Digital Activism Decoded book now on sale at Amazon

We’re happy to announce that our book, Digital Activism Decoded: The New Mechanics of Change, is available on We’ve been giving you chapter excerpts for two months, and we hope you’ve enjoyed them.

Now it’s time to enjoy the full content!

From Our Book: The Future that Digital Activism Makes Possible

Today’s excerpt, by editor Mary Joyce, presents a theory of change for how digital activism could change the global politics of power. Previous sections in the chapter explain the practical changes that the field of digital activism will need to pass through to increase its effectiveness and achieve this future state. The book is available for free download here and for hard copy sale here.

…Perhaps the greatest motivator for this kind of collaborative creation would be a shared vision of what is possible if the great potential of digital activism is realized—of the potentially transformative power of ubiquitous and dense linkages between citizens across the world. A new power grid is available and it is us. Unlike a traditional electrical power grid—a network in which power is generated only at the central point of production and money flows into the center while electricity flows out—this new human power grid would have many points of generation and almost infinite interfaces.

The new power grid is a decentralized network of individuals, each of whom can both produce and consume information, interact with the media, take action, and engage in protest. At the edges of the network, the term “consumer” does not apply anymore. While the organizer of an action may be called a “producer,” supporters who participate in the action are producers as well. The action is its participants.

The infrastructure of this new grid is the cables and radio signals that make up increasingly interconnected Internet and phone networks. The infrastructure is composed of applications like SMS and social networks that allow us to connect to one another with astonishing speed, increasing ease, and greater complexity. What will we do with this new network of software and infrastructure that connects us? What will happen when the power of the individual is organized through the grid and begins to push back on the center, the traditional locus of authority? How will the center change? Or will it not change at all?

Central authority, in the form of both governments and corporations, has always functioned through the cooperation of individuals within those institutions. The institution gets its power from the reliability of cooperation among the individuals within the institution. This reliability of cooperation used to require intense capital investment—the payment of salaries to soldiers or bureaucrats.

Traditional institutions are resource-intensive because they are forced to use extrinsic motivators like fear and money to ensure a significant and reliable level of cooperation. Digital campaigns, in contrast, can achieve their cooperation goals with radically fewer financial resources because a permanent time commitment is not necessary and a cause appeals to the idealism of the supporter, a free and intrinsic motivation. If many people can be engaged at low time commitment and low cost instead of high time commitment and high cost, as Harvard professor Yochai Benkler has posited in his book The Wealth of Networks, new institutions will arise.

Today, free and ad hoc organizations have demonstrated their ability to cooperate on discrete projects—a worldwide day of action, for instance—but have rarely formed the durable institutions that make cooperation reliable and would give them real power. This is one reason why it is so important that strategic knowledge be created. Digital activism needs to improve. Today we see marches, tomorrow we may see alternative political structures.

Better in the Dark

by Mary Joyce

Famed sociologist Jürgen Habermas likes to do civic participation with the lights on. According to his theory of the public sphere, societies benefit from having a space where citizens can “discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgment”. The classic analog example of a public sphere is the coffee house. Professor Yochai Benkler of Harvard Law School then applied this idea to the Internet with his theory of the networked public sphere, in which this civic space exists online and is mediated through digital tools. This public ideal of digital participation and activism is born out in fact: most of the digital tools used for activism, like blogs and social networks are extremely public. Recent design changes, like the loosening of privacy by Facebook, have made digital activism on those platforms even more public.

In repressive societies, the public nature of these popular technologies soon brought grief to activists. Once authorities figured about that activists were using these tools they could simply check an activist’s Facebook profile page (as they do in Iran) to see who their likely co-conspirators are or arrest visible online organizers (as happened in Moldova) when seeking the leader of a protest. The Russian government has gained increasing influence over the popular social blogging platform LiveJournal, probably also in an effort to monitor member’s actions. Vietnam and China have gone so far as to hack seemingly private applications, like Gmail.

Not surprisingly, the increasingly danger of using public technologies to mobilize in repressive regimes has drawn responses from activists, such as Sami Ben Gharbia of Global Voices Advocacy, who has cautioned activists in repressive states not to use Facebook. Jillian York of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society has also been analyzing the effect of reduced privacy on digital activists. Critics like Evgeny Morozov see the increasing savvy on the part of repressive governments as further evidence of the danger of digital activism.

