Social media and social movements

Issue: 130

Jonny Jones

The past few months have seen an explosion of debate, blogging, theorising and hype around the role of the Internet in today’s social movements.1 Social media—Internet applications such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube which facilitate the creation and exchange of user-created content—have been identified as key to events as diverse as the rise of student protests in Britain at the end of 2010 and the outbreak of revolution in the Arab world.

Recent years have seen a surge of interest in appropriating new technologies for various causes. For boosters of globalisation like Thomas Friedman, the Internet was making the world a smaller place in which democracy and the market was certain to flourish. The Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman summarised Friedman’s attitude in a review of his book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, saying: “We are heading for a world that is basically democratic, because you can’t keep ‘em down on the farm once they have Internet access”.2 Gordon Brown seized upon the communicative potential of the Internet as something that would rehabilitate the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, telling the Guardian in 2009: “You cannot have Rwanda again because information would come out far more quickly about what is actually going on and the public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken”.3

The Wikileaks affair highlighted some of the problems ruling classes may face given the rise of the Internet. Wikileaks, an organisation dedicated to the release of classified documents, first came to attention when it released leaked footage of a massacre in Iraq perpetrated by US forces, in which journalists and civilians were killed.4 In late 2010 tens of thousands of leaked US diplomatic cables shed light on the inner workings of the US State Department, sparking an international manhunt for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.5

Debates about the role of the Internet in political mobilisation became increasingly polarised in the wake of the online element of Barak Obama’s presidential election campaign in 2008 and the supposed “Twitter rebellion” in Iran in 2009. Increasingly, the proponents of new technologies were labelled “cyber utopians”, arguing against the dinosaurs that still held to outmoded forms of organisation.6

In Britain the emergence of the student movement saw a proliferation of online campaigning in order to mobilise for street protests. Alongside this came a renewed preoccupation with the notion of “networks” when discussing political organisation. Writing in the Guardian, the journalist and activist Laurie Penny claimed that “old politics” were increasingly irrelevant:

The young people of Britain do not need leaders, and the new wave of activists has no interest in the ideological bureaucracy of the old left. Their energy and creativity is disseminated via networks rather than organisations, and many young people have neither the time nor the inclination to wait for any political party to decide what direction they should take.

Laurie was incredulous that newspapers like Socialist Worker were “still being peddled at every demonstration to young cyber-activists for whom the very concept of a newspaper is almost as outdated as the notion of ideological unity as a basis for action”.7 Within a month of this article being published, the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and the outbreak of the Egyptian Revolution saw acres of newsprint (and server space) turned over to discussions about how social media had sparked the return of revolution: a Google search for “Twitter Revolution” in early March 2011 turns up 203,000 results.8

It is, of course, unsurprising that there has been so much debate about these issues. Social media themselves engender and enable vast quantities of both amateur and professional blogging, “citizen journalism” and the like. The danger for those engaged in these debates is that they can disappear into the “data smog”, that they can lose touch with the actual effects of these new technologies on people’s everyday lives. To try to understand these effects, we have to grasp the changing nature of the Internet and the arguments about its application to social movements that have accompanied these changes.

“Technology is the answer, but what is the question?”

The past decade has seen an explosion in access to the Internet. The website Internet World Stats, which aggregates information from a variety of regional providers, estimates that between 2000 and 2010 the number of people with access to the Internet grew by 448.8 percent, from 360,985,492 to 1,966,514,816. This represents 28.7 percent of the world’s population.9 The most rapid areas of growth (admittedly from a low starting point, have been in Africa, where 10.9 percent now have Internet access (from 4,514,400 to 110,931,700, an increase of 2,357.3 percent) and the Middle East, where Internet access now stands at 29.8 percent of the population (from 3,284,800 to 63,240,946, an increase of 1,825.3 percent). At around 420 million, there are more Internet users in China than there are people living in the entire US.10

The growth of social media is equally impressive. The social networking site Facebook grew from 150 million users in January 2009 to over 500 million today. In March, Facebook announced it had reached 30 million registered users in Britain: around half the population.11

Claims for the radical possibilities offered by the Internet predate such expansion of the Internet and the development of social media. In 1996 an organisation called the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition (CIEC) was formed to campaign against sections of the US government’s Communications Decency Act (CDA). The CIEC described itself as “a broad coalition of library and civil liberties groups, online service providers, newspaper, book, magazine and recording industry associations, and over 56,000 individual Internet users [that] represents the entire breadth of the Internet community”.12

The CDA was intended to impose broadcast industry-style regulations on the Internet, ostensibly with the aim of protecting children, which would have made it an offence to post “offensive” or “patently indecent” material in public forums online. However, the CIEC claimed that such regulations would mean posting text from novels such as The Catcher in the Rye and Ulysses (containing foul language) could be considered illegal. Moreover, they claimed that the CDA would endanger the Internet itself due to its “open, decentralised” nature.

