Point-and-Click Change? Understanding Social Movements in the Digital Era

Deana Rohlinger

We like to believe in the power of social movements. It is satisfying to think that a relatively small group of people can band together and change the world for the better. However, as Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport point out in their new book, Digitally Enabled Social Change, the role of social movements and the organizations that animate them are up for grabs in the 21st century. This observation may come as somewhat of a shock for students of social movements. We often think about collective action and social movements as synonymous with organization as the sinew binding the two conceptually. Earl and Kimport argue that this is not always the case. Instead, they suggest, that Internet Communication Technology (ICT) provides “affordances” that individuals and groups alike can leverage (with more or less skill) to achieve a goal. In this digital era, then, challenges to authorities can occur without social movement organizations and outside of social movements.

Conceptualizing ICT as offering affordances that can be leveraged, as opposed to a resource that is deployed, is elegant, utilitarian, and a challenge for social movement scholars. It poses a challenge for scholars because such an approach 1) requires us to change how we think about collective action and social movement participation, 2) further blurs the conceptual lines between the instrumental and non-instrumental aspects of social movement processes and requires us to think critically about how time matters, and 3) makes outcomes (successful or otherwise) more elusive than ever. Let’s examine these three points in more detail.

1.     The leveraging affordances approach requires us to change how we think about collective action and social movement participation. When we envision collective action, we rarely think of a businesswoman shooting an email off between meetings or a father bouncing a baby on his knee as he patiently sends a fax to each member of the House of Representatives. However, we should. While, indeed, collective action still involves public gathering and protest, Earl and Kimport note that the modern repertoire of contention is different than those of the past. ICT fosters innovation, which makes things that scholars have traditionally treated as constant (such as how tactics are related to movements) far more variable. Understood this way, collective action that seems short-lived or that takes place in the privacy on one’s home is relevant to social movement research. Let’s use the ongoing Occupy Wall Street Movement as an example. Grassroots Occupy movements across the country are using websites and Facebook pages to announce and coordinate their activities. A common concern for Occupiers has been the solicitation of donations. In order to get the necessary supplies to maintain an occupy effort, a coordinator posts a request on the group’s website and supporters fulfill the request. What is interesting in the digital era is who is taking up the call. In Tallahassee, FL (the capital of Florida and home of Florida State University) the occupiers are largely students and retirees and donors are individuals with small children, individuals who have full time jobs, or individuals who are employed by the state and concerned that visible, liberal activism will affect their jobs. The movement’s use of ICT, however, mitigates these barriers to participation by providing a variety of ways in which individuals can support movement goals. Again, an individual baking lasagna as a part of a larger challenge against the consolidation of power in the United States does not fit traditional conceptualizations of collective action or participation. However, it makes perfect sense when we think of ICT as offering an affordance that can be used to connect people across space, time, and circumstance.

2.     The leveraging affordances approach (further) blurs the conceptual lines between the instrumental and non-instrumental aspects of social movement processes and require us to think critically about how time matters. While some students of social movements were quick to classify new technology as simply another tool available to activists, Earl and Kimport argue that ICT can play an important role in processes critical to sustaining movements such as the cultivation and maintenance of collective identity. They also suggest that time is an important variable in these processes. Let me draw on my research of the Tea Party Movement to illustrate this point. In Florida, movement leaders used online venues to nurture culturally resonant and politically neutral emotions (e.g., love of country) long enough to mobilize voters across the political spectrum and effectively remove “irresponsible” politicians from office. Under the watchful eye of movement leaders, movement supporters vented their frustrations with the concentration of power in America and government bailouts for big banks and called for political accountability.  Political parties and affiliation were seldom the topic of online conversation. When they were, pejorative posts were removed and supporters were reminded of their common bond as “Americans” and “patriots.” This rhetoric, however, did not completely jibe with what was being said at movement events and group meetings. While leaders claimed not to have party loyalties, they increasingly adopted anti-liberal language that delineated “us” (Republicans) and “them” (liberal Democrats). This anti-liberal sentiment eventually dominated the online forums as well. In the wake of their 2010 electoral victory, movement leaders turned their attention toward politics and essentially quit moderating online forums. As a result, calls for political unity fell by the wayside and “love of country” became the purview of Republicans. This example is a useful one because it illustrates how ICT can be used for instrumental and non-instrumental purposes simultaneously – and with powerful results.  For a brief moment, local Tea Party leaders successfully tapped into a common frustration, cultivated an emotional culture conducive for mass mobilization, and, consequently, affected political change. Likewise, it aptly shows that time (here, represented by the amount put in by leaders) matters. As the priorities and efforts of movement leaders shifted, so did the construction of relevant emotions and movement identity.

3.     The leveraged affordances approach makes outcomes (successful or otherwise) more elusive than ever. Movement scholars are quite interested in showing how movements matters. Earl and Kimport aptly note that in the digital era there are a lot of variability that can affect how ICT is used in collective challenges such as technological skill, user intent, and, of course, the geographic location of the target and challengers. All this variability makes it more difficult to assess when, where, and how collective action is effective. In some cases, ICT can be used to obscure who is responsible for a grassroots campaign. This is particularly relevant in election cycles because swells of support for candidates in the virtual world may be nothing more than carefully crafted media blitzes orchestrated by corporate actors or campaign managers. This idea that those with money and technological wherewithal are well positioned to win the political game is not new. However, what the leveraged affordance approach reminds us is that we need to be overly cautious when attributing success (or failure) to a group or movement. A collective challenge may not be what it seems and, without scrutiny, scholars may reproduce popular myths about when and how change happens in the 21st century.

In the new digital landscape, there are a number of on- and off-line tools available to individuals advocating change. However, Earl and Kimport remind us that – as always – there are no guarantees of small or sweeping change. This technological moment is rife with pitfall and possibility.

Leave a comment

Filed under Digital Media in Activism, Essay Dialogues

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s