Understanding Social Media & Activism

There is enormous debate surrounding the ability of social media to promote participatory democracy and political activism. With the Kony2012 campaign at the center of the debate, arguments both for and against the movement are controversial. The New York Times states that as of June 2012, Facebook has over 955 million active users. Clearly indicating that social media is increasingly saturating society. Bennett suggests the Internet and social media effectively facilitate the loosely structured networks, weak identity ties, and the patterns of issue and demonstration organising, which define a new global protest politics (2003). Although the Kony2012 film was undoubtedly a social phenomenon, whether Invisible children achieved ‘success’ is a hotly debated matter.

So exactly what is social media?

What does it have to do with political activism?

And why is it important?

Barack Obama has compared the concept of social media to universal liberties such as freedom of speech. Lewin states that the US president has: “made innovative use of social media, embracing not just podcasting, but Twitter, Flickr, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube & more” for his past presidential campaigns. Interestingly, Chris Hughes – one of the three co-founders of Facebook – now runs Obamas official website  my.barackobama.com.

Barack Obama in the first presidential Twitter Town hall meeting with service creator and moderator Jack Dorsey looking on. Image by Pete Souza (whitehouse.gov)

Social Media is understood as the web-based and mobile technologies used to turn communication into an interactive dialogue. Kaplan and Haenlein define social media as: “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content” (2010, p 59). Empirical research by Bradock and colleagues suggests that social networking sites (SNS) are the most common entrance to online activism, despite the fact that SNS were not created with activism in mind (2009). Rolfe suggests that the ease of access to, and familiarity with technology, has become important resources contributing to the success of a political movement (2005). The new participatory landscape allows for more opportunities to engage in effective communication, and improves the ability of individuals to undertake collective action.

Radwan argues the Internet has created a ‘world village’ sense of proximity by linking its inhabitants through cyber-space and creating a: “’knowledge-based society’ [that’s becoming] the world’s culture and primary tool of communications”  (2011, p 1). The Kony2012 film utilises the video-sharing website YouTube and Vimeo with other viewing emanating from a central Kony2012 website operated by Invisible Children Inc. The video was extensively shared on a number of social media platforms such as FacebookTwitterGoogle Plus and other blogging applications (Cavanagh, 2012). Some impact monitoring organisations, such as the Film Visible Measures, now claim that this volume of activity makes the Kony2012 short film the fastest spreading viral campaign in Internet history.

Film Visible Measure table comparing most online viewed videos of all time.

Conversely, opposition to this cyber-optimistic view casts skepticism on the universal accessibility to Web-based technologies. Hague brings to question: “Whose utopia is cyberspace?” In addition, attention has been geared towards acknowledging the democratic divide – the widening gap in online political participation. Despite this skepticism, many admit there is no denying the Internets potential for facilitating social movements. Invisible Children activist, Sarah Cooper states:  “[social media] definitely has the ability to create huge changes and to have a lot of people involved in things, Kony2012 is an example of that. But they have to be grounded in appropriate research and context and not misinform people because thats when things can get dangerous.”

Harlow defines, ‘activism’ as: “the actions of a group of like-minded individuals coming together to change the status quo, advocating for a cause, whether local or global, and whether progressive or not” (2011, p 228). Activism can involve social movements – the prolonged contestation of authority with interactions between challengers and power holders – and/or movements of collective action. Tilly understands this as the: “joint action in pursuit of common ends” (1978, p 84). The success of the action largely depends on the degree of a group’s common interests and shared identity, its available resources, its political power, its opportunities and threats, and the level of governmental repression.

Juris advocates that the Internet potentially facilitates traditional offline activism, enhancing a movement’s existing repertoire, adding that it can create a new avenue for novel forms of activism and resistance. Ramtin coins the term ‘digital activism’ or ‘e-activism’ which describes how citizens utilize digital tools to effect social or political change (2012, p64). It is this idea of ‘e-activism’ that is becoming ever so prevalent amongst contemporary activists.  Along with the Kony2012 movement, the recent Arab Spring is an example where social media has played a central role in coordinating political activities. History and Politics lecturer, Susan Engel states: “there are examples where [social media] has been used to help facilitate and organise successful campaigns. In and of itself, it won’t change governments, it won’t change policies… Its a useful mechanism and it reflects the communications revolution. It should be changing the way we do activism.”

Activists are now making full use of blogs and social media sites to promote there message and gain support.

McCafferty contends: “while no one disputes that online initiatives like these draw greater attention to a cause, opinion varies with respect to whether they make a significant lasting impact” (2011, p 18).

This blog will further examine McCafferty’s claim and dive into deeper analysis of the effects of social media on political activism.

Bennett, L 2003, “Communicating Global Activism,” Information, communication & Society, Vol 6 Issue 2, pp 143-168, accessed 30.3.2012, Google Scholar, http://nw08.american.edu/~graf/551/551bennett.pdf

Braddock, K, Joyce M & Zaeck, T 2009, “Digital activism survey report 2009,” DigiActiv, www.digiactive.org/wpcontent/uploads/Research4_SureveyReport2009.pdf

Cavanagh, J 2012, “Kony 2012 and the Political Economy of Conflict Representation,” Nordic Africa Institute Department of International Environment and Development Studies Norwegian University of Life Sciences, March 9, accessed 26.3.2012, http://www.nai.uu.se/press/articles/2012/03/09/145947/Kony-2012_LongVersion_ConnorCavanagh.pdf

Harlow, S 2011, “Social media and social movements: Facebook and an online Guatemala justice movement that moved offline,” New Media Society, Vol 14, Issue No. 2, pp 225-243, http://nms.sagepub.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/content/14/2/225.full.pdf+html, accessed 26.3.2012

Juris J, S 2005, “The new digital media and activist networking within anti-corporate globalization movements,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Issue 597, Vol No. 1, pp 189-208

Kaplan, A.M & Haenlein, M, 2010, “Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media”Business Horizons, Issue 53, Volume 1, pp 59–68.

McCafferty, D 2011, ‘Activism vs. slacktivism’, Communications Of The ACM, 54, 12, pp. 17-19, Computers & Applied Sciences Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 27 May 2012.

Radwan, A 2011, ‘Egypt’s Facebook Revolution’, American Diplomacy, pp. 1-3, Political Science Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 22 September 2011.

Ratmin, A 2010, “The empire strikes back: social media uprisings and the future of cyber activism,” Kennedy School Review, Vol 10, p 64

Rolfe, B 2005, “Building an electronic repertoire of Contention,” Social Movement Studies, Vol 4, Issue 1, pp 65-74

Sengupta, Somini , 2012, “Facebook’s Prospects May Rest on Trove of Data”The New York Times. Retrieved May 15, 2012.

Shirkey, Clay. Here Comes Everybody. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. Print.

Steel, E, 2012, “Kony 2012 Sets Mark as Fastest-Spreading Viral Video,” Wall Street Journal, 09 March 2012, http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2012/03/09/kony-2012-sets-mark-as-fastest-spreading-viral- video/?mod=google_news_blog

Tarrow, S 1988, “Power in Movement,” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tilly, C 1978, “From Mobilization to Revolution,” Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Van L & Van A, 2009, “Cyber-protest and civil society: The Internet and action repertoires in social movements,” www.webhost.ua.ac.be/m2p/publications/1251930545.pdf accessed 26.3.2012


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