the revolution will not be televised, it will be tweeted

Clicktivism has its detractors, but the power of social media as a tool for change cannot be denied. Whether it’s something as simple as showing solidarity — a like on a page, sharing your thoughts or opinions — or taking action against the things that...

by Felix Petty
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01 April 2015, 11:20am

What could be easier than signing an online petition? Whether it's against global warming, fracking, or the injustices of the banking system, Clicktivism is often seen in a pejorative light: another example of the young not engaging with or putting any real effort into politics. Viewed like this, it appears to be synonymous with slacktivism. Clicking your way into activism from the comfort of your sofa — politics for the lazy.

But this isn't true. Sweeping generalisations of this kind are discrediting the genuinely interesting work people are doing online to bring about change, and the way young people use the internet to express their political opinions. Clicktivism persists and grows. Each terrorist atrocity, each abuse of power, and each revolution across the world is greeted by the voices of social media, rising up in horror, sympathy or support. It's because of this that you can't discuss clicktivism on an individual basis; you must take it as a collective action.

After gunmen broke into the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris in January this year, murdering 12 people, social media was quickly awash with images of a black square bearing the inscription "Je Suis Charlie". It was not the grandest gesture if you were to simply take it on the level of one person sharing one picture, but a quick search on Instagram reveals well over one million results. And that's just Instagram. One day after the attack, people on Twitter were using the hashtag #jesuischarlie 6,500 times a minute.

Following the siege in a café in Sydney, Australia, in December 2014, in which two hostages died in a stand-off that lasted 16 hours, a spate of anti-Muslim messages began proliferating on social media. In its wake, a hashtag sprang to life, #illridewithyou, offering emotional support to Muslims feeling persecuted on public transport. It started after people picked up on a Facebook post by someone named Rachael Jacobs, in which she claimed to have seen a woman take off her hijab on the train to avoid being victimised. Jacobs wrote that she had run after the woman, telling her to "put it back on" and that she'd walk with her. Like "Je Suis Charlie", "I'll Ride With You" spread quickly, with people offering up their travel timetables to strangers, creating a positive response to a tragedy. It was clicktivism at its most heart-warmingly simple.

If clicktivism ended here, then its critics might be right in proclaiming that activism on social media is lazy and disengaged, no match for traditional forms of politics, like voting, joining political parties and going on marches. But it doesn't end here. The internet and social media are now indivisible from the world at large, especially for the young people who've grown up with it, so it makes sense that if you engage with the world via the internet, via your friends on Facebook and the people you follow on Twitter, then that is how you will end up trying to change it. Clicktivism is becoming inseparable from traditional forms of political activity.

If everyone had simply posted images bearing the slogan "Je Suis Charlie", and stopped there, again the critics might have a point. But in the days following the massacre, there were demonstrations and vigils in support of Charlie Hebdo and free speech across the world, and more than three million people took to the streets of France. "I'll Ride With You" only worked because people actually did ride with each other, and took to public transport and offered up their car spaces in the days after the attack. Clicktivism isn't just vanity politics, a like and a share to develop your personal online brand; it's an incredibly powerful new tool in the world of activism because it is so simple and easy, and the number of voices has an impact one voice can't.

In defence of social media activism, DeRay McKesson, one of the organisers of the Ferguson protests against the death of Michael Brown at the hands of police, told the The Atlantic that "Missouri would have convinced you that we did not exist if it were not for social media." He continued: "Ferguson exists in a tradition of protest. But what is different about Ferguson is that the movement began with regular people. There was no Martin, there was no Malcolm, there was no NAACP […] People came together who didn't necessarily know each other, but knew what they were experiencing was wrong […] I think that what we are doing is building a radical new community in struggle that did not exist before."

