Beyond Twibbons: thinking about politics and social media

As many have noted, Julia Gillard’s gender speech made its global impact because of digital media. If technology hadn’t allowed people to see Gillard’s address themselves, if we’d all been reliant on gallery reporters, the episode would have amounted, in all probability, to little more than another passing parliamentary spat, marked by a few lines in the broadsheets and nothing more. But seeing was only part of it. The social heft came not merely from the speech’s content but from its extraordinarily rapid proliferation, with the video’s virality becoming central to its meaning: a palpable and widely understood signifier of how much opposition to sexism resonated.

The importance of Twitter and Facebook to misogyny-gate led some to emphasise a clash between medias old and new, with the Australian, in particular, treating the internet as if it were a particular demographic, a newly discovered inner-city suburb somewhere, entirely populated by socialists and militant homosexuals. Actually, as a recent study explains, in Australia, ‘internet usage is near-universal across all age groups, until we reach 65+ where it drops to 93 per cent’. That is, today, even among the Australian’s core readership of aggrieved grandfathers, almost everyone gets online in some way, shape or form. The same study reveals that, as you would expect, a clear majority of internet users regularly access some form of social media), so much so that, in reality, far more people log into Facebook on a daily basis than subscribe to print newspapers, a comparison that should (but won’t) make the curmudgeon chorus shut its collective pie hole.

Yet, if the contrast between print and digital has been posed idiotically, that doesn’t mean that questions don’t arise as to just how politics plays out within social media networks. The very term ‘network’ indicates a productive line of inquiry, suggestive of how social media inherently provides a structure for political dialogue in a way that’s quite new. You read a newspaper in the morning, you listen to the radio in the car, you watch TV in the evening: in all those cases, you imbibe political ideas in circumstances quite distinct from whatever political interventions you might go on to make. On Facebook and Twitter, however, production and consumption merge (you see a meme; you circulate it), with the medium itself creating an easy framework for your own engagement.

But what’s the historical context for that?

Consider the following:

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned …

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

The passage comes, of course, from the Communist Manifesto, the famous section in which Marx and Engels contrast the dynamism of capitalism against the turgidity of previous modes of production. What’s striking is how aptly the tropes used for the system itself apply to the most distinctive aspects of online culture. If, for instance, you sought a museum dedicated to the antiquation of ossified novelties, could you do better than the Internet Meme Database? For the impulse to profane the holy, read Gawker’s expose of Violentacrez and the trolls of reddit, a remarkable case study of how that particularly psychology works itself out – and, as for nestling everywhere, settling everywhere, establishing connections everywhere … well, oh, hai, internet.

It’s an obvious point but still worth making: the instant, international communication system we all use arises inexorably from the process of globalisation that, though only embryonic in 1848, was still sufficiently evident that Marx could note how the ‘intellectual creations of individual nations [were] becom[ing] common property’. As they say, if we didn’t have a net, it would be necessary to invent one: the whole nature of production today, a web of social interactions stretching across the globe, implies something like the internet.

Furthermore, you can see how so much that’s distinctive about internet culture stems from the particular contradictions of capitalism’s relationship to technology. The mainstreaming of the web coincides with the proletarianisation of white collar employment (most obviously, the reduction of computer operators from skilled specialists to regular Joes) and the corresponding creation of a huge class of people dealing with data all day long. That’s why, as anyone who moderates a website knows, traffic rises and falls with the rhythms of working life. From pornography to LOLcats, the distinctive manifestations of digital culture make more sense when you realise that the same processes that force so many of us to spend eight hours staring at computer screens also mean that we interact with an almost magical technology in conditions of tedium and inanity. If much of the internet is devoted to triviality, that’s evidence not of the medium’s marginality but rather its social centrality.

Precisely because we’re discussing something embedded so deeply in a particular context before we examine the particular possibilities of social media, it makes sense to think about the distinctive aspects of Left politics in the neoliberal era.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq provides an interesting study. That war began, in Australia and most industrialised countries, with the traditional organisations of the Left (unions, social democratic parties, etc.) weaker than ever before. Yet the protests in February 2003 became the biggest ever in human history, with demonstrations on every continent (yes, scientists marched in Antarctica).

