Social media has changed the way people organise and demonstrate creating new types of fast-moving protest groups and challenges for the authorities. But how new is the use of digital media and has it completely replaced traditional methods of mobilising protestors? John Sinha from Occupy looks at how social media has been used in recent demonstrations:
The current wave of social protest movements are the first to make use of the full capabilities of Web 2.0, including social media and smartphones. But they are not the first to make use of the internet. The alter-globalisation movement of the 90s and 00s had Indymedia, list servers and websites. Although these still have a part to play, the greater capabilities of social media for organising events and communicating real-time information have supplanted many of their uses. Applications such as live streaming, for example, can now reach potentially much larger audiences and provide a more immediate documentation of action on the ground, including cases of police aggression during occupations.
At the same time, more traditional ways of mobilising protest have not been forgotten. Leaflets, posters and papers are still effective channels of communication and often coexist with their virtual equivalents. As social media theorist Paulo Gerbaudo has noted, for example, many of the major hash tags and Twitter slogans were spray stenciled on the streets of Cairo in the days leading up to the revolution.
This interaction between the online and physical worlds has been studied by a group of researchers from the 15M movement (a Spanish protest group that was launched with a gathering on 15 May 2011). They carried out a statistical analysis into the use of social media by their organisation and identified a phenomenon that they called technopolitics – the tactical and strategic use of technological devices for organisation, communication and collective action. Unlike the similar concept of cyberactivism, however, technopolitics is not limited to the internet. Rather, it represents a series of collective practices that can take place or start on the Internet, but that do not stay there.
The use of social media disrupts the relationship between the mass media and what is happening on the street. This ability of social media to influence wider agendas has been understood, as the Snowden revelations show, by the Government and corporate elites, and it is as well for social movements to be aware of the counter-strategies that are open to them.
Here in the UK a major Occupy sponsored action for democracy will put all these lessons together on a large scale.
John Sinha is an Occupy activist currently working on a major action on democracy which Occupy in London has called for in the autumn. He is also involved with anti-fracking campaigns and developing devices with the Internet of Things.
John will be taking part in Protest in a Digital Age, part of our Troublemakers? series with Ian Dunt (politics.co.uk), Symon Hill (author of Digital Revolutions: Activism in the Internet Age), Jamie Bartlett (Head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and Centre for Analysis of Social Media at DEMOS) plus representatives from UK Uncut.
Join in the conversation for our Troublemakers? series with #BITroublemakers.
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