Tweeting the revolution: Social media and Madison’s protests

When the protests in Madison started, I don’t think anyone – myself included – expected them to endure for so long or to have so much of an impact. But as the protests gained momentum, the news media has started its speculation about whether Madison represented the frontline of a new political conflict.

But even if Madison isn’t the start of a national battle over budget cuts, worker rights, and the future of the Democratic party, it does represent the future of something else: the use of social media in protest. Social media and revolution is already a hot topic: from the use of Twitter during the Iranian protests in 2009, the “amplifying” role of Facebook and Twitter in Egypt, or its inspiration in Libya. Others disagree: Malcolm Gladwell makes an impassioned argument that social media cannot inspire the real sacrifices that revolutions require.

From my own experience with the Madison protests, I have to come firmly down on the side of those who argue that social media help make events like Madison feasible for a number of reasons:

1. Social media are particularly powerful in helping people share the experience of protest, despite distance. When I was out of town during the first week of the protests, social media – and Twitter in particular – helped me feel like I was part of the protests. I checked my Twitter feed religiously to not only get news stories about what was happening, but to get my friends’ personal experiences at the protests. When I returned, I was able to head to the Capitol feeling confident about what to expect.

2. Twitter and Facebook were important informational tools during the protests. When I was at the Capitol, I would often check my social media connections for information: Were people getting in? What doors were open? Updates from the police? as well as providing the same information myself to others. Further, people tweeting from different parts of the protest could offer unique perspectives. For example, I went to protest Walker’s announcement of his budget – which meant I couldn’t hear what he was saying. But my friends were tweeting about the press conference, so I could stay informed about what he was saying and doing while we chanted “Let us in!” outside our own Capitol building.

3. Social media facilitated mobilization. Not only did Facebook groups plan many of the large-scale rallies days and weeks in advance, including the rally last Saturday that netted about 100,000 people, but when Walker and the Republicans violated open-meeting laws to hold an emergency session to pass the bill, my social media contacts informed me and others – leading to thousands of people to head immediately to the Capitol to protest. Without social media, I doubt such quick mobilization would have been possible.

Of course, those opposing the protesters also recognized the importance of social media. When I got the “emergency” notification of Republicans’ actions, I immediately went to the Capitol. And as I was waiting with a huge crowd to get through security, one police officer told us that we would be required to turn off mobile technology that accessed the Internet. Needless to say, few complied, nor did I see it enforced. However, the fact they were trying to get people to eliminate their ability to go online from within the Capitol is striking.

Yet, for all that social media like Facebook and Twitter played such a huge part in these protests, all forms of social media were not equally influential. Blogs – what some call the first form of social media – seemed less relevant. I’m an example of this myself – despite tons of ideas, I have written very few blog posts about the protests. A fellow blogger realized the same. Instead of writing blog posts, we’ve both turned to micro-blogging on Twitter to talk about our experiences, our feelings, and the information we run across. This reflects a national trend: youth across the nation are reporting they are turning to blogs less as they increasingly express themselves on social networking sites.

I cannot condemn the trend – I’m definitely part of it. Yet like Dave, I believe blogs should continue to play an important role, both in our media diet and in encouraging expression. Blogs require much more reflection and cohesion than a short Facebook or Twitter post, even if they aren’t as immediate. So at the risk of not always being able to practice what I preach, I encourage people to continue blogging  – not just micro-blogging – and consuming blogs as part of their social media diet.

Here in Madison, we continue to test the potential for social media for long-term mobilizing. Walker and his Republican colleagues passed a version of the bill, even if the courts have placed an injunction on its implementation as they hear arguments about the potential violation of the Open Meetings Law in its passage. For opponents to the bill, protests continue, but the focus has shifted to upcoming elections and recall efforts. The question is: will social media be flexible enough to continue to mobilize when it’s not specific events?

I think it can be. My Facebook and Twitter feeds continue to remind me about upcoming events, particularly a Wisconsin Supreme Court election in two weeks. Boycotts are moving forward against local contributors to Walker. Reports also suggest Democrats are particularly fired up in the recall efforts, much more so than the GOP, especially in terms of volunteers and fundraising. It’s only the beginning: if protesters want to be successful in recalling Walker himself, it’s still months and months away.

Ultimately, social media cannot create a “revolution” or a protest on their own. But they can – and do – contribute to a successful effort. Using social media well becomes an increasingly important part of social activism, and one we have to understand.


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