Social Movements Supercharged by Social Media

Ray Brescia

PROFESSOR Ray Brescia COULD HARDLY HAVE PICKED A MORE RELEVANT TIME to release his new book, THE FUTURE OF CHANGE: HOW TECHNOLOGY SHAPES SOCIAL REVOLUTIONS (Cornell University Press 2020), which traces the connection between communication advances and the rise of social movements.

Although much of what fueled the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations—namely, the killing of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis—occurred after the book was published, Brescia’s work provides an explanation for the way that incident, and the communication surrounding it, became a catalyst for social change. The haunting video of a white officer kneeling on the neck of a defenseless Black man, and the protests that resulted, went viral with relatively new social media technologies.

“Mobile technologies are literally helping many in some communities see things they hadn’t personally witnessed before, like the abuse of African-American men and women at the hands of police,” said Brescia, a public interest lawyer and community organizer who joined the Albany Law School faculty in 2007. “The Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements seem to be strengthened by social media and other contemporary technologies because they allow people to see what is happening, raise awareness, galvanize support, and let people know they are not alone.”

Brescia examines past social movements dating back to the American Revolution and notes that the most successful emerged simultaneously with advances in communications technology. For instance, the invention of the printing press is linked to the success of the Revolution, the steam press supercharged the abolitionist movement, the telegraph helped spread the word about the Seneca Falls Convention that launched the women’s movement of the 19th century, and the civil rights movement harnessed television.


Ray Brescia Book Cover

“What this says to me is that there is some significant interplay between advances in the ability to communicate and the success of social movements that embrace the latest technology available to them,” Brescia said. “We can learn lessons from successful social movements in the past that have also had new technologies at their disposal. We are in such a moment today, so these lessons from past movements can help inform what we do with these new technologies.”

Brescia said it is not simply a matter of flooding the media with a message and points to the same-sex marriage movement a decade ago. In 2008, Californians approved a voter referendum banning same-sex marriage, so proponents repackaged their strategy. The goal—ensuring the right to same-sex marriage—remained exactly the same. But the pitch, and the means of delivering it, changed.

Instead of using terms such as “gay marriage,” activists started using phrases like “marriage equality;” instead of advancing a legalistic argument that stressed insurance benefits and inheritance rights, they shifted to a human- istic argument focusing on human dignity, fairness, and equality. They also changed the delivery of the message, using door-to-door conversations, phone calls, and other means to not only raise awareness, but to engage people. Within one national election cycle, opinions shifted—dramatically.

“I think we’re seeing a great deal of effective organizing being done today on and over social media that is helping organizers raise awareness, share information, coordinate actions, and change hearts and minds,” Brescia said. “It is really remarkable to see and gives hope that these sorts of tools can be harnessed to create real and lasting change.” Brescia said that with social media, activists no longer have to “wait for media gatekeepers to amplify their stories.” “I think that is why we’re seeing a lot more information out there about progressive issues and why such information is really starting to impact the public policy debate,” Brescia said. “It’s also allowing information that otherwise would not typically get publicized to enter the discourse.”

Print Issue

Click for Downloadable PDF