It’s nothing new, activist and political organizations alike have always been communicating through novel and often times creative channels. I’m sure you have seen posters from the Velvet Revolution, buttons worn in solidarity of the Suffrage movement, poetry and music rallying for Scottish Independence, and paintings from the French Revolutions at various museums and exhibits across the nation. This list is not exhaustive and look hard enough, political or revolutionary ideas can be found in almost every creative platform from plays to graffiti to even clothing. These tools of communication are often instrumental to the success of revolutionary campaigns as they spread the message and awareness that things need to change for the better. Think of social media as simply another Titan supporting the fight of revolutionaries worldwide.
Social media has exponentially increased not only the reach, but perhaps even more importantly, the engagement with activist content. Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Reddit, Vine, and now FireChat are helping demonstrators communicate and spread their voice despite various social and technological censorships. Twitter, I believe, has been most successful in allowing local citizens the voice to share news relevant to what is happening in their locality. Another great social hub is Al Jazeera’s social media community, the Stream, which frequently asks their twitter followers to reach out and share stories not reported by traditional media.
These social platforms allow the message and ideas of activist organizations and revolutions themselves to carry well beyond the confines of location. You can be in Brazil and a link to the live-stream of a protest in Egypt will pop up on your blog. You begin to watch nonchalantly as protestors begin to get tear gassed. Now you’re engaged, you are expressing your horror at this abuse of civilians but you think, “Well, there are two sides to every story.” So with a quick search on the right platforms, you start reading up on what the opposition stands for while keeping an eye on the real-time updates tweeted by a protest organizer. Ultimately, in no more than an hour of following the story via social, you have already gained exposure to facets of the protest that traditional media is just beginning to post on popular news channels. Very cool.
Okay, so it’s not all sunshine, puppies, and fighting the power. In fact, activist social media content has raised some problematic ripples in the world. Certain organizations that may/may not have nefarious plans in mind can track, profile, and engage with a larger audience through social media. The strongest weapon these organizations wield is their ability to gain a response from their followers. Those who interact with these organizations are not passive consumers of content. They are looking to become passionate about a cause and are then willing to do anything for it. So yes, social media is an amplification tool for the message of revolutionaries, but that message isn’t always a positive one.
Another problem is a rise in what I like to call “arm-chair social activists.” No, I’m not talking about Leigh Hunt-esqe publications, but tumblrs and twitters run by individuals who are very (stress: very!) passionate about a cause but usually only to the extent of their internet connection. These social activists get so siloed in a cause that they forget to realize that most issues have macro level variables intersecting with even more variables. Don’t get me wrong, it is great to be excited about a cause but please realize that not everything you read/learn on the internet is true. So go ahead and defend a cause you’re passionate about online but keep in mind to check yourself, you’re probably not a scholar in the field and there are probably more aspects to this issue than what you understand. Take a chill pill.
Despite some of these cons, social media use during revolutions/protests is doing us the favor of changing how we engage with each other and with our governments. Search any of the following hashtags (#umbrellarevolution; #freepalestine; #handsupdontshoot; #syria; #occupy) on any of the aforementioned platforms and you will receive live updates as well as recaps and analyses from those on the front lines. No longer is your information going to be filtered through various media outlets, you can get right to the source 365/24/7.
That’s what attracts me so much to this channel of activist communication more so than posters, buttons, or songs. Through social medial platforms we are feeling the highs and lows of the revolutions in Iraq, Egypt, Wall Street, Hong Kong, Palestine, and Ferguson. We are joining the discussions, we are posting real-time updates, and we are informing the ignorant. We are living the revolution. No, this does not mean you have to grab a chair and help build a barricade. What it does mean is that we no longer have an excuse to close our eyes to the history being created all around us since it is never more than a hashtag or Google search away. I mean yeah…sharing old memes is great, but social media platforms can (and will continue to) be utilized for so much more.