This claim may seem counter-intuitive given the changes that took place with assistance from Social Media. But bear with me a moment, and I’ll explain.
First, the obvious. Social Media has played a very important role in recent social movements. One need only look to the Occupy Movement that exploded around the world before fizzling out. However much it fizzled, the political dialog of the presidential race changed as a result. And as Spivak and Chomsky point out, changing the political dialog to simply include a previously neglected group is just as important as the win itself.
Other movements have produced markedly more. The Arab Spring and nearly every protest and demonstration has benefited from Social Media. Twitter has enabled anonymous information about spontaneous protests and about any illegal or inhumane actions taken by governments attempting to suppress social movements. So I don’t wish to downplay the positive role of Social Media. What I do want to point out is the not-so-obvious negative role Social Media also plays with regard to social movements.
Social Media stifles the conflagration of possible social movements.
Social Media like Facebook and Google+ and even Twitter allow for passive solidarity. Currently, many on Facebook are changing their profile pictures to red and salmon equal signs in “solidarity” of Marriage Equality as the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing two different gay marriage arguments.
The problem is that this “solidarity” is even far more passive than ribbons. When people collect in large numbers to protest or demonstrate, political leaders see the masses in action. There is a fine line between demonstration and riot. Political leaders are not oblivious to this. When people collect and demonstrate outside Congress, or State Capital buildings, or the Supreme Court, political leaders realize the masses are on the verge of revolt.
The Occupy Movement is a great example of this. The original protests were peaceful. But as they grew in number, authorities became scared. Fear led to arrests, riot police, riot dispersion tactics, and violence. Protests and protesters reacted actively both in violence and in a growing popularity of the Occupy Movement. Suddenly, the language and the dialog of the election changed to the 99%. The Occupy Movement scared leaders, then that breaking point happened, and fear led to change.
Two arguments need to be dispelled right now.
One could argue that the Occupy Movement received assistance from Smartphones and Twitter. This is true. But it was a tool of the active masses! Even this tool was blocked by authorities in New York and other cities, though political leaders denied forcing Twitter to block certain hashtags.
Another argument is that changing one’s profile picture is equivalent to wearing a yellow (or whatever color) ribbon on your shirt in solidarity. On my Facebook, at least half my friends have changed their profile picture to this digital ribbon.
I say this is false.
Ribbons are passive-aggressive activities that are seen in public. Think Hunger Games. If everyone changed their profile picture to a Mocking Jay, it only allows those people to feel connected and nod at each other. Wearing the Mocking Jay in public marks you in a physical space. Political leaders can see you walking about. Though you are not demonstrating in an active sense, leaders see who you are, how close you are to them, and you passive-aggressively state “I’m not on your side.”
The ribbon becomes impossible to ignore. It only takes a window of opportunity for those masses walking around doing their thing to turn on the political leader standing there. The leader is able to pan the crowd and see exactly who could easily shift to violence against their rule.
Whereas Social Media ribbons simply exist away from the physical public sphere. Wearing those ribbons in public shows a modest amount of willingness to mark yourself in public as potential hotbox that could shift at any moment. Therein stands the problem. If one feels they’ve done their part by changing their profile picture, no action is ever taken. The masses are subdued with the only consolation prize required to quell anger.
Democracy did not come into being because it was the morally right thing for the powerful to do. Democracy came about because it gives the bear minimum amount of power to the masses to keep them from revolution and disrupting the true balance of power.
So please, stop ending your advocacy and political involvement at the profile picture or political meme. Get out, show your solidarity in a physical location. Make the powerful fearful of your numbers, not your Facebook profile.