Foreign Assistance for Digital Activism: The Research Problem

By Travis Mayo, Program Analyst at USAID Bureau for Global Health

Note: The authors’ views expressed in this article do not reflect the views of the United States Agency for International Development or the United States Government

Like a large ship, government agencies rarely change course quickly. However, when a new path is set there is a heck of a lot of momentum moving behind it. When Secretary of State Hilary Clinton delivered a speech on internet freedom in January 2010, it was a public trumpet call for initiatives already taking place that provide US government funds to support organizations using new technologies for democracy and human rights. Both the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development have started populating their democracy and governance portfolios with projects that focus on assisting civil society organizations build their capacity in the utilization and promotion of ICT and new media (it’s taken for granted that any civil society organization receiving said strengthening is working towards goals that improve democracy or governance in their country e.g. accountability, transparency, advocacy, etc.). The underlying assumption fueling these projects is the same that pervades through Secretary Clinton’s speech: increased access to new technologies will empower people, allow for greater freedom of expression and access to information, and thus enable safer, happier, more democratic societies.

The Problem

In general, the field of international development has a less than stellar reputation for monitoring and evaluation (M&E). To combat the problem, the field is witnessing increasing calls for stronger accountability and a reallocation of funds to proven development initiatives that are both effective and efficient. Development sectors like health have it comparatively easy when it comes to M&E, indicators are widely accepted and measurement comes down to funding, access and accuracy. Measuring democracy and governance on the other hand is much more difficult, even the definition of key terms such as accountability, transparency, and freedom are far from universal. Zero in on projects aiming to strengthen civil society’s utilization of ICT and new media, and the problem of M&E is compounded. A civil society group could be three teenagers in garage who monitor blogs, or it could be a multi-million dollar advocacy group with an office in the capital and several hundred field staff throughout the country. The type of new activities taking place as a direct result of increased ICT/new media utilization could be direct or indirect, internal or external, online or offline, or a combination of all the above. Altogether, this means developing an M&E plan for just one project in a single country is tricky, and measuring the aggregate effect of these projects across all countries and organizations is a significant problem.

The need for data that can measure the effect increased new media and ICT usage is having on the ability for civil society organizations to advance their goals should be clear. International donors don’t give their money to support malaria prevention methods that are based on an assumption, nor should millions be poured into the strengthening of civil society’s new media and ICT capacity without really knowing what you can expect in return.

Foreign Assistance by Sector - Source: www.foreignasssistance.gov

Democracy and Governance Funding by Sector - Source: www.foreignassistance.gov

 

Working towards a Solution

Supporting civil society organizations ability to engage in digital activism is a new, and in terms of funding, relatively miniscule sector of foreign assistance. However, as internet and mobile phone penetration rates continue to rise and the innovative capabilities of new media are unraveled, the potential for increased funding is like a lit match over a barrel of gasoline. Moving forward, there is a distinct gap in available information to guide policy making. Research that can successfully develop indicators capable of measuring the ethereal combination of digital activism with on-the-ground results, as well as cogently comparing the resulting data across both countries and organizations, is sure to be a highly sought after commodity. At the very least, it would be nice to transition the theory from sensible assumption to proven method.

In my forthcoming posts I plan to explore methods of evaluating the effectiveness of digital media used by civil society actors.

Can Crowd-Sourced Discussions be Democratic?

Note: This post by Vivek Srinivasan, Program Manager for the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford, was originally published on Vivek’s Info.

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This is a response to a critique of wathiqah.com (a platform to discuss the future of Egypt’s constitution) in Meta-Activism Project. The article entitled “the revolution is not a branding opportunity” points out that the name of the commercial platform is visible prominently and takes an objection to it. She also discusses the limitations of such platforms to which I would like to respond.

The author points out that online discussions reach a very small proportion of the population, that they are not representative, and that they are easy to manipulate by well organised groups. I agree with the critique whole-heartedly, and I guess most people will do so as well. The question I wish to ask here is, given the problems, do such platforms have a democratic role at all?

