Social Media - mass mobilisation and the modern mob
This is an update to a similar article published in 2016.
To catch up on how we got to now, read that one first, this one looks at what has changed since then.
In South Africa, #FeesMustFall provided a central way to track what thousands of students were trying to achieve around the country, it also allowed others who supported their efforts to share their stories and amplify the message. It was also able to quickly reflect on developments when protests were stopped by authorities and what happened next.
Not everyone agreed with the methods or even the protest itself, but it did create the opportunity for everyone to engage with the issues which led to authorities responding eventually to many of the issues raised by students which extended beyond just the fees.
It will be some time before those that study that period will determine just how much the social media elements affected the actual changes made by the institutions and state, but it certainly played a role and that role allowed more people to become aware of the issue and to engage with it.
This option to organise and mobilise is a key ability of social media while not necessary being its main purpose. While it can be used for working to improve this, the definition for what improving things mean allows for it to be both constructive and destructive depending on what your view of the issue is.
The most recent and impactful movement is Black Lives Matter, which began in 2013 as a response to the acquittal for the person that killed Trayvon Martin. One of the founders wrote on Facebook "Our Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter" to which a co-founder replied with #BlackLivesMatter
It has gone on to campaign against violence against black people in the US and around the world. The death of George Floyd proved to be such an obvious violation of what a reasonable response should be that protests began the next day and spread nationwide. Social media provided a way to coordinate when and where protesters could gather. Once again footage from the protests and often the heavy handed reaction by police were shared widely attracting more to join the protests or support it by commenting and sharing online.
The already established banner of Black Lives Matter (BLM) provided a unified way to track all the conversations.
Not unsurprisingly the movement had its critics, some that did not or chose to not understand the message, began using All lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter. The group choosing to undermine the efforts of BLM began using All LIves Matter as their own rallying call.
K-Pop and politics
Not all social media is focussed on social issues, in fact most is not. News media covers it more often though as it relates to developing news stories.
One section that is massive but perhaps not covered in the news section much is the rise and popularity of K-Pop music. It is a genre of pop music that became very popular in South Korea and is based on groups with young artists that sing positive songs and are great dancers.
Given how tech enabled South Korea is, the bands had well developed ways to interact with fans online and soon were popular everywhere. The two biggest acts are BTS and BlackPink that have had huge chart hits thanks to their very engaged fans willing to not only listen but share the latest news about their favourite acts. Social media made it easier for fans and artists to connect and soon fans were choosing names to identify themselves as fans, Rihanna’s fans are called the Navy, Lady Gagga has her Little Monsters while BTS has its Army - _Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth _while BlackPinks fans are the Blinks.
That Army has began taking on projects outside of promoting the band. BTS donated $1 million to the BLM cause and its fans undertook to raise the same amount which they reported achieved within the day.
They have also arranged on occasion to block police attempts to collect information about those taking part in protests. A US police app allowed citizens to upload footage of protests to help them identify those attending. K-Pop fans shared the idea to post the videos they had attending concerts instead and did so in such numbers that it flooded the app.
They also coordinated to add All Lives Matter into their posts on a given day when BLM protests were taking place to prevent those wanting to follow the opposition to be overwhelmed with posts about pop stars.
The most recent was a call initially made on TikTok by a former election campaigner calling on people to register for US President Trump’s upcoming rally by booking tickets but not attending. The message was picked up and shared across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
While the Trump campaign contests that the effort was responsible for his rally having a much lower turnout, there is no question that the registrations were exceptionally high and prompted Trump to comment on the 1 million reservations. It may well be his pointing out that 9 in 10 who wanted to attend would not get in because there would be no space that prevented people going, but it is more likely that his supporters actually did not think it safe to risk the possible infection. That the Trump campaign required those booking tickets to agree to indemnify it should they get infected probably only added to it.
Whatever the cause, the effect was a win for K-Pop fans. There was a point made about those overseas registering for a US event and via a platform that was Chinese owned, but the reality is that most of the K-pop fans that took part would be US based fans and that while TikTok is Chinese owned, there has been little backlash on the US when US owned platforms like the Facebook and WhatsApp were shown to have been used to organise violent acts in other countries.
Is it good or bad?
Social media is a powerful platform for organising those with shared goals, that would seem like a good thing, but it would depend on what the shared goal is.
YouTube has a case to answer for making flat earth conspiracies a thing, Facebook’s hands off approach has allowed anti-vaxxers to organise and for violence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
Reddit has had to manage forums for controversial subjects and allow a lot of latitude for groups that come close to hate groups.
Almost every platform has its issues with individuals and organisations that use it for reach and to recruit supporters to their causes.
Once again the issue not not the platform itself, it is the access and regulations that govern its use. While most do restrict incitement of violence and hate speech, they typically lack the ability to moderate everything, when objectionable content is reported or found it is removed and accounts banned, but it is not difficult to create new accounts and simply repost the content.
It is hard to not acknowledge the valid attempts to disrupt actions that are wrong but by doing so by using the same techniques that cause the problem in the first place only perpetuates it.
Social platforms rely on network effects and scale for their valuations. They are expected to constantly grow which makes getting access too easy and limiting toxic behaviour more difficult. The long term value of a social network can only be sustained if the platform works to make people want to use it. There is are important considerations for keeping the platforms open and not using the highly regulated versions allowed in China, but likewise they can’t be so lax that there is a risk of harm just for using it.
This is not the first time humanity has had to negotiate with a disruptive technology, most of the platforms are not even 20 years old yet and have not only grown incredibly quickly they are thankfully beginning to mature in much the same way as humans do, by that standard if we don’t ruin social media in the next decade it should be a much more pleasant place to be.
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