The power of social media to build alliances with like-minded people and organize protests is unquestioned.
But as the book, “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest,” written by Turkish “techno-sociologist” Zeynep Tufekci points out, the initial moment of a movement bursting onto the scene should be viewed as only the first step.
She wrote that the failure to generate reforms in the Middle East following the Arab Spring protests may have been due to how easy it was to get people out into the streets.
Organizers were gobsmacked by the number of protestors but lacked the follow-through and hard work required in the aftermath of the demonstrations to achieve political change.
They fell into the trap of believing the Arab Spring was the culmination of an organizing campaign, rather than just the beginning.
In contrast to the Arab Spring, Tufekci wrote that civil rights activists in the US spent years planning the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and March on Washington in 1963.
David Cole, ACLU legal director, wrote in his review of "Twitter and Tear Gas" that civil rights activists “had to work for years to develop the networks, relationships, organizations and leaders necessary to sustain the boycott and carry out the march.”
Major demonstrations of today can be launched in a matter of weeks, thanks to social media. “It took less than six weeks after the Parkland shootings in February 2018 to mobilize more than one million people nationwide for the March for Our Lives,” wrote Cole. “The Women’s March, the most impressive anti-inaugural protest in history, was put together in a little more than two months.”
A mass protest is now a less meaningful indicator of a movement’s influence, noted Cole.
He believes the jury remains out on whether the March for Our Lives and Women’s March will achieve lasting reform. It will depend on those movements “working collectively in multiple forums, including courtrooms, state legislatures, corporate boardrooms, union halls and most importantly at the ballot box,” wrote Cole in the Feb. 7 New York Review of Books.
His recommendation: “We all need to turn away from our smartphones and screens and engage, together, in the work of democracy.”