On Protest, Activism, and Big Tech
Words by Sukhnidh Kaur
September 20, 2020
Illustration by Aarman Roy
I have a confession: I never signed up on social media to make the world a better place.
As a young and careless teen, I spent my time on the internet torrenting obscure music, inhaling celebrity gossip, mentally spiralling on Tumblr, and posting ‘aesthetic’ VSCO-ed pictures on Instagram. Around 2016, the social media-social justice wave came and swept me along with it. When it did, I thought – ‘Yes, these are important and urgent issues, and so I should devote my attention to them’.
My social consciousness was, to an extent, manufactured. By getting woke on the internet, I only accepted and integrated into the norm that I chanced upon. It made me a better person, but it wasn’t underlined by a pre-existing passion to change the world. And I think I may not be alone in this.
The seventh edition of Love, Pavemented by Akademi Mag attempts to understand the complicated relationship between digital platforms and social change, in an attempt to answer a question that’s been on my mind for the better part of half a decade – does social media activism work? I try to look at social media’s role distinctly in (a) everyday digital activism, and (b) significant events and revolutions.
Over the last five years, I’ve seen my feeds pivot from gossipy ask.fm entertainment to students fundraising for flood victims, posters detailing tweet storms to free political prisoners, and Instagram carousels on the need to withdraw the EIA draft or learn about the crisis in the Baghjan fire well or understand how to be a better LGBTQ+ ally.
There is a sense of urgency to these appeals. They tell us – there’s a crisis under way, and by sharing this post or signing a petition or linking an article, you may be able to help in place of an inefficient (or worse, malicious) public administration.
For people from disproportionately affected communities, leveraging support over social media can be a matter of utilizing the new, digital public sphere to articulate decades-long struggles for representation and justice. For those who understand oppression and injustice as theoretical concepts, it is more likely the signaling of political ideology and allyship.
Can we detach the platform from the process?
Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are social media megacorporations churning out cumulative yearly profits in the billions. To understand their usability as tools for social reform, we have to understand them as entities.
In her book ‘Don’t be Evil: The Case Against Big Tech’, Rana Foroohar argues that the same moral void in finance that led to the financial crisis will lead to the doom being ushered in by big tech. Considerations regarding taxation, patenting, content moderation, government lobbying, data handling, monopolization of attention, and commercial and political interests - none of which favour the general public - eventually determine user experience.
Does there exist a kind of subversion where platforms consent to being utilized to effectively challenge the same profit and power that sustain them? More intimately, what happens when a platform that rewards performance is adopted as a tool for ‘large-scale structural change’? How do we act when we know we are being consumed?
Some things are clear: the element of performance cannot be unlinked from what we post on social media, the interests of the progressive public cannot be unlinked from the profit-oriented interests of megacorporations, and the articulation of thought cannot be unlinked from its commodification on the internet.
I reached out to an India-based expert to understand this better. Padmini Ray Murray is the founder of Design Beku, a feminist collective that endeavours to place an ethics of care at the heart of digital and design practice. She said:
“To protest is to disrupt. To protest is to stop traffic, work, services - temporarily press pause on the status quo to demonstrate that the status quo cannot prevail.
Yet, on social media, to protest is to perpetuate. As a form of media, it can educate, mobilise and broadcast. But its scope as a truly intersectional tool for protest is severely throttled by the reality that it is compromised by algorithmic violence manufactured for neoliberal ends.
The master's tools can never fully dismantle the master's house. Subversive and tactical use is key, and we have to get smarter about how we use these tools, and how to build alternatives”.
Padmini Ray Murray’s work emerges from a desire to explore how technology and design can be more locally rooted, contextually relevant as well as intersectional. You can follow her on Twitter.
Is articulating a certain set of personal values enough to bring about change?
It took me years of navigating social media to ask myself – what kind of reform am I most passionate about? Is it to do with queerness, politics, the environment, caste, gender, disability, education? Do I just believe in abstract concepts of justice and anti-establishment?
With an endless capacity for reposting 24-hour stories, social media allows us to care about caring about things. This allows for the assertion of personal values (or a ‘personal brand’), which cannot be considered the same as a concentrated effort towards dismantling oppressive structures. I believe that this is not just a personal failure, but a function of the algorithmic reality that manufactures anger, chaos, and confusion, and engineers the need to do something with the little information you have.
To understand performance and positioning on social media, I reached out to Priyanka Paul, a 21 year old self-taught illustrator and poet whose work revolves around themes of social justice, marginalisation, and self-exploration. After finding a home on Instagram, her work has been published globally. She said:
“Social media, being a strong proponent of capitalism, seeks to package and commodify anything and everything and offers to sell it to you. So, even movements and people are turned into ‘brands’.
Capitalism, and hence social media, strongly relies on aesthetics. There’s pretty much a very linear way of ‘growing’ or grabbing traction on social media that adheres to the brahmanical capitalist hierarchy. Given this nature, people and movements coming from marginalised backgrounds are never favoured - the system is literally built to disadvantage them and hence, even subverting the system is seen as diluting of the real ideals, a creation of palatability.
Instagram is a marketing tool, and it’s difficult to sell actual ‘revolution’. You can’t turn movements or particular people (activists) into brands because they’re so much more than that. Personally, I’ve always struggled with the idea of visibility and my voice being heard, in a system designed for it to not be heard.
The injustice I do to myself and the people who feel represented by my voice when I make it fit into a box, just so it can be allowed to exist.”.
