After the Debate

While I certainly stand behind the broad message of my Oxford Union speech, it is only right to acknowledge that the subject of debate – the impact of social media on social activism – is a little more nuanced and complicated than my bolshy assertions would have you believe. It’s worth acknowledging some of the arguments in favour of the motion, and expanding on some of the issues I was only able to cruise by in my eight minutes at the despatch box.

First, I wrote down a phrase from Mark Pfeifle, where he described social media as enabling “the soft power of democracy”. I thought this was a persuasive point. My speech focused on social activism in the UK and the USA, where there is a long tradition of social activism, and therefore ‘reinventing’ such activism is a very tough proposition. By contrast, those countries plagued by dictatorship have a stunted tradition of social action, so any tool that enables any kind of activism might be seen as a ‘reinvention’.

On the naysayers side, I enjoyed Matt Warman’s turn-of-phrase. He argued that Internet has primarily empowered people in the democratic West, and that even here, the excluded youth of “Luton and Leeds” remain untouched by the Internet. He went on to argue that Twitter has reinvented media, not activism, a point that would have slotted nicely into my “read the question” refrain, had I the time.

A major issue was that raised by Benjamin Cohen in his speech, which focused on the campaign for gay marriage. On reflection, I think that the gay marriage campaign is probably the best candidate for a social activism ‘project’ that has been enhanced by social media. As Ben described in his speech, much of the campaigning does focus on a sort of ‘peer-to-peer’ campaigning which seeks to persuade friends and relatives, rather than political decision-makers. And I do think that the Internet has been hugely influential in humanising the stories of homosexuals, through sites like It’s Gets Better and also the remarkably candid YouTube videos where a young man comes out to a parent.

I’m not prepared to cede this point to Ben entirely, however. Gay characters have been present in popular culture (such as Eastenders or Will & Grace) for far longer than Social Media has been in existence, or even the Internet, and I think these have been hugely influential in shifting the popular mood towards an acceptance of homosexual lifestyles.

I did dismiss Ben’s suggestion that the speed at which connections take place was not enough for a ‘reinvention’. However, this was an assertion that I am glad no-one took issue with, because one could certainly persist with the idea that changing the speed of something can be utterly revolutionary. I am reading James Gleick’s masterful The Information at the moment, and he certainly seems to define information revolutions as being largely about speed. However, as Senator Vitter pointed out in his own speech, the speed and ease of campaigning often means that elected politicians are hit with a deluge of letters and petitions every day, and the result is that all such correspondence is devalued. Too much speed and convenience can also result in too much noise.

Ella Robertson opened the debate for the proposers, and by some quirk of Union tradition was obliged to spend half her allotted time introducing the seven other speakers. In the precious few minutes she had remaining, however, she cited an example from Columbia of ordinary citizens protesting against the atrocities committed by FARC rebels, co-ordinated through Facebook. Again, this is an example of campaigning and motivating the citizenry directly, rather than via government. It was a good example to open the proceedings, and I am grateful that, seven speeches later, I was able to leave it unaddressed!

Another example of peer-to-peer campaigning I would like to have explored further, but did not have time to discuss, was the wonderful picture messaging campaign that arose earlier this year, between Israelis and Iranians. The images were messages of love and solidarity, expressing disgust and their own Governments’ cynical, war-mongering rhetoric. The idea of short circuiting international relations, bypassing Governments in order to negotiate peace, is worthy of much greater examination and experimentation. A true reinvention of social activism, using the new digital tools, will look something like this, I hope.

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