The Problem With Hashtag Activism

Twitter is now seen as an important medium of progressive activism. But while hashtags may be the quickest way for anyone to tap into the turbulent and frenetic world of online social justice discourse, their record for building the sort of institutions that can boost popular power is an unbroken pattern of defeat.

Demonstrators participate in the #MeToo Survivors' March outside the CNN building in response to several high-profile sexual harassment scandals on November 12, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (David McNew / Getty Images)

In the thirteen years since Twitter’s inception, users from every political stripe have launched countless campaigns, many of which have subsequently been covered or even adopted by traditional media and become household names. In #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice, authors Sarah J. Jackson, Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles propose that Twitter has become an important tool for activists to “advocate, mobilize and communicate.” They say the platform itself has become a powerful counterpublic for marginalized groups, who use Twitter’s hashtag function to facilitate political coalitions and networks. More specifically, the book investigates one particular corner of Twitter activism, defined by a distinct political culture that is liberal, social-justice oriented, consciousness focused, identitarian, intersectionalist, minoritarian, and moralist.

Even reducing the scope of their study to this particular online culture, it would be impossible for the authors to cover their subject in thorough detail. To their credit, the book is focused and provides an honest and dutiful record of the major campaigns of social justice hashtag activism, outlining a history, a trajectory, and a digital landscape. Curiously, though, the authors’ accounts of these campaigns only serve to thoroughly — almost relentlessly — contradict the book’s techno-optimist thesis, page after page, from the very beginning.

The authors have utilized an “interdisciplinary mixed methods approach” in their research, even delving into a sort of Twitter ethnography to include statements from the online activists they’re studying. They acknowledge the friction that can arise when the anecdotal is situated alongside the empirical — “focusing on importance and influence is, of course, a normative choice” — but conclude that standpoint theory need not preclude quantitative rigor, categorizing their subjects as “collaborators” and “researchers themselves.”

Among such collaborators is Genie Lauren, hashtag activist and author of the book’s foreword. Lauren delivers a thoughtful, if all too familiar, account of millennial malaise. After graduating from college just after the 2008 financial crisis, she was working two jobs to pay off her student loans, one in retail and another at a twenty-four-hour call center, where she had plenty of time to blog and tweet on the clock. Initially, Twitter provided her with the company of her fellow “under- or unemployed insomniacs,” but her engagement online turned political around the 2009 Iranian election, or, rather, the #IranElection. Like many politically minded people her age, Lauren marveled at the speed at which information traveled on Twitter, and she was excited to receive real-time dispatches from Iranians on the ground. The platform felt even more legitimate to her when CNN began using tweets as sources, a move that seemed to credential social media as an authentic revolutionary pulpit. This did not prevent the Iranian government from blocking Twitter for a month during the election.

Nonetheless, a number of hashtag campaigns followed, and Genie Lauren dove in. First, there was #TroyDavis, the online wing of a movement to stop the execution of a man convicted of murdering a police officer in Georgia, and a hashtag that seemed to saturate every corner of Twitter for some time. Davis was executed regardless, and Lauren describes the confusion and devastation that followed when the collective passion and will of so many people failed to manifest in the real world — but the real world moved on, and so did Twitter.

Less than six months later, there was #JusticeForTrayvon, where so many like Lauren demanded the arrest and prosecution of George Zimmerman. Here, she echoes Karl Marx on philosophers’ tendency to merely interpret the world, saying, “It felt as though if we could thoroughly understand the problem, we could fix it.” Amid massive public outcry, Zimmerman was arrested, tried, and acquitted.

A Justice for Trayvon March in 2013. (Ann Harkness / Wikimedia Commons)

The online activist community was stumped yet again. First, they had failed to save a life. Then they failed to punish a man who took a life. So what could be accomplished with this platform? Another online activist reminded Lauren of a different Twitter campaign: when the TV cooking show host Paula Deen was being sued for racial and sexual discrimination in the workplace, she maintained her innocence but admitted in a deposition to having used the “n-word” at least once in the 1980s outside the workplace, before retiring the slur from her vocabulary. Twitter swung into full force to demand her firing. Her Food Network cooking show was canceled, and she lost a number of lucrative endorsements (although her cookbooks shot to the top of the Amazon best-seller lists).