In their appeal against the US Department of Justice, published as a call to action by the Internet magazine (and co-plaintiff) Wired, the CIEC argued that:

during much of this century the mass media, particularly radio and television, have been characterised by a limited number of speakers transmitting programming and information to essentially passive audiences. The communications medium of the 21st century—the Internet and “cyberspace” generally—is changing that, and will allow hundreds of millions of individuals to engage in interactive communication, on a national and global scale never before possible. The public square of the past—with pamphleteering, soap boxes, and vigorous debate—is being replaced by the Internet, which enables average citizens to participate in national discourse, publish a newspaper, distribute an electronic pamphlet to the world, and generally communicate to and with a broader audience than ever before possible. It also enables average citizens to gain access to a vast and literally worldwide range of information.13

The Supreme Court eventually found the CDA unconstitutional, an early and important victory for online campaigning. The claims made for the Internet by the CIEC—that it would replace “the public square” as the arena for political debate—proved premature. Instead for years the Internet became synonymous with pornography, downloading music and the bursting of the bubble. But for some, this was transformed by the advent of what is known as Web 2.0.

The communications theorist Joss Hands defines Web 2.0 as:

a by now ubiquitous term that loosely refers to the proliferation of user-created content and websites specifically built as frameworks for the sharing of information and for social networking, and platforms for self-expression such as the weblog, or using video and audio sharing.14

Hands identifies 2006 as the year that Web 2.0 and social media made their breakthrough into the mass media, marked by Time magazine’s decision to make “You” the Person of the Year, even going so far as having a reflective cover. Inside, Lev Grossman’s article posited itself as an antidote to the “Great Man” theory of history, insisting that 2006 was:

a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.15

Grossman argued that unlike the “overhyped dotcom Web of the late 90s…it’s a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter”. While the term 2.0 implied an upgrade, “it’s really a revolution…an opportunity to build a new kind of international understanding, not politician to politician, great man to great man, but citizen to citizen, person to person”.16

For Hands, “the digital, networked age is one that can be, and is, amenable to…horizontal, communicative action, and lends itself to a horizon of dissent, resistance and rebellion”.17

It wasn’t just in the realm of “people power” that Web 2.0 was to make its impact. James K Glassman, a former US state department official, told a conference organised by Facebook and Google, among others, that the social media would give the US an advantage in the “war on terror”: “Some time ago, I said that Al Qaida was ‘eating our lunch on the Internet’. That is no longer the case. Al Qaida is stuck in Web 1.0. The Internet is now about interactivity and conversation”.18

What lay behind the hype? Could social media really play the kind of role that the new media boosters were hoping for? For some, the claims made for Web 2.0 were more than just hype: they represented a barrier to practical activity. Instead they represented a shortcut into “slacktivism”, defined by Evgeny Morozov as “feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact. It gives those who participate in ‘slacktivist’ campaigns an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group”.19 Morozov, a specialist in social media who aims to provide advice to policymakers on spreading democracy, sees slacktivism as “the ideal type of activism for a lazy generation: why bother with sit-ins and the risk of arrest, police brutality, or torture if one can be as loud campaigning in the virtual space ?”

