Protest in the Age of Social Media
“The whole world is watching!” chanted demonstrators outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention as TV cameras recorded Chicago police officers beating and arresting them. Forty-plus years later, the whole world isn’t just watching—it’s Facebooking, tweeting and posting smartphone videos (and those old Chicago riot news clips) on YouTube. And protesters worldwide are using those and other social media to organize revolutions and disseminate information about what they’re doing—and what’s being done to them.
The Social Network, a film that details the founding of Facebook, includes a comic scene in which identical-twin Harvard undergrads Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both portrayed by Armie Hammer), who are enraged that fellow student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) has stolen their idea for a social networking website, plead their case before then–university president Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski). Summers is dismissive, and when Tyler insists, “This idea is potentially worth millions of dollars,” Summers haughtily responds, “Millions? You might just be letting your imaginations run away with you.” As it turned out, they hadn’t run nearly far enough. In February 2012, less than a decade after the events the movie recounts, Facebook filed papers for its initial public offering—and analysts estimated the company’s value at $75 to $100 billion. Perhaps even more astonishing than the skyrocketing economic worth of Facebook and sites like it (YouTube, bought by Google for $1.65 billion in 2006, had an estimated value of $36 billion five years later) has been their power to impact political life. Facebook has made an extraordinary leap from its original purpose as a social networking site for elite Ivy Leaguers to a primary organizing tool for popular revolts.
“The revolution,” opined late poet-musician Gil Scott-Heron, “will not be televised.” At least not right away. When Occupy Wall Street protesters marched through the streets of Manhattan’s Financial District on September 17, 2011, chanting “We are the 99 percent” and setting up an encampment in Zuccotti Park that would remain in place for two months, the mainstream media paid scant attention. National network and cable news outlets didn’t begin taking notice until, a week into the movement, videos of peaceful women demonstrators being pepper-sprayed by a New York City police officer appeared on YouTube. Another week passed before they started devoting significant airtime to the protesters and the issues of economic inequality they raised. Word of the protests had largely been conveyed via social media—Twitter, Facebook and other internet postings—which remained the go-to sources for up-to-the-minute information on the Occupy movement as it spread throughout the fall. The New York pepper-spraying incident was, unfortunately, not the last of its sort to be captured on video and go viral on the web. The image of a pepper-spraying cop breaking up an Occupy-related demonstration at the University of California, Davis—a particularly brutal assault—became an internet meme.
Guy Fawkes masks (grinning, mustachioed white faces with exaggerated features) became a common sight at Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. The protesters behind them may—or may not—be affiliated with Anonymous, a shadowy international “hacktivist” collective that has wreaked occasional but serious havoc on corporate and governmental websites. Anonymous’s loose confederation has supported a grab bag of antistatist, anticorporate causes, including that of the web-based antisecrecy group WikiLeaks and its beleaguered founder, Julian Assange, and the Occupy movement, whose lack of a clearly defined ideology or leadership structure Anonymous shares. After Occupy protesters were pepper-sprayed in New York City, Anonymous “outed” the can-wielding police officer in web postings with the warning “Before you commit atrocities against innocent people, think twice. WE ARE WATCHING!!!” The video announcements of its actions that Anonymous posts on YouTube are eerie, as are the masks, the wearing of which was inspired by the 2006 film V for Vendetta (based on Alan Moore’s comic-book series). Vendetta’s hero, a masked anarchist fighting a fascist government in a dystopian Great Britain, vows to blow up the Houses of Parliament—also the aim of the foiled Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which the historical Guy Fawkes prominently figured.
