Activism changed by Facebook, Twitter

BY DAVID BUCCILLI
Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 8, 2011

While people across the world are using Facebook and Twitter for connecting with friends or following celebrity news, the social networking sites have been taking on a larger role.

The function of online activism has come under an increased watch recently with the widespread use of various websites to garner supporters for the protests in the Middle East. According to University professors, social networking websites are also changing the way students participate in political and social dialogue.

Michael Dobbs, a lecturer of Communications Studies, said social media websites like Facebook and Twitter are “completely (changing) the game” of activism. He said this has been illustrated by these sites’ influencing the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

“Undoubtedly, the Internet and social media played an important role in bringing people out into the streets,” Dobbs said in an interview this week.

Because people mobilized through the use of networking sites, Dobbs said, Egyptian authorities cut off Internet access from Jan. 28 until Feb. 2.

In addition to the Internet aiding short-term goals like getting people on the streets to “give people a voice they didn’t have,” online resources also help protesters achieve long-term goals like raising global awareness about torture, Dobbs said.

The Internet makes it “much easier for an ordinary protestor to communicate with the outside world,” he said.

But Dobbs pointed out that the Internet has helped to empower governments too, specifically by allowing officials to track people through photos and social networks. Because the Egyptian government has power over the media, Dobbs added, police there have used Facebook and Twitter to obtain information about citizens. He also cited China as an example of a government’s “filtering” of the Internet.

“The new information technology has changed the nature of the game,” Dobbs said, adding that it’s often ambiguous which side of conflicts benefits more from online resources.

Regardless, Dobbs said the Internet plays a pivotal role in communicating information quickly — a function he said is vital for any form of activism or protest.

“All revolution in the end becomes an information revolution,” he said.

Thomas Finholt, professor and senior associate dean at the University’s School of Information, said in an interview in November that social media also help engage students in political dialogue.

“What the Internet offers is a new halfway engagement,” he said. “People previously doing nothing now are involved.”

In addition to keeping people informed and involved, social media websites serve as a check on power, Dobbs said, citing Egyptian activists’ using cell phones to document police corruption.

“They smuggle in cell phones in the police station and surreptitiously take photos,” he said.

Finholt also said cell phones have become important tools for political activism closer to home. He spoke specifically of “flash mobs,” saying that such technology allows students to spontaneously organize protests, an option that wasn’t available in previous decades.

“(With mobile devices) it becomes possible to organize activity more spontaneously,” Finholt said. “A lot of activism in the past was pre-mobilized.”

LSA senior Mallory Jones, chair of the University’s undergraduate chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a former news editor for The Michigan Daily, said using Facebook and blogs from local, state and national chapters are great ways to distribute information to ACLU members.

“Even just through Facebook, it is just so much easier to be aware of things going on,” Jones said.

People who are too busy to attend University ACLU meetings can still keep abreast of the group's proceedings through online forums, she added.

LSA junior Brendan Campbell, chair of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, said new technologies are an effective way for student activists to spread their missions and connect supporters.

Campbell said College Democrats use online outlets like YouTube, video podcasts, Twitter and blogging to complement more conventional forms of participation.

Though online media help students, Finholt said, they also produce a sense of disengagement from the activities themselves. University students in the past participated in events like protests and anti-war marches, whereas now students partake in causes online, which Finholt said limits actual involvement.

“From the point of view of the individual, clicking a mouse on a website isn’t very motivating or engaging,” Finholt said. “The 60s and 70s had a much more public, in-your-face exposure.”

Student activists during those times had more “aggressive commentary,” Finholt said, because of their desire to defy norms and expectations of older generations.

Jones said she doesn’t believe online activism can completely substitute in-person activism.

“Being there in person is still the heart of activism,” Jones said. “You’re always going to see people on the Diag … and the Internet’s not going to replace that.”