Of the six anonymous jurors appointed to the Zimmerman trial, Juror B37 refused to convict. When Twitter discovered she had acquired a literary agent, rumors flew that she had been seeking an agent since the beginning of the trial (unsubstantiated) and that she already had a book deal (inaccurate). After much Twitter-led public pressure, the agent (who also represented O. J. Simpson for the second release of If I Did It) dropped Juror B37 as a client. Victory at last.

Lauren’s story is, quite frankly, one of the more substantial “wins” in the book, which largely measures the influence of Twitter activism according to the metrics of Twitter itself: the saturation and permeation of slogans, platitudes, and their attendant discourse online. In the larger world, it is difficult to spot a victory or any lasting legacy of power among even hugely popular campaigns like #OccupyWallStreet, #ArabSpring, #BlackLivesMatter, #YesAllWomen, and #MeToo. Occupy Wall Street fizzled, the Arab Spring flopped, George Zimmerman walks free, and police murders of black people have not decreased. While it’s true that a few of the high-profile voices of #MeToo managed to punish and even lock up a few of their higher-profile predators (and publicly censure a few more harmless perverts), no meaningful legislation has been passed to protect or empower ordinary women in the workplace. The campaigns featured in #HashtagActivism have given us little more than the prosecution of Harvey Weinstein, the cancellation of a TV cooking show, and the forestalling of a few tawdry book deals.

Who Runs Twitter Town?

In the introduction to #HashtagActivism, the authors are quick to reference academic and “techno-sociologist” Zeynep Tufekci, who observes that Twitter activism “looks very different from traditional, institutional-based politics — a kind of democratic participation that is inclined toward a horizontal, identity-based movement-building that arrives out of grievances and claims.” Like the authors, I would agree with Tufekci’s characterization.

It comes as no surprise, however, that they don’t engage further with Tufekci’s work, or even mention the title of her 2017 book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. As one of the first academics writing on technology and movement-building, Tufekci has been openly and consistently skeptical of social media’s “transformative” potential since at least 2014. Unlike Jackson, Bailey, and Foucault Welles, she engages with the history of progressive online activism as a series of failures that she subjects to critical analysis and comparative-historical investigation.

Tufekci does not regard social media as a poison tree capable of bearing only poison fruit, per se, but she is not naive about the digital means of production. In talks and in print, she has illustrated that governments and capital have far more power than the masses over social media, which they often use to spy, censor, and misinform with impunity. (If you’ll remember, when the Iranian government found Twitter too troublesome, they simply turned it off.) She insists that a digital economy of private companies running on ad revenue — much of which, she notes, is used to target voters through data collection — does not and cannot function as a tool of the people. While she does not argue that data collection can necessarily alter electoral outcomes (indeed, Hillary Clinton’s “data-driven” 2016 presidential campaign didn’t get much out of their “Ada” algorithm), she’s clear that the internet is firmly in the clutches of elites.

(Sara Kurfess / Unsplash)

The free and easy voluntarism of posting and content creation obscures an essential fact: the internet is deceptively vulnerable to corporate manipulation — in many ways, far more so than print, radio, or television. Consider TV: the owners create content, the audience consumes it and judges its value, and the government regulates programming, sometimes ever so slightly, even if only under massive public pressure. With the internet, the audience is invited to create their own content (generally for free), and the owners are largely rentiers or digital landlords that remain totally unaccountable for anything that happens on their preserve. Meanwhile, in the United States, the government and its attendant regulatory bodies are either in bed with big tech or can’t even remember their email passwords.

