Social Justice as Vaporware: The Folly of Online Activism

This was one of my better efforts from the Radioville blog and is a topic that has been on my mind today, for reasons that I’ve not entirely worked out yet:

Social Justice as Vaporware: The Folly of Online Activism (June 2012)

occupy whateverIn a well-known article entitled “Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” written for The New Yorker in October, 2010, author Malcolm Gladwell dismissed the vaunted “power of social media” to create social change:

“It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.”

Gladwell was both praised and pilloried for his point of view, mostly the latter. His critics, however, tended to be the usual suspects with a vested interest in the success of “online activism”, arguing against his dour assessment with defensive anecdotes. “But social good is a movement still in its infancy,” sniffed Mashable. “Let’s give the tools a little while to grow up before we start judging them.”

Considering that nearly one-sixth of the population of Earth has a Facebook account and it has been five years since the first supposed “Twitter Revolution” (in Moldova), it is difficult to accept the “growing pains” justification for social media’s unimpressive output as an instrument of social change. As even Gladwell points out, the unprecedented opportunity for human connectivity social media provides is in many ways good for society; what it is apparently not good for, however, at least not at this stage of human evolution, is creating fundamental change in the society of which it is an inseparable part.

The Elusive “Critical Pedagogy”

The idealized view of the participatory culture of the online world has its roots in the ideas of the “public sphere” described by the Walter Benjamin and later in much more detailed and well-known form by Jürgen Habermas. Benjamin opined that “a reader is at all times ready to become a writer”, and suggested that new spaces for civic engagement would develop.1  Habermas’ ideal of the public sphere envisions an environment in which individuals can autonomously exchange ideas openly, free from domination, manipulation, or other distortion of the communications, and where consensus is reached rationally.2  The public sphere provides a “critical pedagogy” because of these two main features: participant autonomy, and undistorted communication; people can learn, individually and collectively, because they are free to follow their own interests in interacting with others and are bound only by the limits of reason.

The philosophical opposite of the critical pedagogy is the institutional pedagogy of educational and mass media systems within liberal capitalist society. Both Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser described the connections between power and knowledge, which are operationalized in the mass media in the form of advertising, political propaganda, and other forms of media socialization; and in education in what Althusser describes as part of the Ideological State Apparatus to produce or reproduce ruling ideologies in capitalist societies.3 We can see evidence of these ideas every time we turn on the television, or in the “teach to test” nature of most education systems, where the objective is either economic gain (or at least subsistence), social conformity, or both.

While the Internet conceptually has the potential to allow people to break their sociopolitical bonds and participate in a much wider public sphere, the ideal and the reality diverge for some rather obvious reasons. Habermas’ concept of the public sphere has limits; it applies to the bourgeois model of liberal capitalism, but does not take into account class conflicts – the most obvious one with relation to the Internet being the ‘digital divide’ – competing interests that fragment the public, and it underestimates to a significant, perhaps dangerous degree the force of the intervention of governments and corporate interests in the formation of public opinion.4 And perhaps the biggest reason that “new media” and “social media” has failed to usher in the anticipated new Age of Enlightenment is that, despite the format, the Internet is still a form of “media” – media that is a part of the capitalist political economy and environment in which it operates.5 The Internet, like any other media, tells us what “they” want us to hear; the irony is it can do this much more effectively because we actually do much of the work of filtering the message for them.

Confirmation Bias and Fragmented Publics

Confirmation bias, as we know, is our very human tendency to accept information more readily if it confirms our existing beliefs and opinions. Rationally, according to the Habermas model of the public sphere, we should, if given the opportunity, seek to learn all possible viewpoints on a subject which interests us, but that is not what we do. This assertion, of course, is a matter for some rather heated academic debate, but neither side has supported its argument with conclusive empirical evidence.6 Despite the scholarly ambiguity, we can nonetheless be fairly certain we find ourselves in ‘ideological enclaves’ online because of this:


This is called the EdgeRank Formula, and is used by Facebook’s algorithm to determine what, and in what sequence, items from the “news feed” are displayed on a user’s page. Everything that a user creates – a status update, posting a video, picture, or link, making a comment, or even “liking” someone else’s content or tagging another user in a post or photo – is called an “edge”. The formula calculates how often you interact with another user (your “affinity” to that user), assigns a “weight” to the edge item (online content such as links or videos carry the highest weight, “likes” and “tags” the lowest), and factors in the time since the edge was created (newer edges are obviously more important), and from all that, determines what gets sent to your news feed. Other social media programs such as Twitter have similar algorithms. The result of this is, unless a user actively seeks out “friends” or “follows” people who are outside his normal social and ideological group, he will continually be fed information that aligns with his own preferences, including third-party information spawned by the network, such as sidebar advertisements and recommendations for new friends or people to follow.

