Less than social media: How hashtags have hindered progressive movements — and fueled the right

Gal Beckerman explains how social movements like the Arab Spring were undermined by the very tool that enabled them

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published February 23, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" exchange insluts with counter-protesters as they attempt to guard the entrance to Emancipation Park during the "Unite the Right" rally. (Getty/Chip Somodevilla)
White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" exchange insluts with counter-protesters as they attempt to guard the entrance to Emancipation Park during the "Unite the Right" rally. (Getty/Chip Somodevilla)

Real change takes time. "People don't just cut off the king's head," Gal Beckerman begins "The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Rise of Radical Ideas." Released this month by Crown, Beckerman's new book notes that while the public is riveted by images of a newly ignited social movement — "the adrenaline, the tear gas… a man standing up to a tank" — that's only the third act in a much longer play, most of which has already taken place offstage.

Throughout history, movements that have transformed societies, overthrown governments and beheaded kings, Beckerman writes, started with a lot of talk. It just was not the sort of talk we have today. 

"The Quiet Before" — which befittingly starts quietly, with the tale of a 17th century French astronomer using an exhaustive letter-writing campaign to stage a scientific experiment in the days before capital-S science — at first seems like a Big Idea book, threading together obscure parcels of history into a grand theory of today. But what distinguishes Beckerman's latest (he's also the author of the lauded 2010 history "When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry") is that it has heart and purpose. 

It's a book born out of disappointment. The promise of liberatory movements like Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter —mass movements capable of taking immediate action thanks to the unprecedented outreach of social media — was undermined by the very tool that enabled their rise. Compared to slow-cooked, pre-internet movements, both good and evil — the smuggled samizdat writings through which Soviet dissidents imagined a post-authoritarian world into being, or the obscure Italian Futurist journals in which a band of proto-fascists laid the groundwork for Mussolini — today's revolutionary movements are starving amid plenty, able to talk to the whole world, but not, or at least not effectively, with each other. 

RELATED: In an age of fascist counterrevolution, our biggest problem may be the death of ethics

Beckerman has worked on this book, off and on, for a decade, including a years-long pause to pursue a PhD in media studies to inform his suspicion that, in medium-is-the-message fashion, the way we talk online today is making it hard to make real change. The book that's resulted is sweeping in its scope —divided into two clear sections — and in its diagnosis.

There's the sort of movement that happened before the internet, with the French astronomer using the medium of letters to help birth the scientific revolution, an Irish activist using mass petition-canvassing to raise class consciousness, a Ghanaian newspaperman whose open op-ed pages helped engender anti-colonialist African nationalism, and the American teens with glue sticks whose zines sparked Third Wave feminism. Then there's the after, with the ecstatic rise and tragic undoing of the Arab Spring, the stymied potential of the first iteration of Black Lives Matter, and the frightening fact that, in a world where effective progressive movement-building is often hindered more than helped by social media, the exile of white supremacists and neo-Nazis from many mainstream platforms unintentionally provided them with exactly the incubator they needed to plan their own real change.  

It's not all hopeless, but it is serious.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When I started reading, "The Quiet Before" seemed like a "Big Ideas" book. By the end, it seemed more a manifesto on organizing. How did this book come about? 

In terms of origin, I trace it back to two things that happened concurrently. One was observing the Arab Spring and the greater moment of revolutions in the early 2010s and all the triumphalism that came with this assumption that we'd been given this new form of communication with revolutionary potential and that all activists or dissidents needed was a connection to the internet to make change. It occurred to me even back then — when there was some success and people were able to go gather in the streets at larger numbers and with greater speed than ever before — that there was definitely a downside to this. And then a lot of these revolutions just sort of petered out, once that that initial rush of attention and visibility went away. 

I was thinking about that, along with the fact that my first book was partly about Soviet dissidents. I got really curious about their use of samizdat, which was this underground, self-published writing, and what it was able to do for them in terms of sustaining a community of dissidents over many, many years. It gave them a forum for developing their ideas, talking with one another, arguing for and imagining different realities for themselves. The contrast of having spent that much time with samizdat, and then seeing how limited the use was of social media for modern-day revolutions, came together to spark my interest in thinking about this, about media and change in general. 

It was fascinating to read the chapter on samizdat considering what's happening now with Russia and Ukraine. Is there anything from that history that's applicable to what's going on now? 

The situation in Russia over the last 15 years makes me think about the nature of change and how it's often three steps forward, two steps back. It almost usually is. The dissidents in the Soviet Union wanted Western, democratic, liberal values to infuse their societies, and were beginning to create that through samizdat. They experienced moments in the '90s where they saw that seep into their societies. And then, under Putin, it's seeped back out. It should make anyone understand the nature of change and how it happens over time. 

