Social Movements on Social Networks

The Uyghur campaign on Instagram

Marine Lepesqueux


In 2019, the first images of the Chinese camps in Xinjiang have begun to spread out of China, on the web and social networks, quickly denounced by NGOs and politicians like Raphael Glucksmann. Early 2020, new information was unveiled by the Australian organization ASPI, exposing 83 international brands which took advantage of the Uighur enslavement by the government of China. The MEP Glucksmann decided to launch a social mobilization on social networks after the silence of the western society, to encourage these brands to stop working with China and to try to stop the Chinese policy in Xinjiang. Instagram posts, stories, and actions on social networks and on the ground are often led by the MEP, giving shape to a new kind of social movement, a social network movement. Its actions include petitions, walks and speeches, but also new types of actions such as an action week on Instagram and social media.

My aim will be here to show how a social movement takes shape and organizes an action thanks to Instagram. We can see here what social sciences research could call a New Social Movement in the theory of Melucci: this campaign does not look like the previous campaign during the 19th century when workers defended their rights and work conditions – in a Marxist approach – but are rather committed in the issue about social relation and human flourishing. However, thanks to social networks, and mostly Instagram, it becomes a new kind of movement that uses social media to enlarge its repertoire of contention and its weight in society.

In this essay, I will use the theory of Charles Tilly about social movements and apply it to the Uighur campaign. My aim is to try to highlight how much the social network influenced the Uighur campaign led on Instagram. First, I will study the first two elements of Tilly’s theory, campaign, and repertoire of contention, describing this theory and applying it to the case studied. I will then investigate the image and the construction of this campaign, analysing how an element of Tilly’s theory is applied through new types of platforms. To discuss, I have chosen to focus on Instagram, where the leading action is led and where we can find the frame and the basis of the movement, since there are no websites, offices, or special accounts on any digital media dedicated to this campaign. I will use some posts and contents to illustrate my discussion.

Social media and the repertoire of contention

In Tilly’s theory, the first element of any social movement is campaign, which means that social movements need to have a claim and to be organized to be able to act like a social movement. Victoria Carty defines campaign in Social Movements and New Technology as “long-term, organized public efforts that make collective claims on target authorities.” We have in campaign three central elements: claim, collective, target. First, the claim is the core of the movement because people will only come together if they share a common claim for which they want to fight. So, the claim will be collective, and it is this collectiveness that will allow a real movement that is itself collective. Finally, a social movement must have a target to be able to hold and defend its claim against something or someone. It is only when it has its claim that a social movement can continue through what Tilly calls repertoire of contention. This repertoire is the way for the movement to express and defend its claim. Tilly defines it as “claim-making routines that apply to the same claimant-object pairs: bosses and workers, peasants and landlords. Rival nationalist factions, and many more.” It encompasses lots of kinds of action, such as strike, manifestation, or sit-in. Repertoire changes for three main reasons according to Tarrow (2010), because of the context of the regime, the history of contention in the country, and finally the “changes in political opportunity structure”. We could add here the technological innovations that seem to give new possibilities for activists.

In the Uighur campaign, the claim can be the respect of Human rights for the Uighurs in China. This claim is collectively shared but was first led by the MEP Glucksmann that provided the information to French citizens who then followed him and gave shape to this movement. This campaign doesn’t have only one target but many, Chinese government policymakers, European governments which can exert pressure on the first, and companies that take advantage of Uighur labour. We can see that claims have evolved thanks to social media. In the same trend as what New Social Movements theorists have shown, claims have been extended and especially thanks to technologies. The nature of claims is now related to human rights and can target international issues since the life conditions have been improved and digital media provide a more convenient, generalized access to a massive volume of politically relevant information (Barney, 2004). 

