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It’s been a week of protests in the places I call home. Friday through Monday: People gathered in Tamil Nadu to demonstrate against the Jallikattu ban (and other matters), and congregated across America to register their frustration with Donald Trump’s inauguration. The Women’s March followed as people in more than 60 countries across seven continents registered their disgust with the new US President’s general attitude.
Infrastructure opposition peaked early in the week, as agitations against “The Wall” and the revival of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines popped up across North America. The Scientists’ March movement to oppose Trump’s redaction of environmental data and treatment of the Environmental Protection Agency gained momentum on social media on Wednesday and Thursday, with hundreds of thousands of people across the world liking and following the social media accounts.
On Friday, the 44th annual March For Life brought an unprecedented hundreds of thousands of people—including the new US vice-president—back to the National Mall in Washington, DC. Saturday, Trump’s executive order banning refugees as well as anybody from seven Muslim-majority countries sparked protests in front of the White House and international airports across that country.
Commentators in both places have argued that the events herald new possibilities in politics—in Tamil Nadu, the birth of emergent expression of aspirations rather than orchestrated demands; in America, a wider willingness to act on social beliefs rather than let the state sort out what’s right and true.
Similar claims have been made about the growing number of loosely led, spontaneous, social-media-enabled, large-scale protests that have emerged around the world in recent years. The “Arab Spring”, starting with Tunisia in 2010 but moving quickly to other nations across North Africa and the Middle East, opened the decade. “Occupy” demonstrations calling for equity and social justice in cities around the world in 2011-12 followed quickly on its heels. Turkey and Brazil saw large, evolving, many-issue-but-all-anti-regime protests in 2013. The Revolution of Dignity ousted the president of Ukraine in 2014, the same year the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong called for free elections, and demonstrations over the shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri took the Black Lives Matter movement from a hashtag to a force on the streets. Large and visible anti-corruption protests emerged across the world from Brazil to Malaysia to South Africa and Guatemala in 2016. More than a million Venezuelans gathered (twice) to press for the recall of the president. While retrospective evaluations have been mixed, commentators in each case saw these movements as forces for cleaner, more progressive, better social compacts.
The irony is that even as information technology—more specifically social media—has allowed protests to reach a new scale, spread and frequency, the ease of organizing that it offers has also stripped them of the information content that made them so valuable as part of social dynamics. There is a lot of energy being unleashed, but not a lot of guidance to channel it for specific purposes and sustain it over the longer haul. We need to build these bridges between protest and more traditional representation and deliberation before we lose the capacity to calm down, be considered, and construct alternatives to the objects of protest.
Political economy scholars have generally described protests as helping social change along by being tools for information transmission between leaders and the led. Protests have been seen as a way to signal boundaries beyond which leaders should not trespass if they’d like to remain in place. Berkeley political scientist Peter Lorentzen, for example, argues that authoritarian regimes allow “regularized rioting” as a kind of efficient problem-spotting technique. Rather than manage an army of informers, leaders simply allow just enough protests to let the canaries in the coal mine come forth. Protests have also been seen as a means for rivals to signal their strength and thereby inform the ruling elite or their representative’s strategy. It’s a clumsy way to say, “Vote my way, invite me to the negotiating table, or give up,” but perhaps less destructive than alternatives.
Social media changes the extent of the signal amidst the noise. Demonstrations whose numbers and issue foci evolve in hours, let alone days, are no canaries. The 2013 Brazil protests started off as a reaction to public transport pricing in various cities in June, but were about broader corruption concerns, socially conservative legislation, and police violence by July. “Against a lot” was the message. Where to start adjusting in response?
This logic of protests as a display of strength only applies when the movement is sustained over time, when there is a recognized leader to invite to the table, and, most importantly, when organizing in fact demonstrates substantial and reusable social capital. It’s not the same when a Facebook call for like-minded people goes viral overnight or a Twitter account surges for a day.
The protests’ power is clear: They have triggered regime change, both in the big sense of new systems and new people and the smaller sense of hasty clarifications.
But they were the communication equivalent of grunts. When will language emerge? Without that capacity to communicate, to sustain ongoing movements at the scale of the protests, we are still in the early days of creating any kind of new social compacts to replace the ones that protests explode.
Jessica Seddon is managing director of Okapi Research and Advisory and writes fortnightly on patterns in public affairs.