Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Leadership and Leaders in Networked Social Movements

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Leadership and Leaders in Networked Social Movements

Article excerpt

The followers/leaders, participation/leadership division is less obvious in Networked Social Movements than in traditional movements. Participants in these movements, adhering to egalitarian principles, seek to emphasize the absence of leaders, which has led some to characterize the movements as "leaderless." This article interrogates that perspective through a critical review of these interpretations and myths, as well as the autonomous leadership theory proposed by Simon Western. After demonstrating the existence of hierarchy in Networked Social Movements, the article then focuses on the leaders of the Networked Social Movements, considering their specific characteristics in comparison to traditional leaders, and discussing the influence of new technologies on these specific characteristics.


Internet-enabled Networked Social Movements (NSMs) are often considered "leaderless" because of the lack of visible structure, financing, organization, vertical hierarchy, and established relations among their members. (1) The actions of the NSMs appear unidirectional, and no clear interaction between leaders and followers is evident. Instead, movements seem to emerge when one individual's personal emotional feelings and initiative spontaneously combine with the emotions and initiative of others. (2)

Long before the cybercommunication and cyberinformation era began, leaderless movements gained popularity among 1960s radical environmentalists, animalists, feminists, and emancipatory anti-capitalist movements. Inspired by the ideas of anarchists, (3) they rejected the rigid organizational structure, hierarchy, elitism, and autocracy that predominated in the leadership of 20th century socialism, communism and capitalism. Instead, they favored participatory, nonhierarchical, informal, and distributed forms of leadership.

This type of political and civic activity attracted opponents of hierarchy, as well as adherents of various egalitarian movements. Those activists were eager to form social movements that adopted "leaderlessness" as a core component of their identity, and this desire to deny hierarchy and to achieve freedom from the coercion inherent in traditional or orthodox leadership, is arguably the defining characteristic of these movements.

The desire to eliminate hierarchy springs from a view of leadership as power held by capital and mainstream decision-makers, as well as the association of leadership with authoritarianism. While emphasizing the negative aspects of leadership, these interpretations do not consider more positive attributes, such as discipline, structure and organization. (4) Activists' attempts to call their movements "leaderless" can be interpreted as the legacy of the anarchic ideal of a harmonious society without external interference and governance. (5) However, the contemporary American anarchist Chaz Bufe is not alone among anarchists in considering such attempts "utopian." The very idea of a leaderless movement is, according to Bufe, "a myth," "romantic fantasy" or "unattainable ideal." Indeed, Bufe's statement, "Leadership is inevitable in all social movements," echoes Bakunin and Kropotkin. (6)

Leaderless movements were reinforced by the internet and "in many respects pioneered using the Internet for mobilization and coordination during the mid-1990s." (7) Since then, many other NSMs have appeared, but the majority of them have inherited an image of being leaderless and nonhierarchical.

Various scholars also share the belief that NSMs are "leaderless" movements where "obvious leadership" is absent. (8) For instance, Castells argues that the Occupy movement had no leadership, "not locally, not nationally, not globally," (9) and describes the General Assembly as a "horizontal, leaderless, consensus-based open meeting" (10) where there was no traditional, rational, charismatic or personalized leadership. (11) This argument, however, is weakened by examples of the spontaneous emergence of leadership, leaders, organization, and patterns of distributing responsibility. …

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