Why it's clicking off everywhere

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"Right now, there are more people on Facebook than there were on the planet 200 years ago," says Jason Russell, co-founder of the Invisible Children organisation, in his "Kony 2012" video. The inane "documentary" targets Joseph Kony, leader of the Ugandan rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army.

It is riddled with inaccuracies and demands that the US government send troops to Uganda to catch Kony, despite the fact that he hasn't been in the country for the last six years. Even so, it has become an internet sensation, taking just six days to notch up 100 million views - the fastest ever.

Invisible Children is financially supported by right wing Christian lobbying groups such as the National Christian Foundation and Harvest Evangelism. Over a number of years it has used its connections in the evangelical community to build up a large network of supporters who began using the campaign's hashtag on Twitter days before the video was launched. This led to the campaign "trending", so Twitter users found links to Kony 2012 on their homepage because it was being mentioned so often.

This social media army were then offered a menu of 20 celebrities and encouraged to bombard them with tweets. TV presenter Ellen DeGeneres received 36,000 requests to share the video. In the end, nine of the 20 celebrities passed on the link, causing the video to be seen by millions more people. The campaign specifically targeted young people who would then pass on the news to friends and parents. Barack Obama told reporters that he first heard about the video from his 13 year old daughter.

Far from being a grassroots phenomenon, the Kony 2012 campaign was both heavily funded and carefully orchestrated from the top down. It was able to effectively mobilise networks to tap into people's genuine horror at the story for deeply cynical reasons. In many ways it epitomises the problems of online "slacktivism", what Barbara Mikkelson describes as "the desire people have to do something good without getting out of their chair".

A more promising use of social media was seen in the campaign against the coalition's "workfare" scheme. Corporations such as Tesco and McDonald's faced problems on many fronts: groups of activists demonstrating and occupying their stores; campaigners using the internet to link participating companies with forced labour; and both these things being amplified by the mainstream media.

What was the importance of social media in the campaign? The activity on Twitter and Facebook helped to spread the demonstrations, making it easy to quickly call small local protests and allowing people to feel involved with the campaign.

It also provided journalists with easy copy for articles. Many media outlets have seen cuts that have led to reliance on fast and cheap sources of news. Sometimes this takes the form of "churnalism" - lightly edited press releases presented as original stories. It has also led to social media becoming the basis for more and more stories.

This means that what happens on Twitter can have disproportionate representation in the press. And while corporations are concerned about having a bad reputation on social media, they become terrified when the mainstream media pick up on it.

For all the help provided by social media, the decisive factor in the campaign going mainstream was the occupation of a Tesco store near parliament called by the Right to Work campaign and the protests which followed. As in all campaigns in which social media have played a role, it has been one that complements, not replaces, activism on the streets.

The pressure brought to bear on workfare forced the government to roll back parts of the scheme. Many companies involved dropped out altogether. As Owen Jones wrote in the Independent, it was "another victory chalked up for the burgeoning alliance between small groups of activists and the Twitterati".

In the same article Jones goes on to suggest that "direct action and social media are filling a vacuum" left by the lack of a "coherent opposition to Cameron's Britain". This was underlined by the numerous small protests against the Tories' NHS bill that were called at short notice via social media in the absence of serious campaigning from the Labour Party and the unions.

Social media activism and small-scale actions cannot hope to take the place of a concerted class-wide struggle against the coalition's agenda. But they can play a useful role in making sure that we get the fightback we need back on track.