Jodi Dean argues that often people can “believe they are active, maybe even making a difference simply by clicking on a button, adding their name to a petition, or commenting on a blog”. For Dean, this is an example of Slavoj Zizek’s notion that “the other side of…interactivity is interpassivity”.20 She explains that “when we are interpassive, something else, a fetish object, is active in our stead… The frantic activity of the fetish works to prevent actual action, to prevent something from really happening”. In this account, “the circulation of communication is depoliticising, not because people don’t care or don’t want to be involved, but because we do!”21

Perhaps the best-known variant of these arguments is that put forward by the Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell. In his article “Small Change: Why the Revolution Won’t be Tweeted”, Gladwell argues that social media generates networks based around “weak ties”, while involvement in risky, radical action is predicated upon “strong ties”. Here Gladwell is drawing a distinction between close friends and more distant friends and acquaintances. He cites research by Doug McAdam into the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign in Mississippi that found that those activists who stayed the course of the campaign were “far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi”. Gladwell goes on to claim that:

This pattern shows up again and again. One study of the Red Brigades, the Italian terrorist group of the 1970s, found that 70 percent of recruits had at least one good friend already in the organisation. The same is true of the men who joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Even revolutionary actions that look spontaneous, like the demonstrations in East Germany that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, are, at core, strong-tie phenomena.22

In one sense, this is hardly surprising. If one becomes involved in political campaigns that are not based around collective workplace organisation then it is likely that you would be introduced via friends with whom you share common interests. However, what is of particular interest in Gladwell’s account at this stage is his contrast between this kind of activism and that associated with social media. For Gladwell social media like Facebook are good for “efficiently managing your acquaintances” and “keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with”. Following the sociologist Mark Granovetter, Gladwell argues that our acquaintances “are our greatest source of new ideas and information”, but while he considers this a good thing in itself, Gladwell notes that this form of interaction limits the usefuleness of social media in promoting dissent since “weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism”. Instead, social media allow one to get large numbers of people signed-up to a campaign “by not asking too much of them”. Gladwell rejects the claim made by the business consultant Andy Smith and the Stanford Business School professor Jennifer Aaker that “social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation”, arguing instead that these networks “are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires”.23

For Micah White, a contributing editor to anti-consumerist AdBusters magazine, this is not simply the result of technological determinism but rather of market forces. For White there is a battle raging “for the soul of activism. It is a struggle between digital activists, who have adopted the logic of the marketplace, and those organisers who vehemently oppose the marketisation of social change”.24 White looks at the proliferation of online campaigning and advocacy groups in recent years and argues that:

the trouble is that this model of activism uncritically embraces the ideology of marketing. It accepts that the tactics of advertising and market research used to sell toilet paper can also build social movements. This manifests itself in an inordinate faith in the power of metrics to quantify success. Thus, everything digital activists do is meticulously monitored and analysed. The obsession with tracking clicks turns digital activism into clicktivism.25

White claims that these campaigns “hide behind gloried stories of viral campaigns and inflated figures of how many millions signed their petition in 24 hours” despite “the insider truth…that the vast majority, between 80 percent to 90 percent, of so-called members rarely even open campaign emails”. Crucially, he argues, “ineffectual marketing campaigns spread political cynicism and draw attention away from genuinely radical movements. Political passivity is the end result of replacing salient political critique with the logic of advertising”.26

If White is correct, the growth of Internet campaigning represents an enormous danger to the left. In order to judge the validity of the claims made for the power or danger of social media and Internet organising, it is necessary to examine some examples of its use over the past few years.

Tweeting ‘bout a revolution?

Barack Obama’s election campaign in 2008 was the first large-scale political attempt to harness the power of social media. David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, said the campaign created a “domino effect” which “used the Internet, text messaging and other forms of communication to build a now-legendary grassroots network of organisers and volunteers”. On the website, the social media hub of the campaign, volunteers “created more than 2 million profiles…planned 200,000 offline events, formed 35,000 groups, posted 400,000 blogs, and raised $30 million on 70,000 personal fundraising pages”.27

The campaign was more than just an online success: by registering volunteers online, street campaigns could be organised simply by inputting a postal code and contacting those who were registered. The Internet was used as one method among others to organise activists, not simply to engage them in clicktivism. Thomas Gensemer, one of the key players behind Obama’s Internet strategy, said that the key to the campaign was “giving people real things to do in their neighbourhoods”.28 But it would be a mistake to see this as an example of a decentralised, grassroots campaign. As Plouffe stated after the election: “We wanted to control all aspects of our campaign… We wanted control of our advertising, and most important, we wanted control of our field operation. We did not want to outsource these millions of people, and these hundreds of thousands of full-time volunteers”.29

