Does Social Media Drive Movement Building?

Recently The Communications Network and Spitfire Strategies hosted a dinner event with some Communications Network members to have a focused conversation on how social media and online tools do and do not impact advocate’s abilities to achieve social change. Ultimately, the larger discussion focused on the question: what is the value of online activism in building movements?

Attendees of the dinner were asked to read three pieces prior to attending that provided context for the conversation:

Gladwell argues that the human networks that drove social change in the past were driven by clear strong personal ties between the members of those networks and that action required real risk on behalf of those people. He argues that “the platforms of social media are built around weak ties” and that these types of “weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism” though they are optimal at “the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world.”

Stephen’s analysis challenges this notion by examining the Black Lives Matter movement, which he says, “as diffuse and protean as it may seem, has mounted some of the most potent civil rights activism since the ’60s.” He argues that one of the biggest reasons for the gains that Black Lives Matter has made is because, “perhaps more than any other modern American protest movement, they’ve figured out how to marshal today’s tools.”

The Heimans and Timms piece did not address the intersection of social media and social change so directly, but instead focused on how the shifts in society that have made information sharing more open have led to historically new ways for the typical person to obtaining power and influence. In their words, “new power models are enabled by peer coordination and the agency of the crowd—without participation, they are just empty vessels. Old power is enabled by what people or organizations own, know, or control that nobody else does—once old power models lose that, they lose their advantage.”

These perspectives helped facilitate a lively and engaging conversation that examined the degrees of risk that individuals face by engaging in political activities online, the importance of monitoring the online activity of your supporters and adjusting your strategies in real time to optimize engagement, and the impact that storytelling with visuals can have on inspiring action, among many other subjects. The Communications Network Board Vice Chair Jesse Salazar recently wrote a blog post that reflects on the event and explores some of the ideas that were discussed in great detail.

I found that both the spirit of the event and the lessons learned from the readings are best characterized by an observation Bijan Stephen makes in his piece: “Any large social movement is shaped by the technology available to it and tailors its goals, tactics, and rhetoric to the media of its time.” Social media has quickly become a medium through which large sections of the population interact on a regular basis. Given this, as social change agents and movement makers, we need to thoughtfully and continuously tailor our tactics and strategies to incorporate the media of our time.