IS SOCIAL MEDIA FOMENTING PROTESTS?

Corporate censorship and surveillance by the state or in complicity with these private intermediaries put restrictions on the kind of content that is allowed online. A report by The Wall Street Journal describes how Facebook refused to ban certain organisations from its platform to safeguard its commercial interests, despite warnings to do so by its security team.

INTRODUCTION

Guy Debord wrote in ‘The Spectacle of the Society’ in 1967, a critique of the society, which he viewed as being overly obsessed with ‘images’ and ‘spectacles’ over real experiences. He wrote it at a time when new forms of media (digital media), coupled with aggressive advertising, were defining the means of production and thereby, modes of living.

The flow of communications in our present modern lives, saturated with images, makes Debord’s work, a reality of our times (consider Instagram, TikTok, among others). It may not appeal to a modern reader viewing his critique with the advantage of historical hindsight. However, Debord can provide insights into the working of the neoliberal machinery, especially when alienation and objectification work in covert ways.[1]

Guy Debord was writing in a new historical condition as compared to Marx with an attempt to re-invigorate the Marxist ideology. His Situationist revision was based on a new society with heavy media influence. The Situationists recognised that the operation of the capitalist machinery was now based on consent rather than coercion, with an attempt to relegate its subjects to passivity, robbing them of the capability to creatively construct new “situation(s)”.[2] This is often done by organising the society and saturating the individual with “spectacles”. The spectacle is the theatrics of the capitalist and consumerist society and its various manifestations – advertising, films, celebrity culture, etc.

The modus operandi has stark similarities with the working of today’s attention economy through social media. Social media is marked by an inefficient allocation of attention on social media platforms. They, therefore, encourage spectacles.[3]

With this context, the article attempts to examine the role online social media platforms play in advancing the ‘spectacle’ of protest. Further, this article views the benefits of social media in facilitating democratic processes from a critical lens. The article aspires to nudge away from the assumption that social media platforms, by their very nature, promote participatory democratic values.

1. CORPORATE, CONTROL CENSORSHIP

Media corporates have led to the privatisation of the public sphere.[4] An understanding of how media corporates function is essential to contextualise the operation of protests on online social media platforms. Corporates thrive on the modulation of our affective states on these platforms.[5] The affective grip is not only functional during the actual consumption of the medium but permeates beyond, in one’s everyday life.

 

Modulation means constant adjustment to bring the anticipated consequences of a modelled future into the present in ways that account for the former, and thus alter the latter.”

– Mark Andrejevic[6]

 

These corporately modulated future selves of users are based on the investment done in channelling practices and limiting agency, on which the neoliberal ideology heavily rests upon.[7] The self is constantly fed with images to keep us glued to the screen, aimed at distraction and obscuring the relevant, the truth and the imperative. The result is de-ideologisation of social movements which would otherwise require a long, sustained and rigorous deliberation.[8]

Corporate censorship and surveillance by the state or in complicity with these private intermediaries put restrictions on the kind of content that is allowed online. A report by The Wall Street Journal describes how Facebook refused to ban certain organisations from its platform to safeguard its commercial interests, despite warnings to do so by its security team. This clearly demonstrates how irresponsible mediation by the corporates can skew the marketplace of ideas. This behaviour by corporate behemoths undermines the dissemination and archival aims of a protest.

2. SPECTACULAR REBELLIOUSNESS AND COMMODIFICATION OF DISSATISFACTION

On the level of users/consumers of social media, the issue is questioning the sufficiency of such online behaviour in the context of protests. The online gestural politics is contingent upon the trendiness of morally fashionable values. As mentioned earlier, in an economy that encourages spectacles, the dilution, fading and replacement of a fashionable value moves at a fast pace.

 

“Complacent acceptance of the status quo may also coexist with purely spectacular rebelliousness – dissatisfaction itself becomes a commodity as soon as the economy of abundance develops the capacity to process that particular raw material.”

 – Guy Debord

 

Social media is also used to share and reshare posts, tweets, articles, infographics, etc., with the logic of ‘exposing injustice’, spreading awareness by making the news accessible and changing the ‘discourse’. The argument of ‘exposing’ injustice often implies the fallacious strategy that mere exposing injustice or changing/ capturing the discourse would make a dent in the structures that are products of decades of entrenched action.[9]

The use of social media for disclosure has been identified to result in what has been called ‘narrowcasting’, i.e., preaching to the converted.[10] A corollary to this is the creation of layered ideological echo chambers, which is now a recognised phenomenon.[11]

In an echo chamber, the illusion of sufficiency is easy to build, with the underlying belief in the stance that mere participation in debates in public spheres is enough. The nature of these actions is often tantamount to self-indulgence,[12] which can be explained through the theories of deliberation and agonism of democracy and participation wherein mere involvement in the debate and discussion should make one a competent citizen.[13]

The idea is not to completely discard this medium for politics of visibility that it offers. Rather, a more realistic aim may be to consider social media as merely a step in the lasting change, a means to the end which protests seek to achieve. One should be wary of these convenient methods of ‘protest’, such as capturing the trending hashtag on Twitter, or being viral online, given that when such ideas inhabit our minds, we tend to privilege them over the messier details and other action-oriented strategies. 

CONCLUSION

Guy Debord’s work is relevant today to understand how spectacles on social media shape the trajectory of protests. It also provides a useful critical perspective on the limitations of this medium which can help public activists to strategise accordingly. The corporate control and the surveillance by the state must be factored in, and also the limited reliance that can be based on online voices for keeping the momentum of a protest.


REFERENCES

[1]  John Michael Roberts, New Media and Public Activism: Neoliberalism, the State and Radical Protest in the Public Sphere 32 (1st ed., Bristol University Press, 2014).

[2] Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, Debord, Cyber Situations, and the Interactive Spectacle, 28 SubStance 129 (1999).

[3]  Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest 271 (Yale University Press, 2017)

[4]Rikke Frank Jorgensen, The Privatised Public Sphere, Digital Society (22 Feb. 2018), https://www.hiig.de/en/the-privatised-public-sphere/

[5] Oliver Leistert, The Revolution Will Not Be Liked – On the Systemic Constraints of Corporate Social Media Platforms for Protestsin Critical Perspectives on Social Media and Protest – Between Control and Emancipation (Lina Denchik & Oliver Leistert ed., 2015).

[6] Mark Andrejevic, The Work That Affective Economics Does, Cultural Studies 25 (2011).

[7] Michel Foucault,. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2008).

[8] Bart Cammaerts, Technologies of Self-Mediation: Affordances and Constraints of Social Media for Protest Movements in Civic Engagement and Social Media  – Political Participation Beyond Protest (Julie Uldam and Anne Vestergaard ed., 2015).

[9]Michael Richmond & Jack Dean, Media, Activism & Society of the Spectacle, The Occupied Times (24 Jun., 2013), https://theoccupiedtimes.org/?p=11489

[10] Id. at 98.

[11] Sasahara, K., Chen, W., Peng, H. et al. Social influence and unfollowing accelerate the emergence of echo chambers. J Comput Soc Sc (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42001-020-00084-7

[12]Charlie Beckett,  Ritual, spectacle, protest and the media, LSE (19 Oct. 2011) , http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/77372/1/blogs.lse.ac.uk-Ritual%20spectacle%20protest%20and%20the%20media.pdf

[13]  Roberts supra note 1.

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Urmimala Mazumder
1 month ago

So on point !!!

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