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Can hashtags and Facebook groups bring on real social change?

AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
Social media activism is no substitute for in-person gatherings.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Technology is changing political organizing. Movements ranging from Black Lives Matter to Yes All Women to Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Revolution” have successfully harnessed the power of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to spread their message.

But some argue that social media activism has come at a cost to community. Can hashtags, online petitions and Facebook groups bring about real change—and what gets lost in the absence of real-life gatherings?

This question is one of many raised in the recent documentary Left On Purpose. Director Justin Schein tells the story of longtime antiwar activist Mayer Vishner, an original member of the sixties-era radical group the Yippies. Vishner initially agreed to be the subject of a film about his life, but later informed Schein that he intended to commit suicide—and he wanted Schein to document his death.

As the movie makes clear, Vishner suffered from severe depression and—in his later years—alcoholism. These were the major factors that contributed to the activist’s decision to end his life. But on the film’s website, Schein adds a telling addendum to his overview of his subject’s struggle:

“Mayer also felt an increasing sense of isolation in this age of ever advancing technology. Though he did still have friends who cared about him deeply, he felt unequipped to be part of the changing social justice movement that had previously so defined his life but that now relied on digital communication. Mayer prided himself on being an organizer. Greenwich Village was just that— a community of people who met in the park, at the bars, clubs and churches. As the age of email and Twitter advanced, Mayer felt more and more disconnected.”

Vishner’s dismay over the loss of the Village’s activist-packed parks and bars is emblematic of an issue that has attracted renewed interest from political scientists and sociologists who study organizing: the significant decline in public spaces where activists can build real-life relationships.

Overly mobilized

Hahrie Han, a political science professor at UC Santa Barbara, is a leading expert on the shifting model that civic groups follow in their pursuit of power. She says social movements today tend to rely more on “transactional” than “transformative” forms of organizing—and that’s hurting our biggest causes.

Transactional efforts ask members to do stuff: Sign a petition, write a letter, donate funds, or show up to vote. Mobilizing members in this way is crucial, Han explains, because it helps spread a message and get more people involved. In recent years, digital platforms have become the primary tools for mobilization. An overwhelming number of organizations use Facebook, Twitter, or email to push out petitions and requests for donations.

In-person events also allow members to form the social bonds necessary to stay committed to a goal.

Transformative processes, on the other hand, deepen people’s engagement with a cause. Consider the coordinated student efforts that led to the recent ouster of Missouri University System President Tim Wolfe. Or those of the student and alumni groups at Cooper Union, whose four-year-long challenge to the school’s decision to start charging tuition ended with a court settlement in their favor. Such efforts ask activists to take on leadership roles or organize events, leaving them with a feeling of some control over the issues that affect their lives. In-person events also allow members to form the social bonds that research shows are necessary to stay committed to a goal.

Han’s research for her latest book, How Organizations Develop Activists, shows that the groups that attract the most committed members combine both transformative and transactional strategies. However, she and other political scientists have identified a trend away from transformative efforts and spaces since the middle of the last century.

Even the task of gathering signatures once involved door-to-door canvassing and conversations with neighbors, Han says. “But now I can send you an email and you can decide whether or not you want to click on the link.”

Relying on transactions to mobilize people may require less time and money, but it rarely leads to lasting change. Like many others, Han uses the revolution that brought down the Mubarak regime in Egypt as evidence of the limited power of social media. That revolt was seen as the first coup enabled by online activism.

“But the military is back in power there,” Han says. “So although mobilizing can win a lot of quick and profound changes, the question is, can it actually build power for a constituency to govern over time?”

One reason the NRA has been so successful: there are more gun shops and gun clubs in the United States than there are McDonald’s.

In contrast, she points to the National Rifle Association. The NRA has enjoyed astonishing success in forwarding its pro-gun agenda, even though public opinion is on the side of gun control.

One reason the NRA has been so successful: there are more gun shops and gun clubs in the United States than there are McDonald’s. “The NRA actually has these local spaces through which people come together and where that transformative work can happen,” Han explains. Progressives haven’t been as skilled or strategic about creating local spaces where members can gather and bond with one another.

Jim Fouratt, a New York-based gay rights and antiwar activist and a founding member of the Yippies, has lived through and witnessed the change Han is studying. Alongside Mayer Vishner, he once hung out and planned theatrical protests—such as the Yippies’ showering the New York Stock Exchange with dollar bills.

Fouratt agrees that the loss of transformative spaces is hurting progressive movements. In fact, he believes that the Occupy Wall Street movement lost its power when the city kicked the protesters out of their space in New York’s Zuccotti Park.

When protesters had a communal place to gather, the group felt safe, he argues. They learned how to work together, share resources, and solve problems, such as what to do when troublemakers infiltrated the group. All that went away when protesters no longer had a place to meet.

“Authenticity only comes in human interaction.”

Fouratt does use Facebook and Twitter, but he also believes that social media is putting social justice and other global movements at risk. The problem is that it’s “rendering people powerless while creating an illusion of power and an illusion of intimacy that it not authentic,” he says. “Authenticity only comes in human interaction.”

“For someone my age, it’s upsetting,” he adds. “How do you get people motivated? Clicking on a screen doesn’t do anything except make the person who clicked feel they did something. Historically, change has never come that way. This is something that young people are going to have to figure out.”

Creating citizens

Despite these concerns, Fouratt sees some glimmers of hope. Not only have recent months seen powerful acts of protest at American colleges, Fouratt can also name a few cultural events, including Burning Man, Celebrate Brooklyn, and MIX NYC, an annual queer film festival, where he believes people are building strong grassroots communities.

But according to Han, although some important work is being done by small organizations, the majority of colleges, churches and other institutions have abandoned the goal of building people’s agency through activism. This wasn’t a conscious decision. Instead, she says, it’s part of a shift in our wider culture that has turned citizens into passive consumers in many arenas, including education and politics. “We consume politics the way we buy ketchup, choosing between alternatives,” she says.

The challenge facing a lot of political organizations is how to rebuild. How will they foster face-to-face connections? Where are the spaces that can transform people into lifelong activists?

And perhaps, on a practical level, who is going to pay the rent?

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