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‘Social media is the new village square’: How the internet influences protests in the wake of Ihumātao

For nine consecutive weeks, wild protests have mobbed the streets of Hong Kong to oppose a piece of legislation that would allow for the extradition of convicted criminals to China, threatening to fracture the autonomy of Hong Kong. Across the seas in Aotearoa, teachers took to the streets to fight for more pay. Now, people have spread in numbers across social media, and the site itself, to defend Ihumātao, a peninsula on the west side of Auckland’s Manukau Harbour - the city’s oldest settlement - from a significant housing development by Fletcher Buildings; a deeper fight against persistent colonialism and the erosion of Māori land. In each case, the protests have enforced rare political action, but how much did social media influence the outcome? As Ihumātao continues, we chat to Victoria University of Wellington social media professor, Dr. Michael Daubs, about protests in the social media age.

The Atlantic reported it took a year of organising and directly lobbying for change that lead to the 13-month-long Montgomery bus boycott beginning in 1955 with Rosa Parks’s act of resistance. It took a decade of fastening social connections and testing the fibre of the civil rights movement before Martin Luther King rallied The March on Washington in 1963. 

These days, social movements can travel much faster, thanks to the internet. Over the past year, in Aotearoa, people have congregated on social media for a variety of reasons; to support the Islamic community in the fight against racism following the harrowing terrorist attacks in Christchurch, the impassioned Strike for Climate that mobilised thousands of students to wag school and march for urgent action, and now support for Ihumātao has seen messages of love and support towards sacred Māori land and justice spread across social media news feeds, collecting 52,091 signatures in an online petition seeking NZ Government and Auckland Council intervention, with one page #protectihumātao climbing above 30,000 followers on Instagram. 

The question of how social media has changed the course of protesting has generated a lot of unsettled debate, as some believe it provides strong grounds for political activism, while others remain wary of its trivial characteristics. 

However, Daubs says, “It’s not unreasonable to say that social media have the ability to change the scale, scope, and speed of protesting”.

It has the potential to increase awareness of an issue or protest, and generate large support networks. In the case of the Ihumātao protests, people who might not otherwise be aware of the historical issues and events that led to the protests, or the protest itself, may coincidentally learn of them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

“This can lead people to seek out more information on their own and/or become involved in the protests (assuming their beliefs align). Social media can also be a source of support and solidarity for activist groups,” says Daubs.

Further, Daubs states that despite some pushback, research has proven even small actions, such as changing your Facebook photo to one with social or political messages, may be an incremental step to more in-depth activities.

One example is the recent Kiwibank campaign, which matched $1 to every person who chose to add the ‘I AM HOPE’ frame on their profile photo, collectively raising $100,000 for Mike King’s charity, Gumboot Friday – a promotion to raise money to pay for counselling for children. 

However, while it is easy to start a protest on social media, it’s far more difficult to shift policy from the keyboard. Daubs argues, social media protests alone “very rarely result in any tangible change”.

This is because while social media can be a useful source of information, it only represents a subset of the population, which can spotlight sides of an issue in proportions that don’t necessarily reflect the general population. Thus, some voices are magnified over others. 

Additionally, the permissive nature of social media platforms where everybody - including uninformed users - can contribute to political messages means it is tougher for policy makers to make sense of the noise, without over-emphasising certain voices.  

Daubs says, “The speed and volume of content on social media means there are several demands on public attention and only a few messages can break through the clutter. In addition, a focus on social media activities overlooks the efforts of dedicated organisers and protestors working offline as well as online.

“In the case of the Ihumātao protests, for example, the real power comes from those who are peacefully occupying the land and, to a certain extent, the mass media attention those protests have generated.”

Experts and scholars have sought to understand the effectiveness of social media movements since 2009, when Twitter enabled users to turn their profile green, in support of Iranian protesters

At the time, Global Voices Iran editor Fred Petrossian, argued that talk of a Twitter revolution “revealed more about Western fantasies for new media than the reality in Iran”. 

Other experts have suggested social media allows people to engage in ‘slactivism’ -- unproductive, or even “token”, displays of support that have no political impact.

Further, although social media tools have been used to promote messages of social justice, they have been equally good at spreading hateful messages, misinformation, and derailing important conversations. 

Daubs says, since social media are inherently participatory, protest messages can be countered and co-opted, hashtags can be hijacked, and fake news can be inserted into debates. Therefore, a reliance on Twitter or Facebook - relatively unregulated and private corporations - can lead to uncertainty for both protest groups and policy makers. 

A quick scan of the barrage of unfiltered abuse buried within social media comments sections, or the horrifying Facebook live stream of the terrorism in Christchurch, remain stark examples of the perils of social media. As Wireddescribed of The Arab Spring, “liberty isn't the only end toward which these tools can be turned”. 

The problem is rotten people have the same access to these digital tools. And unfortunately individual users have very little power to maximise the spread of positive messages on social media (except to merely share positive messages).

Daubs says, “Much depends on the algorithms of those platforms, over which people—and governments—have little control. Regulation is also difficult; while some countries have rules against hate and/or discriminatory speech and can require social media platforms to remove or block content that violates those laws, punishments can be somewhat less than effective.”

Recently, Facebook’s stock actually went up after the record US$5 billion fine by the Federal Trade Commission in the United States for its role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which according to Vox, left its investors celebrating. 

Therefore, the notion that Twitter or Facebook are democratising protests and creating ‘social revolutions’ (such as with the Green Wave in Iran in 2009, or the Egyptian Revolution in 2011), while remaining private unstoppable digital oligarchs, is both contradictory and over exaggerated. 

In some cases, the perception is that as social media empowers protests, it enables people to enter into the ‘collective consciousness’, with the prospect of a warm humane light at the end of the tunnel. 

But to draw upon international examples, such as The Arab Spring, or the Occupy Wall Street Movement, it turns out the promise of social media does not always translate into reality. 

According to Daubs, “The main challenges of relying on social media to mobilise political change are gaining attention in a flood of information online; channelling ‘awareness’ into action; dealing with disinformation, misinformation, or message spread; navigating the proprietary algorithmic dynamics of the platforms; and over-relying on online communication at the expense of other, possibly more effective methods.”

Therefore, instead of depending on digital tools, to create effective social change, protests are stronger when combining old and new techniques - protests, marches, media appearances, occupations, and social media campaigns. 

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