Technology And Social Movements: Help Or Hindrance?

Barry Gilheany discusses the relationship between social movements and the development of modern technology. 

In this article, I examine Manuel Castells’ theory of the network society developed to explain the mobilisation of social movements in the Internet era and to assess the benefits that these movements are said to have accrued from technological innovation. I focus on the uprisings in the Arab Spring of late 2010 to early 2011 as possible examples of the validity of the network society template. I engage with social movement theories particularly those that analyse the “Global Social Movements” (GSMs) that have emerged in the early 21st century. I describe the developments in online technology that have occurred in the last two decades or so and their impacts on contemporary social movement activism. It examines the prospects of success for networked cyberactivism as a new paradigm to seeing social change while looking at what those critics of the “utopian” potential virtual networks who still assert the primacy of class in social struggles and who caution about the capacity of states and corporations to colonise large parts of the online world.

It is important to remember that there has been so far no comprehensive academic theory of the “Global Social Movements” (GSMs) that have emerged in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It is also important to appreciate that the term “social movement” is often used to describe a diversity of related phenomena, including protest events and coalitions and that different schools of thought hold to different tenets of social movement theory. However, all schools of thought in this area agree on three principal characteristics: they are made up by networks of informal interactions between diverse actors, including individuals, organisations and groups; they are bound by shared beliefs and ties of solidarity that make their participants ascribe a common meaning to specific collective events and are involved in political and/or cultural conflicts that arise as a result of social change. The decentralised structure of social movements consist of the following characteristics: they are segmented, meaning that social movements consist of numerous smaller groups (or, in the language of networks, “nodes”) whose involvement may wax and wane while new members join and others leave to pursue new interests; they are polycentric, meaning that they have multiple centres and leaders whose influence tends to be temporary and they are integrated, meaning that these multiple segments and hubs connect to each other through interpersonal relationships between activists or through common identities and belief systems. This SPIN model (comprising the acronym Segmented, Polycentric, INtegrated model) was devised in 1970 and seems appropriate to current social movements as well (Joyce, ed. 2012).

As an aside in relation to this discussion of social movement mobilisation and decentralised composition, I feel it necessary to comment on the ambition of Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party, to transform his party into a Latin American style social movement rooted in community hubs across Britain. While I am not arguing against a more activist, campaigning Labour Party. I would argue that Corbyn’s social movement model of his party stands in total contra-distinction to the defining features of social movement formation. All social movements, ‘New’ or ‘Old’, spring from claims and demands made by particular groups (often excluded) in society. The Labour Party itself became the parliamentary expression of the needs and culture of organised labour initially mobilised, social movement style, by trade unions. In contemporary times, the Black Lives Matters movement in the USA that has emerged out of anger felt at police shootings of unarmed African-Americans and the campaign by young people for gun control in the wake of the mass shootings at schools are examples of potential grass roots led social movement activity. In the UK, the burgeoning Peoples Vote campaign for s final plebiscite on whether to accept PM Theresa May’s proposed EU withdrawal agreement with the alternatives of “No Deal Brexit” or “No Brexit” represents another example of grass roots mobilisation around a specific demand. The vehicle by which supporters of Jeremy Corbyn hope to transform Labour into a social movement, the supposedly grass-roots led Momentum organisation is, in my opinion, preposterous as it is a private company formed by a wealthy property developer with his own agenda for the Labour Party.

To return to the topic at hand, focusing on the employment by social movements of online tools for mobilisation, coordinating and community building can facilitate a wider and fuller analysis of the role of the Internet in collective action. One of the first movements to have organised extensively through the Internet is the Global Justice Movement (GJM) (or the anti-globalisation movement as it is more widely and inaccurately known) which emerged in late 1999 when Internet access was becoming more widespread. An umbrella movement of trade union activists, autonomist groups, radical left political parties and organisations concerned with human rights, environmentalism, poverty and debt relief, the GJM made its first global imprint at the “Battle of Seattle” in late 1999 when 50,000 demonstrators severely disrupted the meeting of the World Trade Organisation. Demonstrations at almost every summit of transnational economic and political power organisations have followed in the subsequent decade or so including those organised at the London G20 summit in April 2009 (Joyce, ed, 2012: pp.102-103).

