Limits of social media in revolutionary processes (Malcolm Gladwell was right!)

Last October Malcolm Gladwell kicked a hornet nest of social media enthusiasts, arguing that social media helped facilitate weak social ties, which are good for some things but not others. Protracted social struggle against the privileged and powerful tends to come with heavy costs, sometimes including prison, physical pain, and even death. Strong social ties are absolutely necessary for sustaining the level of commitment such struggles require, and social media doesn’t do much for cultivating such ties, Gladwell argued.

Gladwell came off as almost entirely dismissive of the value of social media, and that upset people. If he was trying to provoke a dialogue, he clearly succeeded.

Over all, I agree with Gladwell’s emphasis and I argued at the time that people who love social media may be inclined to overstate its real-change value:


From outside of Egypt, it is difficult to see which group identities, social infrastructure, and organizations are playing what roles in encouraging and emboldening such a strong collective mobilization.  But it’s really easy to read tweets.  It’s easy to latch onto the mechanisms that are within our experience.  As the saying goes, if the only tool you have in your toolbox is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. Today, if you spend all of your time online, you might be inclined to overvalue its worth.  You might be more likely to read an article that discusses how to improve your Twitter presence than an article that explores how to talk to your family about a difficult political issue.  Social media is low-hanging fruit.  Any savvy young person can learn to text message, tweet, and update their status &#151 and that’s all fine.  But we need organizers who can pull the people around them into higher-risk action.

An article by Noam Cohen in Sunday’s NY Times adds dimension to this debate on the social change value of social media:

THE mass media, including interactive social-networking tools, make you passive, can sap your initiative, leave you content to watch the spectacle of life from your couch or smartphone.

Apparently even during a revolution.

Cohen is reporting on a new thesis titled “Media Disruption Exacerbates Revolutionary Unrest”, by Yale political science graduate student Navid Hassanpour.

Hassanpour suggests close to the opposite of what many have taken for granted about the role of social media in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak; that the disruption of the regular functioning of social media may have contributed to revolutionary organizing more than its utility. Then-President Mubarak’s decision to shutdown Internet and cellphone service may have shifted cognitive and social processes in favor of revolutionary change. From the NY Times article:

“The disruption of cellphone coverage and Internet on the 28th exacerbated the unrest in at least three major ways,” [Hassanpour] writes. “It implicated many apolitical citizens unaware of or uninterested in the unrest; it forced more face-to-face communication, i.e., more physical presence in streets; and finally it effectively decentralized the rebellion on the 28th through new hybrid communication tactics, producing a quagmire much harder to control and repress than one massive gathering in Tahrir.”

In an interview, he described “the strange darkness” that takes place in a society deprived of media outlets. “We become more normal when we actually know what is going on &#151 we are more unpredictable when we don’t &#151 on a mass scale that has interesting implications,” he said.

I think this thesis lends an interesting layer of support to Gladwell’s arguments. When people are forced into deeper in-person interaction with each other, new potentials are more easily born; new levels of commitment, courage and individual sacrifice for the whole can be seen.

The NY Times article goes on to describe how other governments learned from Mubarak’s strategic blunder (of shutting down the Internet).

Iran, for example&#151according to technology analyst Jim Cowie&#151realized that, “you don’t turn off the Internet anywhere &#151 you make it less useful.” You slow it down, make it harder and less effective to post viral video, etc.

So governments may be well-advised to seek to keep people hooked in and logged in. Slow people down so they spend more time glued to their screens, with less social incentive (i.e. desire to connect with others) to hit the streets.

The NY Times article goes on to describe a 2009 study of western media influence on East Germans during the Cold War. The study, by Holger Lutz Kern of Yale and Jens Hainmueller of M.I.T., suggests that consumption of western media had the net effect of making people passive about their conditions. Rather than inciting people to action, western media created something of a cognitive escape. Their paper is provocatively titled “Opium for the Masses: How Foreign Media Can Stabilize Authoritarian Regimes.”

The NY Times article concludes quoting Todd Wolfson, an assistant professor at Rutgers, who nicely strikes the nuance that this conversation about the social change value of social media needs. Wolfson says that there is “an accelerant role for social media.” Yes, communication mediums play a role in communication &#151 how about that? But social media “cannot and does not create that kind of mass motion.”

