David Glanz’s article in Solidarity’s last issue, “Protest 2.0? Social media and the streets” is a useful contribution on the strengths and limitations of social media.
David writes that it’s a mistake “to assume that social media can substitute for the more humdrum processes involved in building movements.” That’s absolutely right, but I think this can be taken a step further—social media cannot substitute at all for the political activity that a movement needs to grow, develop and ultimately, win.
One of the main reasons social media can’t substitute is that it’s not democratic. Those who create a Facebook event or a page—probably the most common way for activists to promote activities these days—have already made the decisions, unless they are directed by a democratic committee that meets and collectively determines the event and its politics.
An example of a group exclusively organising on Facebook this way is the recent March Australia protests that started with March in March. These protests have tapped into the rage felt about Abbott’s conservative social agenda and his budget cuts and have drawn tens of thousands to the rallies.
But the model of organisation ignores coalition-building and political debate, and gives a small group of people the political control over the Marches’ message.
This is also how more conservative organisations like GetUp! control the political space, by controlling the event, while the real decision-making remains the privilege of a select few.
It is an essentially elitist model, not one that grassroots activists should replicate. Participants are regarded as little more than a stage army.
But many have attempted to copy the viral quality of the Marches, thinking that by simply declaring events online they can brand the events and that somehow they will magically take off. Recently Socialist Alternative sought to copy the undemocratic method, to (ultimately unsuccessfully) declare their own Bust the Budget rallies on Facebook, apparently unconcerned to engage with the unions and the myriad of other groups organising against the Budget.
To do anything beyond just “mobilising” people to attend a rally requires political discussion and debate about the movement’s political direction. Facebook can be useful for mobilising for protests and events, but it is not a way to build a sustained movement. That requires ongoing organisation, democratic meetings and the interaction of ideas and practice.
Movements and individual activists develop their ideas about the way forward by putting different ideas to the test through collective, practical experience. In open, democratic spaces, trust and common experience can really develop.
Attempts to organise via social media do not usually “go viral”. In fact all activists know that protests and events promoted exclusively via the internet, generally, do not go much further than mobilising already existing networks. As John Sinha writes in “#Leninism” (International Socialism Journal 143), “The reach of social media is confined to one’s own political and social circles but the objective of many activists is to break out of such circles.”
Those networks that do mobilise exist because of real life activity or relationships that put them into contact with left groups, unions or activist groups. To build and mobilise, you need to build those networks in the real world. It cannot be achieved online.
Take the Facebook attempt to call a “general strike” on 24 June, also an attempt to mimic the success of the Marches. The well-meaning hope of organisers seemed to be, again, that putting it online would make magic happen.
But you simply cannot declare a strike without mobilising existing unions, or building rank and file networks to be effective enough to call such an action. A successful strike is only possible through collective decision-making, because its success depends on solidarity and winning majorities in workplace votes.
Social media is another communication tool for getting the word out. It has, positively, created the prospect of much more up-to-date communication with more people at once than is possible with any other technology. Right now activists in Gaza are using it to get out the real, horrific story of Israel’s bombardment.
Facebook, Twitter and so on can be usefully used to promote actions and events, and circulate articles and documents. This is not about rejecting social media, or not appreciating its positives. But the left should reject the idea that it can be a substitute for organisation in the real world. Attempts to use it that way can only stifle the organic work needed to build living movements.
By Amy Thomas