If one were to examine any single dialogue process, I am sure we can find a thousand reasons to call it unrepresentative. Most active dialogues tend to involve small numbers of people. This can be said not just of a process, but also of any organisation, political party, social movement, or any forum. For that matter established electoral processes in the most advanced democracies too suffer from some of these limitations, in the strict sense of the word. For example, despite its formal representation of all US citizens, one could say that elected bodies could be hijacked by organized groups, and that the number of people who participate in electoral process is low, not to talk of effective participation.

To take a different example, social movements that have radically deepened democracy have been criticised for leaving out significant social groups. For example, the civil rights movement in the USA has been justly criticized for ignoring the voices of women; prominent women’s movements have been criticised for being unrepresentative of the voices of lower class women. The examples can go on and on.

My argument is that no single process, forum or organisation can perfectly satisfy all democratic principles. Democracy is an endless conversation that necessarily has to happen in multiple spaces. Wathiqah is one such forum that is mediating a few conversations. Its democratic role lies in the fact that it is engaging thousands of citizens in thinking about the constitution.

It enables a lot of individuals to voice their opinion about political issues. I believe that forming and articulating political positions is not an easy task, and that by making that process simple, the platform assists a lot of people to develop their political persona, which is critical for good citizenship.

Further, when a large group engages in a conversation, new ideas tend to emerge. The design of online discussion platforms help us identify some widely shared ideas. Such identification in itself is an important democratic act.

Enabling large numbers of people to engage with political issues, providing a space for people to voice their opinions, providing a forum for the exchange of ideas and the possibility of identifying a few widely shared ideas are the critical democratic functions that such a platform performs.

While these are democratic functions, we should acknowledge that online discussions are accessible only by a limited population, and that they remain vulnerable to hijacking by organized groups. Given these limitations, it would be a grievous mistake to interpret the “outcome” of the conversation as THE voice of a society.

If we understand the process with its limitations, and if online platforms are one among many other forums of conversation, then one could say that they serve an important democratic purpose. The critique at Meta Activism and others will ensure that we remember the partial nature of the conversation, and such reminders play an important democratic role as well. That said, we should not forget that partiality is the nature of any democratic conversation. Online platforms provide an avenue for large scale engagement and are especially good at reaching a lot of young people who are otherwise left out of political dialogue. I guess that is a goal that those of us committed to democracy can cherish.

On Confusing Memes with Movements

Note: This post by David Karpf, Assistant Professor in the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information, was originally published on shouting loudly.

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Allow me to be cranky for a minute.

Jeff Jarvis had some fun on twitter this weekend. After a day spent reading news about the debt limit, and a nice pinot noir with dinner, he tweeted,”Hey, Washington assholes, it’s our country, our economy, our money. Stop fucking with it.” Encouraged by some of his replies and retweets, he turned it into a hashtag, #fuckyouwashington. It didn’t *technically* reach the trending topics list — twitter management censors for language a bit — but it did pick up steam, with 10,000 or so people writing their own #fuckyouwashington message.

So far, so good. I scanned the tweets while standing in line at Trader Joe’s Saturday night. It was pretty entertaining. The debt ceiling negotiations are patently absurd. A routine congressional vote has been converted into a mighty standoff that might bring down the global economy, all because Republican legislators are more beholden to the most conservative elements of their base than they are to managing the damn country. Sure, blow off some steam on twitter. Riff on the theme a bit.

But, predictably, the next day Jarvis and others took to calling their little exercise a “movement.” That’s where I board the cranky-train. [important context: I’ve been in nonstop editing mode on my book manuscript. My snark-meter could probably use recalibration.]

If we label everything a social movement, then the term ceases to have any meaning.

The size of this “movement” bears some scrutiny. In a country of 300,000,000+, only a few million pay regular attention to politics. Let’s say (for some back-of-the-envelope math) that the politically-attentive class is approximately the same size as the audience of Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, and other political talk shows. That would be around 10 million, or ~3% of the population. Not very big. Many of those people are on twitter, of course. Let’s pretend they all are. And they’re mostly going to be linked to people with similar interests — other members of the politically-attentive class.

On Saturday, a member of the techno-journalistic elite with a strong following, offers up an engaging hashtag, linked to the news that has politically-attentive Americans concerned. About 10,000 use the hashtag, echoing his concern. That’s 0.1% of the politically-engaged class, and 0.003% of the national population. We’re supposed to call this big?