Independent media coverage of the WTO demonstrations in Seattle was provided by the digital Independent Media Centre, or Indymedia. Soon Indymedia centres were set up in other parts of the world. As loose organised networks of groups that post accessible campaigning and political information on websites, they provide alternative news sources to the mainstream media (Roberts, 2014); in this way alternative media outlets such as Indymedia disrupt a dominant switch in an established power network.

Writing about the movements that emerged from such epoch-defining moments as the global financial collapse in 2008 which posed serious questions for the democratic legitimacy in many countries in Europe and the United States and the global food crisis which impacted particularly severely on the livelihood of most people in the Arab world, Castells (2012) identified the following common features:
They are networked in multiple forms. As a network of networks, they can afford not to have an identifiable centre but can still ensure coordination and deliberation through multi-nodal interaction. Therefore, they do not require a formal leadership, a centralised command structure or a vertical organisation to feed down resources and information to subordinates. Networking information technology provides the platform for the expanding network practice consonant with the changing shape of the movement. Networking guards the movement from its enemies and from internal power struggles and bureaucratisation (Castells, 2012: pp.221-222).
While such movements usually start in cyberspace, they become a movement by occupying the urban space, whether through the occupation of public squares or the persistence of street demonstrations. Castells describes the interaction between the space of flows on wireless communication networks and the space of symbolic arenas targeted by protest actions as “the space of autonomy” (Castells, 2012: p222).

They are local and global at the same time, they originate in specific contexts for their own reasons but then connect around the world finding inspiration for their own mobilisation by other experiences; sometimes calling for joint global demonstrations in a network of local spaces in simultaneous time. They develop their own form of time between their daily lives in the occupied settlements and the unlimited potential and possibilities for new forms of life and community which emerge in their debates; an alternative time to that of the calibrated time of factory assembly worker and corporate chief executive. These movements are viral, following the logic of the Internet networks, are highly self-reflective, usually non-violent in principle and through their horizontal, multi-modal networks create a sense of togetherness which enables people to overcome fear and find hope (Castells, 2012: pp.222-25).

Castells’ analysis is based on his grounded theory of power that he puts forward in his earlier book Communication Power (2009)[1].He starts from the premise that power relations are constitutive of society because those who have power construct society’s institutions in accordance with their values and interests. However, since societies comprise contradictions and conflicts, where there is power is there is counterpower; the capacity of social actors to challenge the power embedded in the institutions of society with the aim of claiming representation for their own values and interests. State institutions cannot survive by coercion alone; the construction of meaning in people’s minds is a more lasting source of power. That is why the fundamental power struggle is the battle for the construction of meaning in the minds of people (Castells, 2012: pp.4-5).

The rise of mass self-communication, the use of the Internet and wireless networks as platforms of digital communication, has provided the technological platform for the construction of the autonomy of the social actor, individual or collective, vis-a-viz the institutions of society. It has done this through sending messages between multitudes of senders and receivers and connecting to seemingly endless networks that transmit digitised information around neighbourhoods or the world. Mass self-communication is based on horizontal networks of interactive communication that governments and corporations find it difficult to control (Castells, 2012: pp.6-7).

Castells conceptualises society as a network society in which power is multidimensional and is organised around networks programmed in each domain of human activity according to the interests of dominant actors. These networks of power are intermeshed among themselves. Global financial networks are global multimedia networks are intimately linked to form a meta-network of extraordinary power. Networks such as those in the realm of politics, cultural production and military/security and form ad hoc networks around specific projects. These networks share a common interest in creating a political system that defines societal norms and rules and which is fundamentally responsive to their interests. They connect with each other through the capacity to switch power; the capacity to connect two or more different networks in the process of making power for each one of them in their respective fields. Power resides in the network society with the programmers who run the main networks on which people’s lives depend (government, parliament, finance, media and national security establishment etc.) and the switchers who operate the connections between different networks (media bosses introduced in the political class, political elites bailing out financial institutions and academic institutions financed by big business, etc.). (Castells, 2012: pp.7-9).

