The social [protest] network: Is Twitter powering revolution?

In his 2010 article for The New Yorker, “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted”, Malcolm Gladwell came down hard on claims that social media has changed political protest for the better.

“Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice,” he wrote, taking aim at the sprawling, weak ties of social media networks – far less effective, he claimed, than the close-knit, interpersonal hierarchies utilised by campaigns such as the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

“If Martin Luther King, Jr, had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure,” wrote Gladwell.  

A couple of months after the New Yorker article was published, a street vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself in Sidi Bouzid, arguably marking the start of the Tunisian Revolution. In the wake of the Arab Spring, a sizeable heap of attention was placed on the influence of social media as a means to facilitate and raise awareness of action on the ground. “The barricades today do not bristle with bayonets and rifles, but with phones,” wrote Peter Beaumont in The Guardian.

Whether or not Twitter had a big hand to play in catalysing the Arab Spring, the conversation around the role of social media as a political tool reached a turning point in the years following 2010.

Inside and outside of Gezi Park

In 2012, the Turkish playwright Meltem Arıkan premiered Mi Minör, a play inspired by the Arab Spring, which integrated social media into its story of a fictional democratic country run by a despotic president. The play’s narrative (a pianist’s struggle against the government after a musical note is banned) took place both as a live performance and online, via Twitter and a dedicated app.

When the Gezi Park protests started in 2013, the conservative Turkish paper Yeni Şafak ran a front page claiming that Mi Minör was a rehearsal for a plan to topple the Turkish government. Particular attention was paid to the use of social media in the play, as a tool to upend the narratives circulated from state-owned outlets.

“Censorship and self-censorship are old, but generally they are concealed concepts,” Arıkan commented during a recent speech at the Code Creators Summit in London. “Since the digital platforms of communications have developed, people are realising that governments all around the world heavily apply censorship.”mi_minor

(Above: A scene from Mi Minör)

According to Arıkan, social networks have fundamentally changed the way protestors think of culture, language and national borders. Less trust is placed on local media, and more on international sources of information. Participation has also changed: you could physically be in Gezi Park, but you could also be on a discussion board, or retweeting images of the protests while being in rural Turkey, or indeed London.

She isn’t alone in this idea. Earlier this year the University of Brighton was awarded a £250,000 grant to examine the impact of social media on the culture of protest. Dr Aidan McGarry, principal lecturer in the School of Applied Social Science and lead on the project, told me that – in the case of the Gezi Park protests – the use of social media extended beyond local networking. “What we saw in Turkey was the use of social media to create an alternative democratic space,” he said.

“We understood that our fellow protesters are not only from Istanbul”

Others highlight the international spread of those involved in the wake of the Gezi Park protests. “I think the international attention to Gezi and short-term failure of the moment to bring change, itself, changed our perceptions about national borders,” commented journalist and academic Efe Kerem Sözeri. “From then on – perhaps most visible in March 2014 where Twitter was blocked right before local elections – we understood that our fellow protesters are not only from Istanbul.”

Sözeri told me that over the past few years the Kurdish diaspora in Europe has led attempts to systematically report Turkish events in English. “We are now well aware that the last resort to pressure the Turkish government is via international prestige,” he said. “Turkey will not immediately release political prisoners, nor will it stop its oppression of dissidents; but if there is a way to turn this, our international network could be an answer. Twitter serves to do that.”

Government accounts

These international spaces of contemporary social activism are, in many ways, exactly what Gladwell lambasted in 2010 – loose nebulae of voices, many of which speak outside of the country in question, offering remote solidarity but little else. And yet from the way Arıkan, McGarry and Sözeri describe it, they provide a necessary support structure for local protesters. What’s more, this breadth has grown as a way to adapt around local governments that are becoming increasingly fluent in social media:

“Gezi was able to ‘win’ Twitter, because we were its primary userbase. AKP (the Justice and Development Party) fans were almost non-existent/non-influential,” said Sözeri. “So when the mainstream media failed us, thanks to their corporate interests with the government, Turkish Twitter turned into an independent news organisation. By Fall 2013, however, AKP formed a social media department with 6,000 employees.”

