Blog Post

Social unrest and social media: Resistance is futile?

Social unrest and social media: Resistance is futile?

London and Manchester are on fire, following police apprehension of a cab occupied by Mark Duggan, 29, and their subsequent shooting of him. Evidence has found that no bullets were fired by Duggan prior to his offing, as claimed by the British police.

Police harassment and assault of poor young men and women - particularly of poor Brits of African and West Indian descent - in London is known to be common. But, as in previous decades, this act moved young, poor Brits, long oppressed under the foot of neoliberal capitalism and rendered incomplete and
lacking through cultural fame and fortune hawking, from a state of everyday frustration to in-the-street insurrection. It moved them to lash out against the unjust and hostile treatment they and their neighbors regularly face as members of their society. It sparked them to resist.

Those resisting are termed "rioters" by the media. At this point, some seem to be, though this name overlooks the many who have taken action around serious violence committed against their community by those in uniform. Importantly, while corrections were made recently in the media to change the M.O. of "rioters" from poor Brits of color to poor Brits, those in the street are named primarily as youth. And, as youth in the street, they are being framed as “thugs.” These events have me wondering: when youth choose to rise up against the marginality they face due to their social conditions, what are their options? What control do they have over how their actions are framed once they are underway? With operations such as COINTELPRO ever present in social justice movements, what say do those who rise up to resist have in how this resistance becomes embodied and framed? Most importantly, maybe, why, within the current cultural context of decreased civil rights and protections in the interest of corporate profits and of lengthening marginalities within ever-lengthening adolescences, might youth resistance of this sort happen as rarely as it does?

The media points to social media as the key here. I remain unconvinced. As Christian Fuchs notes, on the other side of the technological utopianism cast upon the social media users leading “social media revolutions” in Egypt and Libya, British social media - now allegedly being used by some in England to announce looting sites and police arrival - is being charged with very distopian properties. As a result, pundits and editorials are calling for limiting social media privacies. While social media controls are far more tangible than social controls, this solution glosses right over the root causes of national social unrest in these recent cases. Here, the problem, the solution, hence, the issue is not the technology. At issue is the society that creates the technology along with the vast divides between the winners and the losers required by a system which present itself as a meritocracy but that operates through historical structural inequities. The issue is that youth and the poor will always fall on the loser side of this divide - a side no one wants to be on, a side that brands you a "have-not." The issue is also that under-30 population (read: poor, marginalized) amounts for the majority of the citizenry in a large number of countries with poor social supports now, and that the under-18 (read: poor, of color, marginalized) population is at historic highs within very inaccurately FOX News-termed and -defined "baby boomlets". How cute, non-threatening and dimunitive.

In fact, the US birth boom of late surpass the baby boom, making the last two decades more aptly called a "super baby boom" or an "ultra baby boom". I think I'll call it the "mega baby boom."

In the US, for example, the national birthrate has been on par with numbers seen during the 18 years of baby boom since 1987 - 23 years straight. At 4.3 million, the 2007 birthrate was as large as the most baby-producing year in the baby boom, 1957. A well-hyped "dive" and "plummeting" in the birth rate the next year brought the numbers down to 4.2 million, right in line with the top six years of the much-hyped baby boom.

Can social media address these issues? Perhaps, some might argue, by making people feel more or less socially or societally connected, by presenting certain perspectives of the world that shape understandings, and, through this by urging movement or quiescence.

But of particular interest to me is that these recent "mega baby boom" of youth representation in certain countries remain largely unpublicized. Why? I am not the only one who can read the Census or national demographic stats. In the US, perhaps this is unpublicized because time is needed to cover "news" such as sudden urgent debt, tea party rallies, and scandalously errant celebrities. Perhaps it is because news operations are poor tellers of history who are not interested in making themselves and their major donors feel less powerful. Perhaps it is because, if youth knew they were in the majority, they would not tolerate their marginality. Rather, they would organize and resist and take control of how their resistance was taken up and understood and portrayed.

Of course, resistance is not always a panacea. As we know from Willis, Bettie, Hedbige, Clark and others, resistance can further bind one to the shackles they act against. Still, those oppressed and critically aware within ignored power hierarchies will resent and challenge their society's preaching of meritocracy. They will seek ways to call out the system for its failures, for its inconsiderateness, for its partiality, for its racism, for its sexism, for its ageism, for its insults, for its lies.

Perhaps the mega baby booms of late remain unpublicized because youth knowing they are not marginal in numbers could lead to serious social unrest, and to acts that could challenge stability and question power, with or without social media.

Perhaps with social and critical awareness, social resistance might not be as easily framed as futile, as it now so plainly is.

While social media is not the issue here, it definitely plays a role. The cult of the individual so strong in neoliberal societies bereft of social supports has serious implications for both organizing and for social media use. Is social media involved in shaping social realities? Yes. Could this influence  marginalized users' beliefs about themselves, about their world, and about resistance? Yes. Could this, in turn, shape the futility of resistance? Yes.

