A global pandemic, an unprecedented worldwide economic crisis, and an upsurge in protests for racial justice has raised the stakes for the left in terms of how we organize.
While mass protests and in-person actions are resuming, in all likelihood until we have a vaccine much of how we communicate and organize will be online through social media. We are posting, zooming and scrolling through our feeds more than ever. And it’s exhausting.
Since the beginning of the pandemic social media platforms have seen a dramatic increase in active users. In the second quarter of 2020 Twitter saw its daily user base jump by 20 million, a 34% increase, while Facebook’s platforms saw its daily user base grow by 14%. This is not a new trend, in the ten years before the pandemic hit Facebook saw its user base increase by over 600%, it now boasts 2.6 billion active users. Twitter has 330 million active users, while Instagram has a little over one billion active users. Social media, for better or worse, is now playing a greater role in not only how people get their news, but how people form, develop and sustain their communities.
Much of the recent public debate about online engagement has revolved around the rise of “cancel culture” — the supposed uptick of name and shame engagement on the web. The cancel culture debate is almost exclusively seen through the prism of individual ideas and actions, rather than structures and institutions. But the real threats to free speech aren’t from online users, they are from corporations who control the web, our employers, and the government.
For socialists, being online is not a question. What is less clear is how socialists should understand and use social media to advance our political goals. Unlike liberals and the far-right, the radical left should approach social media not as a marketplace for ideas, but as a site for organizing.
When liberals log on
The rise of the internet brought with it a liberal imagination of its potential positive transformative impacts on society. The creation and adoption of social media platforms on a mass scale in the mid to late 2000s made liberals wax poetic about how the new media was a marketplace for ideas that had the power to hold the powerful to account, while drawing millions into the public debate.
Much of the liberal view of social media as a source for democratic renewal, open citizen access, was cemented by two political moments, the 2008 Obama presidential election and the 2009 to 2011 period of global social protests from Iran to Egypt to Occupy Wall Street.
Obama’s election in 2008 had an almost mystical hold over the liberal mind for its ability to turn out the youth vote. The Obama campaign’s use of online communications, its ability to gather info and target ads was seen as revolutionary. Commentators at the time believed that his election would usher in a new era of citizen participation in government that would extend beyond party lines. As a one Democratic Party linked digital strategist put in 2009:
“People will continue to expect a conversation, a two-way relationship that is a give and take. People who were part of the campaign will opt in to political or governing tracks and those relationships will continue in some form…Yes, we have met Big Brother, the one who is always watching. And Big Brother is us.”
The reality of course was quite different, Obama’s first term would not see greater levels of engagement in political life, but less. This should come as no surprise when digital consultants for the Obama campaign believed that “a campaign is a start-up business.”
While Liberals were in awe of the Obama campaign, it was the protests in Iran in 2009 and then the Arab Spring in 2011 which truly shifted the discussion about the power of social media. Most liberals could not understand, let alone explain why people in Tunisia and Egypt rose up and overthrew their governments when they did. While social media was a factor in the uprisings, many, though not all, liberals elevated one of the organizing tools into a totalizing explanation for the political upheavals. But as Egyptian revolutionary Gigi Ibrahim explained:
“We would have used any other technology that was available. What really made the revolution possible was the struggle itself rather than these tools…This was not an Internet revolution, this was not a Facebook revolution, this was simply a people’s revolution. Without people risking their lives and going to the streets, this revolution would not have happened. It didn’t take a Facebook event to tell people to go and get tear gas. No, it took the sense of struggle and the demand for freedom and social equality and liberty.”
Over the last five years the liberal infatuation with social media has soured. The rise of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote shifted the conversation about social media from openness and democracy to one of misinformation, fake news, foreign interference and conspiracy theories. Social media, for liberals, became a mechanism that was delegitimizing democratic institutions and helping to birth the populist right. To combat this liberals have sought to shore up the legitimacy of institutions, employ fact checkers, resurrect the spectre of a new cold war and call for greater corporate control over free speech.
The rightwing and social media
The far-right has a long history of utilizing online communities and messaging board to organize. From the beginning the rightwing has embraced social media as platform to push its agenda. The rise of the ‘Tea Party’ movement, which was organized and funded by wealthy donors and corporations, was able to train its supporters to use social media, specifically twitter, to push its ideas and pressure politicians. The rise of Trump signalled the ability of the rightwing to use social media to not simply find an audience, but to drive the news cycle. Much of the conservative content of social media is aimed at the supposed inherent liberal bias of mainstream media. In recent years this rightwing narrative of liberal bias has focused on the social media companies themselves.
