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New Spaces for Social Movements: Defiance in 2020

Three questions to Cristina Flesher Fominaya

New Spaces for Social Movements: Defiance in 2020

2020 has been a year of distinct challenges for societies worldwide. Among other things, it has been marked by numerous social movements, protests and demonstrations, be they for populations seeking justice and democracy, or for those who have sought to push for anti-democratic ideals. At a time when occupying the public space is considered a health hazard, the way in which people choose to manifest becomes all the more important to understand, be that by looking at how defiance materializes on the streets, to how activism is taken online. We asked Editor in Chief of the Social Movement Studies journal, Cristina Flesher Fominaya, to give us her insight into how the notion of protesting has been shaped by this peculiar year.

Multiple protests, marches and strikes have marked 2020 worldwide, driven by a multitude of reasons. Between being an outlet of grief and a desire for impact, what are some general observations that can be drawn on the various forms of protest that have developed over the past few years? Has the way in which we protest evolved?

The coronavirus and quarantine measures have posed significant challenges for social movements. Citizens are experiencing high degrees of anxiety and uncertainty, brought on by risks to health and economic well-being. The crisis has exacerbated and made visible existing social problems and inequalities, and the effects of austerity policies on social services are also felt keenly, with health services struggling to cope with the pandemic. Governments have varied greatly in their management of the crisis, and are evaluated by their citizens and in world public opinion according to the effectiveness of their response. All of this has prompted and shaped protests in 2020.

Lockdown and quarantine mean that cyberspace has become the main arena for social movements, as digital tools have been used to help activists and citizens communicate, organize, and mobilize.

Lockdown and quarantine mean that cyberspace has become the main arena for social movements, as digital tools have been used to help activists and citizens communicate, organize, and mobilize. Social media is a double-edged sword, facilitating movement mobilization online but also facilitating the spread of misinformation, and much more worryingly, disinformation. While right-wing and other extremists have weaponized disinformation around the pandemic, progressive critical media activists have also mobilized to combat information disorders online, as well as to provide useful tools for mutual aid groups and other social movements facing the challenge of moving their activism online. We have seen some innovative socially distanced offline protests, and also acts of civil disobedience, with citizens defying lockdown to protest various issues.

We have also seen the continued development of protests and activism of youth-led movements. Movements like Fridays for Future, or the six teenage women who led a march of 10,000 In Nashville following George Floyd’s murder, have shown that they don’t need to ask for permission or for help to organize protests, they can do it themselves. Youth are finding their voice as active political subjects. Millennials have been a remarkable protest generation.

How have these movements shaped the meaning of "protest" today? Have they impacted the role of citizen engagement and increased its presence in democratic processes?

I think it is important to distinguish between progressive movements that work to strengthen democracy and those that are fundamentally anti-democratic in their vision of society and goals, even if they are expressing these views thanks to the democratic right to freedom of assembly and expression. We can take two examples to illustrate this difference. On the one hand we have the massive outcry against the police murder of George Floyd, which started in the US and was rooted and shaped in a long and brutal history of racial violence, and in particular the killing of black people by police. His murder was documented on videos that went viral, and prompted a powerful emotional reaction that transcended the US context and spread around the world. Black Lives Matter activist networks responded quickly and effectively, amplifying the message and outrage and fuelling the transnational diffusion process. But what was so remarkable was that so many people broke lockdown, risked their own health, and engaged in civil disobedience in the midst of a lethal pandemic to express their outrage and solidarity.

The context of the pandemic is also very important in understanding the rapid spread and strength of these protests. George Floyd’s murder came at a time when people were already very aware of the unequal way this pandemic is affecting different communities, especially communities of color, who experience disproportionate health risks and economic impacts. This inequality is accompanied by an increase in polarization and a worrying increase in authoritarianism and white supremacy. It comes at a time when people in many countries are angry at government failures that have led to people dying needlessly; where people are feeling the loss of loved ones; where people are glued to social media; but also where solidarity and community networks have been activated to make up for deficient government responses in many countries. So, people are angry, connected, and active, and their attention is focused. But they are also really worried about the state of the world and the future and feel solidarity for others who are experiencing the same thing. In the context of the pandemic, the defiance of lockdown to take to the streets to protest also lends a real power because it involves an act of civil disobedience, and a health risk. That sends a really powerful message to political leaders that they demand to be heard.

