In the two years since the 2016 election, Donald Trump has generated some of the most demagogic, xenophobic, and cruel policies and practices to come out of Washington in decades. At the same time we have also seen some of the most engaged social activism in decades. The Women’s March, the airport demonstrations against the Muslim ban, the overflowing town halls in defense of the Affordable Care Act, the protests against the separation of immigrant families and Trump’s threats to deport undocumented minors who were granted legal status by the Obama administration, the #MeToo moment-turned-movement, the student-led March for Our Lives in support of stricter gun control, and the widespread protests against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court are just the most public manifestations of citizens’ determination to stand up against Trump’s assaults on civil rights, civil liberties, and constitutional norms.
Less obvious signs of this engagement include the record number of subscriptions to The New York Times and The Washington Post, which are important checks on an administration that cavalierly disregards truth, and the quadrupling of membership in the American Civil Liberties Union, of which I am legal director. We were already the largest civil liberties and civil rights organization in the country before Trump’s election, and our membership has risen from 400,000 to 1.8 million since November 2016. Other nonprofits defending constitutional and environmental values under attack by Trump have also seen dramatically increased support.
This sense of urgency was reflected in the 2018 midterm elections, in which turnout was high and Democrats performed very well, despite the fact that Trump had inherited the strongest economy in decades. Democrats gained forty seats in the House of Representatives, the largest net gain for the party in a single election since 1947. Democrats also picked up seven governorships and won hundreds of state legislative seats previously held by Republicans.
Civil society groups made enormous efforts to ensure that the low Democratic turnout that allowed Trump to eke out a victory in 2016 would not be repeated in 2018.1 From its inception, for example, the March for Our Lives stressed the need to “vote them out” and promoted that theme with a nationwide get-out-the-vote effort. Women responded to the election of a self-avowed sexual assaulter by running for office—and winning—in record numbers. The ACLU launched a grassroots mobilization campaign, People Power, designed to inspire and support a loose network of citizens coming together in their neighborhoods and towns to work with local government to advance civil liberties and civil rights. It also devoted millions of dollars to supporting civil rights ballot initiatives, including a Florida referendum that ended the disenfranchisement of 1.4 million Floridians who have completed their prison sentences and returned to society.
This is democracy in action. When a president manages to get elected despite obtaining nearly three million fewer votes than his opponent and then embarks on a series of controversial initiatives that please his extremist base but generally keep his approval ratings below 40 percent, the democratic process should respond accordingly. To a degree, it has. People have used the two most important tools of democracy—their voice and their vote—to register their disapproval.
Will this response translate into meaningful long-term political and social change? The midterms provided an important early indicator that this is possible. If the threat posed by Trump inspires an alignment of progressive citizens and groups, we may see real long-lasting reforms. If the resistance to Trump fades, splinters, or self-destructs, however, the nation’s future could be determined by his resilient base, even though it represents only a minority of the electorate.
Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest offers a cautionary note. It is possible that one of the reasons there has been so much social activism on the left since Trump’s election is that it is so much simpler to engage politically in the era of the Internet. It seems as if social media have been around forever. But the first iPhone was not sold until 2007; Twitter launched in 2006, Facebook in 2004. As Tufekci illustrates, these developments have made it significantly easier to mount protests, to coordinate action, and to identify and associate with like-minded citizens. So while the unprecedented threat posed by Trump is undoubtedly a cause of the extent and energy of civic activism, it’s also true that the tools for organizing opposition have never been more democratized.
Dissatisfaction with autocratic regimes in the Middle East, for example, has been long-standing, but the Arab Spring did not occur until the advent of social media there. Social media allowed dissidents “to overcome censorship, coordinate protests, organize logistics, and spread humor and dissent with an ease that would have seemed miraculous to earlier generations,” Tufekci writes. But the Arab Spring is hardly a success story. As Robert Worth has shown in A Rage for Order (2016), popular protests may have succeeded in toppling autocratic regimes in many nations, but the result was more often a mere shift in autocrats than a transition to democracy.
The failure to achieve real reform in the Middle East may result in part from how handily social media called protesters into the streets. Tufekci notes that in order for the US civil rights movement to mount the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and the March on Washington in 1963, legions of activists had to work for years to develop the networks, relationships, organizations, and leaders necessary to sustain the boycott and carry out the march.
Today, by contrast, a major demonstration can be launched in a matter of weeks. It took less than six weeks after the Parkland shootings in February 2018 to mobilize more than one million people nationwide in the March for Our Lives. The Women’s March, the most impressive anti-inaugural protest in history, was put together in a little over two months. The airport demonstrations protesting the Muslim ban took place across the country the day after the ban was introduced. These would not have been possible without Twitter, Facebook, and other social media tools.
But precisely because organizing is made easier by social media, a protest is a less meaningful indicator of a movement’s influence than it once was. The March on Washington was testament to the institutional power and reach of the civil rights movement. Today’s protests are less often the culmination of an organizing campaign than the start of one. Tufekci writes:
In the networked era, a large, organized march or protest should not be seen as the chief outcome of previous capacity building by a movement; rather it should be looked at as the initial moment of the movement’s bursting onto the scene, but only the first stage.
