How Social Media has Changed the Shape of Social Activism

How Social Media has Changed the Shape of Social Activism

YouTube videos of security dogs with blood on their muzzles; video of mass arrests; makeshift shelters; armed soldiers; police in riot gear; live feeds of water cannons being fired into groups of protesters. These are all images that emerged in mainstream and social media of Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. What began as a small group of protesters swelled to become a large mass of thousands of people from all over North America.

We live in a world where social movement is a means by which individuals increasingly promote and fight for causes that may otherwise be beyond their control. There is also an undeniable emotional element that encourages involvement. “Protest activities occur because organizers frame an issue as having a very direct, immediate, and negative impact on individuals. The human emotions of fear and outrage which result are then channeled through leadership and organization into action.”1 Environmental crises, climate change, oil sands, liquefied natural gas, wildlife preservation, politics – all of these are common themes drawing significant attention and emotional reaction through social media dialogue among activist groups and interested individuals. Through social media, connections are made between those with a common goal, generating feelings of mutual support. The ability to network within social media circles is unparalleled, engendering vast networks that can span all borders, including geographical and ideological.

The influence of social media on activism is also full of contradictions. These are often movements that lack official leaders, per se, and are therefore decentralized. Yet, they are not necessarily chaotic. They are organized and often well- planned, but social media also allows for a large degree of spontaneity. At times there is even a sophistication to the level of organization underpinning resistance efforts and direct actions that unfold over social media, regardless of whether the planning takes place over a matter of days or hours.

Social Media’s Effect on Social Movements

Social networking by far outmatches traditional organization efforts in both immediacy and scope. The speed with which mobilization and support can be amassed and the reach that an effort can quickly attain is unmatched. The phenomenon of “digital crowd swarming” quickly leads to near unanimous support for the topic of the moment. “Crowd swarming” in the digital realm has previously been described as “when a multitude of people, connected socially through social media, move as if en masse over a very short [time span] towards the same target digital content. The rapid ability for people to share without having to think…means that crowds of people swarm en masse towards a target that captures global interest within minutes.”2 This is not a new phenomenon, but rather one that has continued with the proliferation of social media.

The ability to connect with people who share common opinions and causes can act as a motivator towards collective action. Through digital interfaces such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, individual activists have the ability to amass a large following, often in a very short period of time. Networking among various platforms and group pages allows individuals to connect to those who they may otherwise be unaware. Activist groups and individuals may have thousands of ‘members’ and ‘friends.’ In the online realm, no personal connection is needed to identify with the like-minded. Adding to this is a contagion effect of sorts in which the opinions and emotions of those invested in a cause can become adopted by others simply through repeated exposure to their online dialogue.

Moreover, social media platforms bring awareness, whether accurate or not, to individuals who may otherwise have little to no knowledge of a project’s specifics, implications or conditions. With the click of an icon, opinions can be shared and replicated across networks, reaching thousands upon thousands of followers, for all to see and join in. No accuracy filter exists, therefore what is perpetuated on social media, while not necessarily factual, may be portrayed as such. While one individual promoting inaccurate ‘facts’ is easy to contradict, it is difficult to go against the masses once tens, hundreds, or thousands of people have ‘liked’ or shared an opinion.

Over and above the peaceful protest actions that are often seen in relation to climate change and natural resource projects, a boldness in dialogue and direct action tactics can likely be attributed in part to the ‘comfort’ that comes with sharing actions among “friends.” There is a level of safety and confidence in anonymity and large numbers that emerges from being digitally connected. This can promote online dialogue, often setting the stage for inflammatory debate between individuals who feel empowered by the anonymity and degrees of separation achieved from behind a keyboard.

It is when this boldness transfers from the online realm to confrontational direct actions where the risks to employee safety increase substantially. Small groups of protesters can gain significant confidence and widespread attention given the ability for immediate updates and the use of live feeds to transmit information to a mass of people.

Why does it matter?

As activist groups continue to show up at project sites, corporate headquarters, courthouses, and shorelines to protest their causes, they produce a reality that can’t be easily dismissed. Various implications arise from the increasingly central role played by social media in resistance movements, including a significant impact experienced by corporations, often the targets of social activism, in the form of:

Employee safety and Site security – Activist groups bolstered by social media also introduce a certain complexity and unpredictability to protest situations and site security which must taken into consideration. Tactics such as flash protests, office occupations, and blockades, to name a few, place employees and security personnel at increased risk, at times with little to no advance notice. Awareness of social media to proactively deploy security measures is key in reducing risk to company assets and personnel.

Project timelines – schedules and project timelines can be severely impacted by  actions such as blockades, occupations, and security breaches. These can affect access to critical worksites, transportation routes, and supplies which are all interdependent and central to project advancement.

Organizational reputation – The continual social media propagation of the ill-effects of oil sands and natural resource projects generally, and of particular companies and projects more specifically, has the ability to command a media narrative showcasing project owners as climate destroyers with no consideration for future generations. Online praise for the cancellation of the controversial Energy East Project and the protests surrounding DAPL and Standing Rock reflect the vilification energy companies often undergo through social movements centered around project resistance.

Controversial natural resource projects continue to provide a focal point for climate activists. Gaining an understanding of the activist movement and an awareness of potential strategies and tactics allows for proactive approaches to security and public relations. Social media should be considered a primary tool in the social activist’s arsenal that has the ability to mobilize activists, influence public opinion, and at its ultimate, shape public policy. In doing so, however, it also introduces security implications. Anticipating the effects of the social networking environment and its influence on resistance efforts can go a long way in mitigating the risk faced by potential targets.

What can be done to proactively mitigate your organization’s risk for social activism?

Organizations and project managers can plan for and mitigate the potential effects of social activism to their organization or high-profile projects. There are several steps that can be taken to help reduce reputational impact and project delays, as well as increase preparedness to pro-actively respond to any security incidents. Implementing risk mitigation measures in advance, and during the critical phases, of an organization’s operations or project may also help to reduce and manage the time, cost and potential reputational risk associated to social activist-related disruptions.

Some of these strategies include:

Having a complete Security Risk Needs Assessment conducted – Organizations need to understand what they are doing and where potential gaps exist that may need to be filled within their organization’s security risk program.

Incorporating an Intelligence-led approach – By introducing an Intelligence monitoring and reporting program focused on providing both Operational and Strategic Intelligence it helps managers at both project and strategic levels with informed decision-making.

Planning for when things go wrong – It is inevitable that organizations and projects facing social activism and other threats are susceptible to security-related incidents, with the potential to escalate into a crisis. By implementing advanced crisis response planning and training to deal with security risk incidents, the possibility of escalation into a corporate level crisis with significantly greater impact can be mitigated.

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