Many things break the internet every day. But there is something the internet is breaking every minute. It is disintegrating our voice, our strength to demand change – snatching away our ability to protest.
This maybe contrary to what you believe. It was hard for me too when I realized just how vain the internet makes a social movement and just how weak protest becomes the instant social media steps in. To break it to you, social media is actually weakening the success rate of a protest and almost entirely handicapping the possibility of policy change.
Sustained and long standing need for change is absent
Through history there has been only one propeller for change – the faith in the collective ideology that slowly simmers, grows, and builds into something formidable. The kind that no one – not even the people who seeded the thought – can stop. The bonds between strangers who crave the same change have been critical. People have endured great risk to commit involvement.
The Civil rights movement in America, Abolish Sati in India, Pro Life Movement, Ethiopian Movement – have stood strong have required profuse amounts of work, logistics and planning. The voice of people has braved the strongest repressive powers and spoken of change beyond what was humanly possible at the time.
The tool that has been mistaken for the toil
During Occupy Wall Street activism experienced a strange phenomenon where things started to look better on social media than in real life. People felt more comfortable posting on Twitter and Facebook than going to an Occupy event. In a very disturbing reality, we had become the onlookers of our own protests.
Over the last decade, social media has considerably eased the barriers of participating in a movement. But along with that it also brings an eerie convenience. An ease where you can join a Facebook group or follow a Twitter feed at home and that too with a disappointing measure of anonymity. Anonymity is, in principle, counterproductive to the very factors that typically bring about successful organizing – the absence of leadership, commitment and physical discomfort.
Let me take you back to the Chipko Movement that moved the world at a time when the concept of eco socialism was alien to the developing world. A forest conservation movement that went on to become a prototype for many future, environmental movements all over the world. Compare that to the number of efforts, monies, Facebook pages and discussion groups about this decades discourse on “Save The Yamuna” and you have a picture that is vividly mocking.
The disproportional outcome
As digital makes things easier for movements it certainly does not guarantee successful outcomes. On the contrary, it has become a factor in the weakening the velocity and purpose which defines the movement itself. Technology is being embraced without caring about the sustainability of human effort.
For any demand that is anti-establishment, the expression of intention is key, but since when did we need the internet for that? It is important but not as important as action itself.
What movement’s today lack
Movements today lack a stable organisational base. These internet enabled communities are too young, too new. Communities who have been together long have suffered together, failed together, and managed a consensus together. They speak of a robust organisational fabric.
Online spontaneity needs to be understood differently from established civil society conscience. Movements in this decade have not turned into any effective policy change. Arab Spring, Spain’s Los Indignados, Gezi Park in Turkey – all great social media case studies but zero effective change. They are like teenagers who got into bed without knowing who does what next.
Here is something that came up in my research
on the Gezi Park protest. This needs to be understood in the light of how even participation (which is considered the biggest advantage of internet in a social movement) suffers over time.
In the news coverage about most protests, a popular data point you would read about is the total number of tweets that happened during the surge – which is great information.
What you miss is the spiraling downward trajectory of the communication in sheer three days. The spill over just disappears.
A tool can’t fight a system
Here’s a thought – If so much data is available to the world then it would also available to the establishment you are protesting against. Digital tools do not always abet social movements. The surveillance ability of the state with respect to these online networks makes us more vulnerable than efficient.
Activists believe that social media is a place for dialogue with the establishment you are in opposition to. But think about it, does it actually change the regimes dynamic ?
Here is a fascinating piece of data I came across. This is a time study analyzing the Venezuelan protests of 2014. Here’s how you read this graph: The vertical lines correspond to real happenings 1) The murder of Miss Venezuela 2) The arrest of L`opez 3) The Independence Day. The dots show twitter usage by the government during these events.
The government’s focus remains constant or even decreases gradually over time. In a protest we might today use technology for quicker gains, shorter routes and better access but that does not guarantee an equal and opposite reaction from the other side.
By the way, the Venezuelan protests of 2014 were a failure.
More than scale and speed
Technology is a tactic which we have substituted for faith. Instead of attending meetings, workshops and rallies, we create groups, excel sheets and whats app groups.
Revolutions through history are made up of sacrifice and not compromise. Today, we aren’t moving beyond great scale at accelerated speed. At the end of the day, for a social media-driven protest movement to be successful, it has to end with rendering virtual memberships into a real community enterprise.