The revolutionary wave of demonstrations, protests and wars known collectively as the Arab Spring has spanned Algeria to Oman, covering a distance of 3,400 miles and toppling regimes that governed for a generation. The use of social media by demonstrators to organize and communicate has raised new questions about social movements in the Internet Age.
Scholar Manuel Castells addressed these questions in a lecture August 23 at the Library of Congress John W. Kluge Center, titled “Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age.” The talk is now available as a webcast.
Castells is among the world’s leading sociologists: an author of 26 books, an advisor to foreign governments and the 2012 winner of Norway’s prestigious Holberg Prize. This summer he resided at The John W. Kluge Center as the Kluge Chair in Technology and Society, continuing his research on social movements in the Internet Age. These unexpected movements have sprung up across the world, not solely in the Middle East, but also Iceland, Tunisia, Chile and the United States. Demonstrations have occurred in thousands of cities.
Castells sees a pattern common to these movements. The trigger, he says, is anger; the repressor is fear. In each movement, fear was overcome by individuals sharing in the outrage together online.
“We are all trembling,” Castells said in the lecture. “When we cannot hold hands in the street, we hold hands on the internet.”
Once fear is overcome, Castells theorizes, mobilization then ensues. Mobilization begets enthusiasm, which breeds hope that things can be different. (Hence the title of his new book, “Networks of Outrage and Hope.”)
The shape of these recent social movements is defined by the Internet. Castells reminds us that the Internet is an “old” technology, first deployed in 1969. It does not create social movements. Rather, today’s social movements are defined by the new forms of the Internet, specifically the shift from mass communication to mass self-communication. Mass self-communication reaches everywhere and operates independently of ruling authorities. These movements are leaderless. They do not need control centers. And they are impervious to destruction. As Castells says, you may kill the messenger, yet the message lives on in the network. He describes the networks as “rhizomatic”: they are underground, they emerge, they go down, and are connected all the time.
Ultimately the movements coalesce by occupying the urban space. On the Internet, you connect but you do not touch. In the city, together, there is a moment of re-formation. By forming on the internet first, though, as opposed to the street, the same movement that failed in Egypt in 2008 can succeed in Egypt in 2011.
Castells cautions us to be careful in evaluating the “success” of these movements. Social movements aim to change the way we think—and in the mind, he says, is where power truly originates, for thoughts dictate actions. Castells points out that before the Occupy movement, in 2009, Pew Research Center found that 45 percent of Americans thought income inequality was the defining conflict in American society. In 2011, 70 percent thought so. While that change may not be felt in the next election, it will be felt in the next generation. Castells reads a tweet from Tahrir Square to re-enforce his point:
“We have brought down the wall of fear. You brought down the wall of our house. We’ll rebuild our homes. But you will never build again that wall of fear.”
Trending in Washington this month are a diverse group of think tank events on the topics of the Arab Spring and regulating the internet. As a society we are still grappling to understand the full ramifications of the Internet age we have ushered in. Scholarship will be critical. Bringing enquirers to ask questions and offering a space for the transfer of knowledge and informed discussion is what the Kluge Center aims to do.