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How Social Media Has Changed the Way Political Movements Organize

The biggest difference seen today from protests 15-plus years ago is that there are more demonstrations, social movements and protests today than at any given time in history.

(TNS) -- From the Boston Tea Party, to the civil rights movement and Arab Spring, to black lives matter and the North Dakota access pipeline, protests have shaped people's lives.

While the fundamentals of those movements have remained roughly the same over the last 250 years, the way people organize has evolved, said New York Civil Liberties Union protest observer Diane Berry, of the Central New York chapter.

"Before social media, there was a different social media," she said. "Right now social media is on a computer platform, so it's easier and more nimble, but there was social media before there was this thing called social media. There were telephone trees, letters and a lot more paper. ...; It's a little different in the form, but fundamentally how people are doing it has not changed. They have an idea."

The NYCLU aims to defend and promote the fundamental principles and values in the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution and the New York Constitution, including freedom of speech and religion, and the right to privacy, equality and due process of law for all New Yorkers, according to the organization's website.

Berry, who is a retired librarian, has been trained by the organization as an observer. She has been involved in social activism since the U.S. government began talking about the Patriot Act after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Berry said the act infringed upon privacy, and that did not sit well with her, so she got involved and eventually became an official observer.

"I'm a legal observer, not a lawyer," she said. "So once you get arrested, all I can do is alert the NYCLU. I can't bail you out or anything. ...; I'm there to advise (protesters) and I'm there to watch the police and make sure they comply with the law."

She's well-versed in the laws protesters must follow in order to avoid getting in trouble.

Because of her position, Berry has helped a lot of local movements stay within the law, including the post-election protests after Donald Trump won the presidency in November and Occupy Utica.

Looking for change

Local activists Derek Scarlino and Brendan Dunn have worked with Berry quite a bit in order to make sure they keep everything above board. Both have deep-seated roots in organizing and participating in protests.

Dunn began participating in protests in 2003, before social media took over. He was bothered by how the world was evolving around him and wanted to do something about it.

"Growing up, I was very aware of poverty and also racism, witnessing racism, never experiencing it, and that really bothered me," he said. "The more I learned about history, the more I realized there are ways to change these systems of oppression."

In 2006, right around the time Facebook was hitting its stride and the U.S. was working to pass the Patriot Act, Scarlino got into social activism.

Then, protest movements involved a lot of passing out fliers, petitioning and talking to people to organize, rather than today's quick post on Facebook and Twitter to get people's attention, he said.

Dunn was in New York City when the original Occupy Wall Street movement began, and even took part in and helped organize the protests before they were known by that moniker.

Then Dunn helped organize the Occupy Utica movement, which really was when social activists in this area started coming together through social media, Scarlino said.

"The people who organized that took a lot of examples from the Arab Spring that happened in March, April, May of 2011 and their utilization of social media," he said. "The way information can spread so quickly is a boon to organizing."

When the local activists heard there was going to be a pro-Trump rally in downtown last year, they started a Facebook group, and in three hours put together an opposing group to get out the message that they wanted to get out, Scarlino said.

No longer one leader

Dunn said the biggest difference he sees today from protests 15-plus years ago is that there are more demonstrations, social movements and protests today than at any given time in history. The way they are organized has been changed greatly by social media, but an entire movement no longer is headed by one person - such as the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr. - being seen as the voice of everyone, he said.

"There is this sense of direct democracy - decisions are made in a more democratic fashion," he said. "It's not the same as the older organizations, where things were just decided from the top down or there's a hierarchy in place. ...; There is more of a networking model of organizing. It's not just one leader, it's not just Martin Luther King coming as a savior. People, I think, are finally realizing that as great as Martin Luther King was, we are the change that we've been looking for."

While there are a lot of pros to using social media to help plan and execute protests, there's also a downside, Scarlino said.

The biggest is that using social media opens up the scope of people that can be involved, which attracts the attention of the police and other government agencies for surveillance, he said.

It makes it a lot easier for the police to be aware of what is going on, but Utica Police Department spokesman Lt. Bryan Coromato said there isn't someone sitting there monitoring what people are doing at all times.

"When people have a planned, open protest that's going to take place in the public, I think the main thing is we have no intention of infringing on anybody's rights to protest," he said. "We also have a duty to make sure everything is peaceful. ...; It's easy for us to know what they're going to do if they use social media, obviously it's going to be brought to our attention. Are we sitting around with certain people's names or certain group's names and observing their posts or their profiles on whatever social media sites just to see what they're doing, that's not the case."

Another big downfall of social media has been what he calls "Facebook-like apathy."

"If you like it, you're just aware of it, or you click 'Maybe I'll go,' or something like that, you're lending your support," Scarlino said. "Instead of getting people in the street, maybe they'll like an article (on social media). ...; A little more action would be nice. There's a tinge of disappointment there, why don't you just come stand outside with us?"

©2017 Observer-Dispatch, Utica, N.Y. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.