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Viral protests: What is their actual impact?

Social networks have increasingly become a tool to organize and demonstrate, but so much fervor might be blurring the significance of the mobilizations

Abraham Rivera
Protestas virales
A protest in Paris in memory of the French teenager Nahel M., who was shot at a police checkpoint on June 29 in Nanterre, France.Telmo Pinto (SOPA Images/Getty I

More than a decade ago, social media made it seem like everything was possible. Small protests, which did not take long to organize, had a huge impact. This is still the case today, maybe even amplified thanks to instant messaging applications, but the oldest events now allow us to analyze, with perspective, the achievements and validity of what we were demonstrating for. Many of the demands that people shouted during Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring have gone under; others, like Black Lives Matter, are still alive. And some, like #MeToo, not only had global consequences at the time, but are still being reinterpreted locally, as is the case of the #Seacabó (#It’s over) movement in Spain that emerged over the Luis Rubiales scandal.

The perspective provided by time also fuels a debate about the pros and cons of the phenomenon. On one hand, prestigious academics such as Manuel Castells or Donatella della Porta maintain that in the 21st century, social networks are essential for marches and rallies to occur. Meanwhile, a new current of researchers and journalists doubt their contribution and significance.

In the book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Zeynep Tufekci, an important analyst of worldwide social movements, reflects on how social media has changed our way of demonstrating. The Turkish writer admits that the amplification provided by the networks has been crucial to organizing everything that a large protest entails, from spreading the word to dealing with media disdain. However, she added, these large movements that were organized very quickly often lost their way as soon as any problems arose. “They didn’t have the tools to navigate the treacherous next phase of politics, because they hadn’t needed to build them to get there,” she wrote a few years later in a column for The New York Times titled “I Was Wrong About Why Protests Work.”

This is the thesis that essayist Gal Beckerman defends in his latest book, The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas. Through a series of cases that cover the past and present of our history, from obtaining the right to vote in England to the feminist fanzines of the 1990s or movements such as Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter, Beckerman presents his theory, which shows how the relationships we established used to be stronger and longer in the past, despite not having Instagram, Twitter or TikTok. If we do not lay the foundations for lasting movements, he argues, we risk the possibility of ideas flaring up and quickly returning to darkness. There must be a period in which people deliberate among themselves and polish their ideas, to then present them to the world.

Beckerman refers to that initial phase as “incubation.” A moment of special relevance in which radical ideas can develop. This whole gestation process, says the American writer, disappears with social media: “At first this may seem like a good thing; it would be like a more efficient, faster way to reach a greater number of people. But the same aspect that allows movements to consolidate more quickly and attract many followers, also weakens them,” he adds via email.

The technologies of today make everything move at a pace that is “faster, shallower and more focused on provoking extreme emotions,” says Beckerman. He quotes Marshall McLuhan, whose well-known notion that “the medium is the message” defines our current framework of action. “If our dominant medium is one that rewards being fast, loud and flashy, our society, our politics, and our culture will be,” he states.

For Stefania Milan, professor of critical data studies at the University of Amsterdam and author of the study From social movements to cloud protesting: the evolution of collective identity, social networks fall short if we talk about sustaining a protest or a movement over time. “A like or a share on social media hardly translates into real life support when people take to the streets or participate in a (perhaps illegal) disruptive action like an occupation,” she says via e-mail.

An additional element that is relevant with social networks is the ability to spread images instead of just words, points out Donatella della Porta, director of the doctoral program in political science and sociology at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence, Italy, and author of books like Social Movements: An Introduction. “This gives even more relevance to the spreading of collective emotions,” she says.

This double dichotomy — on one hand visibility and exposure, and on the other control and division — is one of the central issues addressed in the recent article Young Humans Make Change, Young Users Click: Creating Youth-Centered Networked Social Movements, where Mina Rezaei of the Department of Human Ecology at the University of California blames social media for the abundance of stimuli, which distract people from their main goals, making them more prone to clicktivism or facilitating “filter bubbles,” the state of intellectual isolation that algorithms foster.

However, although everyone is critical, they also see a halo of hope. “If we look at the global level, protests organized online have actually intensified, some with important social and political effects,” points out sociologist Manuel Castells, who has devoted half a century to the study of social movements.

Castells, a former Spanish minister of universities, mentions the recent protests in Chile, the little-known End SARS in Nigeria, the Black Lives Matter mobilization, the social outbreak in Colombia that led Gustavo Petro to the presidency and the demands of Iranian women after the murder of Mahsa Amini. “They all emerged from social networks, which already are the essential instrument of communication and organization of mobilizations of our time,” concludes the author of Networks of Outrage and Hope, a key work to understand how social movements began to become organized a decade ago.

The numbers gathered by Daria Kuznetsova and Caroline J. Tolbert in Globalizing information networks, social media, and participation, the most comprehensive study to date, with representative samples from 45 countries, confirm this. “We contend that access to globalizing information networks — which exist within digital media space and where discussions of political norms and values are frequent — promotes higher rates of political participation,” they write.

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