The role of the internet and netroots in recent UK social movements (with Tunisia update)

Part One: The UK

(part two covers Tunisia, see below)


Discontent has mobilised across several groups, including schoolkids, university students, trade unions and, most importantly, passionately concerned members of the British general public from a diversity of backgrounds. The first organised and innovative manifestations of this discontent have been facilitated by networks not organisations.


Twitter is as capitalist as McDonalds. Facebook is fundamentally the same beast as Microsoft. Your internet connection is owned by a private company. The political economy of the social media world is indistinguishable in kind from any other marketplace, and as such each firm has material and political interests over and above the continued flow of users that pour through their services.

Excerpted from a link-rich article by Niki Seth-Smith:

“Since the summer, when the implications of the Coalition’s economic agenda began hitting home, the revolution occurring in online activism has gained enormous momentum. The internet has become the natural platform for the anti-cuts movement, which draws upon such disparate groups as trade unions, university students, school-kids, non-affiliated public sector workers and – importantly – millions of passionately concerned members of the public.

Over the winter, the student movement was supported by and built upon these networks to electrifying effect. University occupations across the country were turned into hubs of online activity, while the net’s efficacy in co-ordinating direct action was demonstrated time and again, and decisively by the swift organisation of tens of thousands at the 9 December Parliament Square protest in the face of authorized police aggression. Meanwhile, UKUncut and other networked platforms such as False Economy emerged during this period as leaderless movements against the cuts in general and corporate tax evasion in particular.

The debate around the nature and future of online activism has kept pace with the torrent of twitter activity. Articles such as Malcolm Gladwell’s and the recent A Very Public Socialist post have rallied around the slogan ‘the revolution will not be tweeted’ to expand upon the limited ability of the web to facilitate and encourage active dissent. A wealth of academic material on the dangers of online communication has been published in the last few years, notably Jodi Dean’s work on the ‘interpassivity’ of web communication, and Cass Sunstein’s ‘Republic’ books, which envision a “nightmare” world where web users engage solely with sites that enforce their worldview. The loud response to such criticism from on the ground and from the academic world (see Joss Hands on the interlacing of online and offline worlds) has fueled the work of defining the web’s current impact on grassroots politics and determining a future direction.”

A contribution from student activist Aaron Peters on the same topic:

“Away from ideological conjecture and the seemingly new found political agency of Generation Y there have been interesting developments with regard to the appropriation and use of social networking tools by disparate movements ‘on the ground’ in collaborating and ‘co-producing’ a mass movement that may be the first, in Britain at least, to be organisationally dependent upon the tools of Net 2.0.

While the Stop the War movement was heavily dependent upon the old tools of mail and television it was also founded upon the organisational structure of a single ‘movement’ with a hierarchical leadership and mass membership.

With the advent of this embryonic student movement, however, we are arguably seeing the rise of a form of contention predicated upon values of disintermediation and decentralised, entrepreneurial action undertaken by participants as ‘co-creators’ of the movement as opposed to members-as-consumers who are directed to act by an organisational oligarchy.

Occupations and demonstrations are occuring all over the country, and while the aims and objectives are broadly similar, the means that will be utilised will vary subsequent to the innovative efforts of ‘dissent entrepreneurs’ embedded within their different communities. It is in this area that political parties might learn a great deal about how to run a political campaign fit for the 21st-century over the coming months.

The logics of social movements in the twentieth century will look more like the irreverent, flexible ‘culture-jamming’ of the recent Vodafone protests and less like the top-down hierarchy of the Stop the War campaign.

Expect similar actions to those of the Vodafone protests to occur over the coming weeks with occupied spaces acting as local incubabtors for like-minded progressives to discuss and plan direct action that is relevant and compelling for their specific communities, always heeding a meta-narrative that is against the government’s position on tuition fees.

What these new logics mean is that established oligarchies within existing movements, such as the National Union of Students, will be increasingly undermined – that is the nature of the de-centred beast in networked activism. What is key, however, is that for the first time in 40 years we have a generation of young people actively participating in political deliberation and direct action, all along forming links, networks and friendships as well as learning about theory, strategy and areas of mutual interest.

