Social media platforms have altered the way social movements are cultivated, orchestrated, and sustained. While the advantages of such a powerful and accessible tool for social mobilization have become increasingly apparent, there are also many drawbacks which can hinder the overall impact and longevity of social movements conjured by social media platforms. A main drawback hinges on the absence of a specific leader or focal figure who provides coherent guidance and direction for those actively engaged and participating in a defined movement. A leaderless movement could also weaken the overall cohesion among those involved, rendering the movement as a whole more susceptible to attacks from counter-movements, those currently holding power, and others looking to exploit the attention generated by social movements to enrich their own agendas through coups and chaos.
In recent decades, social movements have garnered momentum by utilizing social media platforms and web-based technology, however, many of these movements have remained relatively anonymous as they lack an identifiable leader. A designated leader is an essential component in social movements as leaders provide moral direction, a focal symbol for others to rally behind, and a clear face/voice for the movement. A leader’s level of charisma, emotionality, communication, and perceived accessibility can appeal to not only the oppressed, but to those in positions of power as well. A leader provides a constant and stable presence, grounding the movement while nurturing inspiration and motivation among active participants.
Social movements created online and through social media platforms typically forgo a designated leader as they are deficient in traditional forms of structure in terms of organization, financing, and positional hierarchy. This dynamic also enables an environment where leaders remain hidden, fluid, or interchangeable, never consistently providing a stable and uniform identity for a movement. Leaderless movements may also have more difficulty in achieving long-term social change, maintaining a consistent message, and become more vulnerable to exploitation from counter-movements, not just those whom they are rallying against. Occupy Wall Street is an example of a leaderless movement that lacked a consistent message and coherent strategy, struggling to get past a tirade of surface level slogans and develop a deeper rooted, targeted approach or strategy. As one article pointed out, popular support is meaningless without institutional support, which the Occupy movement severely lacked.
It is a delicate balance to ensure that social movements and resulting protests remain civil and non-violent, as this attracts a larger and more diverse array of people willing to participate in what is perceived as a less extreme display of social activism, which reduces the probability that harsher military and police actions will be taken in response. In leaderless movements, the possibility that the unendorsed violent actions of a few significantly increases the potential for a protest to turn violent towards authorities, as there would be no leader to provide direction for protesters and diffuse any escalating tensions.
One article explores the nature of protests and how coups have historically attempted to and successfully hijacked or dismantled the efforts made by social movements to achieve their own agendas. We saw this play out during Egypt’s Arab Spring. In the same article, the authors discuss how a protest’s proximity to a nation’s capital is correlated to an increase in power a protest incurs, what the authors describe as urban bias theory. This escalation in tension further pressures police and political leaders to choose to either side with protesters or remain loyal to those in power. History has shown that when protests remain non-violent, political leaders and police are more prone to side with the former rather than the latter, although when protests turn violent, this becomes a different story.
This is not to say that leaderless social movements are not effective or do not achieve some of their desired outcomes. We are currently witnessing in real time the protests erupting from the murder of George Floyd, which has increased momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement and has largely been fueled by the utilization of social media platforms and technology. The Guardian recently reported that Minneapolis is planning to commit to dismantling their police force and New York City will potentially redirect funds from police to social services as well as making policy reforms. Multiple states are removing confederate statues and there is an increasing pressure on CEO’s to address social/racial issues within their companies. Clearly, there has been a change spreading within our collective social narrative which will likely result in real, quantifiable social change, but to what extent this change could be expanded upon and sustained with the designation of a leader would be worth considering.
Leaders act as social catalysts in unifying and providing a voice for the people they represent while concurrently acting as the collective linchpin for a movement, ensuring that all components remain connected and operating in a consistent manner. Leaders strengthen movements by providing a collective face or image for a movement, reducing the potential for outside groups or interests to hijack and manipulate the movements message, and projecting a sense of unity and structure. The masses who participate in social movements are the gunpowder, the leader is the bullet. If history is any guide, it was social movements fronted by competent leaders that made the most social headway, for better or worse.