Digital Activism & Power

The Big Question

Digital activism is a field is search of a central question. There are many possibilities being bandied about, and the nature of the question varies according to who is asking. Activists ask “how do I use digital activism in my campaign?”, which too often devolves into “how do I use digital tools in my campaign?” and a focus on the device or app of the moment. Academics, in turn, ask how digital activism affects not individual campaigns but systems: American politics or repressive regimes, for example.

The problem with multiple questions is that they obscures the fact that all these people are actually asking the same question: “Does digital infrastructure change the dynamics of power?” Each of the groups above would add their own modifier, or course. The activists want to know how digital activism will change the dynamics of power of their campaign, giving them the upper hand over their opponent. Academics want to know how digital activism changes the dynamics of power in Iran or China, a question that Patrick Meier, a member of our Strategy Group, has termed the “Tom vs. Jerry” debate.

Nevertheless, for all involved the central question is power. Because this topic is fundamental to all other questions of digital activism – its value, its legitimacy, its development – I will devote a series of posts to presenting different answers to this question and different ways to conceptualize it. This post is the first and answers the question according to a certain definition of power.

Defining Power

If we seek to answer the question “does digital infrastructure change the dynamics of power” we need to first define “digital infrastructure” and “power”. “Digital infrastructure” can be defined as the networks, devices, and applications that are engaged in the production and dissemination of digitally-encoded content. It is a deliberately broad term. The argument of digital activism is that the global digital network is fundamentally different from previous communications systems and we should appreciate this new system in all its complexity and reject the temptation to be reductionist. We cannot determine the effect of digital activism on power if we only talk about a handful of applications, like Facebook and Twitter.

The definition of power we will use in this post was developed by political scientist Steven Lukes‘ of New York University and is the most nuanced and broadly applicable definition of power I have yet come across. It is called the “three faces of power“. The three faces are:

1) Decision Making Power
2) Non-Decision Making Power
3) The Power to Define Interests

The first face of power, Decision Making Power, is the one we are most familiar with. It is the power to make and implement decisions. For example, when Proposition 8 came onto the ballot in California, it showed that those opposing gay marriage had greater power than those who supported it, because the referendum was decided in favor of same-sex marriage opponents. Those who opposed gay marriage implemented this decision by compelling same-sex marriage supporters to do something they would not do otherwise: cease same-sex marriages. This formulation of power – the ability to force someone to do something they otherwise would not do – is the most common conceptualization of power, but is actually only the most visible.

The second face of power, Non-Decision Making Power, is the ability to prevent an issue from even entering a decision-making phase. In the same-sex marriage example, this refers to the long period of time when same-sex marriage was not considered a valid public issue, and was kept off the political agenda.

The third face of power, The Power to Define Interests, is the most subtle. It refers to the ability of those in power to convince those they have power over to make decisions against their own interests. Examples include women supporting patriarchal systems, gay people opposing same-sex marriage rights, or poor people opposing universal health care. In all three cases, the powerless have been convinced to act in the interest of the powerful, rather than in their own interest. This form or power is perhaps the most insidious because, as long as those who are harmed by a policy align their interests with those benefit from it, there will not be any pressure to put the issue on the political agenda (face two) or to have a vote or similar open contest on the issue (face one).

How Digital Infrastructure Affects Power: Defining Interests

Digital infrastructure affects the mechanics of power by making it easier for activists to spread information (influencing interests) and to mobilize around that information (influencing the public agenda and decision-making). To demonstrate this, I will start with the third face of power and work up to the first since the power process actually begins with the third face (definition of interests) and ends with the first (deciding public contests). Continue reading

Information and Power

by: David Faris

Mary has, I think, gotten us off to a great start thinking about the substance of digital activism.

Allow me to offer some thinking about this question, that uses examples or anecdotes to illustrate some theoretical thinking about what might be new about activism using digital technology, rather than reasoning directly from the anecdotes. As Mary argues, one of the things that’s truly different, truly new about digital activism is the ability to connect diffuse actors with common interests – assemblages that transcend borders and orders, and allow actors to agitate together even though they may never meet. Even this though can be conceptualized as a kind of automation, or amplification – things that were possible, but more difficult in the past, there is something new about this too. A global Facebook group is not simply the automation of previous interest group politics – Planned Parenthood slapping a Facebook page into cyberspace and expecting a revolution in its capabilities, but rather it is a tool that, as Clay Shirky argues, allows for the nearly effortless creation of new groups. I would offer that digital activism makes possible a democratization of contentious politics, about which my colleague David Karpf knows more and hopefully will write about here.

