From streets to screens: Is online activism the future of social movements?

A SPECTRE is haunting social media — the spectre of political discourse.


This article was originally written in 2019. Please refer to the author’s note at the end of the piece.

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Ateneans conduct a Black Friday Protest along Katipunan Avenue on November 9, 2019 to call out the Duterte regime’s de facto martial law and implementation of Executive Order 70. The protest was in response to the nationwide large-scale arrests of progressive groups that happened a week prior. (Photo by Kabataan Partylist Katipunan)

 

A SPECTRE is haunting social media — the spectre of political discourse.

Ten years ago, the existence of political talk online merely resided in nooks and crannies of forum pages and comments sections of news articles. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other similar platforms were only hosts for entertaining content, and seen as channels for virtual connectivity.

Recently, however, posts about political issues, whether international or local, have become ‘viral’ content, and they usually spread across social media feeds like wildfire. Even memes, which originally proliferated as humorous, apolitical content, are now being reimagined as a means to propagate political statements. Times are indeed a-changin’, and it’s becoming more rapid than ever thanks to the growing pervasiveness of the Internet.

In 2018, a group from Pew Research Center discovered that Americans between the age bracket of 18 to 49, had been active in engaging with political discussions on social media. Curiously, the said research also found that blacks and Hispanics have a stronger inclination to use social media in spreading political awareness and voicing out pressing issues. Meanwhile, in the same year, Pulse Asia found that 51 percent of Filipino Internet users “changed their views concerning politics and government at least once because of something they had seen, read and/or listened to over the internet.” However, this change of perspective remains ambiguous.

But this ambiguity can’t be let go just yet. With the Philippines being hailed as the “social media capital”, and its current president, most especially his supporters, bringing heated political ‘wars’ on social media instead of the real world, there comes an interesting emergence of a new form of political engagement, or even resistance, that specifically catches on with the Filipino youth: online activism.

This form of online interaction among the Filipino youth seem to focus on retaliating against the fake news mill of the Duterte administration, and sharing news about national concerns that the government fails or even refuses to address. When the one holding the highest position in the land is against its own country’s press, and even blatantly attacking the marginalized, the youth sector, who are the most media-literate group and the most optimistic amid challenges, would naturally take up the responsibility to let the government own up to its misgivings.

But, is it all there is to the contemporary Filipino youth’s political involvement? Is activism gradually migrating towards online platforms (i.e., Twitter rallies and petitions), sharing ideologies and building solidarity with a simple click? And, is this ‘evolution’ for better or for worse?

Magmulat at magpamulat (To make aware and be made aware)

Contrary to popular belief, online activism has been going on for quite some time. Before new media became accessible to the average citizen, the only way to break through mainstream media — which are managed by private companies with certain interests — was to hold mass demonstrations on the streets. In that way, others may see the issues raised by concerned groups and individuals, and eventually learn about their struggles. Unfortunately, due to rigid gatekeeping by mainstream media to protect their own interests, not all issues tackled by these social mass movements make it to the nightly news. However, at the emergence of new media by the tail-end of the 1990s, they fell to the hands of the people, most of it left unmonitored by corporate motives. It became an avenue for the people to voice out their political qualms freely, without having to go through the bureaucracy and effort mainstream media requires.

Several of early online activism’s most prominent examples are the Americans’ MoveOn.org project and the anti-World Trade Organization protest in Seattle, 1999, which was largely organized through email messages. This type of political engagement, then called “virtual activism”, went on until it reached its peak in 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring issue. From then on, protesters in Western countries began denouncing anti-people policies and human rights attacks through social media platforms. Occupy Wall Street, #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, the Green Revolution, and many others became the offshoots of virtual activism, but more known this time as “online activism”.

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Protest posters found at the waiting shed of Ateneo de Manila’s Gate 2.5 last November 6, 2019 read “Defend Negros,” “Stop the killings,” “Stop the attacks,” and “Junk EO 70”. Unknown individuals have put up similar posters around the Loyola Schools, which carry messages about pressing national issues. (Photo by the author)

 

In the Philippines, the earliest forms of activism goes all the way back in the colonial era: when educated Filipinos began writing propaganda against the Spaniards; when young men came together and organized the first Philippine Revolution; when educated Filipinas encouraged their fellows to join the suffrage movement during the American period. Aside from having the common political antagonist — the colonizers — these movements were largely led by the Filipino students. Hence, it can be seen that, since time immemorial, the youth have been an indispensable force in the liberation of the Filipino people. This role of the youth especially reached its peak during Ferdinand Marcos’ tyrannical regime, which gave rise to organizations such as the League of Filipino Students (LFS) and National Union of Students in the Philippines (NUSP). Mass organizations (MOs) and other student movements were able to gather membership through discussions on the regime, as well as working with the marginalized sectors such as the urban poor, the farmers, and the workers. Their operations were mainly on ground due to the lack of technology.

However, four decades on, these organizations and student movements still exist today, as they now oppose Duterte’s anti-people attacks, which they see as no different from Marcos’ dictatorial regime. Similar to their Western counterparts, they were also able to use new media into propagating their political movements online, and subsequently gaining the attention of the youth and adults alike. Eventually, it developed into one of the primary ways where the youth are urged to engage politically in the 2010s.