In Castells’ account, social movements exercise counterpower; the deliberate attempt to change power relationships. This is done by reprogramming networks around alternative interests and values and disrupting the dominant switches. Social movements have always produced new transformative values and goals in order to create new norms for social life. Social movements exercise counterpower through establishing communicative autonomy in digital social networks such as the Internet, free from the control of those holding institutional power in the mass media and which enable largely unconstrained deliberation and coordination of action. Social movements also build public space for deliberation through the occupation of sites of state power or financial institutions this public a hybrid space is thus created between the Internet social networks and the occupied public space, the occupation of Tahir Square in Cairo by anti-Mubarak protestors and the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York provide potent examples of this new public space. This networked space between the digital space and the urban space is crucially a space of autonomous communication enabling social movements to thrive and to connect to society at large beyond the corporate and state mass media power holders. (Castells, 2012: pp.7-9).

Castells uses the model of networked social movements to describe how they spread by contagion in a world networked by the wireless internet and marked by fast, viral diffusion of images and ideas. To take two examples from the Arab Spring, the success of the Tunisian Revolution and the partial success of the Egyptian Revolution were made possible by people overcoming fear through togetherness built in the networks of cyberspace and in the communities of public space.

The spark of the revolt in Tunisia was the self-immolation in December 2010 of the market trader, Mohamed Bouazizi, in the town of Sidi Bouzid, in protest against the humiliation of repeated confiscation of his fruit and vegetable stand by the local police after his persistent refusal to pay a bribe. This triggered coordinated and spontaneous demonstrations against the notoriously corrupt regime of President Ben Ali especially among the young among whom unemployment ran at 22 per cent for college graduates. The protests eventually reached the capital Tunis. Despite bloody police repression of the protests, the President and his family departed on the 14th January 2011. The protestors were not assuaged however and, outraged by the control of both politics and economics by the family of the second wife of Ben Ali, demanded free and fair elections under a new electoral law, freedom of the press, an end to corruption and jobs. On 22nd January 2011 protestors occupied the Place du Gouvernement in the heart of the Kasbah, the site of most government ministries. Trade union rank and file and middle ranking cadres voiced their demands and launched a number of strikes which practically led to the country becoming out of control for the authorities. Opposition political parties were ignored by the activists and protestors generated their own ad hoc leaders, mostly in their twenties and thirties, at specific times and places. Within the occupied public space, protestors erected tents and organised a standing forum which held animated deliberations which could last for days on end and which were relayed by video on the Internet. Secularism, Islamism and nationalism co-existed in the movement and it developed its own soft surveillance network to enforce the rules around the protestors’ new-found freedom of speech; this succeeded despite police violence and several evictions (and re-occupations). There was a symbiotic relationship between mobile phone citizen journalists unloading images and information onto You Tube and Al-Jazeera (watched by forty percent of Tunisia’s urban dwellers). Twitter played a major role in discussion of events and coordination of actions as demonstrators used the hashtag #sidibouzid to communicate, thus indexing the Tunisian revolution (Castells, 2012: pp.22-28).

Through this hybrid space of physical occupation of the Kasbah and online dissemination of words and images from the Revolution, the Tunisian protestors persisted throughout 2011 with their demands for full democratisation of the country until clean, open elections were held on 23rd October leading to the moderate Islamist coalition of Ennahad becoming the leading political force in Tunisia. Despite the challenges that Tunisia will face in the years ahead, the legacy of the sacrifice of Mohamed Bouazizi consists of a fairly democratic polity in place and a vibrant civil society, still occupying cyberspace and ready to re-enter the public space if necessary (Castells, 2012: pp.30-31).

