Occupy Wall Street, Social Media, Gladwell and Risk

Shay O’Reilly has an article on the Campus Progress online media outlet that critiques comments made by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker magazine about the role of social media in social protests and movements more generally. O’Reilly points out that the Occupy Wall Street and now Occupy Everywhere protests have disproved Gladwell’s dismissive critique of the role of social media in social protests. O’Reilly notes that Gladwell was down on social media having a productive role in protests and social movements because of two main reasons.

O’Reilly mostly focuses on the question of structure. Gladwell suggests that 1960s-era civil rights protests and the broader movement had a strong top-down organisation, while internet-based movements by their nature are mostly horizontal with no central organisational structure. Second and relatedly, that social media, like most if not all internet-based social relations are based on ‘weak ties’. There are no strong social ties between participants in a ‘social media revolution’ because online relations are normally impersonal. Drawing on the research of Doug McAdam, Gladwell notes that many of the protesters in the civil rights movement had strong social ties based on actual personal connections to those who suffered civil rights injustices:

What makes people capable of this kind of activism? The Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam compared the Freedom Summer dropouts with the participants who stayed, and discovered that the key difference wasn’t, as might be expected, ideological fervor. “All of the applicants—participants and withdrawals alike—emerge as highly committed, articulate supporters of the goals and values of the summer program,” he concluded. What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement. All the volunteers were required to provide a list of personal contacts—the people they wanted kept apprised of their activities—and participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi. High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon.

What O’Reilly does not engage with is the question of risk that Gladwell raises. I want to suggest that the dichotomy between high risk protest and low risk participation that Gladwell isolates as typifying most historical social mmovement protests versus most contemporary online social movement participation is actually spot on. What is remarkable about the Occupy Wall Street protests is not that the ‘internets’ have somehow produced an effective mode of protest, but that the risks involved in the esculation of protest from low-risk online participation (‘liking’ a social movement on Facebook, for example) into actual high-risk toe-to-toe in-the-street vaulting-the-barricades mobilisation have now become risks worth taking for the majority of participants.

The protests are symptomatic of a US and broader neoliberal social structure whereby the average middle-class citizen is burdened with far greater risk than of previous generations. In the past, including the civil rights era as described by Gladwell, black populations were already at-risk in the sense of not being able to enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities as their white fellow citizens. The solidarity of white citizens was a leap of faith and a salutatory call to fighting against structural injustice. The ‘New Deal’ era of corporations and government assuming most of the social risks assumed by everyone living in a capitalist society have now largely been rolled back. The average US citizen accepts are greater degree of risk relative to the elite (the ‘1%’) in fundamental or even ‘universal’ areas of social life, including health care and employment security. It means that US society has been transformed to such a degree that the everyday risks experienced as an average citizen are now so large that after weighing up the risks of protests against the structural risks they assume because of the social structure, the protesters have decided to accept the risks of protests as the lesser risk.

The ‘social ties’ argument comes into it when those who do not share the same burden of structural risk (white youths in the civil rights movement era, or ‘successfully’ employed, health care-equipped and owner-occupier housed professionals and workers in the contemporary era) join with those who are at-risk in the name of justice and solidarity. This leap of faith was described by Immanuel Kant as ‘enthusiasm’. He ‘shared’ the enthusiasm of those participants in the French Revolution. The Revolution was a ‘sign of history’ and participants were mobilised by ‘strenuous’ affects enjoined with an idea (of the ‘French Republic’) that did not exist yet. It was a leap of faith and a leap of collective imagination. The ideals of the Republic, which are also shared to a large extent with the US, had to be created through force of will and determination. Participants in the revolution were organised in relation to this collective challenge. I would therefore argue against sociologists looking for necessary social links between protest participants and instead point to a willingness to mobilise to engage with and hopefully overcome shared (or ‘universal’) challenges as a key characteristic of social movement enthusiasm.

To conclude by way of a fantastic tangent: I don’t imagination that the protests will end until the government and those that benefit from the current unjust, unequal distribution of risk correct their ways to make it more equitable. I am not sure that will happen, however, until those living in a globalised West realise that their middle-class lifestyles are gradually being off-shored as their jobs are being out-sourced and just as they want a more equitable distribution of risk, those in developing countries are desperate for a more equitable distribution of opportunity. The workers in developing nations are being used as a weapon to leverage subservience from workers in developed countries. To correct this could take generations.

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