What Social Media Meant for the Mass Protest Decade
Paris Marx is joined by Vincent Bevins to discuss the mass protests of the 2010s, the role that social and traditional media played in them, and why the horizontalism of those movements ultimately didn’t work.
Vincent Bevins is a longtime foreign correspondent who has worked for the Washington Post, Financial Times, and LA Times. He’s the author of The Jakarta Method and If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution.
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Paris Marx: Vincent, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Vincent Bevins: Thank you so much for having me.
PM: I’m very excited to chat. I recently finished your book, “If We Burn,” which is just fantastic and I highly recommend it. I recommend your other book, as well, “The Jakarta Method.” But I think that this touches on something that has been in the discourse around technology for a long time. We’ve seen these mass protests sprang up over the past decade or so. And there was a lot of discussion around what their relationship to technology and social media were. So I want to dive into all that with you. But first, could you talk to us a bit about what this mass protests decade actually was? Whathat kicked it off? And what kept driving these outbursts of protests through the 2010s?
VB: Those are good questions because the answer varies and often the fact that the answer varied, was elided or ignored or misunderstood by media that wanted to attribute everything at the beginning of the decade to the heroism of the technology. Then at the end of the decade, wanted to attribute everything to the problems of technology. But the 2010s are a decade in which, as far as we know — because these numbers are hard to put together — but as far as we know, more people took part in protests than any other point in human history. What’s strange about this decade is not that they didn’t work out, because usually mass protest doesn’t work out. Historically, protests are ignored. I protested the Iraq war in 2003, George Bush saw us protesting, he got the message, and he just ignored it. What was strange about the 2010s is that a lot of these mass protests were initially successful.
They put far more people on the streets than the organizers of these demonstrations had expected or planned for. But then things, as I traced in the book, not only didn’t work out the way that they wanted, but often went the opposite direction of the desires of the streets to the extent that those desires could ever be understood. So what caused this wave of mass protests? I think the answer is always going to be varied and there’s always going to be multiple causality when we talk about the phenomenon that I analyze, which is mass protest that gets so big, that they either overthrow existing governments or fundamentally destabilize existing governments. But I think that in many, many cases, social media is one of the things that gets you over the line. It’s one of the things that makes it possible to scale up to such an extent that you meet that criterion, and that you actually overthrow or destabilize an existing government.
PM: Can you talk a bit about the relationship to mass media that these protests have? One of the things I found really interesting reading the book that never really occurred to me before, was how this type of mass protests, where everyone goes out into the streets, was not really a way of demonstration necessarily, or something that you did to kind of show your power before that can actually be shown through mass media. So can you talk a bit about that kind of relationship?
VB: Absolutely. So what I tried to do with this book, which was the strategy that I employed for the first book, as well, is to try to take the widest possible lens that is useful for analyzing these phenomena. I try to step as far back as possible to understand what is happening. And what becomes clear, at least to me, employing that method is that, of course, social media is technology. Twitter is technological; Facebook is technological. But really photography is technology, and it’s a relatively new one for humanity. The epoch in which we are able to see images of things that aren’t happening anymore is a tiny fraction of human political history. And mass media is also a technology. Newspapers themselves, have a few hundred years, but that’s still relatively new. What becomes apparent in the sociological literature — Charles Steele, he is the most famous name for this particular scholarly tradition — is that the mass protest, the mass demonstration, as we understand it today, didn’t exist before mass media.
It didn’t make sense to go into the center of the capital of a nation, before there were newspapers, photography, the types of technological tools that could reproduce your message. Indeed, nations didn’t exist themselves. I mean, if you go back to Benedict Anderson’s idea that the nation itself is a product of technology, and the lesson becomes even more clear. So, the type of mass protest, the type of repertoire that we see as really natural — that became really hegemonic in the 2010s — starts to come together in the middle of the 20th century. And as I point out, a lot of the people that stumbled upon the effectiveness of this tactic weren’t planning on it. And then they were really shocked at how effective media reproduction could make this particular form of response to injustice.
So, I come down believing, or operating with the assumption, that protest is fundamentally a communicative action, and is always mediated. It is always happening in dialogue, or refracted through the mass media. And this book in the 2010s, this becomes incredibly clear and often has tragic consequences. The decisions or failures of the mass media — not only change the way that the rest of the world understands what’s happening on the streets — but often reconfigures the events on the streets themselves, changes the concrete configuration of forces, in squares or public spaces around the world.
PM: I wonder if you can talk a bit more about that, and if there’s really clear examples of how that works out because one of the things you also talk about in the book that I feel like relates to this kind of mediation through the media, especially when you think about the Western media, is the liberal teleology that is often presented when it comes to these protests. That they’re fighting for liberal democracy for freedom, blah, blah, blah. The types of things that we in the West would expect everyone else to want to achieve. So how did that shape the way that the media was presenting these things and how did that differ to what was happening on the ground necessarily?
VB: That’s really good question. There’s like several parts of my answer, I think. A lot of this decade is really about 2011, the really inspiring scenes that we see in Tahrir Square in Egypt. But it’s also really about 1989, and specifically the ways that we misunderstood the fall of the Soviet Union, or the stories that we told ourselves about what happened in 1989. And that story often led us to believe, especially those in the professional media class in the Western world, that people came to the streets in Berlin and throughout Russia, and demanding Western freedom and liberal democracy. So then things collapsed. And that’s what they got. Whereas what really happened is that failures at the top of the Soviet Union put in motion the collapse of the USSR before the street uprisings occurred. And then a tiny fraction of people in the former Second World got the liberal democracy, got the prosperity and the freedom that they were promised. I mean, Branko Milanovic runs the numbers on this, and it’s like 10% of the population.
Often what happens, actually, is that the mid-level bureaucrats that are in control of the assets that were produced by the blood, sweat and tears of the Soviet people over decades, just use that power vacuum to grab them. The middle level, the nomenklatura, just took the factories and the assets that they were not supposed to be owners of, they made themselves owners. But we didn’t tell ourselves that story, we told ourselves a story about David Hasselhoff singing in the streets of Berlin, and that everybody’s happily ever after.
PM: Why wouldn’t we want to know that story?
VB: That is a good story, and it’s an important story for understanding Germany! But again, West Germany, or the FRG, had to invest huge amounts of money to integrate East Germany into what is now a unified Germany. And I don’t want to get too far off track because you asked more direct questions. But the more I think about this book, a big part of this story is that something similar happened in the United States as well. We had a similar process in the 90s, but it took longer for it to become clearer — it took longer for the consequences of that process to become clearer. Starting in the 90s, in the West, we also took the products of decades of collective labor and handed them over to oligarchs. And these are the people that now run Silicon Valley. And these are the people whose particular capitalist firms became so important in the 2010s.
We also had our seizure of public assets by ruthless entrepreneurs. But it took us 20-30 years to realize how destructive this had been. Whereas they got their destruction right away because, of course, they experienced a more severe collapse. They experienced the collapse of their state as well. And so when 2011 happens — even though the people that put together the mass protests on January 25th that led to an even bigger uprising on January 28 — even though they came together through pro-Palestine solidarity organizing, through opposition to the US war in Iraq, even though they believed that democracy in Egypt would necessarily mean opposition to US imperialism and to the allies of Washington and the region, specifically Israel and Saudi Arabia. Once they created this power vacuum, once they went to battle with the police — beat the police, take Tahrir Square — they were shocked and horrified to see the Anderson Cooper’s of the world showing up and acting as if they were doing 1989.
They were shocked to see Western media show up and act as if what they understood to be an anti-imperialist movement was actually an attempt to join America as America minor leagues, like the little brother to the US Empire. And by the end of the decade, quite a lot of the interviewees, because I built this book through something like 225 interviews done in 12 countries, over four years — a lot of people came to the conclusion that the particular style of protest that was employed in the 2010s was especially vulnerable to the imposition of a narrative from the outside, was especially vulnerable to Western media showing up and saying this is what it’s about. Rather than being able to speak for itself and being able to say clearly what it’s all about.
Then the third part of this answer to your good question is the concrete example of Brazil, which is a long and strange and weird story. But what I can tell you very quickly is that the beginning of June 2013 was organized by leftist and anarchists. But then the police crackdown led the country, but also the media, to change their idea of whether or not this was a bad or a good thing. The media starts to come out in support of a protest that they had previously opposed. But by doing this, they tell their readers, their viewers on television, that the protest is about a different thing than the original organizers understand it to be about. And so when the new people, the rush of sympathy comes into the streets, the original organizers greet this initially with euphoria until they realize quickly, horrified: Oh, these people have an entirely different idea of what the future of Brazil should be. Actually, now they’re inviting us. Oh, actually, now, one week later, they’re throwing us off of the streets.
And you can never imagine this different type of person showing up with a different idea, without the protests being mediated to to them. But also, you could never imagine anyone finding out about protest, without it being mediated to them. And this they happen to live across the street from it again.This is fundamental to the protest itself, unless you’re standing right there, across from Tahrir Square, you’re gonna find out about it through media of some kind. Whether social media, or traditional media. And so Brazil is the strangest example of how just from one week to the next, the change in media narrative changes, actually, who’s on the streets, and who wins, ultimately, the battle over the streets.
PM: It’s such a fascinating story. And I feel like you see versions of that in so many of the protest stories that you tell over that decade where the media is telling one story. And then people hear that story, and that changes how people relate to it and changes the nature of the protests itself.
VB: This often gets elided, again, by people like me. I mean, this book has me in it a little even though I don’t really want to be in any of my books. But I think that by putting myself in allows me to launch a more coherent critique of my own class of the foreign correspondents in the major mainstream media. And this nuance gets elided by those of us that do a very bad job, and a lot of us did a very bad job in the 2010s. But the shape of the thing changes from one day to the next, because there’s different people that show up. People change their ideas. And often you get an evolution of the street movement, which is not understood by the media, who want to present just one clean narrative. Often, maybe they start from the beginning, maybe they work backwards from the end. But they can’t see that there is this strange chaos that is this huge ball of energy on the shots of the streets. And then there are fights over it, over which way to push it and how to define it.