The Tunisian Revolution proved to be the spark that ignited the revolution in Egypt. It was preceded by political protests against rigged elections, women’s rights struggles and the bloody repression of striking workers at the textile mills of Malhalla-al-Kubra on 6th April 2008. Out of the latter event emerged the 6 April Youth Movement which created a Facebook group attracting 70,000 followers. This movement conspired with many others online and offline to organise demonstrations which culminated in the set-piece occupation of Tahir Square on 25th January 2011. The network around the Facebook group “We are all Khaled Said” in memory of a young activist beaten to death by the police in June 2010 after distributing a video exposing police corruption was the most prominent of these groups. The Egyptian Revolution was dramatized in the fashion of the Tunisian example, by a series of six self-immolations in protest against rising food prices that left many hungry. A vlog posted on her Facebook page by a 6 April founder, Asmaa Mahfouz, announcing her intention to go to Tahir Square on 25th January, National Police Day and imploring others to do so went viral after being uploaded to You Tube. The call to action spread from cyberspace to the social networks of friends, families and associations of all kinds including supporter networks of Cairo’s two rival soccer teams. Tens of thousands of people converged on the symbolic Tahir (Freedom) Square from all socially excluded groups, including the urban poor, religious minorities, women Islamists and secularists where they found a safe space to call for the end of the oppressive regime of President Hosni Mubarak. |Attempts by police to suppress the demonstrators were met with determined resistance at the cost of hundreds of lives. Similar events occurred in many other cities, including Alexandra, in solidarity with the Tahir Square protestors and eventually the regime collapsed (Castells, 2012: pp.53-56).

Although Egypt has not experienced the subsequent democratic successes that Tunisia has enjoyed; the same dynamics were at play. Tunisia symbolised the hope for change. Networks formed in cyberspace extended their reach to urban space, and the revolutionary community formed in public squares successfully resisted police repression, and connected with multimedia networks with the Egyptian people and globally. Tahir was the switcher that linked together the multiple networks of counterpower in spite of their diversity (Castells, 2012: p.81). The communal solidarity created in Tahir Square became a role model for the Occupy movements that sprang up around the world in the months ahead (Castells: 2012: p.59).

Castells paints a very positive picture of the Internet’s capacity to act as an agent of freedom and autonomy for social movements. In his potted history of the Internet, he explains that it was deliberately designed as a decentred, computer communication network able to withstand control from any command centre. Emerging from the culture of freedom prevalent in the university campuses of the 1970s, it was based on open source protocols from the start, the TCP/IP protocols developed by Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn. The creation of the World Wide Web, another open source programme, created by Tim Berners-Lee, made the Net user friendly on a large scale. The really transformative development in the potential of the Internet came in the first decade of the 21st century with the shift from individual and corporate interaction on the Internet (for example, the use of email) to the autonomous construction of social networks managed by their users. This shift was enabled by improvements in broadband, and in social software and from a wide range of wireless communication systems feeding the Internet networks. The most important activity on the Internet now goes through social networking sites (SNS) which have become open forums for most types of activities including socio-political activism. Thus, the Net enhances empowerment, sociability and autonomy (which Castells defines as the capacity of a social actor to become a subject through involvement in projects independently of societal institutions, according to the values and interests of the social actor). He cites survey evidence from a 2010 study in Britain conducted by the sociologist Michael Wilmott showing particularly positive effects for people with lower income, fewer qualifications, for people in the developing world and for women[2].

Digital penetration has been particularly and crucially prevalent in the Arab world. From 2009, both BBC Arabic TV (launched in March 2008) and BBC Persian TV (launched in January 2009) both drew on User Generated Content (UGC) streaming out of Arab countries, enabling them to cover events of the Arab Spring in real time. New satellite channels like Al-Jazeera and digital technology in the shape of the Internet had helped to create an Arab digital public sphere which steadily grew in the 1990s and 2000s. However relatively inexpensive new media products like iPhones and the relative ease and low costs involved in setting up social networking sites enabled new outlets for protestors to publicise the Arab Spring. Facebook only became available in Arabic in 2009, and yet more than a quarter of the protestors in Egypt first heard of demonstrations taking place there on Facebook. Some Arab readers posted their own opinions on the online comment boards of western newspapers to place the demonstrations in their proper context. Citizen media outstripped the mainstream media in the reportage of the initial stages of the Egypt revolution in January 2011. For example, on 25th January 2011, 76 % of all videos uploaded to the internet detailing the demonstrations came from citizens, while journalists produced only 24% (Roberts, 2014: pp.159-160). A similar dynamic was at play in the early stages of the uprisings in Libya and Syria with coverage of mass protests calling for the end of the regime and the violent response of the authorities (proving if nothing else, the murderous savagery of the Ghaddafi and Assad regimes). Mobile phone penetration exceeded 100% in half of all Arab countries, with most others over the 50% mark and many in urban centres had some sort of access to social media (Castells, 2012: p.95).