The anxieties, anger and malaise in the context of the pandemic can also find expression in protests with a profoundly anti-democratic orientation, such as many of the anti-mask, anti-lockdown, and Covid-19 negationist protests. The roots of these protests are complex, but the protests combine people who genuinely believe in conspiracy theories and "fake science" for a diversity of reasons, with political actors who are using disinformation as a political tool to sow confusion, distrust and disorder, and to channel fears and anger to advance their political agenda. In this endeavour, they are aided by far-right leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro, who deny or downplay the risks of the virus, refute their own health experts’ public health messaging, organize super-spreader events, refuse to wear masks or adhere to social distancing, and actively disseminate disinformation.

Social media plays an important role, not only by serving as a vehicle for the spread of disinformation and calls to protest, but by bringing previously disconnected people together. Facebook has been taking down millions of pieces of coronavirus-related misinformation, but at the same time, Facebook and YouTube’s algorithms tend to push people toward more extreme content, and also bring different topics together in shared spaces. The result is that in QAnon groups, for example, you can find Covid-19 conspiracy theories combined with alternative health and religious groups. Someone feeling anxiety or isolation might go online looking for spiritual guidance and end up in a private group that peddles conspiracy theories and misinformation as well as distrust of the government and public health policies.

Someone feeling anxiety or isolation might go online looking for spiritual guidance and end up in a private group that peddles conspiracy theories and misinformation as well as distrust of the government and public health policies.

They might start off on an anti-lockdown page and get directed by algorithm suggestions to QAnon conspiracies. Some common ideas then take hold, for example, that masks are ineffective or that they limit people’s ability to breathe, neither of which is true. Another idea is that Covid-19 doesn’t exist or is the result of a conspiracy. These arguments then get combined with particular political agendas, such as anti-semitism. These narratives are mobilized and find expression in protests that further specific political agendas. In the US, for example, one conspiracy theory was that the data on Covid-19 infections rates and deaths was being manipulated to hurt Trump in the elections.

One study in France of 1000 anti-maskers by Antoine Bristielle for Jean-Jaurès Foundation showed that they strongly tend to distrust the government, tended to be more-right wing, were very prone to conspiracy theories, and tended to get their information from the internet, but not from reliable news sources.

The study revealed a really alarming finding: 94% said they would refuse to get a vaccine if it were available. If sufficient numbers of people subscribe to this idea, controlling the virus could become really problematic. There are other reports that anti-vaccine movements are getting a boost during this pandemic. We are witnessing a crisis of belief in science as a result of widespread information disorders. This has serious implications not only for managing Covid-19, but for democracy in general, which requires citizens to have access to quality information to work effectively.

It is really troubling to see how the lack of trust in government and in scientific knowledge, and the political weaponization of disinformation and misinformation, translates into illness and deaths.

Where are we most likely to see concrete long-term effects as a result of certain social movements, and who are the actors driving these effects? Why in certain places more than in others?

Progressive movements are a sine qua non for democracy. They act as watchdogs, bear witness against injustices, innovate in mechanisms of monitory democracy (e.g. creating observatories, advocating for transparency, whistleblowing); raise awareness of key issues and social conflicts that need to be addressed, placing them on the public and political agenda; and much more.

The long-term effects of social movements are notoriously difficult to predict and measure because both social movements and their impacts can take so many forms and emerge in so many different contexts. A great example are the mass mobilizations in pro-democracy camps following the last global financial crisis, which had multiple effects. They enabled people to actively participate in democracy directly, through engaging in collective experiences of camp life that were democratically organized along principles such as collective self-empowerment, deliberation, inclusivity and solidarity. Camp activities such as running collective kitchens and nurseries, for example, are not just practical activities, but spark reflexivity about how these needs are met in contemporary society (or not met), and how building communities around caring activities is a fundamental part of a robust democracy.

