by Gaspard BarthélémyJune 09, 2022
I participated regularly in Fridays for Future marches to fight climate change during my high school years. At the beginning, in the winter of 2018-19, my entire high school here in France went into a climate change frenzy. But after a few weeks the enthusiasm had died down, and even the most outspoken students on social media suddenly seemed much less engaged.
According to the Fridays for Future website, this rapid drop in participation was not unique to the French context. At 10 million participants worldwide on Friday, November 29, 2019 (the peak in participation), the numbers dropped to less than 600,000 participants in the following week—a 94% decrease. Even this lower number hasn’t been attained again since the end of COVID lockdowns seen in dozens of countries in the past two years.
Fridays for Future became popular and known as a global environmental justice movement by organizing marches via social media. Social media defined its popularity—and in many ways this was the cause of its short lifespan as well. Movement scholar Erica Chenoweth cites over-reliance on social media as one of the reasons for declining movement success rates. And the corrosive impact of social media on civil resistance doesn’t stop there. Recent studies on digital authoritarianism suggest that social media decisively hand the advantage to autocrats in terms of repression and control of information. (Digital security for activists has already been extensively discussed on this blog and elsewhere, so I don’t cover it here.)
Nonetheless, for the better or for the worse, I have no doubt that activists in my generation will continue to engage on social media. So, how have some movements counteracted participation-related pitfalls and effectively bridged the online-offline divide?
In Fridays for Future, our focus on social media engagement translated to heavy participation for a short period of time—but it was mostly youth, up to about college-age. This age bias is a common pitfall to social media engagement. To counter this, some movements have brainstormed and targeted potential allies—specific groups or types of communities—with their content and campaigns.
Although it is not a movement for the environment, one notable example is the Malaysian pro-democracy movement, which championed clean elections in 2018 after two decades of political corruption. The Bersih movement asked members of the Malaysian diaspora to take a pledge on social media to return to Malaysia to vote in the elections—effectively bridging the online-offline divide. A second example is the pro-democracy movement in Togo, whose members played a crucial role in relaying footage of protests and repression through social media to the Togolese diaspora. The diaspora then further distributed the reporting in English and other languages, which was crucial for generating international support for the people of this relatively small, non-Anglophone country.
Movements don’t often think of their country’s diaspora as potential allies, yet they have proven their impact in numerous nonviolent movements throughout history. Diaspora actors are often politically engaged and active on social media as a way to maintain a deep connection with their origin community. This means they’re a prime target for online campaigns. What’s more, being abroad means that diasporas can more easily shed light on injustices happening in their country of origin, raise funds for the movement, and most importantly translate and bring forth uncensored news about violence and governmental repression. And to top it off, the digital security risks that activists run when engaging on social media can be much less severe for diaspora members.
Another challenge of social media is thinking that the evolution of followers, comments, likes and views means the movement is having an impact. Yet while tools exist to easily measure engagement like reach, these analytics sometimes become goals in themselves, replacing the goal of real-world participation.
The French branch of Extinction Rebellion (XR) launched on January 26, 2022 a campaign called “the Inevitable Rebellion” to blockade the main boulevards of Paris between the two rounds of the presidential election this past April. Protesting the lack of attention to environmental issues in the public debate, they organized a series of actions at events like the Paris International Agricultural Show that were notoriously frequented by candidates. This culminated in a blockade of the Saint-Denis arch in the center of Paris for over three days.
Their actions lent them more coverage during the election period as they published their online manifesto explaining their actions. By slowly building momentum leading to a precise action, XR put itself on the map amidst political chaos. Their Instagram posts from the same period of time have had the most likes, jumping from an average of 217 likes per post for their initial announcement to an average of 3,320 likes per post during their action in Paris. While Fridays for Future gained all of my classmates' attention for a week, XR’s tactics seem to slowly but surely bring individuals to adhere to their cause.
Hashtags alone change social media traffic for a week; combined with concrete and organized action to follow up, they can help shape a country’s future.
The repertoire of digital tactics of course goes well beyond social media, as Beautiful Trouble's online toolkit demonstrates. Yet social media must be understood precisely that way: as one tool among many in our toolkit.
While the impact of social media is undeniable, while these platforms have crept into every nook and cranny of public relations, they are neither a goal in themselves nor the only tool available to advancing our struggles for rights, justice and freedom.
Gaspard Barthelemy is a French graduate student in public law at the Catholic University of Paris (ICP), currently in the process of joining an international relations master’s degree. He enjoys writing about environmental movements, social media and nonviolent action. During his high school years in both Washington, D.C. and Paris, France, he participated in Fridays for Future marches as well as Model United Nations.Read More