Philosopher and Linguist Noam Chomsky when asked about the upcoming United States elections said that the Bernie Sander’s grassroots movement would most likely achieve very little because it had become tied to the electoral cycle. He added that such cycles, in the United States, had become opportunities for periodic political engagements that often died out shortly after the elections. Indeed, other interesting things were discussed in the interview, but this caught my attention – and mostly in terms of how it connected with social media.
Conversations about the end of politics run rife within the social sciences. The ideas variously describe how the political process has increasingly evolved into a system that appears to exist more and more for itself – and therefore continuously contracts the avenues through which the public can influence policy. The more cynical charge that politics only essentially attempts to manage between realizing its own objectives will keeping an already largely discouraged population at bay.
My personal view is that there is indeed a broad feeling of disenfranchisement in various national publics. However, the elongated political distance between citizens and their governments coupled by the ever-expanding influence of social media platforms has necessitated the development of a sort of atomized sense of personal enlightenment and empowerment which further weakens the possibility of broad social organization and mass social movements. This holds true save for a few isolated instances in which social media seems to serve as an outlet for action whose discontent has been accumulated more historically, for instance, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of Opposition in Britain.
In this case, social media facilitated a process whose views were already there: the return to a more socially minded society and government whose disbandment had begun with Margaret Thatcher, and whose medium successes had silenced most critics, leaving places only its most fervent ones. Come the global financial downturn, and new life was once more granted to these earlier positions which now had become the rallying call for the Corbyn grassroots movement. The point being, unless causes have certain roots in historically accrued social or political positions, they seldom are able to ignite mass political action purely through the social media instrument. How this works however needs to be researched and elucidated.
As such, in cases where there already exists an identified cause (to resist or to engender or to maintain), social media provides a powerful avenue for rapid mobilization and action. Again, we have seen this in other parts of the world as including the Arab World, in various parts of Africa, and parts of Europe. However, when faced with issues that would require identification and then subsequently social action within the era of social media itself, the likelihoods of building sufficient consensus that would lead to mobilization seem to greatly decline. Activists of various new causes have found themselves in the strange position of enjoying mass support online and yet only limited support on the actual streets were policy is most likely to influenced. Those of older causes however, such as the anti-War movements for example, find before them an already willing crowd of supporters willing to engage policy through protests and mass actions.
My speculation about this tendency that runs contrary to the social mobilization power of social media platforms is that social media, along with the widely available information afforded by the broader Internet, has transformed the structure of information uptake and has connected it to questions about individual as opposed to group identity. This change in structure seems to be caused by the “information-on-demand” nature of internet platforms vis-à-vis the socio-psychological factors involved in social media participation, generally. Information-on-demand entails not only the agency of the seekers of that information when they actively engage themselves in finding the information they desire, but also self-educating aspects were people engage and commit themselves to different kinds of information as parts of their outlook.
Consequently, the socio-psychological aspects involved in information-on-demand have to do with how this process of information seeking and appropriation speaks very closely to matters of identity and its continuous formulation. Indeed, this is one reason why identity continues to be an integral part of the social media experience especially with regards to not only proactively formulating an identity, but also projecting it for others to see. Additionally, identity formulation also entails the extra empowerment enjoyed by the individual as they develop an autonomous discretion pertaining to what information they yield to and what information they dismiss. To put it negatively in order to demonstrate the point, individuals become empowered to learn what they want to learn and to refuse to learn what they do not want to learn. Perhaps even more extremely, where fallacies are involved, the individual is empowered to maintain their ignorance on matters with a great militancy.
This process is precisely where the potential power of collective action declines. The individual has very meticulously vetted themselves against a wide range of informational sources and has subsequently arrived on their path towards their truth – and are therefore, in their own view, are richly and enormously empowered and knowledgeable. And yet in that same way, they have also began to see to varying degrees the folly in the ways and truths of others as they are alluded to informationally and as they are projected on social media. It is, thus, my view that much of the social media platforms are filled by participants with this type of outlook which transforms that space into an arena in which everyone from everybody’s individual standpoint is a member of an ambiguous social media crowd; and where everyone from their own point of view has or is coming to some path towards their truth. As such, not only is everyone turned into a cynic or a curious spectator of everyone else (while concurrently becoming a strange or an interesting member of a cyber crowd to everyone else as well), but also the uncertainty of the extent to which people are persuaded to hold any number of positions or to abandon others is greatly increased. It is simply not clear to spectators how exactly positions held by co-users are shaped or changed over time even though they do.
Social Media, thus, unintendedly furthers the process of atomization and individualization by reinforcing the conditions for claiming personal responsibility for the active and deliberate formulation of the self at the immediate expense of mass political collectivism by crystalizing one’s position of a spectator. It, therefore, seems as though the cynicism that accompanies self-formulation and guides its ongoing processes, filtering out and taking in what to discard and appropriate respectively, is precisely the mechanism that safeguards against social media based forms of collectivism.
As such, it would appear that social media participation involves developing a set of competences that speak primarily to populating identity and self related motivations – and only much later perhaps to attempt to compel others dug into their own various standpoints of cynicism to take up collective issues. In fact, my suspicion is that the collective is not but a mischaracterized crowd of isolated spectators. Going further, I would add that only the spectator is consistently present on social media, and that the crowd is though extremely convincing is largely always imaginary.
Of course, credence must be given for the existence of social media groups of various causes. These however represent actual demarcations within cyberspace in which likeminded individuals congregate. In Malawi, such groups mushroomed in large numbers on Facebook around 2010-11 as citizens attempted to get together and share ideas surrounding the economic and political crises that had beguiled the country during that period. Some groups had as many as 10,000 members. But as the numbers group, the more diverse the views became, and the more disorganized the conversations about and charges towards action grew. Attempts to moderate such groups by Group Administrators required a lot of time on the part of the administrators, and in time seemed to quill the vibrancy of the engagements. Over months, the groups would become cyber ghost towns, with huge memberships but no activity.
Lastly, an important footnote. The limited communicative catalogue that inheres within social media spaces (often involving universalized signages of likes or dislikes, thumbs up or thumbs downs, emoticons, all amidst a sea of words, pictures and videos) demands developing the ability to project these selves-in-formulation within the limitations of that particular visual-linguistic landscape. This means that significant swaths of culture and expression generally even among participants in similar cultural contexts are by default negated – and are replaced within the universalized and as such largely apolitical apparatuses afforded by the social media landscape.
In fact, in a study I conducted in Blantyre city in Malawi in 2013 about social media in Malawi, I discovered that such limitations in the social media apparatuses available for communication contributed to the real-cum-surreal, fact-cum-fictional nature of the social media experience. It is therefore at once fictional and unserious, and yet always strongly implying reality through the real people and the apparently real projections they make as they interact within that space: but this is a discussion for another day.
And so, unless something creative happens, I do not see a lot of promise, therefore, within social media as a backroom for concerted and sustained massive actions significant enough to consistently speak to politics. Rather, we are more likely to see sporadic upheavals that varyingly influence politics at different points in time – even if it means that subsequently we would most likely see traditional politics and traditional media imbue meaning into those events, classifying them as one thing or the other. Recall the Arab Springs – which were called by certain sections of the media as mass movements towards democracy when in fact in hindsight they seemed to have been representing numerous themes already present within that context of cultural, social, religious, economic, political and historical positions expressing themselves in a series of mass political actions.
Mphatso Moses Kaufulu is a political and cultural sociologist from Malawi concerned with questions about social epistemology in Southern Africa. He is a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He is interested in the idea of culture as “play”, culture as history, and culture as power.