The tremendous success of the Obama campaign shows that social media can play a role as an organiser. But there are important caveats. Obama’s campaign tapped into enormous, widespread dissatisfaction with George W Bush and the government’s handling of the economic crisis. People were optimistic about Obama’s message of “Change”, even if that change was undefined. Some 61 percent of registered Democrats were “enthusiastic” about their candidate, as opposed to just 35 percent of Republicans.30 Beyond the party faithful, Obama was able to appeal to even wider layers of community activists, particularly from black and Latino communities, to join the campaign. Also, while the campaign shows that social media can be effective in mobilisation, we should not imagine that this can tell us a lot about how useful it is to socialists and working class activists who do not have millions of dollars in resources, full-time staff and corporate backing. The aim of the campaign was not to create a grassroots organisation but “to orchestrate a highly disciplined, focused and hierarchical election campaign”.31

Closer to home both geographically and politically was the “G20 Meltdown” demonstration organised in London in April 2009. Held in protest at the assembly of the heads of the G20 states, just months after the bailout of the banks in late 2008, the protest is now best remembered for the criticisms of police “kettling” tactics and the death of Ian Tomlinson after being struck by a police officer. On the day thousands of protesters, mostly young and very angry, were kettled for hours by the police on the streets outside the Bank of England. Hands argues that “the organisation in preparation for the G20 actions followed the networked pattern, with the web functioning to orchestrate different elements and distribute information”, and that, “in keeping with the distributed horizontal approach, those behind the G20 Meltdown identify themselves only as ‘those associated with the April 1st Bank of England action’”.32

However, Hands goes on to bemoan the fact that the mainstream media highlighted the role of Chris Knight, then professor of anthropology at the University of East London, in organising the protests and presented him as a figurehead. Hands analyses the enormous number of articles from across the journalistic spectrum, from the Daily Mail to the Guardian, and argues that they created an unsubstantiated narrative of “riots that would be probably be provoked by anarchists and their associates”. He concludes “At no point did any of the articles refer to the actual substance and range of motives of the protests, only presenting accounts of their rage, of the concerns of the police, and of the potential for violence”.33

In fact, the narrative of an enormous protest that was built up throughout the bourgeois media was the crucial element in making the protest as big and successful as it was. The media saturation, on TV and the newspapers, made the event unavoidable for weeks running up to the event. It is a common error to imagine that protesters are attracted to demonstrations purely by a set of demands—this is the same mistake made by those abstract propagandists who imagine a perfectly formed programme is necessary to build a movement, or those who stress the need to “educate” people about the real issues with the idea that this will create a rising number of socially conscious activists. In the run-up to the G20 demonstration the interplay between the Internet, figureheads like Chris Knight, and the bourgeois media established the protests as the place to be if you were angry about the bailouts and wanted to do something about it. This is something to be celebrated—the left should use every means it can to build the movement. This was equally clear, in different circumstances, during the student protests of late 2010.

The occupation of Millbank Tower on 10 November 2010 marked a significant turning point in the battle against the Tory-led coalition.34 The return of radical student protests transformed the nature of the debate around resistance to the cuts. What is of particular interest in this context is the way in which the failure of the National Union of Students (NUS) to support the occupation saw subsequent demonstrations organised outside the structures of the NUS. But it is important to realise that there was indeed organisation. Day X—the day of protests and walkouts that took place on 24 November, two weeks after the occupation of Millbank—was first mooted several weeks before that protest at a meeting of the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC). It was then backed by a unanimous vote at the Education Activist Network (EAN) conference on 31 October. It was publicised via email and Facebook, but did not take on a real momentum until after the demonstration on 10 November.

The 10 November protest—organised by the NUS and the University and College Union under the name “Demolition”—saw over 50,000 protesters take to the streets. This turnout could not have been achieved without the structures of the NUS, which invested time and money promoting the demonstration and laying on coaches. But within days of Millbank the mainstream media had picked up on the Day X protests. The newspapers highlighted the role of student activists such as EAN spokesperson and NUS executive member Mark Bergfeld, picking up on his comments about the use of “legitimate force” to “bring down the government”.35 In an echo of the G20 mobilisations, there was a reciprocal relationship between the bourgeois media, student activists and social media. In the absence of official NUS structures (or, indeed, of left wing student organisation in many parts of the country), Facebook became a way for students in disparate areas of the country to find out about what was going on, who in their area was going to protest. It was able to give school students with little or no experience of protest the confidence to get large numbers to walk out of school.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to think that the walkouts and university occupations simply emerged from horizontal networks. The schools and colleges that saw the biggest walkouts, such as Chiswick Community School and Le Swap in London, and Bury and Holy Cross Colleges near Manchester, were driven and built by socialists and radical activists. Over 30 universities went into occupation, but the “first wave” of occupations—from “University College London, School of Oriental and African Studies and King’s College, to universities like Bradford, Bristol, Nottingham, York, Leeds, Edinburgh, Manchester Metropolitan University, Dundee, Sheffield and the University of East London”—were all marked by the presence of organised left wing activists and socialists.36

