LoyarBorak #1: Is Twitter Useless at Social Activism? (Part 1)

LoyarBorakThis is a new series by LoyarBurok – “LoyarBorak”. Selected issues will be discussed by a chosen number of panelists. It aims to provide a more informal, bite-sized presentation of ideas and thoughts.

In this first LoyarBorak, which comes in two parts, the question is on the effectiveness of Twitter in social action. It is inspired by a piece written by Malcolm Gladwell for The New Yorker.

Syazwina Saw has prepared a response (prefacing each section in italics), which will be used as a base for this LoyarBorak. Adrian Chew, Edmund Bon Tai Soon, Marcus van Geyzel and Syahredzan Johan share their feelings on the subject with Syazwina having the final say. Please feel free to continue the borak session in the comments section below.

If you are interested to partake in our upcoming borak sessions, take a number and queue, but drop Marcus (who by the way, initiated this, and activated, organised and mobilised the Borakkers - all by Twitter and e-mails only) an email here: [email protected].

Crush Social Media

SOCIAL MEDIA IN CONTEXT

With the advent of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, the challenge for software developers it seems has become to produce the most penetrable and user-friendly device with which to share one’s entire life with the world. Suddenly, life experiences and great musings are condensed into 140 characters or less. Only the most avid blog-writers remain – for the masses, quick, live and ADHD is the way to go. Is it any surprise that the Hollywood community has embraced Twitter whole-heartedly?

Iran’s 2009 federal elections brought the Twitterverse into an entirely new playing field. Amid claims of tampered votes and election results, Tehran exploded into a wave of protests as supporters of the opposition led by Mousavi took to the streets in waves. All other means of communication blocked, citizens of Iran took to Twitter. And suddenly, it became more than just Ashton Kutcher getting a million mosquito nets to fight malaria, or Miley Cyrus sending lovenotes to Perez Hilton – it became a Movement. Twitter had become a Thing.

Twitter has since become a reputable primary source for many; a place to scour for quotes, a scary insight into the minds of politicians and celebrities, and most importantly, ordinary folk. Along with that, major news networks have started reporting tweets, and brought along with it this claim of Twitter and Facebook being agents of change, triggers for revolutions.

Adrian:

Twitter and Facebook, in the context of digital activism are fairly useless on their own. They are merely new mediums of communication that have somehow provided a quantum leap in the efficacy of information dissemination, much like how Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press led to the printing revolution and the democratisation of knowledge.

But the true agents of change aren’t printing machines or social networking applications. It’s always been people. People are the real catalysts for revolutions. At most, Twitter lowers the barrier to activism – making it easier for information to reach the masses and for people to decide how active they want to be in support of a cause.

Edmund:

Let us remind ourselves of the context in which Gladwell wrote the piece by asking a few questions.

Firstly, why did he caution us about the limitations of social media in galvanising people towards high-risk activity?

Secondly, was he – (i) describing the use of social media tools (and I accept that they have revolutionised the way people have become involved in issues) and explaining the Twitter phenomenon in relation to different types of activity; (ii) analysing the impact of Twitter (i.e. what it can or cannot do) and correcting misguided perceptions of it; or (iii) predicting its future use?

He was writing to warn us that we have today overstated the effectiveness of social media tools, and that we have become too comfortable. Thinking that in expressing our thoughts online we have, so to speak, “done our part” has made us complacent about organising and mobilising communities. That is how we should view Gladwell’s piece.

I preface my borak to say what Facebook and Twitter are and have achieved before going on to say what they are not. They are now indispensable channels of communication. Hark back to the days when we were excited about the fax machine. We could send and receive documents instantaneously. E-tools (i.e. e-mails and e-groups) then transmitted information even faster. Increased speed, better delivery mechanisms, and more voices, conversations and stories at the shortest amount of time. Do not doubt that I embrace these as given facts.

But is that it? No. It is said, and I agree that, e-tools have democratised the way we communicate with those in power, generated armies of people motivated to work on various causes and encouraged self-activism. However, e-tools did not by themselves cause these things to happen. They were used strategically, and well, by organisations and initiatives in tandem with other tools.