Importantly, their tweets don’t aggregate to much of anything. It’s over by Sunday. The “movement” received coverage on CBSOnline’s “What’s trending,” a blog devoted to… trending topics on twitter. That same blog has a story up right now about George Takei and planking. Which is also pretty entertaining. And also isn’t a social movement. Dave Weigel also mentioned it in a blog post for Slate, but he was writing about the debt ceiling anyway. I’m all for giving Weigel entertaining hooks, but how about some #realtalk while we’re at it?

Jarvis sees “cause for hope” in all of this. He writes that it demonstrates “the potential of a public armed with a Gutenberg press in every pocket, with its tools of publicness.”

Meh.

What Jeff Jarvis did Saturday night was a meme. It rippled and went viral a bit. It was kinda cool. But not every meme is a social movement.

Social movements are about building and exercising power. The end goal is to force powerful individuals to take some action that they wouldn’t take otherwise. Or the end goal is to replace recalcitrant individuals in power with people who are more in touch with the will of the people. In the process, social movements affect the balance of power, give people a sense of their own power, and result in concrete improvements in people’s lives. Social movements knit communities together and reinvigorate democracies. They inspire people to enter public life. They ain’t easy.

Since social movements are so attractive, and since its pretty much impossible to distinguish the early stages of a social movement from the early stages of an ephemeral and passing fad, there’s a strong tendency to label everything a social movement. And that degrades their meaning. (It’s like grade inflation. If everyone gets an A, then an A isn’t anything special. The difference is that it’s difficult to care much about grade inflation. Social movements can actually, y’know, change the world.) We should fight against that trend.

So I’m thankful to Jeff Jarvis for the meme this past Saturday. It was entertaining, and fun to read. It’s nice to hear that there are thousands of people out in twitterland who also find the debt ceiling negotiations absurd.

But don’t call it a movement. Please. There isn’t a second or third act to this particular play. It was a meme, it went briefly viral among people who already care about this sort of thing, and it left few traces behind. The debt ceiling fight continued, oblivious to the twittering masses. Social movements are something greater than that. They’re extended, and collective, and costly, and sadly still far too rare. If social media tools are influencing social movements (Hint: they are.), we’ll need to be clearer in our language before we can make much headway in figuring out how.

Cranky session over. Back to my edits.

 

Induction and Deduction in Digital Activism Research

Today I watched The Name of the Rose, Β a film featuring a medieval Sherlock Holmes named William of Baskerville (just in case the Holmes connection was not otherwise evident). It got me thinking about inductive and deductive reasoning.

In inductive reasoning we move from the aggregation of discrete observations to create a theory that explains them. In deductive reasoning we use a relevant theory to explain a discrete observation. As the diagram above indicates, the two are connected. We only have relevant theories because of previous inductive reasoning which was used to arrive at them.

Baskerville and Holmes are both deductive thinkers. They take their theoretic knowledge of physics and human behavior and apply it to individual observations to elucidate them. For example, Baskerville knows that stones role down hills according the qualities of the ground. So when he finds a body at the bottom of a hill he deduces that it might have rolled from further up, rather than falling direct to the bottom point (there are quite a few dead bodies in the film). Likewise, because he knows that poison can kill when ingested, when monks die with evidence of ink on their tongues, he deduces that the ink is poisoned (oops, hope that wasn’t a spoiler).

How does this connect to digital activism? We are in an interesting point in this field in that we have a wide range of theory from sociology, political science, network science, and applied sub-domains like social movement theory that can be applied to the use of digital technology by activists.

The only problem is that the pre-digital evidence on which these theories are built is different from the digital context to which they are now applied. This is not a problem if the context is fundamentally the same, and digital changes are only cosmetic. However, if the presence of digital technology alters the causal mechanism which gives the theory its explanatory power, then the theory is invalid when applied to the new context.

Whence comes the question: does the presence of digital technology make enough of a difference in the function of activism that old theories don’t apply? If this were true, it would incapacitate deductive reasoning in this field because pre-digital theory could not be applied to digital instances.

Fortunately, it’s not the case that previous theories are completely invalid. Anecdotal evidence shows that pre-digital theories such as information cascades and preferential attachment do have explanatory value when applied to digital phenomena. This is both good in that we have a body of knowledge to help us understand the phenomena of digital activism and bad in that we don’t know which theories apply and which don’t.