One thing we have to think about is the information-gathering and aggregating capabilities of both mobile tools and what Adam Greenfield calls ubiquitous computing. What’s novel about a project like Ushahidi is that it makes possible a gathering and archiving of real-time information that can be used by activists to organize and mobilize. What’s also different to me about this kind of activism is the way it makes ordinary citizens the guardians and curators of the everyday – everyday practices of subordination that they can use digital tools to subvert. When ordinary Americans make off with video images of police brutality, we are not seeing the automation of traditional journalism, but the transformation of the very idea of journalism itself. The act of creating this footage is a kind of activism, in a form that is both unique to the digital age and dependent upon its advances. The fact that these tools can also be used by agents of repression and by states does not change the fact that they make new forms of activism possible. In other words, we have to stop thinking about “winners” and “losers” or whether the state has the upper hand – what a stale discourse that is – and try to conceptualize the different kinds of activism that are being created.

Last week I saw the documentary Garbage Dreams, which concerns what are known as the zabbaleen of Cairo – a community of largely Christian Cairenes who have traditionally collected the waste in the sprawling megalopolis of Cairo. Yes, Garbage Dreams has a Facebook page. So do the zabbaleen. The community is involved in a battle with the Egyptian government, which has contracted out waste collection to foreign companies in an effort to “modernize” its trash system. The trouble with this conception is that the zabbaleen recycle upwards of 80% of the garbage they collect, while “modern” methods clock in with much lower percentages. Twitter is not going to do much for the zabbaleen except in moments of crisis, right? A blog might help build identity and community, but we’re not talking about a community with high rates of Internet penetration here. So check out this project, which seeks to embed RFID tags in water bottles, to track whether they end up with the zabbaleen or with the huge landfills created by the foreign companies. It’s not as sexy as a protest, but it’s activism.

In Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, Adam Greenfield imagines a world of digital devices embedded in everyday objects. He writes, “Household objects from shower stalls to coffee pots are reimagined as places where facts about the world can be gathered, considered, and acted upon.”

If information is power, and digital tools allow for the collection of previously-obscure or unavailable information, then digital activism, in theory, provides for new modes of power-creation and power-sharing. But we have to continue to think beyond the newest application (does it matter of it’s RFID or some other technology?) to theorize about the ways that these applications, technologies, and tools transform contentious politics.

Does Digital Activism Exist?

Alaa Abd El Fattah is an extremely smart blogger, developer, and activist. He is one of my go-to people for original and astute insights into digital activism and, when I asked him for feedback on a forthcoming anthology on digital activism I am working on (shameless plug), he did not disappoint:

Thought it was a good thing to reflect on how “ill defined” digital activism is. However I feel like the term needs to be “problematized” a bit. Does digital activism exist at all?

My initial (and decidedly nonintellectual) reaction was, “of course digital activism exists – I’m writing a book about it!” About a week ago, however, I was speaking to one of the contributors to said book who, during a rather heated exchange, blurted out something to the effect of “I don’t understand why there’s a need to differentiate between activism and digital activism at all!” Clearly there is a need to address this issue.

We can choose to address this question – “does digital activism exist?” – by erecting a straw man (much more fun) or by actually addressing the critics of digital activism’s legitimacy. First, let’s deal with the straw man by defining digital activism simply as “activism that uses digital technology.” If this is the definition, then it is very easy to prove that it exists. Activists are using digital tools all around us: in Moldova, in Iran, in Morocco, in Colombia, even in the United States. So if digital activism is just activism + digital, there are few who would argue that it does not exist.

However this definition, as I mentioned earlier, is a straw man. Critics of the conceptualization of digital activism as a field separate from activism set a higher standard. For digital activism to be a new field, the addition of digital technology to activism practice must be a change of kind not just degree. The addition of new technologies to the practice of activism thus far (like using fax for activism in the US or tape cassettes for activism in Iran) has not been construed as creating a fundamentally different type of activism, even though it did increase the communication and mobilization capacity of the activists using these technologies.