Marcus:

A discussion on the meaning of “social media” could, in itself, take up an entire article. Suffice to say here that the key element which distinguishes social media from “traditional” media is, perhaps obviously, the interactive element (compare Twitter to a newspaper, for example).

My initial reaction to Gladwell’s piece was that he was stating the obvious. He basically took the views of a minority (that Twitter can spawn revolutions) and used it as stick with which to beat the entire medium. Twitter is a communication channel. Like the printed word, telephones, the internet, mobiles, SMSes, and blogs.

The effectiveness of a tool is entirely dependent on its users.

Syahredzan:

I think all of us here are regular Twitteratis (tweeps? twits?) so we certainly vouch for the addictiveness of this social media tool. Twitter has opened up new avenues of interaction, the exchanging ideas and propagating one’s thoughts. Interacting with someone you’ve never met, with a celebrity or a politician or someone thousands of miles away.

If nothing, Twitter has changed how we communicate to each other.

Syazwina:

I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s attacking Twitter itself – I mean, the man has an account. I like to think he’s targetting his audience (and also his more common detractors): the largely-white, upper-middle-class bourgeoisie. They’re the same ones who adopted the Iranian protests as their own “fight”, got all caught up in politics removed from its context; the ones who keep saying, again and again, that Twitter is crucial to activism. Even reputable mass media has taken to Twitter for quotes and, God help us all, “news”.

Twitter’s overrated by the media and sometimes the Twitterati, and it’s not hard to see why Gladwell wants to beat it with a stick, if only to knock some sense into our heads.

He's Twittering

THE MEANING OF “ACTIVISM”

Gladwell seems to dispute the efficacy of Twitter as a tool for activism, dismissing it by regaling a tale of a Wall Street broker who got his phone back from a young teenage girl and comparing it to the internet-less impact of the civil rights movement in 1960s America. Social activists are miffed by his claim that Twitter is seen to have “reinvented social activism”; they say he’s missed the point or that he’s too quick to judge.

Adrian:

It’s just fancy footwork by Gladwell in describing the effectiveness of activism as based on “strong ties” versus “weak ties” or “high-risk” versus “low-risk”. His models are overly simplistic. I tried to reconcile these models with two recent local happenings: the “1M Malaysians Reject 100-storey Mega Tower” Facebook campaign and the use of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (MCMC Act) to quash online freedom of expression.

Admit it, thanks to digital activism, almost everyone has an opinion now about the Warisan Merdeka project – whether for or against. Despite its success in getting the Government to pause and rethink its plans, this form of activism would still fall under Gladwell’s “low-risk” and “weak-ties” model. The increased frequency of the Government’s resort to the MCMC Act to prosecute these “armchair activists” for merely being “annoying” also shows that “weak ties” don’t necessarily equate with “low risk”.

Edmund:

Gladwell’s crux proposition is that “we seem to have forgotten what activism is”. In using case studies, one usually takes extreme examples to drive home the point and Gladwell adopted “high-risk activism” to enunciate his. It leaves us the challenge of defining and re-defining activism. Is speech intensely expressed on Facebook and Twitter activism? If we accept that activism includes writing online to the editor a letter of disgust or petitioning online the release of a prisoner, then practically everyone is involved in activism (which is a positive).

But I think it would have been much clearer to replace the word “activism” with “mobilisation” or “organisation” or “a movement”. Winning people over to speak to power, and then to shift the balance of power away from the establishment requires numbers who are committed to the cause and to the core.

Today, we think mobilising is sending an e-mail to an e-group, creating a Facebook event or tweeting a call-out per se. It is not. You may get a group of people regularly coming for meetings, events and protests based on your shout-outs but this would not be sustainable. Ask how many total strangers communicating on the internet would come out to protest against the Menara Warisan Merdeka or coalesce into a civil society group opposing the development?

I take the romanticised idea that mobilisation is an art of which expression is only one component, and organising movements cannot be done online via IP addresses.

Marcus:

It is quite telling that Gladwell’s examples of “real” activism are from the 1960s-70s. Times have changed. A lot. Using those illustrations to swat away the significance of social media is akin to someone in the 1970s saying that rallies, printed material and the telephone were useless because activists in the 1920s didn’t use them.

