When Bob Dylan wrote The Times They Are a-Changin’ in 1963, I doubt he had any idea that his anthem to political activism would serve as a prerequisite to a digital world where mobilization is at your fingertips.
The sense of immediacy and accessibility created by social media enables these types of rallies and events to take place at a larger and more frequent scale. What once would have taken days and intricate levels of planning are now easy and can reach a wider audience in a shorter span of time.
Consider the story of UK Uncut, a group that is currently organizing protests throughout the United Kingdom. Their following will have jumped by 400 people in the amount of time it’ll take me to finish writing this article.
UK Uncut is a political action group against budget cuts that allow wealthy individuals and corporations skip out on their taxes. Now, I won’t get into the politics of it all, but this “citizen army” has taken to the digital battlefield with zeal, using Twitter and the hashtag #ukuncuts to organize flash mobs that have caused major UK chain stores like Vodafone, a telecommunications company that owns 45 percent of Verizon Wireless, to shut up shop for a day after protestors claimed the group skipped out on paying taxes. The campaign caught like wildfire and the Twitter account now boasts 10,000+ followers. Their website lists the organizations targets and protest schedule, and it’s a pretty impressive list.
And UK Uncut isn’t the first to do this kind of political activism. Far from it. One of the first flash mobs for political purposes was orchestrated before the term social media had taken root, in 2003, by Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau. More than 100 people showed up under the Space Needle in Seattle, linked arms, jumped up and down, and chanted “The doctor is in” to support presidential candidate Howard Dean. The flash mob didn’t even last a minute before dispersing.
A more compelling example is the ice cream flash mob that happened in Belarus in 2006. LiveJournal was used to gather protestors at Oktyabrskaya Square to eat ice cream in protest of one of the most repressive government in Europe. Police were waiting for the protestors and arrested some of the ice cream eaters. The kids got their point across: “What type of government would arrest people for eating ice cream in the street?”
It was a small act that had a big message.
This ability to congregate on a massive scale quickly is forcing the political sphere to alter the way it interprets and reacts to constituents. We no longer live in a world where people learn news the next day – it is right here and now that chants for action take place. The question is: Will politicians heed the call?