Social media making it easier to organize student protests, get message out | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Social media making it easier to organize student protests, get message out

A protester tries to make a point concerning tuition fees on June 11, 2012 in Montreal. Quebec student protesters are coming up with new ways of getting their message out as they try to keep up the momentum during the summer months. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter McCabe

MONTREAL - In the social media battleground of Quebec's tuition fee dispute, the students have conquered the strategic high-tech terrain while the provincial government remains mired in the trenches.

Twitter dominates as the main weapon in the students' arsenal and a survey by Sciencetech Communications said three hashtags — #ggi, #manifencours and #casserolesencours — produced 700,000 posts in one month alone.

Conversations focused on the time, place, and location of demonstrations, the tuition fee increases, Bill 78, Premier Jean Charest, the police and journalists.

It's a trend that began to blossom with pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East during the so-called Arab Spring and elsewhere with the Occupy movement as people turned to social media to organize and get their message out.

But Twitter isn't the only method used by Quebec students. Facebook and blogs are also employed and an online community TV station, which is unabashedly in their camp, gives them live coverage. One man even came up with an Android app to track the protest marches.

"It's fair to say the protests would not have been as easily organized without social media," said Carmi Levy, a technology analyst based in London, Ont. "Social media has made the protests larger, more interactive, more effective than they would have been had the organizers not had access to these tools.

"It's a remarkable transition from the way protests were once managed where basically there was a monolithic crowd, you got a bunch of megaphones and you hoped everybody heard you. Today everybody's got smartphones and they can hear or read everything in excruciatingly real time detail."

The Quebec government has been less cutting edge, sticking to traditional media such as newspapers, TV and radio and getting their messages out through news conferences and advertising.

That has usually meant the protesters are communicating faster with their audiences. In one case, the provincial government lagged in getting out a defence of Bill 78, its controversial new law limiting protests, by days.

"The protesters are fighting on a social media plain," says Levy. "The government is still fighting on a plain that was established 10 or 20 years ago. They're completely outclassed."

Take the furor over Bill 78, for example. The government's new — and temporary — law sets limits on how demonstrations are conducted. Police must be advised of the route and gatherings are limited in size, although demonstrations have been allowed to continue as long as they remain peaceful.

A social media blitz by the students quickly resulted in massive protests against the law, which was described as outright draconian in its nature.

It took four days for the government to respond, with Public Security Minister Robert Dutil calling a news conference to point out that similar regulations exist in Toronto, New York, France, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland, although that message was virtually drowned out in the storm of protest.

Under the latest version of its tuition plan, the Charest government would increase fees by $254 per year over seven years and then peg future increases to the level of inflation.

That would mean tuition increases of more than 75 per cent for Quebec students, who pay the lowest rates in Canada. The change would still mean some of the country's lowest rates.

But the government, which enjoys a degree of support on the increases, has so far struggled to counter student arguments that the new increase schedule would leave them impoverished.

"Twitter and other tools have been around long enough that you'd think enough people in government would realize it's time that they start using them," Levy said. "But obviously old habits die hard."

Not all government efforts on social media have drawn sneers.

The Montreal police department has been praised for its use of Twitter and its feed tracking the nightly demonstrations is must-see viewing. It has even been used to get journalists out of police custody when they were scooped up in mass arrests.

Even there, two other sites flesh out reports on the nightly demos — manifencours and casserolesencours — which draw in a variety of reports on demonstrations underway, even in other cities. Manifencours roughly translates as demonstration in progress. The casseroles are the nickname to the pots and pans protest that has spread from Quebec to other cities and countries in support of the students.

Amid it all, CUTV trudges among the protesting masses with a micowave camera, transmitting live on the Internet from the demonstrations and getting clipped with batons when things have gone sour.

An unofficial host broadcaster of the student demos, CUTV, which is Concordia University's student TV outlet, wears its allegiances unabashedly on its sleeve — or shirtfront, jeans or hats. It's the red square symbol of the student movement.

"We do wear our colours very visibly," said Laura Kneale, the station manager, saying the student journalists try to provide a balance between the mainstream and non-mainstream media coverage. It's not always easy.

"One of our cameramen had two broken ribs," she said. "That's the most serious personal injury. I was hit on the head with batons so I had a minor concussion but I'm feeling better." Other times they've had equipment damaged and have said police have ordered them to turn their camera off.

Kneale says the attacks on the CUTV crew suggest a wider dialogue needs to take place on the role of student and alternative media in such events.

"I don't think we should be restricting it in any way to only the public and private sector," she said. "We are obviously building an audience. The nights we don't go out, we get a lot of calls, a lot of requests from people. We know that the camera is an extra eye for the public."

It remains to be determined to what extent social media is a reflection of broader society.

Analysts after the last federal election noted repeatedly that the Harper Tories got spanked on Twitter throughout the campaign, but got their revenge where it counted: at the ballot box, by winning a majority government, on election day.

In Quebec, polling data suggests that the tuition hikes might be more popular with broader society than they are on Twitter.

Levy acknowledged there are downsides to the explosion of social media during the protests. He noted that its real-time nature means there could be hundreds and even thousands of people weighing in on a topic, many with an emotionally charged perspective and without a filter.

"If you're out in the middle of the protest and you're consuming this on your smartphone, trying to get a better sense of what's going on, you have to drink from the social media firehose," he said.

"Sometimes you can get the wrong impression or the wrong idea and that can prompt inappropriate behavioural responses. It almost makes us too aware too quickly and we lose the opportunity in the middle of a heated battle like a protest to stand back, skip a beat and consider our options."

Levy said social media tools are advancing at such a rapid rate there's little doubt its use will continue to expand when it comes to social movements and protests.

"Every time you have a major mass participation event like this, you break new ground," he said. "Social media are setting new standards."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2012
The Canadian Press

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