Protesting on Social Media Sets Us Back

Social media has made us lazy. It gives us the feeling of accomplishment. We click the button that shows the rest of Facebook we’re thinking of attending a protest and it feels great. Showing up to a protest gives people the same feeling of relieved finality, the feeling of a job well done. Perhaps this is the reason modern activists are not doing enough.

We have no idea how much a protest has changed policy or been “effective” until years later and in hindsight, but we are doing much less work than successful activists did in the 1960’s. Social media is a detriment as American activists end up feeling as though protests or social media broadcasts will create effective change.

The bright side of social media is creating a movement is easy. Just look at Egypt: on January 25, 2011, Egyptians revolted against their president, Hosni Mubarak, who since 1981 ruled Egypt with autocratic control. Mubarak imposed “The Emergency Law” during his presidency, suspending constitutional law, limiting freedom of expression and assembly; and trying citizens in a special security court. Mubarak continued to extend this law with the claim it would diminish drug trafficking and terrorism. In response, Egyptian citizens created a Facebook group to which 85,000 people pledged to attend the day of revolt.

Social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube were a huge influence to bringing the 2,000,000 people together for the Day of Revolt. People organized protests through Facebook, videos on Youtube showed the violent battle between protesters and police, and Twitter became a way for Egyptians to communicate. But the Egyptian government realized the world was watching. On January 29, 2011, the government shut down all social media in Egypt to prevent protesters from informing other countries about the revolt. They also hoped it would deter any further resistance. But hashtags on Twitter such as #jan25 and #egypt were already trending. Political Tweets about Egypt before the revolt were 2,300 a day. During the week of the revolt, they jumped to 230,000 a day.

The result? On February 11, 2011, Hosni Mubarak resigned.

The downside of social media is creating a movement is too easy. Anders Colding-Jørgensen, a lecturer from the University of Copen-Hangen, created a Facebook group falsely claiming the famous Stork fountain in Copenhagen was going to be demolished and they needed to stop it. He made an emotional plea and invited his few hundred friends to join his group as an “experiment.” Over two weeks, 27,000 people joined the group. Even though many members of the group tried to tell others it was fake, Colding-Jørgensen observed that many didn’t use the group as a tool to communicate and assemble, but as a trophy to show they support the cause.

Social media deters us from creating more organized and effective activism such as the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s and the Million Man and Woman Marches in the 1990’s. Before the Internet, activists were forced to work much harder to create a movement. This strain created camaraderie, commitment, and most importantly an infrastructure that made it less difficult to maintain the force that was their activism. Economist Moisés Naím says: “Behind massive street demonstrations, there is rarely a well-oiled and more-permanent organization capable of following up on protesters’ demands and undertaking the complex, face-to-face, and dull political work that produces real change in government.” Work doesn’t end once the protest is over, that’s when the real work should begin. The Women’s March tried to emphasize this, with Michael Moore telling his audience to call congress and make local resistance groups. But how many took those suggestions to heart?

Protesting in America using online communication has been effective before, but was used to a much lesser extent. For every protestor within the the Tea Party movement, Republican votes increased by seven to fourteen votes in the 2010 Congressional elections, leading Republicans to control the House. But the tedious work they did is why the Tea Party movement was so successful in its outrage. They also had a clear goal: to achieve a majority in the house of representatives.

The movement isn’t remembered for their protests, but congresspeople remember the movement for hunting representatives down in town halls and berating them for not answering their questions or listening to their constituents. The movement focused especially on individual targets members of Congress, treating Republican representatives who weren’t on their side as “traitors.” They always made sure to see these representatives in person. The Tea Party focused locally and planned their attacks using online communication, much like the Egyptian revolt. Small groups of one to five members attended town hall meetings demanding answers, went to congress members’ offices and requested meetings, and made timely phone calls in groups on particular issues.

The best way to make representatives change is to make them uncomfortable. Phone calls and emails won’t do that. Representatives squirm when they are asked questions that demand concrete, verifiable answers or actions. Forming small groups to do this and fight congressional decisions in one’s district is extremely effective.  

Hindsight is key in creating change. Protestors have to look back on activism of the 1960’s, 1990’s, and social movements that created transformation through tedious, difficult work. The Tea Party did something right to create the political environment we live in today. We have to remember that the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment in an age of activism are sins of temptation in the world of activism. Feeling comfort is a sign to begin the dull political work necessary to make change.

Sources and Further Reading