On the 25th of September 2019, Glucksmann shared his first post on Instagram, denouncing the Chinese policy and the denial of Human Rights. Based on Barney’s quote, we can see that thanks to digital media, this movement has diversified its targets and claims. Few weeks later, the targets became not only the Chinese government but also the international society and then the big companies, since the 2nd of March 2020, when the deputy shared a publication and a report about the link between Xinjiang and brands. Thanks to digital media, the topic for which this movement acts has been enlarged and diversified, following the actuality. Even if these events take place far from Europe, the new technologies allow us to see, communicate and act in order to influence the violation of human rights in other countries. 

Furthermore, while Tilly talks about organized movements, we can see here an example of movement that doesn’t seem to be well organized. Indeed, this campaign was born thanks to a MEP, but the mobilization of the people was spontaneous, without frame. As Glucksmann said on France Culture, it is an “opinion movement”, and so, with a platform like Instagram where they can act, share, and repost Glucksmann’s publications, the members of this campaign don’t need a real organization. They don’t need some things that the theory of resources claims to be essential – money, media, labor – because social networks like Instagram are “a powerful, relatively accessible tool of organization, mobilization and action” (Barney, 2004). Thanks to digital media, there are fewer editorial constraints, fewer broadcasting coasts, an easy model of communication many to many, an ease of production of contents, cooperation, and interactivity (Granjon and Cardon, 2013). The topic of the Uyghurs, that is not famous in Europe, can however be broadcasted due to these assets that may undermine organization but promote different subjects. The organization is vertical in the sense that the MEP gives information and then asks for reposts and “tags”. As well, he uses Instagram to provide information about actions to his followers, as he did for the 3rd of October 2020 march in Paris, posting the date on his account.

Organization is related to actions. As the first is mainly on the internet, the second often follows the same way. The Uyghur campaign embeds both ancient and new types of actions. First, marches and conferences are organized as social movements have always done, however through Instagram. Petitions are broadcasted as well but now through links on what we call “bio” on the profile of one user. For this campaign, Glucksmann often shares links on his “bio”. Instagram eases a broader access to a petition because everybody can sign a petition since an internet connection is available, whereas before it was mandatory to face people. Many new actions have been created with the arrival of social networks since, as says Landry, social networks have allowed an “open of new repertoires of contention”. We can take for example the week of actions organized from the 27th of September to the 3rd of October 2020. In one post, Glucksmann summarizes the whole week and on each day, he shares the action of the day, which is easy to complete. Some actions can be characterized as “cyber-activism”, a “powerful” new medium of action for people according to Carty or can fit in the “disruptive category” of the new repertoire of contention listed by Landry. First, the large amount of email to the Chinese embassy is a new medium to constrain someone to act or to irritate him. The printing and distribution of tracts melt old and new means of action, the tracts are easily downloaded and printed by everybody thanks to digital media, and people will distribute them like we did before. It’s the same process with the “Chart of solidarity with the Uyghurs”. New kinds of actions specific on Instagram are also useful for this campaign, like tagging, reposting, sharing, changing your profile picture, or creating a new post. Thanks to these actions, the movement is more visible, and you can, in some respect, directly touch your target – since it has its own profile. That is one of the assets of social media according to Barney: digital media offer “a mechanism to enable more direct forms of popular participation in democratic decision-making”. Finally, on every social network, the # is powerful when a lot of people reply to it, it allows it to be more visible for a broader public. Thanks to Instagram, the Uyghurs crisis that would never attract any attention alone, has known a huge cover. Legacy media surely would not have covered it like the movement has done on Instagram. 