Yet this is overstepping. Public digital platforms are becoming ever more dangerous to activists in repressive regimes, yet they are still useful to activists in freer societies. Also, to use the danger of public platforms to condemn all digital activism tools as dangerous is inaccurate. There are many digital tools that actually help digital activists to operate in the dark.

Rather than eschewing digital tools entirely, it may be safer for them to use encrypted digital tools rather than offline alternatives. Pidgin is an encrypted chat client, that allows activists to communicate without the government listening in. Guardian is an encryption client for Android mobile phones that allows for encrypted SMS. Wikileaks passes uploaded documents through several national jurisdictions to protect its right to publish and the leaker’s anonymity. Tor and Ultrasurf route Internet traffic in a similar (though more complex) system, to hide the Internet activities of users and allow they to bypass censorship. Proxy servers, though less secure, perform a similar function. Though its security system requires several steps, Hushmail, allows users a less hackable form of email.

Critics who use the danger of public platforms as an excuse to denounce digital activism are doing activists a disservice. It is better to inform activists of more secure online options than to simply push them back into the offline communication tools that repressive regimes have spent generations learning how to crack.

image: xJasonRogersx / Flickr

From Our Book: Beyond Us vs. Them

Today’s excerpt, by the futurists and cultural forecasters Sem DeVillart and Brian Waniewski, challenges advocacy groups to use the networking features of the Internet not only to connect with allied organizations and supporters but also to the corporate and political “targets” whose behavior they wish to change. Later in the chapter, Sem and Brian propose a network that would facilitate this kind of radical collaboration. The book is available for free download here and for hard copy sale here.

…Activists and advocacy groups have typically been repositories of values or points of view considered challenging to the status quo. This built-in sense of opposition contributes to an “us vs. them” mentality. Most organizations have abandoned the radical techniques of early activism in favor of the more businesslike methods of marketing and media relations or practices like culture-jamming, in which mainstream cultural institutions or their symbols are parodied or otherwise disrupted.

But every now and then, young angry voices hammer the face shields of riot cops and rubber bullets fly. Even putting such real-world radicalism aside, great quantities of money, energy, and intelligence are poured into the pro-con, right-wrong, left-right, good-evil rhetorical flurries that define network news programming and the tone of public debate off and online.

It is tempting for organizations to adopt competitive strategies toward peers engaged in like or complementary efforts, and the pressure to secure funding is especially acute in today’s financial climate. Thus, to impugn the methods or mettle of “competing” organizations can seem like the easiest path to success, a path well worn by the commercial sector.

…. We must find some way to move beyond “us vs. them” and rectify the contradictions—internal and external—that underlie it. We have already touched on how the structure of the Internet compresses the distance between potentially divergent points of view. With a mouse click, we can jump from the site of an organization like Greenpeace to the site of Dow Chemical and find points of view forged not in the reactive heat of debate but in the relative peace of collectively held strong convictions. We can experience the full force of the contradictions they establish.

To experience deep contradictions in the information we take in has never been easy, and the decentralized structure of the Internet does not help matters. On the Internet, everything is information, and, from a system’s perspective, all existing information is equally valid and true. No centralized or organizing order, no Dewey decimal system, or trusted curator keeps subject areas or sympathies separate. While some users may be confused, others may find they have a new recognition of and comfort with the contradictions basic to human beings and the world we construct to live in. The ability to act effectively while honoring and holding contradictions in mind may become more widespread. More people may come to understand and behave as if the deeds of Greenpeace and Dow Chemical are both equally the collective results of men and women facing their circumstances to the best of their abilities.

To honor contradiction is a first step toward compassion.

From Our Book: Debunking the “Great Potential” Myth

Today’s excerpt, by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of Columbia University, challenges the just-around-the-corner optimism of digital activism proponents, who are forever referencing the “great potential” of digital technology to alter politics in the future. Later in the chapter, Nielsen calls upon his own original research on the use of digital technology in US electoral campaign, reframing digital activism more humbly as simply a “practical prosthetic” on pre-digital campaigning practices. The book is available for free download here and for hard copy sale here.

…For 15 years, the “great potential” of digital technologies for activism—in electoral politics, in social movements, in civic life more generally—has been trumpeted by academics, elected officials, and political professionals.

The idea of a technologically driven radical break with the past—an end to politics as usual—took off after Mosaic, the first browser, popularized the Web in 1994 and politicians and activists started to get online in greater numbers. Some saw the upset victory of the populist former wrestler Jesse Ventura in the 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial election as an example of the great potential of new technologies for political activism; his supporters had used a combination of the campaign website and various online discussion forums to organize volunteers and reach voters. Many hailed the massive protests against the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in 1999, the so-called “Battle of Seattle”, as a demonstration of the great potential of these tools for movement activism because of the rise of citizen media sites like Indymedia. Others have praised the explosive growth of MoveOn since its founding in 1998 as an illustration of the great potential digital technologies have for issue activism.

