I wonder whether Trotsky phoned Lenin to organize the revolution? He was in New York and
Lenin was in Zurich when Tsar Nicholas was toppled in 1917. They must have been desperate to speak to comrades in Moscow and St Petersburg, to get them inspired, roused up and ready to roll.
Revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries have certainly used the telephone over the years.
I'm pretty sure it has been useful, but hasn't itself created revolutions. Maybe social media has a similar role.
Recently there's been a challenge to the hype about online activism, or "clicktivism". Malcolm
Gladwell argues that effective social movements require strong social bonds, organization and sacrifice, which he suggests social networking platforms, based on weak and minimal ties, can't deliver. Micah White goes further, saying that by "exchanging the substance of activism for reformist platitudes... clicktivists damage every genuine political movement they touch".
It's true, a click is unlikely to bring down a government, change a law or force a politician to make the right decision. Much online activism is glorified petitioning, but without much glory. Most significant change is created by people organizing, planning and taking real world action. But I do believe social media and digital dissent can have a role in supporting, amplifying and inspiring traditional activism.
Gladwell narrows the definition of activism to attempted system change and a willingness to
sacrifice life and liberty. Brave digital activists in Iran, Burma and China must surely pass that
test. But do all activists have to take physical risks? The civil rights, anti-apartheid and Eastern
European pro-democracy movements comprised those who took significant risk, while greater
numbers provided material and moral support. We should not discount solidarity and reformist activism either, often not involving physical risk, but still achieving progressive change, from labor rights abroad to same sex marriage at home.
An important role for any social movement is to puncture the illusions created by unjust power to legitimize itself. During the protests in Iran last year, 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan was shot dead in an anti-government protest. The shocking video image of her bleeding to death as those nearby struggled to save her life circulated online in Iran. The footage was a powerful counter to the regime's propaganda. Neda represented an image of Iranian youth that could not plausibly be painted as fanatical or foreign. A documentary about her death, banned by the regime, has been seen by millions of Iranians online.
Finally let's not forget a powerful weapon of any movement -- inspiration. It starts us on the
process of feeling, thinking and acting -- sometimes even organizing. Social networks create and distribute inspirational and moving content rapidly and widely. The more viral it goes, the greater the sense of wider public support. Such online events can become the soul food of the already organized and purposeful agents of change. Let us not under-estimate how important it is for them to feed on inspiration -- Armies march on their stomachs.
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