The revolution will be tweeted. It’s a refrain which first entered popular consciousness during the Arab Spring, where social media played a crucial role in the organisation of protests which rocked the Middle East and Africa in the early years of this decade. Over the past week it’s become increasingly clear that it’s a refrain worth applying to the mass student protests taking place across South Africa.
The protests, which kicked off at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) last week, started off being about a proposed 11% increase in tuition fees by the institution. Since then, they have spread to more than 18 university campuses in eight of the country’s provinces, encompassing a number of other causes including access to education, the outsourcing of university labour, and institutionalised patriarchy.
On Wednesday, things came to a head with students and members of the public marching on the houses of parliament in Cape Town. After making their way to the doors of the national assembly, the protesters were pushed back by riot police, using stun grenades and other non-lethal weapons.
Trigger Warning: This video contains scenes of violence, loud noises, and the use of stun grenades
Throughout the course of the protests, social media has been used not to just to organise and disseminate messages, but to actively subvert the traditional media approach to the protest.
Before we examine how the protesters have done so, it’s worth remembering that while the protests have had a massive impact on social media and Twitter especially (as the graph below shows), they are very definitely situated in the physical world.
It’s also worth noting however that without the instant connectivity provided by social media, it’s unlikely the #FeesMustFall meme (in the original sense of the word) would have spread as quickly as it has. And when protests broke out at Rhodes University on Monday morning, it was social media that gave both the protesters and student publications a national platform as reporters from the big media houses in Johannesburg and Cape Town scrambled to get reporters on the scene.
It’s also unlikely that the protesters would have been able to organise actions across campuses and institutions as effectively as they have.
Calls for help
An example of that organisation can be found in the tweets urging people to help protesting students out with food and water and in the pleas for legal assistance which went out after a number of protesters were arrested in the wake of Wednesday evening’s parliamentary protests.
UWC is in high need of food and water supplies as we are locked inside campus and isolated from shops. Please assist #FeesMustFall
It goes beyond that though. Those at the centre of the protests have used social media to take users beyond the protest actions which have attracted most of the media attention. They have, in effect, added another dimension to coverage of the protests by sharing images of the students involved cleaning up and organising study groups.
At least one mainstream news outlet, the Independent-owned Cape Argus, has responded to criticism of the media’s approach to the protests by accepting a challenge to allow students to co-edit the Friday edition of the paper:
Stuart Thomas joined the Burn Media team in 2011 while finishing off an MA in South African Literature. Eager to prove his geek credentials, he allowed himself to be thrown in the deep and did his best to stay afloat. When not fused with his keyboard, you can find... More