Capabilities of Movements and Affordances of Digital Media: Paradoxes of Empowerment

Capabilities of Movements and Affordances of Digital Media: Paradoxes of Empowerment Blog Image

From the “Indignados” in Spain, to “Occupy” in the United States, from Tahrir Square in Egypt to Syntagma Square in Greece, from Gezi Park in Turkey to #Euromaidan in Ukraine, the recent years have witnessed a proliferation of protests which, while embedded in differing circumstances and specific grievances, share multiple characteristics. Social media, an integral aspect of all these movements, is not a mere “tool” that is external to the organizational and cultural structure of these movements. Instead, it has become increasingly clear that communication is a form of organization, and the form of communication strongly interacts with the form of organization. Digital media come with a particular set of affordances, practices they allow and make easy, which translate into specific capabilities of the collective and individual actors that use them. Here, “capabilities” is used in the sense developed by Amartya Sen, as the set of functionalities a given actor can undertake. The capabilities afforded to social movements by new technologies both condition and are conditioned by the specificities of political mobilizations.

Forefronting affordances and capabilities, instead of focusing on platforms or tools, allow for analytic depth without getting tangled in the specifics of the technology. Paradoxically, it’s possible that the widespread use of digital tools facilitates capabilities in some domains, such as organization, logistics, and publicity, while simultaneously engendering hindrances to movement impacts on other domains, including those related to policy and electoral spheres.

2011-2013: Occupations, Mobilizations and Revolutions
These protests of 2011-2013 surprised most observers, arising suddenly and often surpassing expectations with regard to longevity, energy, and participation. Not primarily organized by traditional actors like political parties, trade unions, or established NGOs, they involved prolonged occupations of public spaces with attempts to establish “alternative” living spaces. These occupations were more than mere instrumental steps and often became integral to the identity of the protests. None of these mobilizations had recognizable leaders or established spokespersons. Rotating, flexible, ad hoc structures arose in response to perceived needs of the protests and took up functional roles which ebbed and flowed with the mobilization.

Surveys and interviews revealed that the protesters were frustrated with, and expected little from, traditional institutions of civic engagement, political parties, unions, and other organizations; remained suspicious of delegation, authority, and representation; and were disdainful of mass media, which they saw as shutting out their concerns. Testifying to the centrality of social media to their identity, the method by which a Twitter user can tag her tweets as relating to an event or a subject, the hashtag, often became the identifying label of the protests themselves. These tags include #ows, #euromaidan, #direngezi, #jan25, #m15, and #syntagma.

These mobilizations also displayed a propensity to “fizzle out,” at least in the short term, in a manner disproportionate to their size, energy, and enthusiasm when viewed through the lens of policy impact. After a stint by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose traditional electoral organization trumped the more secular activists whose social-media amplified voices were the face of the Egyptian uprising for Western audiences, Egypt became ruled now by the military, whose guns in turn trumped the electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) government in Turkey appears poised to win reelection strongly with little to no noticeable impact from the Gezi protests. European austerity policies, the subjects of huge multi-country protests, continue unabated.

Of course, the longer-term impacts of these mobilizations remain to be seen, and are already suggested in multiple ways. The election of Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran, and his turn to softer policies compared to his predecessor, coupled with a forceful foray into social media that included a “”-style music video celebrating Iran’s diversity of beliefs, can likely be partly attributed to the “Green Revolution.” Similarly, we witnessed a rise in discussions on inequality in the U.S. public sphere, likely due partially to the Occupy movement. It’s also possible that these movements will have significant “biographical impacts” as their mode of existence, including sustained occupations, may well prove transformational for some segment of the participants. This essay is not meant to dismiss these movements as “unimpactful” but rather to examine the seeming lack of connection between their size, energy, and scope to traditional measures of movement success such as policy or electoral outcomes. For that, I turn to an examination of the particular organizational and cultural aspects of these movements as embedded in and enabled by social media.