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This encroaching of the government onto “alternative democratic spaces” is not unique to Turkey. Speaking to the activist Jamila Hanan, she told me about the changing approach to Twitter and Facebook in the wake of the 2011 Bahraini uprising. “Social media was so new, it was just so exciting,” she said, explaining that in the beginning of the uprising it was much easier to raise a crowd by posting a meeting point and time. Since then, however, Bahraini authorities have made great efforts to disrupt online organisations, often using internet trolls to stir up arguments within protest groups.

“They clearly spent a lot of money on trying to influence social media.”

“A lot of [the trolls] are government-paid people there to sow hatred, sow arguments,” she claimed. “Bahrain was shocking for how organised they were in that. They clearly spent a lot of money on trying to influence social media.”

Hanan tells me that right now Bahraini authorities spam the Bahrain hashtag with bots in an attempt to drown out genuine tweets and dissenting opinions. There’s also more of a crackdown on dissenting posts stemming from within the country. Given the closure of communications channels for domestic opposition, the fight has necessarily shifted to disseminating information across English-speaking networks. This delocalises the fight, pushing the onus of amplifying reports onto those living outside of the country – onto the diaspora and Western-based activists such as Hanan.

Avoiding clicktivism

In an ideal situation, the international portion of this social protest network supports, archives and organises local action. But can the physical disparity of online activism ever compare to the high-risk protest of friends and family occupying a physical space? Is there ultimately the risk that social activism results in lots of shares, but little action?

“Certainly there is a danger that we see a rise in ‘clicktivism,’ which requires little input or commitment,” says Dr Aidan McGarry. “There is a performative dimension here, as people want to show others that they care about particular issues but don’t necessarily want to get their hands dirty.”

In spite of this, McGarry argues that the sharing of online comments during the Gezi Park protests gave a sense of collective identity, expanding the range of people participating – albeit online – and facilitating a greater sense of solidarity for those on the ground. It’s a markedly different opinion from the one put forward by William Armstrong, a writer and journalist currently based in Istanbul, who suggests that social media often emphasises, rather than removes, divides.  

“Social media has hardened existing identity faultlines”

“Arguably, rather than changing things, social media has hardened existing identity faultlines – at least in the short term,” said Armstrong. “The channeling of so much opposition energy into social media is contributing to further polarisation of Turkish society between conservative/religious and secular people, between well-educated cosmopolitans and nativists.”

It’s dangerous to generalise the treatment of social media across very different countries – what may be the case in Turkey may not be the case in Bahrain – but Armstrong’s point nevertheless touches on the complex political shades of social media, and the misleading echo chambers that can feed opinions back to similar-minded groups, alienating them further from those with a different outlook. Closer to home, in a post-Brexit UK, this is a painfully relatable phenomenon.protest_3

These are mosaical issues that reach much further than activism, however. On a practical level, of raising awareness and catalysing change, international social networks can be an effective part of the protest machine. Examples such as Hanan’s work on reporting and recording Yemen, the Rohingya and Gaza, show there’s a real potential for international activist networks to raise awareness and pressure Western governments – one example being a recent European vote regarding sale of weapons to Saudis. “Social media was absolutely essential in us reaching European MEPs to help share with them the reality of the devastation inflicted on the people of Yemen,” she told me, claiming that this international pressure “proved to be more powerful than Saudi face-to-face lobbying”.

Social media may help international lobbying, but 140 characters of disapproval are, ultimately, easier to block out than the physical protests that won much of the Western world’s hard-won liberties. If the internet has grown into an essential limb for contemporary protest, it is perhaps important to remember that it can’t function alone. Legs still need to stand in squares.  

Images: Flickr (Ian BrownCeyhun (Jay) IsikMeg Rutherford) 

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