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How Do Social Movements Use Social Media? A Participatory Study of the Use of Facebook by Opponents of UK Government Cuts

Cristiana Olcese
University of Southampton
Maria Grasso
University of Southampton
Cristiana Olcese
University of Southampton
Clare Saunders
University of Southampton
Open Panel

Abstract

Existing studies make two types of arguments about the role of social media in social movements. Some scholars claim that social media allow movements to reach out to additional recruits and constituencies; others regard social media as little more than a poor alternative to face-to-face organization and communication. Neither perspective, however, is based on systematic evidence of how social movements actually make use of social media. This paper presents results from a participant observation-based study of the use of Facebook by the UK student movement and related movements opposed to current government cutbacks more broadly. Observation occurred via a Facebook site created in the name of Uberta Ludd. We performed a network analysis of the individuals and groups involved in these movements, a content analysis of the messages posted on the site over the course of one month, and a survey of participants in three protests organized using the site. On the basis of our analysis, we argue that social media are useful in several ways. They allow for rapid mobilization, especially among young people; they generate immediate feedback about actions and news; they draw attention to content produced in alternative media (and tend not to compete with them); and they foster solidarity among peers. However, social media-based networks tend to link already like-minded people, and rarely reach people with different views. Moreover, such networks are heavily reliant on a few key figures, a result which challenges the view that social networks are naturally democratic and horizontal. Finally, the technologies underlying mainstream social media impose a certain uniformity of style that is more restrictive than early networking projects that emerged in art circles in the 1960s and 1970s.