The student revolt shows us that social media can play a real role in solidifying the confidence of potential protesters in areas where the structures of the left are weakest. But the challenge for anti-capitalist activists is not to pontificate on how they can replace left wing organisation but to consider what role they can play in strengthening and rebuilding organisation. This is particularly pertinent when we look at the role played by social media in the Arab revolutions.

Here it is worth remembering the Iranian protests and the “Green Movement” of 2009. Much was made of the role of social media, and particularly Twitter, in the protests that broke out after the 2009 election. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s senior adviser for innovation, Alec Ross, claimed that “social media had played a key role in organising the protests”.37 Other were less convinced: “’Twitter’s impact inside Iran is zero,’ said Mehdi Yahyanejad, manager of a Farsi-language news site based in Los Angeles. ‘Here, there is lots of buzz, but once you look…you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves’.”38

It seems that, in reality, the use of Twitter and other social media in organising the protests was very limited:

Analysis by Sysomos, a social media analysis company, found only 19,235 Twitter accounts registered in Iran (0.027 percent of the population) on the eve of the 2009 elections. As many sympathisers of the Green Movement began changing their Twitter location status to Tehran to confuse the Iranian authorities, it became nearly impossible “to tell whether the people ‘tweeting’ from Iran were in Tehran or in, say, Los Angeles “.39

The real strength of Twitter at this time was that those few people who were able to get information out of Iran were able to spread it far and wide.

It is understandable that the mainstream press would leap upon social media as the reason why the Arab revolutions were finally able to break out. After all, revolutions were something that belonged to a bygone age and the working class was supposed to be finished as an agent of social change. When the Egyptian working class became the decisive factor in bringing down Mubarak, however, the limits of this narrative were exposed.40

In an article entitled “The ‘Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators’ Article”, Jay Cohen discussed the way in which texts and interventions about the role of social media in the Arab revolutions were quickly reduced to refutations of straw-man arguments that “it is as simple as ‘Twitter topples dictators,’ or ‘add Internet and you get revolution’”. Such simplistic takes tended to duck the “really hard and really interesting question: how does the Internet affect the balance of forces in a contest between the state and people fed up with the state?”41 This is a problem that will not be answered decisively any time soon. But it is possible to glean some valuable lessons from recent events.

The idea that social media played a significant role in coordinating protests has been greatly exaggerated, according to the Egyptian activist Gigi Ibrahim. She points out that coordination between organisations tended to happen in face to face meetings. Facebook and emails had been used to call demonstrations in Egypt for a number of years—these protests were small. The incomparably larger mobilisations which followed 25 January were not because of some qualitative shift in the level of the Egyptian people’s engagement with social media. Rather the confidence people gained from the events in Tunisia combined with the systematic work activists put into leafleting and raising slogans in areas where few people would even have access to the Internet. This was dangerous work, with activists being arrested and beaten. But it was integral to the mass mobilisations in Tahrir Square and elsewhere.42

Sultan Al Qassemi is a journalist based in the United Arab Emirates who extensively covered the uprisings across the region. His opinion of the role of social media is worth quoting at length:

Social media has certainly played a part in the Arab Spring Revolutions but its impact is often exaggerated on the inside. Egypt was disconnected from the outside world for days and yet the movement never stopped…

Today Libya is facing an even more severe Internet disruption, yet we continue to see the movement picking up pace. Where social media had a major impact was conveying the news to the outside world, bloggers and Twitter users were able to transmit news bites that would otherwise never make it to mainstream news media.