The scale of the mobilisations proved that, under certain circumstances, it was possible for a comparatively small number of activists to mobilise huge numbers, primarily by using the media. The call to protest the Iraq invasion went, we might say, ‘viral’, not in the sense that the protests were built online (though by that time the internet was already an important resource) but because word spread very rapidly without the structures that previously would have been central. The demonstrations did not consist of huge battalions mobilised by leftist organisations or trade unions (though both played their role); they were, in many ways, an aggregation of otherwise unrelated individuals.

Precisely because the 2003 protests were important, it seems worthwhile for the Left to ponder how virality works, to have a deeper understanding of the particular conjuncture that makes such manifestations possible, and then to think through what that might mean for social media in particular. The Kony 2012 episode provides an interesting counterpoint. Yes, the campaign was bogus, and much of the information it disseminated either wrong or racist or both, but the ability of a relatively small group to consciously craft a message to reach millions upon millions of people should not be dismissed lightly. Would it be possible to do something similar with a clip about, say, the Afghan war? If not, why not? If so, how?

Yet, when considering this, it’s also useful to think about the weaknesses of the Iraq protests. That is to say, the rallies were huge, yes, but in most cases, the initial numbers melted away very quickly. After the first actions, the follow-up protests were much, much smaller. In Australia, at least, the February action was never repeated.

It’s not difficult to understand why. Precisely because the initial protest came about in conditions of organisational collapse, in which the participants were addressed primarily via the media and as individuals, the bonds tethering them together were weak and easily broken. To put it another way, because virality depends on the conjunction, it can’t easily be repeated. It generates a moment, not a movement; it’s innately ephemeral.

Furthermore, the Iraq protests hinted at what would later become more and more apparent: that, in the context of the neoliberal assault on the very notion of collectivity, even protest politics could be individualised. Think about the predominant slogan raised against the Iraq war: the cri-de-coeur of ‘not in my name’. Those words could be interpreted as a denial of the governing parties’ political authority but they could equally represent a politics reduced exclusively to personal morality: that is, not as an insistence that the war would be prevented, but a refusal to be implicated in a conflict assumed to be inevitable. Thus a protest might be less an assertion of collective popular will (the beginning of a campaign to achieve a particular objective) and more a collective symbolisation of individual morality.

The same tendency – and it is only a tendency – has played out again and again in the nine years since then, in the context of an ongoing absence of the major victories for social movements that might have fostered a sense of the possibility of collective change. In a setting in which grassroots victories feel unrealistic (or, more strongly, simply utopian), declaring a personal ethical stance, an opposition that could be only symbolic, seems the only alternative.

Which brings us back to social media. Twitter and Facebook and the other platforms are ideally suited to a time of symbolic protest, not simply because, like all media, symbols are their basic currency but because they’re so fundamentally entwined with personal identity. That is, after all, the point of your Facebook profile: it’s a cultivated representation of who you are and what you believe, and so there’s not much of a progression from letting your friends know that you’re a cat person to choosing an avatar that expresses your horror at repression in Syria. What’s more, as the Facebook redesigners have realized, your online identity stems as much from the aggregation of the content you share as from the cheery photo you choose as your avatar. By circulating a clip about sexism or a meme about European austerity, you’re therefore saying, ‘I’m the kind of person who opposes discrimination or cares about world events.’

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s obviously good if people oppose discrimination; it’s even better if that’s central to how they see themselves. But an assertion of identity does not in and of itself a political strategy make. Indeed, in some respects, it’s almost defined explicitly in opposition to very notion of political strategy. Again, think about Iraq, where asserting individual moral opposition became so important precisely because of the lack of confidence that the war might actually be prevented.

This, then, is the obvious critique of social media activism – that social media campaigns are largely ephemeral; that, in fact, social media activism doesn’t, in some senses, have a politics attached to it at all.

No great surprises there. So-called clictavism has been well and truly denounced over the years, and correctly so. The fad for Twibbons that was around not so long ago seems to have faded and that’s probably a good thing.

But the point of making the Iraq comparison is to suggest that the obvious problems with social media campaigns do not stem exclusively from the internet; that, in fact, their political limitations reflect a model of politics that’s already become dominant within the offline world, a model that’s more about individual moral refusal of wrongs that can’t be righted than strategies for achieving change.

As soon as you pose the problem like that, a whole series of more interesting issues appear. The big Iraq demonstrations were ephemeral. But it would have been insane for the Left to ignore them. If hundreds of thousands of people are concerned about a political issue, that’s something not to be sneezed at (whatever its limitations). The challenge posed for the Left is to find ways to convert a moral opposition to war into a political determination to prevent it.

