Hot Off the Presses…

by Mary Joyce

I just received some advance copies of Digital Activism Decoded and the books look great! The text will be available for free download here next Tuesday, June 1st, and the paper copies will go on sale on on June 30th. Click here to pre-order.

There are over one million books on, but if you search for “digital activism” the title at the top of the list is Digital Activism Decoded.

Though this is the first book explicitly devoted to the topic, it is not the first to explore the intersection of digital technology and activism. There have already been guides that instruct activists in the use of popular applications like blogs and social networks.

There have also been scholarly works that analyze the effect of the Internet or mobile phones on political dynamics, both in rich democracies where politicians “tweet” and under repressive regimes. Best sellers have tried to explain the digitally changing world, including the impact on activism.

Yet Digital Activism Decoded is the first book to attempt to map the field of digital activism in its entirety.

The book begins with a section on Contexts, addressing not only the technology of network infrastructure, devices, and applications, but also the social, economic, and political environment in which digital activism occurs.

An analysis of Practices follows, not in the usual format of case study analysis, but by presenting different ways of thinking about these practices. The section begins with a chapter on pre-digital social movement theory, while a second chapter takes the digital perspective of web ecology. Both constructive and destructive activism practices are discussed.

The final section on Effects seeks to address the range of opinions on digital activism’s value. While optimists see the great potential for citizen empowerment, pessimists believe that the empowerment of forces of repression is equally likely. Skeptics view both askance and do not believe digital activism makes much difference at all. We leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

Digital Activism in Context in the Middle East

by Mary Joyce

This video, a digital honors thesis produced by Carmel Delshad of the University of South Florida, provides a nuanced view of digital activism in the Middle East. It talks about the importance of political and social factors that contextualize digital activism. It is optimistic while acknowledging the dangers of censorship and repression. It does not discount successes or downplay failures. It draws on the opinions of activists, citizen journalists, and scholars, realizing that all perspectives have a role in explaining digital activism. Most of all, it seems that Ms. Delshad is trying to get at the truth, not to present evidence to support a pre-existing point of view on the value of digital activism.

This is the direction I would like to see for all explorations of digital activism: putting personal bias and black-and-white logic aside to explore digital activism in all its complexity. Digital activism is as heterogeneous as the socio-political contexts in which it exists. In order to move the field of digital activism forward, we must first acknowledge that all the easy answers are wrong.

hat-tip: Mideast Youth

From Our Book: How Activists Coordinate Online

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt is the first from the second section of the book, which addresses the practices of digital activism. This excerpt, by post-doctoral fellow Anastasia Kavada, explains digital activism through the lens of social movement theory.

…The Internet further helps activists to organize and make decisions. It facilitates processes of affiliation, allowing people to become members of the movement simply by subscribing to an email list or joining a Facebook group. Social movements have traditionally operated with an informal definition of membership. The ease with which activists can now join a protest network renders the process of affiliation even more fluid and flexible.

Online tools also aid collaboration, coordination, and the division of responsibilities among activists organizing a protest or campaign. Activists can use Wikipages to write to-do lists and messages of mobilization collaboratively. They can also employ calendar-matching services to plan meetings and gatherings. Interactive applications such as email, discussion groups, and instant messaging (and increasingly Internet telephony like Skype) can be used for decision making. Such collaboration can also be carried out through e-voting tools and other applications designed for aggregating preferences.

To meet their needs of coordination, social movements have also started to create their own Web platforms instead of using already existing ones that can only partly fulfill their needs. The European Social Forum launched such a platform in November 2007. Called OpenESF (, the platform facilitates networking around common campaigns and initiatives by inviting registered users to create a profile and set up a project. These can refer to the preparation of the European Social Forum or to any proposal for social transformation as long as it conforms to the Charter of Principles of the World Social Forum. Projects are provided with a set of coordination tools including blogs, discussion lists, Wikipages, and task lists. As of August 2009, OpenESF had 970 registered members and 199 projects.

Spanning geographic boundaries, the Internet plays a vital role in coordinating protests across national borders. Still, activists often combine online tools with physical meetings, particularly for decisions that require lengthy discussion or negotiation among numerous participants.

For instance, while Indymedia activists organize on the international level through email lists, instant messaging, and the Indymedia Twiki, local Indymedia groups also meet regularly face-to-face. The same mix of online and offline coordination is present in the European Social Forum, where activists employ both email lists and physical meetings in the process of decision making.

