allies. A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organizer… With the aid of the newspaper, and through it, a permanent organization will naturally take shape that will engage, not only in local activities, but in regular general work, and will train its members to follow political events carefully, appraise their significance and their effect on the various strata of the population, and develop effective means for the revolutionary party to influence these events.”
We can also apply the politics of the revolutionary paper to the internet, as Hossam El-Hamalawy has done in his article “The website as an organizer”: “When you read a report about a factory in an issue of The Socialist, it means that a comrade went to the factory, interacted with the workers and created links with them, and then returned with the report. The process of journalism is a process of organization. It is easy for anyone to sit in the office, browse the net and write a news story about the factory, but this is not the kind of journalism we want. You sending a report to the paper means you are engaged on the ground at the same time you are connected to the rest of the members of the movement, and that you are engaged through the channel which is open between you and the editorial board of the newspaper…Contacting the site at this moment means that the revolutionary worker correspondent is included in a communication network, and the experience of what he does is generalized immediately to the rest of the members of the movement as well as all militants interested workers’ struggle…The site will not be a substitute for the paper, and comrades must continue in the hard work of distributing the paper at events, to the network of members, and to sympathizers. Despite the increasing numbers of workers using the internet, the paper will continue to be an essential means to interact with them, and we must do our utmost to ensure that it is published regularly, but the paper will be a complementary rather than a central, organizing publication.”
That’s what we in the International Socialists are doing. We’ve launched a new website, and are making the most of facebook/twitter/livestream to magnify the movements in which we’re rooted. At the same time we condense this content monthly into Socialist Worker newspaper, which we distribute on street corners and demonstrations to engage others as we learn from and intervene to build the movements.
To make the most of social media we need to see it in context: as a communication tool that can magnify resistance movements, and whose online potential is related to its connections offline.
With one foot in cyberspace and one foot on the ground, we can harness social media to the social, political and and economic struggles necessary to transform the world, and through the process ourselves.
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