Where did the revolution go?

Online networks are making the coordination of protests easier, but it is difficult to assess the success of movements.

Online networks give expression to a cacophony of voices but making protests last is diffcult [Reuters]

Oxford, United Kingdom – Around this time last year, the Spanish “outraged” movement was brewing in the shadows of online networks. Inspired by the Arab Spring and an antecedent of the global Occupy campaign, the outraged caught by surprise the media and the political establishment when they first erupted in the streets of dozens of cities in May of 2011.

Under the slogan “Real Democracy Now”, the protests mobilised tens of thousands of people of all ages and affiliations, demanding better forms of political representation. Many protesters proclaimed in their placards that the Spanish Revolution was coming, a prophecy soon turned into a trending hashtag in Twitter and reverberating fast across the galleries of social media.

Russians take protests online

Now, a year later, the same online networks are burbling again in anticipation of the first anniversary of the demonstrations. The government changed colour, but the movement did not change the message: take the streets and reclaim political power.

The experience of last year does not help anticipate if the protests will attract as many people again: the surprise factor vanished and aggravations feel old under the string of protests that have taken place since then (the last one, a general strike). But even if the movement manages to mobilise large numbers of indignant citizens again – a straightforward measure of success – a question will inescapably swing over the protesters heads: How much of a difference did the last revolution make?

People exposed to protest messages

Online networks are making the coordination of protests easier, but they are also making the success of social movements more difficult to assess. Networks facilitate the fast diffusion of information because they trigger chain reactions that can reach a large number of people in short time windows. This means that more people are exposed to protest messages and that recruitment to the cause can spread like fire, particularly when conditions are dire, as in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

Sudden bursts of activity in communication networks, now ubiquitous and pulsating constantly, creates a sense of urgency that pushes more people to join. Numbers in protests matter and networks help activate the loops that make those numbers grow fast. But what is left after all this swarming activity winds down?

In the case of authoritarian regimes, having dictators resigning their power is the unequivocal proof that it was all worth the while (although this, obviously, does not make transitioning to the next stage any easier). In liberal democracies, however, finding a celebratory outcome as protests recede is more of a challenge.

In the Spanish case, the implicit demand of the protests was to encourage votes for smaller parties: although the movement did not support any political organisation or explicitly advocated for strategic voting, it aimed to denounce, and undermine, the pernicious dynamics of a two-party system; and yet the elections that followed the protests gave an overwhelming majority to the main opposition, right-of-centre party.

It is not clear either what the legacy of the global Occupy movement is, now that tents have disappeared from the squares where they were planted. Recent spending cuts and tax reforms do not seem to have taken on board many of their demands.

True, contentious politics not always have direct, tangible effects on institutional politics and it is difficult to measure its real impact when it is diluted in an undefined future of shifting agenda-setting tides. Ideas like “We are the 99 per cent” will stay in the imagination of many for years to come, even if they were only passive followers of the protests; and these ideas can stir motivations that may end up resurfacing again with renewed force and greater impact. In the short run, digitally-enabled protests force a change in the tone of news reporting, especially when mainstream media is mostly amenable to the elites.

In Russia, protesters opposing the blatantly flawed elections last December and again in March this year, did not prevent Putin from rejoicing victory. However, the online intelligentsia that drove the protests forced a change of direction in public discourse. Researchers at the Centre for the Study of New Media and Society, at the New Economic School of Moscow, are investigating how online communication is defining the issues covered by traditional media and the way in which those issues are framed: their research suggests that online discussions are not only influencing which topics are on the table but also how the public talks about them.

Empire – Social networks, social revolution

Boosting protest by re-tweeting

This inevitably undermines the government’s stern control of political communication and therefore, its power. But the main contenders in this battle are still localised social movements driven by different motivations and agendas; social media were good at bringing them together when protests were on the rise, but not so good at sorting what sets them apart now that things return to normal.

Online networks make contentious politics easy because they are fluid: anyone can help boost a protest by re-tweeting messages or posting a link to their Facebook friends; but this makes participation transient and short-lived, unable to deal with the long-term dynamics of the political process. Most instances of digitally-enabled mobilisations lose steam soon after they erupt, losing the momentum for political change.

Online networks work well at coordinating the emergence of social movements: they helped spread the call to occupy the squares of many cities around the globe. But online networks do not provide the infrastructure to allow these movements enter a more deliberative stage from where to articulate their proposals; the daily assemblies in the camps of occupied squares did not offer a sustainable decision-making mechanism either: they did not allow protesters move beyond the shallow waters of a minimal consensus.

The hype around how online networks help do the revolution has overlooked imaginative ways in which online tools can also be used to aggregate diverse and conflicting opinions. After all the sound and fury, protesters still need to distil their voices into concrete proposals if they are to produce social change. Collecting and prioritising ideas on a large scale is the kind of collaborative task for which online technologies offer a natural aide.

The project All Our ideas, led by Matthew Salganik at Princeton University, exemplifies the potential of these tools to come up with community ideas that can inform policy makers, either to identify novel suggestions or to propose new ways in which to express (and explain) existing policy plans.

In the rare context of mass mobilisations, online networks behave exceptionally well: they are fast and efficient in transmitting information and spreading awareness. But they cannot do much to help a mass movement articulate their aims: they give expression to a cacophony of voices but when the lights of the protest go out, all these opinions fall like confetti after a party.

The recent wave of protests shows that the real challenge for social movements in the digital era is not to attract the attention and action of a critical mass of people, but to turn that participation into something of more durable effects. Can social media transform bursts of political activism into stable forms of participation?

The technology that facilitates a swift transition from contentious politics to more sustainable engagement is yet to be devised, but the potential for digital movements to have long-term impact depends on that transition. Otherwise, their revolutionary message will be written on wet sand.

Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon is a sociologist interested in the internet, social networks and political engagement. Currently, she is a Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute.