Social media and political action

Social Media

The world’s networked population has grown from millions to billions since the rise of the internet in the early 1990s (Shirky 2011). The world’s population now covered by a mobile phone signal is almost 90 per cent, and nearly 40 per cent have Internet access (IDS 2013).

“The explosion of social networking and the ubiquity of affordable digital technology that allows people to document, capture and create visual imagery is unprecedented. It has created a multitude of new ways for people to access and engage with information and with other people” (IDS 2013).

It is argued that the internet reduces the costs of social and political engagement which promotes political development worldwide. Through the internet, individuals are able to easily learn about government policies and actions, develop networks, connect with community, exchange information and establish shared norms (Shirky 2008 and Skoric, Ying and Ng 2009). Gleason (2013) argues that social media sites, such as Twitter, are information-sharing communities that support participation in social movements. Twitter can play an important role in facilitating the exchange of multiple perspectives, especially news related. News is now a communications ecosystem, occupied by a mix of individuals, informal collectives and formal organisations. User-generated content allows the voiceless to have voice (Gleason 2013 and Shirky 2008).


It is now possible for any citizen in possession of a mobile phone to post media online within seconds of an event’s occurrence at low cost. Social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook allow for instantaneous distribution of content. (Stevenson and Webster 2001). Social scientists have used the Zapatistas’ uprising as an example of this sort of effective social-networking reaching people worldwide (Atton 2003, Laer & Van Aelst 2010). In 1994 the Zapatistas started a local project of resistance. Their demands were for more rights and autonomy for the indigenous people of Chiapas in the rainforest region of southern Mexico. The Zapatistas used an international communications medium. This won support and recognition from all over the globe (Laer & Van Aelst 2010). Online coverage gained sympathy from those who were struggling against neoliberal globalization. It was now possible to inform others in distant places of their political communication and organisation methods. Anti-capitalist groups from different regions were able to collaborate with the Zapatistas as solidarity groups. They created networks where they could publish about their protsests. This led to the Indymedia network (The Independent Media Centre) (Atton 2003).

Indymedia became prominent during the demonstrations in Seattle in the USA in 1999. On 30th November demonstrations took place against the World Trade Organization Summit meeting. As well as a physical presence in Seattle, the anti-capitalism movement had an effective online presence. Audio and video footage as well as written reports were distributed over the internet and across the world.

Hundreds of hours of audio and video footage and hundreds of thousands of eyewitness reports, analyses and commentary became available to activists, supporters, detractors—to ‘global citizens’ at large” (Atton 2003:7).

This is significant as this growing online communication is enabling people in different countries and continents to: interact, influence each other and make decisions together. Social Media allowed a diverse range of activists, groups and social movement organizations to loosely knit together and coalesce in coordinated actions against the WTO summit both offline, in the streets, as well as online (Laer & Van Aelst 2010).

For social networks like IndyMedia “amateur journalists…report from the ‘front line’, from the grassroots, from within the movements and communities they thus come to represent. At this more specific level of journalistic practice, the principles of self-management, organizational and ideological independence, and prefigurative politics are played out in what we can think of as ‘native reporting’” (Atton 2003:10). This has fundamentally changed the reach of movements. However, stated on the publish page on Indy Media’s website is ‘while we struggle to maintain the news wire as a completely open forum we do monitor it and remove posts’ (IndyMedia 2003).

Freedom of speech is a difficult right to take away. One issue with extended reach is that many ideological groups (anything from violent political organizations to teen annorexia support groups) all use these same social-networks. It is difficult to close down individual discussion groups and blogs. Shirky (2011) argues that there needs to be a virtual police presence to keep a virtual community safe. But, do we always agree with police decisions or can this disempower activists?

In autocratic states, facebook is banned. The Chinese can only use Qzone, Iranians can only use Cloob and Vietnamese can only use Zing. These sites are government monitored and domestically developed. This prevents them from growing into online centres of alternative political expression, here the governments use the internet to control stories (The Economist 2010). Access to information is far less important politically than access to conversation (Shirky 2011). “Periodic arrests of dissidents caught posting things they had believed to be anonymous help propagate a society-wide chilling effect on political discussion, and a sense that one is better off sticking to flirting… and other entertaining and risk-free online pursuits” (The Economist 2010:1). In the most extreme cases, the use of social media tools is a matter of life and death. Hossein Derakhshan from Iran has a propsed death sentence for his blogging (Shirky 2011). Online reach has limitations.


Movements make strategic use of social media for various counter-hegemonic purposes. This includes disrupting dominant discourses and identities, critiqing existing social and material conditions and articulating alternatives. Corporate control of public communication is short-circuited (Carroll and Hackett 2006).“By implication, power is no longer concentrated in a materially dominant class; it is dispersed across the diverse fields of the social”(Carroll and Hackett 2006:94).