Videos of over-the-line cops (or misbehaving cats or toddlers) aren’t the only ones that go viral. “Kony 2012,” activist-director Jason Russell’s 30-minute film about the crimes against humanity committed by Ugandan warlord and Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, made internet history by accumulating nearly 100 million views on YouTube and Vimeo within a two-week period in March 2012. Both a documentary account of Kony’s atrocities and a well-crafted piece of propaganda urging viewers to support efforts by the nonprofit organization Invisible Children to bring Kony to justice, the film drew criticism from some mainstream-media pundits for, among other things, its simplification of a complex crisis in central Africa. Other critics complained that “Kony 2012” encouraged “slacktivism”—social media activism that involves joining an online “community” and (sometimes) electronically donating a few dollars, a questionably effective practice purportedly endemic among computer-savvy but politically naive young people. The slacktivist accusation seemed an odd charge to level following a year when young people put their bodies on the tear-gassed line in the streets of the Middle East and in Occupy Wall Street encampments in the U.S. Occupy protesters were themselves derided as slackers by prominent voices in the right-wing media.
Listening to television commentators during the serial explosion of uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen in early 2011, one might have thought those revolutions were being caused by social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. In reality, of course, the so-called Arab Spring—the term embraces a series of revolts beginning in December 2010—was born of widespread, intensifying dissatisfaction with decades-old autocratic regimes and their strongman leaders. And where regimes have fallen, they’ve been brought down not by tweets and blog posts but by the intransigence of immense crowds of protesters gathering in streets and central squares—and, in the case of Libya, by a months-long bloody insurrection assisted by airstrikes from a coalition of foreign militaries. Nonetheless, social media did play a critical role. As Egyptian protest organizer Ahmed Salah has explained, Egypt’s martial law prohibited free assembly, and the Internet therefore provided an essential nonphysical arena where organizers could safely convene and plan during the months preceding their massive kickoff demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011. Social media may not create revolutions, but they certainly abet them. As reporter Leo Mirani wrote in the Guardian, “The revolution will indeed be tweeted.”
When tyrannical regimes want to prevent their people or the wider world from learning of their misdeeds, they often institute press crackdowns, imposing restrictions on traditional media to squelch the truth and suppress dissent. That tactic doesn’t work so well when the populace has computers and smartphones. Nowadays, to stanch the flow of information, the oppressors must shut down the internet. That’s exactly what the government of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak tried to do in late January 2011, shortly after mass demonstrations—initially organized largely through social media—began rocking Cairo and other cities. In ensuing months the regimes of Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad also reacted to growing unrest in their countries by ordering internet blackouts. The trouble is, once a revolutionary movement has gained momentum, internet-based organizing becomes less crucial. The Egyptian government’s attempt to halt internet traffic was 90 percent effective, and the blackout in Libya (where computer access is much less widespread) was nearly total—yet both regimes tumbled. Moreover, some news always manages to squeak through: A year after Syria’s uprising had begun, videos documenting antigovernment protests and government military reprisals were still emerging daily.
Internet blackouts aren’t the province only of totalitarian governments. They’re a mark of just how topsy-turvy our world has become: Shutting down the web—or portions thereof—is also a tactic used by Anonymous, a leftist group purporting to oppose internet censorship. Some of Anonymous’s cyber-anarchist hackers, for example, masterminded damaging so-called distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks that overloaded the websites of MasterCard, PayPal and Visa in late 2010, because those companies, under apparent political pressure, had stopped processing payments and providing infrastructure services for the whistle-blowing organization WikiLeaks. (WikiLeaks had greatly annoyed the U.S. and other governments earlier that year by releasing an enormous cache of stolen classified documents.) And in January 2012, when the FBI shut down the file-hosting service Megaupload, following its owners’ indictment on copyright infringement charges, Anonymous hackers conducted DDoS attacks on the websites of the U.S. Department of Justice and entertainment-industry organizations opposed to the intellectual-property piracy Megaupload allegedly facilitated. Whether one views Anonymous’s hackers as freedom fighters, pranksters or common (though ingenious) criminals, one irony bears noting: As Reuters correspondent Peter Apps has pointed out, their activities may fuel “demands for [internet] regulation—the opposite of their intent.”