Social Media Lessons Learned for Political Engagement

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In December of 2010 a man in Tunisia self-immolated in protest and what has followed has literally been explosive, as the lessons learned on the use of social media has been at light speed.  Since 2010 a number of connected and seemingly unconnected events have changed the tone and texture of activism. Social media and digital technology is, both neutral and strategic terrain. The following points present lessons learned to date from several seemingly unconnected events; The Arab Spring, SOPA/PIPA (Stop Online Piracy/Protect IP Addresses), and NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act).



Modern disobedience is rarely viewed as a political element, but as a side element of radicalism, terrorism, and banditry and civil disobedience, however, contemporary events compare with this history.  For example, many local initiatives, grievances and grass-roots leaders give the appearance of fragmented authority, and appear to stand in short duration; and The State, Law Enforcement, and the Military stigmatize and describe these loose outbreaks as mass impetuosity without direction or form. The Occupy Movement, Hackers Anonymous Hactivism  and its supporters is one such example.

Ranajit Guha, in Selected Subaltern Studies and Elementary Aspects of Insurgency in Colonial India, describes this as ‘… multiple elements of conscious leadership, but no one of them predominates.’…’the symbiosis of sarkar (someone of authority), sahukar (banker or money lender) and zamindar (collector of land revenue, tax collector?), is a political-economic fact directing insurgency against one or all?  The peasant detected a mutuality of interest and power (the triumvirate: in the eyes of the population, political character equals economic exploitation; the state views the resulting acts as banditry  and not as a form of social protest of  the political character and economic exploitation’

Despite that some power concepts, groups or people have failed to rise above localism, sectarianism, or ethnicity, it does not take away from the essentially political character of the activity, but defines the quality of that politics by specifying limits. The State views each as local and separate instance, unless, like SOPA/PIPA, you gather 4 millions of petition signatures inside of 84 hours and countless emails to Representatives, in which case politicians that ignored this would do so at the risk of their political career.

Social Media and Digital technology defy those limits, and connect other limits, at Quantum speeds.

Thus, the consultative process in past activism and insurgency had previously taken weeks and months, now, the temporization and weighing of pros and cons has already been weighed and measured in the collective cloud of thought and idea, immediately transmitted via social media. For instance, the estimated number of active twitter users in the Middle East at the end of September 2011 was over 650,000. Globally, 1 Billion Tweets are estimated to be sent every four days. The estimated number of tweets is over 1 million a day, 854 tweets a minute or circa, 14 tweets a second.

Within this cloud is a network of individuals and communities that identify with a single and or multiple unifying factors, such as: grievances over corruption, religion, governance and unemployment.  The result of massing this unifying effect was evident in the Arab Spring, Occupy and SOPA/PIPA. Conversely, from a US Domestic point of view, the unifying effect failed in its timing and synchronicity with House Bill HR 347, and the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, as these two items effectively slipped past public scrutiny, despite very controversial elements that are contained within them.

We are all aware what Social Media has done in the Middle East. I think valid questions to ask are:  Where is it going next? And can Social Media make the Electoral College in US Politics obsolete?  My initial inclination is, perhaps.

The following is a list of lessons learned.

  • Ideology in both a loose sense and very wider sense bubbles and hangs in the social/population collective cloud.  Social media is an effective tool to self radicalizes simultaneous multi-dimensional threats and groups.
  • Social media makes emotive escalation rapid to the point that it overwhelms, yet it can also be very transient. Timing and synchronicity with public mood with the urgency of an item is key.  This is key because, before we can predict what people are likely to do, we must first understand what they believe about a situation and the outcomes they desire. The trends in the blogosphere, tweets and counter-tweets already make this evident of what the mood and character is like in this collective cloud.
  • Social media and digital technology have brought an escalation of global insecurity from multiple sources and locations. Social media and digital technology connect, engage and mobilize disenfranchised Diaspora that creates multiple simultaneous security challenges – local and international.   It is for this reason that activism through social media is not viewed as activism or even civil-disobedience, but terrorism.


© Copyright 2012 by CESRAN

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