Shirky (2008,2011) argues, alternate media networks and social media, outside the purview of governments and traditional media corporations, open new possibilities for opposition voices to be heard. It is widely agreed in the literature that under the old media model, news was typically produced, vetted and distributed by a single entity. The democratic deficits in a corporate dominant, highly commercialised media system include inequalities of access, representation and power. This system allows patterns of hierarchies and exclusion to be reinforced. For example, ‘free market’ policy institutes monitor media to prevent journalistic deviation from their neoliberal agenda. (Atton 2003, Carroll and Hackett 2006, Carroll and Ratner 1999, Nanabhay and Farmanfarmaian 2011). In the new information environment, these functions are being disaggregated. Existing regimes of power and knowledge can be disrupted, decentering the power of the previously powerful media in the public sphere (Atton 2003, Caroll & Hackett 2006, Carroll and Ratner 1999, IDS 2013, Nanabhay & Farmanfarmaian 2011, Van Laer & Van Aelst 2010).

Shirky (2008) argues that social media does increase the power of impassioned social movements because the voiceless can now participate in political discussion. Like Gleason (2013) and Skoric Ying and NG (2009), Shirky’s key point is that social media websites allow for impromptu organisations. These are harbingers of a future society that can self-organise without formal hierarchies. A wider group of people can now contribute to discussions. However this perspective is contested. Does simply enabling more people to connect and access information automatically make them zealous activists? Gladwell identifies a crucial distinction between the power of traditional activism to the power of social media. Gladwell contends online relationships have weak-ties. Effective and powerful social movements require strong-tie relationships meaning a high degree of personal connection to the movement in order to be resilient in the face of attack. While social media makes it easier for activists to express themselves and find like-minded people, “activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart” (Gladwell 2010:3). He concludes internet activists cannot transform society in the same way that a powerful movement like the US Civil Rights movements did. He concentrates on casual participants who seek social change through low-cost activities, such as joining a facebook campaign, that show no real-world action.

Shirky (2011) responded to Gladwell’s critique. “The critique is correct but not central to the question of social media’s power; the fact that barely committed actors cannot click their way to a better world does not mean that committed actors cannot use social media effectively” (Shirky 2011:1). He argues that social networks make it remarkably easier and cheaper to coordinate massive and rapid responses to arranged protests. Protest movements use social media as a way to coordinate real-world action not as a replacement for it. Shirky goes further, saying adopting these tools as a way to coordinate and document real-world action via mobile phones will be a part of all future political movements. For those citizens who are earnest for change, social media assists them. Gladwell’s (2011) response offers a significant consideration; Shirky has not proven that uprisings are impossible without social media. The power of social movements has not been fundamentally changed by social media, it is not essential.


Social media will not automatically make social movements more successful, power is fuelled by the dedication and commitment of the people involved, not by technology. Also, its important to remember that not all nations have the freedom to use social media, and some people do not have access to the internet. However, in democratic nations, social media has fundamentally changed the way protests, demonstrations and action can be organised and they way participants can engage.


Online journals


Atton, C. 2003. Reshaping Social Movement Media for a New Millennium. Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest. 2(1): 3-15


Carroll, W. and Hackett, R. 2006. Democratic media activism through the lens of social movement theory. Media Culture Society. 28(1): 83-104.


Carroll, K. and Ratner, S . 1999. Media Strategies and Political Projects: A Comparative Study of Social Movements. Canadian Journal of Sociology. 24(1): 1–34.


Gladwell, M. 2011. From Innovation to Revolution. Foreign affairs. Available at: Accessed 12.12.2013


Gleason,B. 2013. Occupy Wall Street: Exploring Informal Learning about a Social Movement on Twitter. American Behavioural Scientist 57(7):966-982


Nanabhay and Farmanfarmaian. 2011. From spectacle to spectacular: How physical space, social media and mainstream broadcast amplified the public sphere in Egypt’s ‘Revolution’. The Journal of North African Studies, 16:4, 573-603


Shirky,C. 2011. The political power of social media: Technology, the public sphere and political change. Foreign Affairs. Available at: Accessed 12.12.2013

Skoric, Ying & Ng. 2009. Bowling Online, Not Alone: Online Social Capital and Political Participation in Singapore. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 14:414-433.

Schneier, B. 2008. Book Review ‘Here Comes Everybody’. IEE Explore. Available online:

Accessed: 11.12.13


Van Laer, J & Van Aelst, J. 2010. Internet and Social Movement Action Repertoires. Information, Communication & Society, 13(8): 1146-1171


Shirky, C. 2008. Here comes everybody. The power of organizing without organizations. London: Penguin


Stevenson, N. and Webster, F., eds., 2001. Culture and politics in the information age: a new politics? London: Routledge.



IDS. 2013. Available at: Accessed11.12.13


IndyMedia. 2013. Available at: Accessed 11.12.13 The


Economist.2010. Available at: Accessed 11.12.13


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