It is difficult to determine whether the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is uninterested in or merely incapable of regulating the internet, and while advocates of free speech or even basic democracy should regard any attempt to do so with a healthy skepticism, it is significant that you can’t sue a tech company for abuse, harassment, stalking, libel, slander, or defamation that occurs on their platform. What little regulation is adopted is largely designed by the tech companies themselves, and it’s easily sidestepped when convenient. In the United States, the internet operates unlike any other form of media in that it is not subject to the rules that are, at least theoretically, imposed by representatives of the people. With all this in mind, it is difficult to imagine online activity as a revolutionary home base. The omnipotent rulers of these companies yield no transparency, accountability, or democratic control to users, the majority of whom do not display the dedicated platform loyalty of the activists in #HashtagActivism.

Twitter Is on Its Way Out

Even if the public gained some sort of democratic control over Twitter, we would be extremely late to the party. Internet users tend to cycle through social media platforms as they emerge, particularly as new platforms target youth markets with the promise of a parent-free online experience. At this point, Twitter is distinctly millennial, with younger users initially defecting to Instagram, then Snapchat, and now TikTok. Social media platforms also produce their own self-selecting demographics, which are never a particularly representative cross-section of anything. Since online activism is entirely voluntarist, and therefore siloed (“networks” work for the Right as well), mediums for communication will always be a moving target. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok — as our options expand, the crowds disperse.

Twitter users are not only more insular and itinerant than the authors seem to imagine, there are actually very few of them, relatively speaking. A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that only about 22 percent of American adults use Twitter, and they tend to be younger and more progressive than the average American. Moreover, about 80 percent of tweets are produced by 20 percent of accounts, meaning the majority of activity on Twitter comes from a very small (and ever shrinking) number of highly active users. In February 2019, Twitter publicly announced their active user numbers for the first time; previously, the company only publicized their user “growth,” a percentage that was said to be padded with bots and dead accounts. After their grand reveal indicated a much smaller and still shrinking user base, they decided to no longer inform the public about their platform’s numbers.

Even without an accurate inventory of users, the material account of hashtag activism’s record to date exposes it as a midwife to impotent movements that grow and die far too quickly on undemocratic platforms that are corporate-controlled and fleetingly faddish. But what if we could fix all of that? What if we had a social media platform of our very own, one that corrected the aforementioned flaws? Could there be a platform of the people, a publicly controlled fixture that would attract a critical mass of users, with an architecture that patiently fosters the specialization of talents and skills that would herd all the cats of social justice, laying the groundwork for a deft, unified, and democratic organization? Assuming for a moment that such a thing is possible, would it even be desirable?

Can Social Media Be Social?

Once again in clear opposition to the conclusions of #HashtagActivism, Tufekci argues that the rapidity of the growth and spread of online-borne movements may be a potentially intractable obstacle, rather than an advantage, as the speed of horizontalism only seems to foster a specific kind of social formation: the undifferentiated mass. She observes the “tactical freeze” these sprawling movements are inevitably saddled with, as they expand into erratic, unwieldy, unstable blobs, incapable of specialization or coordination. Eventually, they become movements that are unable to move, so they stall out, then dissolve. Tufekci contrasts this life cycle with the slow, heavily coordinated, and decidedly very unspontaneous activism of the civil rights movement, concluding that the March on Washington succeeded as a result of these traditional organizing strategies, while Occupy Wall Street (along with so many other gods that failed) always crumble for lack of them.

Herein lies the fundamental misunderstanding of movement-building in #HashtagActivism. It’s true that political sentiments irradiated by the internet do experience remarkably rapid growth — but so does a tumor. The impressive speed and size of online movements are too often mistaken for viability and maturity, when, in fact, the accelerated development of online activism belies a deadly progeria: it burns hotly, brightly, and briefly, often with nothing to show in the end but a glut of forgettable, disposable content and the emotional exhaustion of participants (and perhaps a monograph or two).

