James Plunkett on the Twitterification of global movements.
Since the dawn of this crazy little idea called the internet it has become nearly impossible to create a lasting change in modern global civil society without some kind of social media presence. In this veritable toolbox of mass communication and international information proliferation Twitter has become a mainstay of any truly potent social movement.
As it turns out Gil Scott Heron was right, “the revolution will be live.” This allows a body like the Free Syrian Army to deliver their own message in their own words, theoretically taking out the middleman in news or other media coverage. Twitter can contextualize revolutions and revolutionaries within an otherwise amorphous global discourse in real time. It has thus revolutionized grassroots social movements, making the ‘people united’ infinitely more accessible. It has not only made information ‘straight from the source’ but it has also made social movements exceedingly inclusive. Transnational solidarity is quite literally a click or a comment away. Zapatismo eat your heart out.
The flip side to the humanizing argument is that Twitter is merely a vehicle for the consumerism of current affairs. In this way we, the ever-hungry public, are fed snapshots of the revolution. Each tweet or status update becomes a performance by whoever is writing for the consumption of whoever is reading. A dissonance arises between the real and the perceived, a rift in the historical narrative.
Enter Egypt, 2011. Those in control of Egypt’s Twitter (see #Egypt) and Facebook structured their revolution with a very clear knowledge of both the humanizing and consumer-culture aspects of social media. Indeed, the Egyptian Revolution did not merely use social networking to its advantage, it made itself into a social media event that the whole world could take part in and watch.
Twitter made the rebellion in Egypt hip, cool, and young. It didn’t matter that the average nineteen-year-old strapping on a Guy Fawkes mask in Zucotti Park had little-to-no idea about Mubarak’s politics or the real role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the ‘success’ of the revolution. What they saw was what Egypt showed us: the street sweepers, the appropriated Zapatista bandana, the young people in Tahrir.
Of course, the social media environment of Egypt pre-revolution was more vibrant, more open to the type of mass mobilization it was able to coordinate once it all began. The lack of such vibrancy in other situations was clear in the way the events in Libya and Tunisia played out. But I would suggest that it’s a bit more than that. In Egypt they knew we were watching and had the ability to give us both dinner and the show. The revolution was not only televised, it was given a hash tag.
Of course the geopolitics make Syria a totally different ball game. But what about the pure potential that the now Syrian civil war once had to be a burgeoning social movement in the eyes of the West? We never even got that far. The first images we got were of the corpses in trenches. The bloodshed. There was never a movement to ‘Free Syria’ despite the existence of the Free Syrian Army, despite all the necessary players for the staging of a transnational push for revolution. We simply weren’t buying what they were selling.
Syria went from attempted overthrow to failed humanitarian project to massacre to civil war. There was no counterculture in our eyes despite the fact that counterculture is exactly what the Free Syrian Army is built on. The revolution on the ground never happened because the revolution on our screens never happened. This is not to say that international media trends determine the outcome of social movements everywhere. If that were the case I would certainly be wearing a ‘Free Miley Cyrus’ shirt right now.
My point remains, however. Now, more than ever, the revolution must be a package. The revolution must be a performance, and it is only truly successful if the audience claps. While Twitter puts revolutionaries in the drivers seat it also reinforces the dissociative aspects of modern social media. We don’t get Dr. King’s March on Washington speech; we get the first ten seconds. And, maybe, that’s all we can handle.
–Original Photo: heatherbuckley.co.uk/Flickr