Political consultant, pundit, and pontificator extraordinaire Dick Morris went one step further when he asserted, in his 1999 book,, that the Internet was giving power back to the people.

The big-donor-financed, television-dominated, low-turnout business-as-usual George W. Bush vs. Al Gore slugfest in the 2000 American presidential election seemed to give even the most ardent believers in the “great potential” pause—but soon enough, they were back on track, highlighting the initial success of Howard Dean’s 2004 “people-powered politics,” the subsequent rise of the blog-based netroots, and, in 2008, the success of the Barack Obama campaign.

The notion has its detractors, of course—one could talk about a competing narrative of “great denial,” propagated by those who argue that the Internet has no discernible consequences for activism—but the idea of the “great potential” is still very much alive and well. The examples usually offered to support the great potential hypothesis have three elements in common.

First, they illustrate that the idea of radical change has been with us for at least ten years (like other new information and communication technologies before it, including radio and television, the Web has inspired a lot of technological utopianism about direct democracy).

Second, the examples all contain a kernel of truth in that they do show that Internet tools hold considerable practical promise—and represent kinds of problems that are at least somewhat novel—for various kinds of activism. Ventura did win, Howard Dean did mobilize many activists, Barack Obama did become president, and all three campaigns made innovative use of new technologies.

Third, that very kernel of truth, however, tends to overshadow the equally important fact that the examples are all rare exceptions underlining that the great potential is rarely realized. Most gubernatorial elections are not won by dark-horse challengers—Internet-savvy or not. Most protests against global trade policies do not mobilize tens of thousands—whether they use cell phones and email or not. Most issue campaigns are not as successful as MoveOn, whether they are online or not. Even when they have added an “action center” to their website, most political organizations have not been surrounded by the kinds of activism generated around Howard Dean or Barack Obama. This is obvious within the context of American politics alone and even more so in a comparative perspective. Many countries with at least as high levels of Internet penetration and all-round technological savvy as the United States have yet to witness such spectacular examples of successful digital politics. Clearly, technology alone is not enough.

While remaining cognizant that the practical promise of new technologies is important, the incessant talk of “great potential” can be dangerously misleading if it is taken to describe the present realities of digitally augmented and Internet-assisted activism. We have no systematic evidence to suggest that the Web has given power back to the people. (Nor do I believe that any future technology will.) Those who engage in activism and politics, digital or not, need to face this squarely or they will underestimate the challenges they face—attempts at crowdsourcing that did not produce a crowd, the many instances of flashmobbing” where no mob materialized, and the many attempts at collaborative production where no collaborators were to be found.

Power is not something activists “get.” It is something they build.

Attempts to change the world remain uphill struggles and few take active part in them. The diffusion of ever-higher-bandwidth online access in the wealthiest parts of the world, the spread of networked mobile communications devices, and the explosive growth in the number of Internet applications that might be used for activism have not resulted in resurgent popular involvement in politics, a broader civic renaissance, or the withering away of entrenched interests or other existing powerful groups. This is, in scholar Matthew Hindman’s words, “not the digital democracy we ordered.”

If you find this surprising, it is because you have heard too much about the great potential and about a few exceptional cases and too little about the remaining multitude of political campaigns, social movements, and issue groups engaged in activism.

Take political campaigns as an example—there are about five hundred thousand elected offices in the United States alone. Most of those running for them are not like Howard Dean, let alone Barack Obama—nor are their campaigns. While they use the Internet and their supporters often engage in digital activism, still relatively few individuals volunteer for political campaigns, despite the ever-greater use by more and more people of digital technologies for more and more tasks. In addition, remember that social movements involve only small minorities of their supposed constituencies, that issue campaigns struggle to mobilize support, and that the associational life that many consider to be central to a strong and vibrant civil society has not experienced an overall resurgence in our undoubtedly increasingly “connected age.”

The key value of digital activism is as poorly understood with reference to its “great potential” as it is by those in the throes of the “great denial.” Its significance, instead, lies in the practical promises and problems that accompany digital politics as usual.

Understanding this involves close attention to the concrete use of new tools in slow, piecemeal, and often unsatisfying, unequal, and inconclusive everyday political struggles.

