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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
Video Source: Daily Maverick
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
— Luu (@Luu_Gaqavu) October 22, 2015
— Outside Her Majesty (@LuthandoRT) October 21, 2015
Subverting the message
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.
— Nontokozo Masanabo (@ntokxee) October 22, 2015
— Kgosi Kgosi (@Kgosi_Kgosi) October 22, 2015
— Wandi (@Wantara99) October 22, 2015
— Kgosi Kgosi (@Kgosi_Kgosi) October 22, 2015
Others have used Twitter to direct media to the latest sites of contest:
can media please come back to Lower Campus, UCT. Police are here in riot gear. fuck, fuck. #NationalShutDown
— Womandla (@sofirstofall) October 22, 2015
— Rhodes Must Fall (@RhodesMustFall) October 22, 2015
One person also took it upon themselves to correct what they saw as biased headlines:
— Raphaela Böhmer (@RaphaelaBohmer) October 22, 2015
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:
— Gasant Abarder (@GasantAbarder) October 22, 2015
While most media houses have adapted to the use of social media in their reporting, there’s no doubt that it has been most effective in the hands of the protesters.
Don’t believe us? Take a look at what veteran journalist Raymond Joseph had to say on the matter:
Police used baton rounds, teargas & stun grenades. But protestors had far more powerful weapons: a just cause & social media #FeesMustFall
— Raymond Joseph (@rayjoe) October 21, 2015
Image: Myolisi Sikupela