Bringing the Organization Back In: Social Media and Social Movements

Jen Schradie

In the digital era of so-called Facebook revolutions or hashtag activism, many claim that participation in social movements is individualized and personalized, but building and sustaining a political movement, even an online movement, still requires organization.

The Moral Monday protests have developed from traditional grassroots organizing and coalition building by the NC NAACP: HK on J protest, Raleigh, NC Feb. 2013. Credit: Jen Schradie

Can you hear the death knell for formal political organizations? As the story goes, bureaucratic and hierarchical infrastructure in political movements has been eroding over the past two decades. From their ashes have arisen horizontal and leaderless movements. But what has awakened these democratizing and participatory transformations?

“The Internet,” said Manuel Castells at a University of California, Berkeley Sociology colloquium last year. And he recently wrote:

…the more interactive and self-configurable communication is, the less hierarchal is the organization and the more participatory is the movement…This is why the networked social movements of the digital age represent a new species of social movement.[1]

From the IndyMedia peer-sharing websites during the anti-globalization protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization (WTO) to the so-called Facebook and Twitter revolutions of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, many have suggested that digital architecture and platforms in general, and social media in particular, have shepherded in a new way to organize with less organization/s.[2]

After the initial reports of the role of Twitter in the Green Movement in Iran, a now in/famous debate ensued between Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker writer and bestselling book author, and Clay Shirky, another prominent author and lawyer. Gladwell wrote that claims of revolutionary protest from Twitter’s weak ties fail to acknowledge the historical importance of the strong organizational ties from the civil rights movement. Shirky responded that social media and technology are critical tools for political participation in the digital era. But this wasn’t simply a tiff between two Manhattan intellectual elites. Activists, new media pundits, and techno-enthusiasts of all stripes delved into this debate that eventually framed formal strong-tie organizations as passé and individualized weak tie digital networks as the new movement prototype. If you believe the blogs and the tweets, Gladwell was taken down in this tête-à-tête as an old school movement analyst. His name often brings derision at tech conferences: organizations = bad; digital networks = good. While this is now an old debate in Twitter time, its effects reverberate strongly in conversations about the role of organizations in a digital activist era.

Yet the rise of this attachment to leaderless and horizontal movements has not only coincided with the growth of technological advancements. It has also run parallel with the rise of neoliberal, market-based politics and economies in which individual rights are at their core.

Yet the rise of this attachment to leaderless and horizontal movements has not only coincided with the growth of technological advancements. It has also run parallel with the rise of neoliberal, market-based politics and economies in which individual rights are at their core. Free markets, free labor and freedom from the state describe many of the beliefs and practices around the Internet, which I call Silicon Valley Ideology.[3] This ideology is often tied to digitally networked and horizontal activism, as it extends far beyond the geographic space of Silicon Valley tech company headquarters. Silicon Valley Ideology privileges the individual in exercising freedom of expression in a (neo)liberal system disconnected from hierarchical structural positions, such as being members of political organizations. Certainly, beliefs and practices around horizontal movements predate Silicon Valley Ideology and neoliberalism, most prominently anarchism. Often, though, this ideology conflates horizontalism and non-hierarchy with anti-organizationalism. It has also co-opted egalitarian and anti-authoritarian values and turned them into fetishes of individualism and anti-organizationalism. The assumption is that we are all untethered individual Internet users instead of organizational members of political movements. In this framework, we make our own decisions about when and where to get involved politically, and we connect through digital networks,[4] not through a top-down organizational bureaucracy. Certainly, the proponents of horizontal movements in the digital age are not followers of all aspects of Silicon Valley Ideology, nor are they neoliberal lackeys. In fact, a common anti-capitalist anarchistic thread ties the WTO protests and the Occupy Wall Street movements together, which are movements upheld as poster children of non-hierarchical digital activism.

But the problem with pointing to the Internet’s centrality to these well-publicized movements is that it selects on the dependent variable. What this means is that much of the hype around structureless activism in the digital era has focused on very visible movements with high levels of digital engagement. Left out of the picture are the everyday practices across a range of political movements with differing levels of organization and online engagement. Have we simply cherry-picked our examples of how political and social movements operate in the digital era?

Another methodological problem with celebrating all things digital is that the question has mostly been how the Internet has shaped political movements. But what about the reverse: How have different types of political movements shaped Internet use? In other words, how do groups with different organizational infrastructures influence their digital practices? And what are everyday, rather than extraordinary, digital practices?

