This is the fifth in a seven-week series on Social justice and social media.
Fifty years after the March on Washington—perhaps the most praised gathering for social justice in US history—the New Media Project appropriately examines the relationship between social media and social justice: Can social media be reckoned and utilized, as Leo Mirani of The Guardian has suggested, as an “updated version of nailing your thesis to a church door”?
New York Times best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell has emphatically put us on notice: Social media cannot and will not contribute to transformative social activism. He laid out this controversial claim in a 2010 issue of The New Yorker. In “Small Change,” the author of The Tipping Point and Blink, argued that social media is not conducive to social justice or cultural transformation. Indeed, “Social media,” he writes, “makes it easier for activists to express themselves.” However, it also makes it “harder for that expression to have any impact.” Put simply, Facebook, Twitter, texting, and email, “are not natural enemy[ies] of the status quo,” they are, in fact, “well suited to making the existing social order more efficient,” but certainly not changing it.
Gladwell’s missive challenges the popular notion that “the new tools of social media have reinvented social activism” by drawing upon the history of the student sit-ins and church work in the Civil Rights Movement. “Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is,” all of which he recalls, “happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.” Such transformative social actions—the kind that profoundly challenge the racial, social, cultural, and economic status quo—require risky and sacrificial actions: high risk equals high reward.
On the other hand, social media activism “succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.” Social media activism “doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices.” Justice only requires that you Tweet and click.
The author sets forth two key distinctions between transformative activism and its online variant: weak tie vs. strong tie behaviors. Social media are built around weak ties. They allow us to follow, be followed, and stay abreast of acquaintances we have never met, rarely engage with, or otherwise would not keep in touch with. Such ties, however, rarely usher us towards social change. To be sure, such weak ties are useful as unprecedented access to information, innovation, commerce, and certain types of collaboration. However, social media tools do not motivate us toward solidarity of strategy and aims with our “friends” and “followers” nor do they motivate us to engage in high-risk activism on their behalf. Social media tools simply increase participation in social causes “by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.” Social media activism only requires the kind of commitment and connections that “will bring only social acknowledgment and praise.”
However, high-risk activism—the kind displayed by students and clergy such as John Lewis, Diane Nash, Fred Shuttlesworth, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, to name a few—is a “strong-tie phenomenon.” Activists risked their lives and livelihood because they had deep personal connections (strong ties) to a specific cause(s) and had family, friends, and loved ones who were directly involved and/or affected by particular social injustice. Strong-tie connections enable activists to endure and persevere in the midst of perilous times. Such ties led them to challenge outright the status quo of racial discrimination in voting and segregated lunch counters. They needed strong personal ties, strategy, and consensus for such momentous tasks; something online social media rarely provides.
Gladwell concludes, “If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges,” the weak tie activism of social media “should not trouble you.” However, if you think there are “lunch counters” in the world that still embody the injustices of the status quo, the popular turn to social media as the new form of activism “ought to give you pause.”
Is Gladwell correct? Did not the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street (OWS) show the error of his way? A recent Indiana University study of Twitter and the OWS movement suggests that his strong-tie thesis is spot on. The study found “that, on Twitter, the Occupy movement tended to elicit participation from a set of highly interconnected users with pre-existing interests in domestic politics and foreign social movements.” Social media simply helped organized persons with pre-existing strong ties.
Gladwell’s critics, of course, are legion. However, his polemic does bring to light two important aspects of social media and social activism. First, we should not be so quick to divide our lives in two airtight compartments: online and offline. Strong-tie relationships are not isolated or exclusive to offline experience. Often, online activity is simply an extension of our offline lives. Kathryn Reklis has persuasively argued on this blog and in her essay (watch the video summary) the deep connections between the two spheres. Indeed, social media are often a part of our strong-tie relationships, allowing us to communicate quickly and efficiently with our strong-tie connections in the same manner the telephone was for the civil rights workers that Gladwell rightly praises. Second, we must be wary of the wonder of technology. The broad and real-time presence of social media has a tendency to draw our attention to the medium, not the message. Means become more prominent than ends. What was Tweeted or posted draws attention to itself as opposed to the ends that are sought.
In the end, social media should not be championed as ushering in a new paradigm of protests nor demonized as the bane of activism or the nadir of a golden age of activism. Rather, social media—like pen and paper, the printing press, phonograph, radio, telephone, and the Internet—should be reckoned as tools. How we utilize them is, in the end, the real question.
Lerone A. Martin, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is a 2013-2014 Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Washington University in Saint Louis Danforth Center for Religion and Politics.
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