Could you not say the same thing about social media flare ups? Is not the task for the Left to develop techniques for intersecting with a sudden, intense passion for politics manifested when a particular event bursts onto the internet, however fleetingly? After all, if there’s millions of users interested in an issue, even if only momentarily, you only have to connect with a tiny proportion of them in order to be dealing with a pretty big constituency. What’s more, if we did establish such techniques, would it not then become important to have a serious understanding of how virality takes place, so that we could, perhaps, deliberately generate a worldwide buzz around particular issues?

Precisely because the internet reflects the logic of contemporary capitalism, what happens online can’t be understand outside the context of what’s happening in real life. If one aspect of that is a recognition that the difficulties with social media politics today reflect broader political problems in the world itself, there is another corollary. Quite obviously, in a different political context – in, say, a setting of social turmoil, as per the Arab Spring – far more possibilities open up with social media, as with everything else. But that’s not where we’re at now. In the interim, developing a greater understanding of how this tool functions seems an increasingly important task.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. Total nonsense re Twibbons, thousands are added daily and they are being used by charities daily to promote their campaigns.

    • Right. Well, that’s me told then. For that’s clearly the primary concern of the piece, the fate of the twibbon.

  2. “…the obvious problems with social media campaigns do not stem exclusively from the internet; that, in fact, their political limitations reflect a model of politics that’s already become dominant within the offline world, a model that’s more about individual moral refusal of wrongs that can’t be righted than strategies for achieving change … The challenge posed for the Left is to find ways to convert a moral opposition to war into a political determination to prevent it.”

    Something about that phrase ‘wrongs that can’t be righted’ strikes a chord – something about the state of things seems so crashingly broken, I find it difficult to find any hope that ‘moral opposition’to the corruption of the way we’re governed and the prevailing ‘wisdom’ of running all aspects of our lives as some tawdry business deal can possibly get a foot in the door unless the Left (who else?) wrenches the door open by force, trampling the police-thugs down along the way and that’s nothing I’d be willing to support.

    Gods, how defeatist: sorry. I shall meditate on being the change I’d like to see, and all that. In the meantime, the corner of the Twitterverse I inhabit does allow me to know that like-minded, outraged and rather beautiful folk are out there and I’m not alone.

    Not sure any of that was any more relevant than Twibbons but there you are. Thanks Jeff, Overland, for giving a shit and offering, at the very least, a launch pad for thinking and talking.

  3. Good thoughts/argument Jeff. Always love that Communist Manifesto quote too. Fresh as ever.
    Reading this reminded me of the ‘Destroying the Joint’ event organised by Overlanders Jacinda W and Stephanie C and Karen Pickering and Jason Pickering to harness the energy of the sexism and misogyny rages last week, which I couldn’t make from Sydney. (See there’s now a link to a recording of the event. Will look forward to listening to it.) This seems to me a good example of a good first step to translating the outpourings of social media into action.
    And I’m with you Clare, not for the first time: Thanks Jeff, Overland, for giving a shit. etc.

  4. Can’t help wondering how Twitter would have dealt with Colin Powell’s justification for the invasion or Iraq in his fairy tale presentation to the UN.

  5. Hi Jeff, sorry to come to this so late, but a thought-provoking contribution. I want to focus on virality in my response.

    While I think some of your points about the Iraq protests are valid, I think the main reason for the sudden explosion of such large protests lies somewhere else — in the massive splits between and within Western powers over the aggressive and high-risk strategy that the “Coalition of the Willing” was pursuing. Bush was openly tearing up a longstanding set of political settlements in order to pursue a dangerous and very US-centric attempt to remake the global geopolitical balance.

    Even in the US there were significant elite (and often conservative) figures willing to speak openly against the pending invasion, thereby opening up a space for questioning from below to be rapidly organised.

    I would also question your highlighting of the apparently atomised and pessimistic nature of protest participation. “Not in my name” was matched by simple “No war” and “No blood for oil” slogans pretty much everywhere. It would also be hard to make the case that in places like Italy there was such weak organisation on the ground; rather there was a vibrant and re-energised Left injecting both the anti-capitalist organising of Genoa and the mass union protests against Berlusconi’s labour laws into the anti-war movement. Yet things soon collapsed there, even more spectacularly than in other countries.

