Facebook and Twitter Will Never Replace Grassroots Politics


Social media has become a dominant force in political discourse, especially among the young, literate and well-educated. Movements of global significance often find supporters using Facebook communication. The first website to break the story of the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden was the Twitter account of a man in Pakistan who reported hearing helicopter rotors and gunshots close to his house. Much of the Egyptian contribution to the Arab Spring was based on the mobilization of a population of social media savvy students. These developments beg the question: In the wake of a presidential election with unprecedented levels of social media usage, has social media made "old school" forms of organization obsolete?

In a word, no.

There are several reasons why social media cannot and will not replace more conventional, low tech forms of organization. This new social media wave presumes basic literacy and access to, and familiarity with, technological resources. The state of adult literacy in the inner cities of the modern United States is one that leaves significant room for improvement. Young people frequently find themselves in overcrowded, underfunded schools populated by teachers in fear for their jobs and administrations trying to avoid having the schools closed. Moreover, approximately 40% of these young people do not graduate high school with the basic skills acquired therein, making large portions of them functionally illiterate when entering adulthood. Put simply, it is much more difficult, empirically, to operate a computer without basic literacy and navigating the internet even more so.

To be able to recruit someone to an organization or cause through social media, the prospective supporter must first have a computer, tablet, smartphone or other internet connected device with which to access the invitation or promotional materials. All of these things cost money and to assume that the recipient can afford internet access. In even more dire cases, consistently working electricity is presumptuous.

For larger portions of the United States than one might care to consider, these assumptions are not reasonable. Moreover, if the prospective supporter does in fact have access to the resources provided by technology, they still need the basic training and familiarity with its usage in order to learn or be benefitted by it. This familiarity cannot be taken for granted, for without it, the prospective supporter will have no way to obtain information or instruction regarding the cause.

Most of the country, however, lives in cities, towns and neighborhoods, many of which have socioeconomic and cultural populations that can be targeted based on the demographics of the area. In the era of spam, pop-up ads and large scale electronic harassment, door to door and face to face interaction is also much more personal, giving it the potential to have a greater effect on a more diverse range of populations.

In many ways, social media has changed the proverbial game for organizing people and mobilizing support for a cause or group. Still though, the socioeconomic diversity, depth and breadth of the modern American experience make classic styles of organizing more useful for appealing to many in our society.