Amusingly, Gladwell writes: “Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model.” I wonder whether he wrote this tongue-in-cheek, as that is exactly the kind of thing his critics accuse him of. There is no doubt that Gladwell is one of the most intelligent and innovative thinkers of our time, but it also has to be conceded that he conveniently chooses facts and illustrations which best suit his theories.

Syahredzan:

I think the word “activism” itself needs a re-think. If activism is defined by the actions of civil rights activists in 1960s America, then Gladwell may be right.

But these days one does not need to leave one’s laptop to be an activist (defined by Dictionary.com as “an especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause, esp. a political cause”).

I give you an example – my sister recently changed her Twitter avatar purple in support of anti-LBGT (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgender) bullying. Sure, it’s not the Woolsworth protest of Greensbro, but can we argue that she’s any less of an activist simply because the statement she chose to make is in cyberspace? Is her online statement effective? I don’t know, but at the very least her followers would know the problem exists and some people may want to do something about it.

Syazwina:

I have to agree with Marcus on Gladwell’s cut-and-paste style of journalism, and yes, he oversimplifies the scenario, and perhaps even the meaning of “activism”. I guess what we should ask is, is our definition of activism actually effective? It brings to mind Robert Fisk’s article just after the Iranian protests, where he commented on the effectiveness of candlelight vigils, saying that if Iranians were truly looking for a revolution via Mousavi, lighting candles in the streets just won’t cut it.

There’s sending a message, and then there’s delivering it. What’s the point of clicking “LIKE” on a Facebook page if the government’s just going to swat your say like a fly?

LoyarBorak continues in Part 2.

Adrian sits in a room somewhere in Sarawak watching a dying river flow. Yellowing books on his shelves and blank sheets of paper on his desk, he continues to write if only to search for his voice, despite stillborn sentences never filling up a page. Follow his journey to becoming a writer on The Reading Monk and @Reading_Monk.

Edmund continues various escape techniques in his attempts to be rid of Lord Bobo’s control and the Bar Council’s influence. He is on a crusade to abolish the institution of marriage and build love movements though he thinks love is an illusion. And so he tweets @edmundbon.

Marcus is a corporate/commercial solicitor in Kuala Lumpur, who tweets @vangeyzel. He believes that the only certainty in life is that everything can be explained by the transperambulation of pseudo-cosmic antimatter.

Syahredzan is a young lawyer and a partner at a legal firm in Kuala Lumpur. He fancies himself to be a political critic and social commentator. In truth, he is just another Malaysian who is far too opinionated. He is passionately patriotic, although not in the conventional flag-waving way. He believes that Malaysia still has a lot of unfulfilled potential if only its people learned to unite rather than divide. @syahredzan is his handle on Twitter.

Syazwina spends her days subediting legal commentary, her nights studying science philosophy, and the time in between tweeting @syazwinasaw. She rants for a better Malaysia, or so she hopes.


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18 Responses to LoyarBorak #1: Is Twitter Useless at Social Activism? (Part 1)

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  5. Wui Kiat,

    Good points, very well made. It's fairly obvious that many Malaysians are in their comfort zones, and will want to stay there. There is nothing wrong with that. But that is why the government has always known that, as long as the keep the economy ticking along decently enough, and people keep earning reasonable money to fund their lifestyles, they can remain in power. I believe that the 2008 GE was a one-off, and that the opposition will have to do a lot to achieve that again in the next GE, especially as they have been going through a lot of squabbles and failures since 2008.

    Politics aside, Twitter provides a useful alternative information source. When something is going on (like the Perak crisis, a street protest, Teoh Beng Hock trial, etc.) we can tune in to Twitter for updates which are usually quicker and more varied than more formal sources like The Star Online, TMI or Malaysiakini. This access to information also puts more pressure on mainstream media to report more truthfully (or at least with a more creative distortion of the facts).

  6. @LN: That's the thing about "revolutions". There may be a grave injustice, but nothing happens. And then there may be some minor, seemingly innocuous incident, which triggers a big public reaction. It's a complex amalgam of facts, hearsay, emotion, climate, and sometimes sheer luck. I wouldn't say you have a shallow understanding of activism. I'd say that activism is difficult to pin down. Which is why many "activists" wonder why no one bothers to turn up at rallies/events they organise.

