In her brilliant book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Zeynep Tufekci describes how a small group of activists using Facebook and Twitter have been able to create large protest movements such as Arab Spring, Occupy, the Women’s March and others. She then examines how these essentially leaderless protests have gained attention—but have struggled to create lasting social change.
Tufekci tells the story of former Google executive and Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim, who was secretly incarcerated by the Egyptian police for 11 days after creating the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page, which helped spark the 2011 Arab Spring protest demonstrations in Egypt. These demonstrations led to the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Ghonim and several other prominent members of the youth opposition were invited to the presidential palace for negotiations. But since Ghonim had no organization behind him, he was in no position to negotiate a settlement. He did what he could, only to be viciously attacked on social media.
Ghonim told Tufekci that, “I once sarcastically said that I feel like it is much harder to actually stand up against the mainstream on Twitter than stand up against a dictator.”
Tufekci believes that social media has enabled a leaderless protest movement which has no mechanisms to develop consensus and no leaders who can effectively govern the movement, let alone the country. And while there were hopes that these demonstrations across the Middle East would bring democracy and justice, most of the region is currently wracked with violence, corruption and military or monarchy control.
In the United States, we have several leaderless movements, such as Occupy and the Women’s March, which have mobilized large numbers of people to protest but have not translated into politically effective or powerful organizations.
I marched in the Women’s March last year. I will march again this year. But I suspect that if you asked a cross-section of marchers why they were marching, we might all have very different goals. If we were asked for our demands, I do not know who would answer the question, and how.
I had a different experience last Friday night at the Sacramento AFL-CIO Council annual Crab Feed, where labor activists and politicians worked the room at a fundraiser to raise money for labor programs. Fabrizio Sasso, the master of ceremonies and the council’s executive director, seemed to know everyone by name. Elected officials, including Darrell Steinberg, Phil Serna, Richard Pan, Jay Hansen, Don Saylor, Eric Guerra, Jim Cooper and Lucas Frerichs connected up with labor activists. Candidates such as Democratic congressional candidate Regina Bateson were personally introduced to the hundreds gathered in the crowded hall.
These people spend their days working towards concrete goals. They put in the hours required to represent their constituencies and create social change. In our country today, the wealthy are getting more and more wealthy and funding programs and candidates to give them more wealth. For the remaining 99 percent of us, we have people power. We can march—but then we have to get organized. We need to support and engage with organizations such as labor groups, activist organizations and the Democratic Party to debate issues, develop consensus and elect officials to govern for us instead of the wealthy.
So let’s march in the Women’s March this Saturday. And then let’s get to work.