Experiencing Transnational Connections: Vincent Doyle

Written on March 8, 2011 by Roberto Arribas in Communication, General

Social Media and Activism: Will the Revolution Be Networked?

A few months ago, the always-provocative social commentator Malcolm Gladwell wrote a column for the New Yorker in which he expressed skepticism about the potential of social media to revolutionize social movements. In light of recent events in Northern Africa and the Middle East, it seems timely to revisit Gladwell’s arguments (link )

Gladwell claims that the revolution will not be Tweeted. Why? For two main reasons: the first is that high-risk activism is a “strong-tie” phenomenon. Its success depends on the degree of connection one feels to the people involved in a movement. Social media, by comparison, promotes weak ties. To the extent that technologies like Twitter and Facebook enable certain forms of activism, they do so by mobilizing large numbers of loosely connected people to perform small actions that require little actual commitment.

According to Gladwell, the second reason why the revolutionary power of social media cannot be assumed is that the characteristic form of organization they promote is that of the network rather than the hierarchy. Networks are great for disseminating information quickly, but they falter when it comes to making crucial decisions in high-risk situations: CURSIVA

      Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?

Gladwell’s point of reference for successful activism is the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which had strong leadership and was organized according to clear hierarchies. The accomplishments of Civil Rights crusaders were undeniably far-reaching, but does that success necessarily imply that hierarchies are the only forms of activist organization that can produce significant social change? In other words, is Gladwell right to claim that “if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy”? 

By most accounts, the unprecedented social mobilization that recently toppled the Mubarak regime in Egypt was not the outcome of a carefully planned out strategy elaborated at the top of a hierarchical structure. The Egyptian revolution appears to have involved multiple and overlapping sectors of society, from students, to labor unions, the unemployed, to Muslims and Christians. No clear leadership has emerged in its wake.

The extent to which social media was determining of the events in Egypt is highly debatable and has likely been exaggerated in the media, but it seems credible to claim that this is a social movement without a clear center. In that sense, the Egyptian case has more in common with contemporary anti-globalization movements than it does with the American Civil Rights movement. Furthermore, as one commentator suggested on the Al Jazeera website, a good argument can be made for the idea that the Egyptian revolution not only shares with anti-globalization movements a network-based mode of organization, but may indeed be part of a spreading backlash against neoliberalism (Link)

It may be that Gladwell is right to emphasize that social media is predicated on weak ties and promotes networked forms of organization rather than hierarchies, but I think he may have been too quick to dismiss the potential power of networks to lead to significant social change. Another possibility might be that social media can, under certain circumstances, amplify weak ties between groups (rather than individuals) and help give rise to networks capable of engaging in high-risk activism. In other words, in order to better understand the relationships between social media and activism, we may need to distinguish between weak networks of individuals such as the ones that Gladwell describes, and the strong networks of inter-connected groups that are characteristic of anti-globalization movements.

Vincent Doyle is chairing a panel on “Media, Networks, and Social Movements,” as part of the Transnational Connections Symposium at IE University. The panel will take place from 11:45am to 1:15pm on March 17 in the Sala Capitular. 

Link: http://www.transnationalconnections.ie.edu/welcome

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