The intellectual detritus of such dreams deferred litter the culture only briefly before the streets are swept clean for the next parade. For the life of me, I cannot remember a single insight from any book written about Occupy Wall Street during its brief window of apparent promise, though I do remember that the website (taken down only a few weeks after this review was written) now advertises one — The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution, from the “co-creator of Occupy Wall Street.” As of one of the more high-profile, media-savvy activists to make a name for himself in Zuccotti Park, the author, Micah White, also plugs his business ventures, including “Boutique Activist Consultancy,” which bills itself as “an activist think tank specializing in impossible campaigns.” In 2019, White was named “Activist-in-Residence” at UCLA’s Institute on Inequality and Democracy, but if you missed that and were unable to attend any of his speaking engagements at Harvard or Yale, you can still enroll in his Activist Graduate School, an online streaming service of “exclusive content” where students receive no grades or credentials but can “learn from leading social movement creators.” It’s $19.99 a month, but you can sign up for a free two-week trial, which might be worth it just for the class taught by Rachel Dolezal.

A general assembly at Occupy Boston.

White’s trajectory since Occupy Wall Street may seem like an extreme example, but it’s not an anomaly in online activism — it is a cliché. Anti-racism consultant and White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo has become even more successful since the second waves of Black Lives Matter renewed interest in her 2018 book. A little fresh buzz online, and it went viral — launching what is essentially a brochure for her workplace anti-racism-training business into an Amazon and New York Times best seller. Of course, many, if not most, such enterprises fail. Millennial activists Leslie Mac and Marissa Johnson (previously best known for storming the stage during a Bernie Sanders rally to demand a conversation about Black Lives Matter), became public laughingstocks when they launched their “Safety Pin Box” start-up, a confusing sort of pen pal program where subscribers pay to get anti-racist mindfulness tips in the mail. This hyper-entrepreneurialism is not only a feature, rather than a bug, of social media activism, it is the native fauna of liberalism online; online is where it thrives, and with far more resilience than any movement attempting to build a social base with hashtags.

The Social Poverty of Social Media

Social media is a marketplace, not a social good. In fact, it’s not even social.

Early in the introduction to #HashtagActivism, Genie Lauren describes herself curiously: “I have always been the sort of person who is sensitive to the plight of other people.” This begs the question: Does Lauren presume that sympathy is a rare trait in a person? Perhaps there is something inherently unsympathetic about the internet that has led her to believe so.

Bluntly, much of political social media is a nasty, vicious place, and while there are the rare pugilistic posters who manage to navigate it without professional repercussions or trauma (my cold-blooded self among them), it doesn’t change the fact that social media is covertly manipulated by unseen architects and money men, and overpopulated with miserable people emboldened by anonymity. The result is a virtual space that’s simultaneously crowded and isolated, an atomized mob of screaming filter bubbles, all attempting to exercise what little power they have, which generally amounts to character assassination, public shaming, or getting someone fired.

I don’t mean to imply that antisocial behavior is a ghost in the machine of the internet. Rather, such behavior is the result of suffering and decline, and social media serves as a convenient repository, and often a Petri dish.

To their credit, the authors of #HashtagActivism are aware of some of the cruelty that flourishes on Twitter, but they generally frame the issue as a war between progressives and unmoderated right-wingers, rather than a conflict of interest between posters and tech companies.

While few would deny the vicious toxicity of social media, many in the book argue that its social benefits outweigh its determinants. This sets a very low bar for what constitutes a net positive. Of course Twitter is a place to make friends, but so is a foxhole — and of course it can be a soothing comfort to the masses, but so are opioids. I made this comparison last year in an article for Jacobin arguing that universal basic income would exacerbate political disenfranchisement:

The introduction of the internet as the main substitute for “community” for the young un/underemployed is not merely a matter of trading rug hooking for video games; this is a technology so powerful that its architects do not allow their children to use it. Online has become an opiate of the lumpen. Similar to weed or alcohol, it is a harmless social pastime for the thriving and robust. For the miserable and economically insecure, however, the internet becomes a pathological social blight, a symptom of initial misery that swells to compound and exacerbate the cycle of antisocial disaffection . . . We are more connected than we have ever been, and we are more isolated than we have ever been.

