The Second Act of Social-Media Activism

Cultural Comment
The Second Act of Social-Media
Has the Internet become better at mediating change?
By Jane Hu
August 3, 2020
Illustration by Maria Chimishkyan
hree months of quarantine taught us to live online, so it’s perhaps
unsurprising that it was what we saw online that sent us back onto the
streets. On May 25th, the circulation of video footage capturing George
Floyd’s murder by four Minneapolis police officers quickly incited local
protests. Three nights later, our feeds streamed with live images of protesters
burning Minneapolis’s Third Police Precinct. In the course of June, uprisings
expanded at unprecedented speed and scale—growing nationally and then
internationally, leaving a series of now iconic images, videos, and exhortations
in their wake. Every historic event has its ideal medium of documentation—
the novel, the photograph, the television—and what we’re witnessing feels
like an exceptionally “online” moment of social unrest.
Indeed, the struggle in the public square has unfolded alongside a takeover of
the virtual one. Amid cell-phone footage of protests and toppling statues, the
Internet has been further inundated with what we might call activist media.
Screenshots of bail-fund donations urging others to match continue to
proliferate. Protest guides, generated from years of on-the-ground activist
experience, are readily shared over Twitter and Instagram, telling readers how
to blur faces in photographs or aid in de-arrests. There are e-mail and phonecall
templates, pre-scripted and mass-circulated. Webinars about police
abolition now constitute their own subgenre. And city-council meetings,
which had already migrated to Zoom because of the pandemic, have come to
host the hallowed activist tradition of town-hall agitation. (Well-timed
appeals for the police department to “suck my dick,” it turns out, can be as
effective online as off.) As some of June’s uprisings evolve into today’s
encampments, the long revolutionary summer of 2020—made all the longer
by quarantine—continues apace online.
Some of this story may seem familiar. In “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power
and Fragility of Networked Protest,” from 2017, the sociologist Zeynep
Tufekci examined how a “digitally networked public sphere” had come to
shape social movements. Tufekci drew on her own experience of the 2011
Arab uprisings, whose early mobilization of social media set the stage for the
protests at Gezi Park, in Istanbul, the Occupy action, in New York City, and
the Black Lives Matter movement, in Ferguson. For Tufekci, the use of the
Internet linked these various, decentralized uprisings and distinguished them
from predecessors such as the nineteen-sixties civil-rights movement.
Whereas “older movements had to build their organizing capacity ?rst,”
Tufekci argued, “modern networked movements can scale up quickly and take
care of all sorts of logistical tasks without building any substantial
organizational capacity before the ?rst protest or march.”
The speed afforded by such protest is, however, as much its peril as its
promise. After a swift expansion, spontaneous movements are often prone to
what Tufekci calls “tactical freezes.” Because they are often leaderless, and can
lack “both the culture and the infrastructure for making collective decisions,”
they are left with little room to adjust strategies or negotiate demands. At a
more fundamental level, social media’s corporate infrastructure makes such
movements vulnerable to coöptation and censorship. Tufekci is clear-eyed
about these pitfalls, even as she rejects the broader criticisms of “slacktivism”
laid out, for example, by Evgeny Morozov’s “The Net Delusion,” from 2011.
“Twitter and Tear Gas” remains trenchant about how social media can and
cannot enact reform. But movements change, as does technology. Since
Tufekci’s book was published, social media has helped represent—and, in
some cases, helped organize—the Arab Spring 2.0, France’s “Yellow Vest”
movement, Puerto Rico’s RickyLeaks, the 2019 Iranian protests, the Hong
Kong protests, and what we might call the B.L.M. uprising of 2020. This last
event, still ongoing, has evinced a scale, creativity, and endurance that
challenges those skeptical of the Internet’s ability to mediate a movement. As
Tufekci notes in her book, the real-world effects of Occupy, the Women’s
March, and even Ferguson-era B.L.M. were often underwhelming. By
contrast, since George Floyd’s death, cities have cut billions of dollars from
police budgets; school districts have severed ties with police; multiple policereform-
and-accountability bills have been introduced in Congress; and cities
like Minneapolis have vowed to defund policing. Plenty of work remains, but
the link between activism, the Internet, and material action seems to have
deepened. What’s changed?
he current uprisings slot neatly into Tufekci’s story, with one exception.
As the ?urry of digital activism continues, there is no sense that this
movement is unclear about its aims—abolition—or that it might collapse
under a tactical freeze. Instead, the many protest guides, syllabi, Webinars,
and the like have made clear both the objectives of abolition and the digital
savvy of abolitionists. It is a message so legible that even Fox News grasped it
with relative ease. Rachel Kuo, an organizer and scholar of digital activism,
told me that this clarity has been shaped partly by organizers who
increasingly rely on “a combination of digital platforms, whether that’s
Google Drive, Signal, Messenger, Slack, or other combinations of software,
for collaboration, information storage, resource access, and daily
communications.” The public tends to focus, understandably, on the profusion
of hashtags and sleek graphics, but Kuo stressed that it was this “back end”
work—an inventory of knowledge, a stronger sense of alliance—that has
allowed digital activism to “re?ect broader concerns and visions around
community safety, accessibility, and accountability.” The uprisings might have
unfolded organically, but what has sustained them is precisely what many
prior networked protests lacked: preëxisting organizations with speci?c
demands for a better world.

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