Business Unusual

Social protests in the 21st century

The #FeesMustFall movement set a new benchmark for collective action in South Africa. The number of tweets in mid-October 2015 exceeded half a million during the week or half of the total volume of activity for the week.

The precursor came from #PayBackTheMoney at the 2015 State of the Nation address.

Prior to that, it was the death and memorial for Nelson Mandela in 2013 that moved so many to use social platforms to reflect on the news (It is still the most tweeted event in South Africa).

More recently a small group of students at Pretoria Girls High School were able to start a national conversation about how South Africa does and should view appearance and the unacceptable way it is still being applied. Was it simply a cause that needed to be addressed or was there a multiplier effect from social media?

A brief history of social activism

In general terms, and in an African context, the start of social mobilisation would be the 2007 Kenyan presidential elections. Following the vote, reports of violence around the country spurred a group of Kenyan developers to create a means for reports sent via email and SMS to be logged on a map to highlight areas for security services to intervene and for citizens to avoid.

The ability to tap into a connected public to both report and verify reports offered a very powerful tool using resources that were already available.

The platform became Ushahidi, and has been used for tracking disasters like the earthquake in Haiti and many others since. It is an open platform that can be used by anyone.

Probably the most significant social movement to date has been the Arab Spring. It had been a long time coming but could be said to have reached a tipping point with the self-immolation of a trader in Tunisia in December 2010. It lead to the ousting of the president and a significant overhaul of the state less than a month later.

While it would be incorrect to suggest the Arab Spring, or any other social protest, came about as a result of social media, there is a strong argument that says the social platforms gave unorganised groups the ability to quickly and easily get organised. In heavily controlled societies it allowed citizens to circumvent official channels and test the popularity of their beliefs and arrange to meet or gather in protest.

It is not uncommon that governments would limit, or cut off, access to the web when protests are likely. Turkey has a reputation for doing so during protests even though President Erdogan used social media to call citizens to take to the streets to resist the recent coup.

The President called for citizens to take to the streets to resist the coup plotters soon after it began.

The implications for brands

Brands in the past may have been happy to work with the private critical feedback from customers and possibly even simply ignore it. Feedback now though is typically posted publicly, making the ability to ignore negative feedback difficult.

Companies like Yelp, Hello Peter and Trip Advisor, among others, have built a business from directing public feedback back to brands.

The trend is likely to continue as both more people gain access to the platforms and the sophistication of the platforms compel brands and states to be more accountable.

The future of social activism

But it is not all good news. A critical element of reporting is verification and many on social platforms don’t, simply sharing what they find and trusting that all reports are true (or that someone else will verify it). A false rumour can ruin a brand, or personal reputation, and certainly affect a public discourse.

There are two options to address it and both need to be implemented. Basic reporting skills need to taught at school and in businesses to reduce bad reports and future platforms need to build in a means for testing the veracity of what is being posted or shared.

If we can achieve that, humanity can look forward to a new age of transparency and accountability. If not, we would have created the greatest and most dangerous mobs ever.

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