In Canada, the most successful rightwing approach to social media has been Ontario Proud and its various spin offs. Founded in 2016 by Conservative party linked communication strategist, Ontario Proud quickly grew into one of the largest political facebook pages in the country. It blends non-political posts about great provincial attractions, the weather, or sports, along with political red meat for the right-wing. It uses short videos and memes attacking Liberal corruption, the mainstream media and social programs.
Social media for both liberals and conservatives is largely viewed as a marketplace of ideas, although one fraught with mistruths and bias. For liberals, the spectre of fake news and Russian interference loom large. Social media’s promise of a more participatory and enlightened civil discourse has been replaced by narratives of distrust and toxicity. The result has been to support the expanding corporate censorship and uncritical consumption of mainstream news. Conservatives understand social media as a way to bypass what they view as a biased media ecosystem. In recent years the rightwing has pushed the idea that social media companies are silencing conservative voices either via outright censorship or via manipulating the algorithm.
Unlike liberals and the rightwing the radical left should approach social media not as a marketplace for ideas but as a terrain to contest ideas and build our networks. This does not mean dispensing with systemic critiques of Silicon Valley and social media companies, but allowing an analysis of the political economy of Silicon Valley to inform an organizing approach.
In his book “Surveillance Valley” author Yasha Levine notes the internet’s origins lay not in some benevolent sharing of ideas amongst academics and scientists, but in the American military’s quest to spy on and suppress the enemies of American power. Most of the internet’s key technological foundations were funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency rooted in the Vietnam-era’s drive for counter-insurgency. Surveillance and prediction are not bad consequences of internet technology, rather they are baked into its DNA.
Publicly funded technology was the basis for the massive private wealth of the big tech firms of today: Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon. These companies thrive off of what economists call a network effect – the value of a network grows as it gains more users, which entrenches it as a platform – that essentially prevents competition and tends towards monopoly.
Big tech thrives off of controlling patents and creating platforms which require businesses and individuals to either pay for the use of their products (Microsoft and Apple) or use their platforms for free but allowing them to collect vast amounts of user data (Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter). The business model for these companies is one based on selling access to user data. Surveillance and prediction are at the core of Silicon Valley’s business model.
To have valuable data requires a large user base and fomenting the most individualizing user interaction with the platform. As Megan Day notes the structure and business model of social media “enhances narcissism, encourages cruelty, erodes empathy, exacerbates social isolation and atomization, and presents enormous obstacles to left-wing political organizing.”
Social media provides users with increased access to new information and a greater connection to other users. News consumption via social media reinforces social bubbles, the news that shows up on our feeds is curated by our friends, our page likes and most importantly corporate algorithms. Social media encourages users to treat their social media platforms as if it is their personal brand. All of this can be an isolating and exhausting experience, and thus it is no surprise that high usage rates of social media exacerbate feelings of loneliness. For users from oppressed communities navigating social media also means dealing with aggressive and threatening behaviour and language – sometimes this takes the form of organized trolling. The structures of racism and sexism that make up society are reflected online.
While social media can often have a negative impact for users, it is also an important medium to connect, find like-minded communities and help amplify issues that otherwise would be too easily ignored. In short, social media for the left, can be an effective organizing tool. The question is how?
Using social media effectively from the left is not primarily a question of attitude. It is important that socialists approach social media with good sense, aiming to foster solidarity, elevating consciousness, pointing towards concrete action and building the confidence and leadership in others. The approach to how we conduct ourselves in online and offline spaces should be no different. It takes practice to do it effectively.
Lone socialists, no matter how amazing, cannot effectively leverage the potential of social media. This is because socialism is a collective project and it requires a collective organizing approach. Building socialist social media that can be greater than the sum of its likes is the name of the game.
The production and distribution of news and analysis has been a key strategy for the socialist left in building their organization and movements. In the 19th and 20th centuries newspapers for socialists were a mechanism or scaffolding around which socialists could build an organization rooted in the working class and social movements. The process of revolutionary journalism, of writing reports, talking to fellow workers and distributing these reports allowed socialists to build relationships, gather information, draw connections between movements, raise the level of political analysis of its readers and build their confidence to fight. Media remains an essential organizing tool to educate, agitate and organize.
