How to protest in a digital age

There are many ways in which we can protest.  If you are unhappy about government or angry about a certain state of affairs, you can take to the streets, sign an online petition, or send angry tweets.  Whatever the means, large protests may help to push an issue up the agenda and increase public debate. 

Many argue that these modern-day protests often lack the leadership and coalition-building skills that can translate collective grievance or anger into real societal change.  Yet, we perceive protesting in modern society as new and different.  

Since the Arab Spring, the role of social media and other platforms in protest has been emphasised.  Indeed, the role of data harvesting and social media campaigning is seen as pivotal in Vote Leave winning the 2016 EU Referendum, which many consider a mass protest vote.  

Certainly, social media have made it easier to organise mass protests.  People with a common cause can instantly fuel each other’s outrage while sharing logistical details. Despite criticism of coalition-building in modern protests, unlikely alliances are made across movements, such as Black Lives Matter and Free Palestine.  Broadcasting support for allied groups can also be shared and displayed online.

Nowhere is this as apparent as the recent protests for Extinction Rebellion. Established in 2018, the movement urges nonviolent resistance to protest against climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, and the risk of human extinction.  In April, with a pink boat in tow, they hosted demonstrations that brought parts of London to a standstill for ten days. Thousands of arrests were made, but once the protesters were released, often returned back to the demonstration sites, the most notable being Oxford Circus. 

Protesters were kept informed by either email updates, social media, or checking the Extinction Rebellion website.  Acts of civil disobedience went viral, only adding to the excitement circling the protests. These included three commuter-lookalikes gluing themselves to trains during Extinction Rebellion’s protests in London, bringing Canary Wharf to a standstill during rush hour. 

If you couldn’t be there in person, you could make your pledge online or share your support through social media, feeling like you have contributed to the movement from the comfort of your sofa.  Digital platforms are good at crowdsourcing dissatisfaction and magnifying it online, often permeating into more traditional forms of news.

However, acts of civil disobedience as a means of protest are nothing new.  Even if those are using social media to spread the word of the protest, this is not largely different from how many countries have protested historically. 

In the early 1790s, African Americans began sharing pamphlets to protest their mistreatment by their fellow countrymen.  As explained in Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest, ‘black authors produced a wide range of literature to project their views into the public sphere.  Autobiographies and personal narratives told of slavery’s horrors; newspaper essays railed against racism in its various forms.’  Often, pamphlets would encourage the reader to pass the information on, to ensure high circulation, whilst allowing the writers to remain anonymous. 

Although this form of protest seems inherently different from the protests that we see on the news today, the methods are somewhat similar in their aims.  These movements were hoping to unite people to a common goal, and knew it was essential to mobilise them. Both movements sought to spread the word as quickly and efficiently as possible to encourage people to take to the streets.  Digital tools can facilitate effective political organizing, but regardless of whether they hear about the movement online or through whispers, it is people on the streets that matter. 

It is important to bare in mind, that at any time, successful protests require strategic and effective leadership.  This means going beyond raising awareness or seeking the ‘truth.’  Without an end-goal, pamphlets and posts just float around, with no clear direction.

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