The aim of this piece is to start a discussion about the pros and cons of the use of the Net and social media in activism. This has been prompted by concerns about an over reliance on digital communication and a decline in face to face, real life interactions which are still essential in building the sense of loyalty and comradeship needed in activism. It has also been prompted by security concerns where there have been examples of the authorities shutting down actions before they even start because they’ve been promoted on social media instead of built by word of mouth. This is not a definitive piece and is open to revision and expansion as the discussion about the points raised in it proceeds…
The Net and social media are tools which if used with due consideration, are incredibly useful. With your critical faculties switched on, the Net can prove to be an incredibly useful research tool. Given the amount of information, analysis and comment that’s out there on the Net, obviously developing the skill of sifting through everything to find what you need to read is a vital pre-requisite. If these skills are developed, then rather than trudging off to a distant library in the vain hope that you might find something useful to your research or writing, it’s right there on your laptop.
The Net also enables people who for various reasons such as impaired mobility cannot be out on the streets, to be able to participate and make a contribution to the overall struggle. Not everyone can or wants to be out on the streets but they will have skills they can contribute ranging from research and writing through to IT, web and graphics that are facilitated by the Net.
Social media plays a vital role in facilitating online communities that help people marginalised for their sexuality, gender identification, etc. to support and empower each other. This is something that’s outside of our lived and political experience so if we’re being honest, it’s not something we’re really qualified to write about in any depth. However, we would welcome contributions from people with experience in this area…
Blogging means every activist can become their own publisher. Which is great but there’s one important caveat – as we know full well from our past experience with the Heckler and our current experience with the Stirrer, you end up preaching to the converted. If we’re being brutally honest, a lot of what we do on the Net takes place in a self selecting bubble of reasonably like minded people. This is where the old school methods of reaching the unconverted such as papers, street meetings and the like have to come into play if we are ever going to make an impact.
Is social media a help or a liability when it comes to organising, protests, actions, etc.?
To be honest, there’s no definitive answer to this question… If we’re talking about a bog standard point A to point B march with the route and arrangement pre-agreed with the authorities, then social media is probably a useful tool in building such an event. Again, with community events such as clean ups, get together, etc., social media has a role in getting the word out. However, with a community orientated event, it’s worth bearing in mind that not everyone is on the Net, particularly the elderly, so if you want to involve the whole community, other methods of promoting an event such as posters, flyers, etc. are pretty much essential.
What about building and organising actions that may well fall foul of the law? Is there a role for social media in this or is it something we should ditch?
Let’s take the example of (some of) the antifascist mobilisation in opposition to the Britain First and EDL marches that took place in central London on April 1st 2017. One anti-fascist group announced the meet up point (in front of the national Gallery) for comrades intending to block the fascists two days in advance on a public Facebook page. The police must have thought Christmas had come early – a feeling enhanced on the day when the aforementioned anti-fascists obligingly identified themselves by turning up dressed in the customary black outfits complete with hoodies! Needless to say, the police were on their case for pretty much the whole day and the Britain First and EDL marches were not blocked. It has to be said that in this instance, it’s not just the indiscriminate use of social media that’s to blame – tactical naïvety from young, inexperienced comrades also played a part in the failure to achieve their stated objective.
The above example was flagged up to show that relying on social media can stymie any action that may be seen by the authorities as as contravening the law. With anything like this, mobilisation has to be done by word of mouth, (secure) telephone trees and encrypted communications if the Net is being used. The point is that even in the age of seemingly ubiquitous social media, there are instances where comrades do still organise militant actions such as occupations using word of mouth and only use the Net to publicise what they’re doing once the action is underway. Depending on the action or protest, social media can be a useful tool in helping to mobilise people with the obvious caveat that if the action is likely to be deemed beyond the pale by the authorities, then extreme caution is needed.
Re-visiting old school methods
The Net has only been around for a relatively short time – events, protests and actions were being conceived and executed for a long, long time before that. It may be worth re-visiting some of the tactics used in the pre-Net era and placing more emphasis on them in an age of ubiquitous social media.
