The birth of Occupy Wall Street is often attributed to “social media magic” and the use of Twitter hash tags; however, these claims overemphasize the role social media played in both the mobilization and successes of the movement (Gerbaudo, 2012, p. 102). It could be argued that due to the rise of social media, mainstream media no longer have a large impact on the actions and successes of counter powers. Castells (2007) defines counter-power as “the capacity by social actors to challenge and eventually change the power relations institutionalized in society” (Castells, 2007, p. 248). The emergence of alternative channels of communication, as seen through the proliferation of various online platforms and social media sites, has become a medium “for social movements and rebellious individuals to build their autonomy and confront the institutions of society” (Castells, 2007, p. 249). Moreover, today’s media environment has drastically evolved since Gitlin’s (1980) assertion that “political movements feel called upon to rely on large-scale communication in order to matter […] to become ‘the movement’ for wider publics and institutions who have few alternative course of information, or none at all” (p. 3). However, while the advent of social media and online communication has left new social movements with an abundant source of communication channels at their disposal, it does not render traditional forms of mass media irrelevant.
Social networking sites (SNS) were heavily utilized by the Occupy Wall Street movement, as seen through its initial mobilization and call to action. Adbusters, a Vancouver-based anti-consumerist magazine, took to Twitter, Facebook, and their magazine, requesting individuals to gather on September 17th. However, the movement’s initial mobilization lacked shared, organic emotion, and only 300 people showed up on the first day of organization. This need for connection amongst supporters was met by a different social media platform, Tumblr, through the creation of the ‘We are the 99%’ page, where individuals could submit photos of themselves holding signs that spoke of their financial hardships. The Tumblr page became a shared space for the expression of common emotions, and as more and more tents started to fill Zuccotti Park, Twitter continued to “weave together an emotional conversation” and more importantly, helped to “sustain a sense of solidarity between the physical occupiers and their distant to supporters” (Gerbaudo, 2012, p.104).
While the use of social media proved invaluable for the initial mobilization of the movement, it was still imperative for Occupy Wall Street to infiltrate traditional media. The planning leading up to the protests indicated an “elitist attitude in the movement’s communications”, as seen through its “over-reliance on Twitter”, and this became a “major obstacle to raising the awareness of the majority of the population” (Gerbaudo, 2012, p.114). Moreover, limiting communications to social media caused the movement’s message to miss a large portion of the public. As asserted by Castells (2007), “what does not exist in the media does not exist in the public mind” (p. 241); therefore, relying solely on social media channels prevented the movement’s objectives from receiving optimal visibility. The importance of mainstream media in gaining public support is illustrated by the events that took place on October 1st, when “more than seven hundred marchers were arrested” on Brooklyn Bridge (Gitlin, 2012, p. 49). This incident became a “photogenic event”, as it was picked up by many major news outlets and resulted in the “turnout of ten thousand or more” protestors, thus demonstrating the ability of the mass media to mobilize public sympathy and support (Gitlin, 2012, p. 49). Images of police violence despite the passivity of protestors proliferated traditional media outlets, and the media’s attention on cutting government budgets diminished as “focus lurched over to income inequalities and disparity of wealth” (Giltin, 2012, p. 50).
In today’s network society, mainstream media coverage continues to impact social movements through its ability to mobilize supporters, to validate the existence of the movement, and to perform scope enlargement by opening up the issue for debate (McCurdy, 2012, p. 248). What is significant about the network age, is the ability of social movements to use the Internet as a “potent political weapon” (Castells, 2007, p. 250) to exert pressure on institutionalized or mainstream media. Moreover, online communication platforms enable movements “to relate to society at large beyond the control of the power holders over communication power” (Castells, 2012, p. 11). Through the strategic use of social media, movements can “improve their visibility through monitoring news coverage and responding to inaccurate stories” (McCurdy, 2012, p. 250), as online technologies enable protestors to efficiently monitor countless news outlets and to disseminate counter narratives in response to inaccurate or disparaging information.
Alternative channels of communication, enabled by the architecture of the Internet, have shifted a degree of influence into the hands of autonomous individuals; however, rather than rendering mainstream media obsolete, new media has enhanced the two-way communication present between protestors and the mass media. The Occupy movement illustrates that while new technologies increased opportunities to mobilize and organize supporters, and to influence the discourses surrounding their activities and objectives, the mainstream media remained prevalent in its ability to bring issues to the attention of the general public, and consequently, to the forefront of the public agenda.