Facebook, Twitter, YouTube—and Democracy

The University of California protest movement shows that social media shape not only the new social movements but also the media as a whole.
By Bob Samuels

In fall 2009, I had the pleasure and privilege of participating in mass protests in California against tuition increases, furloughs, state budget cuts, and mass layoffs of schoolteachers, faculty members, and other public-sector workers. What was so inspiring about these demonstrations was their formation of a new model of coalition politics. Taking our lead from the structure of new media activism, a coalition of students, faculty members, workers, and parents joined together online and off-line to confront a set of problems facing contemporary society. Ultimately, our actions led to a $500 million increase in funding for the University of California.

Protests, California, Circa 2009

The wave of protests that swept through the University of California campuses in 2009 was caused in part by the state’s decision to reduce funding for the UC system by $800 million. Although most of this initial reduction was replaced by federal recovery money, the university system’s administration nonetheless decided both to increase tuition by 32 percent and to force employees to take furloughs, which were really one-year pay cuts. This strategy of reducing pay and increasing tuition upset both faculty members and students, so it was initially not difficult to form an alliance among different interest groups in the UC system.

This unity was soon threatened, however, by the university administration’s strategy of centering all blame on state government. While many faculty members and students believed that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had targeted higher education in his budget cuts, others concluded that the university’s central administration did not have to increase fees and reduce pay. After all, the UC system still had a $20 billion budget, and its revenue continued to increase throughout the global financial meltdown.

While it is important to look at how universities use state budgetary reductions to justify labor reductions and tuition increases, it is also important to acknowledge that the protests at the University of California represented a new form of social movement. This new social formation both reflects and produces new media.

In other words, not only are people using new media to organize political protests, but these protests themselves tend to mimic the structure and methods of new social media. Thus, we need to think of this relationship between media and social organizations in a dialectical fashion: not only do social media affect social groups, but social groups also shape the media.

New Social Movements

As we have seen in the prodemocracy protests in Egypt, young people often rely on sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube in order to communicate and organize. Moreover, these new media sites promote a decentralized social structure: people with different backgrounds and interests link together over a shared set of demands. These bottom-up social movements begin without a set agenda or organizational hierarchy; instead, new media social movements combine technology with spontaneity, offering a new way of interacting with the world.

That is what happened in California in 2009. One of the initial organizing tools in the UC protests was an online petition calling for a student and faculty walkout on September 24, 2009. Many of us feared that people would sign the petition but not walk out. But as more and more faculty members signed their names, a snowball effect was created and people began to cross the “fear threshold.” In the end, several hundred professors refused to teach their classes, and thousands of students and faculty members participated in a day of action. By first taking a small step online, people were able to take a larger step off-line. Online action translated into direct social action.

As an example of how new media social movements differ from previous models of social organization, we can look at perhaps the biggest day of activism on the UC campuses—November 19, 2009. On this date the UC administration met at the University of California, Los Angeles, to vote on a 32 percent tuition increase. While several of the staff and faculty unions and student groups contributed money to bus students in from all of the different campuses, most of the activism was spontaneous and local. In fact, even though we had many hours of meetings, our most effective actions were unplanned. For example, on November 20, the members of a large group of mostly student protesters decided on their own to march down to the busiest thoroughfare in Los Angeles and stop the traffic by lying down in the streets. This action drew tremendous media attention and was, in part, made possible because students sent last-minute text messages to their friends inviting them to join the march. Since this action was not planned, the police were not waiting to shut it down, and it took on a life of its own. Eventually, Schwarzenegger restored $500 million to the UC budget and stated that the protests at UCLA had pushed him to fund higher education at a higher level.

New media communication technologies thus helped fuel spontaneous protests that were hard to control and predict, and this spontaneity was one of the biggest strengths of the UC protest movement. No one could predict what the protesters were going to do next because not even the protestors knew. This strategy (or lack of it) came in handy when police and the administration interrogated students and workers, who were able to say, in all honesty, that they were not part of an organized conspiracy, which is against the law.

