The role of social media in recent global uprisings, a la Paolo Gerbaudo

Paolo Gerbaudo points out that the anti-globalization movement used Internet services like Indymedia and mailing lists, while the newer movements use social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. The former recruits new people and the latter coordinates specific actions. He says the difference is the anti-globalization movement identified with minorities, as typified in Zapatista Sucocomandante Marcos’ saying, “Marcos is all the exploited, marginalized, oppressed minorities resisting and saying ‘Enough.’” The newer movements see them themselves as the populist majority, the 99%, or the Egyptian slogan “we are one hand,” joined together in “a new experience of public space.”

Gerbaudo interviewed 80 activists and observed demonstrations in Egypt, Spain, and the US to conclude that the uprisings were not leaderless spontaneous uprisings, because “influential Facebook admins and activist tweeps become ‘soft leaders’ or choreographers.”[i] They construct the “emotional space” to galvanize action with directions about where to meet in person; he states that the role of emotions in groups is neglected in social movement studies. Specific examples of reluctant or “anti-leaders” are Egyptian bloggers and tweeters Gigi Ibrahim and Sandmonkey and Wael Ghronin, co-administrator of the Facebook page “We are all Khaled.” They created group identification and the motivation to show up in a demonstration, stirring up indignation, anger, pride, and shared victimhood. In Spain, Twitter feeds and live-streaming video attracted “normal” people to the squares. But, he believes once the people were in Tahrir Square, face-to-face communication was more important than social media. He believes Occupy Wall Street didn’t take off until activists occupied Zuccotti Park. He faults professor Clay Skirky for “techno-celebratory discourse” that views recent protests as dependent on social media. On the other side, some critics of social media think that “slacktivism,” enables users to feel involved by joining a Facebook page without having any impact.


[i] Paolo Gerbaudo. Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism. Pluto Press, 2012, p. 5.



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