This information has been instrumental in garnering the attention of the citizens of the world who expressed solidarity with those suppressed individuals and may even put pressure on their own governments to react.43

The speed at which information has travelled from continent to continent, partly propelled by activists utilising the Internet, has allowed for such images as that of the protester in Tahrir Square, surrounded by Egyptian flags, holding up a placard reading “Egypt Supports Wisconsin Workers” to be spread across the world.44 And in Wisconsin itself, where workers have mounted huge protests against Republican attempts to roll back trade union rights, John Stavrellis, who was one of 50 people involved in the first protest, “said inspiration came from student demonstrations in Britain and protests in Tunisia and Egypt”.45 The most recent protest at the time of writing had over 100,00 people on it.

These experiences indicate that the Internet and social media are often a useful complement to the kinds of activism that the left has traditionally engaged in. Where online activism has been seen as a replacement for this kind of activity, it has been unsuccessful.46 So there is a need for caution. For some, the explosive nature of the protests and the efficacy of the Internet have led to claims that organisation is now unnecessary. This overlooks the crucial issue of class structures that are all too often pushed into the background in discussions of the Internet.

Class 2.0

On 25 January the Egyptian regime conducted a fascinating social experiment. Egypt did “what many technologists thought was unthinkable for any country with a major Internet economy: It unplugged itself entirely from the Internet to try and silence dissent”.47 This did not have the desired effect, as protests went from strength to strength. What this futile gamble really demonstrates is the class nature of the Internet.

The idea that the Internet is a neutral space on which all sides can compete is hopelessly utopian. As Bellamy Foster and McChesney argued in a recent article on capitalism and the Internet, “technologies do not ride roughshod over history, regardless of their immense powers. They are developed in a social, political, and economic context. And this has strongly conditioned the course and shape of the communication revolution”.48 On a very basic level, you need to pay an Internet service provider (ISP)—BT, AOL, Sky, among others—just to get yourself online. These ISPs have tremendous power to prevent you from accessing the Internet. In Egypt the multinational communications firm Vodafone was among a number of mobile phone providers who were ordered by the regime to shut down their network in order to prevent protesters communicating, only to reconnect in order to send pro-Mubarak messages. Naturally, they complied.49 At the level of social media, Facebook and other social media networks are corporations that “can eject users at will and restrict the kinds of groups or communicative exchanges that occur with [their] boundaries”.50 Facebook is partially owned by the bank Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan are currently trying to purchase a 10 percent stake in Twitter.51 Between January and March 2011 the stock market valuation of Facebook leapt from $50 billion to $75 billion.52 Capitalism has proved itself remarkably adept at exploiting new avenues for capital accumulation, and the online world is no exception.53

The class nature of the Internet extends beyond these obvious facets. Open source software (OSS)—software that is openly developed and freely distributed—could be seen as a fundamentally democratic form of programming. But the reach of the market does not end at the borders of the online world. As Joseph Choonara explains in a discussion of Linux, the most successful example of OSS:

its development is centralised through a “core-development team” to whom suggested changes to the source code must be submitted. According to one analyst, only 1,000 people contribute changes to Linux on a regular basis. An even smaller group of 100 programmers contributed 37,000 out of 38,000 recent changes all of whom were paid by their employers to work on the operating system. The main employers willing to release staff to work on Linux include Intel, IBM, Hewlett Packard and other giants. They have a vested interest in competition with Microsoft’s Windows operating system, and have accumulated vast amounts of capital, allowing them to dominate the world market.

As Joseph concludes, successful OSS projects “are rapidly absorbed into the capitalist market as a potential source of profit”.54 This point chimes with Nicholas Carr’s recent observation that capitalists have little to fear from networks of volunteers in such fields, since “the innovations of the unpaid web-enabled masses may be ‘conceived in nonmarket environments’, but they ultimately create ‘new platforms’ that ‘support commercial ventures’.”55

Class is also a crucial consideration when it comes to considering the organisational consequences of the arguments put forward by proponents of the absolute novelty of the Internet. When Laurie Penny argues that, “in order to be properly effective, rebels have to deregulate resistance”, she is accepting the typical neoliberal tropes about the working class, that “the power of organised labour was undercut across the world by building in higher structural unemployment and holding down wages, by atomising workers, outsourcing and globalising production while keeping working people tied to increasingly divided and suspicious communities”.56 There is a real danger of left wing commentators uncritically accepting such arguments, of becoming “left wing harmonies in the neoliberal chorus”,57 rather than trying to understand exactly how patterns of employment have changed in recent years. The waves of general strikes across Europe, the mass movement in support of trade union rights in Wisconsin and the integral role of the Egyptian working class in the revolution go a long way to showing in practice that these ideas are more informed by neoliberal ideology than they are by material reality.