    And I feel you are retrospectively writing in the issue of “the lack of confidence that the war might actually be prevented”. It seems to me that the splits in the ruling class encouraged unjustified optimism that the war could be stopped by siding with the more sensible elites (Crean’s dithering ALP, “Old Europe”, UN rules, etc) against the Bush-Blair-Howard axis, thereby making the disappointment of the war going ahead, and the elites kissing and making up to some degree, all the more depressing after the fact.

    The problem is that we come out of a long period of defeat and demoralisation about struggles from below being able to change the world, and in that context part of the successive approximations the subaltern classes need to make in the process of relearning those lessons will mean looking to various elite figures to lead those struggles. These are problems of a long, slow, painful revival of the Left, one that will inevitably suffer setbacks and crises, rather than simply a sign of how weak and defeated the Left has become.

  6. Hmm. I agree with some of that but not all.
    Yes, the splits in the Western powers mattered and obviously the dynamic varied from country to country. But the other slogans you quote illustrate the central point: there’s a big difference between ‘no war’ and ‘bring the troops home’ or ‘US out of the Gulf’ or whatever.
    I think you’re probably right that people had illusions in the elite acting for them but I’d read that as a vague expectation that an individual moral opposition to the war would be recognised by the political class, in the same way that Coca Cola would responded consumers’ general dislike of New Coke. Obviously, this is a huge generalisation but it seems to me part of an ongoing trend, so that whenever some fresh atrocity takes place the initial protest is often quite big but it rarely translate into an ongoing campaign of the same size.
    Certainly, you can clearly see that dynamic online, where protests are everywhere for a day or two and then are as quickly forgotten, when the news cycle moves on.

  7. Just on the Iraq war stuff – I wouldn’t be so dismissive of the role of ‘traditional left’ networks. Major reformist organisations and certainly their politics, provides a lot of explanation as to why the movement both rose and then collapsed so spectacularly.

    Think about the big coalition here in Sydney that called the protests. Massive, delegated organising meetings involving all major trade unions, church groups, ALP etc. But for this the critical mass provided by this, the “aggregation of individuals” would have never found each other.

    ALP Parliamentary offices were organising centres for the demos. I certainly know that Young Labor activists were crammed into Plibersek’s office cranking out posters and leaflets.

    When the far harder political questions started to pose themselves – when the invasion happened, when “no war” no longer sufficed and you had to demand “troops out” (so do we “support our troops?”) When the hitherto split elite closed ranks, the thing collapsed. All the battalions of reformism split off from the radical left and stopped supporting mobilisation. This played out around questions of police attacks of the high-school walk-outs etc, but the big questions around imperialism were the major backdrop. The radical left was too weak to sustain any meaningful mobilisation on our own.

    I like your comments about connecting with the “viral” moments and trying to harness and push them further. Obviously a very successful effort in Melbourne with the forum off the back of Gillard’s speech all power too it.

    Seems to me (useful) viral moments often built around a gripping exposure of some truth. Sharp politics needed. But let us know if you crack the code!

    • Jeff, I find your argument about slogans very odd.

      Here is the poster for the largest of the Melbourne rallies, 14 February 2003:


      It says: “Don’t bomb Iraq, No Australian involvement, Rally for peace”.

      Here is the banner at the front of the snap protest in Sydney on the day war started:


      It says: “Stop the war on Iraq, Bring the troops home”

      I’m sure I could find a clever interpretation of these as individual moral outrage also, but they were quite clearly also demands on the state, which is the important aspect that the Left is interested in. Your argument about individual morality is generally true in bourgeois society, but the process of mass collective protest transforms that atomisation and creates something greater than the sum of its parts — in a way that Kony 2012 didn’t. To be sure a mass street protest is not the same as strike action against the war, but even that can start from a similar “moral” space. (And your risible comparison with the New Coke fiasco deserves to be ignored.)

      The protests against the Gulf War in 1990-1 were nowhere near as big as those in 2002-3 but they involved a much more serious network of Left organisations that had much more organisational and social weight than today. Their demands were political (c.f. “individualistic”) but much less radical (often going in the direction of “Ceasefire, sanctions, negotiation”, which was the UK movement’s central slogan). Yet they fizzled just as quickly as in 2002-3 when the war started.

