Progressive social movements, and environmental activists in particular, can use different strategies for both challenging and harnessing the power of commercial social media. They can abstain, build alternatives, go on the attack and adapt. Each has advantages and drawbacks in terms of effectiveness and impact, and depends on context. In practice, activists often deploy some or all forms.
In other words, the four types of strategies outlined in Rucht’s ‘Quadruple A’ work better in combination rather than separately. Yet, it is exactly this art of pursuing different strategies simultaneously that is the most formidable. What should be the balance between challenging corporate platforms but at the same time harnessing their power? And can one group do all this alone or should it work in coalition, so that it can specialise in specific strategies?
In this respect, working collaboratively seems to be the way forward. This may take the form of more formal coalitions and umbrella platforms or happen more informally through the development of common themes in campaigns, the exchange of resources, as well as sharing each other’s content and creating more densely hyperlinked communication properties. Environmental groups, for example have also begun to work in a more intersectional manner by considering the issues on which they campaign from the perspectives of different stakeholders and by mapping the interlocking systems of power that need to be overcome. Such collaboration and coalition-making need to be reflected more strongly in the digital realm, with greater hyperlinking and interconnectivity among environmental groups, whether via social media accounts on commercial platforms or alternative media outlets. In this respect, studies on video activism around climate justice and social justice movements in the early 2010s showed very weak connections between actors on YouTube. The actions and actors within social justice movements were largely disconnected – or at least they were not coming together in any meaningful way on that particular platform. Thus, as a potential site of resistance YouTube failed to provide a space for sustainable, horizontal, and radical media practices.
This seems to ring even truer today – a decade on and in a context where YouTube is mainly discussed in terms of rabbit holes, radicalisation and disinformation rather than democratic broadcasting, visual evidence and radical eye-witnessing. When there is evidence to suggest that a network of connective actions is in fact materialising, the process is led by anti-democratic and far-right reactionary forces. They have largely succeeded in connecting across party lines and intra-movement differences, building a sizable audience, and forming a coherent web of related channels and content which extend into a larger media ecology of alternative far-right media. They do this through an interlocking series of connective practices including guest appearances on each other’s YouTube channels, joint livestreaming, as well as various referencing and hyperlinking practices.
Even when the right have been deplatformed, for example in the wake of The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, far-right groups have migrated to Alt-Tech platforms that are harder to control, including Gab, Parler, Gettr, BitChute, Rumble, PewTube, Odysee, Hatreon and numerous others. These have been designed following the models of Big Tech platforms and mimic their features while also offering anonymity and far fewer restrictions on the level of offensive and harmful material that can be posted.
The far right has been very able to engage on a wide range of platforms at the same time and for different purposes – combining alternative and mainstream – while deliberately adopting a different tone for different platforms with some degree of success. It helps, of course, that in comparison to progressive movements, far-right activists have fewer scruples in using a more offensive, irreverent and populist tone that does well on social media in terms of virality and algorithmic optimisation. The far right is also less reluctant to use commercial and profit-driven platforms, and has found ways of monetising its content by interspersing business strategies with political propaganda techniques.
Far-right activists have thus built an ecosystem of Alt-Tech platforms that has outdistanced progressive alternative media in terms of crowdsourcing and successful fundraising for tech start-ups. Of course, the recent success of the far right has resulted not only from savvy social media strategies, but also from a broader political context that is conducive to its goals. After the repression – and, in some quarters, perceived failure – of the 2011 progressive movements, some of the same anger towards the establishment has been harnessed by reactionary, conservative actors. Far-right activists have thus made the most of the opportunities that come with being in line with broader political currents and particularly the rise in the politics of fear that go along with uncertainty and increasing inequality. Yet, the perfect storm of economic, social and climate crises that we are currently facing is also presenting an opening for radical change on the progressive side of the political spectrum. Developing greater connectivity across groups, issues and digital media properties is paramount within this context.
Apart from hyperlinking and interconnectivity, consistency and continuity will also help progressive groups, and the environmental movement in particular, in harnessing digital power. Lasting bonds of collaboration can alleviate the immense efforts of voluntary labour for establishing and running alternative platforms through the development of routines and a repository of knowledge and experience. Such labour is also necessary for attacking commercial social media, which is often based on the painstaking collection of information about the profit-driven logics of Big Tech. Sustained collaboration over a period of time makes this voluntary labour possible as it enables knowledge transfer across different activist groups and generations, gathering insights from past experiences, from what works and what doesn’t, and ensuring that these lessons are passed on and combined with new insights for new generations of activism.
As demonstrated by the example of the far right, the curation of digital content is another crucial aspect of interconnectivity and collaboration. Curation refers to the process of finding, selecting, organising, and interlinking suitable messages. It thus helps to create a collaborative network of interconnected actors and communications that provides a rich and consistent message and offers users different entry points to the ‘message space’ of progressive movements. At its core, curation is all about the cultivation of community, connectivity and participation, a logic that goes against social media business models which foster individualism and the personalisation of political action.
Obviously, such strategies of collaboration often encounter many obstacles. Doctrinal and ideological differences, however minute they may seem to outsiders, may split progressive movements and increase factionalism. Greater collaboration can pose risks to legitimacy, as groups may be afraid to align more closely with, for instance, a more radical actor, since they can be tainted by association. Or the reason may be more self-interested, as groups may want to retain audiences in their own social media properties rather than sharing them with related actors. The lack of funding and resources for progressive politics may lead to competing for audiences and a lack of connectivity between activist groups online.
Thus, for collaboration to work, activists need to be committed to working together in providing alternatives. Moving ahead, it is this belief in the value of building broader networks of networks that can help activists in harnessing the power of digital media, resisting Big Tech and changing the world.