Movements organizing online face greater risks of surveillance and suppression. Tweets, Facebook groups, websites, and blogs are all available in the public domain. Thus, the same Internet tools that help social movements to keep track of their opponents’ activities can also be used against them. For instance, during the 2009 G20 summit, the commander responsible for policing the protests admitted that the authorities were monitoring social networking sites. In an article published on BBC News Online, he said that such sites helped the police to assess the number of demonstrators expected in the streets and to get a sense of the activities being planned.

Tribes to Networks: An Evolution of Society

by Mary Joyce

My friend Sem Devillart of the forecasting firm Popular Operations just sent me an interesting article by a staff member of the RAND Corporation, David Ronfeldt. Written back in 1996, it is probably one of the first to sketch the political and social implications of the networked society made possible by digital infrastructure. In the article, Ronfeldt describes social evolution (see image left) in terms of the additive “TIMN” framework:

Over the ages, societies organized in tribal (T) terms lose to societies that also develop institutional (I) systems to become T+I societies, normally with strong states. In turn, these are superseded by societies that allow space to develop the market form (M), and become T+I+M societies. Now, with the network (N) form on the rise, reshaping civil society, we may be entering a new phase of evolution in which T+I+M+N societies will emerge and take the lead.

I don’t totally agree with this typology (I think markets are part of institutional hierarchy, not an alternative to it), but this article, Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks: A Framework About Societal Evolution, provides useful analysis of the changing power relationships in digitally networked society.

Download the article.

From Our Book: How Governments Respond to Digital Activism

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt, by Tom Glaisyer of the New America Foundation is from the chapter “Political Factors: Digital Activism in Closed and Open Societies”, which explores the effect of political context on digital activism outcomes.

…The responses of governments will likely follow one of several paths. Some governments will fail to adapt in any way and continue to operate as bureaucratic hierarchies despite the challenge from networked movements. Others will choose to follow an adaptive approach as a result of the success of their newly networked opponents and incorporate peer-to-peer practices. Such adaptation in open societies, as described above, might accommodate oppositional movements as it has in the United States. Closed, authoritarian societies like Iran or China, on the other hand, will, in all likelihood, adapt to digital technology by using it to repress opposition movements. The disposition of the government toward digital activism will be significant in defining the impact that this kind of activism has on a society.

Open Governance

In societies where political leaders and state institutions understand both the power of digital activism and the opportunity it presents for doing tasks differently, digital activists will likely be able to play a significant role as the structures of governance change. Such governments will embed digital networks of contention and cooperation into their operations, seeking to engage cooperative networks externally and recognizing oppositional networks as they arise as legitimate actors. In this context, governments and activists will likely learn the new dynamics and the political system will tend to move through the transition with the least amount of upheaval.

Agnostic Governance

Democratic governments that fail to recognize the emergence of digital activism, its possibilities, and the threat to established institutions will likely misunderstand any activism that occurs. Activists will find themselves in opposition and underappreciated. More than likely, such governments will misjudge the power of nascent movements and accede to their demands when unnecessary and refuse to compromise when it is in their interest.

The transition to a world where digital activism plays a role in governance will be bumpy, as traditionally strong institutions are challenged and the concept that activists can play a supportive role will be unacknowledged.

Closed Authoritarian Governance

Where open dissent is unwelcome, digital activism will almost certainly be repressed. In a few cases, governments will succeed in both tightly limiting access to digital platforms and in squashing dissent through traditional means. Where digital activism is at all possible, a contest between surveillance and countersurveillance technologies will ensue. In the bleakest case, the tools of digital activism will be used to enlarge government control over the population and likely result in less freedom.

From Our Book: How Digital Activism Empowers Existing Elites

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt, by Kate Brodock, is from a chapter entitled “Economic and Social Factors: The Digital (Activism) Divide”. The chapter describes how contextual factors beyond digital infrastructure can affect digital activism outcomes. You can find Kate on Twitter and blogging here and here.

…Research indicates that economic differences limit not only access to technology but also the likelihood of an individual to take part in political activism. The 2009 Digital Activism Survey conducted by DigiActive, an organization dedicated to helping grassroots activists around the world use digital technology, found that digital activists, particularly in developing countries, are more likely than the population at large to be paying a monthly fee for home Internet access, to be able to afford a high-speed connection, and to work in a white-collar job with access to the Internet in the workplace.

In short, digital activists are likely to be prosperous, with their economic resources offering them a significant digital advantage. These initial findings indicate that the digital divide strongly influences digital activism because it tends to limit participation to the economic elite.

