Pre-social media phase: the Global Justice Movement, websites and email lists
The pre-social media period began roughly in the mid-1990s and ended with the 2011 wave of mobilisations. It was a phase dominated by websites and email lists, and included significant experimentation as this was when social movements started to explore the uses of digital media for activism.
The digital landscape of three decades ago was fundamentally different from the one of today. The internet was characterised by less regulation, as well as more freedom and unpredictability, since it was not until the early 2000s that some of the big tech behemoths started to grow. Twitter was established in 2006, while Facebook was launched in 2004, but it was not until 2006 that the platform was opened to a broader public. It would be a few more years until these platforms started to make an impact on social movement activity. And while email lists may have been run by large companies, such as Yahoo, the internet was not as commercialised and monetised as it became a few years later with the rise of social media.
“The internet was characterised by less regulation, as well as more freedom and unpredictability”
The Global Justice Movement (GJM) and its use of web and email lists is a representative example of this period. The GJM mobilised people across the world to protest against the neoliberal globalisation policies of large international organisations, national governments and transnational corporations. Protesters criticised the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the G8 countries for facilitating trade deregulation and the exploitation of countries from the global south. The GJM emerged in Seattle in late 1999 when protesters blocked a WTO meeting taking place at the time. Soon, protests were organised in other large international summits, to the point where such meetings were increasingly moved to more remote locations. But the movement also organised social forums that operated as spaces of encounter between activists from different countries where they could discuss and decide on common statements and policies. The first World Social Forum was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001, while the first European Social Forum was organised in Florence in 2002, with the one in 2004 taking place in London.
GJM activists used websites and email lists intensively to disseminate alternative information to the public and to promote the activities of the movement. The web was important for establishing alternative news websites and for facilitating the production of news from below, by amateur citizen journalists with limited resources and training. Indymedia played a crucial role in this respect. The first Indymedia site was founded during the ‘battle of Seattle’ when GJM activists realised that mainstream news outlets were either marginalising or misrepresenting the protest. UK Indymedia, which also began in 1999, trained a new generation of activists in alternative news production. Indymedia was indispensable for promoting a culture of ‘open publishing’, allowing activists with no journalistic experience to easily publish their own reports from the streets and in an unfiltered manner, a feature that seems a given now, but was almost unheard of at the time. Indymedia also reported on the anti-war mobilisations in the beginning of the 2000s, when people opposed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq took to the streets. The demonstration against the war in Iraq in February 2003 still remains the largest that the UK has ever seen.
At the same time, the internet generated new types of tactics whereby the operations of targets in the digital realm were attacked. Described broadly under the moniker of ‘hacktivism’, a portmanteau term combining hacking and activism, such tactics included distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks which bring down a website by bombarding the server with too many requests for information.
“the internet generated new types of tactics whereby the operations of targets in the digital realm were attacked”
Websites and email lists also transformed the organisational dynamics of social movements. Communication that was much more expensive in the past, and thus required infrastructures offered by well-resourced organisations – from printers to photocopiers to telephone lines –, could now be undertaken by smaller groups or even by interested individuals. This provided grassroots groups and activists with greater organisational autonomy in coordinating large protest events. It also lowered the costs of negotiation in the formation of coalitions, making it easier to bring different groups together in organising events under informal umbrella platforms. Activists could simply launch a common webpage for the event, with links to the websites of separate organisations, without entering into in-depth discussions. Therefore, the use of websites and email lists allowed the GJM and other social movements during this period to operate as ‘networks of networks’, eschewing hierarchical organising in favour of more decentralised organisational designs with multiple leaders and centres of power.1
Post-social media phase: the Occupy Movement and social media
The picture began to change with the rise of social media platforms, which transformed the capacity of social movements to disseminate alternative information and organise protests. The 2011 wave of mobilisations was a turning point in this respect, as this was the first time when social media were intensively used to coordinate protest. The wave began with uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt at the start of 2011 and soon spread to Europe with the 15M Movement in Spain and the Indignant Movement in Greece in the spring of the same year, and then to the US, the UK and all over the world in the autumn of 2011 when Occupy activists took over public squares and parks in the centre of cities. Occupy London was launched on 15 October 2011 with an encampment in Paternoster Square in front of St Paul’s cathedral. In contrast to the GJM a decade before, Occupy mobilisations focussed their wrath on the national level, decrying the dominance of economic elites in politics, as well as a system of representative democracy that was not serving the people’s interests. Among other things, Occupy in the UK was a response to the economic crisis of 2008 and the austerity politics of the Tory government, which had inspired other mobilisations prior to 2011, such as protests by the group UK Uncut.
“Occupy in the UK was a response to the economic crisis of 2008 and the austerity politics of the Tory government”
Occupy used Facebook to set up and promote protest events, as well as to create a community of activists through Facebook groups and pages. Twitter was employed mainly to disseminate alternative information to the public, and was important for building relationships with journalists who were heavy users of the platform. Thus, social media replaced some of the functions of websites and email lists with regards to circulating information. By leveraging interpersonal networks, social media allow information to travel more quickly through channels that people trust more or pay more attention to. The costs of disseminating information were even lower than those of websites, a more expensive operation at the time since it required some programming expertise and the payment of server costs.
