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The Role of the Internet in Social Movements
Copyright 2011 @ Cyber-Conscious Revolution Publishing LLC – Los Angeles, CA
In 2001 in the Philippines a group of demonstrators raised a movement against a corrupt government. Armed not with guns, but early cell phones with coded text messaging. Waging a “cyber” battle through mobile phones and other forms of electronic media, demonstrators organized a protest in Manila that exceeded a million people in 2001, shortly before the military abruptly withdrew its support from the regime, and then President Joseph Estrada was officially removed from power.
This event became known as the People Power II protests and it became a sequel to People Power I. It was remembered as the civil uprising that ousted then dictator Ferdinand Marcos nearly 15 years ago. This was – according to an article in the Philippine Post – “the only instance in history where a head of state duly elected by an overwhelming mandate was forced to give up his presidency without a coup d ‘etat being stated, without a revolution being waged, without a shot being fired or without a drop of blood shed.” (Philippine Post Magazine. 2001).
Original photographer: M.a.c.a.r.o.n.i.
This also demonstrates some of the early and revolutionary uses of the Internet as a social networking tool. The power of the Internet as a networking tool can be immense.
The Arab Spring in 2010 onward gained great visibility across the world, despite the attempts of repressive governments to restrict and at times completely shut down the Internet. Some of the successful regime changes like that seen in Tunisia owes much international attention and support to the presence of people linked in coordinated effort by the power of “live” video and wireless Internet, now coupled with the global reach of social media. Citizens became citizen journalists, empowered by live video – mobile, and online, blurring the traditional boundaries between producer and consumer of journalistic content.
Media consumers were turning into producers.
This rising phenomenon led author Howard Rheingold as far back as 2002 to dub the term “mobile ad hoc social network”, and to refer to the Internet as a “human cooperation amplifier” (Howard Rheingold, “Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution”, 2002). He further commented, and this goes far back to 1993 in his book, “Virtual Community” where he’s quoted: “The fact that we need computer networks to recapture the sense of cooperative spirit that so many people seemed to lose when we gained all this technology is a painful irony.” (H. Rheingold, Virtual Community, 1993).
Rheingold wrote, “they [mobile ad hoc networks] enable people to act together in new ways and in situations where collective action was not possible before”. Think of the not so far in the past campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump here as prime examples of campaigns that defied all expectations in the end, in no small part due to the reach and interactivity of social media.
“The Snapchat filters in the lead-up to Iowa were also a major moment for the campaign.”~Fast Company on Bernie Sander’s the Iowa campaign in January 2016.
A Snapchat geofilter ad for Bernie Sanders PHOTO: SNAPCHAT
Perhaps too; this new medium – the Internet and the many online communities – think Facebook, and now Snapchat – it has spawned) on some level arises from and satisfies the innate desire human beings seem to possess – to form alliances, to feel a sense of community, to unite towards similar visions.
Wireless and mobile Internet has led to the emergence of the “ad hoc mobile network”. These networks have sometimes staged spectacular mobilizations on the city streets, using the power of instant “live” communication as a tactical management tool. Backtrack to 1998: Rheingold describes the scene that took place in downtown Seattle as the much anticipated World Trade Organization (WTO) summit talks began:
The “Battle of Seattle” by all accounts was a battle waged “in cyberspace”. Back then we had email, Internet Relay Chats (IRCs), and AOL Instant Messenger. Facebook was not even around the corner. You might be surprised how powerfully emails or instant messaging alone can be in mobilizing quick action even on a large scale.
It is here in 1998 that mobile and wireless Internet was used in a most innovative manner. The “swarming” tactics they used deserves extra detail. Because Youtube and smartphones weren’t yet available, citizen journalists had to rely on webcams for “live” video. The organizers coordinated the mobilization on the city streets so the protesters in groups could gather in formation when the situation was called for, to disperse when necessary, and to move tactically by moment-to-moment notice to evade the efforts of police to disperse them. To place this in historical context, note that this took place 7 years before Youtube first appeared.
The aim of the protesters was to shut down the WTO trade talks and to prevent a clear resolution from being forged among the assembled delegates that represented the nations involved. The WTO meeting broke down, partly because of the controversy it found itself mired in during the last days of the trade talks. Now whether or not the protest succeeded in directly influencing the outcome of the WTO meetings, the final outcome did fulfill the purposes for which the movement (then known as the Seattle Coalition) organized the protest in the first place. Nearly 700 NGOs and 50,000 people participated in this direct action, all of this in relatively short period of time.
According to author F. Capra this Seattle protest “permanently changed the political landscape and the public discourse on globalization” and “multinational trade deals” in general.
“On November 30, 1999, [autonomous but] inter – networked squads of demonstrators protesting the meeting of the WTO used “swarming tactics, mobile phones, Web sites, laptops, and handheld computers to win the “Battle of Seattle”.
– from Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution
The phenomenon of spontaneous, coordinated, collective action taking place simultaneously, straddling national boundaries, has given rise to a new term – the “network society”. Perhaps most significant about the Seattle Coalition: it was a global NGO coalition – defying the traditional top-down model of leadership and centralized decision-making. It was a coalition of coalitions, a decentralized network of campaigns. According to journalist Naomi Klein, author of “No Logo”: “nothing but the hub and spokes model could possibly accommodate their different styles, tactics and goals…
That was 1998. It is now 2017 and One stable pattern emerges: Now – as it was back then in 1998, live video and mobile telephony is making all the difference for agile, highly adaptable social movements and organizations. The only real difference is that we have seen a literal merger between telephony and computing. since then, which only makes mobile and wireless Internet (the stuff of smartphones) available to most households.