      What I’m saying is that there was much more happening in 2002-3 than “virality”. The massive protests in February 2003 were the peak of a cycle of protests that started in mid-2002 when it became clear what Bush was intending. We had not seen multiple protests of tens of thousands about a single issue in Sydney like this for many years. Paddy is correct to point to the large meetings of the central organising group for the protests. He is also correct to point to how MPs (and here I’d add Kerry Nettle who did outstanding work) were part of this. But it wasn’t just a centralised thing. I was co-editor of the Coalition’s e-newsletter and I can tell you there were over 30 active groups around NSW doing serious stuff in their local areas.

      I don’t want to overplay the strength (organisational or political) of this process, but I think it is seriously revisionist to portray the movement as you do, to fit it into your argument.

      The problem is that real political organisation did emerge from the ashes of the movement; the Greens grew rapidly and many people looked to electoral solutions. The reformist pole of the movement won out decisively because the activist/radical sections of the movement didn’t provide an alternative political solution. Perhaps most depressingly, most of the Marxist groups failed to connect the consciousness and activism associated with the Global Justice Movement (by then weakened but not completely defunct) to the anti-war struggle. Rather, they fell back onto routinised single issue campaigning, sometimes throwing in their own catchphrases about the need for “anti-imperialism” or whatever.

      There are many things to be drawn from that period, but discussion of “virality” I think confuses things more than clarifies them here.

      I would point especially to the question of politics. Too often this is seen on the radical Left as either some kind of revolutionary-led movementism being counterposed to official politics, a kind of “movement syndicalism” (if you will). I’d contend that this opens the door for the reformists to easily out-manoeuvre the radicals when political questions become central, because they are generally much more serious about the matter. Politics became central when the movement failed to stop the war. The revolutionary Left might have built its organisations out of this, but they certainly didn’t have a strategic view that could address this process more generally.

      • That’s a strange (and oddly aggrieved) response. Mine was not an article about the history of the anti-Iraq protests. That’s something we can discuss, of course, and no doubt there’s valuable lessons to be raised from what the details of what took place then. But we know how to talk about demonstrations and we know how to talk about anti-war organising.
        Tad and I might have different takes about what happened in 2003 (and now that I think about the particular context, it makes sense that we do, and that we’re probably never going to agree). But in the broadest respect the Left has a vocabulary, a set of concepts and ideas to assess such things,(even if, no doubt, those tools could be improved and augmented).
        The piece above came from a frustration that we had, by contrast, almost no framework to analyse political eruptions online, precisely because there’s so little tradition of discussing and assessing their relation to traditional activism — most usually, they’re either dismissed as mere froth that doesn’t impact on real world politics or they’re uncritically embraced as the way of the future. Furthermore, it was an immediate question, given that some friends were then thinking about the possibilities of harnessing the anti-sexist energy manifested online into a RL campaign.
        The comparison with 20003 was intended to pull away from the novelty of the technology (the most obvious point of discussion) and back to politics, to suggest that what we’re seeing online reflects some problems encountered with traditional activism, since that seemed a productive way to, first, encourage people on the Left to at least engage with the argument and, second, to at least gesture to some of the strengths and weaknesses of social media.
        In other words, Iraq was a way of talking about social media, not the other way around. Yet we’re back to what we know about rather than what we don’t know, which is a little frustrating.
        Just quickly, on 2003, given it’s what people are most interested in, my memories are of being amazed how this utterly monstrous demonstration was being co-ordinated by an ad hoc committee of activists, who played that role simply because they had some energy and took the initiative, not because they were necessarily recognised or even known by most demonsrators. A few weeks earlier, they’d been running tiny little campaigns involving a few hundred people; suddenly, they were organising orators to address the biggest crowd the city had ever seen. That’s what I was trying to stress: in the past, the structures of the existing left (the CP, the unions, even the ALP) would have been the natural channel for the energy but that no longer seemed to apply, and a very small group of people from outside those circles could step into the breach.
        That’s a more general phenomenon, I think, a version of the idea of reformism without reformists, where activists end up playing the role that once would have been filled by social democrats or union leaders. Just to be clear, I’m not saying that social democratic or union organisation doesn’t matter, nor that their structures have totally disappeared nor that they didn’t play any role in 2003. But I do think that, in the neoliberal era, the relative weakness of such organisations means that a vacuum exists that can often be filled simply by people with energy and a certain panache.
        Furthermore, it’s contradictory, since, while people who play that role might actually be quite radical themselves, insofar as they’re acknowledged as organisers, it’s not necessarily on the basis of their own ideas but on their status as ghostly representatives for social democratic bodies that have, to a greater or lesser degree, departed the field. That also means that such figures lack the organisational sway that a union or Labor leader might once have wielded: they’re placeholders for these figures, in a sense, but without any of their social power. To me, that’s the social basis of the moral element that IMO was so important to the Iraq protests came from: the absence of the organisational forms that would turn an admirable and entirely appropriate personal outrage into something more political and strategic.
        OK, people might completely disagree with all of that but to me it’s a way of thinking about a broad trend apparent since the mid-1990s: not the full story, by any means, but an aspect of the political culture that meant, that the initial protests around particular issues would be much bigger than expected (allowing the more excitable elements of the Left to regularly predict mass outbreaks around the corner) — and then subsequent rallies would be derisory.
        Hence the comparison with social media, which was, as I said, my real point. The elements that make social media seem so distinctive such as virality might be understood as a reflection, in a new format, of a more general political phenomenon. Which means that, insofar as the Left developed methods for relating to the rapidly rising and falling campaigns of the early 2000s, these might provide a useful beginning for understanding memes that reach millions upon millions of people and then suddenly disappear.
        But, hey, it was a pretty tentative blog post, precisely because the online stuff seems like such uncharted waters. If people have a better framework for talking about the meaning of social media campaigns, I’d be very open to hearing it.

