Book Report: Tweets and the Streets

Paolo Gerbaudo’s Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism is an examination of the roles that social media played in three prominent movements that took place in 2011: the Egyptian revolution, the Spanish indignados protests, and Occupy Wall Street. Gerbaudo starts his book with an indictment of common approaches that he finds to be reductive. Wary of the mainstream media’s portrayal of various parts of the Arab Spring as “[Twitter or Facebook] Revolutions” and also of the essentialism of various writers and academics, he suggests that social media be investigated as way to understand the interactions and mediation behind emerging forms of protest. He takes issue with both the techno-optimism of Clay Shirky and the techno-pessimism of Morozov and Gladwell, as they fall within essentialist lines that ignore the spatial qualities and importance of identity that are present in many movements. Adopting this critical approach, Gerbaudo then strikes out to establish a model of “choreography of assembly,” where soft leaders, utilizing social media as emotional conduits and organizing tools, cultivate identity and set the scene for “take the square” and “occupy” movements such as those swept the globe in 2011.

In Chapter 1, Gerbaudo situates his approach in the context of previous literature written on social media, specifically the description of social media practices as indicative of “swarms” or “networks.” He first identifies an argument that is often made in the case of online activism – that the Internet allows for interaction without centralized coordination, forming a “many-headed hydra” that is effective and has no single point of weakness. Finding fault with how this proclaimed “horizontalism” obscures asymmetrical relationships within movements, as well as the nuances involved in the assembling of individuals, he explores the metaphor of the “network” from which this sort of view arises. Attributing it to Castells (2009), he explains it to be a metaphor for the spatial distribution of post-industrial societies, promising in its autonomy from bureaucratic structures and informed by libertarian ideals. This participatory culture of self-management and production is the one that is primarily associated with the World Wide Web. Mobile interactions, on the other hand, are usually associated with the “swarm” intelligence proposed by Hardt and Negri (2004), one where members remain different yet are joined by constant communication. While Gerbaudo finds the metaphor of the “swarm” to be appreciative of the role of the body in a way that the “cognitivist” abstraction of the network isn’t, he finds both metaphors to be lacking in their failure to take into account the importance of physical locations where bodies may gather, and to be too accepting of the idea that multiplicity entails action.

Gerbaudo relates these two metaphors to the growing fragmentation of social spaces in cities, a phenomenon that results in segregation along ethnic and economic lines, and the scattering and dispersal of hardships (Bauman, 2000). To explain why recent movements are started despite this dispersion, he references Arendt’s idea (1958) that public spaces are performatively constructed and reconstructed from the act of gathering, positing that social media is used in the “choreographing” of protest. This choreographing is described as a “scene-setting” or a “scripting of space,” where bodily action takes on symbolic meaning. Succinctly, it involves the “condensation of people around common identity, and material precipitation in public space,” – a process that heavily involves emotion as a form of group cognition (referencing Melucci, 1996) and allows for the construction of a “people” (referencing Laclau, 2005).

Chapter 2 gives the 2011 Egyptian revolution as the first case study, beginning with Gerbaudo providing background for the movement and describing his goal as being to “ascertain the contribution of the so-called Facebook youth” to the protests that occurred. While mild opposition was tolerated by the Mubarak government, public spaces were tightly controlled so as to prevent activists from publicly interacting with the working class. State of emergency laws, in place for almost the entire duration of Mubarak’s thirty year reign, allowed for harassment and use of force against opposition media. Egypt had a relative open internet that was touted by the government as proof of liberalization – however, bloggers were often arrested by police. Despite this, a identity of public protest was formed in the mid to late 2000s by activists like those of the 6th of April group, which held small rallies against the Mubarak government.

