How mass protests around the globe have become the 'new social network'

By Peter Beaumont

The demonstrations in Brazil began after a small rise in bus fares triggered mass protests. Within days this had become a nationwide movement whose concerns had spread far beyond fares: more than a million people were on the streets shouting about everything from corruption to the cost of living to the amount of money being spent on the World Cup.

In Turkey, it was a similar story. A protest over the future of a city park in Istanbul - violently disrupted by police - snowballed too into something bigger, a wider-ranging political confrontation with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has scarcely been brought to a close by the clearing of Gezi Park.

If the scenes have seemed familiar, it is because they shared common features: viral, loosely organised with fractured messages and mostly taking place in urban public locations.

Unlike the protest movement of 1968 or even the end of Soviet influence in eastern Europe in 1989, these are movements with few discernible leaders and with often conflicting ideologies.

Their points of reference are not even necessarily ideological but take inspiration from other protests, including those of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement.

The result has been a wave of social movements - sometimes short-lived - from Wall St to Tel Aviv and from Istanbul to Rio de Janeiro, often engaging younger, better educated and wealthier members of society.

What is striking for those who, like myself, have covered these protests is how discursive and open-ended they often are. People go not necessarily to hear a message but to take over a location and discuss their discontents (even if the stunning consequence can be the fall of an autocratic leader such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak).

If the "new protest" can be summed up, it is not in specifics of the complaints but in a wider idea about organisation encapsulated on a banner spotted in Brazil last week: "We are the social network."

In Brazil, the varied banners underlined the difficulty of easy categorisation as protesters held aloft signs expressing a range of demands from education reforms to free bus fares while denouncing the billions of public dollars spent on stadiums for the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics two years later.

"It's sort of a Catch-22," Rodrigues da Cunha, a 63-year-old protester, said. "On the one hand we need some sort of leadership, on the other we don't want this to be compromised by being affiliated with any political party."

As the Economist pointed out last week, while mass movements in Britain, France, Sweden and Turkey have been inspired by a variety of causes, including falling living standards, authoritarian government and worries about immigration, Brazil does not fit the picture, with youth unemployment at a record low and the country enjoying the biggest leap in living standards in its history.

Paul Mason, economics editor of BBC2's Newsnight and author of Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, has argued that a key factor, largely driven by new communication technologies, is that people have not only a better understanding of power but are more aware of its abuse, both economically and politically.

Mason believes we are in the midst of a "revolution caused by the near collapse of free-market capitalism combined with an upswing in technical innovation" - but not everyone is so convinced. What does ring true, however, is his assertion that a driving force from Tahrir Square to Occupy is a redefinition of notions of both what "freedom" means and its relationship to governments that seem ever more distant.

It is significant, too, that many recent protests have taken place in the large cities that have been most transformed by neoliberal policies.

Tali Hatuka, an Israeli urban geographer whose book on the new forms of protest will be published next year, identifies the mass mobilisations against the Iraq war in 2003 as a turning point in how people protest. Hatuka argues that, while previous large public protests had tended to be focused and narrow in their organisation, the Iraq war protests saw demonstrations in 800 cities globally which encompassed and tolerated a wide variety of outlooks.

She said last week: "Up to the 1990s protests tended to be organised around a pyramid structure with a centralised leadership. As much effort went into the planning as into the protest itself."

She points to how the new form of protest tends to produce fractured and temporary alliances. "If you compare what we are seeing today with the civil rights movement in the US - even the movements of 1989 - those were much more cohesive. Now the event itself is the message. The question is whether that is enough."

She suspects it is not, pointing to how present-day activism - from the Iraq war demonstrations onwards - has often failed to deliver concrete results with its impact often fizzling out. Because of this, current forms of protest may be forced to change.

Another key feature of the new protests, argues Saskia Sassen, a sociology professor at Columbia University, New York, is the notion of "occupation" - which has not been confined to the obvious tactics of the Occupy movement. Occupations of different kinds have occurred in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in Gezi Park, Istanbul, and during social protests in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 2011. "Occupying is not the same as demonstrating. Many of the [recent] protests made legible the fact that occupying makes novel territory, and thereby a bit of history, using what was previously considered merely ground," Sassen wrote. "Whether in Egypt, the US, or elsewhere, it is important that the aim of the occupiers is not to grab power. They were and are, rather, engaged in the work of citizenship, exposing deep flaws and wrongs in their polity and society."

She argues that one distinguishing factor is that many of the new protest movements have involved what she calls "the modest middle class". She says: "Often what people are saying is that you are the state. I'm a citizen. I've done my job. You're not recognising that."

Hatuka says: "The old pyramid way of organising protests does have its limitations, but so too do the new ways of organising. Often it does not feel very effective in the long run. People will often go for a day or two and these protests are not necessarily offering an ideological alternative."

- Observer

Social media 'wakes giant'

The protests for better living conditions rocking Brazil's streets have spilled over into social media, with a deluge of tweets, Facebook comments and thousands of pictures posted on Instagram.

For the past two weeks, hundreds of thousands of mainly young people have been marching across the country, a placard in one hand and in the other a smartphone to share their protests with the world.

As with the 2011 Arab Spring protests and recent unrest in Turkey, activists have used social media to mobilise supporters while authorities have monitored it to try to stay one step ahead.

On Twitter, a young woman exulted as more than 1.2 million people flooded the streets in scores of cities on Thursday to rail against the billions of dollars spent on the 2014 World Cup, as well as corruption and inadequate transport.

"This is what pride looks like. That was beautiful yesterday," she tweeted, adding the trademark slogan keywords #ogiganteacordou (A giant woke up) and #vemprarua (Come down to the streets).

Yesterday, online networks were abuzz with comments on President Dilma Rousseff's televised address on Saturday in which she pledged to listen to the "voices of the streets" and offered a plan to improve public services.

In Sao Paulo the Free Pass Movement , which began the protests over higher mass transit fares, said on Facebook that the demonstrations would go on.

- AFP

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