        • Hi Jeff,

          I like what you have written here about ‘reformism without reformists’ and think this is a central feature of the period, with all sorts of implications for revolutionary practice.

          It is obviously part of the terrain that any campaigns that use social media (which don’t to some extent?) will be operating on.

          But I think it’s incredibly hard to generalize about ‘virality’ and social change because different incidents seem qualitatively different. Cute kittens, Kony, a YouTube of police bashing Aboriginal kids, an online union petition, all might have an explosion of circulation.

          Apart from Kony, which particular campaigns/incidents do you think are important to look at and learn from?

          I’ve been involved in a few pushes to use social media more seriously in campaign work. The ‘Stand for Freedom’ anti Stronger Futures petition was successful for example, with about 45000 signatures. The initiative came from some film maker friends who explicitly (and at first uncritically) said they were trying to replicate Kony.

          It was a useful excercise and watching the signatures climbing (dont know if we ever ‘went viral’!) certainly helped boost the morale and win some credibility amongst wider layers trying to do something about Stronger Futures. But I wouldn’t say the questions posed by the excise were particularly different from other areas of campaign work. Making a slick video very similar to writing a leaflet. The same debates about how radical to be with the demands, which major reformist organisations can we get to support and circulate this (‘official’ networks very important for reaching big audiences), which politicians will be involved in presenting it to parliament, how can we turn a willingness to click into a willingness to mobilize more seriously.

          The most useful thing to come out of it in my opinion, apart from broad exposure for the issue, was a solid database of people who can be contacted for future initiatives.

          As for turning enthusiasm for Gillards speech (i know its not only this) into ongoing momentum for fighting for women’s liberation, again the political questions here are obviously central and don’t have that much to do with the form of media?. If the bourgeois feminism of the speech isnt understood no ones going to get very far. Absolutely crucial would be demands that have some cut a target for mobilization etc.

          Sorry if this is all a bit obvious (not profound!) about the role of social media.

          As an aside I wrote a thesis about the anti war movement of the 60s in Oz and one of the central things here was how over the decade a minority ‘moral outrage’ about the war slowly transformed into a more radical, mass anti-imperialism. I’m not sure whether the individualistic moral thing identified has some new quality under neo-liberalism removed from just general liberalism but haven’t ever thought about it.

          Also I agree with Tad about the failure of the revolutionary left to rise to the political challenges when the movement failed to stop the war (the quality of the activity while the movement was at ite height would be very important to analyse in this context) Would be a very interesting discussion to have out properly. Reformists might be weak and not as confident to be out rabble rousing with social democratic demands as in 1972 or even 92, but they certainly show up as soon as something gets any serious momentum and without a meaningful challenge that’s the politics that will prevail.