Social media is a social blight, but only because it is the landscape of a blighted people. Yes, Twitter has algorithmically automated a particular type of social coordination for optimum efficiency, but it’s one that consistently ghettoizes social practices like political activism into insular, antisocial countercultures. So, unlike Tukfekci, I presently have little interest in reforms to fix or “democratize” the internet; it would be putting the cart before the horse. With working-class politics on the back foot, any attempt would be akin to tackling the opioid crisis by tinkering with drug policy. If there is anything to gain from social media at this moment, it is the potential to recruit people into corporeal politics, relegating the platforms to a mere methadone of the masses.

Counterculture Publics

Assuming the authors have read the book, they would no doubt find Twitter and Tear Gas’s thesis on the fragility of social media networks highly inconvenient to their triumphalist victory lap. Like Tufekci, though, they draw inspiration from pre-digital movements, comparing Twitter to the journalism of Ida B. Wells, ACT UP, riot grrrl, and “Negro spirituals,” all of which they describe, along with Twitter, as “counterpublics,” a concept coined in 1990 by Nancy Fraser in “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.”

In the article, Fraser argues that Jürgen Habermas’s “bourgeois public sphere,” which he defines as “the sphere of private people come together as a public,” does not account for the discrimination in the coffee houses and salons that Habermas deems public. Fraser concludes that marginalized groups respond to their exclusion by forming their own “subaltern counter publics.” It’s a somewhat fuzzy (or, if you prefer, “discursive”) concept, but rather than defining counterpublics within any set of parameters, the book continually provides examples, such as those listed above, referring to a sprawl of organizations, media, movements, and genres originating from the social formation of a marginalized identity group historically excluded from larger, “elite” public platforms.

It’s unclear to me the degree to which hashtags or any other social media could be accurately termed a “counterpublic.”

In one sense, Twitter is highly public: it provides no exclusive, protected, or “safe” space for any marginal group, because it’s free and available to all as a medium for both content creation and consumption. It lacks the formal and informal cohesion of any one political identity.

In another sense, Twitter is simultaneously and literally totally private: rather than a public square, it is the platform of a private company with the power to evict, censor, and obscure users on a whim. If anything, Twitter could be defined as the neoliberal opposite of a counterpublic by nearly every metric. It does not function independently of traditional or elite “spaces.” It’s been years since tweets were first absorbed and utilized by traditional media; they now regularly make the news, and nearly every journalist is expected (if not required) to have an active profile. Perhaps most significant, Twitter concedes no real control of the platform to its users. Of course, it’s not always obvious who controls the internet — and that is by design.

It is also worth noting that author-favorite Ida B. Wells did not, in fact, operate entirely in the realm of “counterpublics,” and when she did, and pursued a very populist strategy of leveraging broad support from the general public. She wrote and co-owned Free Speech and Headlight, a radical but hardly niche black newspaper. She also wrote for conservative popular broadsheet publications like the Washington Star. She produced rigorous and empirical pamphlets on lynchings and went on public speaking tours. Moreover, she invested herself heavily in formally organized institutions, from church groups to women’s temperance associations. Wells was a founding member of the NAACP, an organization intended to (and that would later prove to) exercise power and a political agenda far beyond the reach of any counterpublic.

The Definition of Insanity

When Hunter S. Thompson eulogized the expired New Left and its attendant counterculture in his largely autobiographical novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he was mystified at the naive triumphalism with which he and his fellows had regarded their moment in history. His remorse was tempered by bewilderment at their certainty that they once shared a “sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil” and an unquestioning confidence that “our energy would simply prevail.”

It’s a startling change of tone. In a book largely remembered as surreal, menacing, and hedonistic — a psychedelic drug buddy road trip comedy at its lightest — here is a quiet, wistful moment of regret and bafflement. How could they have been so sure they were going to win?

And so, from tragedy to farce, the curiosity of #HashtagActivism could be summed up in one question: Why do Jackson, Bailey, and Foucault Welles insist upon the political victories of social media activism, a strategy that boasts a consistent record of political failure?

