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  • Tanushree Vaish

Cloud Protesting And Social Media Algorithms

Social media has seen an unprecedented boom in the last few years. According to Statista, as of 2020, 3.6 billion people globally use social media platforms and this number is projected to increase to 4.4 by 2025. The Covid 19 pandemic has also exacerbated this need to be online and check what is up amongst individuals and groups. People who otherwise probably would not have used these platforms have been forced to sign up, in order to be in touch with their near and dear ones.

It has become an inseparable part of our daily lives, playing multiple roles, doubling up supplier of news, entertainment, diets and whatnot. It is easy to digress into how exactly social media has been instrumental in the marked change in societal behaviour, but we should first quickly deal with the topic at hand- Cloud protests and Social media Algorithms.

Social Media Algorithms

We all know that algorithms are what runs the social media platforms, these days. They are basically a set of mathematical rules that use machine learning to figure out what sort of content a user must be most inclined to engage with, depending on the data collected from their activity on the given platform. They also take into account several other markers like frequency, relevance, and how popular a type of content is proving to be, across a wide range of users. Marketing strategists have to keep these algorithms in mind, when designing a strategy best for a particular page, brand, movement or business.

One social media ‘challenge’ that has become popular over the years, which was bolstered for increased popularity by algorithms, was the Ice Bucket Challenge, which remains “the world’s largest global social media phenomenon”. What was started by three young men suffering from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease to raise awareness and donations about the syndrome in 2014, soon became a worldwide phenomenon. More than 17 million people had posted their videos online, including a hoard of celebrities. The videos were watched 10 billion times by 440 million people, and by the end of 2014 had managed to raise a whopping 115 million USD in donations.

Collective Action And The ‘New Social Movements’

For quite some now, societal behaviour has been measured in terms of collective action. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines collective action as the “action taken together by a group of people whose goal is to enhance their condition and achieve a common objective.” These common objectives most often than not refer to public goods, those from which, many members of the society can benefit. The ‘collective’ here can refer to smaller groups like neighbourhood or community organisations to a much larger scale coalition and collaboration on national and even international levels.

Therefore, collective action can loosely refer to connected groups of individuals that are engaging in an organized protest or a campaign. These calls to actions are generally not by professionals but rather organized by a layman. These groups are tied together sue to the relevance of their goal and are marked by the number of participants and the heterogeneity of the group.

There has been a significant change in the nature and mechanism of social movements from the 1960s. This marked difference from movements in the industrial era, is based primarily on the fact that these more often than not have been social and cultural movements first, and political movements later. With the increased emphasis on identity and ideology, these movements have made a shift from focusing on just economic, political, and military security to concentrating on social mobilisation, representation and anti-discrimination. It is in this regard that the popularity of cloud protests and the importance of social media is to be examined.

Cloud Protests

In computer parlance, ‘cloud’ is referred to the services like storage space and software, over a network, typically hosted on the internet. It enables individuals or organisations to access their resources ranging from databases to personal document folders, through a web interface, remotely.

The next logical question is what has that got anything to do with protesting! Well, the modern protests are basically an amalgamation of several factors that facilitate some sort of mobilisation. Now, narratives, identities, know-hows, toolkits and other “soft” resources, need to be considered and have to be disseminated in such a way that they can be customised by any individual as per their belief, conveniences and lived experience. The resources in the cloud are thus available for anyone to “pick and choose” allowing everyone to tailor their participation and involvement. It thus makes it okay for anyone to join anytime, bring their own personal identity, political and cultural beliefs in building the narrative and even bring in their networks, as possible. This, in today’s world of increased online communication and interaction, is often facilitated by commercial social media.

Social Media Algorithms And Protests

Due to the sheer number and diversity of people using social media, it is a veritable tool for the dissemination of information and to promote goals for the general benefit of a community or an identity. High connectedness, lower individual costs, and fast diffusion of information, all of which are facilitated in a way by the social media algorithms are only some of the reasons why these platforms are used to organise and conduct protests or, as tools to mobilise the masses.

Hashtag activism is definitely one of the new age ways to raise awareness about an issue, and encourage discourse and debate on that.

But, some experts are of the opinion that this form of protesting is a lazy act, often dependent on convenience and not real sacrifice. Slacktivism’ (a portmanteau of ‘slacker’ and ‘activism’) is term that has gained popularity over the years, referring to the user's wishes to facilitate change, without really engaging in any substantial and tangible measures, and instead promoting a plethora of activities like sharing posts, changing profile pictures to certain colours and signing online petitions which do nothing concrete other than inculcating an inflated sense of importance amongst the participants. Malcolm Gladwell, in 2010 was confident that “[Online] activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.”

Dr Courtney Radsch, writing in 2011, during the peak unrest related to Arab Spring, disagrees with the assumption that online activism is ‘lazy’ and ‘convenient’. Radsch maintains that “Social media are not a panacea to the political, economic and social problems plaguing the region, but are potentially powerful tools for organising, mobilising, communicating and putting domestic issues on the international agenda.”

Moreover, it has been a decade since Gladwell’s anti-slacktivism article and social media and their importance has only grown in geometric proportions since then. #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #MarchForOurLives- all of these are hashtags related to widespread social movements, made popular on the internet, over the last few years. Closer home, in 2019.

Final Thoughts

In today’s world, the impact and influence of social media on our daily lives is something that cannot be denied. It is an all-pervasive entity, often controlling how we lead our lives, what products we use, what food we eat, what content we consume and what daily occurrences we tend to concern ourselves with. It is thus only a natural step forward for social movements to be conducted or at least coordinated online. While it will still require a few more years to correctly assess how successful these have been, from a more superficial understanding it can be said that these cloud protests have had misses, but also quite a few hits, in terms of mobilising the masses and spreading awareness about various forms of social injustices. Here's hoping that these platforms continue to be beacons of social change and the #occupy hashtags and Twitter storms continue to incite fear in those perpetrating the injustices.


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