Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Social media speak to power



On Kings Highway in Cherry Hill, Unitarian Universalist Church members stand in solidarity with Ferguson residents protesting the grand jury finding in Michael Brown's death. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)


'Nothing should be normal or everyday about accepting all this," says Ferguson, Mo., Democratic committeewoman Patricia Bynes. "Social media has helped ensure the images and agony stay fresh in people's minds."

Ferguson stays fresh. On Sunday, members of the St. Louis Rams did a pregame salute in protest of what they saw as police violence in the fatal Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown. That angered the St. Louis Police Association, which called on the National Football League to punish the players. The league declined.

On Monday, demonstrations around the nation - including at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania - organized around the #HandsUpWalkout hashtag. Protesters left schools or workplaces in solidarity with Brown, at the time of day of his shooting, 12:01 p.m. Central time, or 1:01 p.m. Eastern time. Rallies briefly clogged Market Street near the universities. T. Stokes of Philadelphia tweeted: "You know it's real when there's a police helicopter flying above your protest."

The year 2014 has been the year of social media as social protest. Again and again, people have used Twitter hashtags, Facebook posts, Vine videos, Instagram photos, and messages on WhatsApp, WeChat, and many other media to support and organize rallies, often on behalf of marginalized or mistreated groups. Racial injustice has been the issue in Jacksonville, Fla., (in the Michael Dunn trial) and Ferguson. It was gender-related violence in the Ray Rice controversy and the Isla Vista, Calif., shootings.

Worldwide, Muslims resurrected the venerable #NotInMyName hashtag to protest Islamist extremism. Demonstrators in Mexico and China use social media to organize and campaign. And all over the world, video game players joined in the #GamerGate controversy.

So, no question, this is happening. But bigger questions loom.

Charles Gallagher, chair of the sociology, social work, and criminal justice department at La Salle University, asks: "What kind of legs do social media protests have? Do they change anything? Or is it all just 'slacktivism,' the lazy, next-to-useless click-and-take-credit social in-activism of the 2010s? No large-scale studies as yet can answer that question."

It's worth noting, though, that the Oxford English Dictionary welcomed slacktivism into its pages this year. It's a thing.

It's certainly a thing in China and Mexico, with massive, long-term protests honed and organized by social media.
The "Umbrella Movement" in Hong Kong was fanned by a viral image of a man waving off tear gas with his umbrella during a Sept. 29 protest, largely of students, against mainland control over local elections. "It wouldn't have had that name without social media," says James Carter, professor of history at St. Joseph's University. Within days, a statue of "Umbrella Man" had gone up as a symbol of protest. Carter says that hashtags such as #umhk "helped unify diverse protest groups under this one" - pun intended - "umbrella term." The protest is now into December, with government troops closing public squares and arresting demonstrators.

In 1989 in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, Carter recalls, "it was the 'cutting-edge' fax machine that got the story to the outside world. That's dwarfed by the number of ways you can do that now. The government knows the world is watching." Authorities tried to throttle Twitter and the "Chinese Facebook," Weibo, but "the protesters are media-savvy, having grown up with social media and smartphones," Carter says. They did ends-around on censorship, turning to one-to-one media such as WhatsApp and WeChat to warn of crackdowns, organize meetings, and get out the story.

In Spanish, the phrase ya me cansé means "I've had enough" or "I'm tired of this now." In the wake of the horrible Sept. 26 disappearance of 43 students during a demonstration in Iguala, Mexico, allegations arose that the town's mayor was in league with local narco-terrorists. The students have not been found, and national outrage exploded, over both their disappearance and the larger issue of the paralyzing, savage lawlessness in Mexico.
"These larger issues are systemic in Mexico," says Mark Lashley, professor of communication, who studies social media at La Salle University. "It's fascinating to see its expression on social media there."

After a long and bitter news conference on Nov. 7, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam said, "Ya me cansé" and tried to leave. Those words soon were shoved down his throat via the Twitter hashtag #yamecanse. According to tracking site Topsey, it was used more than 3.6 million times in November. "That phrase," Lashley says, "was tailor-made for a social-media backlash. This is a substantial movement poised to continue, and you're seeing lots of creative uses of the hashtag, both in the demonstrations themselves" - in which protestors sometimes lie down and pretend to sleep or be tired - and in YouTube videos and editorial cartoons, taking government down a notch and allowing social media to work as the people's voice.

The door of the National Palace on the Zócalo in Mexico City was set ablaze. On Nov. 20, tens of thousands marched down the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City and gathered in the Zócalo. Sympathy protests arose in New York; Geneva, Switzerland; and Cologne, Germany.

So - do such media-driven protests "work"? It can be very hard to tell. In Jacksonville, Michael Dunn, who fired a gun into a van and killed a black man, was sentenced to life without parole on Oct. 17. In Ferguson, Officer Darren Wilson, who shot Michael Brown, was not indicted, but he now says he is leaving the police force. On Monday, the White House published a report and guidelines on "Strengthening Community Policing." On the other hand, the Chinese protest seems as if it's being scuttled. And there have been arrests in Mexico - but not of those being accused.


So the question remains: When is social-media protest just slacktivism, and when is it something more? And how do we know when it's working?

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