Social Media Fabric of Modern Mobilizations: Communication As Organization
Going back to the anti-electoral fraud protests of 2009 in Iran, which gave rise to #iranelections and the first solid demonstration of social media’s central role in modern protest mobilization, it appears that social media has fulfilled some of the early predictions of its potential to transform the dynamics of mobilization. Protesters in various movements have successfully used social media for organization, coordination, mobilization, and logistics, shaping their own narrative, broadcasting to large publics, fostering internal dialogue, bridging to external audiences, and building both cultural as well as ideological formations.

Social media affordances have altered which capabilities underlie the ability to mount popular mobilizations. For example, in the past, the capability to organize a large-scale march on Washington, or a bus boycott in Montgomery, required extensive organization, coordinating everything from car pools to laboriously publishing pamphlets to setting up many meetings that in turn determine organizational and logistical issues. Similarly, battling for visibility through broadcast media often required investing in institutions that became familiar with the workings of media and power.

In contrast, modern mobilizations often turn to social media for coordination, logistics, publicity and more. For example, four young people in their early twenties, with no military or logistics training, coordinated the setup of ten sizable field hospitals during the deadly, massive clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt in 2011 using Twitter, spreadsheets and documents on the Internet (through Google Docs), along with cell phones to keep in touch with multiple points (Bear in mind that dozens of people were killed and thousands were treated at these field hospitals staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses, so this was not a minor operation to organize or supply). During the initial uprising of January/February 2011, Egyptian activists befuddled all censorship attempts and managed to get their own attractive narrative out to international media. Gezi protesters in Istanbul used social media to coordinate logistics for their spontaneous, massive gathering which, at some points, involved multi-day clashes with the police, and was partially accomplished by otherwise inexperienced, novice protesters who were also able to overcome the censorship of the pliant Turkish broadcast media. There are countless examples of how social media allows mobilizations to carry out fairly impressive feats with little prior infrastructure.

However, this lowering of coordination costs, a fact generally considered to empower protest mobilizations, may have the seemingly paradoxical effect of contributing to political weakness in the latter stages, by allowing movements to grow without building needed structures and strengths, including capacities for negotiation, representation, and mobilization. Movements may grow quickly beyond their developed organizational capacity, a weakness that becomes critical as soon as a form of action other than street protests or occupation of a public space becomes relevant.

In particular, the new capabilities and affordances emerging from social media also allow these movements to sidestep thorny issues regarding representation and delegation which are often rooted in specific cultural and political trajectories. While deep suspicion of leaders, institutions, and representation is not novel to recent social media-fueled movements, it has become easier for movements to avoid leaders and most mechanisms of delegation as social media makes it easier for “ad hoc” coordination, sometimes called an “adhocracy,” to undertake many details of mobilization. This argument is not merely about technical affordances, but about the interaction of socio-technical capabilities with cultural and political dispositions, such as those growing out of the anti-authoritarian, cultural, and personal turn in social movements, which often predate digital media.

In the past, organizing a large march or other collective action required extensive institutional and logistical capabilities. If the movement didn’t have them already, they had to be built, in the process also engendering social capital within the movement. These capabilities then remained as “sediments” even after the specific action was past. Now, using the powerful affordances of social media can short-circuit or alter the substance of those steps, facilitating organizational forms that dissipate as quickly as they were formed, leaving little to no such sediment behind.

I refer to gains from network-building as network internalities, defined as social capital and other benefits which accrue from the process of building a network or an institution, above and beyond the instrumental uses of the resulting network or the institution. Network- and institution-building with and without using online tools create different sets of such internalities. The mobilizations in the past few years demonstrate that while social media-supported networks support impressive “instrumental” capacities in some domains, their network internalities are not necessarily suited to certain types of engagement, especially in the electoral and policy arenas.