Despite their impressive beginnings, the question of whether the Women’s March, the #MeToo movement, or the March for Our Lives will help achieve lasting reform remains open.
Moreover, while social media permit progressives to organize more efficiently, they also empower repressive movements. Social media and the Internet are likely responsible in part for what appears to be a resurgence of white supremacist groups in the United States. Strong social norms condemning the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, and other racist organizations once made it extremely risky for those with white supremacist beliefs to seek out like-minded allies and voice their views in public. Now they can find communities in chat rooms, the echo chamber of Facebook, and on niche websites without incurring social opprobrium. As Siva Vaidhyanathan argues in Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, Facebook is a “forum for tribalism.” Facilitating association is not without costs.
Even as social media make it easier for dissidents to find one another and act collectively (for good or ill), they can also be deployed to undermine and neutralize forces for change. Traditional means of censorship are far less effective in a world where there are a myriad of independent voices rather than a finite number of outlets to target. As Tufekci shows, however, governments have devised new modes of countering their critics, unleashing “trolls” and “bots” to engage in mass disinformation aimed at undermining the legitimacy of dissenting voices and spreading sufficient confusion to drown out and disarm them. The goal is not to shut down opposing views
but to produce resignation, cynicism, and a sense of disempowerment among the people. This can be done in many ways, including inundating audiences with information, producing distractions to dilute their attention and focus, delegitimating media that provide accurate information…, deliberately sowing confusion, fear, and doubt by aggressively questioning credibility,…creating or claiming hoaxes, or generating harassment campaigns.
Tufekci’s book, written before the revelations about Russian interference in the presidential campaign, was prescient in describing how governments would use and abuse social media. Indeed, the description quoted above perfectly captures the tactics of Donald Trump and his allies.2 Several domestic US groups copied the ploys used by Russian trolls in 2016 to sow discord and confusion in advance of the 2018 midterms.3 The Saudi government has done much the same thing, deploying trolls to target and drown out its critics, including Jamal Khashoggi before it murdered him.4 Similar tactics were used in Brazil to spread millions of misleading WhatsApp messages in the run up to the October 2018 presidential election won by a Trump-like populist, Jair Bolsonaro.5 Online, censorship is out and disinformation is in.6
Facebook and Twitter have attempted to respond, but identifying and blocking disinformation is extraordinarily challenging. As a recent article in The New York Times revealed, Facebook has 15,000 employees around the world who monitor millions of posts each day for objectionable content, guided by elaborate, ever-changing, and secret rules. Errors are inevitable in such a vast censorship enterprise.7 At this point, it is difficult to know whether social media’s benefits in giving everyone a voice and facilitating political association outweigh their considerable costs in encouraging tribalism, enabling widespread disinformation, eroding faith in a set of shared facts, and undermining activism. In retrospect, the jubilation over new technology’s part in the Arab Spring looks remarkably naive.
If social media’s greatest contribution is democratizing communications, their greatest threat is in abetting cynicism and distrust. When platforms are infected with disinformation, making it difficult for users to identify the truth, or when users encounter only a version of events that supports their suspicions about the difficulty of change, they can slide into a hopelessness that prevents them from acting. And that result is just as good as censorship to those seeking to deflect challenges to the status quo.
Social media, in other words, may be as much an obstacle to effective political organizing as an aid. If today’s emerging movements are to succeed, they will need to migrate from the online platforms that supported their formation and early successes, develop more traditional institutional structures, and operate in the offline world as much as or more than online. A hashtag may be sufficient for a moment or a message, but not for a movement.
In How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t, Leslie Crutchfield offers useful guidance to the many individuals and groups that have been inspired to take action following Trump’s election. Crutchfield studied a range of American social movements over the past several decades and sought to identify the characteristics that effective ones have shared. Her subjects include the campaigns to discourage cigarette smoking and drunk driving, to develop the constitutional rights to bear arms and marriage equality, and to reduce acid rain. In much less detail she also discusses Occupy Wall Street, environmental campaigns, the Tea Party, and Black Lives Matter.
The principal lessons from both books are threefold. First, successful campaigns for national change generally begin at the local and state level, and only build to national change incrementally. This means that movements will do best if they encourage the development of state-based or even more localized affiliated groups that are part of a national strategy but exercise substantial independence and initiative in their regions. Crutchfield calls it “networked leadership.” This requires a mix of guidance and independence, because a top-down national structure risks dampening enthusiasm of those at the local level, while coordination is necessary to achieve results at the national level.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving, for example, encouraged the formation of local chapters with substantial autonomy, and within five years of its founding in 1980 it had 450 local chapters and two million members. The National Rifle Association worked through affiliates in every state to gain recognition of gun rights at the state level long before the Supreme Court took up the question of a constitutional right to bear arms in 2008. By contrast, the gun control movement, led by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, focused its efforts in Washington, D.C., and had very little presence in the states, thereby easing the way for the NRA and its affiliates. As Crutchfield notes, “the winning movements that have peaked since the 1980s have all adopted this states-first approach—including gun rights, tobacco control, and drunk-driving reduction.”
