A New Response: Activism and Social Media

Many people have heard of Malcolm Gladwell, the renowned author and staff writer for The New Yorker. Gladwell has specialized in studying trends and the “tipping points” that lead to them. In his controversial op-ed, Small Change, Gladwell recalls the civil rights movement, and how it started with four black students who performed a sit-in protest at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro on February 1, 1960. In the weeks following the event, thousands would follow in the example of David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil. This “little” act of solidarity would end up fueling a response and movement that would ultimately lead to Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington.

There are two things worth keeping in mind in the Woolworth’s example. One is that below the Mason Dixon line in the 1960s, blacks were not just subject to segregation. For “acting out of line,” these young men were setting themselves up to become victims of police brutality or, worse yet, murder at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan (a KKK group actually showed up on that momentous day). Indeed, they were risking their lives for the sake of a principle: racial equality. Their chances of success were galvanized by the increasing numbers of protesters who joined their cause. But as Gladwell points out – which is the second thing to keep in mind – this all began with four individuals who did not know what the consequences of their action would be. A shot in the dark would balloon into a civil rights war. However, this was well before the Internet, and the advent of communications technology and social media.

The recent revolutions in the Arab world, as well as in Turkey, Ukraine, and Moldova, have prompted a debate in the West about the role of social media in organizing effective demonstrations and protests. A number of writers have commented on digital activism, some saying that the ability to quickly share information online only facilitates organized protests. Participating in this debate is a diverse group of voices: Gladwell, Ethan Zuckerman, Clay Shirky, Evgeny Morozov, and many others.

As for Gladwell’s article, while I do think he may be disparaging the utility of digital tools a little too harshly, I can appreciate his argument about the four Greensboro men possessing what it took to start a movement. Gladwell was arguing that social media encourages weak ties, and that revolutions led by marginalized members of society requires a shared animus that exists on a mutually-reinforcing human level. For instance, the Greensboro men were all roommates who spent most of their time together and discussed their plans face-to-face. They built a friendship that could withstand all odds. I think these are features of our collective humanity that may get diminished through distant interactions online. As Gladwell wrote, “Activism that challenges the status quo – that attacks deeply rooted problems – is not for the faint of heart.” The question becomes, then, can social media lead to high-risk activism?

Gladwell does not seem to think so. Perhaps his position has changed, as his piece in The New Yorker is nearly five years old now. But I think his argument is cogent and still worth considering. His examples of organizations and movements that fell apart because of their weak ties and decentralized networks is convincing. The fact that social media is often focused on one-way interactions, then, seems like it would only undermine a strong organized movement. But I can just as easily see another movement similar to Woolworth’s, being motivated by coded messages and social media.

Ethan Zuckerman in New Media, New Civics? has written an extensive piece on how social media is changing the political process. He looks at how younger generations (mainly millenials) are engaging in the political process. For the most part however, millenials are disengaging. Turned off by the antagonism in partisan politics, millenials believe that becoming politically involved and joining a campaign organization will not bear any fruit. Instead, there has been a shift to grassroots, service-oriented participation. Millenials are participating in a civic engagement that appeals to their passions and interests, and social media is the new platform for discussion, replacing the more traditional halls of government. Therefore, no movement is likely to accrue members unless it is found online.

We are beginning to see digital activism grow, despite Gladwell’s criticisms against the medium. There have been events recently in which social media response has reached a fever pitch and has prompted the emergence of protests. Twitter’s hashtag serves as a kind of coding tool that organizes discussions on the social media platform. Creative hashtags like #ItStopsToday or #ICantBreathe could be perplexing to politicians unaware of their origin. Shaquille Brewster has recently referred to this phenomenon as “hashtag activism.” Whether or not the hashtag can lead to large scale, high-risk activism remains to be seen. But it certainly seems that society is evolving to respond to social and political change in new ways.

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