Editorial: The new age of social media protests


It’s been true for a long time that the spread of social media has changed what we do and how we do it. We receive news faster than ever when a new tweet pops up in our Twitter feeds. We can share our experiences in new ways with sites like Tumblr and Instagram. Facebook and similar sites allow us to get to know people an ocean away, or reconnect with friends initially lost in the seas of time.

Especially in the United States and on college campuses, social media is now more than ever a part of everyday life. Posting a status update isn’t a chore to be taken on, but something we do automatically, just as we brush our teeth in the morning or put on clothes before we leave for class. It’s simply become part of our daily routine.

That is why protests emphasizing social media have not only become commonplace, but are the norm rather than the exception. With the ability to spread information at the speed of an Internet connection and a guaranteed audience to hear the message, the use of social media has been more integral than ever in organizing demonstrations.

We only need to look as far as the UC-wide protests against the recently passed tuition plan to observe this. Some of the first news about the tuition plan broke on social media, and even after being reported by traditional news outlets, that’s still where many students received their information about it. Information about the protests themselves was not just spread in-person, but through tags and event pages that proliferated students’ social networking sites in the run-up to the demonstrations. Even if students from San Diego or Davis couldn’t be present in Riverside, social media nonetheless allowed UCR protesters to see what was happening elsewhere in the state and provide moral support to one another.

In some senses, this is nothing new. Social media has been pioneered as a device for activism and civil disobedience by the Occupy movement three years ago. Even before that, the Arab Spring in 2010 showed how powerful social media has become, replacing a dictator in Tunisia, overthrowing an entrenched autocracy in Egypt and inspiring governmental reforms across a half dozen other countries in the Middle East. Today, it’s still being used as a tool in the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, and the lack of an indictment in Ferguson spread like wildfire, spawning protests in major cities across the country and some from around the world.

The UC tuition protests are continuing in a grand tradition of public demonstrations where social media plays a large role. In fact, the prevalence of social media among college students and the relatively high density of a college campus makes it comparatively easy to facilitate protests at a university.

But if that’s the case, why haven’t they been more successful? The Arab Spring was partially successful, but its full potential went unrealized. The Occupy movement flamed out after six months and without accomplishing many of its policy goals. The Umbrella Movement is ongoing but it doesn’t have the same fervor as it once did. We have yet to see what will happen in Ferguson, but it’s hard not to be pessimistic when previous demonstrations did not result in an indictment.

As for the UC tuition protests, the tuition plan still passed, despite demonstrations across all 10 UC campuses. The same is true of previous protests at the UC, whether they were the systemwide sit-ins that occurred in 2009 or the protests at the UCR campus students waged against the UC Board of Regents in 2012. The most high-profile battles have gone unwon.

This illustrates the importance of two points. The first is that success isn’t necessarily defined by immediate achievement of every single goal on your agenda. The Civil Rights Movement midway through this century went on for years, racking up small victories here and there until the Civil Rights Act was finally signed. For now, simply informing students about the tuition increase and shocking them with the widespread nature of the protests is enough. Social media has helped to do that by creating positive information feedback loops, granting students access to information they did not have before and enabling them to fight on firmer footing in the future.

The other observation is that there is simply no substitute for leadership and on-the-ground organization. The Occupy movement and many Arab Spring demonstrations alike were faulted for lacking coordinated messages and individual leaders to guide the path forward, which may have contributed to their eventual decline. Social media can also dilute messaging, and it is an important reminder that it is not a panacea, and it must be supplemented with a powerful infrastructure.

Protesting outside the chancellor’s office made for powerful imagery, but there’s little that Chancellor Kim Wilcox can actually do on this matter, except for symbolic gestures like rejecting his salary. Even agreeing with student protesters on the matter of tuition hikes would have minimal impact on the regents, who are insulated from public opinion with 12-year terms and have little accountability to the students of the system they ostensibly serve.

Now that the tuition plan has passed, it is vital to refocus the energy of the protests onto the state government, where elected officials do have to respond to their constituents and do have some power over the state budget. There is one remaining seat open on the board of regents, in addition to two seats occupied by regents whose terms expire in two years, and students can work to ensure the people who fill them understand student concerns. With all our time commitments, it’s hard for students to build the training and lobbying structure to impact the decision-making process. But it is necessary for future success, and cannot be pushed out of sight in favor of flashy but short protests.

Above all, if students believe that the tuition increases are unacceptable, they must hold onto that feeling, because from it flows the determination and dedication to make change. Social media provides a venue to generate and spread that energy, but students must remember that it is up to them to channel it in the right direction. Only a long-term infrastructure can do that.

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