Progressive movements are a sine qua non for democracy. They act as watchdogs, bear witness against injustices, innovate in mechanisms of monitory democracy.

Decision-making in the camps was also organized in a participatory and deliberative way, through "agoras in the plazas" and non-hierarchical assemblies as the core organizing units. People in the squares made thousands of proposals and demands for more effective, participatory, responsive and inclusive democratic institutions. Citizens also engaged in mass civil disobedience, by claiming public space and arguing for more supportive government responses to widespread suffering caused by the crisis and austerity cuts.

Some of these movements had widespread impacts socially: they prompted public debates about the state of democracy, mobilized disaffected people in the millions, shifted public opinion, and prompted responses from the state. Participants also were transformed by these experiences, becoming more politically engaged, learning new collaborative skills, and creating new projects and networks. The movements of the squares also led to the emergence of new political parties and in some places, like Spain, significant shifts in the political landscape. In some cases, pro-democracy activists became part of governing coalitions at the municipal level in major cities (e.g. Madrid and Barcelona) and took some of those ideas from the pro-democracy squares into the institutions, creating participatory tools to foster greater citizen participation in municipal decision-making.

Strong movements also find their way into institutional and popular culture, inspiring new ways of seeing particular issues, or lending them a new urgency. We saw this after the George Floyd protests, where suddenly large media companies were flagging their content as Black Lives Matter related; and many institutions rushed to highlight their anti-racist credentials and practices. How deep and long lasting these changes will be is another question, but there is no question that the protests had a huge influence in this regard.

In terms of understanding why there is more impact in some places than others, this is a complex question. Differing degrees of receptiveness and openness in the political system for social movements (which one would expect to be a strengthening factor), and repression (which one might expect to dissuade mobilization) are both factors that can sometimes increase movement strength and sometimes lessen it. We witnessed different degrees of staying power in the last wave of pro-democracy and economic justice movements following the global financial crash of 2008. Although social media enabled mass mobilizations to emerge in a short period of time, some of these seemed to mostly fade away, whereas others produced networks that sustained long term mobilization. My research suggests that where pre-existing social movement networks underpin new waves of protest, the long-term impact of these mobilizations is likely to be greater than if that is not the case. Experienced activists are better placed to effectively channel and organize new participants into longer lasting projects and activities. Although there is always a big drop off in participation following mass mobilizations, if there is an underlying network that manages to create a lasting presence in the local communities, new projects and initiatives can emerge from them, as well as skills that can be put to use in other contexts. Movements are great learning and training grounds for important organizational and communication skills as well as innovations in many areas that can feed into policy or improved governance or social enterprise initiatives.

A great example of this comes from Hong Kong. In early 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep across the world, Hong Kong’s leadership failed to react swiftly to adopt effective containment strategies. In the face of a leadership deficit, Hong Kong citizens mobilized in record time to coordinate an effective response to contain the spread of the virus. Hong Kong’s citizen innovators were veterans of the pro-democracy movements that formed part of the global wave of protests following the global financial crash of 2008. They used Telegram, online forums and the many tools and resources they had developed during their pro-democracy protest activity in 2019 to respond to a pressing health crisis. Communication networks kept citizens informed with the latest WHO information, volunteers installed and distributed hand sanitiser, digital maps tracked and traced outbreaks, and mask brigades distributed masks to the poor and elderly, adopting near universal masking in defiance of government’s ban on masks. Hong Kong’s citizen response to the coronavirus was remarkably effective despite the government’s delayed response, and is an outstanding example of how the "afterlives" of social movements, i.e. the tools, knowledge, networks, and resources developed in them, can lead to democratic innovation designed to correct democratic deficits post-mobilization.




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