To answer these questions, one of my research projects takes a field-level approach to incorporate much more structural variation across different types of groups. I examine all of the key players organizing around one political issue in one southern U.S. state—from new, fledgling groups of just a handful of people to large, established organizations. I find that more hierarchical and bureaucratic groups have much higher levels of digital use than their less hierarchical and less bureaucratic counterparts. Groups with more organizational infrastructure have everything from more Facebook posts, “likes” and comments to more Tweets, retweets and favorites on Twitter. So it’s not simply that these more hierarchical and bureaucratic groups are building and developing more digital platforms but they also have more online participation. They build it and people come. Some well-funded groups can pay Facebook to promote their posts to build higher levels of online activism, but I also found that it was not just resources that made a difference in online engagement.

What was most striking in my fieldwork was how activists, whether Tea Party, union, or student leaders, never talked about how technology is a liberatory new way to organize, absent leadership or hierarchy. In fact, they often emphasized how it takes high levels of organization to bring people and keep people together. One activist talked about how they needed more organizational effort to ensure that working class people without Internet access can stay in the information loop. She had to put in more time and use a variety of communication channels to make sure that everyone can participate in the organization.

Another leader commented on how digital technology, while a critical tool for efficient communication, can actually separate people:

I have problems with folks over-relying so much on technology … for me that helps really accomplish one of the goals really of our class enemy and the people’s enemy, is the atomization of folks. It leads to a certain amount of fragmentation that even though people can quickly see struggles, whether it’s in Egypt or whether looking in terms of the advances and the utilization of these tools and the Occupy movement and all of that, but you still got to have some sense of a coherent development of strategy and strategic thinking and folks being able to at least collaborate with some sense of strategic objectives to maximize the impact of fighting back.

So rather than democratic participation, Internet activism can promote isolation. As Jo Freeman pointed out over 40 years ago in The Tyranny of Structurelessness, describing her experience with feminist liberation groups, the lack of structure can actually be less, rather than more democratic, if organizational roles are not transparent.[5]

While it is possible that some movements in their infancy, such as Occupy Wall Street, have little organization and have high levels of digital engagement, it could be that these movements either grow and evolve their organizational structures or, simply, die. This account, though, does not always capture what often happens before a big protest event goes viral on social media.

In the summer of 2013, while teaching a class on digital activism at UC Berkeley, I gave my students an assignment early in the course to follow the Twitter feed of one of the Moral Monday protests. These North Carolina protests have spread to other states but at the time were weekly forms of nonviolent civil disobedience at North Carolina’s capital building in opposition to bills coming from a supermajority Republican legislature that slashed healthcare funding, restricted voting rights, and limited abortion access, among others. My students generally commented how great it was that Twitter helped organize and spread the word about the protest. They were wrong. Especially in these early months of the protests, it was the county by county events in churches that the NC NAACP organized, the coordinating with other progressive organizations in the state, and other more “passé” forms of traditional grassroots organizing that got people to show up. I had been interviewing many of the key groups involved in Moral Monday as part of my research, as well as following them on social media, so I had a unique window into the early stages of the movement and its relationship to social media, which was minimal at the time.

In an era of hashtag activism, clicktivism, or whatever you want to call digital politics, it still takes some level of organization/s to create and sustain a movement, even an online movement. If you pull back the online curtain in the digital activism land of Oz, you will see that it is often a very structured organization pulling the levers. This everyday online organizational activism, though, is not in opposition to egalitarian participation. Instead, it is in opposition to rugged individualism in disguise.

Technology companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, want us to believe that their platforms are a form of disruption, liberation and even revolution. They want us to believe that individualized horizontal networks flatten the hierarchies in our economy, as well as our politics. They want us to believe that technology is the key to social change. But this Silicon Valley Ideology masks the collective and organizational action—rather than virtual individualism—necessary to effect political change.

References and Footnotes

  1. Castells, Manuel. 2012. Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. Cambridge, UK: Polity, p. 15.
  2. e.g. Bennett, W. Lance, and Alexandra Segerberg. 2012. “The Logic of Connective Action.” Information, Communication & Society 15(5):739–68.
  3. Schradie, Jen. 2015. “Silicon Valley Ideology and Class Inequality: A Virtual Poll Tax on Digital Politics.” in Handbook of Digital Politics, edited by Dean Freelon. Cheltanham, UK: Edward Elgar. Forthcoming.
  4. Silicon Valley Ideology builds on theories that expose the folly of free markets (Somers, 2008), Internet utopianism (Barbrook and Cameron,1995) and egalitarian citizenship (Marshall, 1950).
  5. Freeman, Jo. 1972. “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” The Second Wave 2(1):2.