[Wolfson] cited the writer Frantz Fanon, who discussed the role of radio in the Algerian revolt against the French in the 1950s. When the French tried to block their transmissions, Fanon wrote in his 1959 book, “A Dying Colonialism,” the rebels had even more power, because the listeners were no longer passive. [my emphasis]

Whatever the value of social media in revolutionary and social change processes, can’t we also examine the costs? And can’t we all admit that it can function as an escape, that it can be a huge time-suck, and that grassroots organizing will always be about getting ourselves and others off our asses?

Same Old: How the Right Harnesses White Fear (& Religious Fear) for Plutocratic Ends

David Campbell and Robert Putnam have an insightful editorial in today’s New York Times. In Crashing the Tea Party they summarize their study of national political attitudes (from interviews with a representative sample of 3,000 Americans) and shed some light onto unifying themes and motivations of members of the so-called Tea Party.

Tea Partiers are united in their love of freedom and opposition to “big government”, right?

That may be, but, according to Campbell and Putnam, the single biggest predictor of Tea Party involvement is “a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics.”

And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.

This agenda is, according to the authors, far out of line with attitudes of a large majority of Americans. They argue, however, that the official stated emphasis and brand of the Tea Party is more in line with many Americans’ “anti-big-government” values (a point I will take some issue with).

Another big predictor of Tea Party participation: whiteness.

They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do. [my emphasis]

There you have it. No disrespect, but the Tea Party is fueled by racism and religious bigotry. Dealing with these folks day-in-and-day-out during the health care fight, this much was abundantly clear to many of us. Now there’s some research to back up what we knew in our guts.

Many will protest this assertion. To be clear, I think that overt expressions of racism are rare in the Tea Party. Some overt expressions of racism may even incite a negative response from many Tea Party members who would not want to see themselves or be seen as overt racists.

But the cloaking of the origin of motivational fears is the strength of the Tea Party. Here’s how the game plan works:

  1. Stoke fear &#151 white fear in particular, easily exploitable with the inauguration of our first black President.
  2. Use that fear to rile up a grassroots base. Yes, the Tea Party may have their own cable news network and a lot more resources thrown at them than we’re accustomed to over here on the left, but it’s a mistake to dismiss them as 100% astroturf; there is an actual base.
  3. Frame the national narrative and national economic issues with that mobilized base as the protagonist in a story about “big government” supposedly screwing over “the little guy.”
  4. Hide actual policy goals within that grand narrative.

The so-called Tea Party was designed and branded brilliantly, as an intentionally ambiguous vehicle. It’s an emotion-laden, highly branded, intentionally ambiguous symbol &#151 designed to catalyze white closeted (or sometimes not) racists who consciously or not felt entitled to always have a white male President with an “American-sounding” name. The label “Tea Party” functions as an “empty signifier” &#151 a vague symbol that different kinds of people with disparate values can identify with. This ability to unite different swaths of people (though in this case typically united by whiteness, at least) is possible precisely because of the vagueness of the symbol; it doesn’t lose people by spelling things out too clearly. The Tea Party also acts as something of a political fetish object. Like a sexual fetish object, one latches onto an acceptable object to stand in for the thing that is forbidden. It is no longer acceptable in our society to openly admit one’s discomfort with a black President. It is more acceptable (to one’s neighbors and to one’s own conscience) to embrace the Tea Party and our “forefathers” and to lament, “I want my country back.”

This psychological need to cloak unacceptable fears into acceptable “remedial” action is how someone like Dick Armey can come along and channel all this energy into the service of an extreme economic agenda. The meme “big government” itself carries a story of an assault on values by a dangerous “other”. This vague “otherization” is key to the Tea Party strategy. It’s the cognitive thread that unites a lot of disparate themes. “Other” means threat, and there’s one big file drawer in our brains for that threat. We can throw blacks and immigrants and socialists and homosexuals all into the same file, so that our fear of the “other” is triggered whenever we encounter any of the above.

The good news: the Tea Party is increasingly unpopular. Here’s Putnam and Campbell:

Tea Party supporters have slipped to 20 percent, while their opponents have more than doubled, to 40 percent.

…the Tea Party ranks lower than any of the 23 other groups we asked about &#151 lower than both Republicans and Democrats. It is even less popular than much maligned groups like “atheists” and “Muslims.” Interestingly, one group that approaches it in unpopularity is the Christian Right.

