The revolution will not be Tweeted, but its agenda can be.
Can a tweet save the world? No. Is it a public record of your intolerance of unjust systems in the world? Sure, if anybody reads it among the white noise of Twitter rage. Protest movements in the digital age are tricky; hacktivism, or hashtag activism, has been critiqued as an ineffective and tokenizing way to virtue signal in the name of social justice while actually being armchair activists. Meanwhile, nonviolent protests like marches, boycotts, and strikes are critiqued for being too passive to ever enact real change. On the other end of the spectrum are volatile reactionaries who want to tear down the system and begin from scratch–even if they have no actionable plans to create a viable replacement.
So what are we supposed to do? More to the point, what are we supposed to believe? A patient and open-minded look at both sides of any issue is guaranteed to point out one commonality: Everybody has the wrong idea about the opposing side. When it comes to social movements that create a better future, there are some basic, prevailing myths that only distract people from the real problems at hand. Ask activists, historians, and political science analysts, and they agree that you shouldn't fall for the following misconceptions when fighting for a better world:
1. Myth: Nonviolence Is Ineffective
Historically speaking, this simply isn't true. When two researchers from the United States Institute of Peace conducted a study of nearly 330 major violent and nonviolent campaigns "targeting incumbent regimes and foreign military occupations," they concluded that "nonviolent efforts were twice as likely to achieve their goals." They wrote, "The majority succeeded against authoritarian governments, when even peaceful protests could have fatal consequences. The ousters of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Yahya Jammeh in Gambia, Bashir in Sudan and Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria are only a handful of cases in which mass nonviolent force stripped power from despots." Furthermore, another study in 2011 looked at 323 civil resistance campaigns around the world between 1900 and 2006, concluding that nonviolent campaigns were successful in 53% of cases, compared to violent ones' success rate of 26%. Additionally, only 4% of violent revolutions ended up in a "functioning democracy," compared to 42% of non-violent regime changes.
So radical violent action, whether that be in the form of paramilitary groups or self-appointed vigilantes who want to burn down the Establishment, is statistically not as likely to produce change as collective nonviolent protest.
2. Social Media Makes Protests More Effective
With that being said, there is a degree of truth to the allegation that social media creates lazy activists. More specifically, however, social media encourages engagement in social issues (i.e. sharing an article, liking a tweet, and maybe hurling insults at the opposing side), which is different from collective action. While Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram allow people to express their displeasure at existing policies, the most social media can do is mobilize people to agree on a unified agenda and a set of actions.
The problem, of course, is that many online participants don't end up following through with in-person plans, thus there's no unity where it counts: on the ground, at the march, or holding up signs. Furthermore, analysts Maria J. Stephan and Adam Gallagher emphasize the importance of "durable organizations" and "long-term planning," and in the fast-paced, immediate gratification of social media platforms like Twitter, responses can often be reactionary and short-term, which doesn't even begin the work of effective protest.
3. Myth: You Need to Have a Massive Amount of People
This is half-true, but it's mostly misunderstood. Effective nonviolent protests gain traction and grow into massive movements when their tactics get them noticed–even if that doesn't involve a large amount of people. As evidenced by the progression of the Egyptian occupation of Tahrir Square and the Serbian student protest group, Otpor (translated as "Resistance!"), a large following of people don't mark the beginning of a movement but rather it's a sign that a movement's worked. Srdja Popovic, leader of Otpor, reflected on the overthrow of war criminal Slobodan Milošević, "All successful movements come with a very low entry bar. You need to offer people the chance to do something meaningful, and – crucially – to get away with it. In Chile, against Pinochet, they drove at half speed: not illegal, very low risk, pretty funny, nothing the cops can do. It's about doing something neat, and living to tell everyone." He added, "We had to go out and listen. Get the real people, rural people, not so clever-clever people, behind us. Build a movement. We did, but it took us five years." Resistance from within a system is more effective to create change than external opposition.
4. Myth: It's a Business
Popovic coins one of their best tactics "laughtivism." Making people laugh not only gets attention, but it alleviates tension from living within fraught social realities. From graffitiing pictures of the corrupt men in charge to spreading the movement's message through public pranks, nonviolent movements have gained global traction through being human and showing a sense of humor.
With all the global significance connected to the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, many people don't realize that September 11th has a very different set of meanings in Chile.
A memorial depicting Allende's broken glasses in the aftermath of the coup
On that day in 1973, the United States backed a coup that killed Chile's democratic socialist president, Salvador Allende, ushering in the brutal era of Pinochet. Chile has never fully recovered from the violence of that period, nor the sudden shift in economic policy that followed. For many Chileans, it has been hard to imagine a world in which the leadership could work for them, rather than the global elite. But now the streets of Santiago and Valparaiso are being taken over by thousands of protesters who've been unwilling to accept piecemeal concessions from President Sebastian Pinera.
In Chile, a billionaire president pushes austerity while the military represses protesters. Thousands have been arrested. Knowing Chile's history, this is very dangerous.
The solution here and across the world is obvious. Put power where it belongs: with working people. https://t.co/s6J7kOtDXs
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) October 30, 2019
So far many of these protests have been peaceful, but there have been instances of arson and of violent clashes between protesters and security forces. At least 20 have already died, but the activists there are not giving up. They are relentless, and they are only interested in substantive change—a fundamental restructuring of the Chilean Government to serve the working people. They want Pinera to resign, and they are calling for changes to the Chilean constitution.
For Americans, this kind of protest remains out of the question. Protest in America does not exist to be disruptive or to force action. It only serves as a salve for our powerlessness.
American protest is sanctioned by the system and restricted to its proper time and place. It makes the protesters feel better for a time—makes them feel seen, like they're a part of something—and maybe it raises some awareness for a cause or inspires some phone calls to congress. And if it attempts to do more, it is met with swift and violent crackdowns. It does not—cannot—break down the country's normal functions.
But what if the normal functions no longer work for the people? What if the interests that led the United States to back coups against Socialist leaders are also fueling mass propaganda campaigns against grass roots movements at home? What if they're defending those in power from the normal avenues of accountability?
The American media has a tight focus right now on the rapidly developing impeachment proceedings, and that makes sense. There is new information coming out of those efforts on a near daily basis, and there is a significant precedent for this kind of procedure to effect change. But it remains to be seen whether all this new evidence will survive the spin and propaganda from the likes of Fox News and One America News. We should not place our faith purely in the institutions of power to regulate power. To achieve anything for the people, the institutions of power must be afraid of the alternative.
We must look at the mass actions that are making life difficult for the powerful in Chile and Lebanon and Hong Kong, and prepare ourselves to make the same kind of trouble at home. Even if Trump is forced out of office and the Democrats choose a progressive nominee and the 2020 election fully flips control to the Democrats, the fight will only be getting started. The interests and forces that killed Salvador Allende in Chile will still be doing everything in their power to protect the status quo. We must be willing to upend the normal order if we want to produce real change.
Movements that seek progressive social reform tend to be led by young people.
From the Magna Carta to the Civil Rights movement, social change has most often come at the edge of a sword or a gun barrel.Every right, privilege, and freedom that we hold dear, however fledgling, was earned through collective action. The 8-hour work week, public schools, and so many of the things we take for granted had to be fought for. I can think of no examples in which social change happened via inertia.