A few weekends ago I went to Berlin and hung out with a friend from freshman year, a girl from Ukraine who moved to Florida when she was 10. She always posts on Facebook about the corruption and unrest in her home country, and when I asked her about if social media had a profound effect on how the revolution played out two years ago, she said that without social media, people’s revolutions like in Ukraine (on top of numerous other countries) would be much easier for the government to quash.
Malcolm Gladwell’s somewhat cynical piece on “Why the revolution won’t be tweeted” claims that because using social media is innately a static activity rather than an action with tangible results, social network sites don’t help (and, in fact, hurt) causes trying to effect a change. Since its writing, however, multiple so-called “Twitter Revolutions”—from Moldova to Iran to Tunisia to Egypt—have proven that social media often play an integral role in civilian uprisings.
For a more recent and closer-to-home example, consider New York City after the deaths of unarmed Michael Brown and Eric Garner by rogue police officers. Nearly all promotion of planned protests spread on Facebook and Twitter; the “Millions March” that started on campus in Washington Square, for example, was planned weeks in advance and allowed time to spread on social media. One march that I participated in—from outside my dorm at Union Square to the NYPD Headquarters downtown—I’d seen circulating on Twitter beforehand.
In Ukraine, protests erupted after the Ukrainian president rejected an agreement that would have led to closer interaction with the EU and gradual separation from Russia and Vladimir Putin’s looming influence. In addition to spreading the word about protests on Facebook and Twitter, Ukrainians used tools like these to cover developments that mainstream media was choosing to ignore. We saw the same thing happen with the protests in Taksim Square in Istanbul, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square following the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, and even closer to home in Ferguson, Missouri.
Does this mean that Gladwell was totally wrong in his belief that revolutions and movements originating from or that apply social media tools never amount to tangible action? Not entirely, but that belief has been mostly debunked in recent years since the rise of sites like Twitter and Facebook. Social network sites have allowed for the spread of ideas, the promotion of demonstrations, and the broadcast of live, on-the-ground events that mainstream media outlets either miss or purposely ignore. Slacktivism still remains a persistent problem on social media (and the go-to criticism for social media activism cynics), so the question isn’t about WHAT social media can do for revolutions, but HOW people can use these tools to further advance their cause.
Featured image courtesy of Jose Luis Orihuela