Home Slacktivism 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 Amazon.com. 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 reportCivic Engagement Online: Politics as Usual, by Aaron Smithstated 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….

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