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2020 ECPR Winter School in Methods & Techniques

Activist Social Media Communication

Thomas Poell
University of Amsterdam
Thomas Poell
University of Amsterdam

This paper critically interrogates how the rise of social media affects the character and dynamic of protest communication. It draws from case studies on the use of social platforms in the 2010 Toronto G20 protests, and during the Tunisian revolution. Furthermore, it builds on the rapidly growing scholarship on social media activism. On the basis of this material, the paper will argue that social platforms appear to facilitate, albeit temporarily, activist self-representation, as well as a democratization of protest communication. At the same time, however, this apparent shift in media power potentially has a number of problematic consequences. First, the massive use of social platforms greatly accelerates activist communication and enhances its visual character. Strongly focusing the attention on unfolding events, and not on the actual protest issues themselves. Second, the growing use of social technologies brings about a personalization of activism and of activist communication. Although this allows for the mobilization of large numbers of people, it also makes it difficult to direct protests and formulate shared issues and concerns. Third, the growing use of social media entails that activist communication increasingly takes place on corporate platforms. As a result, activists lose control over the data they collectively produce, and over the technological architectures through which they communicate. Hence, in today’s media environment, a major challenge for activists is to find ways to formulate and communicate shared issues. Moreover, they are challenged to gain control over the data they collectively produce, and to resist becoming encapsulated by the commercial mechanisms and algorithmic steering of particular social platforms.
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