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Social media and Afghanistan protests. (Flickr CC image: visionshare & juhansonin)

Twitter and the Dec Afghanistan Escalation Protests

March 4, 2010 | Leave a Comment

Category: Activism, PJEP, Political, Web

In late November and early December, my colleagues and I were working at collecting information from the 1,500 organizations that comprise the Peace, Justice & Environment Project (PJEP).  We work with organizers that are the contact person for their organization, mostly through email, occasionally by phone.  For me, it averages out to my talking to each person that I work with maybe once or twice a year.  There are several hundred people that I work with.

Those mostly fairly tenuous relationships resulted in our being able to accumulate 100 actions protesting the Obama escalation of Afghanistan, while keeping the 1,500 organizations apprised of the growing number of actions.  Just after the December 1 and 2 actions, I got a call from a North Carolina organizer wanting to know how we were different from United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), which had limited resources and was not able to organize around the escalation protests, other than sending out emails.  I responded that PJEP is sort of like a national organization’s outreach, communications and technology departments.  PJEP involves itself in no content creation or leadership articulation of the issues.  PJEP is mostly just process, process seeking to empower the actions and projects created by small, local organizations.  PJEP does not initiate or articulate.  We empower and encourage.

Empowering and encouraging involves access to and distribution of high quality information.  The closer to consensus reality we are, the better we’re able to perform our job of mapping out the landscape to achieve goals.  PJEP, by simply being in contact with 1,500 organizations, able to retrieve from them information on what exactly they are doing, allows us to share that information, empowering activists with knowledge of their place in the larger whole.  For example, speakers at local events could state with confidence that over 100 cities around the country were protesting a government decision.  Groups are not acting in isolation.

Just before the protests, one of the places I searched for high quality information was Twitter.  Conducting a number of different searches, such as “Afghanistan protest” or “escalation protest” or just “#protest” or “#Afghanistan,” I was shocked to discover there was very little activity around the 100 emerging protests across the country.  One activist posted his frustration with finding any information regarding the protests on Twitter.  That got more retweets than any protest posting.

Concluding that the protests were not generating heated conversations among youth, it was easy to predict, early December 1, that attendance across the country would be low, with mostly the usual older folks.  Indeed, that was the case.  The largest of the 100 demonstrations was in Chicago, with about 450 in attendance.  The folks in Chicago all considered this a healthy turnout.  I received many emails from organizers in other states that were disappointed by the low attendance.

Chicago was the very first city in the country to post that an action would occur at 5:00 p.m. the evening after the announcement.  Organizers worked hard to create the event, led by Andy Thayer, whose leadership has become integral to almost all Chicago Left mass demonstrations.  Chicago also has almost every Left organization on a single organizational listserve.  This dramatically speeds up the time it takes to put a spontaneous project together.  Most cities don’t display as much cooperation among organizations as Chicago does.  Then again, most cities don’t have activists like Andy Thayer.  Andy doesn’t only take responsibility for doing what other activists don’t step up to do, but he executes those things with efficiency, professionalism and a creative flare.

How could other cities have encouraged larger numbers to attend their 100 demonstrations?  Chicago was a unique situation.  Though Twitter was not engaged, Andy relied upon Facebook extensively, even posting links to the other demonstrations around the country from his Facebook page.  A heavier reliance upon social media like Facebook by other city demonstrations might have had a positive effect.

Still, I don’t think the low numbers around the country were about what organizers could have done differently.  Activists that worked hard for Obama mostly did not show.  This included many faith-based, union and African-American activists.  Clearly, youth mostly were not engaged.  That leaves me wondering what youth in the United States would be inclined to twitter about as regards political change.  Furious Twitter activity around the Iran elections engaged a massive number of Americans.  The Afghanistan escalation jolted few.

What in America would compel a powerful Twitter response?


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