Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.
Dr. Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
How many likes does it take to change the world?
For years, there has been ongoing debate as to whether “slacktivism” is helpful, or even perhaps harmful in the attempt to effect meaningful change. “Slacktivism” is defined by the Urban Dictionary as “The self-deluded idea that by liking, sharing, or retweeting something, you are helping out.”
Prior to the pandemic, it was widely felt that signing online petitions, forwarding emotionally charged information, and “raising consciousness” about injustice, conspiracies, and human crises were mostly ineffective actions. They could succeed somewhat in starting conversations, but without any real, physical follow-through, they were impotent. It was even argued that such actions reinforced complacency.
A June 2018 study conducted by Pew Research, found that the majority of Americans believed that activist websites were very or somewhat important for accomplishing a range of political goals, such as getting politicians to pay attention to issues (69% of Americans felt these platforms are important for this purpose) or creating sustained movements for social change (67%).
But a larger percentage of respondents said they believed social networking sites distract people from issues that are truly important, and 71% agreed with the assertion that “social media makes people believe they’re making a difference when they really aren’t.”
But that was before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. And that was before a deadly global pandemic locked us down, turning the way we interact with one another completely upside down for the foreseeable future.
Clearly, the wave of rebellion against the intrinsic injustices and danger to our democracy being flaunted in the current status quo are not going to wait for the COVID-19 “all clear.”
But the role of virtual organizing and activism is a mixed bag, as this Aug. 3 article in the New Yorker by Jane Hu notes –
The struggle in the public square has unfolded alongside a takeover of the virtual one. Amid cell-phone footage of protests and toppling statues, the Internet has been further inundated with what we might call activist media. Screenshots of bail-fund donations urging others to match continue to proliferate.
Protest guides, generated from years of on-the-ground activist experience, are readily shared over Twitter and Instagram, telling readers how to blur faces in photographs or aid in de-arrests. There are e-mail and phone-call templates, pre-scripted and mass-circulated.
Webinars about police abolition now constitute their own subgenre…
In “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest,” from 2017, the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci examined how a “digitally networked public sphere” had come to shape social movements…
Whereas “older movements had to build their organizing capacity first,” Tufekci argued, “modern networked movements can scale up quickly and take care of all sorts of logistical tasks without building any substantial organizational capacity before the first protest or march.”
The speed afforded by such protest is, however, as much its peril as its promise. After a swift expansion, spontaneous movements are often prone to what Tufekci calls “tactical freezes.”
Because they are often leaderless, and can lack “both the culture and the infrastructure for making collective decisions,” they are left with little room to adjust strategies or negotiate demands.
At a more fundamental level, social media’s corporate infrastructure makes such movements vulnerable to coöptation and censorship.
Since “Twitter and Tear Gas,” the issues demanding our attention have become more urgent, or at least more visible. Add to that the pressures of distancing during the pandemic, and you get a spike in people turning to social media as a way to vent, organize, and inform regarding social issues like Black Lives Matter, eviction relief, police brutality, the repression of freedom of speech, and so on.
In this transformed world, these online actions have led to actual feet on the ground, bodies marching, voices speaking up in town halls and city councils, and other visible responses in the physical world.
But as the article goes on to warn:
As networked protest grows in scale and popularity, it still risks being hijacked by the mainstream. Any urgent circulation of information—the same memes filtering through your Instagram stories, the same looping images retweeted into your timeline—can be numbing, and any shift in the Overton window means that hegemony drifts with it…
The meme-ification of Breonna Taylor’s death—in which calls to arrest her killers are prefaced by mundane observations about, say, the weather—may be the most depressing example yet of how social media can trivialize a movement.
Let us beware of shrugging off such trivializations as an innocent byproduct of how the Internet works. There are armies of media savvy influencers who are using very sophisticated tools to manipulate our legitimate cries for justice into misconstrued, incorrect, and even malignant noise.
Russian troll factories come to mind.
Not to mention this exposé in The Guardian by Carole Cadwalladr: If You’re Not Terrified About Facebook, You Haven’t Been Paying Attention.
Timothy Snyder suggests that “protest can be organized through social media, but nothing is real that does not end on the streets.”
The breathtakingly harsh crackdown in Portland by anonymous, military-style commandos illustrates how true this is. America’s would-be tyrant in training showed his hand with his angry, zero tolerance response. His hatred for the images of people protesting was proof that he was well aware of the power of optics.
As Snyder explains, “If tyrants feel no consequences for their actions in the three-dimensional world, nothing will change.”
Our social media indignation can keep us clicking all day long, but until there are actual human beings working together in physical space, it can all be swept under the rug, or ignored as “fake news.”
The occupant of the White House’s violent response to Portland betrays just how vulnerable and dangerous he is.
Gather With People Outside Your Echo Chamber
One of the problems I see with social media is how easy it is to create a reinforcing circle of people who think just like one does. All those “likes.” They feel good don’t they? We even know that they trigger a dopamine response in the brain, which is an extremely addictive high.
And when we mix this with our concern for social and political causes? Well, we really want those likes, and so we filter disagreement, and can easily create a false bubble. Worst of all, this reinforces the whole “us and them” mentality which is, in my view, the metastatic attitude threatening civilization at every level.
In Lesson 13, Snyder offers a point-by-point analysis of the successful resistance to communism that was the Polish Solidarity labor movement. After several failed attempts by various groups to loosen the authoritarian grip of the Communist Party, Solidarity was formed by the joining together of previously antagonistic groups – workers, intellectuals, people from the Right and the Left, believers and atheists.
After many years of being goaded and divided by their oppressors, they finally learned to trust each other. Instead of arguing and disagreeing with one another, they banded together, and for sixteen heady months, they had a free labor union and government guarantees to observe human rights.
“Ten million people joined,” Snyder writes, “and countless new friendships were created amid strikes, marches, and demonstrations.” Although the Soviet government finally imposed martial law in 1981 and shut them down, eight years later, “when they needed negotiating partners, the communists had to turn to Solidarity.. This was the beginning of the end of communism in Poland, eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union.”
Together We Stand, Divided We Fall
Snyder asserts that for a people to successfully resist the grip of tyranny, two things must happen.
“First, ideas about change must engage people of various backgrounds who do not agree about everything.”
For instance, like me, you might be disappointed that Bernie Sanders is not going to be the nominee of the Democratic Party. But those who respond by refusing to engage or support the democratically elected candidate are undermining the integrity of our own process, and doing a great favor for the opposition. Boycotting because of the presumptive candidate’s imperfection is a fatal error that plays perfectly into the hands of a very disciplined, united opposition.
Second, “People must find themselves in places that are not their homes, and among groups who were not previously their friends.” Get out of your comfort zone. Meet people who don’t look like you, think like you, have your income bracket, your beliefs, or background.
Expand your circle to be more inclusive, more tolerant, and therefore more empowered.
To be divided is to invite defeat. And no one knows this better than a tyrant who delights in sowing division, inflaming fear and prejudice, and flaunting his cruelty.
Make new friends. Find ways to bring disparate people together. And then show up in whatever ways you can.
Everything is on the line.
Here are the links from my previous posts:
Introduction to Freedom Fridays
Freedom Fridays, Lesson One: Do Not Obey In Advance
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Two: Defend Institutions
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Three: Beware the One-Party State
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Four: Take Responsibility for the Face of the World
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Five: Remember Professional Ethics
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Six: Be Wary of Paramilitaries
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 7: Be Reflective If You Must Be Armed
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 8: Stand Out
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 9: Be Kind to Our Language
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 10: Believe in Truth
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 11: Investigate
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 12: Make Eye Contact and Small Talk