We live in a high-speed, interconnected society. What we say online in South Africa can be seen and read almost instantaneously in Australia. This is the power of social media and the internet. The technological improvements over the recent years have impacted the way protest movements have been run. So much so that one could argue that social media dictated to the masses as to what was the plan of action. We therefore take a closer look at how #FeesMustFall mobilised the masses through the use of social media. There are always pros and cons to something, but in this instance, under the perspective of mobilisation, the pros outweighed the cons dramatically.

The pros to social media – instantaneous, easily circulated, accessible to many, alternative form of media and connects people from all around the world. The downside, often poor journalistic style, which means inaccurate facts can be spread quickly, digital divide and uncontrollable slandering, to name a few.

It needs to be accepted that we live in the internet era. Within one day, we may find ourselves quite easily using WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, email, Blogs, cell and landline phones. This just goes to show that we live in a networked society. The online world acts as a place to share our experiences and opinions on matters, creating a multi-cultural movement which encompasses all races, genders, classes etc. One can decipher for themselves that this is a pro, as it really does mobilise the ‘masses’. Having movements that cater for as many as possible, and try not to exclude, reap positive results when it is time to occupy physical space. On the notion of exclusion, we have the digital divide, which will be spoken about in more depth a little further on. Thierry Luescher also picks up on the idea that due to the reliance on social media, there is a lack of defined leadership under a complex banner. Complex in the sense that #FeesMustFall has ties with #BringBackOurCaders, #ShackVilleTRC, #RhodesMustFall and more. Even though circulation of content online is plentiful, often demands from student leaders that do exist, become blurred.

One avenue that can really ‘win over’ crowds of people is through pictures. Many people are stimulated through images. And social media dwells in photos – especially powerful, emotive pictures, which can be severely moving.  By capturing a protest movement, through pictorial means, you almost stop time, creating enough time for those who are not there to become aware and make a decision to pledge their support.

Once people are made aware of say, police brutality, via video, then they may have reason to join a movement. However, it is hard to build trust with companions online. Spreading the world about an issue can only accomplish so much. In order for a movement to even ignite, crowds have to meet up, face-to-face. A large fan base online, accomplishes nothing when you are trying to eradicate a certain social injustice. Thus, this large online fan base has to convert to supporters who will turn up on the day to occupy a physical area – the urban space.

Anger is what causes people to join a social movement and voice their opinions about something. But at the same time, it is fear which prevents people within a movement to actually physically join and protest on the day. At the same time, to overcome fear, one needs to share their thoughts via communicative action. This can be accomplished by means of social media – which is a tool to share and receive stories. Therefore, social media is a place to build up one another, and realise that other people feel the same as you, and once you conquer fear, then anger is what will drive you against the bourgeoisie.

Mainstream media is the entity which controls what the general public speaks about in their everyday life through a process called agenda setting. This is done by the media outlets choosing what is published for the public, and in turn, we see those matters as important at that point in time. The point that one needs to understand here, is that the monopoly over agenda setting is starting to loosen and give-way to social media dictating what the public see as prominent matters. Thus, social media starts to take on the role that is played out by traditional media. If this starts to happen, which we can see today, then the amount of people that are exposed to the matters spoken about on the internet, will exponentially increase. If more people hear about it, then the likelihood of more people supporting a movement, will increase. People will become more educated on the matter at hand [as it will be published on mainstream media]. It is this exponential increase in publicity that we can see the mobilising effect of social media in a movement such as #FeesMustFall. For instance, we have all read or heard about the student protest actions on News24, EWN, CapeTalk and many other formal platforms. Not only is it an increase in publicity, but it is also an act of validation for those who are doubtful. In other words, when we read things on Twitter, we should always double check, sometimes even triple check, whether what we are reading is actually hard fact, and not simply someone’s uninformed and bias opinion. Therefore, when news outlets start mentioning events spoken about on social media, then it is a form of the authentic green light, giving no reason for the doubtful. On a similar note, news outlets encourage [even make it compulsory] for their employees to be active on social media, especially Twitter. This just goes to show that there is power online – and it will only increase in the years to come.

