Issue: 143

John Sinha

Paulo Gerbaudo, Tweets and the Streets (Pluto Press, 2012), £15

Are social media a substitute for a revolutionary paper? Is the social network a substitute for a revolutionary party? These are some of the questions Paulo Gerbaudo attempts to answer. His starting point is the debate sparked by Laurie Penny’s article in the New Statesman criticising the Socialist Worker sellers during the student protests in late 2010. These very questions have been addressed elsewhere in this journal. For example, Jonny Jones’s article in International Socialism 130 provides a far more detailed response to Penny’s article than this review. Gerbaudo to be sure, is taking Penny’s side on this debate. Nevertheless, his analysis goes far deeper, and almost despite himself, he ends up contradicting many of Penny’s rather vacuous assertions, managing to make some insightful observations on the way.

According to Gerbaudo, the controversy over the role of media in political organisation is nothing new. He notes that Lenin, because of his stress on the importance of the revolutionary press, faced a similar accusation to today’s social media activists, of reducing organisation to its publications. Gerbaudo is very critical of Lenin and Leninist forms of organisation. Nevertheless, he still regards Lenin as the innovator of his day for the way in which he made use of the paper as “propagandist, organiser, agitator” (see also Chris Harman’s article “The Revolutionary Press” in International Socialism 24). Lenin’s insight, the extent to which any form of media is able to perform this role, is the criterion by which Gerbaudo judges the effectiveness of social media.

Gerbaudo casts a sceptical eye on the claims of the techno-optimists, such as influential media theorists Manuel Castells and Clay Shirky, and seeks to avoid the banalisation of the movements by mainstream commentators such as those who referred to the Egyptian Revolution as a “Twitter revolution”. But he also criticises the techno-pessimism of the likes of Evgeny Morozov who has referred to online activism as “slacktivism”. Instead Gerbaudo charts a middle course between the two extremes of opinion.

With studies taken from Egypt, the Spanish 15 May movement and Occupy Wall Street, Gerbaudo points to two major differences between the current wave of social movements and the altermondialiste movement of the last decade, the first global movement to make widespread use of websites such as the alternative news site Indymedia. Firstly, with their appeal to the 99 percent, the new movements are consciously majoritarian in contrast to the minority appeal of the some of the earlier ones. Secondly, rather than global summit hopping, the more recent movements make use of fixity and place, making the occupation of public space a major part of its protest strategy.

In identifying one of the key features of these movements as the physical appropriation of public space, Gerbaudo rejects Castells’s assertion on the withering away of the logic of public space, noting that: “the movements’ construction of these centres whose vision goes against the grain of visions of contemporary society as a ‘network without centres’, urges us to depart from the apology for dispersion which underlies both Castells’s and Hardt and Negri’s theorising”.

So, rather than the newspaper sellers being cast aside by Laurie Penny’s cyber-activists, he finds a coexistence of old and new forms of media complementing each other and combining in novel ways. The traditional ephemera of political communication such as leaflets, posters and papers as well as the even more “ephemeral ephemera” of social media mediate each other. As an example, many of the major hashtags and Twitter slogans of the Egyptian Revolution were spray-stencilled on the streets of Cairo in the days up leading to the revolution.

In different political contexts, the use of social media can have radically different results. Gerbaudo shows the ways in which Egypt’s Facebook youth, the shababal Facebook, a generation whose options for political organising were severely constrained by the Mubarak regime, used social media in quite a different way to those of Occupy Wall Street. By catalysing the emotional identification with Khaled Said, a martyred activist who appealed to Egypt’s middle class youth, and by creatively using messages with a powerful emotional content, they were able to draw in new layers of young, middle class activists. However, Gerbaudo points to the dilemmas many activists who use social media have themselves acknowledged. The reach of social media is confined to one’s own political and social circles but the objective of many activists is to break out of such circles. In fact, a major point of this book is to emphasise just what a chasm exists between the virtual world and a mass presence on the streets. A major challenge faced by Egypt’s Facebook youth was to reach out to the shabi, Cairo’s poor urban youth. The use of traditional forms of communication was essential in enabling the former to break out of their limited circles.1

Gerbaudo also challenges the claims for “leaderless horizontality” put forward by many movement activists. His well researched examples show the important role leadership plays in such movements. The Facebook administrators and Twitter Pashas (influential users) create events that bring together people, place and time in a manner analogous to that of the choreographer who puts together the stage and the dancers. He points to the problem of accountability which can arise in situations in which the leadership role in not acknowledged. Take, for example, the case of Google employee Wael Ghonim. When Hosni Muburak resigned, Wael famously tweeted, “Mission accomplished”. Many activists resented this tweet, which helped demobilise the protest movement just as the armed forces were beginning to assert their power. But if there is a weakness to Gerbaudo’s portrayal of leadership, it is that he underestimates the role “off-line” leadership plays during occupations of public spaces. In the case of the Occupy movement, leaders emerged during the occupation itself, and often had a more prominent role than the social media leaderships in organising the mass assemblies and other collective actions.

Gerbaudo attempts to contrast what he regards as “soft” leadership, which emerges from “liquid” organisation, with the “hard” leadership of traditional organisations such as trade unions and political parties. And it is with this conclusion about the nature of organisation that his analysis weakens. By employing such binary categories, he cloaks the real differences between social movements and traditional forms of organisation in an essentialist language that obscures his analysis. So for instance, it is quite possible for a notionally “hard” organisation, such as a trade union, with a clearly defined hierarchy to display “soft” and “liquid” characteristics, for instance when the rank and file take independent initiatives. And the converse is also true. We know, from the well documented experiences of activists, that “soft” organisations can display the sort of elitist and hierarchical characteristics normally associated with “hard” organisations. This is described in Jo Freeman’s classic essay on the women’s movement in the late 1960s, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”. In a genuine revolutionary organisation there is a far more complex relationship between the “hard” and “liquid” elements.

Gerbaudo illustrates how the problem of leadership and accountability keeps surfacing in social movements; the more effective these movements become the more these problems assert themselves. But he is unable to resolve this contradiction. He is anxious to reassure us that: “This is not an invitation to return to the old reassuring dogmas of Leninism with its class essentialism, its theory of the vanguard party and the like.” Gerbaudo fails to tell us what exactly the “reassuring dogmas” of Leninism may be. He does not offer any appraisal (of his understanding) of the approach to political organisation developed by Lenin.

Yet the problems of leadership are precisely those that a genuine revolutionary organisation seeks to overcome. His thinking is ahead of many in these movements in that he recognises that the social network is not a substitute for political organisation—a problem many of these organisations are attempting to grapple with. But he is unable to integrate his valuable insights into an overall theory of political organisation. And in this respect, his attempt at a middle way to resolving the problem of organisation (between horizontalism and centralism) fails. In consequence, he is also unable to answer one of the key questions he set himself: How can leadership in the movements be made accountable? And his rejection of “class essentialism” already seems out of date in places like China and India as a result of their effective demonstration of how to use social media to organise wildcat strikes.

It remains to be seen what impacts Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA and GCHQ spying will have on activist usage of social media. Nevertheless Gerbaudo’s insightful observations and detailed empirical research contribute greatly to our understanding of the uses of social media in such movements.


1: A similar observation was also made by Anne Alexander and Miriyam Aouragh in 2011. See “The Egyptian Experience: Sense and Nonsense of the Internet Revolution”, International Journal of Communication, number 5.