In one example of pre-digital theory challenged by observation of digital phenomenon, research by Alix Dunn of The Engine Room has shown that decision-making in social movements is possible without leaders because social media platforms like Facebook allow flat groups to make decisions collectively with the most engaged members playing the role of facilitator and influencer while many members of the group shape decisions collaboratively. This flies in the face of classical theories of political organizing, which require central leadership for strategic success.

This puts us in a dangerous epistemological position because if we apply pre-digital theories to digital contexts in which they are invalid we are left with inaccurate conclusions. We are in a minefield of sorts. We don’t know enough about the field to know where to step, yet we need to step through the field in order to know it.

One path through the minefield is to test pre-digital theories in individual contexts where their explanatory power can be verified. For example, scholar Zeynep Tufekci has shown that preferential attachment models explain the emergence of leader/influencers on Twitter during the Egyptan revolution. This is empirically valid, but it is slow moving. Just because a theory applies to one scenario does not mean it will apply to another which seems similar but which is actually causally different.

It is for this reason that I am a strong proponent of inductive reasoning in the field of digital activism. We need to start by observing a wide array of digital activism instances and analyzing that data empirically with as open a mind as possible. From this analysis we may find that certain pre-digital theories continue to hold explanatory value. We will likely also find that certain pre-digital theories no longer do. Some old theories will be tweaked, some will be discarded, and new theory will be made.

This is the empirical process of knowledge creation and it is the logic behind the Global Digital Activism Data Set, a set of over a thousand cases from over a hundred countries going back thirty years. We are currently in the process of coding these cases and then, by comparison, we hope to isolate causal factors. We are making our data open to anyone who wants to use it in the hopes of encouraging other researchers to analyze large and phenomenologically diverse digital activism data sets. We are also eager to know of others who are undertaking similar projects. If you are, please let us know.

image: Flickr/Β EDUARDO URDANGARAY

Google+ Hangouts for Virtual Organizations

I don’t usually write about the inner workings of the Meta-Activism Project, but our meeting today on Google+ Hangouts was a bit of a revelation.

We are a virtual organization, which means that we have no office and no two team members are even based in the same city. We rely heavily on email, GChat, and Skype to coordinate and on Google Docs to co-create content. However, none of these tools simulates presence.

I am a firm believer in the value of in-person contact to build trust and affinity. There are subconscious cues that we absorb when we see how someone speaks and gestures that cannot be conveyed through text or voice alone.

In real life there is also the opportunity for non-task interactions, like telling a joke or giving a compliment, that are less likely to happen on an email thread or conference call because of the perception of time scarcity: task-oriented emails and calls enforce a norm of productivity where casual conversation acts only as a time-filler while waiting for others to join a call.

Yet talking about work is a very narrow way to perceive personality and personality is important in a volunteer project where a lot of the motivation to engage is based on whether you like your collaborators. On a virtual volunteer project, any opportunity to build affinity through simulated presence is valuable.

For this reason, I am really excited about the free video-conference feature of Google+: the Hangout (see above). In some ways it is a technology ahead of its time. My computer’s processor was taxed by the four video streams and our Internet bandwidth was not really up to the task either. Still, it was as close to virtual presence as I’ve ever gotten, and as the director of a virtual organization that makes me very happy because I know how important that is.

 

The Revolution is Not a Branding Opportunity

Ever since I learned of its existence, I’ve been irked by Wathiqah.com, a website created by the Stanford-based project Cloud to Street, the online marketing app makers at IdeaScale, volunteer programmers, and potential presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei. The goal of the site is “to crowdsource discussion of the fundamental human rights that should be protected in the drafting of Egypt’s new, democratic constitution.”

The Revolution is not a Branding Opportunity

How could I not like this? It’s like hating a puppy. It sounds so great: American techies, Egyptian freedom fighters, a Nobel laureate, human rights. But upon closer inspection I began to realize what about the project bothered me. First off: ego. No, not the ego of the creators. In my interactions with them, the folks at Cloud to Street have been reflective, thoughtful, and patient in fielding my many critical emails.

