How did you hear about the Ferguson protests? Like most people, I heard about the protests and disproportionate police response from Twitter.
With police blocking journalists from reporting on the Ferguson protests, most news about it has come from activists on the scene. The protests’ prominence emerged because activists used online tools to make themselves heard and become a news story at a time when media organisations were not interested in covering them.
Initially, people posted pictures of themselves with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown to critique the media portrayal of Michael Brown as well as the mainstream media portrayal of young black people. Facebook, Twitter and Google Docs were used to co-ordinate and stage #NMOS14 (National Moment of Silence) protests on 14 August.
After two journalists were arrested in Ferguson during the protests, it has become clear that authorities are attempting to minimise knowledge of their unwarranted violent responses. This is where activists and online tools have become important. They have the means to make information public that the professional media cannot. This means is new media.
However, new media theorists have disputed that new media can be this powerful as a tool for activism and democracy. Evgeny Morozov, in his 2009 TED talk, said “ The assumption so far has been that if you give people enough connectivity, if you give them enough devices, democracy will inevitably follow…the bigger problem with this logic is that it confuses the intended versus the actual uses of technology. For those of you who think that new media of the Internet could somehow help us avert genocide, should look no further than Rwanda, where in the '90s it was actually two radio stations which were responsible for fueling much of the ethnic hatred in the first place”.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote that online activism only begets weak social ties, which cannot lead to “high-risk activism”. Due to its networked rather than hierarchical nature, he added, online activism can never be disciplined or strategic enough to accomplish anything worthwhile.
Gladwell doesn’t recognise that online activism is only a tool, and can complement traditional forms of activism. Strong and social ties are not mutually exclusive. One can lead to another, or even work together. The Ferguson protests began with strong social ties, but were strengthened with weaker ones. Simply because it is networked, does not mean that online activism is undisciplined or lacks strategy. One only needs to look at the Barack Obama campaign or the #NMOS14 vigils to realise this. It is also evident from the Ferguson protests that online activism can be high-risk. The nature of activism and communication has changed, and new media are simply a part of this new communication landscape. Activism must therefore keep up.
Find an equilibrium
Morozov too is mistaken. His example of Rwanda fails as radio stations were controlled by a small group of people, while the Internet can be used as an activist tool by anyone with access to it. He is correct in stating that connectivity does not lead to democracy. Connectivity needs to have a goal in mind to become an effective tool for activism, and can’t be an end in itself. There are plenty of examples of the failures and successes of online activism, but it’s difficult to predict what will happen in future. Morozov attempts to do this: “We have to stop thinking about the number of iPods per capita and start thinking about ways in which we can empower intellectuals, dissidents, NGOs and then the members of civil society…So I think we should shatter some of our utopian assumptions and actually start doing something about it”.
While shattering our utopian assumptions is necessary, it’s also necessary to shatter our dystopian ones and find an effective middle ground. Perhaps Morozov and Gladwell should think about ways to empower civil society using new media rather than speculate about its uses as an activist tool in a way that paints it as a black and white issue.