And we did quite a bad job, to the extent that at the beginning of the decade, we just said: Oh, everyone’s doing Berlin Wall, but Egypt style. And then by the end of the decade, of course, the narrative is totally flipped. It’s like: Ah, social media just leads to Trumpism and QAnon and our benevolent tech overlords need to make sure that the bad people aren’t allowed to use social media so they can stay good. But, these explosions are often really, really difficult to understand without paying close attention to the chronology. That’s why I chose to write this book as a history book, rather than an analytical: This is what happened; these are the protests that are good; these are the ones that are fake. I just tried to let each one unfold as they really did in real time.
PM: I think it works really well. I think that going through that allows you to see how these things have evolved over that span of time. And you’ve talked a lot about the role of mass media and major traditional media in this, and I want to come back to that again, a bit later. But obviously, social media is also, as you’ve been saying, a really integral part of these protests, of how they’re defined, of how we talk about them. In particular the media, if we think back to the Arab Spring presents these things as revolutions that are caused by social media talks about them as Twitter revolutions. But how do you see the actual role of social media in some of these protests? I know, it’s probably different with some of them, so maybe, at least in the early stages of how it’s actually being used versus how it’s being portrayed?
VB: I think that you can oversimplify here and it still works to say that Western media in 2011 said: This is all about social media, and that’s a good thing. Whereas I come to the conclusion that these uprisings were partially about social media and to the extent that they were partially about social media was mostly a bad thing. So as I said, in any given of these uprisings, it has to be five, six, seven things that are coming together to make this happen. But in most of them, social media, is one of the things that gets you over the line. I’m forgetting the numbers here, but I think in more than half what you have is a viral image of police repression. And the police repression matters because it’s who that is repressed matters. Often, the police end up repressing somebody that is deemed innocent, or that mainstream society sees as somebody that should not be repressed. In the case of Brazil, it was a white woman at the most prestigious newspaper in the country. And Egypt’s Khaled Saeed is portrayed as a regular good kid.
The image of something very shocking spurs people to the streets. Now that part I don’t think is negative. But I think that is new, technologically, because, as one of the interviewees points out at the end of the book, all cops in every state everywhere, employ in the final instance, brutality to enforce a given social order. That’s their job they’re supposed to. In any given state that exists in the global system right now, under the right circumstances, a cop will beat you up or hurt you. That’s what they’re supposed to do. But until recently, because of two technologies, first, photography, and then later, social media, which selects content for its affective power. Most people are not going to see cops doing what they really do, the really horrifying things that they do to reproduce the social order, so that spurred people onto the streets.
But what also social media did is it made it easy for mass protests to scale up quantitatively very, very quickly. Which was very useful for putting pressure on existing elites, or useful for creating a destabilizing force. But often when that destabilizing force was successful, and often when there was an opportunity to take advantage of an opportunity generated by the numbers on the streets, the fact that the demonstrations often consisted of individuals that didn’t know each other — and had nothing in common, other than the fact that they saw the same social media post — made it very difficult for protests of this type to take advantage of the power vacuum. A group of individuals in the Square that all have different ideas as to what should happen in a country cannot form a revolutionary committee and a revolutionary government. All of the people cannot immediately step into that power vacuum, especially if they disagree on what is supposed to be happening.
And often, in other cases, in less pronounced cases, you had situations where the government, or existing elites, were so terrified of the streets, or were so convinced that they had a point that they wanted to concede something to the streets. They said: Okay, fine, you win, what do you want? I’m willing to give you a few things, in order to hold on to power, and to prove that I’m responding to the people. And so that you’ll go home, and we can all claim that we had a win, we can all walk away from this as victors. Or at least I’m desperate to hold on to power, so what can I give you? The ways that this plays out are very strange in multiple countries, and throughout the decade. The streets cannot even elaborate that set of demands, because they’ve moved past the very small initial demand, the one that stopped being important a long time ago.
There is no way for this, what is concretely, just a few million individuals with different ideas about what should be happening, so come up with a coherent answer as to what the government can give them. So, the government either tries to come up with some a plan, which is rejected, or they just come to the conclusion that: Well, I could either just crush this, or I could just wait them out, because they’re going to get tired and go home. And often they do get tired and go home if they don’t convince security forces to defect, or if they can’t stop capitalist reproduction, and the accumulation of capital from proceeding. So that is something, which was this weird double edged sword, where the scaling up happened in a way, which was very powerful, and the numbers generated, but made it less capable of taking advantage of the opportunities that those numbers generated.
PM: We’ll talk a bit more about that kind of structure and that kind of form of organization. But one thing that stood out to me in the book, and I believe this happened in a couple of the different cases that you talked about, was that the street couldn’t necessarily come to demand, so they were often placed on them. One of the examples you talked about someone who pretended to be anonymous, and put on the mask and made a video and made these demands, and then they became the demands of the movement. You talked to him later and he was like: Yeah, I just made them up based on what people were saying. I feel like he’s done stuff like that in multiple cases.
VB: Three of the uprisings came up with five demands that were, essentially, crowdsourced and crowdsourced in misleading way. Some in Gezi Park, there’s maybe more of an association that came up with what they were asking for. But there was no one they could send to negotiate with everyone, there was no one that can actually credibly say: If you give us this, the square will disperse and we can all go home. As the way that the civil rights movement would have done that, the civil rights movement didn’t disband after extracting concessions from the state, they went to build back stronger. But that was something that could not be done in Turkey. But then in the case of Brazil, as you point to, it was just a guy that made a video, and he put on a mask from “V for Vendetta.” And his video went viral, and a lot of people that it was “Anonymous” that had put together these demands and such to some extent, people thought that Anonymous was playing a big role in this somehow. They weren’t at all.