This research was corroborated by a report of the Internet and American Life Project of the Pew Research Center. A September 2009 Pew report—Civic Engagement Online: Politics as Usual, by Aaron Smith—stated that “whether they take place on the Internet or off, traditional political activities remain the domain of those with high levels of income and education.” Smith continues, “Contrary to the hopes of some advocates, the Internet is not changing the socio-economic character of civic engagement in the United States. Just as in offline civic life, the well-to-do and well-educated are more likely than those less well off to participate in online political activities.”

The digital divide is also made wider by the fact that not only do lower-income populations have less access to digital technologies, they sometimes must pay more for them. For example, the 2007 ITU-UNCTAD World Information Society report stated that the cost of broadband as a percentage of the average monthly per capita wage was around 2 percent in high-income countries, whereas broadband costs in low-income countries were more than 900 percent of the average monthly per capita wage. Higher income populations are not only likely to receive the higher-quality products of modern communications technology and in greater supply, they often are able to purchase them at significantly lower relative cost.

Combined with the research on digital activism participants from DigiActive and the Pew Research Center, these findings indicate that digital technology often mirrors rather than undermines preexisting divides in economic resources. Digital technology provides new communication capacities, but it is people of higher economic capabilities who are best able to take advantage of them….

From Our Book: How Mobile Activism Turned an Election in Spain

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt, by Brannon Cullum, a recent graduate of Georgetown’s CCT program, is from a chapter on digital activism devices, specifically the use of mobile phones. This selection presents an excellent case study of mobile activism from 2004. Though many case studies in the field are told as isolated narratives, they still form the basis of our knowledge of digital activism phenomena.

…The use of mobile phones during the 2004 general elections in Spain illustrates how ordinary citizens can shift the direction of an election. On March 11, 2004, days before national parliamentary elections, three trains were bombed at a Madrid train station, killing 192 people and injuring hundreds more. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing and before any evidence had surfaced linking any specific terrorist organization to the event, the governing Popular Party (PP) publicly stated that the Basque terrorist

group ETA was behind the bombing. By the end of the day, the Islamist terrorist organization Al Qaeda had claimed responsibility for the act. The Spanish government, known for taking a hard stance against the Basque group, continued to assert that ETA was culpable, in part because making the Basque terrorists appear responsible would benefit PP in the upcoming elections against the Socialist Party. Many Spaniards were outraged that the government was choosing to blame Basque terrorists for Al

Qaeda’s work and believed that the PP was trying to cover up evidence that linked Al Qaeda to the bombings. Opposition leaders believed that Al Qaeda targeted Spain because of Prime Minister

Jose Maria Aznar’s support of the war in Iraq and that Aznar was downplaying the role of Al Qaeda in an effort to improve his party’s chance in the election. Citizens, agitated by the apparent manipulation of information, began to call for demonstrations to express their mistrust of the government.

According to blogger Andre Serranho, the first SMS message was sent March 13, the day before the election, and simply stated, “The government lied. Pass it on.” Other messages soon began

circulating, such as:

18:00 PP head office Genova St. no parties silence for the truth. Information poisoning at 18:00 PP Genova pass it on.

We want to know before we vote.

The truth now, stop the manipulation, your war, our dead. Pass it on!

No one has been able to identify the source(s) of the texts. The Socialist Party has vehemently denied responsibility. Spain has an official ban on political demonstrations in the 24 hours prior to any election. Activists and concerned citizens ignored the ban and gathered anyway. By 11:00 p.m., more than ten thousand people had gathered in front of the PP headquarters in Madrid. In Serranho’s account of what transpired on March 13 and 14, he notes that the majority of Spaniards he spoke to acknowledged

that they had forwarded text messages to their contact lists. Spain had a mobile penetration rate of 94 percent, indicating that most residents of the country had mobile phones capable of sending 64 Digital Activism Decoded and receiving texts; March 13 saw a 20 percent increase in text messages, March 14, election day, saw a rise of 40 percent. Thousands of texts were passed around asking Spaniards to vote for the Socialist Party and to demonstrate against the Popular Party.

These tactics proved successful. The large size of the group that gathered at PP headquarters showed how many people were upset with the incumbent party. In a surprising turn, the Socialist Party defeated the PP at the polls, with turnout for the election estimated at 77 percent—an 8 percent increase from the previous election.

Thus was demonstrated the power of persuasive text messages. It can be posited that many Spaniards who received text messages trusted the sender enough to believe the accusation against the government and decided that the best way to protest was to vote for the opposition party.