The way in which the control of what information we receive prevents the formation of the critical pedagogy is through the sheer volume and frequency of messages that reinforce our confirmation biases. We simply do not have time to go outside our ideological enclaves to seek out different perspectives, nor can we even process what information we do receive in more than a cursory manner. That results in fragmentation of the public as a whole into groups with persistent, but weak, internal linkages. That in turn creates the conditions for the fragmentation of issues into “us vs. them” terms, which helps to keep “activism” firmly trapped online.

Message Distortion & Rhetorical Binaries

Beginning in the late 1990’s a loose movement of anti-consumerist activists launched a series of “pranking” campaigns aimed at upsetting the marketing efforts of well-known companies such as Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, and The Gap, utilizing parodies of the companies’ advertising and occasional disruptive protests in high-visibility store locations.While the protests gained some attention, they did not become widespread or long-lasting, nor objectively change the behavior of the companies they targeted.

The fundamental problem with the anti-consumerist campaign is that, in the words of University of Georgia Professor Christine Harold,

“…[it] perpetuates a commitment to rhetorical binaries – the hierarchical form it supposedly wants to upset…. Parody derides the content of what it sees as oppressive rhetoric, but fails to attend to its patterns.” 7

This is the division of issues into “us vs. them” terms that characterizes online activism; Harold points out that one of the major anti-consumerist groups, Adbusters, received a great deal of backlash simply because many perceived that their telling consumers what was best for them was not significantly different than what the targeted companies were doing. In a sense, this is simply revealing how narrow the difference between “social media” and traditional media really is; the message may not be controlled by a government or a corporate entity, but it is controlled – and consequently distorted to favor a particular point of view – all the same. Evgeny Morozov in his excellent analysis of the ill-starred “Twitter Revolution” in Iran in 2009 describes the same process. Western journalists (most notably Andrew Sullivan) had their opinions shaped by English-speaking Iranian bloggers and “Tweeters,” who in turn had their opinions shaped by the relatively tiny minority of Farsi-speaking “activists” inside Iran, and that entire information trail was affected by various anti-Iranian establishment, pro-Western political biases so that what was eventually reported bore little resemblance to what was actually happening.8

Will Online Activism Ever Result in Real-World Change?

As Gladwell himself pointed out, online activism, despite its handicaps, is not totally ineffective, but it seems the range of issues to which it can be applied successfully is discouragingly narrow; correcting someone’s error against the social norm, such as the story he relates concerning the cell phone thief, is one thing but overthrowing a political system is another. Online activism works when it does not require too much of the participant, and its impact reflects the energy put into it; Hosni Mubarak was not, contrary to popular belief, removed from power by angry blog posts and pic badges on Facebook profiles, but by large-scale, coordinated, and sometimes violent confrontations in Egypt’s streets. All the online furor in the world has not, so far, stopped the tragedy in Syria, nor was it enough to force regime change in Libya without a bloody civil war. Taking that “next step,” either building alliances with or confronting political institutions is the means by which fundamental changes occur; as long as social media remains a part of those institutions, that “next step” is no more likely to come from cyberspace as it is from anywhere else.


1. Walter Benjamin, Reflection, 1934.

2. Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society, 1981; and The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, 1989.

3. Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus”, in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, 1971; and Michel Foucault in Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1980.

4. Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of the Actually Existing Democracy”, in Habermas and the Public Sphere, 1992; and Douglas Kellner, “Habermas, the Public Sphere, and Democracy: A Critical Intervention”, in Perspectives on Habermas, 2000.

5. Douglas Kellner, Media culture: Cultural studies, identity and politics between the modern and the postmodern, 1995.

6. Lincoln Dahlberg, “Rethinking the fragmentation of the cyberpublic: from consensus to contestation”, New Media & Society, 9(5), 2007.

7. Christine Harold, “Pranking Rhetoric: “‘Culture Jamming’ as Media Activism”. Critical Studies in Media Communications, 2004.

8. Evgeny Morozov, “Iran: Downside to the ‘Twitter Revolution’”. Dissent, 2009. See also Christina Neumayer and Celina Raffl, “Facebook for Global Protest: The Potential and Limits of Social Software for Grassroots Activism”, 2008, for a discussion of similar factors in the “Million Voices Against FARC” Facebook campaign in Colombia.


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