I tracked him down six months later, and he’s like: What do you mean, Anonymous? I just put the mask on. Anonymous is whoever says they’re Anonymous. That’s the whole point. The Turkish sociologist at Berkeley, who wrote a great book about not only Gezi, but the Arab Spring, he summarizes Marx here saying in the “18th Brumaire” [“The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”] those that cannot represent themselves will be represented, and often what happens in the decade — I’m now paraphrasing him paraphrasing Marx — is that a movement that cannot speak for itself will be spoken for. Sometimes the people that impose this narrative from the outside, on the fundamentally illegible uprising in the streets, are kind of on the same side as the people on the streets. And in other cases, they’re enemies. I mean, if you ask [President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi] now, in Egypt, he’ll tell you that he is the product of the 2011 revolution. He acts as if he is the inheritor of the Egyptian uprising of 2011. Whereas everyone that actually did it, sees him as the counter revolution reaction that crushed what they were trying to do.
This is something that does happen again and again. And often social media is where either de facto leaders are chosen for what are supposed to be leaderless movements because people who go viral end up being the ones that speak for the entire thing, even if they have nothing to do with the people who’ve done 10 years of organizing. In the case of Egypt, again, some people did 10 years of organizing in factories in the Nile Delta, and among student activists in the capital, and then they were just shocked to see: Oh, this person who doesn’t even live here is going viral on social media. Now, they’re a leader of this thing that doesn’t have any leaders. Or in other cases, it’s like the YouTube clip that the algorithm shows to the most resilient that ends up leading like tens of thousands of people to go into the streets with a sign that says he five demands, where it’s just one guy that was not especially politically sophisticated, if I can be polite, that just made a video that YouTube showed to a lot of people.
PM: It’s so interesting to hear you describe it. I was going to ask you about that as well. Because this is one of the things, again, that stood out because you have this, essentially, leaderless movement, as many of them claim to be, but then of course, because they can’t come to some agreement amongst themselves as to who should represent them. It’s just whoever becomes viral, whoever has the most followers on social media, who then becomes the representative. And again, you talked about this in multiple cases, like in Hong Kong, and other parts of the world. Where these people emerged from the movement who took the microphone and claimed to be the representatives. But it wasn’t at all clear that these people actually represented what was happening on the streets, they were just the kind of people who are picked out from social media or picked out by the traditional media to represent what this was supposed to be.
VB: These things happen. This is the thing that I try not to treat social media as a really distinct category because on every case that I analyze social media interacts in a really important way with traditional media. Yes, it is a Facebook group that calls for the January 25th uprising in Egypt, but it’s also Al Jazeera that most people actually watch. And in Brazil, people see on on Twitter and Facebook, the viral images of the police repression on June 13th, but it’s also the center-right mainstream media owned by the Brazilian version of the oligarchical class, that also gets regular people excited about, or believing that this is a good thing. So there’s this interaction where leaders are chosen, and this is something that, historically, becomes clear, the second half of the 20th century .
I talked about it briefly in the book, but there’s this great essay called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” by Jo Freeman, who was a feminist activist in 1970s in the United States. And what she says essentially, is that if you insist that you have no leaders, and you insist that you have no structure, leaders will appear somehow or another. The leaders that appear and may not be the ones that the people would choose, and they will appear in a way that they do not have to answer to the group in anyway. Because since you pretend they aren’t the leaders, there is no mechanism for saying you’re doing a bad job as leader, and we can remove you. So what she says is that if you insist on structurelessness, some kind of structure will appear, and it’s often a structure you wouldn’t have chose, and one that you can’t change once it appears.
So, to go back to the idea of leaderlessness and the 2010s. In some cases, like in Brazil, the group that started the June 2013 uprising, believed very deeply — and they will now say, some of them, dogmatically in horizontalism. They believed that they should not lead, they believed in a social formation within their movement in which there was no hierarchies whatsoever, no one could represent anybody else. Everyone was equal, not only equal as a human being, but had the same function in the group. But in other cases, like in Egypt, for example, there are very few people, especially of the original organizers wanted this. What they would have wanted, many of them, is a revolutionary party, or strong labor unions or strong civil society groups. The types of real organizations that have been proven to be very successful in revolutions of the kind they wanted to put together. They just didn’t have them because of the concrete decimation of these groups under neoliberal economics and under the Mubarak dictatorship.
So, what they got was a kind of concrete horizontality, rather than an explicit and self-conscious, horizontalism. But to the extent that that may have its weaknesses, that was often read by a global media — which, as we said, plays such an important role — as a positive thing. Because if they can look upon the square and see whatever they want — and that’s what journalists love to do, is to be the ones that actually tell the story — rather than saying, for example, let’s say a proudly leftist and anti-Zionist, Egyptian revolutionary movement that made its goals very clear. Then, in the first case, Anderson Cooper can stop and say: Oh, they want to join America’s minor league. Whereas, if you imagine that hypothetical scenario that a lot of the Egyptian revolutionaries would have liked to have, which is a strong labor unions and a real revolutionary program, then global media would have probably acted very differently. So often, I think this horizontality — whether it was intentional, or it was the result of material impediments — was read as a positive thing when sometimes it’s very much the opposite.