This has real implications for political organisation—for one thing, the publication of a newspaper such as Socialist Worker. As Alex Callinicos argued in a reply to Laurie,

Socialist Worker allows us to have an organised weekly dialogue with thousands of other activists. One of its advantages is precisely that it doesn’t just exist in cyberspace but is a physical product that has to be sold in a specific time and space—this particular neighbourhood or workplace or picket-line or demonstration—and that involves face to face interaction.

This allows us to develop continuing relationships with other activists that, we believe, strengthens both us and the broader struggle.58

When Laurie says that groups can “exchange information and change plans via Twitter and text message in the middle of demonstrations “, there’s a clear problem of scale.59 This is all well and good on a small-scale direct action. But how does it apply when hundreds of thousands march or when workers take strike action? It also runs up against problems when dealing with questions of long-term strategic thinking. The current wave of protests organised by the UK Uncut campaign has been an incredibly creative and imaginative way of bringing the issue of corporate tax avoidance to the attention of a wide audience. It conducts meetings via Twitter and is avowedly “non-hierachical”. But when one member tried to set up an event in praise of the anti-union “cooperative” John Lewis, an argument ensued which was only resolved through long arguments among small numbers of people who had the time to debate the issues over multiple online mediums.60 The idea of unstructured online decision-making may seem inclusive and democratic: it is actually unaccountable and exclusive. These problems could escalate if the campaign begins to involve much larger numbers of people, particularly if people begin to become frustrated at the failure of the protests to force either the corporations to pay their taxes or the government to change its tax policy.

In a recent Guardian column Newsnight economic editor Paul Mason argued that: “With Facebook, Twitter and Yfrog truth travels faster than lies, and propaganda is inflammable”.61 The obvious question is: why should truth travel faster than lies? In a world riven by class division and on an Internet that is not immune from it, how does access to social media act as an effective filter? For Mason, the answer is that strategic questions are solved through “memes”—Richard Dawkins’s concept of cultural concepts that replicate and mutate as genes do in organisms. Mason argues that “ideas arise, are very quickly market-tested and then either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves into the mainstream culture or, if they are no good, disappear”. But what does Paul mean by good or bad? Does this have any bearing on how effective they are in bringing about fundamental social change? I, alongside millions of others, am fond of the very successful “watching television while eating dinner” meme. I have no illusions that this meme is going to contribute to the fight against austerity. There is a serious point behind this: the danger of deciding tactics by waiting to see what catches on opens the possibility that activism that is very rewarding in the short term is taken up at the expense of strategic thinking about the long-term goals.62

Many of the ideas the recent movements have thrown up are not especially new, even if they have a technological twist today. In early 1968 the French sociologist André Gorz argued: “in the foreseeable future there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes”.63 Within months France had been gripped by the biggest general strike the world had seen up until that point, and capitalist crisis shook the continent for years afterwards. Writing about the movements that shook the US in the 1960s, Chris Harman noted that spontaneity and lack of structure could fit “situations of sudden, explosive involvement of very large numbers of students… As they took to the streets and occupied buildings they unbalanced the authorities and did not worry unduly about strategy, tactics and organisation.” But, when movements were forced to retreat, “suddenly people began to feel the need for structures and for some understanding of the forces at work in society—for an ‘ideology’”.64

Then as now, we live under a capitalist system in which workers are the source of capitalist profits; workers therefore have the collective power to stop exploitation and fundamentally change the world. Then as now, consciousness among workers is uneven. Political organisation is simply a recognition of the fact that “some people tend to break more quickly with the established ideas of existing society than others. Those who break first need to organise themselves, to win others to their ideas and to counter the manoeuvres of the ruling class and state”.65 To imagine that the Internet offers a shortcut around this is merely technological determinism. But if we understand this, we can think much more fruitfully about exactly how social media and the Internet can effectively be integrated into a political project to change the world.