From Our Book: Are New or Old Apps Best?

Today’s excerpt, by Dan Schultz, who will soon begin graduate studies at the MIT Media Lab, is from a chapter entitled “Applications: Picking the Right One in a Transient World,” The chapter offers practical advice for activists on how to choose the applications that will support their digital campaign.

…You can easily get caught up in technology hype, and sometimes that isn’t such a bad thing for an activist to do. Campaigns that use a new technology to accomplish something groundbreaking often end up generating positive attention for themselves. There is also no question that identifying and diving into what will become the next Facebook or Twitter would help you gain traction on the digital front. Using tools that are a bit further along the adoption curve, however, can have some real benefits.

Established systems have established networks, precedent, popularity, and brands. By using a brand that people recognize, trust, and use, you will increase your own credibility and remove some of the barriers to involvement in your campaign. If your intended use takes advantage of network benefits, then the larger user bases of popular sites are going to prove to be a vital asset. Even if the tool is going to be used for something private, like internal communication, you could find the robust support base that comes with established tools to be invaluable.

Another major blow against “cutting-edge” technology is the vast increase of added risk. The tool could disappear, it might be unstable, maybe its popularity is just a fad, maybe it just isn’t going to grow any more—the list goes on. If longevity and stability are important for your purposes, you’ll need to be careful before making commitments to a tool that has only been around for a year. If, however, you are OK with the risk of being forced to change directions at some point down the line, don’t give this concern a second thought.

Of course, completely new isn’t necessarily something to avoid. There will be times when new tools do something that nothing else can do or they are simply superior in the areas you care about. You should also recognize that even the most established tool could become obsolete in a week. What is important is that you know what you’re getting yourself into and assess and address your risks accordingly.

“New Hotness” Pros

  • If the service grows, you benefit as an early adopter.
  • The tool might provide something new or improved.
  • You might discover a groundbreaking way to perform digital activism.

“New Hotness” Cons

  • It could fall flat, leaving you without an audience.
  • It could die off completely, leaving you without a tool.
  • It could change dramatically, possibly in a way that causes it to lose its original appeal.

“Old Reliable” Pros

  • You probably aren’t the first one trying to use the tool for activism, so there will be precedent and best practices to learn from.
  • The larger user base provides network benefits.
  • Established brand means others will be able to understand immediately how and why you are using the tool.

“Old Reliable” Cons

  • Depending on your intent, you might have to fight for attention in an environment filled with noise from other causes.
  • You might find yourself invested in an obsolete technology.

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

From Our Book: ARPANET and the Birth of Digital Activism

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt, by Trebor Scholz of The New School, is from the first section on contexts and presents a history of digital activism from the beginning of the ARPANET in 1969.

….Many changes have occurred since the first nodes of ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet, were linked together in 1969. At that time, computers were enormous, clunky, and prohibitively expensive—one purpose of ARPANET, which was one of the projects of the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, was to allow more scientists to work with these scarce. Instead of putting the networked computers to work on complex calculations, researchers turned ARPANET against the intentions of its creators by using it to communicate with one another. This was the single biggest unintended consequence of ARPANET.

ARPANET’s “network mail,” a precursor to today’s email, was not exclusively used to discuss research—it also helped distribute messages against the Vietnam War, hosted discussions about the Watergate scandal, and ultimately the resignation of Pres. Richard Nixon.

At the same time, however, ARPANET also became a tool that helped the Pentagon shadow political activists. The American public became aware of ARPANET in the early 1970s—two years after it was activated. National media alerted them to the role of this research network in government surveillance. During the political unrest of the late 1960s, military intelligence had started to collect information about the location of firehouses and police precincts in dozens of American cities. One Pentagon official decided to add local troublemakers to this map. After the story broke in 1972, the Pentagon was ordered by a judge to destroy all related files. As was later revealed, however, the Pentagon used ARPANET to move these files to a new location in direct violation of the court order.

Since its inception, the Internet has helped to both control and empower citizens. At the outset, ARPANET provided a communication forum for male, Caucasian, middle-class scientists with a Department of Defense contract. The ARPANET was not the only networking solution available at the time, however. Several alternative and more open communication systems were on hand. Usenet, for example, was nicknamed “the people’s ARPANET,” because it offered easy access to networked communication for anyone with a dial-up connection.

