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“Social media makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact” (Gladwell, 2010, p.49). Critically discuss.
It is clear that the increasing power of the internet and social media in the 21st century, has had a large impact on activism and social movements. Some believe social media allows for a bottom up approach to activism and provides marginalised individuals with a platform to raise their concerns and issues, often regarding inequality within society. However, the extent to which activism via social media has impacted society is debated. Some academics such as Shirky (2011) take a techno-optimist approach, arguing social media makes it easier for individuals to participate in social movements, and easier for these social movements to have a lasting impact on society. Meanwhile, academics such as Gladwell (2010) take a techno-sceptic approach, arguing that although social media makes it easier for activists to express themselves, their expression has little impact on society and contemporary politics. This essay will critically discuss the view that “social media make it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact” (Gladwell, 2010), by looking at a range of arguments, taking both techno-optimist and techno-sceptic positions. In the first part of my essay I will discuss Gladwell’s views regarding social media activism, I will then go on to discuss Morozov’s ‘Slacktivism’ argument and the debate around it. In the second part of this essay I will discuss techno-optimist arguments from academics such as Shirky. I will then go on to discuss Fenton’s (2012) analysis of these arguments and her views regarding the accessibility of social media.
Gladwell (2010), argues that social media makes “it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact” (Gladwell, 2010). The increase in the accessibility of social media means a variety of issues are raised by users constantly, therefore social media does not provide issues with enough attention to create change and have a lasting impact on society. Gladwell (2010), goes on to argue that social media is not “a natural enemy of the status quo” and is “well suited to making the existing social order more efficient” (ibid). Therefore arguing that due to social media providing an accessible platform to everyone, social media provides a platform for regressive views, rather than a platform for progressive views alone. Therefore, it may be argued that social media can help with the maintenance of societies status quo along with social change. However, this doesn’t mean that social media does not help activists to create a lasting political and social impact.
In his article ‘The brave new world of slacktivism’, Evgeny Morozov (2009) defines the term ‘Slacktivism’ as “feelgood online activism that has zero political or social impact. It gives those who participate in ‘slacktivist’ campaigns an illusion of having meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group.” (Morozov, 2009). Therefore supporting Gladwell’s view that although social media may help activists to express themselves it does not create lasting impact. Jodi Dean (2005), argues slacktivism results in post-politics, a disengagement with real activism as “Busy people can think they are active – the technology will act for them, alleviating their guilt while assuring them that nothing will change too much.” (Dean, 2005). Individuals who are disengaged with politics and don’t have time for ‘real’ activism can feel they are participating “by sending an e-mail, signing a petition, responding to an article on a blog, people can feel political. And that feeling feeds communicative capitalism insofar as it leaves behind the time-consuming, incremental and risky efforts of politics.” (Dean, 2005). Dean (2005) goes on to argue that activism taking place on social media or ‘slacktivism’, is not a form of ‘activism’ and does not result in social or political change. Dean argues, “It is a refusal to take a stand, to venture into the dangerous terrain of politicization” (Dean, 2005). Therefore, according to Dean social media only makes it easier for individuals to ‘pretend’ they are participating in social activism, rather than making it easier to actively participate and aid social movements in order to create lasting change. Fenton (2012), describes ‘Slacktivism’ as “easy-come, easy-go politics where you are only ever one click away from a petition; a technological form that encourages issue drift whereby individuals shift focus from one issue to another or one website to another with little commitment or even though” (Fenton, 2012
However, Fenton argues that this view ignores the experiences of political solidarity. Shirky (2011), argues Morozov’s view is not relevant to the debate of social media’s impact on activism and social movements as it ignores the impact committed activists can have using social media. “The fact that barely committed actors cannot click their way to a better world does not mean that committed actors cannot use social media effectively.” (Shirky, 2011). Therefore, Shirky believes that social media provides us with a democratic platform, and the freedom to highlight issue and aid social change.