While quality reporting and even sage opinions can be found in the press, in subtle (word choice, story framing, pictures etc.) and not so subtle ways the corporate media structurally reflects the worldview of the rich and powerful. It comforts the comfortable and afflicts the afflicted. The mainstream media is and has always been biased. As Malcolm X said “If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” This is one of the reasons why socialists and oppressed communities around the world produce their own alternative media.
But even alternative media is not automatically abstract truth. Every social movement involves a constant series of debates over strategy and tactics. It is not enough to expose the lies of the corporate media, but to argue what is to be done. Producing media that is socialist includes both producing content that argues for specific strategies and tactics, and producing a form that builds socialist organization.
Today, most North Americans consume their news via social media platforms. In Canada, social media platforms are now the leading way in which people get their news. Traditional media outlets have adapted their news production to not simply see social media as a way to promote content on other media, but as a platform for original content.
Putting the socialism in social media
Socialists must also treat social media not merely as a distribution mechanism for ideas, but as media content itself. Over 70% of all readers of Spring magazine visit our website, springmag.ca, via Facebook, which means our Facebook page is in effect, the front page of our publication. Social media platforms thus should be understood as a fully integrated part of a socialist publication. The production and distribution of pictures, videos, memes and shareables are not mere add-ons to socialist media, they are the means by which we can expand our contacts, communicate ideas and organize actions effectively and quickly.
To produce and disseminate social media content requires the centralization of the publication. Building institutional accounts, that are democratically accountable and have clear politics, cuts against the individualizing tendencies of social media. It also allows organizers to collectively work towards building new audiences outside the reach of any one person’s bubble, and in the process build socialist organization.
Alternative media challenges the content of corporate media but can copy its form: with a few people at the centre supplying news to passive consumers. The socialist approach is not to turn people into a passive audience, but rather reach and activate new networks: to put socialist ideas into action.
Institutional accounts can actively solicit reports, videos or pictures of local protests or strikes in their area. This not only helps amplify and connect local issues, it can actively build a political relationship across a large geographic area. Each person contributing to the publication, sharing from the publication, has their own networks which are drawn into some sort of relationship with the publication. Socialist journalism is really about activating and giving the tools and politics for people to build political relationships in their own networks in a way that connects to a larger socialist network.
Social media not only allows for a greater geographical spread of socialist ideas and information, it just as importantly speeds up the process of journalism itself, which in periods of heightened struggle means the possibility of nearly simultaneously producing and disseminating news via live tweets, livestreams and quick uploads of photos and videos. This shapes both how socialists should approach the production of news and how we should organize. As the Egyptian socialist Hossam El-Hamalawy noted back in 2012:
“Today, if we consider the website as the organizer, it means that we must update this site minute by minute, and follow political events and activities that occur in Egypt before any traditional source of expertise. The arrival of reports and updates for the site around the clock translates organizationally into the presence of revolutionary correspondents on the ground getting involved with events and then sending a report to the “center,” which is the site editorial board that establishes, in turn, a faster rhythm of organizational work.”
A tool not a solution
Of course large social media accounts do not make a revolution. As El-Hamalawy noted in an interview about the Egyptian revolution, “some are under the illusion that it’s enough to have a Twitter account with a big number of followers to ‘instigate the masses into action,’ which is of course a farce.” As he explained:
“There were numerous occasions where strikes and protests were organized online, but they materialized because there were activists on the ground who can implement this. And there were numerous occasions where calls for general strikes or mass protests happened on the internet but nothing materialized on the ground.”
Likewise, dream casting big solutions to society’s problems will on its own change nothing. So, while it is absolutely correct for discussions about socialist and social media to turn to big ideas such as nationalizing social media platforms, in reality this is not actually the question facing the left. The question is how do we build the power to win?
Social media is a tool, not a solution for socialists. We can only leverage the openings it provides if we have clear politics about how social transformation occurs. Mass movements aren’t declared, they are the product of large historical socio-economic forces intersecting with the daily actions of people. Aiming to build mass movements that allow people to gain valuable political experiences, build their collective power and deepen their political analysis should be our goal – the self-emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself.
Socialists need to move beyond seeing social media as a way of getting our ideas out there and start seeing it as a means of building real political relationships based upon ideas in action. As El-Hamalawy reminds us, “The Internet is only a medium and a tool by which we can support our ‘off-line’ activities. Our strength will always stem from the fact that we’ll have one foot in the cyberspace, and, more importantly, the other foot will be on the ground.”
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