For example, in Gezi Park protests, social media helped the protesters organize a multi-week, spontaneous, contentious occupation which involved tasks ranging from the mundane issues of keeping tens of thousands of people fed, clean, and safe to the more contentious problem of defending the park against repeated policing interventions, all without formally delegating authority or establishing a decision-making structure. However, after weeks into the occupation, when the government made a move to negotiate with Gezi Park protesters, it was unclear who, if anyone, had representational capacity. Though the prime minister of Turkey held a meeting with some of the protesters, none of the participants were authorized by the movement in any formal sense. The “Park” had no clear mechanism for making a decision, let alone negotiating a proposal. The government’s proposals were discussed in day-long meetings first held in small groups and later in a united forum that ended without clarity. While some protesters wanted to reduce the occupation to a symbolic one, in effect to call it a victory and go home, others expressed dissent and did not want to abandon the park. As the movement dithered, the government moved in with a massive police presence and razed the occupation. With no organization left as “sediment” from Gezi, the ruling party in Turkey, AKP, looks unlikely to face a significant electoral challenge solely from the Gezi constituency later in 2014.

In some ways, this can be analogized to a mountaineering expedition that employs Sherpas to carry its gear to base camp at Everest, and thus arrives relatively quickly and easily. However, climbing Everest still requires high-altitude mountaineering skills and acclimatization, and making the attempt easier in the beginning does not necessarily make one more likely to complete the trip to the summit which requires capacities that cannot be provided from external sources. Social media’s superior capacity to achieve certain goals without a similar level of effort impedes the development of capabilities that would otherwise be indispensable to overcome logistical difficulties and publicity barriers, and are of crucial importance to mobilizations in multiple domains over and above those for which they were initially developed.

As the classic relationship between large-scale mobilizations and capabilities has weakened, the “signaling” power of street protests has arguably waned. When faced with the 2003 anti-war protests, George W. Bush famously asked why he should treat the millions people in the streets around the country, and indeed around the world, as any different from a “focus group.” At the time, his comment was seen as disdainful of the right to protest. However, his administration won another term even though the post-war occupation of Iraq wasn’t going smoothly. The political authority took a bet that the anti-war mobilization, while massive, did not necessarily signal capability for electoral threat the way an earlier protest march of the same size may have.

In fact, as authorities adapt to digital capabilities, some earlier examples of digitally-enabled protests that brought about success may not be repeatable. During the Internet regulation related SOPA/PIPA protests, in which large Internet platforms such as Google, Tumblr, Wikipedia, and others joined forces, many Congressional representatives quickly changed their stance upon receiving tens of thousands of phone calls in one day. However, those calls were facilitated almost entirely by giant Internet platforms. Upon logging on to Tumblr or Google, the user was given an option – indeed urged – to connect to their representatives’ switchboard through their computer with a mere click. Congressional representatives were flooded with calls at an atypically high volume, and quickly reacted. Ordinarily, large numbers of phone calls signal voter discontent that may turn into a primary challenge or an electoral loss. It’s not clear that calls that are facilitated by Internet dominant gatekeepers signal the same electoral threat that earlier phone calls and how lawmakers will interpret such signals in the future.

This is not to say that there’s an absence of potentially very significant impacts on political mobilization from digital tools. The rise of online symbolic action – clicking on “Like” or tweeting about a political subject – though long derided as “slacktivism,” may well turn out to be one of the more potent impacts from digital tools in the long run, as widespread use of such semi-public symbolic micro-actions can slowly reshape how people make sense of their values and their politics. Digital tools greatly promote homophily, and thus, potentially, movement formation, by allowing similar-minded people to find and draw strength from each other. These tools also greatly complicate ruling by censorship and also challenge pluralistic ignorance – a situation in which people falsely believe that their privately-held beliefs are in the minority when, in fact, they are not.

Ironically, the area in which digital tools have brought about the most visible successes, large-scale street mobilizations and occupations, may be the one facet in which their enhanced capabilities engender – or further – dynamics that may impede policy impact, such as making it easy to mobilize for a protest without building the infrastructure that allows for successfully negotiating what comes after the street mobilization wanes.

Banner image credit: Odysseas Gp