The simplest answer is that the authors and I have entirely different definitions of both victory and failure, stemming from incompatible worldviews that long predate the internet. For socialists, the working class is the central subject for the politics of justice and liberation, not because the exploitation of the working class is always the most tragic plight, but because of the contradiction inherent in that exploitation: the world is powered by work, so workers are capable of wielding the power of the world.

For liberals, however, no subject can ever be central, as their worldview is inherently decentralized in order to advocate for the “suffering.” This requires the fabrication of a sprawling, incoherent assemblage of identities deemed “marginal,” or “oppressed,” who are then idealized for the suffering implied in the history of those identities. For the liberal, suffering is the credential that demands rigorous study, bestowing marginal identities with a transhistorical political significance that can only resolve in fetish. Not unlike the American Protestant concept of Christian mercy, with its noblesse oblige toward the “meek” and “wretched,” marginalism relies on a moralist, rather than political approach to injustice.

While it’s true that “marginal” may incidentally refer to working-class people — as, indeed, most people work for a living — it so easily and often refers to a small number of self-appointed “community representatives” who often display a vigilant dedication to their own professional-managerial class (PMC). These “marginal people” can be your colleagues in media, academia, or even entertainment (“networks of race and gender justice,” indeed).

As it functions now, a hashtag campaign is largely an exercise in liberal networking. It offers in-group recognition, the illusion of power, the potential for moral absolution, and sometimes, conveniently enough, professional advantages for the enterprising white-collar progressive. For the more earnest social justice advocate — who probably works at a “job” rather than a “career” — Twitter allows them to participate in “the conversation,” where they can bear witness to suffering among like-minded people, even if it results in little more than a collective, therapeutic wailing into the privately owned digital void. If the authors’ political goals are largely PR campaigns, therapy, and consciousness raising for a more merciful middle class, it’s fair to say that Twitter has been wildly successful.

Only a few paragraphs of #HashtagActivism refer to the potentially nefarious machinations of Twitter — and they are all buried in the book’s afterword. In a publication about politics on social media, fewer than six pages are dedicated solely to the politics of social media. Net neutrality, surveillance, censorship, trolls, misinformation campaigns, and bots all appear to be minor concerns in the otherwise auspicious estimation of Twitter as a powerful and positive force. The authors do, however, appear to be concerned about Russiagate.

This paranoid insularity and PMC subculturalism can only exacerbate atomization and political obscurantism, even more than the New Left ever could. Yet there is a resistance to any consideration of its weaknesses, and a failure to even to address its potential detriments. Much of this stems from a fetish for novelty that has flourished since the cultural turn pronounced the death of dusty old class politics. Social media’s newness is taken as evidence of its potential, even when its own partisans write a book explicitly chronicling its 100 percent failure rate. At the heart of this denial is an ideology of will; this has to work, because it’s all that we have left — all the while, its greatest advocates sing its praises amid an unbroken record of defeat.

Learning What Winning Is

The United States is currently witnessing a revival of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, seven years after the hashtag first went viral in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, reignited after the video of George Floyd’s murder horrified the country. The diffuse, organic, and unstructured trajectory of the first BLM movement didn’t cohere on a national level, nor did the organically developed autonomy of the movement remain in stasis. Various chapters and groups merged, split, or incorporated into NGOs. As with Occupy Wall Street, no “official” demands were ever presented, as no “official” organization actually existed to present them — thus, there was no means or procedure by which to establish anything like a nationally recognized policy agenda. On a local level, a few activist groups managed to advance some police reforms. Many online activists were celebratory, or at least optimistic. Some nearly echoed Louis Brandeis’s line about states being the laboratories of democracy, arguing that local reforms could set precedents that would spread across the country. The more highly publicized police reforms, such as the implementation of body cameras and implicit bias training, might have looked familiar to the middle-class liberals who celebrated such recognizable office culture being introduced into yet another workforce. Unfortunately, nothing made a dent in police brutality statistics. Declaring neither victory nor defeat, hashtag activism more or less moved on to the next trend, as it is wont to do. It is difficult to diagnose the caprice of Twitter discourse. It’s true that social media disrupts your attention span, but perhaps many of the erstwhile militant BLM tweeters just assumed their mission was accomplished and that, like most things, this would be solved with surveillance and a mandatory HR meeting on anti-racism.

