Not fearing to be liked: the majoritarianism of contemporary protest culture

While the anti-globalisation movement and before it the new social movements tended to cast themselves as minorities, the wave of Occupy or “take the square” movements have made a crucial point of wanting to be the majority of the people, as most evidently manifested in Occupiers’ claim to being the 99%.

“Less than 48 hours.. and we are already 500!!!”. “Less than four days in and we are already 1,000. Let's keep growing”. “We are reaching 10,000 people!” These status updates celebrating the increasing number of 'likes' day after day, were posted on the Facebook page of Democracia Real Ya (DRY), the group that had a pivotal role in initiating the mobilisation for the May 15, 2011 'indignados' protests in Spain.

With their emphasis on the rapidly increasing number of ‘fans’ on the group’s Facebook page, these messages exemplify an important cultural trend of contemporary activism: their outspoken majoritarianism. While the anti-globalisation movement and before it the new social movements of feminism and ecologism tended to cast themselves as minorities, the wave of so-called ‘Occupy’ or ‘take the square’ movements have made a crucial point in their communications of wanting to be the majority of the people, as most evidently manifested in Occupiers’ claim to being the 99%.

Drawing examples from communications on the web and through social media in particular, I argue that activist use of corporate social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter in contemporary protest movements revolves to a great extent around projecting their majoritarian ambitions.

For contemporary movements social media have become the means through which to appeal to ‘people’ as the majority of the population and to ‘generic’ internet users as a whole as an approximation or a sample of this phantom majority. As the most visible manifestation of a ‘mass web’, social networking sites have been turned into recruitment booths to conquer new supporters well beyond the tiny activist community and all its ramifications.

After summarizing the argument of my recent book, Tweets and the Streets (2012), I want to look briefly at the implications of this cultural trend, and the opportunities and threats that it raises for contemporary activists.

Becoming “more” 

To appreciate the importance of the majoritarianism of contemporary Occupy movements we need to take a step back, and look at the anti-globalisation movement, that between the 1990s and 2000s came to constitute the main touchstone for social movement theorists, and for many new media theorists alike. 

It is fair to say that all in all, the anti-globalisation movement was characterised by a minoritarian and countercultural orientation. The movement saw itself as fundamentally a coalition of minorities. These minorities would from time to time converge (that was the activist jargon) towards the same places on the occasion of counter-summit protests (anti-G8, anti-WTO, etc.). But apart from their amassing on these rare occasions they were well aware that while “being everywhere”, they were highly dispersed in space; that at any specific point in time and space they would be a minority.

Such a minoritarian orientation - that resonates with Gilles Deleuze's famous expression of “minor politics” - is perfectly encapsulated in a famous quote by Subcommandante Marcos of the Zapatistas, possibly the anti-globalisation movement’s most representative figure and - dare I say? – ideologue:

“Marcos is gay in San Francisco, Black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10pm, a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains. Marcos is all the exploited, marginalised, oppressed minorities resisting and saying 'Enough'.” 

Reading this quote, it becomes evident what a sea change we have been witnessing in contemporary protest culture. Nowadays, the “exploited, marginalised, oppressed” is not framed in movement discourse as a minority, but rather as the majority of the people, as the 99%.

Undoubtedly, the minoritarian attitude of the anti-globalisation movement needs to be understood in the context of a time of apogee for neoliberalism, in which somehow progressive social movements had a very narrow space for manoeuver. Nowadays, at a time at which the majority of the people in western countries seem to be largely convinced as never before that the political and economic system is not working, such minoritarian claims appear completely out of tune with public perceptions. It is not surprising that the movements are framing their actions differently, that they present themselves not as the defenders of a minority, but as the expression of a majority.

Such a majoritarian orientation pervades the entire web communication of contemporary protest movements, and in particular their social media messages. An example of this trend is a chess-themed Youtube video produced by Democracia Real Yaused in preparation for the May 15 indignados protest. On the chessboard a standard set of black pieces is progressively overwhelmed by a mass of white pawns, representatives of the masses hitherto oppressed by the elite. The video was accompanied by a set of flashing captions, listing a number of grievances DRY campaigned on, including corruption and unemployment, and ending with the following proclamations: “because we are more humane, because we are more decent, because we are more respectable, because we are more”.

Notice here how the repetition of the adverb suggests a state of being quantitatively superior to the elite, the deeply despised 1%, against which groups like the indignados and Occupy have constantly directed their rhetoric. This condition of quantitative superiority bestows legitimacy on the “people” and the movement representing it.

Much of contemporary movements communication revolves precisely around invoking their “being more”, their being a majority of the people, their being quantitatively superior to their opponents: the super-rich. And popular social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and many others, are used as a means to enact this invocation, by appealing to the “generic internet user” as a random sample of the 99%.

