Social media is increasingly being used as a tool for political change

By Chiara Castro: Political Columnist

Since it’s advent, social media has shaped our lives at different levels. Personal relationships, job opportunities, way of shopping, accessibility of information as well as politics. A big part of our daily life is online now, so isn’t surprising that also political activism passed then from streets to screens.

Or, better, it is gliding through these digital realities that the power of unity could take to the square eventually. 2020 is a year that will be remembered for many reasons. One of them will be surely its social unrest. As the recent outburst of the Belarus protests pointed out, social media is surely the driving force behind political activism nowadays. It was, indeed, thanks to Telegram that protesters could orchestrate the so called Anti-Cockroach Revolution, eluding authoritarian interference.

Belarus activists had good teachers though. Social media has been at the core of different movements around the globe for the last decade. The Arab Spring, so-called Facebook Revolution or Twitter Revolution, opened the digital march. Thanks to social media, the umpteenth abuse of power against a vegetable seller of a small town ended up not only with a wave of national protest: it shook a big part of the Arab peninsula.

Massive demonstrations could take place at few hours apart across neighbour countries such as Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. Also during the Gezi Park protests in Turkey, digital platforms were the mobilising force. Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube have been the best weapons among the hands of activist, as social movements across the world have been using the power of social channels for increasing awareness, engaging with masses and organising rallies.

From Occupy Wall Street, Catalan and Hong Kong protests to the most recent uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement, social media has also been behind the scene of political unrest. Even though these examples all ended into the streets, sometimes the social fight occurred just behind the screen. After the #MeToo outburst, everyone understood the power that an hashtag possess. We are living in a digital era, with a smartphone always in our pocket and a flux of information 24/7. Which are the benefits and consequences for political activism?

After the #MeToo outburst, everyone understood the power that an hashtag possess.

One of the biggest points of force of social media is that it is a medium that unveils to the public even the realities that will be otherwise hidden to them. It shows the invisible. It gives voice to the unheard and forgotten matters. It was the video of George’s Floyd killing that initiated the wave of BLM riots. The visibility allowed by these platforms is important for documenting the demonstrations and reaching a bigger audience. Pictures, footage and strong messages play a big role in changing people’s minds. It is precisely from there that a turn in politics can occur.

As happened in Belarus, new information technology is a powerful tool for recording police violence used against rioters. Another advantage linked with the use of social channels is the possibility to easily organise decentralised protests in different locations at the same time. In this way, governments would struggle to suppress them. From a big crowd into the main square, social media are effectively shaping the tactics used by the new generation of political activists.

As for every story, there is a downside of all of this.

Governments can used these networks to their advantage too. Surveillance and violation of people’s privacy are big threats that characterised any digital life. Cyber attack, social media blackout and censorship are the new arms employed for suppressing political dissidents. Egypt is the best example of this boomerang effect. As initiating agent of the protest, these channels have been manipulated by authorities against demonstrators and forbidden to be used as sources, also to foreign journalists. Censorship legislations tightened. From this attack to democracy, hundreds of arrests followed. In Belarus, an internet blackout was used to blocking the flow of information during the election days. Same tactic that has been used before in India, Iran and Hong Kong.

Although, political activists have not remained to passively stare at the power of technology while it was crumbling into their hands. They learned from the past and they found ways to resist to governments offensive. The high level of IT literacy among Belarusians was the reason why a large number of people could bypass the block. VPN tools and offline applications are commonly used by activists in China, Hong Kong, India and Iran. Tsunami Democràtic, one of the Catalan pro-independence groups, is a step ahead. Already in 2018 they built their own app for coordinating protests and evading police control. As WIRED reported, the developers described the platform as an organisational tool for peaceful protests with which “you could destabilise any political system you wanted”.


Looking back to the past, every social movement that characterised the turbulent years of civil unrest of the ’60 and ’70 had a charismatic leader as face of the fight. Today, there are many protagonists that coordinate the political battle behind their shining screens. Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter are just examples of this new form of leaderless activism.

This tactic has its positive and negative aspects. Without a leader to follow, these movements result far more democratic and can gain a lot of consensus quickly. In this era, it would be difficult that the same amount of people will religiously comply with one person’s directives. As Zeynep Tufekci, the author of Twitter and Tear Gas, pointed out, formal hierarchies and leaders were already missing into the ’90 movements culture. What really matters is having a strong message that unifies lots of people, not a loud front-man. Plus, not having just one person in charge can preserve the safety of activists. The weakness of leaderless groups is that it is more difficult to make complex decisions and reach long-term results. The Arab Spring is another time a good example of that.

As said before, one of the most beneficial features of social media for political activism is the speed in which the message can be forwarded around the world. Powerful hashtags, online petitions and crowdfunding are new ways of gathering consensus quickly and spreading awareness about social matters in and out national borders. So, while protesting for local issues, such as the pension reform in France, the state of corruption in Lebanon or the government control in Hong Kong and Belarus, activists can trigger a global solidarity through viral slogans and images. Even the simply sharing of contents can help the cause growing. Also same symbols are adopted by demonstrators around the world as hallmark of the social fight, creating an unprecedented sense of togetherness. Rioters in Chile, Lebanon and Hong Kong have all made use of the Joker’s iconic mask for expressing their anti-establishment sentiment. Before that, it was the image of Guy Fawkes from V for Vendetta the preferred medium for depicting protesters’ discontent.

So, starting from nothing a social cause can take just few days to become a huge movement. Something that was unthinkable before social media. However, it is arguable that digital activism often does more noise than concrete and long term outcomes.

Indeed, even if messages can spread quickly around the globe, they can die out at the same pace. As Zeynep Tufekci argued during an interview for OneZero, networked protests often do not have a solid organisational backbone build through years as the past activist organisations had. Let’s take as example the case of #BringBackOurGirls that inflamed the Web in 2014. Calling for the rescue of 276 Nigerian girls kidnapped by the terrorist group Book Haram, the hashtag activated a wave of solidarity among people around the world and received about two million retweets. However, as a result of this campaign just a small part of the girls were actually rescued. The majority is still missing, the risk of kidnapping even now exists and the event has been mainly forgotten by international public.

Social media has not shaped just the strategies used by activists around the world, they have created distinct types of political activism. Under the name of hashtags activism, slacktivism or clicktivism has been defined the low-effort political engagement that is increasing among users. If in the past political activism was characterised mainly by remarkable actions of social fighters, nowadays also a simple sharing or liking can be seen as political commitment. Even though this digital behaviour can put under the spotlight a diverse range of forgotten causes and create a change of views among the public opinion, it may de-power the message or, worst, be seen just as a bare trend. This is exactly what happened for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. After a period of social support and sympathy, the cause appear to have died out. To make a real difference, political activism cannot just be a performative activity from behind our smartphone’s screen. Raising the voice on social networks helps, but what is really needed are offline actions eventually.

Despite some limits, social media are undoubtedly a powerful tool among the hands of political and social activists. These platforms allow to raise awareness, engage a big number of people from around the world quickly, guiding novice affiliates and easily coordinate actions. These channels have completely shaped the world of political activism, for good and bad. During the last decade we have seen how activists refined their use, integrating online and offline campaigns. The issue is now if someone is really listening to these screams of help that social networks are so good to reverberate. While it is noble taking at heart social causes of the world al large, joining local organisations and starting to get actively involved with the offline side of the fight can lead to real changes. We have all the tools, it is now up to us to use them at the best.

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