The Revolution Will Not Be Twittered but Mafia Messages Will Be Texted

I have blogged before about my skepticism regarding the potential for social organizing and social activism through web 2.0 media. More than that, it may actually hurt:

“A battle is raging for the soul of activism. It is a struggle between digital activists, who have adopted the logic of the marketplace, and those organisers who vehemently oppose the marketisation of social change. At stake is the possibility of an emancipatory revolution in our lifetimes.

The conflict can be traced back to 1997 when a quirky Berkeley, California-based software company known for its iconic flying toaster screensaver was purchased for $13.8m (£8.8m). The sale financially liberated the founders, a left-leaning husband-and-wife team. He was a computer programmer, she a vice-president of marketing. And a year later they founded an online political organisation known as MoveOn. Novel for its combination of the ideology of marketing with the skills of computer programming, MoveOn is a major centre-leftist pro-Democrat force in the US. It has since been heralded as the model for 21st-century activism.

The trouble is that this model of activism uncritically embraces the ideology of marketing. It accepts that the tactics of advertising and market research used to sell toilet paper can also build social movements. This manifests itself in an inordinate faith in the power of metrics to quantify success. Thus, everything digital activists do is meticulously monitored and analysed. The obsession with tracking clicks turns digital activism into clicktivism.

Clicktivists utilise sophisticated email marketing software that brags of its “extensive tracking” including “opens, clicks, actions, sign-ups, unsubscribes, bounces and referrals, in total and by source”. And clicktivists equate political power with raising these “open-rate” and “click-rate” percentages, which are so dismally low that they are kept secret. The exclusive emphasis on metrics results in a race to the bottom of political engagement.

Gone is faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change. Instead, subject lines are A/B tested and messages vetted for widest appeal. Most tragically of all, to inflate participation rates, these organisations increasingly ask less and less of their members. The end result is the degradation of activism into a series of petition drives that capitalise on current events. Political engagement becomes a matter of clicking a few links. In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.

Exchanging the substance of activism for reformist platitudes that do well in market tests, clicktivists damage every genuine political movement they touch. In expanding their tactics into formerly untrammelled political scenes and niche identities, they unfairly compete with legitimate local organisations who represent an authentic voice of their communities. They are the Wal-Mart of activism: leveraging economies of scale, they colonise emergent political identities and silence underfunded radical voices.

Digital activists hide behind gloried stories of viral campaigns and inflated figures of how many millions signed their petition in 24 hours. Masters of branding, their beautiful websites paint a dazzling self-portrait. But, it is largely a marketing deception. While these organisations are staffed by well-meaning individuals who sincerely believe they are doing good, a bit of self-criticism is sorely needed from their leaders.

The truth is that as the novelty of online activism wears off, millions of formerly socially engaged individuals who trusted digital organisations are coming away believing in the impotence of all forms of activism. Even leading Bay Area clicktivist organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to motivate their members to any action whatsoever. The insider truth is that the vast majority, between 80% to 90%, of so-called members rarely even open campaign emails. Clicktivists are to blame for alienating a generation of would-be activists with their ineffectual campaigns that resemble marketing.”

But you know who is tech-savvy? The Mafia:

Mafia clans have used a popular football show on Italian television to send secret messages to jailed godfathers held in isolation, a magistrate has revealed.

Imprisoned crime bosses were kept up to date on mob business through mobile phone texts sent to the show, Quelli Che il Calcio, which unwittingly scrolled them across the bottom of the screen, among innocent messages from supporters of Italian football teams.

Enzo Macri, a magistrate tipped off after a letter advising a jailed boss to watch the show was intercepted, cited one of the texts, “Everything is OK – Paolo,” as being sent by a clan affiliate.

Jailed mobsters have few, carefully supervised contacts with the outside world, thanks to Italy‘s tough prison regime designed to stop them keeping control of their criminal empires.

But as prison authorities clamp downon the passing of messages to the outside world, mafiosi dream up new ways to fool their guards. In 1998 investigators in Palermo discovered that affectionate greetings sent by bosses to family members were coded orders to carry out murders in an ongoing turf war.

Prisoners allowed to meet their families have also been caught stuffing their children’s pockets with messages while hugging them. The Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta mafia went as far as buying a radio station to broadcast songs which had a pre-arranged significance for affiliates.”

Personally, I think that’s what Real Housewives of New Jersey is all about!