PM: I want to talk a bit about the State’s relationship, or the government’s relationship to social media. Because one of the things that we’ve talked about is, as these protests, especially in the early part of the decade, were kicking off. Western governments, the US, were happy to say: Social media is promoting democracy; it’s promoting freedom. They were very positive about it. And then as the decade went on, there was this shift, especially when it came home, I guess, to a certain degree, or they they felt that there was this kind of impact on their own politics. That all of a sudden social media was the evil, but you also describe how other governments in states where these protests were happening, also had a shift on social media where, at first, it seemed like this thing that protesters were using in order to organize these protests, but as the decade went on, they also learned how to use social media effectively for their own power. So can you talk about those shifts on both sides of that?
VB: This is something that Evgeny Morozov wrote about back in 2011, with “The Net Delusion,” and was like: You guys have a Walt Disney idea of autocracy. Autocrats are not just passively waiting to be overthrown. If a new technology comes out, they’re gonna be like: Oh, well, how can I use this? They’re not just going to wait for the “progressive” democratic forces of freedom to use it against them. So, this is what we saw throughout the 2010s. We saw not only is every different kind of state finding ways to use these technological tools, because technologies can be used by anyone. And they are developed by particular social forces. So, not only did we see all types of states, employing social media for their own purposes, and manipulating social media for their own purposes, we saw that: Oh, every different type of person can do a mass protests. It’s not just progressive young people that can get excited on social media and pour into the streets.
Again, he kind of overstates this, but I like the schematic that Andrey Mir puts forward in his book, “Postjournalism,” where he’s like: In the early 2010s, urban millennials got on social media, and so everyone thought that social media stuff was progressive and democratic. And then in the second half of the 2010s, boomers and reactionaries got on social media, and so people just read social media as having taken the exact opposite course of the early 2010s. But it’s really just different people on there, different people doing the same thing. Because January 6th was people, because of stuff they saw on the internet, storming the capital of a country. This is exactly what January 2011 was, if you strip all of the historic and social context. If you have a reading where you just view a tactic as necessarily good or bad, then these are the same tactics. So what becomes clear by the end of the 2010s, is that tactics can be used by anyone and their relationship to a larger strategy, and to a real configuration of forces, really matters. It really matters who is using them, and for what purpose.
Something else this becomes clear at the end of the decade, which is related to the same phenomenon, is that we’ve remembered that, for example, in Latin America, the 2019 coup in Bolivia was preceded by mass protests. Mass protest helped make this coup possible. And that served as a reminder that of things that had been forgotten, in the era of techno-utopianism. The era in which we thought that the internet was going to change everything, that the 1964 US-backed coup in Brazil was made possible, in part, by mass protests carried out by the middle class. The 1973 coup in Chile, which installed the Pinochet dictatorship in the place of democratically-elected President Salvador Allende was preceded by mass middle-class protests. And they were also backed by the CIA, but this is a part of the story. So I think we realized by the end of the decade, that tactics and tools — whether they be protests, or social media — can be used by everyone. And it depends who’s using them and for what purpose.
PM: Can you talk a bit about how this played out in Indonesia, where you were a foreign correspondent for a while? Because I found that story particularly striking.
VB: This is a case that I include, even though it doesn’t meet the criterion that I create for myself. It doesn’t actually overthrow. It forces a change in the government, but not a really fundamental one. But back in 2011, it seemed as if when people came to the streets and performed this — I don’t say performance in a derogatory way; I think it’s a performance in a way which is essential to its power — performed this mass protest in a public square. This was seen as necessarily progressive. Well, at the end of 2016, the governorship of Jakarta — by far the largest region in the country — is held by a Chinese Christian, a man named Ahok. His rise to this position was accidental because Joko Widodo, who is now the president, moved from that position to the presidency. So, he moved from Vice Governor to Governor. But, he’s very popular.
And what happens in Jakarta is what you might imagine happening is if there is a very popular Muslim Arab, as the mayor of New York City or Los Angeles. Even though he’s very popular, powerful forces in society, conservative religious forces, have a big problem with this. So, what they do is that when he’s on the campaign trail, he says something about the Quran, which is not really offensive or controversial, but it is edited on social media, edited on Facebook, to make it look like he’s committing blasphemy. And so then, what is the tactic? What is the repertoire that these Islamist, these conservatives, that want to overthrow? They have a problem with the democratically chosen leader of Jakarta, they reach for the thing that everyone else has been doing throughout the decade. They call a mass protest, digitally coordinated, everyone assembles in the square. There’s a hashtag; everyone wears the same color.
They perform the exact same type of demonstration that people five, six years ago would have thought was necessarily progressive, and it works. So, Ahok ends up in jail, the courts end up deciding to convict him of blasphemy. Even though this has all been — it would have been called at the time and perhaps now semi-ironically — fake news. And this is part of that same story. Everyone can do a mass protests and this kind of naive belief that we had in 2011, that the internet is democratizing, just because everyone can use it, was totally off. And the idea that the streets always belong to “the people” was off too, because the people was always a concrete configuration of people, and it matters who comes and what they want.