Other commentators are not as sanguine about the emancipatory capacities of new media technology for social movement activism. Jones cautions that Web 2.0 and social media represent a barrier to practical activity. Instead they represent a shortcut into “slacktivism”, defined by the social media specialist, Evgeny Morozov, as “feel good online activism that has zero political or social impact” … “the ideal type of activism for a lazy generation”[3] (Jones, 2011). He refutes the idea that the Internet is neutral space on which all sides as “hopelessly utopian” as technologies are developed in a social, political and economic context. One has to pay an Internet Service Provider (ISP) to get online and ISPs have tremendous power in barring access to the Internet. Capitalism is very adept at exploiting new avenues for capital accumulation and the absorption, for example, of Open source software (OSS) into the market as an essential source of profit shows that the online world is no exception. (Jones, 2011: p.8). Furthermore, unstructured online decision making can unaccountable and exclusive; it may be appropriate for short scale direct actions organised, for example, by the anti-tax avoidance network UK Uncut but is not applicable to strikes or to long-term strategic thinking (Jones, 2011: p.9).

In the same vein, Roberts, in offering a balance to those perspectives that “overly” celebrate the social media in providing an important impetus for the Arab Spring, points out that corporate hegemony had been operating in the media infrastructure of many Arab countries for years. For example, the first two private satellite companies created to serve the Arab world were the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) in 1991 and, in 1993, the Arab Radio and Television (ART) had close links with the Saudi ruling family from the outset. In turn they are plugged into other business networks proving that satellite channels in the Arab world are owned by the super-rich with support from political elites like their Western counterparts (Roberts, 2012: p.169).

In conclusion, while I accept that there have yet to be grand, overarching theories and narratives for Global Social Movements and the need for caution about the liberating potential of new media technology; Nicholas’ account of the Quantified Self from tool of liberation to tool of Taylorian scientific management of the white-collar workforce (2013) and Terranova’s analysis of the potentially exploitative nature of labour in the digital economy (Terrenova, 2000), serving as particularly cautionary tales, I largely concur with Castells’ account of the benefits of the Internet and social media for the flexible and polycentric protest movements that have swept our contemporary world. It is to be hoped that they will bequeath a vibrant civic culture and hybridised activist space which can resist whatever centralising and controlling tendencies that may emerge in the Netscape of the future. Lastly, despite the enveloping of the Arab Spring by the Arab Winter of regime survival and brutal reaction; the eruption of sectarian conflicts along Sunni and Shia lines and other ethnic conflicts fuelled by regional powers including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey; its one success (Tunisia) and one partial success (Egypt) represents triumphs of a sort for the Castells model of digital social movement activism.


Castells, M (2012). Networks of Outrage and Hope. Social Movements in the Internet Age Cambridge: Polity Press

Jones, J. (2011) “Social Media and Social Movements” International Socialism (130) pp.1-13

Kavada, A. “Activism Transforms Digital: The Social Movement Perspective” in Joyce, M. (2010) Digital Activism Decoded. The New Mechanics of Change pp.101-118 New York: IDEBATE Press

Roberts, J.M. (2014) New Media & Public Activism. Neoliberalism, the state and radical protest in the public sphere. Bristol: Policy Press

Terranova, T. (2000) “Free Labour: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy” Social Text 63 (18, 2) pp.33-58

Nicholas (2013) Frederick Taylor and the Quantified Self 

[1] Castells, M. (2009) Communication Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[2] Wilmott analysed 35,000 individual answers between 2005 and 2007 from global data obtained from the World Values Survey of the University of Michigan.

[3] Morozov, Evgeny (20099) “The Brave New World of Slacktivism” Foreign Policy (19 May)

⏩ Barry Gilheany is the author of a PhD thesis Post-Eighth Abortion Politics in the Republic of Ireland from Essex University, Department of Government. He is also the author of The Discursive Construction of Abortion in Georgina Waylen & Vicky Randall (Eds) Gender, The State and Politics Routledge, 1998.

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