Shirky argues that “to speak online is to publish, and to publish online is to connect with others. With the arrival of globally accessible publishing, freedom of speech is now freedom of the press, and freedom of the press is freedom of assembly.” (Shirky, 2008). Therefore, social media can be used to create solidarity and organise protest and occupation. A variety of social movements in the 21st century have used the internet and social media to its advantage, examples of this are Arab Spring in 2011 and the Indignados/15-M movement in 2011. Therefore, it is clear that social media has had a meaningful impact on activism and social movements.
Manuel Castells supports the techno-optimist position, arguing that yes, social media makes it easier for activists to express themselves in the context of protests and revolutions. Fuchs (2012), defines protest as “a negotiation of existing structures that result in frictions and problems and a political struggle that aims at the transformation of certain aspects of society or of society as a whole” (Fuchs, 2012). Castells (2012) states that communication power is arguably the most important form of power in contemporary society. Therefore, social media makes it easier for activists to express themselves as according to Castells (2012), the internet and social media allows for the construction of communicative autonomy. Castells (2012) also argues that the internet is necessary for the occupation of spaces, used as a form of social protest. According to Castells, another role of the internet during times of protest and revolutions is providing activists with a platform to share emotions regarding particular issues, these emotions become collective emotions which become collective action. “The internet provided the safe space where networks of outrage and hope connected. Networks forms in cyberspace extended their reach to urban space.” (Castells, 2012). Therefore, Castells is supporting Shirky’s view that social media creates political solidarity and aids the organisation of social movements. However, Fuchs (2012) argues that collective social action often has little effect, or simply put some light on existing issues but fail to create any lasting change. Fuchs (2012) goes on to state that the social change brought about by social media activism is dependent on context, for example, “power relations, resources, mobilization capacities, strategies and tactics as well as the complex and undetermined outcomes of struggles.” (Fuchs, 2012). Fuchs goes on to argue that social media exists in a contradictory society, consisting of class conflict, race conflict, and a variety of other conflicts between dominant and dominated groups. Therefore, Fuchs believes social media has a contradictory character, “they do not necessarily and automatically support/amplify or dampen/limit rebellions, but rather pose contradictory potentials that stand in contradictions with influences by the state, ideology and capitalism.” (Fuchs, 2012).
In her chapter ‘The Internet and Radical Politics’ Fenton highlights a variety of different views regarding the debate on the impact of social media on activism. One view is that social media, rather than aiding solidarity and collective action, highlights the fragmentation of contemporary politics which makes it difficult to organise collective social movements. Through highlighting this, Fenton (2012) shows how social media may make activism more difficult, rather than making it easier. However, Fenton also argues that when the internet is used to put forward radical, oppositional arguments it acts a tool for social change. It is argued that this use of the internet allows activists to raise social awareness of issues and provide marginalised groups with a voice and social empowerment whilst also allowing individual activists to organise themselves. Therefore, Fenton is arguing that the internet can be used as a tool for activism and social change. However, Fenton (2012) argues there is a ‘digital divide’. Those who actively use the internet are often younger, highly educated and wealthier than those who do not, they also tend to be male and are likely to live in cities (Fenton, 2012). Differences also exist between internet access in developing and developed nations, along with the “traditional divides between the well-educated middle class who dominate public discourse” (Fenton, 2012). Therefore it may be argued that social media fails to provide marginalised groups with a platform to voice their issues, therefore social media only makes it easier for privileged individuals to express themselves. Because of this, it may be argued that social media does not make it easier for all activists to express themselves, but the expression of privileged individuals activism may have an impact.
To conclude, the rise of social media has changed contemporary activism and social movements. Fenton supports this statement, arguing that regardless of whether you take a techno-optimist or techno-sceptic stance, “the internet is at the heart of radical politics in the digital age” (Fenton, 2012). It may also be argued that the internet provides us with a democratic platform which allows activists to create social change, however due to the digital divide highlighted by Fenton (2012) it is likely this social change is mainly beneficial to middle classes, rather than marginalised groups (Fenton, 2012). Overall, it is clear that the internet now plays a very strong role in contemporary social movements. However, social media’s impact on social activism and social change is reliant on a wide range of external factors, if other conditions are met social media may aid social change. Therefore, social media does make it easier for activists to express themselves to an extent, however it remains difficult for this activism to have a lasting impact on politics or society.
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