Social Movements and Governments in the Digital Age: Evaluating a Complex Landscape

Friday, December 12th, 2014

Recently, social movements have shaken countries around the world. Most of these movements have thoroughly integrated digital connectivity into their toolkits, especially for organizing, gaining publicity, and effectively communicating. Governments, too, have been adapting to this new reality where controlling the flow of information provides new challenges. This article examines the multiple, often novel, ways in which social media both empowers new digitally-fueled movements and contributes to their apparent weaknesses in seemingly paradoxically ways. This article also integrates the evolving governmental response into its analysis. Social media’s empowering aspects are real and profound, but these impacts do not play out in a simple, linear fashion. The ability to scale-up quickly using digital infrastructure has empowered movements to embrace their horizontalist and leaderless aspirations, which in turn have engendered new weak- nesses after the initial phase of street actions ebbs. Movements without organizational depth are often unable to weather such transitions. While digital media create more possibilities to evade censorship, many governments have responded by demonizing and attacking social media, thus contributing to polarized environments in which dissidents have access to a very different set of information compared to those more loyal to the regime. This makes it hard to create truly national campaigns of dissent. This article provides an overview of this complex, evolving environment with examples ranging from the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt to the Occupy movement.

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