Social media: values of social movements

According to Tilly, to survive, a social movement needs four things: worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. According to Ruud and Stefaan, “the more protest events have a high turnout (numbers), gather an apparently unified (unity) and dignified (worthiness) crowd that really cares about the issue (commitment), the higher the chance they produce a wanted outcome”. Here, I want to investigate how the Uyghurs campaign fit in these characteristics and evolve in time. Through posts and stories, the account emphasizes on all of them. The post of the 29th of September 2020 shares some of the distributions for the campaign people have done, highlighting that lots of people are involved, together, on the same day, doing the same thing that care for them. They responded to Glucksmann’s call and showed their commitment. Instagram helps to be unified and numerous because it’s easy to access and use. This Instagram campaign can be viewed through the lense Peirce’s semiotics: its profile uses various means to emphasize the worthiness and emergency of the subject. Many posts use fluorescent yellow and underline the text. The number of likes, comments, and shares increases the size of the campaign, encouraging its members by showing the importance of the movement. These means matter so much more than physical events, sharing as well through the account. At every manifestation, Glucksmann shares stories for two purposes: to make the campaign more visible, either to encourage members or to attract new people, and to give it a mediatic image that he can control and does not require traditional media cover, as well as gives an “immediate visibility” (Kwok Choon and Proulx, 2012).

However, through Instagram, social movements change. The audience of this campaign is not the same insofar as social networks target young people that are more connected (Carré and Panico, 2012). Here, the audience is active, but not as much as in other movements: the account shares the info and the actions planned, and the audience takes part in the distribution. On Instagram, the audience can comment on the post, but it’s not a real place for discussion. It is a one-way conversation, and the campaign is not about questioning and discussing but about acting. Unity is characteristic of this movement and is manifested by the existence of likes and the absence of dislikes. But the problem here is that the commitment can be undermined. The movement is mainly led by Glucksmann, its figurehead. People who take part in the movement are part of an unknown mass and can change easily. Furthermore, the Instagram campaign is on one account that talks about other subjects. Instagram is an asset insofar as it is useful, a good platform to share pictures and contents, but it also has drawbacks:  if the campaign becomes more complicated, the audience may be less inclined to commit themselves. To send an email to the embassy or to comment on a publication is easy. Marching is less easy, and less people participate in marches and meetings by the movement than in the action of liking, commenting, or sharing a post. Instagram diminishes the real commitment in a movement –  even more so because a lot of people only scroll their screen and like thousands of publications in a day.

The commitment and unity are also undermined by the nature of the social networks. Mary Jane Kwok Choon and Serge Proulx note in Médias sociaux that on Facebook, the cooperation is based on weak, imagined, and virtual ties. On the contrary, a movement based firstly on the ground which later takes over social networks is more united. On Instagram, the Uyghur campaign knows this problem because of both the distance between members and the virtuality on which it is based. Insofar as it was born on Instagram, it is less easy to tackle and more volatile. Tilly, Blumer, and Mauss described the stages of social movements as movements that emerge, coalesce, bureaucratize, and decline. Here, the movement emerged, but had already a sort of bureaucracy through Glucksmann and his collaborators. There is a coalescence insofar as people joined the movement, but not a bureaucratization between members. 


We can see that, even if this campaign still roughly fits Tilly’s theory, there is an influence of social media on each element of social movements. They evolve through digital media and seize the new tools that create the digitalization of our society. The claims are enlarged and change their central interest, fitting new issues, and the organization follows the mode of use of their platform. Instagram has made the Uyghur campaign more visible and easier to reach its targets. Moreover, its range of action has been enlarged, more people can be involved easily, and its new actions can have a more efficient impact than before thanks to the support of Instagram. However, some values and characteristics that were central in Tilly’s theory are now undermined by social networks like Instagram. This virtual campaign seems to be less a social movement insofar as through Instagram, its members are mainly alone in front of their “Instagram news”, and unity and commitment matter less than before.

Finally, we can question the diversity that Instagram brings to this movement. As every digital media, Instagram uses algorithms and recommendations to give to their users what they would like to see. The diversity that could be brought by digitality is undermined by those means. Insofar as people are in filter bubbles or echo chambers created by Instagram or other social networks, and the action consists mostly of sharing on your own account, to your own followers, the Uyghur campaign is destined to stay in the field of vision of those who could be interested in.

Marine Lepesqueux is a degree student in Political sciences in Sciences-Po Grenoble in France. After one year as an exchange student in the University of Helsinki, she will finish her bachelor’s degree and continue with a Master’s. Interested in International and European relations, she would like to specialize in one of these fields.

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