6 thoughts on “The Revolution Will Not Be Twittered but Mafia Messages Will Be Texted

  1. I wouldn’t go that far. What has made people feel activism doesn’t work, whether online or not, is that it hasn’t. The seminal moment was actually the protests against the Iraq war, which were large, on the ground, and which the media refused to cover and which had no effect whatsoever. Moving forward, the Obama hysteria with Obama then governing like a right winger, also had its effect.

    This isn’t to say I don’t have my issues with orgs like MoveOn (which I know far better than whoever wrote that post), but eh, it’s not all their fault and thinking it is is a misdiagnosis.

  2. I think the media in general has been assumed to have too much power in activism. Being excited about getting your issue on this tv show or that radio program, as an end in itself, is only a degree away from being excited about these many clicks or that many ‘likes’ on facebook. All ‘draw attention’ activity is simply a tool for something else – whether its to change peoples minds and votes or recruit more people or put pressure on someone in power who likes to keep their reputation clean, etc, whihc might then change the situation you want to change – and thats the goal that needs to be remembered, not the golden calf of media attention itself.

    (I don’t have a bad thing to say about technology in and of itself though. I do not regret the loss of the days of making hundreds of phonecalls when I can now send a single email to a list.)

  3. Depends what you mean by activism, I guess. The fact of the matter is that millions of people marched against the Iraq war and it did nothing. Nothing.

    So, what non-media strategy could have stopped the war?

    I can think of a few that might have some effect, but most require large numbers of people willing to be be beaten and thrown in jail, their lives ruined, and so on.

    The other strategies, well, that would take a long article – suffice to say, they wouldn’t have stopped the Iraq war either though they could have some long term effectiveness. Or maybe no. ACORN were very good organizers, and they were destroyed.

    You live in a very effective police state, after all and Americans have learned that when they aren’t sheep, they pay a huge price for it.

    And really, Americans just aren’t willing to do what it takes. A simple effective policy would be shunning, for example, but people won’t do that.

  4. I don’t know much about the anti-iraq marches (not actually being American – whether I live in an effective police state is a different question.) but from what you say heres a perfect example of a lousy strategy. I don’t know what might have ended the war in Iraq – a different president? A court? Popular opinion? But in this instance marches that were banking on picking up lots of attention failed, and nothing happened. Lesson: don’t rely on media.

    I don’t know the subject well enough to say whether this reflects reality, but, hypothetically, if we’re charitable to Obama a second I suppose its possible to argue that the election of a different president is managing to end the war – and that election was achieved via organization and ant-work, and also media and spin, but media and spin *for* a strategy (elect this anti war guy who’ll have the power to end it) rather than *as* a strategy (get opposition to the war heard about lots.)

    And something don’t have solutions that are quick. They take years and years. I haven’t thought of anything to change that.

  5. I see you guys have been having fun while I was at work.

    I don’t think there is a 100% winning strategy that social movements and activists could adopt. I also think the American context explains part of the lack of success (compared to Europe, for instance). And I really don’t think anything could have stopped the Iraq War (no more than I think anything could have brought about single payer in the health care debacle).

    For instance, European countries that still have strong unions have more capacity. Unions not only can mobilize people, but provide organizational resources and are considered legitimate social actors. The political culture is also more open to marches, demonstrations, etc. And there is more understanding from the general public (relatively little grumbling as to transportation disruptions, for instance).

    Also, because European unions are stronger, they have more financial resources and are less dependent on political parties, but political parties do depend on union votes, so less likely to crack down on social movements… as opposed to the US on all those points.

    If I wanted to be smart, I’d go all Durkheim and say that US lack of social solidarity and high individualism + puritanism largely prevents the success of social movements as well. And clicktivism is activism for individualists.

  6. Two things: First, I share SocProf’s skepticism regarding digital activism. Second, with respect to the failure of the massive demonstrations to stop the war on Iraq, I think that actually bears some connection to the problems of digital activism–we want it easy, far too easy. They were a one off action with little or no follow through on the part of most of the millions who participated in these demonstrations in Britain, the US, and elsewhere: where were most of these people in the later demonstrations against that war? They’d ‘clicked’ on the streets once. And when that didn’t have an immediate effect, off they went to do whatever gave them more immediate satisfaction. Someone should have told them about the long, only partly successful slog against the Vietnam atrocity. Someone should have urged them to contemplate Weber’s assertion: “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.”

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