Social media is often accused of being an echo chamber, but has it played a role in empowering marginalised people and elevating their voices?

It has and it’s important that we don’t lose sight of this when we focus on the problems which social media is creating for politics. In recent years, cyber-utopianism has been discredited and that’s a good thing, if we hope to realistically appraise the political consequences of these technologies. It’s much less common now to find people making the case that digital media will empower individuals, undermine hierarchy and usher in a brave new world. This utopianism was rooted in a particular time and place, providing a technological equivalent to the breathless rhetoric of figures like Anthony Giddens and Tony Blair who claimed we were moving ‘beyond left and right’.

But an increasing scrutiny of the darker sides of digital media, particularly post-Trump, too often obscures the continued positive capacities of these technologies to bring people together and articulate a collective claim on the world. These positive and negative aspects co-exist: the risk of the echo-chamber is an unfortunate byproduct of the mechanisms through which social media allows new collectives to form. Nonetheless, we need to remember that this isn’t an inexorable consequence of the technology itself. Some of the unfortunate features of online political culture are as much a reflection of long-term political disengagement, particularly the decline in trade union and political party membership, as they are the influence of the technology itself. We can and should reclaim a positive vision of the capacity of social media to empower marginalised people and elevate their voice, while being realistic about some of the risks inherent in doing this.

Is activism through social media effective?

It depends what you mean by ‘effective’. It can demonstrably be an extremely powerful way of gathering people together in a particular place at a specific time. Furthermore, it can do so in a way which extends beyond existing networks, reducing the reliance of mobilisations on the more traditional forms of engagement such as stalls, leafletting and canvassing, seen most prominently during national elections. However there are important questions to be asked about whether this is necessarily a good thing. It might be easier to assemble people together but what do they once they are there? Can you keep them together after the initial assembly? The sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has convincingly argued that networked protests don’t develop organisational capacities because of precisely this ease of assembly. They may be able to draw people out in large numbers but they’re ill-equipped for articulating demands or developing strategies, leaving them easily outmanoeuvred by more traditional political organisations. Social media offer powerful tools for movements but they also create problems.

Social media has been talked about a lot with regards to democracy after Trump’s win. Do you think there’s really any understanding of just how well social media can be used to campaign? It feels as though politicians may not have even scratched the surface, at least that we know of.

There’s a lot of hype surrounding social media and elections, much of which is indistinguishable from marketing material for the companies involved. Cambridge Analytica is the most prominent example of this, held up by some critics on the left as a terrifying exemplar of the coming digital authoritarianism in which elections are won by whoever can employ the most data scientists. Coincidentally, these claims about their influence match those made by the company itself, albeit without the critical spin. We need to be careful about blindly reproducing claims made concerning the role of social media in elections by companies whose raison d’etre is to help exploit social media data (alongside other sources) for electoral gain. Nonetheless, there clearly are changes underway. The role of technology in politics has never been static. There’s no reason to believe social media would be any less significant for electoral politics than radio and television were, as well as many reasons to suspect they might prove to be more so. It’s just important that we remain critical of the vested interests of those who are already playing this game.

Online harassment has not really been tackled and marginalised people are especially at risk (shown best perhaps by ‘Gamergate’). Is it a risk that social media is empowering the wrong voices and shutting down democratic debate?

It’s not so much that social media empowers the ‘wrong’ voices, as that the incentives for democratic debate aren’t there. Meaningful dialogue is a slow, difficult process which is particularly difficult when it takes place between those who lack trust in the good-will of those they are talking to. This would be difficult under the best of circumstances but it’s close to impossible within the environments of most social media platforms. For all the participatory rhetoric which surrounds them, the underlying economy is one of visibility and this is something accrued through generating a reaction. It might be that this reaction is praise for slowly and carefully seeking to understand the position of a person you are debating with. But it’s much more likely to be a witty quip that appeals to the lowest common denominator of potential viewers.

This is the problem on a micro-scale. Now what happens when millions of these interactions feed into each other over years? We have increasingly toxic cultures, driven by expectations of behaviour, within which harassment thrives. Only the most naive person could claim social media had created the hate we can see in so many corners of the internet. We live in a racist, classist, sexist, ableist, homophobic and transphobic world. But social media has created an environment in which this hate can be leveraged for visibility as far too many aggressively people compete to be seen to the exclusion of the dialogical and relational powers of these technologies. I’m not a pessimist about social media but I am increasingly a pessimist about people.