1: Thanks to Robin Burrett and Dan Meyer for their input into this article. Throughout the piece I will refer to online sites, neworks and practices that may be unfamiliar to people who don’t use social media but which would take up too much space to explain each and every one. If you come across one you don’t understand, you can go here for answers:

2: Krugman, 1999.

3: Viner, 2009.


5: Davies, 2010.

6: “Cyber-utopian” is a phrase used by Evgeny Morozov to describe those who uncritically accept the democratising nature of the Internet. See Morozov, 2010.

7: Penny, 2010a.

8: Among the most ridiculous of this oeuvre of article was Thomas Friedman’s “This is Just the Start” from the New York Times, which suggests that factors contributing to the revolutions included Google Earth, the example of Israeli justice and the Beijing Olympics-Friedman, 2011.



11: Barnett, 2011.


13: CIEC, 1996. The subsequent line of the complaint failed to foresee the development of the ubiquitous “spam” email, stating: “while simultaneously protecting their privacy, because in this new medium individuals receive only the communications they affirmatively request”.

14: Hands, 2011, p79. Hands’s book, while basing its political analysis firmly in the autonomist camp and inspired by John Holloway, Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, is a densely researched and useful guide to various forms of online activism.

15: Grossman, 2006.

16: Grossman, 2006.

17: Hands, 2011, p18.

18: Cited in Gladwell, 2010.

19: Morozov, 2009.

20: i-ek , 2006, p24.

21: Dean, 2005.

22: Gladwell, 2010. The Freedom Summer Project was a campaign that saw “hundreds of Northern, largely white unpaid volunteers to run Freedom Schools, register black voters, and raise civil-rights awareness in the Deep South”. Volunteers faced beatings, intimidation and police harassment. Three activists were murdered, as dramatised in the Alan Parker film Mississippi Burning. Around quarter of those who signed up to the programme dropped out.

23: Gladwell, 2010.

24: White, 2010.

25: White, 2010.

26: White, 2010.

27: Cited in Hands, 2011, pp115-116.

28: Hewlett, 2010.

29: Sifry, 2009.

30: Hands, 2011, p116.

31: Hands, 2011, p117.

32: Hands, 2011, p152.

33: Hands, 2011, pp152-153.

34: For more on the dynamics and events of the student protests in late 2010, see Callinicos and Jones, 2011, and Dan Swain’s article in this issue.

35: Cecil, 2010.

36: Walker, 2010.

37: Cited in Morozov, 2010, p18.

38: Musgrove, 2009.

39: Morozov, 2010, p15.

40: See Philip Marfleet’s article elsewhere in this journal for an account of how the processes leading up to the revolution were more apparent than the media version seems to suggest.

41: Cohen, 2011.

42: Gigi Ibrahim is a revolutionary socialist from Egypt with a keen interest in the role of the Internet in the revolution. These observations are based on a discussion I had with her while researching this article.

43: Cited in Beaumont, 2011.


45: MacAskill, 2011.

46: As anybody who has organised an event via Facebook, only to find that the number of people who say they will attend bears no relation to the number of people who eventually turn up, can bear witness to.

47: Al Jazeera, 2011.

48: Bellamy Foster and McChesney, 2011, p3.

49: BBC News, 2011.

50: Hands, 2011, p86. For details of Facebook’s alleged collusion with the state to remove political groups, see Morozov, 2010, pp211-214. The Right to Work campaign’s Facebook group disappeared under unexplained circumstances in late 2010.

51: Financial Times, 3 March 2011.

52: Swartz and Krantz, 2011.

53: Bellamy Foster and McChesney, 2011, includes a valuable and accessible account of the processes of capital accumulation on the internet.

54: Choonara, 2005.

55: Carr, 2010.

56: Penny, 2010b. For a thoroughgoing critique of these and related ideas, see Smith, 2007, Harman, 2007, Doogan, 2009, and Kimber, 2009.

57: Doogan, 2009, p12.

58: Callinicos, 2011. For a masterful analysis of the importance of revolutionary publications, see Harman, 1984.

59: Penny, 2010b.

60: Seymour, 2010.

61: Mason, 2011.

62: For a critique of Dawkins’s concept of memes, see Callinicos, 1996.

63: Smith, 2007.

64: Harman, 2003.

65: Harman, 2003.


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