Social Media and Protest in the Age of Globalization

On 17 September 2012, Occupy Wall Street celebrated its first anniversary. In spite of the usual problems facing bottom-up political activism in the long term, on which Pamela Brown reported a few months ago, OWS is still alive and kicking. Protest is clearly ‘in’, as the global protests on 14 November 2012 also demonstrated. But social movements and political protest have also made it to the screen, as memories of protest and rebellion reverberated both at the 69th Venice Film Festival and at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, with Olivier Assayas’ movie about the French 1968 protests (Après mai), Robert Redford’s interpretation of a former Weather Underground member in The company you keep, and Shola Lynch’s documentary about the black civil rights activist Angela Davis, Free Angela & All Political Prisoners.

Characteristic of OWS as well as other recent protests across the world, notably the Arab Spring, is the role of social media and the subsequent global reach of the protests. In Why it’s Kicking off Everywhere. The New Global Revolutions (Verso, 2012), BBC Newsnight economics editor and journalist Paul Mason narrates the course of events in both the Arab world and in a number of European countries since the start of the financial crisis, and analyzes the role and impact of social media in these protests. Starting with the Tahrir Square uprisings, “a revolution planned on Facebook, organized on Twitter and broadcast to the world via YouTube,” Mason takes us back to the 2008 clashes in Greece and Iran’s ‘Twitter Revolution’ in 2009, when the images of a dying Neda Agha-Soltan – discussed recently on this blog by Lisa Lipscomb – made it across the globe in a matter of minutes. Through citizen journalism, Neda became a “global icon” and a martyr, provoking a “thread of solidarity and collective mourning” both online and in the streets (see also Aleida and Corinna Assmann’s chapter in Memory in a Global Age).

In fact, globalization processes and technological developments have changed our experience and sensibility of time and space, giving rise to a “memory boom” where – in the attempt to regain a sense of community belonging – we turn to memory. Both individual and collective memories are, however, increasingly structured within national and global frames and shaped by new media technologies. As Lipscomb demonstrates in her article, these allow people not only to witness and share (global) events in a more direct and personal manner, but also to produce memory themselves, e.g. by shooting home videos. In other words, new media empower people by ‘arming them with advanced means to construct collective identities’ (José van Dijck, Mediated Memory in the Digital Age, Stanford University Press, 2007, p. 172).

These bottom-up, horizontal forms of communication offer an interactive relation to the past, present and future, which emerges at the interface of individual/local and collective/global experience, and in the mutual shaping of media and memory. The ‘mediated memories’ that are thus produced travel across borders and circulate beyond nation-states to be reconfigured – transnationally and digitally – in a global and digital memory field, as with the mobile witnessing of Neda’s death, but we may also think of the 2005 London bombings, where mobile camera phones provided personal, communicative memory of the incidents by survivors and witnesses (see Anna Reading’s article in a special issue of Memory Studies).

The strength of social media lies not only in its capacity to create mediated memories, though: they have also moved what Mason calls ‘the collective mental arena’ (p. 137) out into the real world. Put differently, mass audiences are constituted through connectivity rather than “collectivity,” so that remembering becomes “a matter of navigation in and through emergent and shifting complexities of connections in and through media” (Andrew Hoskins in his introduction to the above mentioned special issue, p. 272). Indeed, the role of Facebook and Twitter in political and social life is ever more important, both in terms of expressing solidarity and forging (online) bonds, and in terms of denouncing violence or injustice, for example by reporting or shooting it with a (video) camera or a mobile phone. I was, for example, stunned to see pictures on Facebook of wounded Palestinian citizens in a hospital in Gaza, after Israeli air raids in early November 2012, including the shocking photograph of a man carrying away a small boy whose leg had just been blown off. Public opinion is also often measured according to what people say on Twitter, a modern ‘vox populi’ where citizens can finally vent their emotions or attack politicians and policy makers.

Has the web then substituted more traditional forms of protest, such as demonstration marches, occupations, sit-ins? If the answer is yes, this may not necessarily be a bad thing, in my opinion. After all, events are ever more ‘media events’ and ‘digital events’, and experiences are no longer exclusively local or global.