Occupying the digital mainstream

The way social movements communicate is always a reflection of their self-definition, of the values they hold, and of their vision of the world. In the case of the anti-globalisation movement, its ideological minoritarianism went hand in hand with the development of and reliance upon “autonomous” communicative infrastructures. The communicative circuits of the anti-globalisation movement were alternative and activist-oriented platforms, such as Indymedia, constituting in a sort of information clearing-house for the movement, and dedicated activist listservs, such as those hosted by aktivix and riseup

These services reflected a striving to supersede the corporate dominance of communication, while at the same time creating and maintaining autonomous, self-organised platforms of communication, as proposed by the famous slogan of Indymedia, “don’t hate the media, become the media”. In the same way in which the movement relied for its existence on the presence of the “autonomous spaces” in the form of squats, social centres, protest camps, it also required its “autonomous media” to organise itself. This was how the reasoning went in those times. 

It is fair to say that for the current generation of activists, such a deep belief in the need to resort to autonomous communicative infrastructures appears questionable at the very least. From the indignados to Occupy, and before them in the movements of the Arab Spring, activists have cheerfully and widely resorted to corporate social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, without much sign of remorse.

Activist use of corporate media has spurred quite a bit of controversy among older scholars and activists who have rightly denounced the forms of exploitation and capital accumulation that are connected with these services. Yet, what this criticism seems to miss is that contemporary activists use of social networking site stems from a profoundly different vision of what their social movement is about, vis-à-vis the anti-globalisation wave.

Occupy activists use Twitter and Facebook, not because they ‘like’ them, but because they see them as the only available means that might allow for mass mobilisation.

Activists use these social networking sites first and foremost out of instrumental considerations: because they know that it is on these media that they can find people who are not already within activist circles. Alternative sites, or alternative social networking sites, such as Diaspora, or N-1, just won’t do, insofar as they remain alternative, that is minority, phenomena.

Social networking sites and Facebook in particular have come to constitute recruitment booths for contemporary social movements. They are means of “conversion” through which social movement organisers - the leaders who continue to exist in a situation of supposed “leaderlessness” – pull into the movement a largely unpoliticised and individualised constituency of (mostly) middle class (mostly) youth. And such attitudes make a second fundamental point: that they actually want to get more people inside the movement, that they see the necessity of turning the movement they are part of into a mass movement.

This is basically why activists nowadays are turning to social networking sites, however much they might dislike their corporate character. These websites, as the most visible manifestation of the massification of the Internet are precisely the places you want to go to if you want to mobilise masses of people, thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, rather than a few hundreds.

Beyond activist self-ghettoisation 

For some people, this trend of occupation of the digital mainstream is to be unreservedly condemned. By using Facebook, Twitter and similar commercial services they think, activists will just be coopted by the corporate system. They will be sucked into the mainstream culture and soon nothing will be left of their antagonism, disappearing under an avalanche of like, like, like. This is (unfortunately) the sort of standard reply you get in some Left circles. Counter to this, I am personally convinced that the activist use of corporate social media, in all its burning contradictions and risks, points to a propitious shift in activist culture and a turning away from the self-ghettoising tendencies that marginalised the anti-globalisation movement 

Making use of or “occupying” social media confronts activists with the experience and feelings of people who are not part of the activist community, a community that often falls prey to parochialism and self-referentiality. Dealing with these mass new media forces them to adapt their language and imagery to audiences who do not necessarily agree with their worldview.

Definitely maintaining alternative channels of communication online and elsewhere is and continues to be fundamental to constructing alternative and antagonistic subjectivities. But it is not what (by itself) can spark a mass movement, a movement that can make its mark felt on the structure of the political system. For that you need to intercept the “masses”, masses who will never be found in the neighbourhood of Indymedia, or activist listservs, and who therefore need to be proactively sought out in crowded places, physical or virtual. 

Once upon a time, activists would mostly attempt this by leafleting or giving stirring speeches in public squares, parks, or in front of schools and cinemas. Today they are increasingly doing it by posting status messages on social networking sites, the “sites” where dispersed masses of people gather virtually. 

It is precisely this political work of intercepting generic audiences what allows contemporary social movements to be mass movements, movements capable of stoking fear among the power elites, movements that at least stand a chance of enacting a major structural change in our societies.

Therefore let’s abandon some of the snobbish cynicism that has so far accompanied our analysis of the culture of these movements and their use of social media. Let’s not fear to be followed. Let’s not fear to be liked. Let’s not fear to be “more”. 

About the author

Paolo Gerbaudo is currently a lecturer in digital culture and society at King's College London, and a freelance journalist. He was the UK correspondent of the Italian daily newspaper il manifesto and is writing a book for Pluto on protest in Arab and European countries. His latest book, Tweets and the Streets, was published by Pluto press in October, 2012.