Tuesday, November 10, 2015

In Defense of Social Media Activism: A Counter to Malcolm Gladwell's "Small Change"

Social media can’t provide what social change has always required.
(Read Malcolm Gladwell's The New Yorker article, "Small Change: Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted" here.)

World-renowned author Malcolm Gladwell does not have much hope for the social movements of today’s generation. According to his article, Small Change: Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted, social media is a tool that promotes “weak-tie activism,” which does not have the same powerful effects as the “strong-tie activism” of successful social movements in the past. However, it seems Gladwell sold social media short in 2010 because it has proven to be a powerful tool that is changing the status quo in many ways. The means of controlling and disseminating information have been drastically changed; social media takes information, modes of expression, and authority out of the hands of the establishment. Gladwell acknowledges that social media efficiently spreads information, but throughout the article he works to demean the effectiveness of internet activism, and an entire generation as a whole. He continuously discredits any movements spawned from social media, stating, “We seem to have forgotten what activism is." Despite his feelings on it, social media is the main mode of communication and main tool of activism for millennials, now and for the foreseeable future. Millennials are able to effectively use this tool in ways that are revolutionizing traditional forms of activism and communication. There certainly are “still lunch tables that need to be integrated” as Gladwell points out, but what he doesn’t acknowledge is that social media ensures that people know about those tables and gives them the ability to galvanize enough people to do something meaningful about them.

Gladwell states that social media advocates have sold us on the belief that, "with Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns." This is a more accurate reflection of social media’s power than anything else Gladwell says. The traditional relationships between authority and the people have indeed been redefined; Gladwell even admits the power social media has as a vehicle of expression, yet he denies its power to coordinate and effect change. He states that social media, “makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.” Yet how could that expression have any impact if it were never heard in the first place? The fact that the opinion of any ordinary person can be heard around the globe is revolutionary in and of itself. Yet according to Gladwell, only the "existing social order" will ever benefit from social media: “the instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient." He refers to a social media campaign to find a bone marrow donor as an example, believing it only succeeded because of the existing hierarchical structure of the donor match program.

Although it is true that social media can benefit existing systems and organizations, it can also challenge those systems by giving more people a chance to express themselves. Plus, social media does not limit the impact of that expression, certainly not any more so than previous modes of expression and communication. Letters to the editor are an example of a traditional mode of expression that ordinary citizens used to challenge the authority of existing systems. Martin Luther King, Jr., who Gladwell constantly references, saw the benefit of writing letters to editors and congressmen and encouraged his supporters to do the same. Unfortunately, to get published or heard, these letters had to be selected and approved by certain people, often the very same people the letters were challenging. Now, people can express their opinions on Facebook or Twitter or start their own blog. Sure there are some less informed opinions than others, but at least we have a chance to hear these opinions and let our own be heard. Social media is not much different than methods of communication in the past, it is simply more efficient and allows for a broader scope of viewpoints.

However, Gladwell consistently refuses to grant the internet its level of importance and omnipresence in our society. Gladwell quotes a former US State Department discussing the War on Terror: "Al Qaeda was 'eating our lunch on the internet.'" Gladwell responds somewhat incredulously, "Why does it matter who is eating whose lunch on the internet?" He dismisses outright the significance of an online social media presence and the effectiveness of a network. He claims that there are many things networks can not do well, such as design cars or organize movements, explaining: "How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?" For someone who began their journalism career writing for a conservative magazine, that sounds a lot like he’s questioning the merits of a true American democracy. Are we meant to be equal, or should some people have more say than others? The status quo has been that most people, especially women, people of color, and other minority groups, have not had an equal say. He claims that social media is “not the natural enemy of the status quo,” yet if social media allows for more equality, is that not challenging the status quo?

As far as networks effectively accomplishing their goals, networks may not be able to design cars efficiently, but his example of Al Qaeda has not stood the test of time. He claims, "Al Qaeda was most dangerous when it was a unified hierarchy. Now that it has dissipated into a network, it has proved far less effective." The reality is that terror networks have continued to spread. Al Qaeda has given way to ISIS, whose heavy online presence has provided a boost to its cause and created urgency in other country’s online response. Besides being an abstract concept, terrorism is impossible to stop precisely because terrorist groups form in a network. With a hierarchy, the people at the top can be taken out and things inevitably fall apart. But when there are many different cells and no clear leader, who is targeted? What voice can be stifled to end the movement? Networks’ lack of hierarchies may make certain, specific tasks more time consuming since a consensus is needed before action can be taken, but networks also ensure that the mission continues despite the absence of a clearly defined leader.