As with Occupy Wall Street, or even the now 501(c)(3)-endowed Women’s March, the suggestion that the initial Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t effective is often interpreted as a lack of support for its energy and goals, but the reality is that the success (or lack thereof) of Black Lives Matter is merely the most quantifiable of all the hashtag campaigns. In 2015, the Washington Post actually created a “Fatal Force” database, making it incredibly easy to observe that there’s been no notable reduction in the number of black people killed by police since 2015. At this point, even early organizers of the initial BLM moment are insisting that different organizing strategies will make for a stronger movement the second time around. They also note that public opinion has shifted more favorably toward Black Lives Matter, but there is a risk that accompanies the confidence bestowed by broad public support as well; as with Thompson, activists can succumb to the delusion that the sheer force of collective will can change the world.

Demonstrators march down Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest against police brutality and racism on June 6, 2020 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer / Getty

Despite the fact that the Left has lost every major battle since the civil rights movement, the internal culture of American leftists remains curiously plagued by a delirious revolutionary triumphalism, accompanied by sunny denial. A sort of inverse of end-of-history fatalism, there is little consideration for the realistic limits of power and influence for American left-wingers in 2020. Compulsive magical thinking obscures any honest inventory of resources, strategies, timetables, mistakes, and failures — all the accounting necessary for a serious-minded political strategy. This is not an impossible obstacle, but organizers can no longer take for granted that activists have a definition of winning and losing that is recognizable to anyone outside of a left subculture, or even consistent within it.

The pages of #HashtagActivism are littered with celebratory plaudits for ineffectual online spectacles specifically because the authors are evading their own responsibility to establish the metrics for what constitutes a win or a loss. This is very convenient to them, for when the revolution never happens, they are able to rationalize their aimlessness by insisting that maybe the real revolution was the friends we made along the way. Of course, setting the standards for a win, a loss, or a draw is not the duty of a spontaneous, horizontalist protest collective, nor can it be offloaded onto some intellectual. It requires the sort of deft, coordinated mobility that only a formal organization can provide.

No School Like the Old School

In the absence of working-class institutions that could build and exercise political power, capital benefits from Twitter’s ability to distract, isolate, and anesthetize users, precluding an environment of solidarity and instead perpetuating an impotent discourse that is fundamentally corrosive to the political and social formations necessary for productive movement-building.

Any information or activity more complicated and less disposable than a hashtag will eventually require stable institutions that can grow, build, and recruit in real space and real time. These institutions do not resemble the tyrannically structureless and voluntarist cattle calls of whatever fleeting online mob has made the rounds this week. Any use of the internet for movement-building should be considered with the ultimate goal of social media’s obsolescence, and its supplantation by unions, parties, and political organizations.

Activism must return to the traditional strategies of organizing and institution-building that have demonstrated a true record of success. This work will not move quickly, and most of it won’t be cinematic or produce a flurry of media attention, online or off. Most important, it cannot rely on the very platforms over which we have the least amount of control. Some seem to think that social media will act as the proverbial capitalist that sells us its own hanging rope — and this does have some small truth in it, to the degree it can be used as a bulletin board for promoting real-life events, but such organizing is the most flimsy and minor outreach. A desperate activist tweets. An aspiring activist uses Facebook. A fledgling organizer emails. An established organizer has phone numbers. A successful organizer is offered addresses.

It’s appropriate that #HashtagActivism is dedicated to “those who insist on being heard.” Social media may provide an immediate connection to a mass of sound and fury signifying nothing, but you do have a voice, however impotent, and you can insist on being heard. For those of us insisting on power, however, it offers less than nothing.