I decided to take notes while participating today in the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict‘s webinar, The Digital Duel: Resistance and Repression in an Online World. These comments are from Daryn Cambridge, Director for Knowledge & Digital Strategies at ICNC. I hope they are useful and I apologize for any errors in summarizing them.
- Digital technology helps activists define the narrative of a conflict. The value of digital technology for nonviolent activism is all about the story. Digital technology helps activists define the story’s elements (protagonists, antagonists, plot), decide on the medium (video, photos, text), and then distribute that story online.
- Mass media has taken story-telling power away from ordinary people, which is now dominated by corporate media conglomerates or government propaganda, depending on a society’s media landscape. New media changes this dynamic, giving activists the ability to publish, and shifts media attention from professionals to people.
- Gene Sharp, an expert on nonviolent civic action, has noted that power is not monolithic (from above and from limited actors) but pluralistic (from below and from multiple actors).
- Because the Internet supports the pluralistic power model by empowering individuals to critique and define social realities and coordinate action independently, the Internet challenges the existing power structure, which is why repressive governments are trying so hard to control the Internet.
- For case study analysis, Daryn suggests a “champions and critics” methodology, that acknowledges the increased affordances of digital technology but also the limitations and threats that result. For example, in the 2007 Saffron Revolution in Burma, digital technology allows the citizen journalists of Burma VJ to capture and share information on the protest and crackdown, but also acknowledges that the Burmese government was able to shut down the Internet and that digital technology was not so effective to allow the opposition to succeed.
- In bringing together nonviolent civic action theory and digital tools, Daryn presents a digital application of a “dilemma action,” an activist tactic in which the opponent loses whatever response he takes. Daryn takes the example of Ethan Zuckerman’s cute cat theory, that if activists post information on a popular and generally apolitical platform like Blogger the government will lose if they allow the content to remain accessible, but will also lose if they block the platform as other apolitical bloggers that use the platform (and their readers) will also see their sites censored and may become politicized through that experience.
- Conclusions: We must judge the the value of digital tools through the lens of its effect on power; a campaign’s individual context and goals must determine whether and how tools are used.
Analyses like those provided in this webinar are extremely important in integrating strategic theories of activism with knowledge of digital infrastructure. This as the next step in digital activism analysis, moving beyond the optimist/pessimist debate to acknowledge the truths in both viewpoints and to dig deeper into how these tools can be applied for maximum positive impact.