Liking Social Justice

| 3/12/2012 8:34:50 AM

Just Like Facebook Blues  

The whole Kony 2012 debate has gotten me thinking about how activism has changed over the past few years, especially with the explosion of social media use. Back in 2010, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a much-read piece in The New Yorker about the so-called “Twitter Revolutions” in Moldova and Iran the previous year. Many observers had jumped to the conclusion that social media had reinvented grassroots activism, that, of all things, Facebook and Twitter were now powerful tools for populist change. But as Gladwell argued, activists’ use of Twitter in both countries had been way overblown, and in fact, it was hard to see how social media could ever live up to claims like that. Historically, most social movements, like civil rights in the U.S., had been based on what sociologists call “strong ties”—activists were more likely to commit time, energy, and personal safety, if they belonged to a strong, cohesive group of like minded friends. By contrast, social media are based on “weak ties” with very low personal commitment required of participants. Facebook users were more likely to belong to a “Save Darfur” online group than to make protest signs or risk arrest. If social media were having an impact on young people, it was not in terms of civic engagement.

A lot of things have happened since then, most importantly the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. Both made heavy use of social media to organize, communicate, and get the word out to a larger public. Facebook allowed activists in Tunisia to coordinate and plan demonstrations under the radar of a clueless and very 20th-century regime. A new smartphone app allowed activists in the U.S. to broadcast episodes of police brutality as they were happening. And, yes, Twitter let demonstrators communicate in mass numbers quickly and effectively (some state prosecutors have even subpoenaed Occupy protesters’ Twitter feeds in recent months).

But, in spite of those developments, Gladwell’s argument still has a lot of validity today. The fact is that the basic elements of grassroots activism have not changed since the invention of Twitter. The role social media played in Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square was to facilitate and streamline on-the-group organizing, not to take its place. The important flashpoints in those movements were still physical, and involved the same dynamics as previous grassroots struggles. And as The Atlantic’s Nathan Jurgenson has argued, Occupy was in many ways explicitly low-tech, from the (entirely print) People’s Library, to general assembly hand signs, to the iconic human microphone. While Occupy made use of new media to organize and coordinate with itself, once organized, it behaved much more traditionally.

And yet there are many activists and groups that still seek to address very real issues entirely through social media. Over the past decade or so, Facebook has probably been the most notorious. Especially in the U.S., issue-oriented Facebook groups have a history of being very popular, very good at raising awareness, but very bad at raising cash and affecting change, says Evgeny Morozov in Foreign Policy’s Net Effect blog. Like Gladwell, Morozov points to a brand of activism that is low-risk and essentially unconnected with larger groups or experiences. A powerful illustration is the group a Danish psychologist started in 2009 to address a problem that didn’t actually exist (the group opposed a never-planned dismantling of a fountain in Copenhagen). Within a week, the group had 28,000 members. And interestingly, activists in the Global South seem to be much better at translating digital participation into physical action. An anti-FARC Facebook group in Colombia got hundreds of thousands of people to march against the guerilla force in almost 200 cities in 2008. This may be because while joining a political Facebook group from Bogota or Cairo can be a brave act of personal conscience, in the U.S., there is very little danger. And in a network of weak ties, low personal risk means low personal investment.

This brings us to the now-ubiquitous Kony 2012 campaign, a movement that has generated quite a bit of awareness and controversy over the past few days. A viral video on the group’s website has already garnered tens of millions of views, but many observers have criticized the film’s overly simplistic portrayal of Ugandans and the larger conflict. Spending only a few of its thirty minutes on East Africa, the film’s moralistic message seems more akin to White Man’s Burden than humanitarianism—and many have criticized its commodification of the conflict, especially in light of Invisible Children’s allegedly shady finances. The group has certainly accomplished its stated goal of raising awareness about Kony, the LRA, and child soldiers in Africa, but it is hard for many to connect the film’s slick simplicity and the group’s consumerist message with facts on the ground.

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