    @Aerie: I agree, to an extent. Twitter is useful, but really it is just a small minority of Malaysians who are "tuned in". But I like @ladymissazira's comment above, which explains how this minority can in fact trickle down the information/sentiment. Twitter does have its weaknesses. The main one is that the information one reads is based on which users are being followed. I can follow just pro-UMNO people, and will think that the government is doing a damn fine job. Or, I could follow just opposition leaders/advocates and think that "everyone" hates the government. It's just one of many tools that can be used to create better awareness.

  7. @Nahri: I don't think it's a "tragedy". Social media participants (as a whole) do not claim to be changing the world. Most Malaysians on Twitter are here for fun. To interact with friends, meet new friends, maybe follow a few celebrities. But the fact that there are some "serious" issues being tweeted and retweeted means that Twitter will, in some way, influence the way these people think. And if the extent of their "activism" is re-tweeting something, or "liking" a Facebook page, so be it. It's no different from people who talk about politics over beers, oranges & poker at CNY. At the end of the day though, their vote counts just the same.

    @ladymissazira: Thanks for commenting. I particularly agree with your point: "I know opponents to the part that Twitter plays would state that the app only centers on the tech-savvy crowd, or the urbanites, but people often forget that what’s online, more often than not, gets talked about, when it gets talked about, the people on the ground would listen, and then be privy to the information that so-called exclusive to the privileged few." Just as traditional media (perhaps subliminally) shapes our thoughts and perceptions, Twitter can do the same. And someone who read something on Twitter may mention it at lunch with his colleagues, who may then talk to their spouses about it at home, who then… you get the idea. Some of these self-proclaimed "real activists" seem, to me, to have lost touch with the general public, and perhaps even with what they're fighting for in the first place.

  8. TWITTING SOCIALLY

    It's entirely okay to twit

    Using your quick short wit

    Getting your message across

    Without making twitters cross

    (C) Samuel Goh Kim Eng – 051110
    http://MotivationInMotion.blogspot.com
    Fri. 5th Nov.2010.

  9. I think the effectiveness of a social communication media like Twitter/Facebook in bringing about change/activism/revolution must include consideration of these two important factors :

    (1) Degree of desperation – are you just annoyed or are you

    desperate ?

    Adrian said : 'People are the real catalyst of revolution.'

    This is true on many levels. First we must look at the

    people, what kind of people or the composition of the

    participants or Twitteratis. Most if not all of them are

    from a niche – the socio-politically aware bunch from the

    literate, tech-savvy & fairly highly educated group eg

    professionals, students, politicians, writers, activists.

    This group is growing fast but please do not blind

    ourselves to the fact that there is still a huge crowd out

    there to reach out for, who are still not involved in this

    group (less educated, language barrier- if you Twit in

    English what about those who surf in BM or Chinese ?, no

    proper Internet coverage – rural Sarawak for instance, less

    tech-savvy, not or less interested, blue collar). Hence it

    is from the outset confined to a selected group (thousands

    or tens of thousands online is still just a fraction of the

    populace)- a limiting factor or the number factor, which

    brings me to the next point by Syazwina

    Syazwina said : 'I like to think he’s targetting his

    audience (and also his more common detractors): the largely-

    white, upper-middle-class bourgeoisie.'

    It always is…in most of world history, growing trends of

    activist ideas & thoughts are always born & spearheaded by

    a group of middle-class bourgeosie. Be it 1960s USA or

    1920s.

    Even better the illustrious European Revolutions of 1848 –

    the middle class liberals provided the impetus or ideals

    for change. They wanted universal suffrage, they wanted

    freedom of the press, they were against absolutist rule

    etc. In some cases even the nobels supported them against

    the absolute crown.

    However, the bulk of the people who pushed forward the 1848

    revolution and became cannon fodder was not really them –

    but the angry starving peasants, serfs and unemployed

    artisans who lost their guild and lifelihood.

    Why ? Because they are desperate enough – they are poverty-

    stricken by heavy taxes and feudalism, by famine, by

    oppression – all of which were not inflicted directly upon

    the middle class iberals. Which brings me to the next point.