Gian[1], a member of Anakbayan UST, found out about MOs through social media. “Twitter enabled me to be more aware of the political issues I wouldn’t have known of due to my social privileges,” he said in a mix of English and Tagalog. He shared that, before joining Anakbayan, he thought the poor were poor because they were just lazy. Eventually, after engaging with the members’ educational discussions, he came to realize how backward this notion was, and later on he became a member himself. “Since then, I’ve felt so fulfilled, because now I understand the world deeper through theory and practice,” he added.

Meanwhile, Kris[2] had her own reservations before she joined Panday Sining (PS) Katipunan. “I learned that, as opposed to my adherence to issue-based, identity politics, the correct analysis would be that which is based on class,” she said. She also knew about her MO through Twitter “rallies” and pubmats. “I became interested in joining what I believed were avenues to practice one’s convictions with regard to social justice.”

Somewhat different from Gian’s and Kris’ experiences is that from Bengton[3], a member of LFS UP Los Baños. His parents used to be members of youth sector MOs themselves, and were even present in the mass demonstration which led to the infamous 1987 Mendiola Massacre. Because of this, he grew up learning about social realities through his parents’ teaching. Bengton soon realized that although there were some overlaps in his experience as an activist, he “did not experience state fascism as much as they did.” Despite the difference in how he became aware, he still credits social media platforms as strengthening his understanding of the Philippine society.

No matter the platform and mode, the main purpose of activism is to garner attention, to gain traction. Since activism is supposed to be an organized movement of concerned citizens, getting through the most effective media is the key to a successful campaign towards achieving social change.

Palabnawin ang diskurso (To muddle the discourse)

Before looking at the positives of online activism, it’s worth noting that these organizations are not the only voices existing in the realm of social media. There are also others who aren’t aligned with the said groups’ analyses and campaigns, but gain traction all the same. Because of this, it’s too easy to let the discourse be overpowered by one or the other. Who, then, is telling the truth?

This is the contentious line social media users tread on the daily. Because new media platforms remain unchecked, anyone could post anything, regardless of whether it causes distortion or not. Activists belonging in MOs uphold a specific line of analysis on the society, and this is what they use in comprehending political issues. However, because of the multitude of voices present in the Internet, the sharpness of the argument gets lost in translation.

An integral part of this line of analysis is being immersed with the people, the masses. A form of distortion would be, as former Kabataan Partylist Representative Raymond Palatino writes, “students and idealist young citizens believ[ing] that they can change the world by adding causes on Facebook or if they sign online petitions. There is a new breed of activists who spend their productive time sitting in front of a computer. Instead of organizing communities, they build virtual communities.” According to him, it fosters a “politically impotent” of activism because it “prevents the educated segment of the population from developing a genuine link with the masses.” There is a disconnect between social realities and the virtual world, between the material and the ideal.

Thus, only one thing can “cure” this “information overload” in online politics, and that is to connect with people offline. Truth, in this case, is connected to material conditions, the real world. Gian, Kris, and Bengton didn’t stop at joining their respective MOs and supporting their content online. Rather, they went beyond the theories and practiced what they learned. They joined mobilizations, took part in community integration, and even invited fellow students to educational discussions. Indeed, activists “must organize not just their inbox but the whole society.”

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Ateneans assemble for a short discussion at Xavier Hall on October 18, 2019. On the same day, the students stayed in front of the Vice President of the Loyola Schools’ office and held a sit-in protest to demand accountability for recent sexual harassment cases. (Photo by Kabataan Partylist Katipunan)

 

Lumubog sa masa (To go ‘down the hill’)

PS Katipunan Chairperson Joseph Gavine Jr. highlights the role of social media activism in their concrete mode of work. Aside from posting statements and disseminating relevant information, they use their social media accounts to enhance their on-ground activities. Their use, then, isn’t separate from practice.

Personally, Gavine finds offline engagement more effective than online. “Social media is just a tool for people to be aware,” he said. “I find it better when I talk to people in real life, since I feel that it is more empathic.” He doesn’t see the online real as the future of activism, because social media are “a dark place”, and it isn’t enough “since our cause is to organize the masses.”

Likewise, Lilac Fameronag, NUSP’s Deputy Secretary General for Publication, recognizes the impact of social media in the change of activism, but it hinders praxis. “Social media has augmented the reach of activists and allowed for a wider sharing of social issues,” she said. “[But] social media can be likened to a gated neighborhood: it is yet another bubble that prevents those inside it to see the reality of the streets.”

In the argument of safety, especially amid threats of government crackdowns, Fameronag calls cowering behind online activism as “[serving] the order as good as fulfilled.” She emphasized that not all of the masses have access to the Internet, so using solely online means remains a futile move. Instead, she said, “At times like this, activists need to not be deterred. If people fail to see the youth on the streets, they might take it as our giving up.”

In the end, it seems that the times have changed indeed, but the antagonists of the story never left. This time around, however, modern technology may enhance the means to fight back, but it cannot completely replace the mode that is most attached (and most effective) to liberating the broad masses. After all, as activists remind themselves every now and then: theory without on-ground practice is sterile, and practice without theory is blind.


[1][2][3] The interviewees’ real names were redacted for security purposes.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was originally written in November 2019, as fulfillment of a class requirement for Online Journalism. The author intended to post the piece for archiving/portfolio purposes.

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