On context and time
Itt is difficult to use social media as a tool for change when we have not yet centered ideals of social justice in our thoughts and everyday practices. To understand justice, we have to learn about contexts rooted in complicated histories and power dynamics (especially when we are not contending with our own lived experiences, but those of others). The slow process of internalization is at odds with the fast-paced attention economy - blink once and there’s anger, blink again and it’s gone.
This is especially dangerous when we choose to write about communities we don’t belong to, experiences we have not had, and histories that are the trending topic of the week - because our learning can’t seem to catch up with our need to articulate it.
On revolution and socially networked movements
The Arab Spring
In the 2010s, a series of mass uprisings against oppressive regimes sent shockwaves across the Middle East and North Africa. It was in this Arab Spring that people started to extensively use – for the very first time in history – social media as a tool of revolution. Protestors relied on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube for protest coordination, mass mobilization, and information dissemination.
Given the sudden centering of new media, its role in the revolution was extensively studied. An analysis of trends reveals that sharp peaks in online conversation were often followed by physical protests. However, social media was said to act like a ‘megaphone rather than a rallying cry’ – it helped raise international awareness, but did not seem to play a central role in determining in-country collective action.
In 2013, citizens of Turkey organized a sit-in against a development project in Gezi Park. Outrage on social media led the way to civil unrest in which more than 3 million people protested authoritarianism, war, curbs on the freedom of speech, and other issues.
Digital mobilization under the hashtag #OccupyGezi was important because it allowed for local self-reportage at a time when mainstream media was being manipulated by the Turkish government. It also ushered in what BBC called an ‘explosion of expression’ – art, satire, and mockery of Istanbul’s leader online and offline. The government even claimed that the protests were part of a large-scale, social media-sparked international conspiracy.
Closer to home, I had the opportunity to understand how digital mobilization works during the Citizenship Amendment Act protests.
A system of country-wide online collectives (many anonymous), fact-checking teams, constant flows of communication between protestors/information sharers/journalists, poster-making, tweet-storming, and legal and medical aid mobilization played a central role in the movement. Here’s what I learnt:
Social media amplified, facilitated, and became vital for everything to do with information and knowledge sharing during protests – but it did not form the root of the movement. Traditional collectives and organizations continued to be the driving force for collective action.
Pictures, videos, voice notes, posters, art, and songs related to the movement found a home on social media. Audio-visual archiving played a big role in mobilizing young Indians.
Ground reports were vital for us to understand what really happened when mainstream media failed us. This led to the formation of a strong social trust. It also led to misinformation caused by panic and fear.
New media helped us adopt novel forms of dissent. It also, however, prompted new methods of suppression. Privacy violations and surveillance will continue to manifest and evolve in the digital space, and it is worth questioning whether the internet will truly lead to the collective action that challenges power, or, over time, instead put disproportionate power in the hands of those with vested interests.
What does this mean?
It’s true - social media has catalyzed awareness and action during significant events like the Nirbhaya rape case, Occupy Wall Street, #MeToo, and #BlackLivesMatter. However, social justice predates the internet.
Professor Zeynep Tufekci writes in her 2017 book, Twitter and Tear Gas, that the rapid speed and scaling of current social movements over the internet fails to signal an organizing capacity powerful enough to threaten those in authority. They are also marred by government countermeasures like distraction, and surveillance which are difficult to circumvent.
Evgeny Morozov’s book, The Net Delusion, argues that when revolutions are tweeted, people think in terms of the internet, but remain “deaf to the social, cultural and political subtleties and indeterminacies” of the ‘real world’, where people exist beyond our algorithmic bubbles of reality.
Egyptian and Tunisian revolutionaries maintain that the internet was important for the Arab Spring. Cyber-skeptics like Navid Hassanpour from Yale argue that collective action can be hindered by the internet, especially in light of the chaos of misinformation.
The takeaway here seems to be – social media does not necessarily create social movements – but it helps us understand them better, centre the importance of information, and participate in them in new ways. It also raises essential concerns regarding privacy, surveillance, security, and suppression.
Though I am wary of attempting to quantify something as complex as social change and its manifestation in different public spheres, our assessment comes down to the net good vs bad of social media activism. I don’t know what the ‘correct’ answer is - but I do believe that there is a net good, in the way social media has allowed for the amplification of marginalized perspectives, faster dissemination of aid, and ability to connect with others with similar experiences. Sharing knowledge is vital to our understanding of oppressive structures, and social media has facilitated this process.
At the same time, we cannot answer the question - does social media activism work? - without contextualizing our actions on the internet, taking into account our methods, imaginations of justice, and our tools, and deeply understanding the vested interests of those who control these tools.
Want to dive deeper?
Here are some free book PDFs:
Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest by Zeynep Tufekci: “A riveting firsthand account and incisive analysis of modern protest, revealing internet-fueled social movements’ greatest strengths and frequent challenges.”
Don’t be Evil: How Big Tech Betrayed its Founding Principles - And All of Us by Rana Foroohar: “A penetrating indictment of how today’s largest tech companies are hijacking our data, our livelihoods, our social fabric, and our minds.”
The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom by Evgeny Morozov: “Marshalling a compelling set of case studies, The Net Delusion shows why the cyber-utopian stance that the Internet is inherently liberating is wrong, and how ambitious and seemingly noble initiatives like the promotion of “Internet freedom” are misguided and, on occasion, harmful.”
For a short dive into how attention can be monopolized, watch this 13 minute video with over 6 million views.
Al Jazeera’s 2011 explainer on the role of social media in the Arab Spring.
A documentary on women, social media, and the revolution - and how the internet is being used to hack the patriarchy.