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#MeToo and Online Activism: Montaigne's Key Reads

#MeToo and Online Activism: Montaigne's Key Reads
 Théophile Lenoir
Fellow - Misinformation and Digital Policy

If you haven’t heard yet about ‘#MeToo’, you weren’t on social media last week. As the hashtag went viral and the phenomenon grew larger, it provided another instance of the power of the Internet for activism.

This phenomenon shares similarities with other events. Think of the role of hashtags during the Occupy Wall Street and Indignados movements, or throughout the revolutions of the Arab Spring. Thousands of people took to their keyboards to protest and denounce injustice, in turn shaping public opinion and decision-making. In this view, social media are widely perceived of course as a source of empowerment for citizens. But many scholars have also warned us of some of the darker sides of online activism…

Institut Montaigne provides a brief overview of some of the relevant literature that can help reflect on what online activism entails in the age of social media.

Power in the hands of citizens: Manuel Castells

It is commonplace to hear that digital technologies have altered the relationship between political authority and citizen participation and fostered the emergence of new ways of organizing our societies. With the spread of communication technologies, everyone can voice their concerns, contest, seek transparency to hold decision-makers accountable and bring to light unethical practices. Some of today’s most prominent thinkers have devolved a lot of attention to deciphering the ways in which communication technologies have changed the nature of social movements.

In his book Networks of outrage and hope: social movements in the internet age. (Polity Press, 2012), network society theorist and authority Manuel Castells analyzes events such as the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and other mobilizations in Brazil, Turkey, Chile and Mexico. What triggers such mass mobilizations? He argues that the internet played a central role in making such movements possible. By contributing to creating a ‘space of autonomy’, it fostered the spread of messages alimented by outrage and hope, and the consequential gathering of urban populations in (physical) public spaces. Under this view, online information circulates across horizontal networks able to bypass traditional hierarchies, thus generating more critical debates to challenge political systems and lead to change.

From collective to connective action: W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg

Prior to social media, people stood for causes collectively, by aligning their identity with a community. But the personalized modes of expression made possible by digital networks follow a logic of connection: people can now choose which exact causes to engage with, and when. This flexible form of engagement, adapted to identities and vice versa, is explained by W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg in their book The Logic of Connective Action: Digital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics. (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Activism versus ‘slacktivism’: Malcolm Gladwell

To some, this flexibility is a source of criticism. Among those who could be coined ‘pessimists’, journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell claims that it changes the very nature of engagement. In his still relevant 2010 New Yorker article Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted, he argues that social media can foster “the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise”. Comparing online social media engagement with the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement, he stresses that participation does not equate engagement, especially when participation occurs behind a screen. From this standpoint, what social media like Facebook make possible is what some have called ‘slacktivism’, that is low-risk, minimal-engagement activism.

The economics of platforms: José van Dijck

Still others challenge the extent to which power lies in the hands of individuals online. Looking at the economics of technology giants such as Google and Facebook, some authors point at the influence of data capitalism on public discourse. A great example of this has been brought forward by the media scholar José Van Dijck, who claims in her book The culture of connectivity. A critical history of social media. (Oxford University Press, 2013), ‘social media services can be both intensely empowering and disturbingly exploitative’. Studying Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and Wikipedia, she links the cultural aspects of these platforms to their business models. The architecture of Youtube – from its design to its algorithms – encourages the sharing of content in order to identify trends, segment audiences and sell advertising spaces. This also is a reason for content going viral on such platforms.

Questioning the ‘us’ online: Nick Couldry

What is the very nature of the “us” online? In his 2015 article 'The myth of 'us': digital networks, political change and the production of collectivity', Nick Couldry, Professor of Media, Communication and Social Theory at the London School of Economics, argues that social media platforms are deceptive: they make users and regulators believe that what goes on there are natural debates because they originate from individual users. But for the reasons mentioned above, Nick Couldry will have warned us: ‘we must be very careful of taking what goes on such platforms as direct evidence of wider political or social processes, without considering how such activity is precisely constituted by such platforms and for data-led profit, not political or social ends’. In a world where attention is scarce, deciding what users see is as influential as producing content.


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