In addition to expressing his belief that networks are not capable of enacting real change, Gladwell also implies that activists who use social media—in other words, millennial activists—do not desire real change and seek only petty goals: "The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn't interested in systemic change--if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash--or if it doesn’t need to think strategically.” A significant percentage of people use social media simply to “make a splash,” but to imply that most people using social media as an activist tool don’t want real change is bizarre. Millenials are quite possibly the most socially active generation since the Civil Rights movement. To use his own example of terror groups, although their methods could be described as “making a splash,” their intent is to drastically alter the current system of living, and they are very strategic. At the other end of the spectrum, many activists online are working for real, positive change as well, from fundraisers and awareness campaigns to protest movements. A strong network, online or off, is a vital resource for promoting change as well as plain old survival; many people living in areas affected by ISIS, or living in war zones, oftentimes literally rely on social media networks just to survive.

Yet Gladwell believes that social media activists are unorganized and inevitably unproductive: "Social networks are effective at increasing participation--by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires." He points to the Save Darfur campaign as an example, focusing on the minimal amount of money raised by that specific group as a sign of its failing. One Save Darfur Facebook group had a million followers who gave on average 35 cents. According to Gladwell, this reflects just how far away we are from "the lunch counters of Greensboro" and the high risk activism of the Civil Rights Movement. It is true that donating 35 cents is hardly a real sacrifice, but giving money isn't the only way to make a difference. As a spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition said, "We wouldn't necessarily gauge someone's value to the advocacy movement based on what they've given. This is a powerful mechanism to engage this critical population. They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It's not something you can measure by looking at a ledger." Spreading awareness has a powerful effect. Besides, there is a bigger issue with Gladwell's example: how would the goal of "saving" Darfur even be accomplished? What would it look like? The situation that Darfur finds itself in is largely because of the existing hierarchical structures of that country and the militants within. The fact that a social media campaign failed to effectively “save” Darfur is not a failing of the social media campaign, but a failing of humanity in general and a lack of clearly specified goals. If this campaign is a symbol of the failures of modern day activism, there are two more recent campaigns that reflect positively on the galvanizing power of social media: the Ice Bucket Challenge and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Ice Bucket Challenge was a monumental success for the ALS Foundation. It worked because it used the power of the social network to spread a message and encourage people to donate or simply continue spreading the message. Gladwell would most likely compare this campaign to the bone marrow example he discussed, in which a campaign was started online to find a bone marrow donor for one individual and 25,000 new people were registered, eventually leading to a  match. Gladwell claims the campaign was successful because they didn’t ask too much of people: "Donating bone marrow isn't a trivial matter. But it doesn’t involve financial or personal risk; it doesn’t mean spending a summer being chased by armed men in pickup trucks. It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices. In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and or praise." Gladwell seems to believe the only way that activism matters is if people give money or face bodily harm. The Ice Bucket Challenge successfully achieved the former, and it would be interesting to hear his opinion on the Black Lives Matter movement since they achieved the latter. Agree or disagree with their message and tactics, Black Lives Matter activists have put themselves in harm’s way. Activists from Ferguson and Baltimore faced heavily militarized police forces, not to mention the scrutiny and judgment of journalists, politicians, and other authority figures who enforce the status quo. They also face constant harassment online, something Gladwell ignores. Is an online death threat any less “real” than a hand written letter? Many people rely on the internet to make a living or get their message out, so it’s not as simple as logging off (especially when many activists' personal addresses have been illegally obtained and published) and why should they have to? That’s similar to telling Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights activists to stay home if they didn’t want to get attacked by police dogs; it makes the victim responsible for the actions of the persecutor.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, Gladwell does not believe that social media can help with the “lunch tables that [still] need to be integrated.” He believes that social media will not revolutionize the system, but even the Civil Rights Movement only influenced the system, it didn't completely revolutionize it. The movement worked to change government legislation, not change the government itself. In fact, if these metaphorical lunch tables are still in need of integration, that speaks to the failure of these past movements. We are still dealing with these issues today because they were never fully addressed. Gladwell seems to have selective memory. He makes the point that "If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrolled by the white power structure." Apparently, if King tried to use social media to advance his message, he would have been stopped, or worse yet, killed. There's just one glaring problem with that theory.