    (2) Degree of activism – online thought-sharing or on to the

    streets ?

    Adrian said : 'The increased frequency of the Government’s

    resort to the MCMC Act to prosecute these “armchair

    activists” for merely being “annoying” also shows that

    “weak ties” don?t necessarily equate with “low risk”.'

    If merely confined to the level of creation of common

    awareness leading to a consensus for a need of change and

    which direction it should go,'armchair activists' have a

    role that must not be dismissed.

    At the same time, we must not think that revolutions are

    powered by one single group for one single aim and one

    driving force – most of the times there are multiple groups

    and stratum of the society pursuing different aims.

    Among other forces, armchair activists are an important

    driving force, a sort of linking force for ideas.

    Edmund wrote : 'Ask how many total strangers communicating

    on the internet would come out to protest against the Menara

    Warisan Merdeka or coalesce into a civil society group

    opposing the development?'

    Now this has to do with the 'desperation' factor. Many are

    just too comfortable to do anything about it. They may be

    annoyed or don't like the idea, but they are certainly not

    desperate to turn up on the street to make their point about

    it. They are not the angry starving peasantry of the 1848

    revolution. They are still in their comfort zone.

    Others are not desperate not because they are not

    peasants. They are not desperate because they are still

    unaware of the severe implications of certain issues – lack

    of awareness creates complacence. And complacence is another

    word for not being desperate. A perfect example of this

    would be the voting pattern in certain cities compared to

    rural areas in Malaysia.

    'If we accept that activism includes writing online to the

    editor a letter of disgust or petitioning online the release

    of a prisoner, then practically everyone is involved in act

    ivism (which is a positive).'

    Syazwina wrote : 'What’s the point of clicking “LIKE” on a

    Facebook page if the government’s just going to swat your

    say like a fly?'

    Far from having no point at all, consensus for a need for

    change is very important though the popular movement on the

    ground / street / structural changes may have failed or

    came to a halt.

    Again turning to the 1848 European Revolutions- the

    revolution met a humiliating military defeat. It almost left

    no visible structural changes to the old world order of the

    day when it ended – but historians refuse to say that the

    1848 events had no legacy.

    In fact in the next ten to twenty years, European nations

    progressed immensely – Netherlands & Denmark adopted reforms

    to prevent further revolts. The reform started from France

    to Germany & Italy but changes spreaded everywhere.

    Constitutional monarchy became a norm rather than exception.

    Absolutist rule became a thing of the past. A communication

    had taken place and that would leave a mark on the

    collective memory.

  10. Pingback: LoyarBorak #1: Is Twitter Useless at Social Activism? (Part 2) | LoyarBurok

  11. priya

    Funnily enough, was led to comment here from a DM. Anyway.

    I think Twitter, FB, etc are awesome in terms of what @ladymissazira above has elaborated on – providing a sense of solidarity and the strange security of knowing that your opinions are not just confined to your teh-tarik circle of 5.

    That said, I'm personally skeptical of equating these tools to a sudden surge in activism(or perhaps I'm just demanding for too much too soon). But this has more to do with the Malaysian context and attitude – if we're just transferring the mamak-stall discussions to cyberspace, the results are going to be no different. Case in point; my FB and email inbox is filled with virals and articles and rants of young people on the "injustices of Malaysia", most of whom who are too busy to register themselves as voters.

    What IS exciting is that said tools are making it easier for existing activists/voters/average Joes looking to do something to mobilise themselves; as seen here :)

  12. I think twitter is a useful tool for activism. I think that twitter creates a better informed citizenry. Normally, its the middle classes and upper classes who have access to twitter. And these people are the ones who knows about their rights and thus demand for more rights from the government. The lower classes who do have access to twitter would learn of their rights through twitter.

    Twitter acts as a catalyst to ensure more people are aware of not only their rights, but also about what is going on. People would be aware of the excesses of oppressive governments, and the inequalities that exists. With the formulation of a mature middle class they wouldn't just be idle and wait to be oppressed. They'll fight back. Why? Because when they see how people in Western Democracies enjoy freedom, and how beautiful freedom is, they would want it too and strive for it.