Roughly three-quarters of Americans (77%) now own a smartphone, according to a pew research survey conducted in January 2017. Mobile (Android, iPhones, tablets) now represent 65 percent of digital media time, eclipsing desktop devices.
If Facebook were a nation, it is larger than India and China. Now nearly 1.5 billion regular users are on Facebook. National boundaries have blurred, and one thing seems clear: social enterprises and movements of all kinds thrive when they can communicate live, mobile, and online – where physical spaces can’t be reached.
In fact – this “radical power dispersal” of what is otherwise concentrated power has in some cases served to defy the traditional notions of power – which has been defined as concentrated economic or military power, delineated by national borders. In some examples, it has even revolutionized the nature of power itself.
On January 1, 1994 the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) officially began. On that same day an armed uprising swept the jungles of southern Mexico by a group of masked guerilla rebels known as the National Zapatista Liberation Front (EZLN) declaring their opposition to NAFTA. From a laptop in the jungle images were uploaded onto websites and communiqués were emailed to the already existing and vast network of global NGOs and “global civil society” activists. Meanwhile, they demanded from the Mexican government control of their own land, direct political representation, and the right to protect the Mayan language and culture – which they held were being threatened by these trade rules.
In a study commissioned by the U.S. military from the Rand Corporation, “the EZLN was studied as [a new mode of conflict – netwar – in which the protagonists depend on using network forms of organization, doctrine, strategy, and technology],” according to Klein. As the uprising went literally online, they drew international attention to the plight of the indigenous communities living in the impoverished southern state of Chiapas in Mexico. The Mexican military, which readied itself to carry out air and land assaults; was surprised to discover itself surrounded by an international ‘swarm of activists’ buzzing around Chiapas – which was transformed nearly overnight, from an impoverished province into a global meeting place ( a busy “beehive”) of activists, intellectuals, and indigenous groups. This forced a halt to the military assault before it even began, and led to negotiations instead.
Klein writes on this further:
“…the Zapatistas were waging ‘a war of the flea’ that, thanks to the Internet and the global NGO network, turned into ‘a war of the swarm’. The military challenge of a war of the swarm, the researchers noted, is that it has no central leadership or command structure; it is multi-headed, impossible to decapitate. “
Consider that all this took place in 1994 even before the World Wide Web began, that is 23 years before ISIS arose, using similar tactics – albeit with far more advanced, sophisticated technologies only available now.
Disruptions in the old notions of power – for good or for ill – have not been limited to the realm of politics or warfare, but exist across sectors of society. Let’s take the music industry, for example back at home, just when Napster was born.
Napster… awoke the world to the disruptive potential of p2p (Peer To Peer Network) power.
“When millions of college students started trading music files in the new MP3 digital recording format, they strained the carrying capacity of large-scale university Internet connections, alerted the vested interests in the existing intellectual property industry that a frontal assault had been launched on their livelihood, and demonstrated that teenagers can ignite world-changing p2p adhocracies.”
~ Howard Rheingold, author, “Smart Mobs”, 2001
Sure enough, once the P2P (Peer to Peer) movement began, other [decentralized] web-based systems began to develop (eliminating the need for a central server), many “new” Napsters began to replace the “old”. Once again “radical power dispersal” had effectively challenged concentrated power – in this case, the concentrated power of capital. The phenomenon called “pirating software” has transformed how we do business online, and dissolved old boundaries, and fundamentally changing how we now approach digital copyrights.
Making software freely available and transparent amongst a community of contributors was a radically new concept. Looking back, it has enabled many innovations in software, new inventions, and mobile apps that were not possible before. Think Android – once (and still) an open source platform for mobile; or think Linux, which now runs over 50% of websites in the world. Or think Mozilla Foundation, a community of developers who freely wrote and shared the code that created the browser bearing its name. All were developed open-source. They encourage freely sharing and contributing to the improvement of the mobile platform, without the stumbling blocks intellectual property laws can stifle.
“Skillful use of the Internet’s interactivity, immediacy, and global reach means that [organizations and members] are able to network, share information, and mobilize…with unprecedented speed.”
–F. Capra, author “The Tao of Physics”
Welcome to the digital media revolution, replete with Facebook Live, the mass surveillance society, the erosion of privacy, and the ever present danger of identity theft and widely destructive hacks. Despite the all too dystopian evolution and the downside of government authorities and multinational corporatations consolidating ever increasing hegemonic control over these technologies and subverting them for their own benefit, the old disruptive potential of the digital (and now social network) still exists. Although it may seem that this technology has aged considerably, despite appearances – the Internet is barely in its infancy.
The rise of mobile Internet and its descendant – the social networking phenomenon, has created a revolution that makes many revolutions possible. I’m not talking about a military coup or armed uprising. It is more a revolution in thought that despite appearances, is still in its infancy. In the many revolutions it has helped to raise existing across sectors – from the political to the commercial arenas; from the mobilization of global insurgencies to the rise of e-commerce; technology’s immediate forecast promises to hold a future full of surprises and innovations for the digital world.
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