The gun control movement has now learned from this mistake, and Everytown for Gun Safety, founded in 2014 by Michael Bloomberg, is an effort to match the NRA’s state-focused strategy. To the extent that March for Our Lives can work with Everytown affiliates, it may be able to transform into real change the national attention it achieved through its inspiring response to the Parkland shooting. But that will require painstaking institutional work at the state level.
Second, Tufekci’s and Crutchfield’s accounts emphasize the importance of institutions with strong structures that assign responsibility for decision-making to trusted leaders. Without organization and clear lines of authority, movements can founder when they need to respond nimbly to changing conditions. Tufekci identifies such “tactical freeze” as one of the reasons the Arab Spring reforms failed; aided by social media, the protests launched without developing the kind of organizational capacity that might have enabled the movement to shift tactics when necessary. Both authors identify this as a critical weakness as well for Occupy Wall Street, which was adamantly opposed to institutions and hierarchy, and as a result was often dysfunctional.
Third, seeking reform through elections is critical to success. Both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street started from grassroots, but the Tea Party focused single-mindedly on electing representatives who reflected its views, while Occupy had little appetite for ordinary politics. One engaged in democracy; the other largely opted out. The Tea Party has had lasting influence, while Occupy is a thing of the past. It’s also true that the Tea Party had millions of dollars in support, as Jane Mayer has shown in Dark Money (2016), so the comparison is not entirely fair. But it is nonetheless true that the surest path to reform in the United States is through the democratic process.
Women have been at the center of the Trump resistance and are likely to remain so. While they have long been victimized by sexual harassment, the election of a president who bragged about using his own privilege to assault women seems to have broken some sort of barrier. A disproportionate number of the ACLU’s new members since 2016 are women. The congressional freshman class that just took office had more women than ever before. Women protesters were not able to halt the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh, but that failure may motivate still more to take up the fight against Trump and for women’s equality and dignity. (The confirmation of Clarence Thomas in 1991 despite Anita Hill’s highly credible allegations of sexual harassment sparked a “Year of the Woman,” and women punished Republicans at the polls in the next election.)
The #MeToo movement has already inspired considerable reform. Microsoft, Uber, and Lyft have exempted sexual harassment complaints from contract clauses requiring binding arbitration, while Condé Nast has adopted a new code of conduct for working with models. Several major hotel chains have provided their workers with panic buttons to notify security if hotel guests try to harass them. Four states—Maryland, Vermont, Ten- nessee, and Washington—have banned the confidentiality conditions in employment contracts that enabled employers to conceal harassment claims.8
Crutchfield’s and Tufekci’s work suggests, however, that whether reforms will continue depends on the energy of the movement being channeled productively into organizations at the national and local levels, and into electoral politics. The #MeToo movement has given rise to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which provides subsidized legal support to victims of sexual harassment and assault. And the women’s movement already has a number of established organizations that work to prevent and remedy sexual harassment and assault, including the National Women’s Law Center, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, Girls for Gender Equity, the ACLU, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Some of these have state and local affiliates. And because federal employment law already prohibits sexual harassment, private civil rights attorneys and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also play an important part in responding to the problem. But troubling signs of division have also arisen, particularly among organizers of the Women’s March.9
Whether #MeToo and other progressive movements will achieve lasting reform will depend on these organizations working collectively in multiple forums, including courtrooms, state legislatures, corporate boardrooms, union halls, and, most importantly, at the ballot box. We all need to turn away from our smartphones and screens and engage, together, in the work of democracy.
For more on increased turnout and its effects in 2018, see Michael Tomasky, “The Midterms: So Close, So Far Apart,” The New York Review, December 20, 2018. ↩
For an account of Facebook’s complicity in the Trump campaign, see Jacob Weisberg, “The Autocracy App,” The New York Review, October 25, 2018. ↩
Sheera Frenkel, “Facebook Tackles Rising Threat: Americans Aping Russian Schemes to Deceive,” The New York Times, October 11, 2018. ↩
Katie Benner, Mark Mazzetti, Ben Hubbard, and Mike Isaac, “Saudis’ Image Makers: A Troll Army and a Twitter Insider,” The New York Times, October 20, 2018. ↩
Mike Isaac and Kevin Roose, “Disinformation Spreads on WhatsApp Ahead of Brazilian Election,” The New York Times, October 19, 2018. ↩
Disinformation tactics have been deployed by both parties, as in the Alabama Senate race. See Scott Shane and Alan Blinder, “Democrats Faked Online Push to Outlaw Alcohol,” The New York Times, January 7, 2019. ↩
Max Fisher, “Inside Facebook’s Secret Rulebook for Global Political Speech,” The New York Times, December 27, 2018. ↩
For a list of reforms achieved in the first year of the #MeToo movement, see Zoe Greenberg, “What Has Actually Changed in a Year,” The New York Times, October 6, 2018. ↩
Farah Stockman, “Women’s March Roiled by Accusations of Anti-Semitism,” The New York Times, December 23, 2018. ↩