Reading “The Net Delusion” has got me thinking about how we define successful digital activism and digital repression in authoritarian regimes and how traditional definitions of success favor authoritarians.
The easiest way to define a campaign, tactic, or movement as successful is by asking “did it achieve its stated goal?”. Campaigns aim to alter the status quo while authoritarians seek merely to maintain it. Put another way, digital activists only succeed if they create change, but authoritarians succeed so long as change is absent. For an authoritarian regime, success means that society stands still, whereas success for an activist is more the equivalent of running the Iron Man. As a result, the bar for success in digital activism campaigns is far higher than it is for the regimes they oppose.
An authoritarian regime that launches a successful social media surveillance initiative and maintains the status quo may be said to have succeeded in their strategic goal, but a digital activism campaign that aims to end corruption or topple a dictatorial regime is not called a success unless the regime falls. By this measure, Egyptian activists had failed up until the point they ousted Mubarak last week. Yet we know that the online networks they had built – both between organizers and among supporters – was crucial to their ability to mobilize. In addition, the Egyptian blogosphere was crucial in creating a shared sense of shared grievance that made mobilization possible when the time was right. They factors need be be counted as successes too.
Just as the advantage of digital repression and activism can be measured along a continuum, so should digital activism success. We need to stop thinking about the binary of success and start thinking of a continuum of progress and relative advantage. This type of framework will help us to better understand the how successful digital activism and repression are within a society, instead of waiting for one defining moment.