The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It takes more than social media to make a social movement

People chant slogans at Indianapolis International Airport on Jan. 29 during a protest against President Trump's executive order temporarily suspending all travel for citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries for 90 days. (Kelly Wilkinson/Indianapolis Star via Associated Press)
Placeholder while article actions load

President Trump may have used the power of social media to make his way into the White House, but now social media networks are showing that muscle can work for his opposition, too. Last week, more than 1 million marchers went to Washington and cities around the country — sparked by a Facebook post from one woman with no history of activism. This weekend, the Internet exploded again in discussion about Trump's travel suspension order, and many used social media to get together and protest the decision.

It started with a retiree. Now the Women’s March could be the biggest inauguration demonstration.

Twitter said that more than 25 million tweets were sent about the order — as compared with 12 million about Trump’s inauguration. Facebook said that its users generated 151 million “likes, posts, comments and shares” related to the ban, less than the 208 million interactions generated about the inauguration. The companies didn’t reveal how many of those were aimed at organizing, but the social media calls to get people to protest are a testament to the power of these platforms to move people.

The real question, however, is whether this burgeoning new movement can avoid the fate of many so others kick-started by the power of social networks — only to find that it's much harder to make political change than to make a popular hashtag.

The Internet has had some major protest moments before, with mixed results. Each time, media outlets hailed each wave of protests as the start of a new era of the modern protest as hundreds, thousands — or even hundreds of thousands — of people used their social media accounts to sound off and organize. But even some of the largest networked movements, such as the Arab Spring of 2011 or Occupy Wall Street, fell short of many people's expectations of how well they would ultimately achieve their goals. These movements weren't outright failures by any means. But, looking back, it's clear that they did lose energy and momentum in the face of proposing policy solutions and changes to the government.

Many point to disorganization in the Occupy Wall Street movement  — which resisted formal leadership — as one reason that it had a smaller effect than some expected when protesters started their months-long camp-outs in New York City and Washington. While some Occupy Wall Street protesters did try to organize, because the whole movement wasn't speaking as one, it lost a lot of energy when it tried to move on to the next step.

Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has written a forthcoming book on the power and fragility of movements borne of social media, found in her research that the very ability for these movements to scale quickly is, in part, why they also can fall apart so quickly compared with traditional grass-roots campaigns.

That highlights the crucial difference between old social campaigns and new ones. Scale, even in the form of a huge protest, does not equal success.

It used to. “In the past, essentially, if you were going to organize a large-scale protest you needed to be an organization that already had chapters in multiple cities and an extensive email list,” said Evan Greer of Fight for the Future, which organizes protests about tech policy issues, including a successful fight against copyright bills in 2012. “You needed a fairly large structure in place.”

Now, organizers can bypass the time it takes to build up the infrastructure for a massive march and all the publicity that comes with it. But that also means their high-profile movements skip some crucial organizing steps.

“Digitally networked movements look like the old movements. But by the time the civil rights movement had such a large march, they’d been working on [the issues] for 10 years — if not more,” Tufekci said. The months or even years spent discussing logistics, leafleting and building a coalition, she said, were crucial to the success of the civil rights movements. Other successful efforts, such as the Human Rights Campaign's efforts to help end the “don't ask, don't tell” policy against allowing gay people to serve openly in the military were also rooted in organization structures that had been developing and refining their demands for years to present a unified front. Movements organized over social networks often have more trouble jelling, she said, particularly if different factions air their differences on Facebook and Twitter, drawing attention to fractures in a movement.

So has anyone done it right? Tufekci points to a group that Trump opponents may not like too much: the tea party.

The tea party movement also had its roots in protest organized through social media about the same time as the Occupy movement, Tufekci said, but it was very focused on tactical goals once it came together.

“These were people who found each other, and were able to get together and do a lot of stuff — they arguably even elected a president,” she said, referring to Trump. Both Occupy Wall Street and the tea party “had this quick scaling up, but one figured out how to make decisions together. And one just refused,” she said.

There is some hope among supporters that the Women's March will buck some of the problems that protests organized over social media have faced in the past. Over at The Monkey Cage blog, Washington Post contributor Emily Kalah Gade argued that this movement can succeed because — among other reasons — it drew from a wide variety of the population, was nonviolent and is based on the powerful idea that people's rights are being taken away by the administration, rather than pushing to break new ground.

Why the Women’s March may be the start of a serious social movement

Greer said that, in the end, social media attention is not enough to effect change. “Social media is a tactic,” she said. “Tactics void of strategy don’t get us very far.”