Photo credit: metamorworks/Shutterstock.com
Nowadays, I try not to watch the cable news shows. There are other ways to get information about the demonstrations engulfing the United States, and my neighborhood in Manhattan, following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. I text friends in the community for updates and pictures, and when I want news in real-time, I turn to Twitter. There, instead of a video loop showing the same scenes on repeat, I can see activist New York the way I know it: as a block-by-block affair, where the pattern of a night’s protests unfolds as a series of planned and unplanned moves, documented by participants.
Twitter, in particular, has a crucial role in organizing both non-violent and violent activism this week. Rightly reviled as a sewer of disinformation and trolling, Twitter is also a terrific news source during a protest because activists are often using it as an open channel to organize and give each other vital information as they need it.
One of my favorite accounts is @protest_nyc, run by a group of anonymous independent journalists. It notifies subscribers where the day’s events will launch from, and when. It pipes vital intelligence pulled from police scanners and collaborators around the city to the different sites of protest: Marchers can prepare for the number of police who will arrive, how they will be armed, and whether a planned route is sealed off. It reminds people to bring water, what the weather will be, and when public transportation is shutting down.
As a political junkie, Twitter satisfies my news-hound instinct for evidence and detail as a story unfolds. As a historian, I appreciate it as an archive, not just of events, but how activists feel about what they are doing as they are doing it. As one example, the tweets from Tahrir Square in Cairo made it possible to write the first, quick history of the Egyptian revolution in 2010. And teenage Syrian American internet activist Ala’a Basatneh (otherwise known as #chicagogirl), who ran a network of independent journalists in Syria after 2011, created valuable documentation of a conflict that major news organizations would not, or could not, cover.
Of course, the use of technology by activists long pre-dates the internet. The Paris Commune of 1871 used carrier pigeons to communicate with allies beyond the barricades. Black-owned radio stations were crucial players in disseminating information about civil rights protests in the 1950s and 1960s. When cheap, pocket-sized transistor radios came on the market in 1954, it became possible to broadcast throughout a march, relaying information and warnings to protesters reported by scouts using public telephones. In the 1970s, Weatherman used walkie-talkies when moving groups of people to new safe houses.
But the social media apps released to the public in 2005–6, and the 2007 iPhone that made them ubiquitous and infinitely portable created something new: the capacity for activists — as well as their opponents, critics, and supporters — to broadcast, comment on, document, and archive the protest.
The downside of social media as a tool for protesters has also become graphic this week, as vandals and looters, using the same open channels, have followed in the wake of peaceful marches. These bad actors can not only use the protests for cover, but news about violence affects the narrative of peaceful dissent that activists are working hard to craft. The tears of small business owners surveying their wrecked stores distract from the fact that it is primarily black people who are the victims of violence; that the police, not mobs, are the agents of harm. Videos documenting looting, or young people intentionally attacking police (and being beaten in response), are often posted to discredit all activists’ motivations.
However, internet activists connect over social media at the cost of making their intentions known to bad actors, police, people who do not share their values, and saboteurs. Those who seek to undo a progressive movement can map targets in these swift-moving protests by following Twitter and Facebook accounts. We already have one report from CBS that a fake “Antifa” account that urged protesters to loot originated with the white supremacist group Evropa. And there seem to be numerous fake rumors and manufactured videos emanating from accounts, claiming that they are run by #BLM activists, on TikTok and Twitter. And social media also makes it possible for the police to surveil protesters in real-time, in granular detail. As WIRED magazine warns, posting photographs to social media also becomes potential evidence for aggressive prosecutors.
And yet, for many activists, mobile devices and apps signal a connection to modern liberation movements. Back in 2011, social media seemed to indicate precisely that. In the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring,” Alec Ross, a senior advisor to Hillary Clinton, told the Guardian that dictatorships were “now more vulnerable than ever” because Facebook and Twitter could organize dissenters, so efficiently.” The internet, he enthused, had become “the Che Guevara of the twenty-first century.”
Not so fast. Notably, while all of the uprisings associated with internet organizing in the last decade succeeded in grabbing world attention for pro-democracy movements, none have succeeded in establishing democratic governance. Brazil and Turkey are more autocratic than they were ten years ago; arguably, so is the United States. Media scholars like Zeynep Tufekci have pointed out that, useful as they were for establishing, maintaining, and mobilizing international networks of support for pro-democracy movements, technology makes activists more vulnerable to surveillance and disinformation.
The United States has followed a similar arc. The techno-utopian possibilities imagined by early internet activists have evolved into a more complex and often disappointing reality: Elections, not activism, continue to shape the contours of the political landscape. While the conservative Tea Party movement quickly shifted its internet activism into the electoral arena in 2008, progressive insurgencies like #OccupyWallStreet, in 2011, and #BlackLivesMatter in 2013, have remained oriented to the grassroots. Neither movement was a failure: They changed the conversation about class and racial inequality. They drew on pre-existing activist networks and community groups to produce vivid, multi-day demonstrations that attracted media attention to the systemic failure of capitalism. They trained cadres of activists on the ground who have since gone on to politics, academia, and the non-profit world — and also, of course, back onto the streets in the past week.
As my colleague Deva Woodly observes in this issue of Public Seminar, such mobilizations play a crucial role in democracy by helping us imagine new policies, “a specific and essential political tactic that can change the way people understand reality.” The Movement for Black Lives has also won the hearts of world leaders. On May 31, Pope Francis called on American Catholics to face anti-black violence as a humanitarian commitment. “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form,” he warned, “and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”
But, as the recent murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, killed in her own home by the Louisville, KY, police, show, changing the narrative has not yet moved the needle on social justice or police reform enough.
One obvious, and the true, answer is the stubborn persistence of white supremacy at all levels of government and society in the United States. But internet activism also has a critical weakness, one that seems relevant in the coming days: Its accompanying ethic of horizontal decision-making and anonymity, a longstanding value of electronic democracy movement. A powerful way to make demands, paradoxically these practices can be ill-suited to the forms of negotiation and agreement that transform structures and consolidate victories because there is often no identifiable person or leadership group for a government to negotiate with.
Elections, even if they have failed us repeatedly, still matter. As Barack Obama pointed out in a June 3 speech streamed on the internet, the gap between pressuring politicians for concessions by putting people in the streets and creating structural change by changing politicians needs to be bridged too.
There is no question in my mind that in New York, at least, the protesters have won: They have brought a global city to a standstill and almost pushed a pandemic off the front page. Social media has been a powerful tool in accomplishing this. But if, as Woodly notes, the demands that are to be satisfied are structural ones, these are tasks that also require new politicians who see the world as anti-racist activists do.
“It is mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police units, and that determines police practices in local communities,” Obama said to activists last night. “It’s district attorneys and state’s attorneys that decide typically whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct. Those are all positions. In some places, they’re police community review boards with the power to monitor police conduct. Those oftentimes may be elected as well.”
Social media is well known for galvanizing and sustaining protests, and horizontal organizing does indeed change the narrative, revealing what our world could look like without white supremacy. But it is people who have to accomplish this — yes, in the streets, but crucially this year, also at the ballot box. And right now, even before the protests end, we must support the protesters by re-engaging with formal politics so that direct action can drive the wholesale structural changes that anti-racism requires.
— June 3, 2020
Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar, Professor of History at The New School for Social Research, and author of Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical.