Yesterday I discussed how new forms of media have helped foment revolutions:
Of course, strong connections like unions or political parties or churches or mosques and simply the courage of masses in the street are essential for revolutionary action. But this was true for decades - and yet the 1979 Revolution in Iran was indisputably galvanized by audio-tapes of Khomeini sermons smuggled in from abroad; and the 2009 Green Revolution was originally triggered by young people using Twitter and blogs and cellphone cameras to broadcast their numbers and outrage and courage.
Another example is the role that television played in catalyzing the Civil Rights Movement, particularly the Birmingham campaign of 1963:
[T]he campaign was a major factor in the national push towards the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ... Television cameras broadcast to the nation the scenes of fire hoses knocking down schoolchildren and police dogs attacking unprotected demonstrators. Such coverage and photos were given credit for shifting international support to the protesters and making Bull Connor "the villain of the era". Kennedy called the scenes "shameful" and said that they were "so much more eloquently reported by the news camera than by any number of explanatory words."
In Malcolm Gladwell's 4400-word case against social media, "The Revolution Will Not Be Twittered," he relies on the Civil Rights Movement, namely the Greensboro sit-ins, to buttress his case for strong ties. "These events in the early sixties became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decadeand it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter." He continues:
The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn’t interested in systemic changeif it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splashor if it doesn’t need to think strategically. But if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy. The Montgomery bus boycott [that began in December 1955] required the participation of tens of thousands of people who depended on public transit to get to and from work each day. It lasted a year.
Gladwell's italics. Now consider the timeline for the '63 Birmingham campaign (April 3 to May 10 - five weeks):
On 3 April the desegregation campaign was launched with a series of mass meetings, direct actions, lunch counter sit-ins, marches on City Hall, and a boycott of downtown merchants. ...
On 2 May more than 1,000 African American students attempted to march into downtown Birmingham, and hundreds were arrested. When hundreds more gathered the following day, Commissioner Connor directed local police and fire departments to use force to halt the demonstrations. During the next few days images of children being blasted by high-pressure fire hoses, clubbed by police officers, and attacked by police dogs appeared on television and in newspapers, triggering international outrage. ... With national pressure on the White House also mounting, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent Burke Marshall, his chief civil rights assistant, to facilitate negotiations between prominent black citizens and representatives of Birmingham’s Senior Citizens Council, the city’s business leadership. ...
By 10 May negotiators had reached an agreement ...
Gladwell discusses Birmingham in his essay but fails to mention any role that new media - i.e. television - played in accelerating the indispensable work of activists led by Martin Luther King:
Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail. ... [O]f what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed in Birminghamdiscipline and strategywere things that online social media cannot provide.
But by the time King was put in jail, those strong-tie networks were already in full force. It took the horrific images of fire-hosed protesters being beamed into the TVs of Middle America to bring the crisis to a quick conclusion. Media matters. It cannot create change or the social forces behind it or the need for strong networks to carry it out. But it can be an accelerant in ways few activists have ever doubted. Necessary, if not sufficient.