Gerbaudo traces the origins of the Tahrir Square demonstrations that eventually led to Mubarak’s resignation to the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page, which was created by Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing executive. Khaled Said was a young Egyptian blogger from a middle-class background whose brutal death by beating at the hands of the secret police sparked outrage, especially among other middle-class Egyptians. Pages such as the one that Ghonim created cemented Said’s status as a martyr and as a symbol around which to cluster. The “We Are All Khaled Said” page in particular was used to call for and organize the 25th of January protests at Tahrir Square. Gerbaudo identifies several key elements involving the use of Facebook and Twitter during the protests:

  • Ghonim successfully built up emotional identification with the movement by getting visitors to the page to first read posts, then interact with the posts, and then finally to contribute their own content.
  • Ghonim then organized a series of “silent protests” that tested the page’s ability to create a physical protest presence – this revealed the large gap between the number of people who would RSVP to planned protests and the number who would show up.
  • As the 25th of January approached, Ghonim and other shabab-al-Facebook (Facebook youth) actively tried to raise morale for the event, responding to pessimistic posts with ones that appealed to emotions like pride
  • Enthusiasm was low at first, but spiked after demonstrations in Tunisia
  • The shabab-al-Facebook, who were mostly middle-class, went from being online activists to street agitators during the protest, therefore engaging and involving the working class.
  • The Egyptian government shut down the nation’s mobile and internet communications on the 27th – this had an effect that was opposite to what was intended, as it revealed the impact that the protests were having and made it impossible for those who had previously been at home to be informed without taking to the streets themselves.
  • Twitter had far less penetration among activists, and was mainly used as a form of real-time communication between activist elites (the so-called “twitter pashas”)
  • Tensions existed between the Twitter pashas and the average protesters because of this gap, and because of tweeps whose tweets were mainly on ideals and not on concrete action – there were some twitter “activists” who were well-known outside of Egypt but unheard of by those on the ground.

In Chapter 3, Gerbaudo analyzes the second case – the rise of the indignados protests as part of the anti-austerity movement in Spain. He introduces the movement as one that rejected the left/right divide for the participatory principles of “democracy 2.0,” and which emphasized the choreography of assembly and the harvesting of indignation. At the time, Spain’s youth unemployment rate was 41 percent; however, a longstanding government campaign of sanitizing public spaces and stigmatizing union protests led to a culture where protest was seen as irrational. This attitude was broken by the No Les Votes campaign, developed in opposition against the Ley Sinde legislation that was meant to counter file-sharing services within the country. While the somewhat techno-utopian No Les Votes movement never materialized into a physical presence on the streets, other movements such as Juventund Sin Futuro (Youth Without Future), Estado de Malestar (Badfare State), Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform for Mortage Victims) and Democracia Real Ya (Real Democracy Now) took up the mantle of organizing physical protests. Gerbaudo focuses on Democracia Real Ya, which acted as the primary force behind the 15th of May (15-M) protests, and identifies some key characteristics that its founders (Fabio Gandara and Pablo Gallego) and members used to expand the movement:

  • DRY adopted an extremely majoritarian orientation, seeking to include everyone who was affected by the economic crisis. This involved avoiding language that seemed too political or ideological.
  • DRY recruited members by entering online chat forums and Facebook groups, getting a sense of the conversations that were going on, and then approaching and chatting with members
  • DRY cultivated an emotional “impetus” towards protest, working hard to give the sense that the demonstrations would trigger a mood of collective euphoria
  • DRY also presented the group as being spontaneous and leaderless by asking users to contribute content, and by sustaining interaction with commenters

Gerbaudo writes that the enthusiasm and coherence of identity that DRY was able to engender convinced multiple organizations to put aside their differences and support the 15-M call to protest. He then makes the following observations about the 15-M movement itself:

  • There was significant on-the-ground organizing in the months leading up the protest, with local groups established to hang posters, print pamphlets, and spread the word.
  • In contrast to the Tahrir Square protests, Twitter played a large role in spreading the word about the protest to journalists, activists, bloggers – multiple hashtags associated with the movement, including #15M, became venues for expressing enthusiasm.
  • There was little mainstream coverage of the protest in the initial days, leading to there being a feeling of censorship that further fueled the feeling of indignation and therefore energy.
  • Protesters “spontaneously” decided to create an encampment at the Peurta del Sol; the digital activists had little say in how the camp developed because of their lack of experience in ground activism.
  • Police repression of the protests on the 17th added to the legitimacy of the movement.
  • The net was not the square, or a simple transposition of the square onto public space. According to Gerbaudo, protesters utilized multiple methods that “expressed the joy generated by the rediscovery of a sense of physical communion,” such leaving messages on post-it notes at the entrance of the Sol station, and participating in groups and assemblies while at the square.
  • Occupied squares became sites of “incarnation” for a process of social recomposition, with Peurta del Sol being the symbolic center.
  • The decentralization of the movement from Peurta del Sol completely into neighborhoods resulted in a “loss of focus”

Chapter 4 deals with the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which Gerbaudo characterizes as being distinct from the other two cases in that social media initially failed as a rallying point, and that a ground presence was needed first before the movement finally took off. He describes the atmosphere prior to its formation as one where public spaces had been fragmented into functional components, unions had been defeated, and where the anti-war movement had collapsed. When the initial call to action was made, digital activist practices by groups such as Anonymous had strong influences. Tracing the movement’s confused beginnings to its prominence in the national dialogue, he makes the following points:

  • The initial call to action by Adbusters was focused more on communication than on organizing – both this and the “one demand” were left to those on the streets.
  • The #occupywallstreet hashtag spread slowly, and did not garner significant attention until there were several episodes of police repression.
  • There was an elitist character to communications, with very little attempt to engage with people on an emotional level. This severely hindered the movement at the beginning, as it was unable to tap into the pain and suffering of the many who were impacted by the recession.
  • Most of the waves of attention to the movement that occurred on Twitter were due to the virality of events that happened on the ground, such as the pepper-spraying of corralled activists, or the mass arrest of protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge. These events, along with the willingness of social media companies to piggyback on the movement’s growing popularity, allowed it to gain prominence.
  • The “We are the 99%” tumblr blog contributed to the creation of a popular identity for the movement, with the slogan itself indicating a systemic rather than a biographical problem.
  • The encampment itself was rather small – about 300 protesters at the beginning, growing to around 2000, but came to symbolize Americans struggling to get by. In this way, it became a social media spectacle, and a place where strangers were likely to meet and engage.
  • Although the movement was touted as “horizontal”, there were both practical constraints, such as the control of access to Twitter accounts, and also the emergence of ‘soft’ leaders, which consisted of people who had the ability to be present and to participate.

After considering these cases, Gerbaudo uses Chapter 5 to extend the arguments that he makes throughout the book, clarifying his model of the “choreography of assembly” and the roles that different platforms play. Chief among these is that social media does not entail the end of organization, but rather the emergence of “liquid” forms of organizing, where membership is based on continuous communication and where leaders emerge as those who are able to utilize social media most effectively. He argues that this form of organizing both allows for a highly personal level of engagement and a flexibility of identity while hiding asymmetries of power and privilege. While movements may appear to be leaderless, they are guided by core groups of leaders who often possess high levels of digital literacy and privilege of presence, thus allowing them to exert their influence; it is then difficult to hold these éminences grises accountable.

In this fluid environment, Facebook serves as a useful tool for emotional engagement, one which allows activists to speak to a select audience using informal language, building emotional ties from which to springboard movements. Twitter, on the other hand, can be used effectively for both internal and external communication, although Gerbaudo asserts that it is more likely to host echo-chambers than Facebook due to the like-minded nature of its communities, compared to organic collections of Facebook “friends.” Finally, he makes the case for the importance of symbolic places, which serve as “full signifiers” of history that allow for the rituals of reunion and emotion, in contrast to the “empty signifiers” of slogans. From this, these public places take on their own identity, with squares becoming themselves the “impersonal leaders” of movements.

Gerbaudo qualifies this last point in the conclusion, quoting an activist in saying that “Tahrir is a state of mind.” He ends by suggesting a question to consider: how can movements maintain continuity after their occupied squares?



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