However, it would be a mistake to measure the Tea Party’s success solely by its ability to make people like the Tea Party. Does Dick Armey really care if the Tea Party is loved by many? Is that why he and the Koch brothers and other plutocrats have put so much money and effort into this vehicle? To make people like them? Of course not. If in the process of pushing through an extremely conservative economic agenda we all come to hate the Tea Party, so what?

Putnam and Campbell mention early on in their editorial that, despite the Tea Party’s growing unpopularity, “over the last five years, Americans have moved in an economically conservative direction: they are more likely to favor smaller government, to oppose redistribution of income and to favor private charities over government to aid the poor.” It’s important to note that they qualify this assertion of right-shifting attitudes: “none of these opinions are held by a majority of Americans.” That said, if there has been a rightward shift in economic attitudes over the past five years &#151 and I would love to see their research data &#151 how much credit might the Tea Party deserve, however unpopular it is now?

I suspect a lot.

How We Can Inspire People to Care About Social Change & Feel Good About Themselves in the Process?

People only become active in social change movements because these movements speak to deep longings that go far beyond those for economic justice.

If the Wisconsin struggle between the unions and Governor Walker showed us anything, it was that the needs that animate people around progressive causes are not simply needs for money or financial security. The need for community and its accompanying feeling of belonging and the need to connect with something larger than the self, the need for meaning, were every bit as important in generating the special enthusiasm and emotional engagement seen for weeks in and around the state capitol in Madison.

This has been the experience of the Left for generations. Movements that engaged people at a deep level had the most staying power and the most impact. At this level, people are motivated by a range of needs other than those for economic security, including needs for meaning, connectedness, recognition, and agency.

Unfortunately, despite evidence that this is so, progressives are often blind to the importance of these needs.

People only become active in social change movements because these movements speak to deep longings that go far beyond those for economic justice. These needs interact, overlap and rise and fall in importance depending on the situation. The civil rights movement spoke to a hunger to be connected to something bigger than the self. But the institution that provided the base of this movement, the black church, thrived on its power to provide recognition in dozens of way to its members.

The women’s movement initially based itself on the relational power of small groups, arguing that personal needs and suffering can form the basis of a political agenda. The highest periods of member engagement in the life of a labor union occur when people feel a sense of agency in standing up to a boss or during the height of a campaign. As Cesar Chavez once observed, “When a man or woman, young or old, takes a place on a picket line for even a day or two, he will never be the same again.”

And, yet, this transparent reality is hidden from view in the work of organizers and leaders of progressive organizations who too often treat their staff, members and public audiences as if most of these needs are irrelevant. Instead, members and potential members are seen as motivated only by narrow economic self-interest with staff treated as one-dimensional means to fight for that end.

Corporations have understood the crucial motivational role of so-called “soft” — that is, non-economic — needs apart from the paycheck for decades. Almost every book on leadership published in the last 20 years emphasizes the importance of relationships and recognition. Huge studies have been done on companies that have succeeded and failed in an attempt to come up with the secret sauce of success, and invariably, the answer involves the ways in which the culture of a company engages employees at levels above and beyond compensation. In a recent article, Arianna Huffington reports on a similar emphasis in advertising today, with more and more corporations explicitly touting their social engagement and desire to speak to a higher purpose.

Too often, the Left discovers its campaigns for economic justice and various aspects of the social safety net fall on cynical or resigned ears, even among our system’s greatest victims. Conservative groups, on the other hand, often seem better able to connect with these same “victims,” even though the connection seems to progressives as patently opposed to these victims’ economic self-interest. The growth of mega-churches, the rise of the evangelical movement, and the recent popularity of the Tea Party all involve people drawn to communities that support a political and economic system inimical to their own needs for material security. The reasons have little to do with anyone’s economic bottom line. They do so because they appear to address multiple levels of suffering and multiple needs.

So, what do people need? Are we saying they don’t need material security and economic justice?

Of course not. Recognition doesn’t put food on the table, and a sense of meaning won’t stop the bank from foreclosing on your house. The American Dream, an ideal in which work offers retirement security and medical benefits, and generates enough income so our kids can go to college and on to a better life, is still and always should be, central to a progressive agenda. Structural unemployment, mal-distribution of income and wealth, and the economically debilitating effects of racism and sexism are blights to the human body and spirit. A movement for social change that doesn’t target this blight will be irrelevant to a huge sector of the population.