PM: There’s another aspect of this, another story that you tell in the book that I found really fascinating and trying to parse what actually happened over the past decade, and what was really behind these mass protests at different moments through the decade and in different countries. And you describe, in particular in the case of Brazil, where Dilma Rousseff, who was this president elected by the Worker’s Party, or representing the Worker’s Party, following from the Lula presidency, who, of course, is now the President, again. He was faced with these mass, digitally-coordinated protests and received calls from Turkish President Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin warning her that these digitally organized protests were being pushed to destabilize the government. And at the time, she said: No, she didn’t believe that. But later in a later interview, she said her mind had changed on that. Can you talk about this view of these protests and how it played out in that case?
VB: So, Erdogan and Putin have slightly different narratives back in 2013. But they both believe that this kind of thing can be used by meddling, imperialist powers to destabilize countries that they don’t like. And that this can often help the meddling, imperialist powers if they are positioned best to take advantage of the subsequent power vacuum or have a plan to sort of manipulate the outcome. And at the time, Dilma Rousseff, who going into this mass protests in 2013, was on pretty good terms with the United States. They had some disagreements but was on pretty good terms with the United States. Very popular, had been elected in a landslide, and had very, very strong approval ratings, and was somebody that had come up as a dissiden, had come up as a guerrilla fighting the dictatorship.
She never wanted to view protests this way. She wanted to give the protesters what they wanted. She wanted to give them something; she couldn’t figure out what they want. So there’s this, what I found to be, a really powerful scene of her just sitting in the presidential palace and watching TV, but turning off the sound, so that she wouldn’t be mediated by the journalists that were interpreting the images for her. But still, she was only seeing the images that oligarch-owned television channels were showing to her. So, she was like: No, no, come on, the people want more. We’ve given them more consumer power; they want better social services. And this was an entirely coherent reading at the time.
And it was more or less my reading at the time, too. Because I think, probably because I’ve been there since the very beginning. So I viewed them in terms of their relationship to the original group. But by 2017-2018, she comes to conclusion like: Oh, no, this was the beginning of, I think, she’s referring to the literature about hybrid wars, that was translated in Brazil by the MST, the landless worker’s movements, publishing houses, by it’s unpopular. And so she doesn’t come to the exact same conclusion, but she does believe that this was the beginning of a process that led to a coup.
She doesn’t say exactly how she thinks this happens — whether or not there’s some some kind of manipulation of 2013 happening by someone from outside — but another version of that same statement as basically the same one that I hold, that in this strange ball of energy that was created in June 2013, it was right-wing forces that had been funded by the Atlas Network, that have been funded by groups in the United States, that did quite a good job taking advantage of the opportunities. And they put together a protest movement, which ended up having a leadership role in the call for her impeachment in 2016, which I think could be called a parliamentary coup. But the ways in which — in my view now, I’m speaking of the way of the conclusions that I think arise by the end of my book — the ways in which these power vacuums can be taken advantage of varies by country.
But they can be taken advantage of by imperialist powers, and this also varies by country. So, in Libya in 2011, the imperialist counter attack is quite obvious. NATO uses legitimate demands about the Gaddafi government, or uses legitimate complaints about the Gaddafi government, as an excuse to launch a regime change operation bombing the country, ultimately destroying it. In Bahrain, it’s quite obvious how the imperialists counter attack came to be. Saudi Arabia marches over the bridge and puts down the uprising against a monarchy, which serves the interests of a minority.
Whereas in Brazil, the ways in which this kind of thing turned out well for the enemies of the left and turned out well for US-backed and US-supported actors happens slowly, and it happens in a subtle way. So there is the Lava Jato [Operation Car Wash] campaign, which starts indirectly, very indirectly, as a result of June 2013, but then gets a lot of support from media and then ultimately succeeds in its very corrupt anti-corruption campaign while secretly in collaboration with the FBI and the Justice Department the entire time. And so what I think becomes clear to many of the interviewees in my book is that this particular type of explosion is something that, again, can be taken advantage of, if you are organized and ready to take advantage of it. But if you are not, it may be someone else that takes advantage of that and depending on your place in the global system, it might be a really powerful neighbor. Or it might be the hegemon, the most powerful country in the global system, which is the United States.
PM: It’s really fascinating. And it really diverges from the narrative that we’ve had, or the dominant narrative that many people have long accepted around these protests, around the way that social media works in fueling them or helping them grow. And the idea that they’re kind of state forces intervening in that, or potentially using them for their own benefit, or for their own gain, I feel like has largely been excluded from that conversation.
VB: I mean, depending on where we’re talking about. What I see is that the reality of the imperialist global system sometimes becomes clearer later in the story, often to the shock and surprise of the people on the streets, or sometimes it shapes the initial movement itself. So often, the role of sort of Western-funded NGOs matters at the very beginning, because there’s not that many of them, they are really good at using the internet. They’re really good at getting their message out and they know how to put on a good protest. And then after the explosion comes many different types of people rush into the square. But that’s how sometimes international forces can matter at the beginning. And then there’s the ways in which I just described that there can be the imperialist counter attack, or a counter revolution, that comes at the end. Or there’s ways which will become only clear, after declassification and better in more or rigorous histories, or in of this decade down the road The ways in which there’s probably manipulation of the actual internet during the thing, which is not something that I have so much data on, just because I’m so close to what’s happening and I based the book, primarily, on interviews.
