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There is a strong link between social media and civil protests. Social media allow people all over the world to connect to an issue and to take action. Are activists better able to mobilise through social media, and has geographical distance ceased to matter? Sander van Haperen says that local circumstances are still quite important.

Protest of Black Lives Matter
Protest of Black Lives Matter (photo: Flickr/Johnny Silvercloud)

Political scientist and sociologist Sander van Haperen has researched the influence of social media on the development of social movements, specifically the 'Black Lives Matter' and 'Immigrant Rights' movements.

Communications technology has always been important

Communications technology has always been important for the development of social movements; whether it's pamphlets and the printing press that helped Martin Luther go 'viral', the radio in Martin Luther King's 'Civil Rights Movement', or the television broadcasts during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. Time and again, communications technology proved capable of bridging great distances and mobilising the masses.

To this day, social movements use modern technology to mobilise people all over the world, with social media like Facebook and Twitter being of particular note.

Local circumstances said to be losing importance

Local circumstances, such as the geographical proximity that allows people to meet up, have always been important catalysts for any movement or protest. Expectations were that social media would effectively cancel out the limitations of these local circumstances, giving social movements a new boost. Through for instance Facebook and Twitter, activists can now easily mobilise while they are spread out over different locations.

At least, that was the assumption. But how does that pan out in practice?

Research into social media and social movements

Sander van Haperen applied an innovative combination of qualitative sources, geographical analyses and digital methods. This allowed him to map the structure of networks over longer periods and various locations. 'We can now map how, where and when people are communicating about specific topics online with a certain degree of precision. That gives rise to a re-evaluation of existing insights on the distribution of protest and leadership.'

Protest Immigrant Rights Movement
Protest Immigrant Rights Movement (photo: Flickr/Stephen Melkisethian)

On Black Lives Matterand the Immigrant Rights Movement

'The Movement for Black Lives' is an international movement that originated in the United States as a reaction to police violence against African-Americans. The 'Black Lives Matter' activists oppose police violence, racial profiling and and other injustices. To that end, they organise demonstrations and protests, and call politicians to account.

The 'Immigrant Rights Movement' arose in the United States with the goal to improve the living conditions of immigrant communities, especially for undocumented migrants. These activists aim to protect against discrimination and the repressive enforcement of immigration law, and advocate legislation that allows for a chance at citizenship. They organise countless protests and non-violent demonstrations that garner a lot of attention from national media.

They mobilised hundreds of thousands of people

Both movements embraced social media to help them retain America's attention. They mobilised hundreds of thousands of people and greatly impacted national policy and political agendas.

Social media do change the role that location plays

Sander van Haperen concludes that the importance of local circumstances to social movements has indeed changed due to the emergence of social media. Social media created new ways to convey emotion, for instance. People all over the world used the #blacklivesmatter hashtag to show their support and engage with the movement.

Furthermore, activists who originally stood on the sidelines can make themselves much more visible by using social media. Through social media, these kinds of leaders inspired others to activism in places far away from where the initial spark occurred. However, as van Haperen shows, only a select few leaders rise to great prominence through social media. This raises questions about new forms of inequality in social movements

Local circumstances remain important

Van Haperen concludes that local circumstances remain important to digital protest networks. Geographical proximity is a key condition in taking on the challenge of a protest, and it has great influence on the personal networks through which the message spreads. As such, social media is often used to communicate with people who are, in fact, quite nearby. 'While social media allow activists to establish a large digital network, solidarity is often directly related to location and similarity of interests', Van Haperen discovered.

For instance, the backbone of the #not1more campaign (part of the 'Immigrant Rights Movement' focusing on unjust immigration policy and deportation) consisted of active, well-connected and tireless core activists who were based in a few major cities.

The paradox of digital activism

Over time, the involvement with a movement becomes a key challenge for social movements who are trying to maintain a digital network. 'This is the paradox of digital activism: it may transcend certain barriers, but proximity is essential for maintaining relationships over time', says Sander van Haperen.

PhD Defence

Sander van Haperen will be defending his dissertation entitled Digitally Networked Grassroots: Social Media and the Development of the Movement for Black Lives and Immigrant Rights Movement in the United States on 3 December.

More about the PhD defence