This is an interview I did with Julia Kennedy at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in mid-July. A podcast of the interview is available here.
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JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: How has digital activism really changed over its time in use? I remember the Howard Dean campaign and hearing “digital activism” first bandied around. How has it really morphed over the time you’ve been looking at it?
MARY JOYCE: You can define it in terms of the evolution of tools being used. It started off with the first version of the Internet in the 1970s when it was actually a research tool that was owned by the U.S. government, and some scientists would discuss political matters through the kind of pre-email system that they had on that network. Then probably most people became aware of it in the early part of this century when you had the beginning of social media, and you had things like Meetup and blogs. Before that you had websites.
Another way to look at its evolution is as an internationalization. The penetration of digital technology, particularly cell phones, has increased around the world, and so has the amount of digital activism.
JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: And where are you seeing it? A lot of people, especially looking at your background, think of political campaigns. But how else is digital activism being employed?
MARY JOYCE: Anywhere people see injustice occurring. Usually this has to do with some kind of imbalance of power that doesn’t have an institutional remedy. Activism, at least as I think of it, is outside of institutions and you could even argue is a political campaign activism.
You see all kinds of “targets” in the language of advocacy. If businesses are taking actions that are perceived as being unfair, either to workers or to the consumer, they could become the target of a digital activism campaign, or even just other citizens. For example, in a public health campaign like condom use, you know then the target is other citizens.
JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Does the employment of digital tools differ depending on the target, as you put it? Do you have to modify what you’re using if you’re targeting another citizen versus the government versus a corporation?
MARY JOYCE: Ideally, you want to choose a tool that has both the access of the activist and the attention of the target. For example, in many countries, everyone watches the nightly news. But in many countries, either because it is controlled by conservative political or business interests, the news won’t cover certain things, particularly human rights issues. You have the attention of your target, but the activist does not have access to that.
In digital activism, the more common problem is that activists have access to social media. As long as you have an Internet connection all of it is free, but the target is not watching. If you have a great Facebook or blog campaign but your target isn’t paying attention to social media, then it is not going to work.
Unfortunately, activists often make choices based on what they are familiar with rather than from the perspective of the target. A lot of young people are on Facebook and have some kind of issue they care about. They then join a Facebook group, but that is not strategically very effective based upon the goal.
JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: This gets to something that you’ve been talking a lot about in Digital Activism Decoded and other things I’ve read where you’ve appeared, which is this idea of tool versus strategy. Why is it so important to have a strategy rather than trying to use every single tool that’s out there?
MARY JOYCE: There is a finite amount of time and resources for anyone, even a corporation or a government. You can’t use everything, but, more importantly, you can’t succeed without strategy.
When we started seeing digital technology, and even now in the way it is portrayed in the media, there was this idea of the magic bullet of a particular tool—Dean and Meetup; Iran and Twitter. Of course, those are contradicted, but that’s the narrative in the public consciousness. Tools are actually not even secondary but are tertiary in considering a strategy for a campaign.
When I do trainings, I talk about audience, action, message, and media. So choosing the media is actually the last choice. But this is, for various reasons, not well known.
JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Why do you think that people haven’t gotten that overall strategy?
MARY JOYCE: We receive a lot of education, particularly in developed economies, about products. Twitter is a product, the iPhone is a product. People are not as educated about noninstitutional change-making.
We see social change through the lens that has been given to us, so we tend to focus on these tool-based and consumer-based perspectives. We haven’t been given strategies, and often we don’t even know that we lack them. Read more…