Gladwell succumbs to the common fallacy of glorifying the past. Nothing will ever compare to the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, in many ways, even Gladwell's glorified Civil Rights Movement bears a striking resemblance to current social movements. When speaking about the Freedom Summer movement in the 60s, he mentions that, "a quarter of those in the program dropped out." Many people were vocal supporters but in the long run did little to help the movement. That sounds a lot like the social media campaigns that he lambastes. Yet in a social media movement, even if only a small percentage of the supporters engage in “high risk” activism, more people can be reached, so that small percentage will still represent a significant number of people.

In the Freedom Summer movement, it was discovered that more important than a person’s dedication to the cause was, “an applicant's degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement." People are more dedicated to a cause if they are closely connected to someone fighting for that cause. This is what Gladwell refers to as the “strong tie phenomenon.” He believes these strong ties can not be formed on social media, but this belief is just a byproduct of his condescension of the younger generation. He claims: "The platforms of social media are built around weak ties…The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.” Besides not understanding relationships as well as Gladwell does, millennials apparently equate signing an online petition with marching in Selma. The combination of his unbridled reverence for the Civil Rights Movement and his blatant scorn for the new generation eventually leads to his bias being fully revealed here. Most people understand that all 1000 of their Facebook friends are not friends in the truest sense of the word, and no sane person considers signing an online petition an incredible act of bravery. But Facebook friends can’t be completely discounted either, and online petitions can get results.

Overall the most effective activism incorporates social media into what Gladwell describes as high-risk activism. Millennials understand this. Young activists have effectively organized online and put themselves in danger both online and off. Gladwell believes that "activism that challenges the status quo--that attacks deeply rooted problems--is not for the faint of heart." He is right about that. Social media activists are constantly berated on social networks and by the mainstream media. Many are currently being monitored by the FBI, much in the same way Civil Rights activists were. If Gladwell’s measurement of success is facing bodily harm, that has been achieved. If it is passing legislation or sparking conversation, activists have been successful in that as well, from enacting body camera laws, to instating citizen oversight committees. We just saw another example of the power of social media activism when the President of the University of Missouri stepped down after black students protested his inaction on racist incidents on campus. One student started a hunger strike, the football team and many faculty showed support publicly, the protest went viral on social media, and the national outcry forced action by the school. After the President resigned, the Chancellor stepped down, too. That is the effect of social media: it puts high risk activism on a national, oftentimes global, stage.

It is hard to understand Gladwell’s dismissal of social media and modern day activism. When discussing the Civil Rights Movement, he states, “of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where 98% of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church?” The problem becomes apparent here: Gladwell is using the same parameters of successful activism from the past to judge the present. The world has changed and it doesn’t seem that Gladwell wants to accept that fact. Church attendance is down drastically (and in many cases, the church represents the very status quo that activists are challenging) housing is more spread out, and in general, more people are staying inside. Our common meeting places are now mostly online and because of this, we can connect across the entire world with people who share our passions and world view.

Social media can be incredibly useful for social activism, but it is just a tool. Gladwell states that "activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools." However, that focus on the tools of activism is a definition of modern day activism that he himself imposes. The people and the cause itself have always been paramount. If the cause is just and the people fighting for the cause are persistent, it doesn't matter what tools they use. It is true that social media increases the overall ease of activism, but that should be seen as a positive trait because it results in an increase in visibility and an acceleration of progress. Social media just happens to be the biggest source of news and information and the main mode of communication in today's world, and Millenials have found a way to make it work to suit their needs. The Civil Rights activists that Gladwell so highly revered (rightly so) would have probably been impressed with the potential of social media and most likely encouraged millennials to continue fighting for their causes online.

Because in 2015 and beyond, if the revolution isn't tweeted, will it ever happen?

I Love You All...Class Dismissed.

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