Social Media and Social Movements: An Evolving Relationship

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I recently read an article by Hamza Shaban with the provocative title “How Social Media Can Weaken a Revolution.” The primary focus of the piece was a Journal of International Affairs paper with a more scholarly title, “Social Movements and Governments in the Digital Age: Evaluating a Complex Landscape.” The article also contained comments from the paper’s author, Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the School of Information at the University of North Carolina, and a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

As its title suggests, Tufekci’s paper examines the evolving dynamic between digitally-empowered social movements and the governments they are attempting to influence (or, in some cases, overthrow). Regarding the former, the paper’s key insight appears to be that:

Social media both empowers new digitally-fueled movements and contributes to their apparent weaknesses… The ability to scale-up quickly using digital infrastructure has empowered movements to embrace their horizontalist and leaderless aspirations, which in turn have engendered new weaknesses after the initial phase of street actions ebbs. Movements without organizational depth are often unable to weather such transitions.

As to government’s response to these movements, Tufekci observes that:

While digital media create more possibilities to evade censorship, many governments have responded by demonizing and attacking social media, thus contributing to polarized environments in which dissidents have access to a very different set of information compared to those more loyal to the regime. This makes it hard to create truly national campaigns of dissent.

Contrasting recent developments in Turkey and Egypt, as well as the U.S.-centric Occupy movement with earlier civil rights and Vietnam War protest movements, Tufekci says:

Digital infrastructure helps undertake functions that would have otherwise required more formal and long-term organizing which, almost as a side effect, help build organizational capacity to respond to long-term movement requirements. Working together to take care of the logistics of a movement, however tedious, also builds trust and an ability to collaborate effectively. Consequently, many recent movements enter into the most contentious phase, the potential confrontation with authorities, without any prior history of working together or managing pivotal moments under stress.

Though noting critiques of the Internet’s role in society as leading to “slacktivism—the tendency to click on links or like posts rather than taking concrete actions or steps,” Tufekci takes a more nuanced approach. Referring to Charles Tilly’s four characteristics of successful social movements—worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment—she suggests that digital social media readily support the first three, but that the fourth characteristic, commitment, is more challenging. At the same time, she notes that “street actions are also not magic wands for social movements.” They “can and do falter,” she observes, “often because they lose the fight for worthiness in the public eye.”

Citing her own research, Tufekci notes that:

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