02 February 2014

Social Movement Through Social Media

As early as 1991 people wondered “the extent to which the use of computer-based systems really transforms any part of the social order” (Kling 342). There have been a wide variety of attempts to answer this question. Movies like Hackers explored the negatives and positives of the internet, although Hackers is based more in science fiction than the reality of computers. More recently, Cory Doctorow's book titled Little Brother has given us a story of how effective computers can be at creating social movements.

(If you haven’t seen Hackers, check out the trailer:)

The characters of Doctorow’s Little Brother are similar to those in the movie. Marcus, known by his aliases w1n5t0n or m1k3y, is a trouble making student at his high school. He loves operating outside the system and getting away with things. A terrorist attack leaves him detained by Homeland Security and upon his release, San Francisco has become a police state. He does what any computer savvy high school student would do and creates an encrypted and nearly undetectable internet service through his Xbox. He shares this 'XNET' software with others and and becomes widespread. It also develops into a social protest group that combats the Homeland Security in San Francisco. (I won't spoil the ending here in hopes that you'll go read the book. If you haven't already read it, of course.)

How far off is Doctorow's book from reality? I cannot answer this question from a hardware/software stand point, but from an ideological standpoint I think it is pretty accurate. America has a rich tradition of activism starting when we decided we were sick of being taxed by England. We had the Abolitionist movement, the Women's Suffrage movement, The Civil Rights movement, and the list goes on. These movements all used the tools available to them to garner a following: the printing press, radio, television, Paul Revere on horseback. 

Injustice is, usually, met with some kind of resistance and the attitude that with enough people we can start a change. Social Media has been a forum in which people can express ideas and opinions and spread the word about injustice. Take for example the marriage equality campaign on Facebook where profile pictures were set as equal signs. Did this campaign lead to the passing of marriage equality bill in several states? I'm not sure if it was directly linked to this, but it definitely got people talking about this issues that, without seeing the equal sign, might not have thought about marriage equality. Social Media has the potential to do more than just get ideas out there. It can mobilize groups in the same way that Marcus does in Little Brother, although without encryption and bouncing off other people's wireless networks.

On September 17th, 2011 the Occupy movement began in a park in New York City. In hind sight, a lot of people now dismiss OWS, but The Guardian reports that FBI Documents "reveal that from its inception, the FBI treated the Occupy movement as a potential criminal and terrorist threat" (Wolf). In fact, Wolf also reveals a task force, not unlike the one Marcus deals with, was created consisting of the DHS, FBI, private sector operatives, and others. This was a movement that started largely through social media. It also persisted and spread through social media. Jeffrey Juris points to social media as the "shift towards less publicly visible forms of organizing and networking" that gave "staying power" to the Occupy Movement (261). He claims that the ability to mobilize through networks like Facebook and Twitter prevent censorship, allowing the message to spread unhindered. According to his article social media has the potential to become a digital network for activists to communicate.

Many people, like Julia Skinner and Craig Calhoun, link the Occupy movement to a much larger trend. Calhoun claims that "OWS was part of an international wave of mobilization" (27). The use of social media that got the Occupy movement up and running was also creating revolutions in the Middle East in what is termed 'The Arab Spring'. Julia Skinner found that both of these movements became what they were through social media. She claims that the use of social media led to "expressions of support and solidarity from other places" which let protesters who were having a rough time look at their plight as a global situation, or at least a national one (5). Protesters experiencing violence in Oakland or Egypt could look up hash tags on twitter and see a digital connection to others.

The answer to Kling's question that computers transform social order to an unfathomable extent. To be fair, he could not have anticipated the advances and integration of technology into our lives. Nor could he anticipate the way that social media arose on the internet. With the rise of social media, however, people have the power to be heard like never before. The examples of its effect across the world are amazing displays of what people can accomplish with words sent through cyber space. While this technology is a double edged sword (see: youtube comments on any video), it does, at the very least, provide a forum where injustice can be called out.

Works Cited

Calhoun, Craig. "Occupy Wall Street in perspective." The British journal of sociology 64.1 (2013): 26-38.

Doctorow, Cory. Little Brother. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2008. Print.

Juris, Jeffrey S. "Reflections on# Occupy Everywhere: Social media, public space, and emerging logics of aggregation." American Ethnologist 39.2 (2012): 259-279.

Kling, Rob. "Computerization and social transformations." Science, Technology & Human Values 16.3 (1991): 342-367.

Skinner, Julia. "Social media and revolution: The arab spring and the occupy movement as seen through three information studies paradigms." (2011).

Wolf, Naomi. "Revealed: How the FBI Coordinated the Crackdown on Occupy."Theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media, 29 Dec. 2012. Web.


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