Previous technologies have represented only a change in degree (greater communication capacity) not a change in kind (new forms of activism). Despite the integration of these new technologies, the fundamental character of activism did not change because these technologies simply automated previous practices. Instead of posting a letter to Congress, activists could now send a fax. Instead of passing out handbills of Ayatollah Khomeini’s sermons, his supporters could pass out audio recording of them. For digital activism to be a legitimate new field, it must innovate types of activism that were previously impossible, not just automate old tactics. Continue reading

Please Avoid Best Practices

Sometimes best practices are a great idea – for example, in surgery. If someone figures out an effective way to remove an appendix or perform a coronary bypass, then other doctors should copy that technique. Anatomical differences between patients are minimal and the set of cutting, probing, and cauterizing tools available to surgeons are fairly uniform. Though there may be great breakthroughs in surgical practice – laparoscopy, for example – they come about rarely enough for a given best practice to hold its value for years, if not decades.

Digital activism is not surgery – far from it. And, counter-intuitive though it may seem, following best practices in digital activism is a very bad idea. Here is why: if a practice worked before it will either be easy to reproduce – meaning that many activists will reproduce it, eliminating the tactic’s competitive advantage – or it will be too difficult to reproduce – meaning that other activists will be unable to reproduce it even if they want to. This, of course, assumes that the best practice is still relevant which, in digital activism, is unlikely because the value of social media applications and devices changes so quickly.

Let’s look at each shortcoming of digital activism best practice individually. It will be depressing, but there is a happy ending.

Best Practice Problem 1 – Too Easy: Perversely, the best reason not to reproduce a best practice is because it is easy to do so. If anyone can create a Facebook page (or Cause) or a Twitter feed or an email list then everyone will. If you get one request a month to join an activism-related group on Facebook you may do so, because the novelty is attractive and you believe it may be an effective way to do good. However, when you start getting requests every day the novelty fades, and when you realize that the anti-domestic violence and pro-green energy groups you joined don’t actually seem to be making headway on either issue, your belief in the effectiveness of Facebook activism also fades. (This is not to say that Facebook activism really is useless, but rather that what is best – what is effective – has shifted to a new practice.) This is also why you ignore email newsletters from NGOs and are totally overwhelmed by Twitter feeds. It is easy to do so everyone does it and the practice ceases to have competitive advantage – to set one cause apart from others as being worthy of attention and support. Continue reading

What Kind of Digital Activism Knowledge do We Need?

As I’ve started discussing the need to codify digital activism knowledge with friends on colleagues, I sometimes get friendly nods or blank stares, but every so often someone tells me, “hey, I’ve been thinking about that too”. This makes me happy because it means I – we – are collectively onto something and that the digital activism zeitgeist is shifting away from endless anecdote and focus on novelty to a more rigorous – and more useful – analytical methodology.

This is the feeling I got when I read a HuffPo post by my former colleague Sam Graham-Felsen, the tireless lead blogger of the Obama campaign. He is joining The Alliance of Youth Movements – a digital activism juggernaut funded Google, Twitter, Facebook, Howcast, Blue State Digital – as Director of Strategy and Communications. AYM’s scale and organizational capacity outstrip the Meta-Activism Project (MAP) by several orders of magnitude, but we’re tapping into the same zeitgeist. Writes Sam:

Once Movements.org [AYM’s site] is fully launched, we’ll interview activists, tech leaders, and organizing experts, cover the latest developments in digital activism, explore the emergence of new tools, and analyze what’s working and what’s not. For example we’ll be looking at questions of how groups are using Facebook to not simply accumulate fans, but to drive supporters to take concrete, offline actions; how citizen watchdogs use mobile devices to report police corruption, while safeguarding their anonymity; and how is Twitter being used not simply to create an echo chamber with fellow activists, but to reach influential journalists and government officials.

Our hope is that, by learning from youth activists and tech experts across the world, we’ll be able to develop a comprehensive set of case studies and best practices — a sort of collective knowledge base for digital activism.

