Facebook what? Union rejects social media as protest tool

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By Ayesha Jhunjhunwala

A packed Union chamber saw the sixth Thursday debate of term as Oxford turned out en masse to deliberate whether social media has successfully reinvented social activism.

In a debate that drew upon all the expected and tired examples of Kony 2012, the FARC, the Arab Spring and Bashar al-Assad, little controversy was stirred. It was soon obvious that the debate really turned on the notions of “successful”, “activism” and “successful activism”, the nuances of which were debated ad nauseum but with good reason.

English student Ella Robertson opened the debate with the examples of one million voices against FARC campaign and the eventual release of 700 hostages.

Her speech was a whirlwind global tour as she moved from Colombia to Malawi to the UK and to Obama’s election campaign in the space of a few minutes.

She was followed by Matt Warman, Consumer Technology Editor at The Telegraph , who laid out the case for the opposition – that online is not yet where meaningful debate happens. He prodded the superficiality of the idea that an index finger could change the world and many in a decidedly cynical audience reflected this scepticism.

He also established the fact that the debate would never quite move away from numbers and quibbles over semantics.

He also elaborated on what would turn out to be a recurring theme – deliberations over exactly what activism was.

For every region in Robertson’s world, his world had a contrasting region. For every Colombia, there was a Gaza and a Pakistan, he argued.

Followed by Mark Pfeifle, a former US National Security Advisor, the audience began to appreciate that they would never quite reach a consensus on what activism and action really meant – and in that respect, the two sides never really managed to engage each other.

Mark Kersten, author and creator of Justice in Conflict blog, resumed the case for the proposition and took a step back to focus on the idea of a political community as a necessary element of social activism.

Benjamin Cohen, founder of pinknews.co.uk, was surprisingly the first one to bring up the notion of a generational back – arguing that social media had infect successfully redefined it for the young and connected.

Cohen was followed by Dr Christopher Carpenter, a Professor of Communications at the University of Western Illinois, who insightfully pointed out that Frodo had succeeded despite the notable absence of social media in the Lord of the Rings  trilogy.

That was roughly the point at which everything useful that could have been said had been said. The remaining speeches and fl oor speeches all picked up on aspects of what had already been covered, with David Vitter, a senator from Louisiana, and Robert Sharp, Head of Campaign & Communications at English PEN, cleaning up for the proposition and opposition respectively.

Ultimately, it was left to the audience not to judge which side had better engaged with the motion, but which notions of successful activism they were more comfortable with. The nays carried the day in a sceptical Union.