On Sept 17th New Yorkers banded together to protest the U.S.’s economic crisis and comment on big businesses’ greed and financial irresponsibility. Unlike many recent North American protests however, in this one social media is proving to be irreplaceable. Like most modern demonstrations, social media has been vital for the organization of this event, but in the ‘Occupy Movement’, as it is being called, it is being used alongside physical spaces as another venue for demonstration. This is not only interesting for this movement, but raises questions as to whether this is following a trend (or perhaps even setting one) for the future of social protests and demonstrations.
With over 85,000 ‘Likes’ on the movements main Facebook page (not including the individual city or cause pages), and a twitter hashtag that has been updated over 100 times in minutes, participants are certainly making good use of social media. There have even been rumours that Twitter has been removing the hashtag from the trending topics list. But rather than sticking to these common social media networks, participants are branching out online. Other sites are popping up to spread the various messages of protesters around the world. WeAreThe99Percent.tunblr.com is posting pictures of individuals holding signs expressing their opinions and online maps are appearing, showing the social media conversations of the protesters in real time.
New apps are also being used by protesters, that provide more anonymity than traditional social media sites. Vibe is gaining a lot of attention as one such tool, which allows users to post messages, videos, and photos, but is described as ‘anonymous, temporal, and location-specific’, allowing protesters to post content without leaving a trail or having that content connected to them, therefore avoiding being traced by police, which has happened in previous protests such as those in London earlier this year, leading to arrests.
This protest has spread into an international movement with countries around the world joining the physical and social media protest including Britain, Spain, Italy, Russia, Tokyo, and Canada, where Vancouver held the country’s biggest protest with over 4,000 people. Most major cities worldwide, in fact, have held their own ‘Occupy’ demonstrations. Social Media is a large factor in this spread of the movement and its values, which is happening on such a massive scale (with demonstrations in an estimated 900 cities worldwide), and so quickly.
The movement has also grown to encompass more than the original protests against Wall Street and the American Financial District, originally termed by some media as a new ‘American Revolution’. Everything from protests about the lack of jobs in the U.S., the food industry, and the war in the Middle East are topics participants are protesting at these worldwide rallies.
What these global protests have in common with other recent protests like Egypt’s online protests that accompanied their national revolution, is not just their heavy use of social media, but the demographics of the majority of the participants; young people worldwide seem to recognize the value of utilizing the digital world, as well as the physical, to make their voice heard and connect with a worldwide audience. So far this seems to be working. But already we are starting to see some push back from governments of all stripes, including, democratic ones. For examples in the aftermath of the London riots earlier this year, there was a concerted push by some elements of the UK government to severely curb the use of social media during future mass demonstration protests. The government there only backed down after cooler heads intervened. With the Occupy movement still spreading, gaining new participants, as well as new causes, it will be interesting to see what real-world change these demonstrations will have in countries around the world, and whether social media can in fact be used to initiate massive social change.
*Written by Kathleen Staves, with contribution from Philip Mai.