Maryam Jamshidi

The Real Power of Twitter Activism

April 2, 2014

This piece first appeared in Medium on March 31, 2014. Click here for the original article.

Written by Maryam Jamshidi.

On Wednesday, March 26, The Colbert Report aired a segment lampooning Redskins’ owner, Dan Snyder, for refusing to change his NLF team’s name to something, say, a little less racist toward Native Americans. As a patronizing conciliation prize to his detractors, Snyder announced he would be spearheading an organization to focus on “genuine” Native American issues.

Never one to let absurdity go unsatirized, Stephen Colbert responded with his own ridiculous and offensive organization, announcing, “I am willing to show the Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

That night all was well on the Colbert Report, as the audience chuckled and Snyder was ridiculed for the fool he was.

The next day, on March 27, @ColbertReport, the Twitter account associated with the news show, tweeted out Colbert’s joke:

Suey Park, a Chicago-based activist focusing on issues of gender and race, saw the tweet and took offense at its exploitation of Asian American stereotypes. On the evening of Thursday, March 27, she tweeted out to her substantial following:

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In the days since #CancelColbert consumed the Twittersphere, there have been multiple debates questioning the purpose of “Twitter activism.” The irony in these conversations is rich, given how quickly Western journalists and commentators started yelling “Twitter revolution!” after uprisings began in the Arab world in December 2010.

Why has mainstream media judged Twitter to be so effective in one case and utterly impotent in another? For some pundits, the dividing line seems to turn on an elitist view of politics. For others, the basest forms of racism and prejudice seem to be at play.

In either case, these narratives are blind to one simple truth — Twitter politics is, in fact, more real than what passes as “real politics” in this country.

The Arab Revolutions: Giving Credit to Social Media

Beginning in December 2010, a series of uprisings and revolutions spread across the Arab world in quick, unabated succession. From Tunisia to Egypt to Libya to Yemen, people took to the streets, in unprecedented numbers, to condemn decades of authoritarianism and call for the provision of basic rights, and economic and social justice.

As dictators began to fall, it became clear to many myopic Westerns that the Arab world had found its savior and its name was social media. At theDaily Beast, Andrew Sullivan marked the ouster of Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011 by asking if Tunisia could be the “next Twitter revolution?” Ethan Zuckerman penned an article a few days earlier that seemed to suggest that, yes, it was. Zuckerman would soon substantially modify his view, although he would still describe social media as “playing a significant role in the events.”

In reality, Twitter and Facebook were mere bit players in the Arab revolution. To a limited extent, with variations between countries, social media sites were used to coordinate action and share information and updates among activists and demonstrators. To a more significant degree, social media helped individuals in the Arab world communicate events to the international community, and mobilize global support for the revolutions.

The West’s back and forth debates on social media’s role hijacked and distracted from events happening on the ground in various regional countries during the revolutions’ critical early days. Many of those who initially contributed to these conversations, like Zuckerman, had a background in media and Internet activism. Their digital, web-focused perspective could, in some sense, be excused for these reasons. But the mainstream media’s decision to amplify and obsessively over-analyze social media’s role could not.

For these opinion-makers, presenting the Arab world’s revolutionaries as “Twitter activists” was very convenient. After all, it fit nicely within an orientalist, twenty-first century fever dream about the region. Western culture and technology were helping the backward and oppressed Arab better himself! By revolting against his government, he was choosing Western progress over Eastern stagnation! Facebook and Twitter gave the Arab a chance to be more like Western man and less like his neighbors in Tunis or Sana’a.

The “Twitter revolution” also promoted an elitist, latte-drinking version of politics, in which bespectacled, well-educated young people, who often spoke perfect English, were the driving force behind events. This was the group Western audiences hoped upon hope were leading the uprisings. They were, after all, the most like “us” and the least like those bomb wielding terrorists, who exist as the other side of the coin in a modern day orientalist world-view.

Where Have “Real Politics” Gone?

You would be hard pressed to spot these liberating and emancipatory qualities in commentary about “Twitter activists” here in the United States. At Salon, writer Andrew O’Hehir added his two cents to the #CancelColbert debate, bemoaning how “Twitter politics” had replaced “real politics.” He wrote:

“Beltway politics are dominated by passionate and often outrageous partisan rhetoric, which cannot quite conceal the fact that Congress has become a useless, paralytic institution that can’t get anything done. Power lies elsewhere, and remains inaccessible. In a similar fashion, angry wars of words between and among self-styled progressives on the Internet do not entirely camouflage the relative powerlessness of everyone involved. Getting into a comments-thread battle or a Twitter-lather about Colbert’s bad joke or Lena Dunham’s fashion-magazine shoot or whatever other outrage du jour conveys a temporary feeling of pseudo-power, much as watching MSNBC (or Fox News) crow about the idiocy of the other side is pseudo-participation in a pseudo-democracy.”

Of course, O’Hehir is right about the disastrous nature of institutional politics. The elite few, the wealthy and the well-connected, clearly have a bigger slice of political power compared to the rest of us. But, does this make organizing or activism outside the walls and halls of federal and state legislatures “pseudo-political”?

For O’Hehir and other skeptics, grassroots activism is politics’ step-child. It does little more than signal the break-down of “real politics” and can never itself be a force for meaningful change.