The other thing to be said is that samizdat came out of a world where there wasn't any other way for them to communicate with one another. They needed that underground channel because they literally couldn't use typewriters most of the time, let alone publish in any formal way. And there was something generative in what that provided for them, that kind of secluded, huddled space. These days, in Russia and everywhere else, most people, unless their ideas are so noxious that they get shoved off the big platforms, they don't look for those spaces anymore. And there's some harm that comes from that. 

How did you find the case studies you use to illustrate the tools that are necessary for successful mobilizing, like the story of Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Periesc?

I wanted to find the footnotes I could explode out into bigger stories. And Periesc was one of those footnotes: quite literally just a mention of him and of this experiment he carried out — to use a contemporary word, this kind of crowdsourcing where he coordinated an observation of an eclipse in 1635 among dozens of observers who all sent back their data to him. And through that, he was able to figure out the correct longitude of the Mediterranean Sea, which was a sort of a subversive act at the time, when church doctrine still was pretty firm and didn't look lightly on people who were carrying out science. 

I started to scratch the surface and found that there is this incredible store of letters that Periesc left behind — 100,000 pieces of paper and thousands and thousands of letters. He never wrote a book, but his legacy was in these letters, because they were the connective tissue among these great minds in the early 17th century who were building to the scientific revolution. Essentially, these are people who were all trying to rediscover a new relationship with nature and the power of the scientific method. I was able to go through them and the whole world opened up, of the letter as a form of communication and the role it played in the slow accretion of knowledge and of recruiting these people who he would need for this experiment, most of whom were missionaries, not inclined to carry on science, and how letters allowed him to move them towards a new way of engaging with nature.  

In thinking about how the medium influences the potential for organizing, your second example — of Feargus O'Connor petitioning the English government for voting rights, not just as a demonstration of mass public support but also as a means of consciousness-raising among the working class — was fascinating on its own, but also in terms of how signing petitions today is usually considered activism's cheap grace.

Like "slacktivism," yeah.

There were many petitions in the Chartist movement that they came up with to make their point and try to build political power. But the first one, in 1839, managed to gather just over 1.25 million signatures of working men and women whose living conditions amid industrialization were just horrid. But they had no political leverage, no political representation whatsoever. They literally couldn't vote. Only about one in six men were able to vote in England at the time. And so their recourse, which took the form of this enormous petition, was really the only thing they had. They took advantage of this loophole in British law that went back to the 14th century, that any citizen could petition the king and Parliament for a grievance. Usually, it was used for things like land disputes, but under the leadership of Feargus O'Connor, who is this charismatic, bombastic character who traveled the country rallying people, they concentrated as a class on this task of accumulating signatures. And the difference between the way we think of petitions today and then, is this was hard work—to go door to door, convince people, try to gather more and more signatures. It was risky too because there were stories of people exiled from the country for signing allegiance to a union. So all of it was dangerous, hard work. 

But something that spun out of that hard work was a real sense of solidarity, community and allegiance to a cause and an actual constituency. I mean, the petition created the constituency because the work of doing it, this whole world of associations and allegiances, spun out of that. 

That first petition failed. They brought it to Parliament in the summer of 1839 and were literally laughed out the door. But it laid the groundwork for what would be another 30 years of activism. 

In reading the book, I was reminded of a line from a Garret Keizer essay, after the 2004 election: "Reactionary politics work well with electronic media because reaction is electric," while "Revolutionary politics have always been tied to a dogged willingness to teach." Your book seemed to echo that, but also perhaps offer an update?

I think that theory is correct, but I think it's something that people have managed to ignore or be distracted from. It's a truth that people have been distracted from because social media provides a tool for organizers, activists and dissidents that we've never seen in human history, which is this extraordinary bullhorn, this ability to call out everybody in the streets right away at mass numbers. That's incredible. There's no denying that how useful that is. The problem is that it's so good at doing that, it kind of leads one to believe that that's all that's needed.  

The Arab Spring chapter, to me, is the greatest cautionary tale in this regard. Here was a coalition of people that came together through the internet, through Facebook, who eventually were able, because of that bullhorn, to take their gathering to the center of Cairo. And their sheer physical presence—a presence that the internet facilitated—brought down a dictator. But they also were so enamored with this tool they had been given that they didn't quite understand it was going to be utterly useless for them in creating the kind of political opposition they would need to build in order to really confront real political power. And in fact, it was going to have the opposite effect, which is the tearing-down aspect of social media we all know so well, to completely undermine their efforts to find consensus, to learn, to teach each other, to do all that work I think progressive causes really, really need and want to be able to do. 