From Our Book: Utopia Meets Reality for Digital Activists

The final section addresses both the intended and unintended consequences of digital activism. Simon Columbus’ chapter on the persecution of digital activists explicitly addressed those unintended consequences and presents an exhaustive analysis of how political bloggers are persecuted around the world. In this introduction, Simon contrasts the utopian vision of the Internet in the 1990’s to its fraught present.

Simon blogs at i like patterns, where he’s also set up a dedicated page for our book.

The book is available for free download here and for hard copy sale here.

….When the Iranian authorities arrested Sina Motallebi in 2003 for criticizing the government in his blog and speaking with foreign journalists, the young Iranian blogosphere was alarmed. Repressive regimes have always moved to silence those who express themselves freely—so what made this arrest more shocking than earlier arrests of those critical of the regime? Motallebi’s arrest was one of the first instances of a growing trend in the political persecution of bloggers, and a direct challenge to the cyber-utopianism of the 1990s. Although the Internet allows activists greater access to the tools of mass communication and coordination, it does not protect them from persecution.

The Internet initially carried the promise of a space for free expression and communication, where individuals and groups from all over the globe could voice their opinions and concerns to a worldwide audience. This ideal was exemplified by the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, penned in 1996 by John Perry Barlow, a respected Internet theorist and a founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In it, Barlow declared the Internet free from the restriction and repression of offline political spaces:

Governments of the Industrial World . . . I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear. Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. . . . Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. . . . We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

This was the promise of a new frontier open to those who crossed into it first. But just as the Wild West has today come under the rule of law, the Internet was soon targeted by law enforcement officials. Now, although we are mostly free to visit sites run by citizens of all nations, governments decide what we are allowed to see and, more important, to create. Motallebi’s arrest signaled the end of an era of political promise for bloggers in Iran and in other countries as well. It was one of the first signs that the Web was not detached from the politics of real life but intimately connected with it….

Thanks to DoGood Headquarters

We’d like to thank the organization DoGood Headquarters for their help promoting Digital Activism Decoded pro-bono on their browser network. They created some great original promotional designs for the campaign, including the image at left and the banner on our home page.

DoGood in an Ottawa-based company that has created a browser plug-in that replaces the ads you usually see when you surf the net with ads for causes and green initiatives. DoGood donates 50% of the profit from those clicks to charitable foundations and green movements. Learn more about their browser app and organization here:

From Our Book: Measuring Success in Digital Campaigns

NOTE: We’ve posted 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 month we’ll be posting more brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt is the first from the third section of the book, which addresses the effect and ultimate value of digital activism. This excerpt, by Dave Karpf of Rutgers University, opens the chapter on measuring success in digital campaigns with an illustration about the critical difference between tactical and strategic success.

The digital revolution has provided us with an expansive set of tools for pursuing activist campaigns. Never before have the powers of self-publishing in video, audio, or written format been so widely accessible to so many. Anyone with an Internet connection has a platform for getting the word out. But do these new tactics and platforms make our attempts at political activism any more successful than before? If a half million people sign an online petition to end poverty, reduce global warming emissions, or overthrow a repressive regime, what effect does that actually have? Digital activism boasts a wide array of tools, but in many ways they only make the measurement of success that much more difficult.

This chapter focuses on two different types of metrics used in digital activism: tactical and strategic. Tactical measurements count the number of signatures, visits, blog posts, etc. They provide indicators of how many individuals have taken some action related to your campaign. Strategic metrics, on the other hand, measure success. They require a clear theory of how you expect your tactics to make a difference, in turn clarifying which measures actually contribute to a win or a loss.

The difference between these two types of measurement dates to the analog era. I first became interested in the difference between them during a campus environmental rally at Oberlin College in Ohio. The organizers had spent months preparing and they managed to gather a large crowd of students to hear speakers, hold placards, and demonstrate their support for the protection of a West Coast forest. Tactically, the event was a great success, one that the group leaders were rightly proud of. But since the fate of the forest was to be decided by the California state government—2,349 miles away—any strategic measure of the event would have had to find it lacking. The students chanted loudly that day, but since Ohio is so far from California, not nearly loud enough to be heard by the state government! In the digital age, the Internet provides every one of us with a megaphone. But, as with those college students, whether the right people will hear and react to digital activism is a more complicated matter.