In 1991, ARPANET became more available to the public when it was taken over by the National Science Foundation. Military restrictions no longer applied, thus allowing ARPANET to expand beyond the defense community. Foreign networks could also join, with Japan among the first. In 1987, the first Chinese connection was established and tested by sending an email from the Technical University in Beijing to the University Karlsruhe in Germany. Throughout Europe, the number of Internet sites skyrocketed in the early 1990s.

But military declassification was not enough. For broader reach, the network also needed a commonly agreed upon language, a set of protocols that computers worldwide could use to communicate with one another. Accordingly, many governments and countless organizations, globally, had to agree to use one specific language, one protocol suite. TCP/IP became the agreed-upon language that defined how information on the Internet transferred from computer to computer across national borders.

From the early 1990s on, people in their living rooms, basements, libraries, and schools not only started to use the Internet in large numbers, they also co-shaped it. Roughly two decades were needed for the circle of network users to achieve substantial international reach.

From Our Book: Digital Activism’s Infrastructure

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt, by Mary Joyce, is from the Introduction and explains the technological infrastructure of digital activism.

….The infrastructure of digital activism is based on the digital network— an interconnected group of devices that use digital code to transmit information. The beauty of networks is that connectivity is distributed. Networks do not connect us only to the center, they link us to each other as well. And, when large numbers of citizens are able to more easily connect to one another, to send and receive original content, and to coordinate action, they are able to create effective political movements.

Networks can be fashioned of different physical materials— physical materials matter. The difference in materials from country to country provides a great example of how the interplay of
infrastructure, economic, social, and political factors leads to different digital activism outcomes. Modern cable infrastructure, such as fiber optic, which transmits a signal more quickly, is more
expensive than older and slower cable—which might be made of copper. Thus, those living in rich countries are likely to have faster Internet connections than those living in poorer countries. Politics plays a role, too: in many developing countries, particularly in Africa, state-owned firms have historically monopolized Internet service, leading to higher prices. As a result, people in richer countries are usually more able to participate in digital activism because of the cost and quality of Internet connections available to them.

If the differentiator of digital networks is material, the unifier is code—the series of the digits 1 and 0 that transmit all information on the Internet. Digital code is the universal medium of digital activism. If an activist in Gaza wants to upload a mobile phone video so it can be watched by a college student in Minneapolis, digital code transmits those sounds and images. If an activist in the Philippines starts a Facebook group opposing the corruption of a local official, Filipino expatriates from Abu Dhabi to London can join the group and coordinate in English or their native Tagalog. In a 2009 article in The New Republic, technology theorist Lawrence Lessig of Harvard University described the nature of digital as “perfect copies, freely made.” If you create any piece of content and upload it to a digital network, a copy of that content will become immediately transmissible to anyone else in the world with Internet access. The whole world speaking one language—that is the power of digital code.

Even though we use digital networks to send each other 1s and 0s, we don’t think of digital activism in terms of code. We think of it in terms of applications, the software programs that interpret those 1s and 0s into meaningful information. Fortunately, digital infrastructure is, according to Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain, “generative.” People can easily develop applications that operate on top of the network and create content using those applications, both of which may not have been intended by their creators. The inventers of Facebook, a group of American college students, probably did not see it as a tool for activists around the world, but it is nevertheless used for that purpose. Likewise, the Silicon Valley technologists who founded Twitter did not imagine that their service would be used to broadcast protests in Moldova. While dedicated activist applications and open source software also play a role, most digital activists co-opt commercial applications like Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, and YouTube to do their work. It is through these applications that most of us define our use of network infrastructure.

Applications are the most visible element of digital activism and many handbooks, blogs, and training sessions focus on the use of specific applications (also called “apps”) for campaigns for
political and social change. However, applications are a poor foundation for the study of digital activism: They change constantly, are popular because of media hype as much as actual utility, and have outcomes intensely affected by other contextual factors that differ greatly from campaign to campaign. Applications are only a part of the digital activism environment. We are most aware of them because they define our experience of digital activism, not
because they are more important than other factors.

We access applications on “end devices,” the piece of hardware that connects the user to the network. In the world of digital activism, the most common end devices are currently the computer and mobile phone. Computers currently allow for a wider variety of activism applications than mobile phones because they allow users to connect to all the applications on the Internet while most mobile phones are limited to SMS and calling. Yet, as the release of Apple’s iPad tablet and the rise of Internet-enabled smart phones illustrates, the differences between these types of devices is becoming more blurred as computers become more like mobile phones and mobile phones gain the capacity of computers. This change results in more powerful and cheaper devices for activists and thus a greater capacity to use digital infrastructure for their goals of political and social change.

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