Malcolm Gladwell makes a convincing case that high-risk activism depends on real-world relationships, but he ignores the value of social media for changing popular consciousness.
In a recent editorial for the New Yorker (“Small Change – Why the revolution will not be tweeted”) Malcolm Gladwell argues that enthusiasm for social media as a platform for activism is “outsized.” Services like Twitter and Facebook, he says, seldom produce the kind of high-risk activism that real social change has already depended on. Furthermore, effective activism requires hierarchical “lines of authority,” not the kinds of flat, diffuse networks which make up social media.
A large part of Gladwell’s argument is aimed against the belief that participating in social media is the same thing as engaging in high-risk activism. Joining a Facebook group calling for an end to violence in Darfur, he argues, has little personal cost and is likely to have an equally small effect. Real change requires activism, and this can only be achieved by relying on the “strong ties” of friendship and family which connect would-be activists together. We are much more likely to attend a rally, go to a sit-in, or knock on doors for political candidates if a “strong tie” in our social network incites us to.
So much makes sense, however Gladwell then concludes, in a rather sweeping statement, that “social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient.” In other words, social media is great for “buffing around the edges,” but has no value when it comes to serious challenges to the status quo. On the contrary, he says, the feeling of satisfaction we get from tweeting or joining a Facebook group related to a cause is enough to make us think we have “acted,” and is therefore the perfect distraction from real activism.
Gladwell’s point about strong ties being essential to high-risk activism is no doubt true. However, his argument that social media is therefore merely innocuous, distraction-fodder isn’t. A technology must be distinguished from its uses: just as newspaper articles have served to distract people, they have also ignited social movements. Social media is no different, because activism has never, on its own, been enough to bring about lasting change, nor has it been the only way for effecting it. All social change, from the 1960s African-American civil rights movement, to the French revolution has required a change in popular consciousness. This is impossible without the means to create and disseminate information, messages and opinions among the public.
Activism itself depends on information dispersal. Emily Davison, who threw herself in front of the King’s racing horse wearing a suffragette flat, wouldn’t have found any gain from it without a mechanism for transmitting the event – and therefore the message – to the broader public. The Women’s Suffrage movement depended on the cogs of traditional media to disseminate a message to the public about women’s equality. Without flash bulbs, newspapers, reporters, radio broadcasts and word-of-mouth, universal suffrage would not have been secured. We could point to similar, no less dramatic examples: the role of the printing press in bringing about the Reformation, or the coffee shops of Versailles where the disgruntled Bourgeoisies met to read papers, discuss politics and ferment the French Revolution.
You do not have to believe that social media represents a paradigm shift in activism to acknowledge that it is a powerful new catalyst for social change. After all, if change depends on information dissemination, social media provides us with even more powerful tools to do it with. Twitter and Facebook are the new coffee shops and printing presses: the contemporary activist tweets and blogs, instead of photocopying pamphlets. It has never been easier or cheaper to spread a message to so many than it is now.
There is more still to social media than better tools for spreading information. To a person who is already committed to action, social media provides the ability to connect with other activists and organizations, get valuable information, and to coordinate action. Recent examples of social media-enhanced campaigns include the Tea Party movement, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, protests against Vodafone’s 6bn tax evasion and the Facebook campaign to stop the execution of Sakineh Ashtiani for adultery in Iran.
It’s not surprising that oppressive governments seek to control information: it stokes the fires of discontent and oils the wheels of activism. Social media is not a new philosophical paradigm, but a set of tools which help share information more widely, effectively and cheaply. In the hands of activists, it can become a powerful tool for social change.
Original image credit: Deep Signal