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Gladwell and Brandzel on the role of online activism in popular mobilization

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Malcolm Gladwell, in an essay, Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted, in the New Yorker argued that the notion that Twitter or social media, in general, can bring about a revolution is a façade. Real, big change requires what Gladwell calls “high-risk activism.” This “high-risk activism” is highly unlikely to be motivated by networks forged on the Internet. The main reason, Gladwell argues, is that these networks are based on “weak ties.” Gladwell contends that weak-ties seldom lead to high-risk activism, however, they are good in one important way: “Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information.” Gladwell acknowledges that social networks surely increase participation but they do so at the cost of lessening motivation required by participation in high-risk activism. This type of “activism,” he argues, is a long way from the 1960’s lunch counter protests of Greensboro, North Carolina, which were initiated by four black freshmen at the local A. & T. college. Moreover, social media activism doesn’t involve financial, physical or other risks to the participants but “In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise.” Gladwell is right in claiming that offline activism carries higher risks in comparison to its online counterpart, but he overlooks the fact that many countries have criminalized dissent through arbitrary cybersecurity laws with grave repercussions for online activists. Gladwell’s assertion that online activism does not involve risk is contrary to the evidence on the ground.

Moreover, Gladwell argues that people are more likely to join high-risk activism when they have a connection to other participants. In a study, the Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam compared people who applied for the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964 and then followed through, with people who applied to the program but then decided not to participate. He concluded, “What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil rights movement.” Next Gladwell delineates the significance of hierarchies over networks in social mobilization. Networks are loose, uncommitted and disorganized structures, ineffective at executing plans required by resistance to established cultural and structural systems of authority. Hierarchies, on the other hand, are better organized, disciplined and effective in decision making and implementation of strategic plans. Gladwell contends that groups such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization, left-wing terrorists in Germany in the 1970s and Al-Qaeda (lately) proved to be less effective because they lacked strict hierarchies. Loose networks are easily infiltrated into and compromised by opponents. Conversely, the civil rights movement in the 1960s was more like a “military campaign than like a contagion” with a hierarchical structure. Martin Luther King Jr. was its “unquestioned authority” and the movement relied on various standing committees, disciplined groups and preexisting “movement centers”, which helped the sit-in movement spread from Greensboro throughout the South. This spread was not indiscriminate.

Ben Brandzel critiqued Gladwell’s argument in his essay, What Malcolm Gladwell Missed About Online Organizing and Creating Big Change, in The Nation. Brandzel claims that Gladwell’s criticism of online organizing and activism mistakes a “tool for a strategy.” The Internet is analogous to a fire hydrant, whose only promise is a significant and fast flow of information for learning and collaboration. This information supplements strategy required for the implementation of time-honored organizing tactics, and potentially big changes, rather than impede it. Brandzel argues that “weak-ties” forged through social media could have a constructive role in social movement mobilization: It “allow(s) people to communicate and collaborate with entire networks of close friends much faster than we’ve ever been able to before.” Most importantly, Brandzel acknowledges that social media can not replace the power of real friendship but it can enhance the motivational utility of pre-existing strong-tie relationships by enabling the flow and diffusion of information through these networks at critical moments of choice. Brandzel’s other criticism is that Gladwell overlooks the role press coverage played in spreading the news about the civil rights movement. He says it is “true enough” that students and activists of the 1960s did not have email and other tools at their disposal but they made use of every resource available to them, including the press. He maintains that they would have had their “best shot” if they could have supplemented the tools at their disposal with the modern-day “e-mail list and the event-planning toll that might mobilize millions in mere hours.” Brandzel, however, recognizes that while the Internet is great at facilitating action through information diffusion but it can not get people to do what they don’t want to do.

Gladwell is right that social movement mobilization is much more than online activism. His “strong-ties” and “weak-ties” analytical schemes are also useful to an extent in understanding mobilization. He is right that people are more likely to risk danger when they have a real connection with other people involved in the movement. However, Gladwell overlooks risks involved in online activism. Additionally, his dismissal of online organizing as an ineffective tool does not capture the complete picture of the organizing world. It is much more complex than his presentation, and Ben Brandzel delineates that complexity well in his argument. Brandzel’s critique of Gladwell’s argument has several virtues. First, Brandzel contends that rather than dismissing the use of online organizing as completely ineffective than real organizing, we should focus on its positive role and strategize better to take advantage of the online organizing tools. He emphasizes that it is wrong to suggest that “weak-tie” relationships can not foster mobilization. He gives examples of the crucial role of online organizing in the high school protests against budget cuts and the anti-Iraq War protests. Brandzel concludes that it is up to us to use the Internet’s information-sharing effectively. I believe both arguments have their strengths, but I support Branzel’s argument more because it identifies the potentialities and limitations of social media well. Gladwell overlooks the complexity of the picture. Finally, both Gladwell and Brandzel ignore the role of social media as a double-edged sword in social mobilization. While social media networks may boost mobilization, it has the potential to undermine real on the ground organizing, because activists mistake their presence on the Internet for the door to door mobilization.


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