Yet the site still screams “look at me!” The problem is, it’s the wrong “me.” Though ElBaradei did write a message on the About page, I could not find his name once on the homepage. You know whose name and logo appear everywhere, though? IdeaScale. Yes, they were partnering with a Nobel laureate and they decided that the most important name to plaster across the site was their own.

Below is a screenshot of the homepage from the most egregious angle, with 5 mentions of IdeaScale, either in text or logo form.

Yes, the people at IdeaScale were very kind to donate their software and man-hours to help the Egyptian people… and they want you to know it. It’s not evil or anything, it’s just tacky. You shouldn’t get egotistical about someone else’s revolution. If you want to help, then do so without ego, do it with humility. Their revolution is not your branding opportunity.

This is Not How You Write a Constitution

What else? Well, let’s talk about the platform itself. Here’s how it works:

The site draws readers directly to draft human rights principles drafted by some o[sic] the most prominent Egyptian experts on the subject. But it allows them to click on any principle and either vote on it or leave their own comment. Over time, as the community of users builds, each principle will feature a string of conversations for and against, with votes driving principles up or down.

What’s wrong with this? Nothing horrible, it’s innocent enough. But there’s also not much right with it if you are interested in engaging the Egyptian people in a meaningful discussion of the human rights that should be in their constitution.

First of all, most of the “Egyptian people” are not online. The most recent figures I have indicate that about 1 in 3 Egyptians is an Internet user. Meaning that most aren’t – by a long shot. If I was asked to design a project to engage the Egyptian people in this human rights discussion, I would have it be offline, maybe meetup style with the help of SMS, with local NGO leaders moderating the conversations to strengthen the connections between citizens and local civil society actors. Yes, there is a role for technology, but it would need to be context-appropriate.

Here’s another way to think about it. The penetration rate of smart phones among US adults is about the same as the Internet penetration rate in Egypt – 33%. Now let’s imagine that when President Obama set up his questions tool (more on that later) during his transition in 2008 he made it accessible only as a smartphone app. There would have been an uproar. They’d say he was catering to elites, ignoring the average citizen, dangerously out-of-touch. Yet somehow this scenario is good enough for Egypt? It’s techno-fetishism over context. It’s willfully ignorant. And it’s a little insulting.

Let’s go back to the time that we tried a similar tool in the US. It was called Open for Questions (image left), and it was a tool launched during the presidential transition in 2008 to let citizens submit and vote upon questions for the incoming President. It was meant to be a super-democratic, super-transparent way for citizens to have some say in the President’s agenda.

Unfortunately it was one of Obama’s few technology debacles. Marijuana legalization activists got wind of the site and gamed it, voting up their own questions. Though Obama did answer one of their questions at the subsequent townhall event, the general feeling was that the experiment was an easily-gamed failure.

Yet it wasn’t really a software problem that could be programmed aware. You just don’t make public policy through a web site. It’s chaotic. It’s game-able. It’s unrepresentative. It over-simplifies. This format didn’t work as a way of selecting questions for a simple townhall meeting. How could it be appropriate to develop ideas for a national constitution?

Yet there was something Open for Questions did right. They had a clear value proposition for users, a plan for how user input would have an impact on national politics. That proposition was: “if you submit a question and your fellow citizens vote it up it may be answered by the President of the United States.”

What is the value proposition of Wathiqah.com? Will ElBaredei use the results of the input in his campaign platform? Will the authors of the Constitution refer to it? I couldn’t find any evidence of this. And that’s where the “meaningful” of meaningful discussion of constitutionally-protected human rights comes in. If there’s no clear value proposition, there’s no meaning. It’s just a nice discussion. And the Egyptian people deserve better than that.

Good Enough… Isn’t

What might the responses to this critique be? “We were under time pressure.” “We did the best we could with scarce resources.” “It’s better than nothing.” Actually, I hope that those would not be the arguments, because they are arrogant and insulting. When you’re talking about the history of a country, about democracy and freedom – especially if it’s someone else’s democracy and freedom – then “good enough” and “better than nothing” are fairly week defenses. Any help should not be “good enough”, it should be the absolute best that each person is capable of, done with the utmost humility and care.