But I mean, this is something historically that happens. Even the most successful revolutions in history withstand a counter revolutionary attack. Even the ones that are the most classic reference points, have a counter revolutionary attack. And then again, going back to 1980 and if you look what really happened, you look at who rushed into the vacuum. Who took advantage of the power vacuum to seize what was up for grabs? In the case of East Germany, it was West Germany, which a lot of people in East Germany have complaints about the way that they were integrated, but at least they were integrated into a very rich western state. And that was done because it was West Germany that rushed into the power vacuum. Whereas if you look at much of the rest of the post-Soviet world, it’s mid-level bureaucrats that just take the assets and become oligarchs, and then they have neither democracy nor economic power.
So, a conclusion that I come to in the academic version of this book of a book talk that I’ve been giving is that this particular form of revolutionary practice — even though it was often not actually intended as a revolutionary practice, often, it generated revolutionary conditions because it got much bigger than it expected. But this particular form of contention, the apparently spontaneous, leaderless, digitally coordinated, horizontally-organized mass protest is best suited for movements that are pro-systemic, rather than counter systemic. So, in the sense of world systems theory.
If you really are saying to the global system: Hey, come here, rush into this power vacuum with what is already existing, then that can work out for you. And that’s more or less the case of East Germany. But if you want to change the configurations of power in your region, if you want to actually challenge the global system, or change it in some way, and this was the case of many of the uprisings in North Africa, you’re going to experience an imperialist counter attack. You’re going to experience counter revolution. Often the way the part of the world system that’s going to rush into your power back him in North Africa might be NATO bombing you or the UAE organizing an astroturfed petition campaign that will help to make a coup possible in 2013, and install Sisi.
PM: I’m happy you brought that up, because I wanted to discuss this a bit further. Because one of your big reflections at the end of this book is on horizontalism — structurelessness, these anarchists techniques, but not fully that — really defined what was happening during this decade. And I feel like, in the same way that technology and social media played an important role in the discourses around these protests, these are also ideas that are very closely linked to technological politics and technolibertarian politic, this idea that going to have these technologies, the internet is going to take off, all of a sudden, we’re going to challenge state power, and corporate power. And we’re going to have all this freedom and liberty as a result. But that hasn’t really played out in the technological world. It’s been interesting then to read the book and see how these tactics, when taken to the square or to where these protests are happening, aren’t tending to challenge these power structures that the narrative would have us believe is the goal of these things. So how do you reflect broadly, on this idea that by decentralizing power, we’re going to change power, based on your observations in the work that you’ve been doing?
VB: So, if I can make a really rough analogy, what happens to the squares is kind of what happened to the internet. The dream was that if the internet was entirely horizontal, if the internet was not owned by anybody, then it would be owned by everybody, and it would be democratic. But what actually happened in that case of structurelessness was a set of people came and grabbed it. And those are those oligarchs that I spoke about at the beginning. What you actually got was power being imposed upon that system by the cynical, well-connected, actors that essentially stole huge amounts of publicly accumulated resources or publicly-generated resources. And what you got in the square is this tyranny of structurelessness, where, when there wasn’t supposed to be any leader, the people that were willing to just do it, against the will of many other people, often ended up achieving leadership in a way which was entirely democratic, and would never have been chosen by the people if there was an actual mechanism for choosing them.
As I say in the book, there’s an elective affinity, I think, between a certain set of ideas and a certain types of protest practices that were made possible in the 2010s. Because not that many people, if you think about how many people actually were the type of anti-authoritarian leftist that knew about and understood, and espoused horizontalism. It was some people, it was people that had some ideological importance that had some connection to media or academic power, perhaps. But it wasn’t that many people around the world that actually really believe this. But then what you had with it was made possible was something that seemed to gel with their pre-existing beliefs. And then people like me that knew about the ideas, would look at the square and say: Oh, they’re doing decentralized, horizontally-structured mass protest and decentralization is also good.
This idea that I’m trying to grapple with where, I don’t know what to call it, whether or not it’s geometric supremacy, or the fetishization of shape came from. Why is a decentred system better than a system with a center? What’s wrong with having a center? You can imagine many, many centralized systems that are authoritarian, of course. Historically, this is perhaps easy to understand. But you can imagine decentralization, meaning domination by oligarchs very quickly. I mean, a country that got concrete decentralization in the mass protest decade was Libya. And what did that actually mean? It didn’t mean libertarian communism. It meant warlords and civil war. It meant local elites grabbing power and then fighting each other over national power. The same kind of question I have, can be applied to automatic a priori privileging of anything that appears horizontal. Of course, you can think of vertically integrated systems, or vertically structured systems, hierarchically organized systems and states, which are profoundly authoritarian and profoundly disruptive.
