New Orleans There is no question that social media is a modern phenomenon in a laundry list of ways. Sometimes it is hard to pull substance away from the spin to determine the differences between its importance as a unique communications tool versus its utility as an organizing tool. For example the self-promoting claims of a Facebook-revolution in Egypt or an earlier Twitter-revolution in Iran have been hugely discounted as little more than marketing, and certainly not organizing. On the other hand social media is becoming something altogether different as a political reality, and the rise – and resilience – of Donald Trump is only one example. Recently, the conservative, establishment magazine, The Economist, took a look at how political scientists and others were trying to get their arms around the role of social media in an article that was both fascinating and frightening.
Of course the very public nature and availability of social media makes it possible to study more contemporaneously than might be possible for other social movements. Researchers in the United Kingdom and the United States are spending a lot of time trying to parse various comments, words, and phrases used in online activism in order to measure support and growth of various efforts. Researchers at Hong Kong University for example followed the Umbrella Movement’s public Facebook pages religiously and “measured how interlinked the pages were.” They claim that these numbers were “a good predictor of the mood of the population at large.”
Researchers are also confirming the role of social media lying underneath the Trump phenomena as well. Eli Pariser of Move-On fame has called this a “filter bubble,” meaning that information is moving in a tighter loop without as much diversity as one might find even in the larger internet info-world. Some researchers are claiming in fact that they may be able soon to predict what movements might blossom via social media tracking, though the real data is more likely to be in the hands of companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and, disturbingly, in the hands of governments, both benign and evil.
All of which would argue that the always turbulent House of Cards, Game of Thrones world of politics may be moving to something even more volatile. Quoting from a new book, Political Turbulence, the Economist reports the authors’ conclusions on the future of politics as,
“…better described by chaos theory than by conventional social science: ‘Tiny acts of political participation that take place via social media are the units of analysis, the equivalent of particles and atoms in a natural system, manifesting themselves in political turbulence.’ One day, say the authors, it will be possible to predict and trigger such surges, in the same way that meteorologists have become good at forecasting the weather.”
Tell me that’s not scary!
If true, my old organizing maxim that “if you live by the press, you’ll die by the press,” may have to be updated to add that “if you organize through social media, you’ll also die by social media.” It’s not catchy, but it could be disturbingly true, if a communications tool becomes a window into 1984-style constant monitoring and measuring of collective anger and action. The elements of tactical and strategic surprise are still essential for success of social movements and mass organizations. Hard work could become even more difficult, if they are already sitting there and waiting for us.