Successful activist campaigns have always come down to a set of people mobilizing the resources at their disposal to either affect the choices of powerful decision makers or to replace those actors with others more attuned to the beliefs and preferences of the people. To accomplish this goal, activists use the tools at their disposal to educate their fellow citizens and mobilize pressure tactics. But, online or offline, large or small, mainstream or radical, success in all forms of activism must be judged at the strategic, rather than the tactical, level. And, while the availability of online engagement platforms leads to a slew of tactical data, it can also make measurement of success all the more difficult. In the examples that follow, I will discuss some of the pitfalls embedded in easy-to-find tactical-level measures available online, as well as offer a few lessons on how to construct strategic metrics of success in the digital age.

The Question They Are Asking

by Mary Joyce

In many universities, technology conferences, and blogs there is now an active debate about the role of digital technologies in the global fight for human rights, democracy, and social justice. A few people are strongly positive, a few are unflinchingly negative, but most are cautiously optimistic. Still, the question is debated: Can the Internet fix politics? How does the Internet influences democratic norms and modes?

But what questions are they asking? What questions are being asked in the corporate PR firms? In the Interior Ministries of a dozen repressive nations? They are not calmly debating the case studies. They are not listening to a range of opinions. They are figuring out how to use these new technologies to their own advantage.

It is through this spur to action that the Russians are co-opting tech entrepreneurs to help them censor the net, that the Vietnamese are deploying malware to take down anti-government sites, that a certain unnamed corporation enlisted mommy bloggers against an environmental campaign in California to ban single-use plastic bags in supermarkets.

I thoroughly believe that greater study of digital activism is necessary so that we may understand its true mechanisms. But the purpose of this research and analysis is not academic; it is not to settle the current debate. The goal is to give the proponents of social justice and human rights a better understanding of the digital arsenal in order to further these ideals.

Activists around the world are experimenting with these new technologies; intellectuals in the field must commit their thoughts to action as well. The Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford is already doing this. Others should follow.

We should not limit ourselves to unwinnable debates of how digital technology is currently expanding or restricting human rights or democracy. We must ask – with great rigor and seriousness – how can we better use these tools to our advantage in pursuing our goals? These are the questions that our opponents are already asking.


From Our Book: Destructive Digital Activism

NOTE: We’ve posted 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 month we’ll be posting more brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt, by Steven Murdoch of the University of Cambridge, is from a chapter on how digital activism can be used for destructive as well as constructive purposes. The section below presents a new taxonomy on the five types of destructive activism. He also blogs regularly at Light Blue Touchpaper.

…In this chapter, destructive digital activism is divided into five categories: blocking access; destroying and defacing virtual property; organizing malicious activity; misusing information; and attacking critical infrastructure. In each of these forms of destructive activism, the inherent capacities of the Internet are manipulated to cause harm either to persons or property. In the case of blocking access, particularly the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, the protocol by which information is requested from a website is misused to overwhelm the response capacity of the site’s server and prevent the site from responding to legitimate requests—in effect, shutting down the site. In the case of destroying and defacing property, the server on which the website is stored is again the target of the attack, though in this case the server—which is little more than a specialized computer—is hacked in order to gain access to and vandalize the site’s code.

In the case of organizing malicious activities, the infrastructure of the Internet is used to allow cooperation when more conventional means, such as meeting in person, are inconvenient or impossible. Anonymous discussion boards and encryption software help activists (who are acting in the public interest) in repressive countries to evade government surveillance; they may also be used to protect activist groups acting against the public interest, such as fascist political parties, from being regulated by the government. These technologies are, as stated earlier, value neutral and protect users regardless of motive or action.

In the opposite scenario, activists can forcibly “out” their adversaries by exposing and disseminating their personal information on the Internet. Here, the same network in which anonymous communication software operates so effectively is used to make available personal information and even misinformation. Anonymous communication software can be deployed because of the “end to end” architecture of the Internet. Within this structure, intelligence lies in the end devices, which can be rapidly upgraded with new functionality without waiting for the network to upgrade, too. This dramatically increases the speed at which new technologies can be developed, but also means that end devices are more complex and thus more vulnerable to attack. Not surprisingly, the intelligent devices at the edge of the network can be compromised by the introduction of malicious software or by hacking into the system from a remote location—two techniques for causing damage to critical infrastructure.

Just as the digital activists discussed in the rest of this book have co-opted the infrastructure of the Internet to fight injustice and defend human rights, the activists in this chapter use the same infrastructure to orchestrate attacks on individuals, institutions, and even countries. Often using software perfected by criminals, they bend the Internet to their own more sinister goals.

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