Frederick Douglass, a formerly enslaved black man and one of the greatest American abolitionists and thinkers, infamously talked about producing societal change:
“Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
In such eloquent and powerful language, Douglass makes clear that social movements are necessary and in fact, a historic trend that will not diminish as long as human beings exist. And such a sentiment is shared by your friends on Twitter:
People often endure the frustration and humiliation because of their economic, political, and/or social conditions. This catalyzes a group of people to lead and create strategies in hopes of successfully changing those conditions. Scholars have defined social movements in four stages: emergence, coalescence, bureaucratization, and decline. It is during the former two stages that technology becomes an effective tool in exposing injustice, collecting narratives, and strategizing for its abolishment.
Social media has revolutionized our world. Communication and engagement with unexplored natives and spaces of the Earth taken shape due to the access that social media, and more generally the Internet, has provided citizens of the world. It has also been at the heart of dissent and the struggle for freedom across the globe. The Arab Spring comes to mind. The preponderance of #BlackLivesMatter in our discourse on race and politics does as well, as it has consumed most of our attention regarding how technology shapes social movements. The movement literally has a hashtag placed in front of its name, a phenomenon that is certainly unique historically but is the contemporary norm. Television channels, radio stations, and other forms of mainstream media have documented social movements, sometimes to their detriment, sometimes to their success. What is different about recent technology and social movements is that the narrative can be directly controlled by fighters of a cause.
In recent years, we have not only missed how social movements have combusted globally, we also have overlooked how technology has also been essential to their strategy. And social media has dominated the conversation about agency, protest, and social change in modern times, but I would argue that such focus lacks how older technology has been vital as well, such as filmmaking.
After 2008, Spain was in an economic crisis of daunting proportions. Spain had the highest youth unemployment in the European Union of 47% by 2011. Embracing neoliberal demands, Prime Minister of Spain Jose Luiz Zapatero cut public spending and reduced labor rights. What truly agitated Spanish people and in particular the youth was the crackdown on public spaces, the stigmatization of public gatherings, and Internet freedom. After a series of minor labor protests, the Zapatero government prohibited large gatherings. This threatened the culture of youth sociability in Spain. Groups like Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without Futures) and Estado de Malestar (State of Discomfort/Unrest) staged protests in response to these economic and social conditions, with little success. The Zapatero government then sought to pass Ley Sinde, a law that made file-sharing illegal. After it was revealed by Wikileaks that American elite pressured to pass this bill, online campaigns #redriste (Net resistors) and #nolesvotes (don’t vote for them) emerged. Yet it was Democracia Real Ya (Real Democracy Now) that targeted Spanish austerity and corruption like no other campaign.
Democracia Real Ya (DRY) was formed by an online encounter between unemployed college graduates, Fabio Gandara and Pablo Gallego. Let’s not understate this fact. Technology, specifically the Internet, was a medium in which Gandara and Gallego communicated with each other and started a movement. Before their meetup, they independently posted post-ideological manifestos on social change in Spain on their Facebooks. Together, they created a Facebook group called, “Plataforma de coordinación de grupos pro-movilización Ciudadana” (platform for the coordination of groups for a civic mobilization). They used Facebook chat to organize, brainstorming strategies, ideas, and slogans to entice other Spaniards. They maintained anti-ideological rhetoric, meaning they were not affiliated with a party or political leaning. They embraced all. Their goals and rhetoric were based on, “populism as the construction of a popular unity against distant and corrupt institutions.” This is characterized by their video published on April 8, 2011, which was used to launch build momentum:
Gandara claims that social media gave young Spaniards, “an ilusion that we could change things.” Interestingly, the word ilusion in Spanish means illusion in English, but its first denotation is hope. This was because their efforts were geared towards physically manifesting protest on the streets. On the Facebook page, enthusiastic and passionate messages such as, “LA REVOLUCION EMPIEZA EL 15 DE MAYO” (The revolution begins on May 15th). Using Facebook’s features, group members shared the page with other Facebook friends. Anyone posted a message or picture about the revolution on the page, giving the impression that the organization was leaderless. They called themselves Los Indignados, and named their movement #15M, after the day and month they were set to take the streets. Twitter was also important in sending out short, but poignant messages about May 15th and how DRY needed all Spaniards to stand up against the elite institutions and individuals.
On May 15, 2011 over 50,000 people protested in major public areas in Spanish cities. Over 50,000 tweets using the #15M were recorded on May 15th alone. Hashtags like #nonosvamos (we won’t go) and #yeswecamp frenzied on social media. Twitter was used to direct the masses to Puerta del Sol in Madrid, after police attempted to evict protestors. Puerta del Sol was occupied for a month, before the camp could not sustain itself any longer.
While policy reform was not attained during the 15M movement, discontented Spaniards were able to host impeccable demonstrations across the country that were rare. Embedded in the strategy and organizing work, is obviously the use of social media to catalyze Spaniards into action. Social media channeled the frustration and the hope of Spaniards that something was going to change in their country, and it also allowed for individual agency. People individually felt heard and felt empowered to take action. This action was not the only action online, but there was protest in the streets—where some of our grandparents or parents may say true change is accomplished.
