Commentary

Can Social Media Help 'Occupy Wall Street' Cohere?

The protestors in New York City and around the world are pretty clear about their feelings, but not so much about their aims. “Occupy Wall Street” and its myriad sister movements to “occupy” various locales are an expression of anger and, in some cases, outright hostility towards the global financial system -- sentiments which resonate with the frustrated middle-class to a degree unthinkable even a few years ago. But as many commentators have pointed out, there is much less agreement about what, exactly, the protestors are demanding. Could social media help the protestors formulate a common platform?

 

The problem of division and unity is common to all political movements, or indeed any large grassroots phenomenon: when promulgating a platform or list of demands, a balancing act is required to attract broad-based support from the rest of the population without alienating key constituencies within the movement itself. If the demands are too watered-down, hardcore activists will complain the movement is selling out. If they’re too radical, they’ll scare off potential supporters in the mainstream.

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One of the biggest challenges is simply figuring out how to draw up a platform in a way that includes all interested parties, giving different voices equal weight while allowing the majority to overrule marginal factions where necessary. In the past, successful models have called for gathering a relatively small number of representatives together to confer in person until they reach a conclusive agreement: the Constitutional Convention and our modern political conventions are good examples. But would the constituents of Occupy Wall Street, with their decidedly anti-authority ideology, be amenable to letting others speak for them?

 

That’s where social media comes in -- maybe. Since Facebook, Twitter, and blogs have already played a key role in organizing and spreading the protests, it’s not hard to imagine organizers setting up online voting on proposed demands or “planks” in the movement’s political platform. But organizers may prefer to keep the protest’s demands undefined and nebulous, for the simple reason that voting on proposals would reveal how incoherent the group actually is.

 

While I’ve always objected to the condescending tone of reporters and commentators who take potshots at Occupy Wall Street protestors for “not even knowing why they’re there,” the fact remains that the movement now consists of a very large number of people, who necessarily have disparate ideas and goals. And not all of these can be reconciled.

 

For example, one online referendum asking Occupy supporters to vote on a platform includes these potential demands, which strike me as well-informed about the current state of legislation and fairly realistic about what actions can be taken: Congress pass HR 1489, the Return to Prudent Banking Act; ending corporate political donations; passing the “Buffett Rule” tax; reforming the SEC; limiting the power of lobbyists; and preventing former regulators from advising companies they once regulated, among others.

 

But then another list of proposed demands is a little more, how to put it, fringe-y. It includes a “guaranteed living wage income, regardless of employment;” “free college education;” bringing the “fossil fuel economy to an end;” spending one trillion dollars on infrastructure “now;” spending another trillion dollars on “ecological restoration;” opening borders and migration laws, so “anyone can travel anywhere to work and live;” universal debt forgiveness; and outlawing all credit reporting agencies.

 

In addition to being unrealistic, it’s worth noting that not a single one of the proposed demands listed in the second referendum overlaps with any of the demands in the first referendum, raising the question of how many shared goals Occupy Wall Street really has.

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