Protests and Social Media: Organization, Activation, and Narration

This week’s readings provided an intriguing, nearly stereoscopic, perspective on variant ways in which social media can inform, shape, foment, or delimit opportunities for collective social action. While at first glance it seems simple to apply a directly correlational relationship between social media activity and social action, closer inspection of these articles illustrate that such analyses may risk radical oversimplification of the dynamics at hand.

For example, both Poell and Borra’s discussion of the relationship of social media with the 2010 Toronto G20 protests and Lim’s analysis of the role of social media in Egypt in the midst of the “Arab Spring” movement emphasize the capacity of social media to bridge the gaps between discordant groups and to create coalitions via a sense of shared objectives.  In Toronto, this bridging occurred among a variety of social action-oriented organizations: “the Canadian Labour Congress, Greenpeace, Oxfam, and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty” (ibid. 696). In Cairo, this bridge building occurred among an even more diverse group of political activists.  Critically, in both cases, social media networking enabled these disparate entities to reach consensus in objectives to the point that cooperative efforts could be made.

Additionally, both articles emphasized the need for efforts in the social media sphere to relate with activities outside of the web.  Specifically, while calls to action could be echoed across the web via social media, the key to successful engagement in both cases relied on connections between effective social media communications with effective management and coordination offline as well.  Consider these examples as mutually converse to failed attempts to activate publics via social media, such as the ambiguously effective Kony2012 movement.

Intriguingly, although this week’s readings certainly shared many features, their distinctions may provide even more advantageous insights into the components of successful social media efforts to activate political publics.  One major distinction between the two articles (and movements) was the need for effective management of the narratives surrounding political action. In particular, Poell & Borra frame this in direct opposition to the tendency of mainstream media outlets to frame demonstrations in terms of “events” rather than “issues.”  For example, during the Occupy Wall Street movement, mainstream news coverage frequently failed to cover the reasons why protesters were taking to the streets in favor of more salacious stories about excessive police response.

For Poell & Borra, the focus of mainstream media on police response as opposed to the motivations for the demonstrations undermined the efficacy of the demonstrators in presenting their reasons for protest to mainstream publics.  Conversely, for Lim, in the Tahrir Protests relatively peaceful protests and relatively muted police responses enabled anti-Mubarak activists to effectively manage the narrative at hand and to effective disseminate their message to a broader public.


7 thoughts on “Protests and Social Media: Organization, Activation, and Narration

  1. jcrinkley says:

    It’s interesting to think about the Kony 2012 phenomenon in the same context as these two protest movements as far as social media is concerned. Do you think it’s possible that so many people were exposed to the Kony campaign and spread it along so quickly that many just kind of thought they had done their part? As if they said to themselves, “Oh, I shared the video on facebook and it got, like, 150 “likes.” I’ve contributed, which means I don’t have to attend any events or donate any money.” It blew up so fast that the viral nature of the thing became the main focus of the story thereby overshadowing the actual message. Or did everyone who saw that video just find themselves at a loss of how to proceed? Joseph Kony is out of reach in a lot of ways, so maybe people couldn’t find other ways to get involved. I guess social media isn’t the cure-all we’re looking for.

  2. djcoats says:

    I thought it was pretty interesting that those involved in the G20 protests crossed over so many ideological boundaries. Perhaps that only occurred since it was in fact, an international conference, that such a diverse group of people could fight for the same cause(s). The power of social media to “bridge the gaps” may not work if the cause was more regionalized to just citizens of Florida or certain labor unions (which often exist in the northern states). Especially now in election season, it is kind of fascinating to see groups of diverse interests coming together for a common purpose. Maybe when the protesters received notification of gathering, most of them failed to look in detail at profile of the people who were disseminating the information. They simply liked the message and took action.

  3. Both of your comments bring up great points!

    @jcrinkley I’ve wondered about this before in terms of the Kony failure. On the one hand, I suspect that as a culture we’ve fallen too deeply in love with this abstract notion of “awareness.” While awareness is certainly a good thing, it feels as though we have a tendency to treat it as an end, in and of itself. “Oop! I’m now aware of how awful Mr. Kony is, and I’ve even shared this link with my friends! I’ve done my part!”

    For that matter, there’s an intriguing overlap between clicking a link and the idea of “action” as well. Technically, clicking a link (or a like) is an action, are social media users treating that action as the only necessary action to solve global problems?

    @djcoats The capacity for social media to transcend the traditional geographic and sociological boundaries that delimit group membership is a fascinating theme. I’m not so sure it’s ever been formally analyzed or researched, but it’s almost like a sense of diasporic activism. Strangely, as we discussed the role of narrative management in protest, it’s intriguing to me the difference in narrative initiation in the two studies.

    Specifically, in the Toronto G20 protests, it was the notoriety and the presence of the organization that incited the protest. That seems to suggest that the organization being suppressed was actually the initiator of the narrative and the contact. Conversely, in the Egyptian narrative, initiative was purely in the hands of the protest group itself.

    Truthfully, I’m still trying to filter through the significance of this initiation stage, but I wonder if there’s potential for future research in this area!

  4. Part me of me really wonders if the ultimate difference between the outcomes of the Egyptian situation and the Toronto situation wasn’t due to the process of growth in the communication procedures. In the Lim paper, and really in the Egyptian situation, the use of alternative media grew rather organically over the course of a number of years (As you pointed out in your presentation). The people wanted revolution against the standing government, they wanted democratic elections, and the communications growth occurred from that. That was the final ultimate goal, so the use of blogs, Facebook, Youtube, etc., was a means to an end. At the G20, though, the study frames the use of those same online alternatives not as a means to an end, really, but just as a way to bypass existing media formats that tend to cover spectacle more. The outcome of the protest itself was the same regardless, but the communications use was formed almost non-organically by a large interest saying “Hey everyone use this hashtag and we’ll outdo the traditional media.”

    Does that make sense? It made sense in my brain.

    • LOL. I gotcha, buddy! I think at times we have a tendency to blast past the “social” part of things and straight into the “media” part. The level of relationship/coalition building here, particularly among ideologically distinct groups, is really inadequate compared to what we see in Arab Spring-Era Egypt.

      At WalMart the other day I saw a t-shirt reading, “Good Teamwork is everyone doing what I say.” Obviously when coded on some cheap cotton, the slogan seemed pretty ridiculous, but on a certain level I can’t help but wonder if the different fates of various social media social movements does result, at least in part, from that sort of mentality. 🙂

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  6. Hi, Jonathan. You didn’t need to provide any links this week — although the ones you did provide were good.

    While your third point is valid, I wonder if there’s a factor you did not consider — the western media covered the Tahir Square protests with increasingly giddy enthusiasm (much like the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989), and we should ask: (1) what was the coverage like in the Arabic-language media? (2) Why no media enthusiasm for the G20 protesters’ action?

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