In reality, though, shaking down the powers that be and creating new political realities certainly cannot happen within institutions, like Congress, that have historically catered to and been dominated by elites. It seems bizarre to rail against establishment control over U.S. politics if you also believe politics only takes place in elite institutions. But, when you do in fact believe this, activism outside establishment walls will inevitably look suspect and desperate.

Skepticism about Twitter activism plays on other sentiments too. As Sarah Kendzior argued in Al Jazeera English, “‘Twitter activism’ is dismissed because the people who engage in it are dismissed — both online and on the ground in Western countries where few minorities hold positions of power.” Kendzior’s comments came in response to a cover story at theNation in January, called “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars.” Written by Michelle Goldberg, the Nation article railed against hashtags, like #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, which has been used by women of color to critique the mainstream feminist community.

In his response to #CancelColbert, Slate’s Dave Weigel epitomized the behavior Kendzior highlighted. In a delicious slice of irony, Weigel used the example of #SolidaryIsForWhiteWomen to cut Twitter activists down to size:

“In a smart and comprehensive piece for The Nation, Michelle Goldberg told its history, and how starting a trending hashtag on Twitter (the case study was #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen) allowed otherwise unknown activists to force discussions on their terms. Twitter is public, and individual blogs or magazines are public, but a tweet with the right hashtag can be forced into the visual spectrum of someone who might have otherwise never paid attention to an argument.

The argument happens on the hashtag founder’s terms. Comedy Central and Colbert fumbled to respond, with the network taking the blame for the out-of-context tweet but—because you have 140 characters on Twitter—never explaining that the joke was at Dan Snyder’s expense. The weaponized hashtag also takes power from the people who are trying to mock it—Twitter doesn’t discriminate between earnestness and parody. People making fun of the humorlessness and bad faith of the hashtag end up keeping it in the “trending” column.”

For Weigel, it seems social media activists are simultaneously armed criminals and conniving opportunists, winning attention to their activism less because of its merit and more because of histrionics and Twitter’s idiosyncrasies. Clearly, they should be dismissed by the mainstream press, which, after all, is reserved for those with the temerity to assume they deserve to be there.

Public Speech and Action

Some may believe you need to wear a suit and stalk the corridors of government to actually engage in politics. But, for the influential political theorist Hannah Arendt, “real politics” takes place almost anywhere people come together to speak and act in concert. On Arendt’s terms, politics is not a function of voting at a ballot box or passing a piece of legislation. It is a form of human togetherness in which people bravely come out from the shadows and into the public sphere, to reveal their thoughts and actions to one another.

Of course, much of what happens on Twitter has little to do with grassroots activism, let alone the kind of speech and action that can bring about broad institutional change or generate meaningful political influence. But, the exceptions are becoming more and more common, as tweets turn into national debates about racism and privilege.

To argue these conversations, born on a micro-blogging site, are the pseudo-politics of the powerless is to assume the political only happens on terms set by the powerful. It is to see politics as a profession undertaken only by those formally elected to office. It is to believe political change is absolute not incremental, achieved all at once or not at all. It is to support the notion that politics essentially belongs to the state, and not to the people. It is, in essence, to buy into an elitist view of the political that betrays history and silences marginal voices.

Throughout human civilization, there have been countless “spaces” where average people have come together to engage in political discussions and actions. The agoras of Ancient Greece and the forums of Ancient Rome were centers of public debate with very real knock on effects for state politics. The coffeehouses of seventeenth century Europe made substantial contributions to the Enlightenment and functioned as information superhighways where people from different walks of life exchanged information and ideas.

What happens on Twitter today is no less concrete or measurable than what took places in those historical spaces. What is different now though is that the political arena has become more accessible to groups excluded from the agoras and forums of old, including women, minorities, young people, and the economically dispossessed. Alternative political spaces are particularly critical in giving power to these marginal communities. Over the last hundred years, these spaces have emerged in fits and starts in the United States– from the labor movement of the early twentieth century to the civil rights movement of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. These political phenomena were also attacked, belittled, and denigrated. But they grew over time — and they changed our world.

This Is Not a Trend. It’s a Movement

#CancelColbert was not the first time Suey Park used Twitter to start an uncomfortable conversation about life in America. Park initially came to prominence in December 2013 after creating another hashtag that also went viral. #NotYourAsianSidekick centered on the topic of Asian American feminism. The conversation trended on Twitter for days and earned mainstream media attention. In an interview with the Washington Postduring the height of its popularity, Park was asked what she would do next in light of #NotYourAsianSidekick’s success. She responded:

“18 Million Rising is helping me with a campaign for #NotYourAsianSidekick so look out for that. In my own life I’ll be producing some personal essays talking about all of those things that we never talk about.

I want these conversations to be ongoing and not just be rooted in having these conversations but having these conversations be transformative to a point where we’re organizing around them. There’s so much potential if we’re able to activate the millions of Asian Americans who are out there.

I think it’s about building a new space honestly and finding variety within the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community. I don’t think this is just a trend because there’s so much more to discuss and to unpack and really do-over.”

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Park’s clarion call sounds very little like pseudo-politics or activism that begins or ends with Twitter. What it does sound like is grassroots political organizing that has brought people together in a public forum to share their thoughts and act in concert.

Take heart skeptical observers — this is what “real politics” looks like. The agora is rumbling again.