This is a question which Zeynep Tufekci recalls in her Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, posed to a group of young Turkish activists about 140journos, a crowdsourced citizen journalism project which they started. As she writes on pg 37:

In Turkey, like much of the Mediterranean, there is a tradition of slow, conversational drinking that is the opposite of a loud, hurried bar scene. Such conversational drinking often leads to discussions of politics. The stereotype of these all-night drinking locales in Turkey is that everyone has a plan to “save the nation” after the first glass of raki, a strong aniseed-based drink that is considered the national liquor (it is nearly identical to ouzo, the Greek national drink). In a previous era, an all-night drinking and talking session on the sorry state of news and the extent of censorship might have ended merely in a hangover the next day. Even if it might have gone further—for example, the people might have decided to try to start a journal or a newspaper—a lot of work, resources, and luck would have been required. However, unlike citizens in a previous era for whom frustration with mass-media bias had engendered little more than sour feelings the next day or an uncertain, lengthy, journey, these young men—only four of them—immediately conceived 140journos, a crowdsourced, citizen journalism network on Twitter.

The low costs involved facilitate a particular culture of project work, comfortable with sometimes vague aspirations and working out the details on the fly. But while Tufekci’s interest in this concerns activism, I wonder about the effects in other spheres. What about higher education for instance? What Dave Beer describes as ‘punk sociology’ shares much of the mentality which Tufekci describes. 

From Riots and Political Protest by Simon Winlow, Steve Hall, Daniel Briggs and James Treadwell pg 157:

Many on the left believe the Internet can fill the gaps left by the disintegration of modern political organisations, but online discussion forums and the like simply do not work in the same way. This is not to say that new forms of medium cannot assist political resistance, especially in communicating very quickly repressive political practices that appear to demand an immediate response, but it is hard to imagine how they might compensate for the immediate social engagement that accompanied, for example, the establishment of labour unions and workers’ associations. Internet forums cannot reach out to the disinterested or the antagonistic and, over a prolonged period of time, seek to educate, persuade and establish trust and a shared vision. They cannot encourage the disengaged to become attuned to the attractions of progressive politics by interacting daily in bodily proximity with others keen to connect their shared situation to forces beyond their immediate comprehension. In the absence of everyday mass encounters in exploitative work situations, the task of building the kinds of organisation that might politicise the depoliticised is huge.

From Rethinking Social Exclusion, by Simon Winlow and Steve Hall, pg 73:

Political protests these days are taken not as an indication that something is going wrong and that a significant number of the population are dissatisfied with the nation’s political leadership. Rather, they seem to indicate that a healthy and vibrant democracy is in place, one that welcomes political contestation and vigorous public debate about government policy. ‘Look at the wonderful world liberalism has created!’, our politicians proclaim. ‘Political protests like this would never be tolerated in a non-democratic totalitarian regime!’ Of course, when the demonstration is complete, nothing has changed. The political protest ends up continuing only for a short time as an online blog or a Twitter post, offering nothing more than a cathartic opportunity to vent one’s spleen accompanied by the sad recognition that in all likelihood no one is listening, and no one really cares. It is also worth considering whether the peaceful protest now offers nothing more than an opportunity for the protestor to relinquish their subjective sense of duty to battle injustice. Once the protest is complete, and the world continues unchanged, the subject is allowed the comfort of having registered her dissatisfaction; whatever happens, it does so ‘not in my name’.

It’s this line I’ve put in bold which I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. How much of what is seen to be ‘trolling’ online represents a frustrated, even mutulated, impulse towards collective action?

In a way Winlow and Hall are too rosey in their framing here, positioning the pseudo-catharsis of social media as something that follows from the frustrations of contemporary public protest. What about when there is no prior collectivity, however frustrating and frustrated? What does the individualised rage we see seeking satisfaction through social media mean for the possibility of collectivity in the future? 

What about the experience of mediated collectivity: how does a symbolic sense of ‘us’, others like oneself seeking outlets for ‘our’ rage, leave what might otherwise possibly become a solidaristic impulse locked into this destructive register?