          • Hi Paddy,
            The Kony thing was the first one to really jump out at me, especially when it became clear that the guys behind it were conservative Christians. Irrespective of whether the campaign ‘worked’ or didn’t (in inverted commas because surely one of the points that needs to be established is what exactly ‘working’ means during a social media blitz), it seemed to me kinda depressing that it was the Right who was experimenting with the political possibilities of this new media, and the Left had largely vacated the field. Now, I don’t want to sound like I’m a techno evangelist or some uncritical enthusiast for online campaigning, because I’m not, in the least: if anything I’m probably too cynical, and that’s part of the problem. We’re much more accustomed on the Left to explaining what won’t work rather than trying to find new things.
            But the Kony thing was also interesting because it quite obviously raises questions as to the relationship between form and content. That is the organisers succeeded in achieving virality predominantly because they kept tweeting celebrities until some of them reposted the video. Now, obviously, that would be harder with a left wing message, but you could imagine circumstances where it might be possible (again, Iraq 2003 comes to mind).
            You say the political questions are the same as in any other political campaign. I agree and disagree: agree, because obviously the same basic divisions will come up but disagree because I think it’s far from clear what political relationship someone forwarding a video on facebook has to its contentes — that is, the political reach of these things is incredible but the depth is minimal.
            Interestingly, there’s a discussion of similar questions on Salon today
            Not sure I agree with much of it — I think this notion that political campaigns can’t manage memes merely reflects that we’re in the early stages of this argument, and in the not too distant future memes might well be manufactured with as much (and as little) success as pop songs.
            Also, the Salon piece, like most of these debates, discusses memes in their own terms — that is, as merely media phenomenons — when the really interesting question is to the extent they can break out of the media into activism.
            Anyway enough rambling thoughts for one morning.

        • The reason I took up the specifics of the Iraq War protests is that you raised it as a concrete example of how Left politics works in the neoliberal era. I think your part-theorisation of this is deeply misleading, and therefore any useful discussion of how social media fits into activism should start by rejecting your assertion. Frankly I think you have bought into a mystification of social relations in the neoliberal era that supports the dominant neoliberal message (which seeks to diminish genuine eruptions of collectivity through talk of individualism, etc).

          I raised the splits in the ruling class precisely because a large section of the (old) media was articulating serious doubts about or even opposition to the war, as a result of those splits, and the building of the protests connected with this. These are real and large social forces. I don’t think this compares at all well with other episodes of virality, precisely because there is not a common basis to all viral phenomena. We have to think about the social interests and forces that lie behind virality concretely or else we fall into technological determinism (or plain *network* determinism, as has often been the vogue among autonomist thinkers).

          Also, I’m not sure why we’ll never agree on 2003 because of the context that operated then?

  8. Hi Jeff, thanks again for the article.

    You questioned: “The Kony 2012 episode provides an interesting counterpoint. Yes, the campaign was bogus, and much of the information it disseminated either wrong or racist or both, but the ability of a relatively small group to consciously craft a message to reach millions upon millions of people should not be dismissed lightly. Would it be possible to do something similar with a clip about, say, the Afghan war? If not, why not? If so, how?”

    And I think we can talk about schooling and generations here. Kony – teenagers in high school went ‘nuts’ over it and wanted to do fundraising for it. Yet, their engagement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria is not visible.

    You wrote about the Australian and the media intake of the old curmudgeons.

    “You read a newspaper in the morning, you listen to the radio in the car, you watch TV in the evening: in all those cases, you imbibe political ideas in circumstances quite distinct from whatever political interventions you might go on to make.”

    The kids know this I think, and social media is a way they feel involved and in control of it as such. I remember in high school, I was not engaged at all in Kosovo until our geography teacher made us sit and watch an horrific doco on it.

    This is how we can start to engage the Kony followers into what is acutally happning, because media choice at home might not get the message through to them. (Golly, I’m sounding draconian….. oh well).

    • I guess that was what I was trying to think through. It might be the case, of course, that the virality of the Kony thing was part and parcel of its vacuity: that Kony tweets were reposted by celebs precisely because they were so inane, and that nothing similar would have been possible for an Afghan war campaign. But I dunno. Wikileaks is an interesting example in that respect.

  9. In an entirely different social media vein, which is blogging, is there any way you can tweak this site so we can subscribe to get emails whenever new comments appear under a post we’ve commented on? I think it would make following and contributing to these debates easier.

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