That quote still remains a truth. But it's one that progressives have not fully understood when it comes to the tools they're actually using to make change. 

Whereas the right has?

The right kind of has!

The interesting thing about the right is that, in the extreme right, they have been forced into smaller and smaller holes, because so much of what they're doing is seen as not legitimate in the greater public sphere of Facebook and Twitter. So they have to find smaller and smaller holes, and in those holes are able to actually do some of the work that I wish that the progressive causes would get a chance to do. They're strategizing. They're refining their ideas. They're thinking about how best to bring them out into the world. 

In your chapter about the Italian Futurists, you describe how their culture of in-fighting helped build a proto-fascist revolutionary movement. How does that compare to the jockeying on social media today, which you see as a lot more damaging to movements? 

I think the element we have today is it's so public and performative. There is always the worry of shame. I'm not going to put out my most interesting idea or one that is not fully developed yet because I might be laughed at somehow or thought not worthy of participating. Among the Futurists there was this role of egging one another on, arguing with each other and debating, and that is clearly an essential role that a movement needs, especially as it's nascent, as it's trying to figure out what it wants and what it is. There has to be some space where people can argue among themselves — and among themselves being a critical part, because you want a degree of allegiance or solidarity before you enter. But once in the room, you want to allow for the push-and-pull that actually creates more solid movements and ideas, that can actually move out into the world and start recruiting more and more adherents. 

Related to that, how does today's news cycle, and its intensification on social media, affect movement building? I'm thinking in particular of how "movement moments" — whether BLM, #MeToo, or others — quickly lead to a secondary news cycle of accusations that they've "gone too far."

The outside glare definitely plays a role in limiting the capacity of movements because everything is so performative and it's all towards the purpose of gaining followers or visibility. Then you're trapped in this loop of needing to see that continue. The saddest example I have of this is in talking with the Black Lives Matter activists who I profiled in the book, from the 2015-2016 iteration of BLM around Ferguson. The movement had some visibility and then somehow they got trapped in this need for extremely brutal videos of police violence on Black men. The media began to depend on those videos, too, as a way of keeping any attention on this movement. And all the work that needed to happen to actually figure out how to turn that visibility into concrete change on the ground was kind of swept away once Donald Trump came to power in 2016. It sucked all the oxygen out of social media. They lost their only means to get their message out. So there can be real harm when you're depending on those cycles, on those booms and busts, as the lifeblood of your movements. 

How should we think about these questions in the so-called post-truth era, when a lot of people on the right are developing fleshed-out theories, built in small movement communities, but which amount to QAnon or antisemitic conspiracy theories about "Cultural Marxism"? 

It's quite challenging, what's happening in our public sphere today. I'm trying to make an argument that we can't cede the ground to the people coming up with false, antisocial narratives. We need the spaces and the opportunities to counter those. The tools out there need to be seen as neutral, and we need the variety of them to be picked up not just by these forces. But if people look at the internet and say all I need to do to make progressive change is have a hashtag go viral, and against that you have groups of people figuring out how to allow their dark conspiratorial visions to ferment more fully in other places? From my perspective, we need that ferment to happen for the voices that will counter them.  

What prospects do you see for returning to a more productive form of organizing, and is there a role for social media within that? 

I don't really see the book as a cyber-pessimistic, "we should turn off the internet" book. My point is more about activists' sense of self-awareness to know when the bullhorn is the appropriate tool to use and to understand that there are other means of communication.

I am actually hopeful. People have become aware of the negative impacts of social media on their personal lives — how they make us distracted and frazzled and limit the kinds of conversations we can have or push them in certain directions — or even when it comes to thinking about democracy, and how we've become so much more divided and outrage has been exacerbated through those forms of communication. There's much more awareness of it now than when I started working on this project. The problem is that often doesn't extend to the way we think about social and political change. We still have this weirdly romantic idea about what that hashtag-gone-viral can achieve. That's where I want people to stop and understand how they are contorting themselves to fit the metabolism of social media when it comes to movement and building towards new ideas. 

But there are places. It's not much of a mystery — communicating through an email chain or a DM group that only has 10 or 12 people or through an encrypted app like Signal or Telegram — those can be very productive spaces and they need to work in concert with the big, public attention-grabbing ones. But my worry is the next time public attention turns towards something like the question of police reform, I want to make sure that those more refined, strategic, pinpointed, even wonky local ideas, for how to turn that attention into real concrete change, that that's happened. That there has been a kind of quiet before. 

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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Arab Spring Black Lives Matter Gal Beckerman Interview Movements Social Media