TOPIC GUIDE: DM Israel: Online Activism

"Social media is rejuvenating political protest"

PUBLISHED: 11 Apr 2015

AUTHOR: Joel Cohen & Stefan Rhys Williams

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Social media – where internet and mobile technologies are used to engage in an interactive exchange with others – has been hailed by many as a democratising force similar to the printing press in 1440 [Ref: Huffington Post]. The use of social media has coincided with a resurgence of protests worldwide, from unprecedented upheavals across Europe and the Arab world, to Occupy camps around and in Israel’s own ‘J14’ social justice demonstrations in 2011 [Ref: openDemocracy]. Some have attempted to draw a correlation between the two – suggesting that social media has facilitated the politicisation and mobilisation of people, and allowed the discussion of issues, and the advocacy of change across traditional societal dividing lines, in previously unthinkable ways [Ref: BBC News]. While some believe: “the speed of doing things compensates for [protesters] relative lack of organization” [Ref: Guardian], others have emphasised these movement’s lack of lasting impact, claiming that they may just have been a reaction to economic or political situations. As a means of campaigning, social media is used regularly across all sectors of Israeli society allowing their ideas and concerns to reach a wider audience which might not ordinarily be represented in the mainstream press [Ref: Times of Israel]. Conversely, critics argue that political protest is not just a numbers game; high page views or clicking ‘like’ on a Facebook campaign page hardly constitute meaningful political engagement [Ref: Guardian].

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

A social revolution or just the latest technology?
When millions of Egyptians gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in 2010, journalists attributed the speed and impact of the Arab Spring to the ‘Twitter Revolution’ [Ref: Atlantic]. In places where traditional media and ways of communicating are strictly controlled by governments, the anonymity possible on social media has opened up space for people to organise and communicate away from government control and censors. As author Heather Brooke puts it: “Whereas before, they might have felt alone in having those concerns, instead, through social networking, they could band together and find out that they all share these concerns before starting to organise” [Ref: Wired]. Arguably, online services like the private the web browser, Tor, along with messaging services like Whatsapp and Twitter weren’t popular before recent protests, suggesting the use of these services has risen alongside contemporary events. In the case of Ukraine’s pro-European protests in 2013, digital marketing expert, Maksym Savanevskyy, argued people’s online usage: “…changed dramatically” after a movement gathered in the streets and that “people who don’t have Twitter accounts are following the hashtag to get the latest news” [Ref: BBC News]. That social media is used by protesters to communicate is without question, but the extent to which it is genuinely rejuvenating political protest has been challenged. Is social media just another means to communicate – a modern and efficient form of post and telephone - or something different in kind? One researcher, studying the use of social media in Tunisia’s uprisings, reflected that: “Facebook is what guided the protests, the true vehicle for change was the protests themselves” [Ref: Atlantic]. For every protest that has used social media to connect with a broader audience there are those who claim the cause being fought for, not the technology used to fight it, explains why each protest has become significant. They argue that ideas will always find ways of communicating themselves, but social media is a tool like any other. For advocates of the power of new technologies, the difference between social media and traditional communication tools comes from its responsiveness: because stories and posts are promoted by friends or people we admire – people we have chosen to receive updates from – protest has become more accessible and more interactive than has ever been possible before [Ref: Washington Post] .

Engaging beyond the digital world
But the issue of continuous engagement has also been challenged by those who question the quality or importance of protest led by campaigns on social media. When petitions can be ‘signed’ with the click of a mouse or ‘trolls’ can undermine political debate to the level of personal slanging matches important issues can be trivialised. Micah White from the organisation Adbusters – which began the Occupy movement – claims: “Clicktivists are to blame for alienating a generation of would-be activists with their ineffectual campaigns that resemble marketing” [Ref: Guardian]. Though e-petitions can attract large numbers of supporters [Ref: Total Politics] , “…the current obsession with ‘raising awareness’ actually represents the negation of political action, and its replacement by a form of top-down, therapeutic moralising” argues one write [Ref: spiked]. In other words, just because some campaigns are backed up with ‘real word actions’ does not mean that all of them are – and when Hosni Mubarak and other repressive regimes have shut down their country’s internet access, real world protests have not disappeared [Ref: Atlantic]. In celebrating Clicktivism “...the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change” is often ignored [Ref: Guardian] with people thinking the: “...freedoms previous generations had to fight for are now to be won with a click of a mouse” [Ref: Standpoint]: a passive form of political action dubbed ‘Slacktivism’ [Ref: New Statesman].

A digital democracy?
Even outside the world of protest social media has become a lasting feature of political culture used an ever-widening variety of institutions organisations and individuals for political ends. In 2013 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even announced that: “…a new pro-Israel public diplomacy infrastructure of students on Israeli campuses is being established that will assist in advancing and disseminating content on the social networks” [Ref: Haaretz]. These and other ‘digital democracy’ initiatives are, according to UK blogger Laurie Penny: “…effecting a shift in the way in which politics is understood across the world, and in the relationship between governments and citizens” [Ref: Prospect], offering marginal groups in society a means of participating in political processes. Faced with such a deluge of information online from so many sources, neuroscientists have been left asking if we are more often distracted by social media than engaged by it [Ref: Guardian]. While the anonymity afforded by social media may make it easier to organise protest and express controversial opinions freely, there is also the risk that the same lack of accountability makes the engagement with ideas and politics consequently less serious. As influential author Evegeny Morozov questions: “What if the liberating potential of the Internet also contains the seeds of depoliticisation and thus dedemocratisation?” [Ref: New York Times].


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Tweeting Ferguson: how social media can (and cannot) facilitate protest

Joshua Tucker Washington Post 25 November 2014

Three cheers for the internet

Laurie Penny Prospect 16 December 2009


Awareness-raising makes you sick

Ken McLaughlin spiked 11 February 2015

So, Was Facebook Responsible for the Arab Spring After All?

Rebecca A. Rosen Atlantic 3 September 2011

Clicktivism is ruining leftist activism

Micah White Guardian 12 August 2010


J14 and the movement for social justice in Israel

Sylvaine Bulle openDemocracy 7 April 2012

Is the internet a tool of tyranny?

Nick Cohen Standpoint December 2009


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Terrorists In The Internet Era

Adriana Bianco International Post 1 March 2015

Why the modern world is bad for your brain

Daniel J Levitin Guardian 18 January 2015

The resonance of Occupy

Lucy Townsend BBC News 24 November 2014

Inside Avaaz – can online activism really change the world?

Carole Cadwalladr Guardian 17 November 2013

The revolution will be digitised

Katie Scott Wired 18 August 2011

The serious and silly uses of epetitions

Fern Tomlinson and Cathy Thom Total Politics 12 August 2011

Twitter Can’t Save You

Lee Siegel New York Times 4 February 2011

Internet activism: for and against

New Statesman 8 January 2011

Online protest: Power to the people?

Frontline Club 10 August 2010

What do social media and the printing press have in common?

Jenny Darroch Huffington Post 1 October 2009


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


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