Activism in the 21st Century. By Keshinro Oluwalani Deborah from The University of Lagos and Best in Category winner for the vLex International Writing Competition category: Movement, Law & Technology.
By Keshinro Oluwalani Deborah
Our world today is far from ideal, and as long as the needs and interests of distressed groups remain unsatisfied, social movements will remain a part of our society. Although publicized displays of defiance have historically played a major role in securing many laws and policies, the practical results of most recent demonstrations are often disproportionate to the level of enthusiasm they display. This begs the question: Are protests still an effective strategy for political and legal change? Has the introduction of social media improved the world of activism?
Are Protests Effective?
Demonstrations are more likely to have an impact on the political agenda of a government if they occur under conducive political conditions. The presence of a democratic and amenable government, an independent judiciary and the support from political allies indirectly promotes protest mobilization and increases their chance of success. The state’s capacity and propensity for repression is also crucial in predicting the success or failure of a movement because no matter how powerful a protest may seem, a state often has more capacity to inflict costs than protesters have to withstand them.
The extent to which the events of a protest shape public opinion has been observed to be a primary determining factor of the success, or otherwise, of the protest in achieving its stated objectives. Research has shown that protests may have a considerable impact on policy change by changing public opinion.
Protests often change public perception on an issue by making it mainstream, forcing conversations about it and reframing the standards of what is acceptable. This shift in public perception may sometimes lead to institutional change as legislators may be inspired to vote in support of the goals of the protests. In the wake of the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests for instance, more bills aimed at addressing police accountability were proposed and passed by state governments.
It is important to note that violent protests are frequently counterproductive or ineffective in swaying public opinion. It has been noted that major non-violent campaigns have achieved success 53% of the time, compared with 26% for violent resistance campaigns. Violence has also been shown to negatively influence protest-outcomes by increasing the likelihood of repression.
Although the subject of collective protests in social science discourse is all too common, there remains no conclusive evidence on the actual impact of demonstrations on policy making. Evaluating the outcomes of a protests is exceptionally difficult as the efficacy of protests depends on various factors; political opportunity structure, the disposition of protesters, public opinion, all of which are country specific.
Nonetheless, contemporary protests for the most part are ineffective because they simply do not pose the same threat as their historical counterparts. This is due in part to the introduction of digital technologies.
Impact Of Social Media On Protests
With influences from 21st century media and technology, protests are taking on a new form. There are two opposing views on the impact of digital technology on social movements; techno-optimism and techno-pessimism. Techno-optimists highlight the role of social media in protests and believe it inspires movements. Techno-Pessimists, on the other hand, question the view that social media acts as a tool that generates revolutions and believe it merely facilitates expression without impact.
However, the world of activism in recent years shows that social media indeed plays a notable role. Today, activists use social media platforms to organize and launch civil actions. Through the use of social media the ideological message of a movement is able to reach places and people it would have otherwise been unable to reach, the sphere of participation is expanded, and the organizational and communication costs are drastically reduced thereby prolonging the duration and efficacy of the movement.
Despite the above, effecting political or legal change requires much more than social media activism. Social media might create exposure for a cause but this does not fight the legal battles that lead to change.
The concept of “clicktivism” has been highlighted as a major reason why movements created with reliance on social media are often ineffective. With social media, supporters can simply join a Facebook group, like posts and tweet in support of the movement from the comfort of their houses rather than risk harsh and possibly violent protest grounds. The advantage that digital-age movements have in terms of speed introduces the disadvantage of a lack of infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum.
The risk of suppression is also intensified in this age of digital technology. As social media expands the reach of a movement, it attracts the attention of law enforcement agencies and opens those involved in protest activity to the risk of surveillance. A 2016 survey showed that 70% of police departments use social media as a tool for gathering intelligence and monitoring public sentiment.
Social media activity is increasingly used as evidence in criminal cases for or against the defendant. In 2012, a New York judge ruled that tweets are public information after ordering Twitter to submit deleted tweets of an Occupy Wall Street protester for use as evidence against him.
The use of social media as a surveillance tool has been criticized as unreliable because it is often circumstantial and overly susceptible to misinterpretation. Also, there usually aren’t specific laws governing law enforcement’s ability to monitor social media, therefore the control over this method of surveillance is left majorly to the social media policies of individual police departments. This power could be abused and have an alarmingly negative effect on the freedom of speech and assembly of citizens especially citizens belonging to minority groups.
Protests, organized with or without digital technologies, are valuable but not sufficient. Crowds do not magically create change. For protests to stay relevant and impactful, there must be a plan for the aftermath of the protests, to translate the energy of supporters into engagement in the political process.
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