YouTube videos of security dogs with blood on their muzzles; video of mass arrests; makeshift shelters; armed soldiers; police in riot gear; live feeds of water cannons being fired into groups of protesters. These are all images that emerged in mainstream and social media of Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. What began as a small group of protesters swelled to become a large mass of thousands of people from all over North America.
We live in a world where social movement is a means by which individuals increasingly promote and fight for causes that may otherwise be beyond their control. There is also an undeniable emotional element that encourages involvement. “Protest activities occur because organizers frame an issue as having a very direct, immediate, and negative impact on individuals. The human emotions of fear and outrage which result are then channeled through leadership and organization into action.”1 Environmental crises, climate change, oil sands, liquefied natural gas, wildlife preservation, politics – all of these are common themes drawing significant attention and emotional reaction through social media dialogue among activist groups and interested individuals. Through social media, connections are made between those with a common goal, generating feelings of mutual support. The ability to network within social media circles is unparalleled, engendering vast networks that can span all borders, including geographical and ideological.
The influence of social media on activism is also full of contradictions. These are often movements that lack official leaders, per se, and are therefore decentralized. Yet, they are not necessarily chaotic. They are organized and often well- planned, but social media also allows for a large degree of spontaneity. At times there is even a sophistication to the level of organization underpinning resistance efforts and direct actions that unfold over social media, regardless of whether the planning takes place over a matter of days or hours.
Social Media's Effect on Social Movements
• Social networking by far outmatches traditional organization efforts in both immediacy and scope. The speed with which mobilization and support can be amassed and the reach that an effort can quickly attain is unmatched. The phenomenon of “digital crowd swarming” quickly leads to near unanimous support for the topic of the moment. “Crowd swarming” in the digital realm has previously been described as “when a multitude of people, connected socially through social media, move as if en masse over a very short [time span] towards the same target digital content. The rapid ability for people to share without having to think...means that crowds of people swarm en masse towards a target that captures global interest within minutes.”2 This is not a new phenomenon, but rather one that has continued with the proliferation of social media.
• The ability to connect with people who share common opinions and causes can act as a motivator towards collective action. Through digital interfaces such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, individual activists have the ability to amass a large following, often in a very short period of time. Networking among various platforms and group pages allows individuals to connect to those who they may otherwise be unaware. Activist groups and individuals may have thousands of ‘members’ and ‘friends.’ In the online realm, no personal connection is needed to identify with the like-minded. Adding to this is a contagion effect of sorts in which the opinions and emotions of those invested in a cause can become adopted by others simply through repeated exposure to their online dialogue.
• Moreover, social media platforms bring awareness, whether accurate or not, to individuals who may otherwise have little to no knowledge of a project's specifics, implications or conditions. With the click of an icon, opinions can be shared and replicated across networks, reaching thousands upon thousands of followers, for all to see and join in. No accuracy filter exists, therefore what is perpetuated on social media, while not necessarily factual, may be portrayed as such. While one individual promoting inaccurate ‘facts’ is easy to contradict, it is difficult to go against the masses once tens, hundreds, or thousands of people have ‘liked’ or shared an opinion.
• Over and above the peaceful protest actions that are often seen in relation to climate change and natural resource projects, a boldness in dialogue and direct action tactics can likely be attributed in part to the ‘comfort’ that comes with sharing actions among “friends.” There is a level of safety and confidence in anonymity and large numbers that emerges from being digitally connected. This can promote online dialogue, often setting the stage for inflammatory debate between individuals who feel empowered by the anonymity and degrees of separation achieved from behind a keyboard.
• It is when this boldness transfers from the online realm to confrontational direct actions where the risks to employee safety increase substantially. Small groups of protesters can gain significant confidence and widespread attention given the ability for immediate updates and the use of live feeds to transmit information to a mass of people.
Contributions come from our team of experts at Lions Gate Risk Management Group