But you can also think of horizontal configurations of power. You can also think of horizontal structures, which are no more democratic or more liberatory. It really just depends on the context and what you’re actually doing. And this is something that I see coming up again, this has not died, and I’m from California, in like the techno-futurist techno-libertarian idea that like: Oh, if you’re just like decentralized maximally, well, that means democracy. No, democracy is something you have to build and you have to constantly test and retest and be vigilant about preserving. You don’t just get it automatically because things don’t have a center. I’ve come away from this decade, at least, with a deep suspicion of anyone that likes certain shapes better than other shapes. Because it’s not about the shape, it’s about the relationships between people and structures of power.
PM: I wonder if you think that is shifting at all. Obviously, I don’t have the kind of broad global perspective that you have on how these things are playing out. But just looking at North America, or the United States, the early 2010s was the Occupy movement and this horizontalism structurelessness. This kind of idea of: This is how we do politics. And I feel like through the later part of the decade, there was the Bernie campaign and the movement around that more recently, kind of the increased energy into the union movement and seeing what kind of the UAW is doing lately. Do you feel like this has shifted, just in the United States, but do you see broader shifts and re-thinking of what happened in that moment?
VB: So that broad sketch that you just offered shifts, that happen as a response to real failures and real processes of learning, is one more or less than I saw around the world. In the case of my book, I look at ten to 13 cases, depending on how you count them, and none of them are in the United States. So, all of my interviews were with people that either lived through or responded to, or had to govern during those mass uprisings, and again, none of them are in the United States. But the movement that I saw ideologically is similar to the one that you just outlined, more people believe in the importance of collective action, organization, and the ability to be flexible and democratic in the face of changing circumstances. Rather than just assuming that everything will work out as long as there’s enough people with goodwill.
And while I didn’t write this about the United States or with US readers in mind, I have found that some people that have lived through this same shift in the US have been gratified to have North American readers come to me and say: Oh, this really reminded me of this thing that I lived through, or I went through a similar situation. But to be perhaps unnecessarily clear, I didn’t actually look carefully at any US or North American movements. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t hear a lot of similar things to what you just described.
PM: That’s completely fair and that’s why I wanted to ask for your broader perspective on it, than just what was happening closer to home. To end our conversation, I wanted to ask about journalism, because we talked about the role that mass media played in representing all of this. I think, it’s very fair to say that journalism and traditional media is in a real crisis at the moment. We talked about the failures in covering these mass protests. But obviously, there’s issues with the business model, there’s issues with the degree of resources that can go into journalism, the way that technology has affected this, but also broader political structures and whatnot. After living through this, after being a longtime foreign correspondent, working for some of these major media outlets. What’s your reflection on where the media goes from here, I guess?
VB: Early in the book, there’s a Brazilian politician who runs for office on the campaign slogan that: Things can’t get any worse. It can’t get any worse. Very tragically it turns out, yes, things can get worse. And when I started journalism, maybe 15 years ago, it was already true that US corporate media had a tendency to reproduce narratives favored by powerful states and the interests of capital. It was already true that we were struggling to do our jobs capably, because we did not have the material resources. It was already true that the selection of individuals was deeply shaped by that lack of resources, which meant that it was largely rich kids that didn’t need to make any money, that could take a risk and start to try out the activity of journalism, hoping to make a living from it. So while it appeared, 15 years ago, that things couldn’t get any worse,well, they could and they did get a lot worse.
I think we are facing the possibility of the extinction of journalism as a profession, as a human activity. Like I said, newspapers are relatively recent in human history, journalism is also relatively recent in human history. It had a beginning. I think it could have an end. It would be catastrophic for democracy. If it ended — as deeply, imperfect as it is and lot of my book is about how horribly imperfect it is — as bad as journalism is right now, in 2024, if it went away, fully, that would be catastrophic for democracy and for the project of human liberation. And so again, maybe perhaps I spent too much time on the lessons of the 2010s, but going back to the lessons that emerges in the 2010s, I think it’d be a mistake just to blow up the thing and assume something better is going to grow out of the rubble. I think we have to do the best that we can to find democratic ways, preserving and improving the practice of journalism, because it’s a mess right now in the mess is getting even messier.
Again, I think what happens in the wake of the decimation of journalism is not the flowering, automatic flowering of democratic journalistic practice. It’s oligarchs seizing control, which has already happened to some extent. I mean, Jeff Bezos, would be called an oligarch by the US media if you were not American. He’s not right at the moment running the Washington Post, it seems like, purely as a self-interested enterprise, but he could. He could sell it if it was against his interests. Elon Musk is for sure an oligarch, and he’s used oligarchical power to take control of a social media platform that he cares about quite a lot. So, the prospects are not good. My outlook is pessimistic.
But it’s precisely for that reason that we have to get involved in finding solutions and coming up with democratic approaches to preserving and improving journalism, rather than than just gleefully dancing on the rubble, because that might be really fun, for all of the people that my class of people has harmed in the last few hundred years, and we have been harmful in many occasions. It would, I don’t think, lead to what we need in the long-term, I think we have to do the really hard work. Just like we have to do the hard work of putting together the organizations that can carry out real revolutions, we have to do the really hard work of figuring out how we can make journalism actually good. After we figure out how to stop it from being killed.
PM: It’s a grim prospect, but that means there are also opportunities if we can seize them and build the power. Vincent, it’s been fantastic to speak with you, to dig into the book and to learn about the work that you’ve been doing over this past decade. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat. I really appreciate it.
VB: Thank you so much for having me.