Can Facebook and Twitter be used to reinvent social activism? Author Malcolm Gladwell argues in Small Change that social media are not positioned for this challenge because while social media are great at fostering innovation and collaboration, bringing together buyers and sellers and coordinating logistics, they are lacking in creating bonds that unite people to rebel, especially critical to sweeping social changes such as America’s 1960s civil rights movement.
Gladwell’s thesis statement was buried deep in the article which made it exhausting to read until his point was finally made. The point that he made was: Weak ties, like the ones present in social media networks, “seldom lead to risk-risk activism.” The author’s definition of a “weak tie” are associations that while allowing people to “give voice to their concerns,” do not elicit individuals to act. where a “strong tie” is one that allows people to confront tyranny and bring about significant social change because of a deeply vested personal relationship.
After a discussion of the Greensboro lunch counter confrontation, Gladwell purported that David Richmond, Franklin, McClain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil (the ‘Greensboro Four’ activists) empowered one another, using their long-term and inter-connecting relationship, to remain seated at the ‘all white’ lunch counter at Woolworth’s – despite being warned and then threatened that they could not stay there. Furthermore, per Gladwell, without the strength of their friendship bonds, they would not have had the courage needed to protest the racial injustice of Jim Crow practices as they did.
Gladwell goes on to assert that social media connects people but only to the extent that they are not asked to risk large stakes in the outcome. His example discussed a search for donor bone-marrow and the creation of a database as an example of social media’s strengths. By comparison, civil rights worker’s strength to proceed with the 1960s Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, per Gladwell, lay in the fortitude only exhibited when there are “strong ties” among the participants. The Freedom Project would not have been fostered by social media, in Gladwell’s estimation, because Facebook “succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice” but instead by its indirect associations.
Media Expert Disagrees
In another TCNJ course (i.e., Society, Ethics, and Technology) we discussed how the viral popularity of a Facebook page (featuring Klahed Said, a slain victim of Egyptian police brutality) fueled further dissension and protests, leading to President Mubarak’s resignation in 2012. Remembering this, I Google-searched ‘role of social media in Arab Spring Uprising’ and a host of compelling blogs and articles were presented. One, written by Master’s student Eira Martens reflected an academic study by someone with diverse media consulting experience in Germany, Australia, South East Asia and Latin America. As a result, I felt her work was less emotional than some of the blog posts that I also read from Egyptians who participated in the movement.
Martens’ research on the Arab Spring Uprisings conflicted with Gladwell’s foundational premise the people are only willing to make a sacrifice and show the tenacity required to confront stare down injustice when motivated and flanked by personal acquaintances. In contrast, Martens stated that as brutal images in Egypt “were distributed on Facebook and other platforms such as YouTube and Flickr, made people more willing to take to the streets and risk being injured or even killed…because as well as making people angry, the images also lowered people’s fear threshold,” allowing participants to form a collective identity (Martens). This was a departure from Gladwell’s assertion that only deep and meaningful friendships fuel people’s courage to protest and that social media, lacking in depth, was inept at spurring social upheaval and change.
In Small Change, Gladwell takes great stock in his assertion that high-risk activism mandates “strong-ties” with friends who are also taking part in the movement stating, “The primary determinant of who showed up was “critical friends” – the more you had who were critical of the regime, the more likely you were to join the protest.” Martens’ commentary was in direct contrast to Gladwell’s baseline arguments.
Meeting of the Minds
However, on the subject of leadership and authority, Gladwell stated that “if you are taking on a powerful and organized establishment, you have to be a hierarchy” which provides an authority structure of disciplined groups. Marten’s research agreed that “the organizational potential of Facebook and Twitter to coordinate protests in the long-term, to define collective goals and to create effective structures seems to be limited.”
Gladwell’s article was written in 2010, while the Arab Spring Uprisings took place in 2012. So, I have to wonder if Gladwell would change his position if he compared the 1960s civil rights movement (accomplished without social media) to the Arab Spring Uprisings, whose success in gathering high-risk involvement has been attributed to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube. I would personally believe this comparison would present a more convincing argument than Gladwell did in Small Change