All seemed to come out of nowhere and grow rapidly, using the powers of digital technology. The amplification of social media has enabled movements to bring important but largely ignored issues to the forefront of public debate – as, for example, Occupy has done for inequality – but it has also been crucial in managing the logistics of a major protest: spreading the word, coordinating and pushing back against official narratives and even the disdain and rejection that often came from mainstream media.
As I studied many of these movements, I noticed more common patterns. Big, fast moves often floundered to head once the inevitable pushback came. They didn’t have the tools to navigate the dangerous next phase of politics, because they didn’t need to build them to get there.
In the past, a true grand march was the culmination of a long-term organization, an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence, indicating prior planning and strength. A large number of people had gathered and worked for a long time, coordinating, preparing – and getting to know each other and making decisions. So they didn’t just manage to organize a demonstration; lacking easier ways to organize themselves, they ended up having to build organizational capacity, which then helped navigate the sequel.
But since the early 2000s, a large protest has started to look more like a sentence that begins with a question mark. Newspapers still point to their size – and many of them are very large – but I’m less impressed now by their sheer size: the global Occupy protests, the Arab Spring protests and the Women’s March in 2017 could all pretend to be bigger than any other. previous protest. Maybe they would continue to build more sustained power, but maybe not.
I have therefore concluded that even if today’s major protests resemble those of the past, the various mechanisms that produce them – in particular, the Internet and, more recently, especially, social media – help to determine whether the governments or other authorities will see them as a real threat or just something that can be dismissed as a focus group.
That’s not to say that I’ve come to believe that protests are pointless or that big marches don’t mean anything. They do. I still think that demonstrations, marches and other forms of mass mobilization are important; they build solidarity, change lives and shine a light on dissent. It’s just that they now have different trajectories and different dynamics.