As the world marks the centenary of the October Revolution, it is apt to study online movements and their offline results. The day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, an estimated 3.5 million people in cities around the US and the world took part in the Women's March protesting the Trump agenda in what may well have been the largest single-day protest in US history. The march was a powerful moment that started with a single Facebook post and grew from there. Then Monday came, and the Trump Administration went about its work as planned.
In 2011, one email started “Occupy Wall Street” addressing the issue of inequality and corruption by corporations. Within weeks, it became a movement with organised sit-ins and sleep-ins in cities around the US. But when the camps came down, “Occupy” had little to show for its agenda. No US policy has changed. Inequality has not gone down.
The contradiction with the 21st century protests is that we can easily assemble a million people with digital technology but they don't necessarily have the same impact a similar action might have 50 years ago, “because that was a result of a lengthy process of organising,” according to Professor Zeynep Tufekci who teaches at the School of Information at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and is the author of the book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, published in 2017.
In 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, attended by a quarter of a million people—Professor Tufekci points out—was the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement built over the previous 10 years. The movement brought change. One year later, Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 which ended segregation in public places and banned workplace discrimination based on race, colour, religion, gender or ethnicity.
Five decades later, the ease of organising and mobilising online is facing criticism. Some say it's too easy to click a link and express “likes” or “dislikes” about something. How does it translate into action? How do we take that ubiquitous but relatively shallow level of engagement and organise it so there are well-defined things that people can do collectively? How do “Occupy”, “Black Lives Matter” and more recently, #MeToo sustain themselves and turn themselves into powerful actors that can challenge whomever it is that they want to force change through?
In her book, Professor Tufekci says that social media has a tremendous amount of power and the way algorithms are designed could decide the fate of a movement. For example, she argues, Facebook uses a computer programme to choose how to rank what it shows its viewers. So if we don't see something posted by someone, maybe Facebook isn't showing it to us. For a social movement that's incredibly important. It was significant in 2014, as protests broke out on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer. Early on, the protests got a lot of attention on Twitter but less so on Facebook because of another viral sensation: the Ice Bucket Challenge.
That's because, Professor Tufekci argues, the goals of social media companies and social movements are hardly the same. In the end, these are platforms based on delivering ads, and they want to keep us on there with things that will keep us on there. And their business models aren't necessarily in the interests of what the movements are trying to achieve in the long run.
The lesson to take from all this isn't to stop using digital technologies. It's to recognise what they can do. But more importantly, recognise what they can't do. Lasting change is not about the ability to bring millions of protesters onto the street. It rests on deeper, structural changes that take much longer. When popular consciousness reaches its peak, without certain programmes and structures in place to take it forward, movements defeat themselves.
Amitava Kar is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.