The use of social media strengthened even further the organisational autonomy of grassroots groups and individual activists who could organise events without a pre-existing organisational infrastructure. Still, websites and alternative news outlets retained their value as spaces where potential participants could gain more in-depth information about the movement in question. While social media are helpful for circulating information, posts most often share hyperlinks to content that sits on a different platform. In other words, the advent of social media enriched the communication ecology of social movements and refined the activists’ understanding of how to use each medium in the ecology more effectively.
Yet the employment of social media by Occupy was not without tensions and internal conflicts.2 Facebook and Twitter are proprietary platforms whose business model is based on the tracking and exploitation of user-generated data. In addition, these platforms are not designed with social movements in mind, so their usability and interface design are not ideal for activist purposes. However much platform founders such as Mark Zuckerberg attempted to legitimate their creations by making bold claims about their democratic value, the platforms were designed with marketing and advertising in mind rather than political organising and deliberation. Thus, Occupy activists with a commons and anti-capitalist ethos were reluctant to employ proprietary social media platforms. This was particularly the case for the more technically adept activists, many of whom were part of free software and free culture movements that were ideologically opposed to commercial platforms. These activists opted instead to create free software alternatives or to use already existing servers and email listservs, on the RiseUp platform for instance, that operated with values they believed in.
The revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013 strengthened many activists’ unease with these technologies. While most social movements continued using them, as they were often indispensable for reaching a wider public beyond the already converted, activists did so with a sense of ‘surveillance realism’ as Dencik and Hintz3 put it, meaning that they were resigned to the fact that their online activities were being watched. Organising away from the gaze of the state and corporations would require platforms owned and operated by activists who favoured encryption and data protection, as well as going back to the tried and tested method of secretive face-to-face meetings where activists would turn off their mobile phone and remove the battery.
“The revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013 strengthened many activists’ unease with these technologies”
From the mid-2010s onwards, instant messaging applications started to replace the use of email for organising. Platforms such as Telegram and Signal that, for different reasons, were considered safer for activism overtook some of the uses of email lists for internal communication. Mobile internet communication became more user-friendly and less costly, allowing this ‘always-on/always-on-you’4 technology to change the speed and flexibility with which protest is organised. At the same time, such applications also increase information overload, with the continuous demand for attention and interaction hastening activist burnout.
Livestreaming is another technology that was popularised with the 2011 wave and matured during the past decade. Offered initially by small companies such UStream and Bambuser, livestreaming allowed Occupy activists to use their laptops and mobile phones to broadcast live from the streets. The movement became a 24-hour live performance for those watching from afar. This provided more opportunities for online participation – or spectatorship more accurately – and for reporting on events in a raw and unfiltered manner that was almost impossible to censor. But this enhanced transparency also gave rise to internal conflicts around the potential of these technologies for self-surveillance.5 Some years later, big tech companies entered the livestreaming game, with Facebook Live beginning in 2016 and Instagram Live in 2017, while start-up companies were pushed out of the market. In the space of a decade, livestreaming has become a mundane technology, democratising the capacity for live broadcasting, but also increasing big tech’s control of the technology.
Thus, in the past 30 years, as social movement organising and mobilisation have evolved together with digital media, activists have honed their ability to operate in this ever-changing media landscape. Newer mobilisations seem to be utilising the full range of digital media technologies. For instance, Extinction Rebellion has an email newsletter, a website and social media accounts in all major platforms, and employs Telegram and livestreaming to report from the streets.
However, the relationship between digital media and social movements is a symbiotic but not a smooth one. Digital technologies have provided both new opportunities and new restrictions to progressive social movements. At the same time, as the histories of Indymedia and livestreaming aptly show, social movements are often early adopters of new technologies, innovating and popularising their use. But digital media are also at the centre of internal conflict, as progressive activists may feel obliged to use technologies that do not accord with their values. Thus, digital media is not only a tool, but also an object of struggle, with movements politicising the operation of digital platforms and of the companies that own them.
“digital media is not only a tool, but also an object of struggle”
At the time of writing this article, it seems that we are entering a new era of activism in the UK, where a rise in the cost of living, an economic recession, as well as a political and economic crisis intensified by Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic are brewing a generalised sense of discontent. This can bring together diverse movements and mobilisations under the same banner as, for instance, oil extraction becomes not only an environmental issue but also a social and economic one. It is also a time when the power of big tech companies is being challenged, with Twitter in crisis after the Elon Musk takeover and Meta losing billions of dollars in value, while some users migrate to alternative platforms such as Mastodon.
Whether these challenges will lead to a more fundamental rupture in the old ways of doing things – from politics to economy to big tech – still remains to be seen. But what is certain is that there is a window of opportunity for progressive social movements to push for their desired change. In turn, this may add another twist in the ever-evolving relationship between digital media and social movements in the UK.