August 18 2022
The foundations of our networked public are designed for advertising, not for activism. Social media grabs attention but struggles to sustain it.
The 2017 Women’s March brought hundreds of thousand of people out in the US. Democratic protests in Iran, Egypt, France, and Hong Kong have found their collective voices online over the last decade. The #MeToo movement used social channels to take on men in positions of power.
These movements emerge extraordinarily quickly, spilling out horizontally into a movement long before hierarchies are established, or leadership recognised. The barriers to participation are miniscule: signalling support is as simple as tapping a button, and joining a march or protest no longer requires membership or even knowledge of its organisers. But this explosiveness burns out. Stewarding a social movement from a spark to lasting change demands skills, commitment, and attention that social media does little to support.
Perhaps a decade ago, social organisers might have been satisfied with this sudden, unexpected visibility; tweets copied into print, invitations to speak on TV and so on. New voices could barge past old gatekeepers and into the mainstream.
But today, democratic protestors continue to face crackdowns around the world. Roe v Wade has been repealed in the US, and Trump is eyeing a second term. Many of the victims of so-called ‘cancel culture’ have built careers off the back of the attention or, more simply, ignored it. Although these social movements were spectacularly visible, we might evaluate their impact as underwhelming.
These movements highlight the strengths and weaknesses of social media in social change. In a matter of moments, they had captured the headlines. It was a sudden victory. It was sudden because – although we may not have recognised it at the time – it was precisely the victory that social media was designed for: attention. It just so happened that it was in these moments that social movements and platform profit mechanisms aligned. Bypassing traditional gatekeepers and quickly building new centres of attention is precisely what has made social media platforms like Facebook so enormously profitable: if that aligns with the aims of social movements, then so be it.
A decade of social media movements has taught us two things. First, attention is powerful but changing society demands patience. It still turns on controlling centres of institutional power, from the government at the top to their local roots in councils, school boards and community groups. And second, that social media activism might be a means to that end, rather than the end in itself.
The murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 in Minneapolis was captured on a smartphone and shared online. Within days, millions had taken to the streets in the US and around the world protesting police violence and calling for reform. It was a textbook example of how social movements could build momentum through the attention that social media platforms specialised in.
The difference this time was that the organisers around the movement didn’t stop with Twitter and Facebook.
Wrtiting in the New Yorker , Jane Hu describes organisers turning to Zoom, Google Documents and Slack – nominally workplace solutions – to coordinate prolonged local activism. Dropbox and Drive provide indexed repositories of critical information and resources that might be lost once the social media attention turns elsewhere. Messaging platforms like Telegram and WhatsApp further decentralise messaging, empowering local groups and strengthening relationships between activists. The stack of digital technologies used by social activists is deeper than ever. Organisers know now that using social media to capture attention is only the first step, and that a different set of digital tools are there to build out the skills and structures that long-term activism and impact require.
Technology will be critical to social change – it just might not be the technology we think. Social change takes time, and social media platforms are not built to be patient. Algorithms parsing the millions of posts and tweets and images to serve up something that might interest us are not the friends of slow and steady change, of institutional reform, or of investment in long-term aims. But as the suite of digital tools and methods used to coordinate social action grows and improves, it will still be technology that provides a critical toolkit for social change.
 Hu,J (2020). The Second Act of Social-Media Activism: Has the Internet become better at mediating change? The New Yorker. Available from: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-second-act-of-social-media-activism