Technology, Politics and Social Change

Last night I watched the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Square” chronicling 3 tumultuous years of citizen mobilization in Egypt, centering around the now-famous Tahrir square.  The movie vividly depicted the struggles and sacrifices made by thousands of ordinary citizens as they toppled a long-standing dictator, an unaccountable military government, and a narrowly elected president from an Islamist party.

‘People power’ shook the foundations of Egypt’s authoritarian system and brought change few could have imagined shortly before the movement started.  Although the documentary did not focus on this aspect, technology played an important role in facilitating the collective action of tens of thousands of individuals, long unable to coordinate in such a way because of the surveillance and repression of a police state.  Social media shifted this equation.

We use Facebook to schedule the protests and [we use] Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.

Yet, what The Square emphasizes is the contrasting organizing models of the Tahrir protesters and the Muslim Brotherhood political party/movement.  Non-MB protesters provided the numbers, utilized new technologies, and often bore the brunt of the backlash from the military and police.  The MB, in contrast, didn’t mobilize millions, but it had a very organized, hierarchical structure that allowed it to put bodies in the street when necessary (and keep them off the street when it suited them).  They also had channels of communication to power holders in the state, which allowed them to negotiate behind the scenes.  And most importantly, they were an organized political movement.  When parliamentary and presidential elections were held, the MB was prepared.  They mobilized their voters around their candidates.  There was no presidential candidate that represented the protesters at Tahrir Square. Those (mostly) youth had to choose between a candidate from the old regime or the MB candidate, or withhold their dearly-won ballot.

Earlier this week, Zeynep Tufekci wrote a great piece for the New York Times highlighting the numerous protest movements around the world in recent years (a partial list includes Turkey’s Gerzi park protesters, the Indignados in Spain, the Occupy movement).  Many of these citizen mobilizations were enabled, or at least coordinated, using social media.  They brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets.  Yet, as in Egypt, they did not result in significant long term change.  Tufekci contrasts this with the low-tech civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960’s that built up a powerful backbone of grassroots organizing that was able to sustain long-term collective action, such as strikes and boycotts.

Facebook, Twitter and other social media technologies significantly lower the costs of coordinating citizen actions and protests, and have done so to dramatic effect over the past few years.  Yet they may make collective action too easy, and thus remove the incentives to build a real grassroots movement around a strong organizational framework.

These points were brought up last week at our TALEARN Annual Workshop.  Jonathan Fox emphasized the need for multi-scalar, systemic approaches built around mass movements that can credibly represent members and negotiate with power holders.  Walter Flores organized a group to discuss how broad-based social movements, with aims such as equality, justice and democracy, are often ignored by external actors looking to support improved transparency and accountability within a narrow framework.  This working group will propose a research agenda around case studies of social movement organizing and how this can contribute to improved governance.  This work will be a key contribution to the field, and will help us understand how external (funding) actors focused on using technology to drive improved governance responsiveness (such as Making All Voices Count and others) can better engaged with collective organizing projects at local and national scales to support real, sustainable change.  This represents one way that such actors can better integrate political analysis and politically-informed practice into their strategies for promoting social change.

Edit: Recent discussion with Ivan Krastev at Open Society Foundations on protests and social change.  The critical challenge is how to sustain, and institutionalize, the changes that some protest movements have achieved through street mobilization.  This requires both organization and engagement with the political system, as I highlight above.  When protest movements do not create an organizing base, and refuse to engage in representative politics, they will lose influence to those who do, as the Egypt case exemplifies.  

External actors, such as the Open Society Foundations, can play a role here, but transparency and legitimacy are issues.  External actors must be clear about where they stand and the role they are playing.  Focusing on promoting ideas and principles, rather than supporting a given set of actors can be one strategic direction.  Yet external actors are likely to be viewed with suspicion by some/all parties during times of crisis.  Laws limiting the role of outside support and funding make it difficult for external actors to help develop the organizational base of protest movements, so that they can more effectively secure the gains that were won in the streets, often at great cost.  Such an organizational backbone can also facilitate other strategies of engagement with state actors, and by credibly representing the individuals and interests of the protest movement, allowing for negotiation of changes without taking to the streets.  A solid organizational framework may also allow for more direct engagement with electoral politics, which is the most institutionalized mechanism in democratic societies for ensuring popular control of government power.  Clearly, protest movements and mass organizing show that there are other tools that can hold power to account, but to ignore electoral politics creates a vacuum, which will not stay empty for long.


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