The world is seeing an increase in the use of social media as a tool for mobilisation and protest. The so-called ‘Twitter revolution,’ a term used to describe the role of sites like Twitter in effecting change, has come to the forefront of discussion as popular uprisings sweep the Middle East. Former US national security advisor Mark Pfeifle even went so far as to call for the social networking site to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
After the recent blackout of all digital communications in Egypt, Twitter saw a surge of thousands of users relying on proxy servers to post live news updates to the world. When Tunisian dictator Ben Ali fled government after 23 years in power, Twitter was there to give users a direct insight into events. Such sites, which disseminate information quickly, can be an essential tool in activism – they give the world an up-to-date and uncensored view of opinions and events, particularly those the mainstream media chooses to ignore. But can there really be such a thing as a ‘Twitter revolution’?
Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker cites the civil rights unrest in America in the Sixties as evidence of the success of a movement without social media. With sites like Twitter, he says, we are told that ‘the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended’, making it easier for people to voice their concerns. The majority of people tweeting about movements are not, however, at the focal point of discussions. Does this make a difference? In Egypt, for example, only 25% of the population have access to the internet. Does this not make Twitter merely a means through which western commentators can, in an abstract and non-attached way, feel tied to a movement? And does this tie to a cause define ‘activism’, or is it another case of the bourgeoisie thriving on novelty?
For Gladwell, activism is defined by ‘strong ties’ to others involved in a cause, rather than any weak ideological commitment. This kind of attachment to a cause through personal relationships is less likely to occur through the impersonal medium of sites like Twitter. It is an underlying reality, Gladwell implies, that a person will not pursue radical ideas with utmost conviction on ideology alone – there must exist a sense of comradeship and a framework of membership. Take Britain’s trade unions, for example, which could never be replaced by lone net users tweeting about the same cause because the core infrastructure that encourages collective mobilisation would be missing.
The future will inevitably present us with additional ways of accelerating any form of insurgency
The use of Netroots, a non-hierarchical and decentralised form of participation that connects people through the internet, often precedes activism. Hundreds of bloggers met up at the Netroots UK headquarters in London recently to share ideas and strategise on the anti-cuts remonstrations – an example of the web being used to complement more traditional forms of grassroots activism. But Jared Cohen, the advisor to Hilary Clinton on the US’s Internet Freedom Agenda, claims that this is, like all social media, simply an ‘accelerant’. It aids grass-roots activists in locating each other and sharing information, but does not alter the fact that a successful revolution requires that protestors take to the streets. ‘There’s no such thing as a Twitter revolution,’ says Cohen.
Thus, just as ‘the Spectacle’ was for Guy Debord the image of a society whose relations are between commodities rather than between people, we are in danger of believing that passive identification with a cause can supplant real social activity. Twitter is effective in increasing mass participation in a movement, but this is because it lessens the degree of motivation that is required. ‘And this,’ says Gladwell, ‘is the second crucial distinction between traditional activism and its online variant’. The fact that the latter does not entail such a membership structure makes it little more than a tool for building a network, and a network alone is not enough to cement our philosophies. There is no hierarchal authority through which Twitter can strategically force a revolution – it is only a platform on which said revolution can be discussed or hypothesised.
Yes, discussion and communication will always be key to any revolution, and will need accompanying media to spread the word. Just as print was critical in the years preceding the internet, so the future will inevitably present us with additional ways of accelerating any form of insurgency. But it is misleading to correlate a whole movement to a website. In all of these countries, it is less the 144-character updates that are altering circumstances and more the courage of ordinary civilians to go out into the streets and risk their own lives.
There is further danger in relying on social media outlets such as Twitter to effect change. Due to the rapidly changing pace of political agendas, sustained resistance is a much more difficult task. The radical decline in numbers protesting against the rise in tuition fees since the actual passing of the bill last December is evidence of this. Ultimately, social media outlets will always be significant as tools for change, but it is a sense of comradeship that extends beyond retweets that are an essential in any movement. Activism may begin on the internet, but it will always end on the streets.