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Social Media and Human Rights


Marta Poslad (@mposlad) is a graduate of the University of Warsaw (Political Science, MA) and University of Cambridge (Sociology, MPhil). She joined Google in 2012, where she is currently responsible for Public Policy in Central and Eastern Europe and for analyzing the social and political impact of new technologies. Marta is a Humanity in Action Senior Fellow.  The views expressed on this page are her own and do not reflect those of her employer.

In February 2015, Christian Fuchs, Professor of Social Media at the University of Westminster, delivered the annual keynote lecture for the Researching (with) Social Media reading group. His talk focused on the findings of his recently published book, OccupyMedia! The Occupy Movements and Social Media in Crisis Capitalism (Zero Books, 2014). In OccupyMedia! Fuchs applies critical theory and introduces some of the first empirical research on the Occupy movement’s use of social media.  

In autumn 2012, Fuchs conducted an OccupyMedia! Survey (N=429) in which he asked members of the Occupy movement a variety of questions about how they saw their movement and how they used various types of media. Respondents indicated that their goals in participating in Occupy included seeking participatory democracy, alternatives to capitalism, and a just, fair and equitable society. In terms of media use, Fuchs found a high positive correlation among Occupy members between using media and taking actual action, but he also found that offline personal conversations were still the most frequent form of communication within the movement.  In response to a question about the risks of corporate social media use, a majority of respondents indicated they were concerned about surveillance, whether corporate, police, or otherwise. Survey respondents were also asked to choose between statements which described social media, and the results of that choice led to Fuchs’ conclusion that a dialectical view of social media (the inherently antagonistic nature of social media holding both positive and negative potential) is the prevailing one among members of the Occupy movement.

The empirical study in OccupyMedia! is built on a solid analysis of the current economic climate. Fuchs presents evidence of both capitalism in crisis and a credible set of causal factors for recent protests in countries considered to belong to the democratic community. He also makes significant references to classical notions of sociality as developed by Durkheim, Weber, Marx and Toennies. These classical notions are far too often ignored in research on the processes, events, and impact of the digital.

Looking at social media through the lens of critical theory is important given the fact that key Internet platforms are undoubtedly playing the capitalist game.  Fuchs argues that digital labour does not differ from classical notions of exploitation. Undoubtedly, the value of users’ contributions for social media companies’ revenues and stock prices, along with other negative traits of capitalism in mass social media, require further consideration.  However, it is also the case that social media companies’ relationship with their labourers is qualitatively different to that of more typical multinational entities.  For example, the character of consent in social media work is different from classical notion of exploitation. Users join social media of their own free will, and, in most cases, do not conceive of contributing content to social media as labour. The terms and conditions of social media use may be presented in an overly-complicated, long-winded and unwieldy format – especially when compared to the brevity and succinct nature of the social media content itself – but are otherwise transparent and accessible. Most importantly, social media offer diverse benefits that increase their appeal to users and thus have enabled social media to become a social phenomenon.

The respondents to Fuch’s survey also expressed apprehension about using for-profit social media platforms – particularly with respect to the aforementioned threat of surveillance.  One question this raises is about the origins of this concern.  Does it stem from evidence of surveillance, or is it because respondents’ anti-capitalist view leads to particular shared narratives about social media?  The most popular Internet platforms are owned by multinational and publicly traded companies. Contesting entities of this kind is in the Occupy movement’s DNA.

Fuchs and his respondents consider independent social media as a possible alternative communication channel to corporate social media.  But a potential limitation is that, at this stage, joining independent social media may be a political choice made by those who are already ‘protest aware.’  Independent social media do not get popular attention due to their lack of the commercial character necessary for attracting broader audiences.

The concerns OccupyMedia! raises about the use of for-profit social media by social movements, in my view, are not enough to dismiss their potential to support protest movements.  Popular social media enable connectivity and multi-way communication at an unprecedented scale, which makes them potential agent of social change.  They allow for innovations in usability and expansion in size, thus creating a mass pool of potential contributors to movements who would not come across them otherwise. The success of Occupy movements may be attributed not only to active participants in offline events, but also to the buzz on corporate social media platforms that secured these movements’ visibility despite mainstream media restraint in covering them.  But for now, and in order to continue building mass online communities, no reasonable alternatives to corporate social media models exist.  

Notwithstanding our differences in perspective on corporate social media, I strongly recommend Fuchs’ OccupyMedia! as a great point of reference for those who are curious about the role of social media in political movements and, more broadly, about the sociology of Internet governance. 

About this website

This is the website for Ella McPherson's work related to her 2014-17 ESRC-funded research project, Social Media, Human Rights NGOs, and the Potential for Governmental Accountability.