According to Robyn Baragwanath, social media played a huge role in mobilising the first student march since the unforgettable Sowetan Uprising of 1976. The huge advantage of social media comes in the form which traces back to the original purpose of a phone – communication. Through social media, students were [and still are] able to communicate with one another to plan and coordinate how protests will span out. Furthermore, the #FeesMustFall movement leaders in Cape Town [UCT] can keep in direct touch with the leaders at WITS University to discuss matters such as a national shutdown of universities. It is not by chance that all the major universities around South Africa experienced intense protest action over the last year and a half at the same time. These were planned and discussed via social media. Here we can see how the internet has been used to mobilise students all over the country at the same time to march under a single banner.

South Africa is proudly democratic – and one of our democratic rights is the right to protest. And our country is very good at it. Social media is being used as a tool to encourage others to join in on the movement and practice their democratically-earned right to a peaceful protest. Mobilising students in this regard is good for the country because it shows those in power that its people are unsatisfied, in this instance, with unaffordable [and westernised] education.

A downfall of the use of social media is that it cannot be used to initiate a movement – things have to be happening already, which is in agreement with Thierry Luescher. For instance, Chumani Maxwele was the individual who threw faeces at the Rhodes statue in 2015. The #RhodesMustFall movement did not have a big presence before this incident. It was only after, when the public started asking questions, that social media become ablaze with trending hashtags. That being said, do not doubt the capabilities of hashtags spreading the word after, for instance, Maxwele throwing faeces at UCT.

Since the idea of hashtags (#) has just been brought up, this is a huge significant actor on social media. They act as filing cabinets, placing tweets into their respective cabinets for later online consumers to educate themselves on the relevant matter. This hashtag has the potential to develop and maintain the larger movement.

When a movement such as #FeesMustFall relies on social media, then there is a lack of a formal organisation or institution. Anonymous online postings is its substitute which may often not suffice. This may sound contradictory from what has been said earlier that social media is useful for circulation. But, the idea of a lack of a formal institutions shows its effects when protests take place. They can be seen as unorganised, leaderless and multidirectional [in the sense that the group of protesters may move any direction].

What about inclusion [or exclusion] for that matter. The first theme to pop into one’s mind, is that of the digital divide – it is still a problem in South Africa. Some areas in the country are well connected to the online world, whereas in other areas, entire communities may have to share one desktop computer. Dr. Tanja Bosch believes this to be so; “the digital divide is thus still very relevant in the South African context”. Her research has shown that internet penetration in Southern Africa sits just above 50%, whilst the more important figure is that only 40.9% of South African households have direct access to the internet.

These stats do not bode well with the idea of social media being used to mobilise the masses, as theoretically, less than half the population will be exposed to what is being said online. The digital divide as well as the expensiveness of internet data continue to be the major downplay of spreading the world via the ‘net’.

Another downfall of using social media to mobilise the masses is the fact that a large portion of the elderly are not on, or at least, active users of, social media. This means we further lower the amount of people that online messages can potentially reach. Now you may argue that the elderly have very little, or no role in fees falling; although some truth may lie in that argument, fees falling is not the underlying matter at hand. Besides, what if, or when, a movement comes about that is directed at the elderly, social media will deem to be fairly useless.

Since social media is dominated by normal citizens, and diluted by their opinions and/or experiences, what is said online is very often reported in a poor journalistic style. Inevitably what happens is we have inaccurate facts being circulated very quickly. Someone could come up with a story that is half true and attach a picture off google and include the trending hashtag – within moments this tweet or post [etc.] has the potential to be circulated globally. Inaccurate facts tarnish the image and reputation of a movement, preventing people from joining it. For instance, the #FeesMustFall movement has, at many times over the last year and a half, been portrayed as protesting students who are violent, racist and acting in a way that does not agree with the law. This can easily come about by someone taking a picture from their phone and posting it online with whatever they caption deem fit, which may take an event completely out of context.

One can confidently conclude that the use of social media is an exceptional tool to round up the masses and prepare them adequately for upcoming movements. The amount of people whom posts can reach, and the rate at which they can reach them is huge and immediate. That being said, we also mentioned the digital divide, one of the major down players – and the fact that only 40.9% of households in South Africa have direct access to internet. However, the use of social media is ever growing and that statistic is bound to only increase in the years to come.  This will ultimately increase the mobilisation effect of the masses. In contemporary social movements, such as #FeesMustFall, we have clearly seen the impact of social media. The tertiary education sector is in a period of revolution; a national shutdown of universities, aided by social media. This period will go down into the history books, like the 1976 Soweto Uprising.

*This article was initially written for academic purposes, but has now been published to this website for leisure consumption. Thus, all references have been removed for easy reading to the casual reader. To obtain an academic copy, please contact the author*


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