Facebook and the Street

Photograph Source: Mambembe Arts & Crafts – CC BY 2.0

Ever since I signed onto Facebook twelve years ago, I’ve learned some interesting things about music, art, and sport. I’ve also engaged in intelligent and informative conversations with people about politics and the aforementioned topics. My original reason for signing up had to do with being able to see photos posted by family and friends. An added bonus was getting in touch with friends not heard from in years.

Unfortunately, I’ve also been subject to the political ravings of conspiracy theorists, lunatic libertarians, racists, right-wing fools. nazis and a host of others. My usual response to most of these posters is to block them. After all, I wouldn’t talk to them for long if I ran into them at a bar or party, so why would I want to talk with them online? My list of blocked people contains a few hundred names.

The aspect of Facebook that is most annoying for me, though, are the people with leftist politics who spend their time complaining about the world but never seem to actually act on their dissatisfaction. They don’t attend meetings or protests but will tell you why meetings and protests don’t work. This is despite their usually perceptive take on the issues. I am reminded of theorists who have never leafleted or picketed; writers who have never sat-in and debaters who have never faced down a cop. They may have attended a meeting or two, however, if only to argue their point. Then, when tasks were put on the table, they volunteered for none. Even those they had the talent for. As a person who has been involved in leftist politics for almost five decades, I can assure you that this behavior is older than Facebook. However, Facebook just makes it easier to get away with it.

I imagine social media as an empty room full of mirrors where everyone is talking to their reflection. Yet I continue to open the app more than once a day. It’s partially the ease involved. The news headlines are there next to videos of one of my favorite musicians and an update from a friend. It’s like virtual oxycontin, more or less. One doesn’t mean to get hooked on it, but its addictive power is sly and powerful. The next thing you know you’re on Facebook watching cat videos and arguing with people who think they have the answer, yet don’t understand the question.

In 2011, when the so-called Arab Spring began, media of all types and persuasions were touting the role social media played in the spreading of the rebellion. This phenomenon has also been noted in protests over the last decade in the United States. However, despite this positivity in regards to social media’s revolutionary potential, the fact is that tweeting and posting does not a rebellion make. In the case of the uprisings which spread across the Arab world during the Arab Spring, there were many years of hard and serious underground and aboveground organizing that made the seemingly spontaneous rebellion possible. Unfortunately, even that was not enough to prevent the eventual dismantling of the revolutionary nature of the rebellion and its repression either through armed force and police undercover work or through cooptation by liberal capitalist forces at least partially supported by the US and other intelligence agencies. The myth that social media can organize a revolution is just that—a myth. Not only can such protests be manipulated by their reliance on this media, but the media itself can also be shut down fairly easily by the powers the protests are targeting. In addition, the tendency to substitute social media messaging for building a cohesive movement can often cause that movement to crumble like a building with only sand as its foundation.

This isn’t to say social media has no role. Too often though, the role it plays ends up disrupting and diverting the direction of the protesters. Seemingly neutral, this media represents the ideologies of the powerful. It pretends to be a bulletin board with access for all, yet stories of pages being removed and of posts being censored are all too common. On top of that, its corporate nature ensures its ultimate message.

The fact of Facebook has created a situation where the Left often seems to have forgotten how to organize.  For example, a recent conversation I was in about an endeavor designed to force a floor vote in Congress over Medicare for all devolved into a series of snide remarks after I asked why people were trying to organize legislators instead of people.  At first, the participants discussed the reasons for doing both. As the posts continued, however, others expressed opinions that mostly proved that nobody is sure how to organize people and get them into the streets both literally and figuratively.  Another sentiment that was expressed was that protests no longer worked. Although this is an old argument, my response is that the 2020 protests against police murders and systemic racism not only had local successes, they also pushed the issues involved into the front of the national conversation. It is the lack of a concerted strategy that seems to have limited the longer effectiveness of these protests more than a failure of the protests themselves.

In part, this is because many have been organized by liberal organizations not actually interested in changing the power structure. A good example of the latter would be the women’s marches. Even though the organizers of those marches mobilized hundreds of thousands of people, they were largely symbolic and did nothing to prevent the resurgence of male supremacist politics in the nation (just look at the current Supreme Court.) The climate change protests have been led mostly by the young. Despite their often-radical demands, they too seemed to have ended up being mostly symbolic. These manifestations, plus the indigenous protests against resource extraction and the mobilizations organized by the Sanders campaign are proof of a growing desire for change and a willingness by people to demand that change in the streets and the rest of the public sphere. However, there is no apparent organization or coalition of organizations to organize this desire into a movement with a flexible yet determined strategy that victory would demand.

Like others young and old who are frustrated with the injustice inherent in (and exacerbated by) capitalism, I am raising my voice in the chaotic chorus of all those voices calling out for a world where the physical and emotional health of the people comes before the financial health of the billionaires. Instead of merely lamenting the situation (or wishing the current situation was different), we must focus on changing it. I’m not sure how to go about it, but the time for doing so is now. Social media is certainly part of the strategy, but it can’t be all of it. We gotta’ figure it out.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com