I am concerned about the longterm usefulness of collecting highly-contextual tactical knowledge, as AYM plans to do. Attending to the latest developments and tool uses will keep digital activists on the same treadmill they are on now: needing to update their understanding of digital activism with ever new tool and case. It will be difficult to create a “comprehensive” body of knowledge if the tactics are always changing. Sam gives examples of strategic use of Facebook and Twitter, but what happens when the next hot tool emerges? We will need new tactics, of course, but w e also need a body of knowledge that does not change. We need strategic knowledge.

Sam believes that combining “powerful technologies with core organizing principles” is a sufficient strategic underpinning for digital activism, while I believe that there are many pre-digital strategies, other than organizing theory, that apply to the digital space. None, however, fully comprehends the newly networked world in which activists now find themselves.

Despite these differences of opinion, I am really deeply and incredibly excited that AYM is focusing the discussion of digital activism on collecting knowledge. Now, if we could only start a dialogue about what that body of knowledge should include….

Tactical knowledge and case study have an important place, but in order for activists to have a durable framework that doesn’t change every time a new social media platform is is launched, we need a new body of strategic knowledge that fully accounts for the new realities of political power in a digitally networked world.

We're Launched!

Thanks to Richard MacManus of ReadWriteWeb (the number one information technology blog in the world) for announcing our official launch! Read the full post here.

Women’s Leadership and Technology Conference in the United Arab Emirates

Last week I traveled to the emirate of Sharjah to attend the first Women’s Leadership and Technology Conference. The event brought together women leaders from the region to talk about how they were using technology to engage local communities.  Despite unheard of rain and flooding (this is the desert, after all) I had a lot of fun.

I presented a training module on social media strategy with Roz Lemieux of Fission Strategy, which I really enjoyed. The presentation I gave is below:

And here are some photos;


To determine which social media tool is right for your campaign you need to start with your advocacy goal, identify a target audience, and then determine the most effective means of reaching that audience, based on where their attention is and what platforms you have access to.


Talking to participants from Kuwait and Lebanon about their social media choices. The training module started with a presentation of the strategic framework (above) and then asked participants to make selections about the appropriate social media tool given their own strategic context.


To give them a better idea of the possibilities, each group was given a deck of both digital (Google Docs) and non-digital (events) tools to use in their campaign.  The participants were given a tool “budget” meaning they had to select a limited number of tools and defend why each tool made sense in their particular campaign context.

At the end of the module, groups shared their social media selections, and did a really great job of showing  linkages between advocacy goal and tools.  I’d like to do this module again some time.

Why Digital Activism Needs its Own Strategic Knowledge

As the first post on this site I thought it might be useful do answer that pressing question: why does the Meta-Activism Project exist? Why does the field of digital activism need a body of strategic knowledge? Digital activism the practice of using digital technology for political and social change has shown promise around the world, yet great successes have been lacking. Even the most dramatic examples, such as the post-election mobilizations in Iran and Moldova, failed to yield a clear positive result for activists.

The problem, however, lies not with individual activists, but rather with the lack of knowledge resources available to them. Unlike other fields of social change, such as non-violent civil resistance, which has a 3-pillar theory of political transformation, or community organizing, whose practice of power mapping has been in use for decades, there is no body of strategic knowledge unique to the field of digital activism.

With no body of strategy to fall back on, activists and advocates must rely on tactical knowledge (a given tool achieving a given strategic goal in a given context), which changes with every new social media application and case study, or on the pre-digital strategies just discussed. These pre-digital strategies do not accurately represent the radically different communications reality of the digitally networked world, while tactical knowledge is highly contextual and even positive results are difficult to replicate. Without accurate frameworks to guide their actions, digital activists are at a distinct disadvantage, forced to make due with outdated strategies and an endless rise and fall of new social media applications.

The goal of the Meta-Activism Project (MAP) is to build the field of digital activism by creating human and informational infrastructure to catalyze the creation of strategic knowledge. MAP is a convener, instigator, and synthesizer, identifying the most effective interventions to build knowledge and then bringing together key thought leaders to achieve them.

image: Flickr/glennshootspeople

Image: Flick/woodleywonderworks

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.