In the years since the Arab Spring protests across the Middle East and the Iranian Green Movement, scholars, writers and pundits of all shapes and sizes have been questioning the real impact of social media in creating lasting change. “Slacktivism” is a term we often hear in conjunction with such analyses, referring to the lazy activism taken up mostly by outsiders who do little to contribute to the issue at hand. I, myself, have been guilty of it. When the Green Movement was in full force in the summer of 2009, I watched the news powerlessly from thousands of miles away. Like many Iranian-Americans, the most I could do was change my Facebook profile picture to an image of the popular slogan, “Where is my vote?”
Researchers have found that social media tends to play a minimal role even inside the countries where such movements are taking place. In Iran, for example, most of the tweets about the Green Revolution actually came from outside the country. Iranians had limited access to social media during the Green Movement, as the government had blocked Twitter and Facebook.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a cynical and much-cited essay for The New Yorker in which he downplays the influence of social media as a tool for activism. “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties,” he writes, and “weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”
Yes, Gladwell is correct in his argument that a Facebook user’s decision to change his or her profile picture pales in comparison to the high-risk actions of civil rights protesters in the 1960s. But he ignores cases in which social media has been an outlet for free expression, in stark defiance against oppressive governments that would prefer their citizens silenced.
Case in point: “The Great Unveiling” movement, as Vocativ calls it. Women throughout Iran have been posting to Facebook photos of themselves in which they are (gasp!) de-veiled. It may seem tame and light-hearted on the surface, but we’d be wrong to ignore the bravery of these women and the inherent activism in this. In a country that actively monitors and enforces a strict dress code for women, this is a direct challenge. The movement’s founder has faced criticism from Iranian conservatives but, besides banning Facebook, the government can do little to stop it (in fact, even a ban would be ineffectual in the long-term, as most Iranians can get around them).
I’d say it’s time for a reassessment, Gladwell. This one’s a definite win for social media.