They make a similar point with other co-authors in Riots and Political Protest. From pg 164:

If the remaining logic is simply that the protest enables pissed-off individuals to cathartically release their pent-up frustration and momentarily draw strength from being around others who feel the same way, before returning to their lives to again be subject to the same objective causes of their frustration, then we can begin to see the limitations that have been imposed upon democratic political protest.

From InfoGlut, by Mark Andrejevic, loc 1384:

One start- up sentiment mining application, for example, claims to “understand how the web feels ” via a “vibology meter.” 56 This version of prosopopoeia – attributing an imagined and unified voice to a dispersed and invisible aggregate that cannot speak for itself – enacts the fetishistic disavowal of contemporary capitalism, according to Slavoj Zizek: the simultaneous dismissal of the ability to comprehend or represent a totality and its reassertion as an autonomous, anonymous imaginary entity. For example, when “the people speak” through aggregate voting results that allegedly provide a candidate with a “strong mandate,” this combined sentiment may not reflect that of any particular individual or group (since widespread weak support combined with significant strong opposition might result in the apparent mandate). As Zizek puts it, “no one is personally responsible for it, all just feel the need to accommodate themselves to it. And the same goes for capitalism as such.” 57 The logic of aggregation is distinct from that of collectivity – the former seeks to create an imagined consensus out of an overview that makes up for what it lacks in depth, comprehension, and meaning with breadth, speed, and predictive power.

This is a really important point I’d like to incorporate into my analysis of fragile movements. As durable collectives, capable of articulating collective concerns and formulating collective projects to pursue them, become more difficult to generate and sustain, do we see a corresponding increase in prosopopoeia: a fetishistic faux-collectively that stands in as a purely affective substitute for meaningful collectivity?

From InfoGlut, by Mark Andrejevic, loc 464:

The dystopian version of information glut anticipates a world in which control over the tremendous amount of information generated by interactive devices is concentrated in the hands of the few who use it to sort, manage, and manipulate. Those without access to the database are left with the “poor person’s” strategies for cutting through the clutter: gut instinct, affective response, and “thin- slicing” (making a snap decision based on a tiny fraction of the evidence). The asymmetric strategies for using data highlight an all- too- often overlooked truth of the digital era: infrastructure matters. Behind the airy rhetoric of “the cloud,” the factories of the big data era are sprouting up across the landscape: huge server farms that consume as much energy as a small city. Here is where data is put to work – generating correlations and patterns, shaping decisions and sorting people into categories for marketers, employers, intelligence agencies, healthcare providers, financial institutions, the police, and so on. Herein resides an important dimension of the knowledge asymmetry of the big data era – the divide between those who generate the data and those who put it to use by turning it back upon the population. This divide is, at least in part, an infrastructural one shaped by ownership and control of the material resources for data storage and mining. But it is also an epistemological one –a difference in the forms of practical knowledge available to those with access to the database, in the way they think about and use information.

I’d been planning to read his work for a while but I’m finding it almost eery how relevant it is. This is exactly what I was trying to argue in my forthcoming chapter on Fragile Movements but Andrejevic expresses it much more effectively than I was able to. The project as a whole is about the sociology of group formation under these conditions, as well as how this contributes to the continuing development of digital capitalism.

More on this from Infoglut loc 870:

In this regard the digital era opens up a new form of digital divide: that between those with access to the databases and those without. For those with access, the way in which data is understood and used will be fundamentally transformed. There will be no attempt to read and comprehend all of the available data – the task would be all but impossible. Correlations can be unearthed and acted upon, but only by those with access to the database and the processing power. Two different information cultures will come to exist side by side: on the one hand, the familiar, “old- fashioned” one in which people attempt to make sense of the world based on the information they can access: news reports, blog posts, the words of others and the evidence of their own experience. On the other hand, computers equipped with algorithms that can “teach” themselves will advance the instrumental pragmatics of the database: the ability to use tremendous amounts of data without understanding it.

As much as I tend to disagree with Nick Cohen, he couldn’t be more right about this. From You Can’t Read This Book, loc 129-137

Today’s techno-utopianism is at best irritating and at worst a dangerous distraction, because it offers the comforting illusion that we can escape the need to fight against reactionary and unjust governments, enterprises and movements with the click of a mouse.