In Brazil and Turkey, spontaneous citizen movements have sprung out of nowhere. The enraged Turkish PM, once regarded as a democrat, sees conspiracies and treason everywhere. The Brazilian president, once a jailed activist, does not seem to know how to handle the mass demos. The fact that must alarm governments everywhere is that institutions like political parties no longer have their hands on the controls. People are going their own way.
Some analysts doubt that social media play a key role in mobilising protests. It’s not the social media, the argument goes, but the fact that grassroots organisations have long prepared the ground for mass protests: that’s what brings people out on the streets.
Recently on Business Day, Steven Friedman opined: “Social media did not change the Middle East — years of organising by opposition and civil society groups did. At most, social media helped parts of the opposition communicate with each other.”
Well, isn’t the last point really the key? Social media have intensified communications and in so doing have brought together not just the formal opposition but the dispersed hundreds of thousands who may previously have not been actively affiliated with any party or group. And as they head for the squares where others gather they are still not allying themselves directly with any branded party. They are there to join the collective.
A poster seen on the streets of Cairo crossed out the words “AK-47” and “Machete” to replace them with “Twitter” and “Facebook”. Not only does this say something about non-violence but it declares that netizens have more sophisticated ways of fighting oppressive authorities.
The word “intensify” deserves special emphasis here. Just as you can grow more plants, faster, bigger, and more frequently in a hydroponic hothouse, so messaging grows in the hothouse of mobile communications. Everything intensifies as layer upon layer of short, emotive exchanges power the engine of social awareness.
It’s up to communication theorists to explore the meaning of intensification.
The notion that social media mobilise people has become part of popular lore. But why do we think so? Well, simply because without these media the mass demonstrations that are happening with greater frequency everywhere simply wouldn’t be happening. At least, not on such a scale, so suddenly, and with such self-organisation.
Who can doubt that the sudden eruption of angry protests on the streets of Istanbul and Sao Paulo has been highly spontaneous? The issues are so broadly populist and the aims of the protestors are so general in nature that no other conclusion can be drawn. These demonstrations were not organised by self-conscious activists with definite programmes in mind. Of course, such activists are out there and probably stoking the crowds; but it’s more a case of taking advantage of a mass groundswell than being able to claim credit for it (although they do!).
One can maybe sustain the argument that social media themselves did not change the Middle East. Of course not: media are channels, not living demonstrators. But without these media the wildfire spread of messages would not have happened. The immediacy, directness and networking power of social media cannot be denied.
Maybe organised opposition initially fuelled the North African Arab Spring. Personally I think that even there the outrage was more spontaneous than organised – at least to begin with. After all, wasn’t it a posting on Facebook that started it all? It’s true that civil society groups and Muslim resistance had been active for years before Tunisia and Egypt exploded with revolutionary fervour. Yet they, like the governments above them, were caught flat-footed.
Political analysts are very keen to put down social media as mere emphemera. They aren’t. They network people as never before and they are changing the way that communication takes place. The use of these media shakes the foundations not just of governments but of the organised movements that oppose governments. These media are largely out of the control of managing elites.
We have entered an era where democracy is becoming far more fluid and destabilising for those who have commanded the media heights. In politics, the hallowed party systems which have seen elites changing places in a game of musical chairs is on the way out as ordinary people assert themselves.