As simultaneously creative spaces promising wider-world connection, access, and community and owned spaces with interests in data and profits, social media can be understood to have seriously implications for youth social resistance.  

At least I think so. What do you think? Comments or thoughts very welcome.



Anonymous (not verified)

Very informative and thought provoking article. You seem to get to the root of the problem, a problem I hadn't fully actualized as an issue until recently. In this, I wonder at how marketing will affect these youth movements; everything seems to get co-opted pretty fast by advertising. I don't know if any interference by advertisers will make enough of a difference to poorer youth who do not have access to shiny ad campaigns, but I do wonder if the groups will become deligitimized because of it. I realize this might be borrowing trouble, but I look at past arcs of resistence, and see the death of those arcs as soon as it became commercialized.

I know my analysis is hardly that, but is instead a casual observation. I bring it up because balancing social media, advertising, and individuality is a fascinating (and often scary) tightrope act to watch. When ideals and ideas and movements become connected more easily via social media, it can become co-opted just as quickly by corporations. And corporations seem very disinterested in creating community anything. And building community is clearly a factor in de-marginalizing groups of people. This was a great article, and I will be using all of my forms of social media to share it!


“They would organize and resist and take control of how their resistance was taken up and understood and portrayed.” This quote struck me as essential.

I think social media and the ability to use technology to record and share information is a huge part of this. In the past the dissemination of “news” was slow and controlled by the media and government. The common man now walks around with a device that can record “news” and instantly share this graphic information with millions. This is power! If we really are a democracy our education system should include a curriculum that educates children from a very young age how to use technology to access and disseminate information for political reasons. Learning how to organize peacefully in numbers for political reasons is essential curriculum for our youth. Education is essential for the message/resistance to be understood and portrayed in a positive light.

Here are a few ideas that come to mind. These should be some of our “standards” for education. A child should know how to write to their elected officials by the time they graduate from elementary school. Community service field trips should be part of the core curriculum starting with elementary students. All high school political science classrooms should become involved in a peaceful demonstration that they are passionate about. This peaceful demonstration should be documented using social media. Kids need to learn that they don’t have to sit and watch politicians and corporations put a “spin” on issues anymore. They have more power than anyone has ever had in our history to peacefully organize, resist, and get their message out there when they feel something is not right.


Thanks for the comments!

AK - advertisers and marketers, they are often known as these systems "out there" (like technology). But they are based on social relationships, and are social structures which are run by people. Framing it as that makes it most powerful to me. And yes. I agree that the way life, success, happiness, and even "adulthood" is portrayed by those so invested in portraying images, feelings, emotions, and needs with the goal of selling product or lifestyle comes into play here. I think the point you raise is a good one. From looking at social media, I am interested, among other things, in how advertising and marketing has expanded its reach to the less-direct forums of online social spaces. How are our ideas and possibilities being shaped through participation in online communities who are owned by commercial interests? Of course, many things in Western society are owned.  The "owned" part of spaces considered social is important in its own right. But how might the profiteering part shape how interactions and information happen?


Andy G - I agree that social media is often presented as giving potential for the common person to address injustices. In being able to record and disseminate information, this is, indeed, a power in many places. But I think the infrastructure that social media exists in -- the policies, the laws, the technical systems -- also shapes how civic-minded social media (and how civic-mindedness) happens. In San Francisco late last year, police officers were brought up on charges after an unarmed African American man was shot face-down on the ground under their control, and the act was filmed on a phone camera. In certain states such as my own (Illinois - Mass and Maryland being the others), filming police actions is against the law. It is, in fact, a felony, and people have been tried and charged as such for actions that could be understood as "democratic action" that "speaks truth to power."  In that case, is it "Education" of youth, as you write, that is ... "essential for the message/resistance to be understood and portrayed in a positive light"? I would argue no. While I agree that being able to participate actively as a citizen is important, the social infrastructure surrounding social media in these three states (at the moment) necessitates that any use of social media as evidential recourse against police brutality or injustice be rendered in a non-positive light. In this case, it is not an issue of poor judgment. It is an issue of legality. Positive light is rendered by what the law says about social media, not by the way the kids understand justice or act in its interest. 

I know a lot of people say the answer lies in more education of youth. While I agree that knowing how to write to your elected official or how to interact within a political environment is useful to a democracy, as is knowing how to demonstrate and doing community service (though, honestly, being able to do so on a regular basis must be understood to be a luxury), and while I agree that social media allows for unprecedented dissemination of information, I remain unconvinced that social media education is the answer to youth marginality - or to marginality as a whole.  Perhaps it strikes too close to the call for individual (rather than systemic) retooling that has rang out over the past twenty years of neoliberal predominance. Perhaps it puts too much hope and power, again, in the system of social media  -- a system, which I argue, deserves far more critique and consideration on all sides than it seems to be getting presently.  Can we teach people to be free through social media? This is the question.

Write on!