Of course, spontaneous movements are hard to handle and control, but it was my experience that in this instance it was best to allow unplanned actions to happen and not to try to control everything. While many students embrace this new type of social action, faculty members have more difficulty accepting this level of unpredictability. I had to tell faculty colleagues constantly not to try to control or predict events, because the main strategy students liked to employ was to create a confrontation that would draw out the media and allow us to deliver our demands to the public and the administration. By occupying buildings and forcing the police to take a stand, coalition members were able to gain power over the administration.

In these actions, students showed how savvy they were at using and manipulating the media. One can argue that since the current generation of students has grown up in a media-saturated culture, they not only have been shaped by the media but also have learned how to talk back to the dominant media sources. While decentralized media produce decentralized events, a culture of decentralization and personal empowerment has also produced technologies of mass participation.

One strong example of this decentralizing spirit can be found in the way many student groups organized their meetings. For example, at a large public forum in Berkeley, several hundred participants took turns speaking into a microphone to voice their particular calls for action. This event started off looking like a massive failure because so many different ideas were expressed. But by the end of the day, a coherent message and set of actions had emerged. Here, the strong democratic and participatory ethos of contemporary youth shaped the way they planned and organized collective actions. In turn, new media technologies like Facebook allow people to voice diverse opinions in an open forum, creating a constant dialogue between media and social organization.

Connecting Demands Online and Off-line

A key moment in the UC protest movement provides another example of how new media and new social movements are affecting each other. When students took over a building on the Berkeley campus in November 2009, one of their first demands was for the university to rehire several janitors who had been laid off. The media and the administration did not see why the students cared about these workers, and this very lack of understanding revealed the power of forming coalitions: by uniting together under a set of diverse demands, students and university employees were able to form a united front to challenge the status quo. New media technologies often facilitate this type of coalition politics because the Internet itself is based on linking together different sites and people. In other words, a diversity of associations is built into the web, and this structure helps people organize across traditional class, gender, and race lines. Likewise, many young people have grown up in a diverse social environment and so have helped to build a system that allows for open communication with a low barrier to entry. The decentralized nature of new media technologies also makes it hard for one group to control and dominate the social conversation.

In the case of the UC protests, this use of new media and coalition politics brought together several different groups that do not normally speak to one another. In fact, one of the central strategies used throughout the demonstrations was for students, workers, and faculty members to compile a list of demands representing the different groups and then present these demands to the administration during a building occupation. What was so powerful about this strategy was that the demands were so diverse, and no single group tried to control the process. For example, during one occupation of the office of UCLA chancellor Gene Block, protesters presented the following demands: (1) stop the fee hikes; (2) reverse the layoffs, protect vital services, and stop pay cuts for the lowest-paid workers; (3) accept more students of color; (4) provide scholarships for undocumented students; and (5) stop the union busting. By rallying around these diverse demands, people in the coalition were motivated to support one other and understand how different groups were being affected differently by the administration’s actions. In other words, these demands were not only our proposed solutions but, more important, also a method of organizing multiple groups into a single, loose structure. Furthermore, even if these demands were not met at first, they served as a powerful way of building solidarity, and once the university did decide to rescind the layoffs, we could use one victory to build toward other victories.

Coming up with a slate of demands is essential in our new media era of organizing, since the new social movements do not have a specific ideology or leadership; rather, these political structures should be considered to be decentralized networks that gain power through their bottom-up spontaneity. The new generation of students demands to be heard, and the changes in the nature of social movements mean not only that universities have to become more open and interactive but also that faculty members who hope to collaborate with student protesters have to learn how to accept a new mode of political organization.

Bob Samuels is president of the University Council–American Federation of Teachers and a lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of the blog Changing Universities and the book New Media, Cultural Studies, and Critical Theory after Postmodernity. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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