Much has been said recently about the role of the internet and online activism in protests in the UK and in more serious uprisings in places such as Tunisia and Egypt. Many people speak derisively about the use of social networks in activism as something that will never bring about any change and as a waste of time. Clearly some people disagree, for example the Egyptian government recently shut down most of the internet across the whole country in an effort to stifle the protests there.
There are two natural uses of social media in activism. The first is in simple organisation of events, typically on Facebook. People are now used to responding to party invitations issued as an “event” on Facebook and it is a logical step that protests and marches be organised in the same way. It is now standard for protests everywhere to have a Facebook event page and for many people to indicate on that page that they will attend.
The second natural use is as a way to keep in contact which replaces the mailing list. Groups such as 38 Degrees and Amnesty are good examples of this. Their members sign up on their websites, Facebook and so on, and then receive messages indicating progress made and issuing calls to action. The action is mostly in the form of emailing or writing a letter to various politicians but also covers making sure that news media are aware of the situation and give it coverage. It is clear from recent successes of online campaigns that they do make a difference, even without physically going out into the streets to protest.
Now there is a new use of social networks, and twitter in particular, and that is for online activists to support and promote the “offline activists” that are actually out there on the streets protesting. Those of us connecting up information at home have a big role in it all. We’re collating media, commenting, and linking in all the people that are following the protests, keeping it a cohesive whole.
During every demo, we are frantically passing information to people on twitter, facebook and through blogs to raise awareness amongst our friends that would otherwise be oblivious to what is going on. We have also orchestrated campaigns to get people to complain to the BBC and other news outlets about the lack of coverage. (There have been many many more protests than have been covered by the news, but only the ones with vandalism or violence seem to get coverage.) During the protests photos, video and comments are continuously sent out to twitter from the scene. Activists at home watch the stream of information coming in from those that they follow and via the relevant hashtag. We read the comments, look at the photos and videos and retweet the best ones. The ones that get retweeted by enough people end up causing a retweet storm, appearing in the hashtag timelines over and over again. We pick the best stuff from Facebook and twitter, and write about it on blogs or post it back to social networks where our friends that aren’t directly involved will see it. Once the protesters have returned home and looked at twitter, it is the most popular items that they see. In this way the ones at home have selected the best items and passed them on to all the protesters both to let them know what was happening at all the other protests and to allow them to share the best bits with their own family and friends.
Another aspect of this process that takes place online during the protests is the sharing of information between protesters. As many of the protesters post up information about what is happening around them, others nearby can see and react to this information. The point at which I first realised this was during the protests on the 30th of November. Protesters were desperate not to be kettled by the police and so they broke into groups and scattered across London at the first sign of police blocking anything. As they ran across London, many people sent messages to twitter asking where the police where, and others tweeted about where they had seen the police. People at home responded by passing information from the ones that knew to the ones that did not, and also added in information taken from watching live TV footage. Protesters on the ground actually changed direction based on this information to avoid the police. At other protests twitter has been used to clarify information about how best to leave an area, to find people, and to warn people away from danger such as areas where police where using batons or charging with horses.
So useful has this been, that a group of clever people have taken this whole process and packaged it up into a system called Sukey. Sukey collates information from all the protesters, the police, and the people watching TV or just retweeting information from the scene, and then feeds it all into computer algorithms that watch for trouble spots forming. Sukey then alerts people at the protests via text messages and through maps on their mobile phones and hopefully gives them enough warning to get away before any trouble. This worked admirably well on the 29th of January and even forced the police to be more open and provide more information. My only regret is that Sukey may have made some of my contribution redundant!
In this world of online activism it is still of vital importance that people actually go out and protest in person. To this end there have been quite a few events, workshops and campaigns aimed at turning online activism into offline action. One blog that you should look at for this is Beyond Clicktivism. While it is vitally important for people to have real involvement away from the internet, there are many people that are unable to do so for various reasons including responsibilities at home or work, or illness and disability. For these people online activism is the only way that they can play a part.
Online activists, then,
- Write articles and blogs about the cause, both for activists and for the public
- Sift through photos, videos and articles then promote the best ones to other activists.
- Present the cause, and news about events to activists and non-activists
- Convey information between activists, keeping them linked and safe
- Keep a continuous presence on social networks, thus keeping other people engaged
- Allow people that cannot physically attend protests to play a large part anyway
I was fascinated by a recent article from Market Sentinel and a network graph about connections on twitter related to UK Uncut. The connections are assessed by how often what a person says in connection with the #ukuncut hashtag is retweeted by other people. This is a very rough indication of how involved each name is within UK Uncut. The graph does not show the names of leaders, but the names that the most people find interesting enough to pass on. Because anyone can tweet on the #ukuncut hashtag the graph also shows some of the trolls – unpleasant people trying to bait and taunt others – that were retweeted by other detractors of UK Uncut.