  13. LN

    Hey GOOD stuff for addressing the topic. It would help separate the "trendsters" from those who really want to make a difference. Also, it would encourage those who feel helpless to start doing something. Having said that, whether or not social media will be effective in creating a "revolution" – depends on definition of "activism", "the results you want", "level of interest of participant in issue", "political and socio-economic climate" and "type of government".

    To define "activism", we also should take things into context. Social activism is relatively new in Malaysia. We're not very confrontational people in the first place. And while "activism" is only "activism"if it bears results, it is still activism if all you want people to do is sign a petition against a mega tower by clicking the "Like" button, which social media can do really well. If after clicking on "like" you want the same people to turn up at Putrajaya because presence is more persuasive than a bunch of thumbs up signs in cyberspace, the response might be less. Malaysians might be interested enough in the issue but to go all the way to P.Jaya? On a work-day?

    Consider this scenario then: what if things have gotten more extreme in the country and the government of the day decides that "Malaysians must speak in BM in public". I think, if you tweet for 100,000 to turn up at Putra Jaya, more would actually turn up. Even if it's a work-day.

    But what if the government of the day has in existence a law against disagreeing with the government's policies, that it's a crime punishable by imprisonment? My guess is, Malaysians will think twice before turning up. Even if they choose to turn up eventually.

    I probably have a very shallow understanding of activism. You guys know about it better. But it's just an opinion.

  14. @ladymissazira

    Twitter. Facebook. Friendster. Discussion Forums. Those were all the platforms I frequented, and where I shared, debated, learned, and at times vent out my thoughts concerning all the topics I genuinely cared about. This is on a personal level.

    Overall, the general evolution of activism in Malaysia in my personal opinion is this. At first, when the trickling few bits and pieces of information that was not from BN controlled media was scarce, it was the only way to get information across through long distances without travelling back and forth all the time.

    It was, at times, the only way for the isolated few living in either indifferent or hostile environment who think a certain way to connect and realize that they are not alone in their thoughts.

    That subtle and yet important impact on the societies in Malaysia is that we realized that we are not alone, there is emotional link or perception of support and eventually, since we have the numbers, people started to think; why not start something and become proactive.

    The former shared feeling of helplessness has been replaced by a sense of not only having the strength of many who think alike, groups of people willing and is committed to certain causes are willing to translate that feeling into proactive action.

    Without said technologies, it's not that we did not or will not have all the so-called "high-risk" activism, where people attend rallies, get arrested, get whacked by the police, have mini invisible badges on your arm; we do. It's just that these days, we have choices on which important tho underplayed aspects of activism to concentrate on.

    Although critisized as "low-risk", some like organizing, some like attending, some doesn't mind sticking badges and counting inventories, some like to just become quiet funders, etc etc. No effort is 'mere' fluff or unimportant. There are many unsung heros in every movement.

    I know opponents to the part that Twitter plays would state that the app only centers on the tech-savvy crowd, or the urbanites, but people often forget that what's online, more often than not, gets talked about, when it gets talked about, the people on the ground would listen, and then be privy to the information that so-called exclusive to the privileged few. They may be busy earning bread and butter, but they do listen and are smarter than you give them credit for. Even Mak Cik Pasar Ikan.

    You may say, it's the people that matters. Of course it's always about the people. Whoever said that it isn't? What's it all about at least in this Loyarborak is how people connect.

    Therefore, in the context of Malaysia today, and with the current tight-fisted hold on all broadcast, radio (well, not BFM), tv, print newspapers, heck, even Ministry-endorsed effort to disseminate information related to the rights of citizens I personally think that said technologies, such as Twitter, Facebook and Discussion Forums are still essential to the activism scene of Malaysia, irrespective of which causes.

    My two cents.

  15. Nahri

    The tragedy of social media,in the Malaysian, context is that far too many fell headlong into the hype of the technology without appreciating that it is actually 'we as a society' that needs to figure out what we want to be. Is it great that we can protest via Facebook?yea sure,but the fact of it is that if we only become willing to challenge injustice because it is 'convenient' to do so,are we truly being empowered?or is it actually the direct opposite?

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