In an otherwise insightful article about the aesthetics and control of Istanbul’s occupied public space, New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman wrote the following sentence, which appears on page A1 of today’s paper:
So public space, even a modest swath of it like Taksim, again reveals itself as fundamentally more powerful than social media, which produce virtual communities.
The problem is not only that this a patently false (social media does not only produce virtual communities). The problem is that this fact has been known for over a decade.
The 2002 book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution described how in offline mobilization that successfully ousted President Estrada in the Philippines was mobilized through an early form of social media – the text message. Hundreds of thousands of people were mobilized in public space (see photo). The “smart mob” was even highlighted in The New York Times’ own 2002 “Year in Ideas.”
The trend of using social media for offline mobilization has continued since then. In Egypt’s 2011 revolution, Facebook was used to galvanize the disaffected and was then used to plan the initial protest of January 25th. Digital activists then spread the word offline through taxi drivers and printed flyers. A master’s thesis on the use of social media in Egypt’s mobilization effort noted that:
It has been pointed out by some critics that social media cannot be attributed too much credit in spreading information in countries with low Internet penetration, as is the case with most Arab states. However, this ignores the role that social networking online plays in enhancing social networking offline.
In 2011, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) mobilized several hundred offline encampments around the world that inspired the Turkish encampment Kimmelman describes in his article. If you go to the Wikipedia timeline of OWS, the first event is the registration of the domain name OccupyWallStreet.org, which occurred the summer before the occupation of Zuccotti Park began. The original call to “occupy Wall Street for a few months,” made by the magazine AdBusters, was done via a July 13th blog post, not via the paper magazine. The title of that post is a Twitter hashtag.
The problem here is not really that Kimmelman did not know this. He is, after all, an architecture critic, not an expert on digital activism. The problem is that his editors didn’t catch the error and allowed a statement that was both false and misleading to be published on the first page of their newspaper.
Print journalism, The New York Times included, is under tremendous economic threat, much of it due to the Internet. If the world’s newspaper of record cannot even accurately report on the Internet’s function and capacities, how can it hope to adapt its business? If traditional journalists cannot accurately report on the politics of the 21th century, how will they argue for their own relevance?
The most famous social media naysaying related to the Gezi occupation is by the target of the occupiers’ rage: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “Now we have a menace that is called Twitter,” he noted on June 2nd. “The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.” Misinformation can come from more traditional media sources as well.