What with the access to audiences of thousands, even millions, of users, social media is in theory the perfect tool for social activists. Anyone can get involved in a campaign with the touch of a button, the only prerequisite being the possession of a smartphone. Where once protest movements were, to a degree, limited in their outreach by distance and means, protest movements can now reach almost anyone, anywhere and at any time. In the past, campaigners relied on public pickets, posting flyers, radio or television interviews – anything that would get them noticed – though they can now take to platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, where a revolution is born in the palm of a hand.
Information can be passed extremely quickly, not only making it much easier to get a movement off the ground but also to then organize and manage it. Sociologists have identified the 4 stages in the life cycle of a protest movement, those being emergence, coalescence, bureaucratization and decline. It is not difficult to make the connection between social media and the first two; thanks to the diversity and scope of such platforms, it is easier than ever to find people with similar views and political motivations with whom one can show solidarity on the streets or online.
A crucial advantage of social media platforms over more traditional campaigning methods is the wide range of different medias they carry. One of the reasons for the success of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s is the rise in popularity of television, allowing many in the North to see footage of the violence of the white authorities as they tried to quell demonstrations in Selma, Alabama and elsewhere. The ability to utilize film or audio carries huge advantages in that it makes a movement more personal and emotionally engaging on a deeper level than mere hearsay. Video or audio recordings act as a kind or proof, much like the civil rights footage; it becomes impossible to dismiss news stories as overblown sensationalism when there was concrete evidence that the police were using water cannons and beating peaceful protesters to the ground. As Martin Luther King Jr. said in a speech, “We will no longer let them use their clubs on us in the dark corners. We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television.”
If this was the case in the 50s with television, then, it isn’t difficult to imagine the scope we have now in an age where almost everyone carries a smartphone with them and can capture and upload to social media any footage that might aid a protest movement. The video of a Black Lives Matter campaigner who was arrested seemingly without cause while talking police went viral across the Internet. In recent weeks, the debate about gun control laws in the US has been ongoing, the principal young campaigners using their social media accounts as ways to mobilize and engage their support network as well as counter the opposition.
It is worth taking these successes with a pinch of salt, however, as while social media can be an excellent tool, it also has the potential to be a movement’s downfall. Though a cause might initially gain a lot of support, it is so easily lost, many fading into obscurity after a movement has had its ‘moment’. The #Kony2012 campaign that took social media by storm – while in some ways greatly successful – was heavily criticized on a number of counts but notably for fueling, as Kate Dailey for the BBC puts it, “the idea, however misguided, that the social media generation has the opportunity to change the world with the click of a mouse”. It becomes very easy to sink into complacency as the abundance of hashtags and online pledges of support may make it seem like more is being done then it actually is. With social media being such a free, open space, it carries the potential to also hurt a campaign; followers can post whatever they want, potentially to the detriment of the campaign’s reputation. Online bullying and mindless Twitter rants, for example, can hardly be said to cast a movement in a favorable light. As we saw earlier with the 4 stages of a protest movement, poor use of social media could contribute to a decline, social media movements particularly prone to factionalism and internal conflict.
When a movement relies solely on likes, shares, or hashtags it is ultimately at the mercy of social media users and however long their attention span is, making it essential that it goes hand-in-hand with additional action. Matt Collins puts it well in an article for The Guardian, asserting that:
“Selfies and hashtags are unlikely to lead to social change on their own – only real governmental pressure and action can do that. But world governments listen, and act, when enough people speak. Social media is the most shareable, durable and global collection of voices the world has ever seen, one which is increasingly difficult to ignore.”
Social media being a phenomenon that is constantly evolving, it is almost impossible to make predictions with any degree of certainty as to their impact on current events, however they appear to have profoundly affected the stage on which world events play out. Social media can be an incredible tool with the power to make or break the success of any social movement with the caveat, though, that they are used intelligently.