The millions of links you can make via social media enable you to build communities outside of the geographical ones that defined protest in the 20th century. The Civil Rights movement, like McKesson says, was built upon Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X and the NAACP, and started and grew locally from local issues. This century, our defining movements spread much more quickly, and the lines between local protests and global movements shift almost the moment they start. #BlackLivesMatter may have started locally, as a response to George Zimmerman's acquittal for the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida, but it soon became universal, an issue that meant something to everyone who believed in equality and justice, not just to those directly affected by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, John Crawford III and Eric Garner. This happened almost purely because of social media, there are no more isolated issues or outlier events of police brutality, but instead we can see how endemic and institutionalised it is when it's all linked under one hashtag. "We want to make structures to empower people," McKesson said, "Because we believe that the truth is actually so damning that we can just tell you all the news that's happening and you should be radicalised. We believe that."

The criticism is that clicktivism will never change anything, that these new movements don't translate into real social change; it's fine making a noise and creating a disturbance, but what's the point if nothing happens?

Interestingly the two defining moments of political protest (of the traditional kind) of my life so far ended up having little impact on the political discourse. Firstly, the demonstration against the Iraq War in February 2003: it was the largest political demonstration ever held in the UK and passed totally peacefully, yet not even that was enough to prevent us from going to war. Then in 2010, there were the student protests against the Conservative government's plan to raise tuition fees; these protests didn't go quite so peacefully, with students taking over the Conservative HQ in Millbank, and there were a series of running battles between police and protesters during the demonstrations. Yet, few people were out there saying protest doesn't change anything or that we shouldn't bother. Although the student protests occurred in the age of new media, both these demonstrations were led top down, by organisations like Stop The War Coalition, the NUS, etc.

Our methods of activism as a generation have changed because the old ways didn't always get results, and, if anything, social media makes it easier to change the political discourse simply because the voice of social media is so much louder. It's a megaphone shouting at those in power all day long.

This is partly because news was restricted before the internet. It was delivered at set times and in set forms — in the papers, on TV and on radio bulletins. Now it's everywhere and it's constantly being updated, and we have access to a polyglot of voices and a plethora of opinions. The genuinely democratising nature of the internet  as a publisher scares governments because it frees  people to find others with similar opinions and desires for change.

On the night of November 21, 2013, a new Twitter account was registered in Ukraine under the name Euromaidan, a portmanteau of Europe and Maidan, the Ukrainian word for Square, taken from Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, in central Kiev. That day a few thousand protesters descended on Maidan Nezalezhnosti to protest against Russia's continued involvement in Ukrainian politics and the corruption of their president and government, and to ask for more integration into the EU. They decided that the best way to spread their message was by utilising social media. By November 24, just three days later, there was estimated to be more than 50,000 people in the square.

But Twitter was not only used to galvanise people into action, it was also used to document the protests. Social media has opened up the news to everyone, even in places that have authoritarian regimes and heavy censorship. This has invariably led to calls for change, as people have become more clued up about what's going on.

From Syria to Egypt, Moldova to Libya, protesters have utilised social media to not only mobilise the masses but to also spread their messages across the world. Social media is forming an alternative narrative, told by the people on the ground in places we don't have easy access to.

By early December, the numbers of people protesting in Ukraine's Independence Square had reached half a million, and, notably, 92 percent of people, according to the Kyiv Post, said they had come as individuals, not as part of a pre-existing political group. It was the opposite of anti Iraq War marches, and student protests.

In 2010, in an article for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell spoke of the "weak ties" forged by social media. He argued that it takes more than the weak ties of Twitter and Facebook to make a revolution happen because they can so easily crumble, and that you won't look out for someone you don't know well, you won't put yourself in danger for your fake Facebook friends.

But on February 18, 2014, Ukrainian riot police aimed to retake Maidan Nezalezhnosti from the protesters and they opened fire with live ammunition. The carnage was documented, not only by traditional news media, but also by live coverage via social media, and the movement didn't crumble in the face of police violence, instead, within two days, Ukraine's corrupt president had fled to Russia, and the protesters had won. It was a victory for Malcolm Gladwell's weak ties.

Social media has changed the world of activism. Whether it's something as simple as a like on a page, sharing your opinions, or taking action against the things that you think are wrong and documenting those actions in real time, the internet has opened up a new realm of information for us to utilise, for us to change the world. 

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Text Felix Petty

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