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Activism in the Digital Age: Confronting Conflict Through Social Media

When we think of social media sites like MySpace or Facebook we usually do not think of resistance movements fighting for justice and an end to conflict. In the mainstream media when we hear of a social media sites it is primarily the very negative aspects of these sites such as sexual predators and cyber bullying that get brought up. Today society is plagued with hyper-individualism that is exasperated by social media sites, but do they have the potential to be more than just spaces that promote consumerism and cultural hegemony? Can these sites reflect the real state of the world not just the constructed veil that blinds us of the ills of society? Can these sites be used to build networks of resistance that can influence the current conflicts of today? Imagine how the past movements of worker’s, civil, and women’s rights movements would have looked if they had the technological resources that we have today! Just imagine how Dr. Martin Luther King or Cesar Chavez would have utilized Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube. Can social media sites be used as a tool to build social movements that struggle for conflict resolution and justice?

Society is rife with conflict. War, racism, sexism, and homophobia both here in the United States as well as globally. In a time of such great conflict and with the rise of technology it seems that resistance to these social plagues would be greater now than ever. This is not the case. The Left is in a state of total disarray and our society is in a state of increasing class and cultural conflict and yet social movements seem to be decreasing in size and strength. As the left is rebuilding social media sites will play a part in this process both as an effective organizing/rallying tool as well as an powerful force for dissemination of propaganda.

Social media sites offer a new rejuvenating force that is already making an impact on new social movements today. Nancy Scola demonstrates the new power of social media sites by writing “Facebook is revolutionizing the way collective political and social actions are organized today, blowing the doors off old models of how volunteer lists are amassed, funds raised, and messages honed and delivered ” (Scola). Social media sites are creating new outlets for youth to organize and resist. They have millions of members world wide, “81% of members of online communities use the Internet to participate in social causes, up from 75% in 2007, finds a survey by the Center for the Digital Future at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication” (Swartz). This is a staggering statistic considering Facebook alone has 400 million accounts worldwide and an estimated 120 million in the US alone (Pearson). This means that not only is there an incredible community of people becoming socially aware and engaged but the number is on the rise. Just because there is high number of people starting to support this new trend of online activism doesn’t mean that they are all going to be interested serious organizing or protests. This is actually quite the opposite. Take for example an anti Prop 8 demonstration what was organized on the Internet last March. Over 100,000 people were expected to demonstrate in San Francisco and only 10,000 people actually did (Swartz).

Does this mean that Social media sites are ineffective means of organizing? Absolutely not! Only getting 10 percent of 100,000 thousand people to demonstrate is not a failure by any means. This should be looked at as having a demonstration of 10,000 people with 90,000 people standing in solidarity. It should absolutely not be expected to get everyone who says there going to be at a protest or demonstration. Organizing protests over social media sites has actually been a very effective tool of mobilization. This is typified by the anti-prop 8 demonstrations that were held around the country after the passage of the ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage even though the California Supreme Court had legalized it earlier in the year. Anti Prop 8 and LGBTQI activism in general has been on the cutting edge of using social media as a tool for organizing. In San Francisco people were outraged by the passage of Prop 8. In just two days a protest that drew over 20,000 people was organized primarily on Facebook and other social media sites (Boyette). It is a truly remarkable feat to organize a protest that draws 20,000 people but to do it in two days is absolutely astounding. This was one of the defining moments of a new era of activism both for LGBTQ rights as well as for all other social movements. In a similar fashion an anti Prop 8 protest in Seattle, which was organized primarily on Facebook, about a month after the one in San Francisco drew close to 10,000 people. The primary organizer had never even been to a protest let alone organized one (Boyette).

This article was one of the winners of the Cheyney Ryan Award conducted by the University of Oregon Conflict Resolution program. Click here to read this article.

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Michael King

Michael King is a student activist at the University of Oregon double majoring in Sociology and Philosophy. His main areas of interest are Marxist theory, political economy, and environmental sociology. He is an active in many different social, economic, and environmental justice struggles and organizes in the International Socialist Organization… MORE >

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