Obviously, there’s a security gain to be made from being more circumspect in the use of social media in building support for a protest…there are other benefits as well to be considered… Old school methods such as street paper sales, street meetings, venue meetings, telephone trees, etc. all involved face to face or voice to voice contact. In the case of street paper sales and meetings, face to face contact had unpredictable outcomes sometimes involving hostility but with sufficient security, risks were minimised or eliminated.
What was important was the intensity of the discussions in these situations – an immersive political experience that cannot be replicated online. If you won someone over with your argument and kept that contact going with a series of contact meetings, a sense of loyalty was built up which ensured commitment to the event that was being built and onto the longer political project. With the best will, in the world, that cannot be replicated by an exchange in an online discussion forum.
Telling the world about what you’ve done on a protest
There are no hard and fast rules about how a protest or action should be documented. We’ve been on housing protests where people have been fairly relaxed about photography and filming and haven’t bothered masking up to avoid being identified by the police. Obviously if someone is stickering a door or setting fire to an effigy then a photo that identifies them doing so which subsequently goes out on social media isn’t exactly welcome. Having said that, most of the photographers we’ve met on housing actions know what the boundaries are and will not put incriminating material out on social media or sell it to a picture library.
When it comes to actions that the authorities deem to be beyond the pale (an ever expanding category these days), or anti-fascist actions then the trend of recording everything for posterity needs to be quashed. We’re sure the naïve people who do this mean no ill but such digital documentation can end up compromising someone’s security if it gets out on the Net – once it’s out, it’s out and there’s no controlling what happens to it. By all means if police brutality is witnessed, record it for the (tactical) purposes of suing them. If the fascists attack, if you can, defend and resist… If you can’t but don’t mind staying in the vicinity, photograph or film the fascists for future intelligence purposes… Whatever you do, DON’T photograph or film us fighting back!
After the episode with the fascists in Dover in January of 2016, there was a heck of a lot of imagery and footage from people ostensibly on our side going up on social media that should have been archived well away from the public gaze and only brought out if needed to defend one of our own. Bragging about stuff after the event can end up as a massive security breach with not just the police taking an interest but the far right as well… If someone is determined enough, they can gather a fair bit of information from people posting on Facebook and other forms of social media – this applies to police and fascists alike…
When setting up an anti-fascist Facebook page, we’ve seen a few where it’s been all too easy to find out the real life person behind that page within a matter of minutes – seriously! Keyboard stuff doesn’t just have keyboard consequences, some of which can be pretty nasty in their own right – it can have serious real life consequences if people aren’t ultra cautious about their online security…
The generational divide
In activist circles there’s an undeniable generational split between a younger generation who’ve had the Net and social media as an integral part of their lives from the time they were born and older activists who can remember a time when we managed to build and organise events using old school, analogue methods. We’re not psychologists but is seems that having the Net and social media as an integral part of your life from birth onwards does result in people perceiving things in a different way to those of us with experience of analogue ways of doing things. We’re willing to be corrected on this but we get the impression that for younger people, the Net and social media is life whereas for older people, generally it’s just another tool to be used as and when appropriate.
We’re not meaning to be judgemental about the way younger activists use the Net and social media – when something becomes an integral part of your life, it’s difficult to avoid it shaping the way you see, think and act. All we’re asking for is the exercise of a certain degree of caution depending on the circumstances and a recognition that old school analogue methods can still play a useful role.
If we’re being honest, when it comes to assessing the impact of the Net and social media on activism, the jury is still out. As a research and publishing tool, it has made a massive and largely positive contribution although it has to be said that as well as digital forms of communication, there’s still a role for papers, flyers and posters in getting the message across.
As a means of building and organising events, actions and protests, the picture is considerably more mixed with a fair bit more in the way of negatives. It’s got to the point where we feel that it’s time for people to take a step back from the screen and think seriously about what the Net and social media can and can’t contribute to activism and ask if there are more effective ways of organising and building actions and events.
As stated at the beginning, this piece is far away from being a definitive statement on what the Net and social media can and can’t contribute to activism. What we want to do is get a healthy debate going and start the process of using the digital tools we have at our disposal in a more considered and security conscious way.