November 13, 2013  |  Brianna McKinney

Social Media and the Internet’s Role in the Deterritorialization of the Protest Culture

December 2010 marked the beginning of a new global culture of protest. Activists began to harness the power of the internet to gather and share the energy of their protests, breaking through local and national territorial boundaries. Local mobilization has moved to mass global mobilization and discontent has never been more public and more interconnected, with civil unrest sweeping across the world. While civil unrest is certainly not a new phenomenon, it has never been so large in scale and more spontaneous in demonstration, making riot predictions nearly impossible.

These modern global movements have a distinct collective culture that serves to unify, despite the range of opposing cultures and geographic locations found in the makeup of supporters. An article in Contexts has identified six common features that define this new global culture of protest: first, the target of this culture is corruption; second, they claim that the less fortunate are underrepresented by authorities; and third, they reject traditional forms of organizing and obtain a sense of direction from the energy of the protest rather than from hierarchy. The final three common features the article identified are: fourth, they reject the concept that there is no alternative that is compatible with democratic process; fifth, they work on behalf of human existence as a whole rather than special interests; and finally, this global protest culture makes vague demands, which attracts participants in that it “provides their movement with a sense of experimental youthfulness and conversational conviviality” (Contexts). In sum, this culture is unified and marked by a mobilization around a “collective opposition to the ‘system’ in the name of general abstraction – ‘the people’” (Contexts). The power of the internet to instantaneously connect individuals and groups within this culture has, as demonstrated by the Tunisian revolution, resulted in more interconnected mass mobilizations that can be relatively spontaneous in their agendas.

Social mobilizations and revolutions have succeeded throughout history without the internet’s involvement. However, in Tunisia in 2010, the internet, specifically the use of Facebook, propelled what was coined as the “first millennial revolution” (Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking). Offline protest can go largely unnoticed, takes a good deal of coordination and planning, and has a clear hierarchy of leadership. It is during this time of planning that the organizations targeted by the protest can fairly easily identify the movement’s leadership and prepare for counteraction. The Tunisian Revolution, however, markedly had no leadership. The use of Facebook to spread and consume information and photos of the events leading up to the fall of the Tunisian regime served as a catalyst that “bridged the gap left by traditional media and human rights organizations” (Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking). Tools like Facebook became known as citizen media and allowed “ordinarily passive citizens to be active in the media by sharing information that would ultimately have a major impact on their communities” (Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking). This citizen media was critical in shaping the collective cyberconsciousness of this revolution and “was revealed to be timely, acute, rapid, domain-specific, and purpose-oriented” (Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking). The Tunisian revolution succeeded in just two short months, ending with Tunisia’s Ben Ali fleeing the country on January 14, 2011. Without the use of Facebook, it is likely that the revolution would have developed and evolved much more slowly and would have potentially not been as successful.

Online media has created a networked and connected global awareness. Information spread via the internet stimulates “(a) the formation of community networks among activists and (b) grassroots coordination and activism through the re-mediation of messages” (Public Culture). These technologies create opportunities to coordinate actions of protest mobilization, as well as gather resources and support. An article in Public Culture calls these technologies “tactical media,” marked by elements of nomadism, scale, and mobility. Compared to a hierarchical movement in which information flow and speed is at the mercy of its leadership, the flow of information increases significantly insofar as the internet enables social links to cross hierarchical and formal boundaries. Just as in offline protests, online protests are driven by the condition that “when people watch other people rioting they tend to respond similarly – even if their external conditions have not been changed,” but protests via the internet allow exponentially more people to watch and be inspired to action (The Age).

The previously mentioned Tunisian revolution (the catalyst to what is known as the Arab Spring), as well as the riots in Chile, Brazil, Turkey, the European Union, and the Occupy movement all share a common theme in that they reflect the legitimacy crisis of modern democracy. The main actors in each were young, cynical activists disillusioned by seemingly corrupt democratic political processes. In Turkey, Brazil, and the Arab Spring, a “curiously small event (a bus fare hike, park bulldozing, and humiliated street vendor respectively) acted as a spark on long-accumulated tinder of civic alienation,” was precipitated by Facebook and Twitter, and enabled the rapid recruiting of additional protesters. Anonymous’s justice campaign for rape victim Rehtaeh Parsons also demonstrates the phenomenon of online protest culture becoming mainstream. According to a source in The Guardian’s article about Anonymous, this new online culture of global protest refuses to “die and [seems] to bud in new places and situations,” “[sporing] and [spreading] around the globe because clicktivism is easy and fitting with our already established digital habits.” This seemingly unstoppable shift has experts and concerned governments wondering what’s next. Although monarchic and dictatorial regimes have found ways to “disrupt, shut down, or monitor dissident activity, and these practices discourage any euphoric celebration of ‘liberation technology,’” and even more open societies such as the United States are considering a plan for response to a cyber emergency, it is certainly plausible that the Asian states for example, with their highly educated and tech-savvy youth population, will be next (Public Culture).

Why should we care?

The spontaneity and unpredictable nature of the new global protest culture makes predicting where and when demonstrations of protest will occur nearly impossible, “much like predicting stockmarket crashes and disease epidemics” (The Age). In this increasingly connected global society with new technological innovations being made so rapidly, the potential for a global village to manifest is very real. Considering the “accumulation of social and economic inequality, the failure to adapt to global resource depletion, population growth near the limits of available resources,” this increasingly public and deterritorialized global culture of protest could easily spread with the speed of a wildfire and translate to global civil unrest (The Age).



“Protest in the Connected Society” – The Age
“Revolutionary Tactics, Media Ecologies, and Repressive States” – Public Culture
“Will These Youth Protests Spread to Asia’s Corrupted Democracies?” – The Diplomat
“How Anonymous Have Become Digital Culture’s Protest Heroes” – The Guardian
“Understanding Occupy” – Contexts
“The Contribution of Facebook to the 2011 Tunisian Revolution: A Cyberpsychological Insight” – Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking

Topics covered in this insight: Facebook, Arab Spring, protest, social revolution, Twitter

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