And interestingly, the use of social media has had different purposes in social movements, specifically in Egypt and Venezuela. TEDPartners hosted a panel discussion on the role of social media in transforming ideas into movements. Two of the panelists were filmmakers of the award-winning documentary The Square, a movie that captures on-the-ground activism during the Egyptian Revolution(s) from 2011 to 2013. Four of the panelists are (ironically) on Skype, and come from different backgrounds and parts of the world. Calling in from Cairo, Egypt, Bahia Shehab, an art historian, recounts the role social media played in documentation more so than organizing.
“We were trying to create something on the street but unfortunately whatever we created on the street was erased. So, the strongest weapon we had was the Internet, to directly upload these images and share them, and share their stories […] Even if you were covered on the street […] you were still able to share it with the rest of the world.”
Based on this description of the role social media, and more broadly technology played in the Egyptian Revolution, it is distinct from what we learned about the 15M movement in some ways. Social media played an ongoing role in documenting what was going on during the protests. It made narratives and power of the people permanent. It also served the purpose of revealing events to the world outside of Egypt. Whereas the organizers of the 15M movement were largely concerned insularly by focusing on the politics and organizing of other Spaniards, the Egyptian revolutionaries were compelled to share their fight with the rest of the globe. In the zine, Why Protest?, Kevin Reuning gives tips on planning protests. One of the most important tips is, “Decide on who your core audience is: is it the media? decision-makers? those on the sidelines? Or even just trying to rally your supporters and engage them.” The 15M movement wanted to attract Spaniards of all ideologies and backgrounds to bring them together physically and intellectually using social media. Yet during the Egyptian Revolution, engaging with a foreign audience could have strategic significance. National leaders often succumb to international pressure if they violate human or economic interests. The Internet provides an opportunity for young revolutionaries have never had before: the ability to project their cause and plight onto the world stage.
A similar goal brewed during the Venezuelan crisis. The proliferation of #SOSVenezuela tweets with brutal images of Venezuelans sought to shed light on the violence, scarcity, deflation, human rights violations, corruption, and censorship transpiring under the Maduro regime. This YouTube video demonstrates the need for international attention on national crises.
Veronica Cangas, a writer for Thoughtcatalog.com, like Mariel in the video, explicitly states what we can do as the #SOSVenezuela’s targeted audience: “Social media is our only weapon. Social media is our voice. Social media is the only window to Venezuela’s reality. Share, share, share, share, share […] We need to raise awareness. We want the world to know.” Such media content is powerful in creating a compelling argument to why foreign audiences should care, and should be involved in their activism. Youtube videos allows the portrayal of those brutal images, forcing audiences into a state of discomfort in which they are compelled to act immediately. This is the power of technology in social activism.
With the emergence of social media activism, or the Internet is incorporated into activism, has been this criticism defined as slacktivism. “Slacktivism” is a term that defines limited and small-impact measures in support of a social cause. Examples include signing online petitions, “likes,” and “shares” on social media posts. Slacktivists demonstrate small measures of support but are not truly engaged and committed to change. Some people, call them millennials. We know these critics to cling onto the memories of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s, or the simultaneous and following social movements of the 20th century. While this may define a plethora of people on social media, there are limitations to the argument that social media has enabled slacktivism, and that all forms of social media engagement with political intent is slacktivism. There are genuine mental and physical disabilities that may prevent people devoted to a cause to show any other way of support than online engagement. Also, as discussed in the examples above, a “share” or a “like” may be all that is needed in creating social change. How else would you react, if the people directly affected by the social issue requested such action from you? The slacktivism criticism is also limited in nature because it does not properly assess how social media is used as an organizing and communication tool. The 15M movement in Spain exemplifies how the Internet can be crucial to unifying a group of people to eventually manifest protest beyond the boundaries of the cyberworld. By discussing strategy, they were able to reduce the costs of such interaction. In the past, activists would have to rent spaces cheap enough and large enough to fit organizers and their discussions. Yet the Internet provides a more cost-effective forum, everything is recorded in these chats, and the conversation can continue, even when some members are not there.
Modern technology, specifically the Internet, has become a determining cause in the success of a social movement, or in the very least, the manifestation and sustainability of one. These global examples, which had widespread implications on their respective countries and the world, evidence this power. This Internet is multidimensional in purpose, and it is hard to imagine a contemporary movement without it
Christiansen, Jonathan. “Four Stages of Social Movements.” Research Starters: Academic Topic Overviews. Accessed July 9, 2017. https://www.ebscohost.com/uploads/imported/thisTopic-dbTopic-1248.pdf.
Dreier, Peter. “Social Movements: How People Make History.” Mobilizing Ideas. August 1, 2012. Accessed July 8, 2017. https://mobilizingideas.wordpress.com/2012/08/01/social-movements-how-people-make-history/.
Gerbaudo, Paolo. “”We are not on Facebook, we are on the streets!’: The Harvesting of Indignation.” In Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism, 76-101. London, U.K.: Pluto Press, 2012.
REVOLUTION: The Role Of Social Media In Transforming Ideas And Movements. TEDPartners. March 26, 2014. Accessed July 10, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-J9TLBembw&t=232s.
S.O.S Venezuela (English Subtitles). NTN24 News. March 7, 2014. Accessed July 9, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nspFkRzY5FA.