It is these networks, friendships and this mutual education that will form the basis for any prospective movement for progressive change in this country, just like the events of ‘68 did for subsequent generations of feminists and gay rights activists. For a whole generation the events of recent weeks are the beginnings of a progressive political education and for that at least the Labour Movement should be happy.”

From Laurie Penny:

“The interminable meetings are based on a complicated consensus system involving wiggly hand-signals. At times it all descends into Pythonesque farce as the students discuss the exact legal status of chalking messages on the pavements – but there’s a point to it all. “The process is meant to prevent leaders emerging,” one student informs me. “It’s important to make sure everyone’s voice is equally heard.”

These young people are sick of leaders, even leaders our own age. They won’t be told what to do, but that sentiment is more of a honed manifesto than a collective teenage door-slamming strop. When the meeting is over and consensus reached, the collective slams back into action, planning an escalation in the protests leading up to the crucial vote on tuition fees later this month.

These protesters have a honed protestant work ethic, a coherent ideological framework, stunning technological facility and absolutely nothing to lose. No wonder the administration is getting worried. “

However, for balance, read also:

* The false choice between networks and organisation

* Leaderless youth will not bring this Government down

And Anthony Barnett concludes these balancing articles, with the following conclusion:

“In 2010, the social composition of what were polytechnics and are now universities remains local and working-class, but many student occupations are taking place in them. Today “students” connotes a much broader, less privileged sector.

The web reinforces this cross-class generational relationship. Young people today communicate with and relate to each other in ways which mean that their lives, decisions and networks are much more spontaneous and flexible. Many who would otherwise not be involved will follow and, in a certain way, experience the new levels of activism. They may be stirred from passivity. Their capacity to learn what is really happening is much less mediated by the mainstream media, whose regular readership and viewing has collapsed among the under-25s.

The web reshapes, but is not a substitute for, power and organisation.

Life remains, happily, a face-to-face affair. Nonetheless, the kind of society the new generation looks forward to will be unlike any that has gone before. It is easy to exaggerate this and then puncture the inflated projection. It’s a generation gap, not a gulf as humanly painful as that experienced by their Sixties predecessors. Yet, in the short term, the new technology is sure to increase mobilisation sharply; and in the long term, the resources the internet provides may help this generation to succeed in its challenge to hierarchy with direct democracy, deliberation and openness – and to create a political culture that is not disabled by the routines of “representation” now largely expropriated by corporate influence.”

And here from Phil:

“One should be careful not to overestimate the challenge this poses the state. In one sense the ruling class has, as Laurie argues, lost its monopoly over the means of communication. Once a message is out it cannot be reigned in again, as the US government are currently – and embarrassingly – finding out. And the rapidly growing practice of Twitter #solidarity is dissolving barriers between different groups of activists more effectively than a quarry full of poststructuralist philosophy. However you cannot get away from the awkward reality that this burgeoning radicalisation-by-internet is very much tolerated by the powers that be. Twitter is as capitalist as McDonalds. Facebook is fundamentally the same beast as Microsoft. Your internet connection is owned by a private company. The political economy of the social media world is indistinguishable in kind from any other marketplace, and as such each firm has material and political interests over and above the continued flow of users that pour through their services.

Readers may recall how swiftly mobile phone networks were shutdown in the wake of the 7/7 bombings. In the event (or promise) of a serious crisis of legitimacy, as a “friendly country” to the US it would take nothing for the government to block social media sites and institute an online black out. Private ownership of the means of social media allows the ruling class to assert their monopoly over communication if needs be.”

Part Two: Tunisia

In the context of recent events, here an update on the role of social media in the uprisings in Tunisia, by :

“Tunisians on Facebook are not declaring their “relationship status” or uploading family photos. Rather, they are constantly uploading videos and up-to-the-minute Twitter feeds of street demonstrations. Some of the images of alleged police brutality are very gruesome, serving only to outrage people even further.

Social media has become the main platform for the marginalized Arab masses, because it enables them to express their frustration and send their message to the world in defiance against censorship, which is widespread in the Arab world.

And it’s not just Facebook. Thanks to YouTube, Flickr, and Twitter, the Tunisian street demonstrations, which have so far claimed the lives of 25 people (according to Amnesty International), are now widespread not only throughout Tunisia but also in neighboring countries. If anything, these social networking websites have shown that courage is contagious in Northern Africa.

