Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Revolution Will Not be Twittered: Some Skepticism on Twitter and Politics

Since most mainstream journalists have been neutralized in Iran, news of the protests pouring out to the world has come from social media, particularly Twitter. Twice now, previously in Moldova, and now in Iran, Twitter has become a tool for people to use in revolutionary political circumstances. It has helped to coordinate mass actions and to spread news about authoritarian repression.

But does it transform political action?

Mike Madden, in this piece in Salon.com, thinks not. Social media has been useful in documenting what is going on, getting information out, but it has not been something that radically changes how political action is taking place. Indeed, he worries at how easily social media can be blocked and then subverted by officials to spread disinformation and confuse activists.

Michael Walzer (one of my favorite political thinkers) muses here that its not clear whether the internet has changed political action very much.

In order to change things, people need to get out and be organized. Twitter and Facebook can be useful in getting people information and mobilizing mass rallies. But mobilization is not the same thing as organizing. Getting a bunch of folks to show up to a protest can be a good thing, but really, what matters more is if you can get them to stick around afterwards to do what Walzer calls "scut work"--filling envelopes, handing out fliers, cleaning up the meeting place, and generally showing their dedication to a group ideal.

If you have people who are willing to show up to protests, you have activists. But activism is usually very "flash in the pan" kind of activity--going to a rally, signing a petition, writing a letter. These things are important, no doubt. But what I take Walzer to suggest is that a social movement, in order to challenge entrenched power, needs organizers--people who are willing to do the activism, but also the less visible, and less publicized/glamorous, work of fundraising, phone banking, door to door knocking, and scut. (For an excellent discussion of the difference between organizing and activism, see this essay by Mark Rudd)

Organizing work is more long term and about building relationships with people so that they become aware of an issue and of the group of people who want to do something about that issue. This is not quite the same thing as creating a network, which social media is really good at. To say that people are in a network does not really say much about the quality of the linkage (think of all the people who might be your Facebook friends or followers on Twitter--to say they are all linked up does not fully describe the differences or similarities between them all. After all, we are all networked or linked up to Kevin Bacon by six degrees of separation, but that really doesn't tell us anything very interesting about the power relationships in those links).

There is a really great story that, I think, really captures the difference between activism and organizing (and also hints at the tedium of organizing and why it might not be so interesting to many): Some young activists went to see Cesar Chavez to find out how he made the farmworker movement so successful--building a powerful union out of literally nothing. He replied: "Well, we talked to one person, and then another person, and then another person, and then another person." No, they said, what's the secret to organizing? He answered: "You talk to one person, then another, then another, and then another."

Organizing, then, creates a group solidarity among individuals through discussion and deliberation that they might not have had before. It gives them a sense that they can accomplish actions together (Hannah Arendt says this is what power really is). Instead of being simply an aggregation of bodies at a rally, they are are group of colleagues united in a cause, trying to construct new opportunities for different kinds of political action. Organizing creates those relationships. Social media, it seems, can help the work of a movement get done faster, but it cannot replace the need to raise consciousness and a sense of agency that is the essence of political action.

(Photo: By Kamyar Adl on Flickr)

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