When people’s survival needs, defined in this way, are frustrated, they suffer enormously. They get sick. In extreme cases, research shows their brains actually atrophy as the result of deprivation. Further, they often internalize their “failure,” blame themselves, and get depressed. They feel inadequate and inferior. They suffer from the meritocratic myth that one’s economic and material status is an expression of how deserving one is. A movement that doesn’t speak directly to economic suffering and deprivation, whether absolute or relative, will not only be irrelevant to millions of people, but will take its place among other pie-in-the-sky movements, usually religious ones, that offer moral or spiritual bromides to the victims of material deprivation rather than directly seeking to end that deprivation.

However, because the facts of inequality are obvious and objectively measurable, progressives tend to believe that if we rationally present these facts to people, they will endorse our progressive agenda. The narrative goes: If we could only tell our story about class privilege, Wall Street and government corruption, and economic exploitation to working people, they would see reality more clearly. This narrative is naïve and patronizing, and it’s as old as it is wrong. It suggests that if only we had enough organizers (get enough people “on the doors”) who could explain to people how the banks are screwing them, they’d want to join our movement. The implication is that “the people” are lacking knowledge or are suffering from what Marxists used to call “false consciousness.” Our job as progressives is to help people “see the light.”

This assumption is empirically false and at odds with everything we know about psychology, learning and neurobiology. Feelings matter, not facts. As political scientist Drew Westen and linguist George Lakoff have argued, the facts about inequality and injustice don’t necessarily drive people to the Left unless they are embedded in a message that speaks to deep feelings and values. Values and non-economic needs matter, not rational descriptions of economic reality. People have a range of desires and needs other than simple physical ones and unless these desires and needs are understood and addressed, logic, facts, rationality, and education will all land on deaf ears.

Thus, in our fight for economic justice, our narrow view of what people want and how they listen hoists us on our own petard. It systematically gets in the way of developing healthy organizations and strategies that have a chance of engaging people’s passions. And without engaging people’s passions, we will never create a movement that has real political power.

If we take our blinders off, we see or read about evidence of the foundational importance of non-economic needs and values every day. A terrorist commits suicide for the sake of Allah. A monk lights himself on fire to protest against a dictatorship. An Indian demonstrator at a salt mine walks directly into the violent batons of the British Army in non-violent resistance for the cause of independence. An African-American marcher sits down in front of Bull Connor’s dogs. A marine risks his life for his buddy; a parent does the same for a child. Babies who are fed but not held get sick and can even die.

People endure hardship all the time out of love for their families or partners. I’ve worked with investment bankers who have quit high-paying jobs for the benefits of working in environments that are more collegial, kinder and less fixated on the immediate bottom line. If given the choice between more money and more recognition and autonomy, most people give up the money. Many activists we’ve worked with in labor unions routinely give up higher paying jobs in the private sector to work for social change. The centrality of non-economic human needs and longings are hiding in plain sight.

To the extent that our “common sense” twists Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of human needs to mean that we can’t gratify “higher” needs until we’ve addressed more “basic” survival needs, we’re misled and our organizations doomed to founder.

Such a bias not only ignores a mountain of psychological research, it also contradicts our own basic human experience. It’s not just they who have these five needs; it’s us. It’s not just workers who need more agency, or children who need more recognition, or members who need to have a greater sense of meaning; it’s us.

Too often, the organizers, activists, and leaders on the Left frame their work as being in the service of others. We’re trying to help other people, the less advantaged, the powerless, the victimized. In so doing, we routinely leave ourselves out. We deny that we have the same economic and non-economic needs of those we’re allegedly fighting for. We fight for their right to leisure time but deny it to ourselves. We try to help them feel efficacious and inspired, but work for organizations that provide neither.

These needs are what it means to be human. They are universal. They animate us to do good things and their unhealthy frustration can lead us to do bad things. The human locomotive of motivation carries these five needs, the existence or importance of which can no longer be debated. The only question for progressives is whether we get onboard.

Michael Bader is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. He is a co-founder of the Institute4Change, an interdisciplinary group aiming to provide help to progressive organizations around leadership development and organizational change. He has published extensively on issues at the intersection of psychology, politics, and culture (www.michaelbader.com).