The protests first flared in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid on December 17 after Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old unemployed university graduate, set himself on fire outside a government building. Demonstrations then spread throughout the country. Ordinary Tunisians who were fed up with unemployment and corruption took to the streets and were later joined by labor unions and a group of 300 lawyers. Students, professionals and youths were also quick to follow.

Tunisian state television reported that the protests were “isolated events.” This narrative, however, was completely shattered when Al Jazeera satellite television aired Facebook and YouTube videos, as well as Flickr images showing that the demonstrations were anything but isolated. Ironically, Al Jazeera and other Arab television networks were forced to turn to social media videos because non-state media were banned from reporting from Tunisia.

The activism also spread globally, through the Internet, and gained further ground when it joined forces with the now infamous global “hactivist” group “Anonymous,” which recently attacked the servers of Visa, Mastercard and PayPal when the companies started blocking donations to WikiLeaks. In fact, the group told Al Jazeera, “The thing that did it for us was initially [Tunisian authorities’] censoring of WikiLeaks.”

“Anonymous” hackers temporarily shut down at least eight Tunisian government websites, including those for the president, prime minister, ministry of foreign affairs and the stock exchange, reports Al Jazeera.

With such powerful and far-reaching effects, the Tunisian social media activism has quickly caught the ire of the Tunisian government. Authorities have hijacked and deleted the Facebook pages of some of the most vocal activists in the Tunisian cyber-community such as Sofiene Chourabi, a journalist for Al-Tariq al-Jadid magazine and a strong critic of the government.

Recent U.S. court order demanding that Twitter release information linked to WikiLeaks highlights the additional dilemmas faced by protestors. As cyber-activism grows worldwide, social networking sites must decide their role in state censorship.

Although Chourabi and others do not accuse Facebook or YouTube of collaborating with the Tunisian government, they feel that more could have been done to protect Internet independence. “I think it is high time for Facebook and Google to take serious steps to protect Tunisian activists and journalists,” Chourabi told an Al Jazeera journalist.

In the Arab world, it is not just Tunisia that has taking political advantage of social networking websites. Social media has become the main platform for activism for Algerians, Palestinians and Egyptians, as well.

Case in point: Facebook and Gaza. Electronic media expert Ashraf Mushtahi told Al Jazeera that as many as 45-50% of Gaza’s youth use Facebook as their window to the world. A quick search for the word “Gaza” on Facebook yields hundreds of pages dedicated to Gaza in English, Arabic and other languages, some of which have hundreds of thousands of fans.

However, as with the Tunisian authorities, Palestinian and Egyptian Gaza web activists have had to contend with page closures and other forms of internet censorship. In June 2010, the Facebook pages of Egyptian groups that were campaigning against the wall being constructed between Gaza and Egypt were shut down. This left many Arab activists wondering which pages or even which sites would be closed next.”

For a comprehensive revies debating the role of social media in Tunisia, see here.

2 Comments The role of the internet and netroots in recent UK social movements (with Tunisia update)

  1. Avatarchris

    While the tools and organisational forms of the protesters in the UK may be ostensibly new, the fixation on them is obscuring the essential fact here – namely that the protesters are demanding the maintenence of the status quo. What has brought student protesters to the streets of London? Cuts which will affect their ability to participate in capitalist society, taking their “rightful” places in the system which they feel are now being denied to them. How many Members of Parliament on the other side of the barricades have previously participated in similar movements?

    At a time in which scarcity in education has been destroyed by the Internet (see “radical” would be creating self-learning networks, ignoring universities, fighting the notion of educational scarcity. Instead there is the “spectacular” protests and endless essays about the return to May 68. As I remember the May 68 movements were about the boredom of everyday life, not the inability to participate in the spectcle.

  2. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    I agree with you that the limitations of the protests movement are obvious, but you underestimate the learning process that accompanies such protest, i.e. precisely the impossibility of the current system to still offer a future to young generations, that pushes them to action, i.e. to preserve the social rights obtained by previous generations, but in doing so, they also learn the limits of such actions. What I’m trying to say is that social change will come from a combination of such social mobilization, and the constructive effort to create a counter-economy and education.

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