Protest in the time of social media

One does not need to have a Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or e-mail account to realize how vastly different today’s demonstrations are from those that led to the downfall of the Marcos regime 40 years ago. Organizing “mass actions,” as they were then called, involved a lot of planning, coordination, and negotiation among the core groups that initiated them. Today’s protest actions, in contrast, typically have their origins in the most casual comment pitched in cyberspace, that grows virally until it finds a confluence of motives. As vague as their beginnings are, their goals remain equally undefined. They recruit attention, not members.

In this, they are unlike the working class movements of the first half of the 20th century.  Rooted in the oppressive working conditions of early industrial society, the old social movements drew their directions from socialist theory and ideology. Their goal was not just to protest the inequities of the existing social order but to overthrow it and replace it with something new and different.

In contrast, modern protest movements focus on very specific topics, with no clear roadmap or agenda of what should replace the status quo. The protest is directed against the center, the seat of power and wealth, and yet the demand for solutions is also addressed to those against whom one is protesting. One sees this paradox in the current protest against the pork barrel system. We who are protesting sound as if we expect our present political leaders to be suddenly so conscience-stricken as to urgently want to change their ways.

Where a culture of shame still survives—as in modern Japan—it probably makes sense to harp on the ethical breach that corrupt and irresponsible government officials commit.  There, the only honorable response possible is hara-kiri. In societies like ours, where even the last traces of delicadeza are hard to find, the most we might expect of someone who needs to clear his name is to take a leave from his official duties as soon as the charges are filed. But, even this appears to have gone out of fashion.  These days, accused public officials seem to take pride in the staunch denial of any guilt and in their capacity to overcome what they see as nothing more than “politically motivated” charges.

But this hardly discourages people from protesting. Indeed, they don’t care about the self-descriptions or legal defenses of those they are protesting against. Neither do they care that these are elected public officials representing huge electoral majorities. To them, such matters belong to conventional politics.  Modern protest movements act as if they must “represent society against its political system,” says the social theorist Niklas Luhmann.  Therefore, politicians who justify their prerogatives by pointing to the Constitution are only provoking more protest.

To understand where modern protest movements are coming from, one has to see that their objective is not strictly political. They are not the usual opposition within an existing political system. They may seek to influence the direction of a society but they are not in quest of power. Rather, Luhmann says: “Protesters invoke ethical principles, and when one has ethics, it is of secondary importance whether one is in the majority or in the minority.”

The natural allies of today’s protest movements are the mass media. The latter furnish the elements of scandal, alarm and urgency, as well as the schematic accounts that suffice as warrant for protesting. What makes social media particularly potent in this regard is that it places in the hands of message recipients the very power to reply and disseminate communication. The individuals who tap into this system can “own” any of the scripts they pick up, remix and resend these as they choose. It is all they need to give meaning to their involvement.

Contrast this to the tendency of the old social movements to produce and insist on uniform accounts of events, narratives that hew closely to the theory, in order to justify a unified line of struggle. Such movements are notoriously intolerant of any analysis that does not conform to the party line. This is what sharply differentiates the new forms of protest from the traditional ones. The latter recruit members for the revolution; the former recruit motives and commitments for a movement that has no need to offer a single representation of itself.

The new protest actions tend to be massive precisely because they draw participants who come from various affiliations and carry with them the widest range of possible motives. For precisely this reason, modern protesters are also virtually unorganizable into long-term political formations such as parties. Their openness to ever new supporters makes membership in the movement precarious and unstable. But this is far from saying they are incapable of carrying protest to higher levels. The mistake of most governments has been to underestimate the seriousness of their demands because of their polycentric character and apparent lack of a unified command to sustain action.

All this makes us think of modern protests as a system that is distinct from political movements. They create not so much new political formations as a protest milieu in search of issues. The issues they choose are not rooted in any single world view or ideology. For now, what seems to unite them is no more than a general disaffection with the existing society.  The challenge is to find a coherent theory to explain their origins and significance.