The Egyptian people have proven time and again that they are leading digital activism innovation, that they are heroic stewards of their own revolution and their own freedom. We in the West need to learn that there is not always a role for us and if our help is needed we must act with humility and in subordinate roles. It doesn’t matter if technology efforts like Wathiqah make us in the West feel good or helpful or part of a moment in history. When the creation of these projects draws attention and potential resources away from home-grown efforts, when it causes fragmentation, we need to have the humility to step back. Because, in the end, it’s not about us.

Rosenberg Misunderstands the Egyptian Revolution

If there is one piece of discourse I would love to retire from the public sphere, it is the “There is no such thing as a Facebook revolution” column. Internet skeptics get more mileage out of this straw man argument than Honda Civic owners get out of their cars. The latest entry is the New York Times‘ Tina Rosenberg, who argues against no one in particular that Egypt’s revolution depended not on Facebook but on careful organizing of the on-the-ground protests themselves. She even closes by basically borrowing Malcolm Gladwell’s analogy to the civil rights movement:

“What made Tahrir Square successful, in other words, were the same factors that made the Montgomery bus boycott successful 55 years ago: careful strategy, meticulous planning, strict nonviolence, unity.”

What I would love is for Tina Rosenberg to find someone who studies digital media and thinks that street tactics were unimportant in the Egyptian revolution. Continue reading

Quantity vs. Quality: The Publish then Filter Model of Egyptian Governance Initiatives

[cross-posted from The Engine Room]

The cracking open of political spaces in Egypt in the wake of the 2011 uprising in Egypt, has led to a political landscape marked by a “publish, then filter” model.

The issue now isn’t whether an activist has launched the right new party, new initiative, new archive, new campaign, or new movement. The issue now is filtering through all of the initiatives, identifying those that are being most effectively managed, and trimming away the fat. The threat now is the excessive splintering of movements that will result in a lack of traction and momentum, effectively dividing the energies of Egyptians.

This phase of initiative development follows the media model of the information cascade described by Clay Shirky – that of publish-then-filter. It is easy to name an initiative, define goals, design a logo, and launch a website or Facebook page. Because of this low barrier of entry, there is a plethora of initiatives, many of which are strikingly similar, and most of which are well-intentioned and in line with the aims of the January 25th uprising.

Now the filtering process must begin. To prevent a division of energy and expertise that undermines all initiatives, Egyptians will have to choose — and quickly — which horses to bet on. If the filtering and focus doesn’t happen soon, the revolution will not effectively press for dramatic shifts in political spaces. In that case, the dominant forces and existing path dependencies will steam roll the responsive, liberal movements that may have promise, focus, and solid goals, but ultimately too few followers to generate lasting change.

Digital Activism Through The Ages: Continuing the Flashback

Following my previouspost, Digital Activism: A Look Back,on the history of evolution of digital activism thought, this post will continue to reflect on some scholarly works that highlight interesting cases of early digital activism that used the Internet to transform local organizing into global movements, a trend that grows and is more widely acknowledged today.

Information overload is consuming most of the rational idea spaces these days, with every blogger expressing an opinion and a distorted understanding of citizen journalism. However, the increase in “noise” also means that there is more attention to a wider variety of issues than was the case in earlier years. There is a continued importance devoted to offline action in international media. However, online action has begun to demand a significant amount of coverage as well. Government interventions and restrictions on internet freedom are mainstream news items today. However, it is interesting to note the precursors that have laid this road to mainstream showcase of online activism.

The ICBL and transnational activism

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) is one of the earliest, most effective digital activism campaigns. (Source: icbl.org)

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines(ICBL) that I referred to in my previous post has used the internet as the dominant mode of communication since 1996. A seamless integration of online and offline action, this campaign also took online lobbying to the next level, interacting with governments and policymakers through e-mails. This was also one of the first campaigns to use the internet to move beyond geographic borders, coordinating smaller dedicated movements across countries to work for the common campaign goal. Not only did the internet facilitate better organization across countries, but it also helped enable the treaty’s quick adoption. In her 2001 paper, Activism, Hacktivism, and Cyberterrorism: The Internet as a Tool for Influencing Foreign Policy, Dorothy E. Denning details the ICBL facts mentioned here, also discussing the usage of encryption as a method to circumvent government intervention, even in the late 1990’s (See here).

Firsthand Accounts and real-time reporters

University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Seth F. Kreimer recounts his own experiences during the demonstrations in Philadelphia against the Republican National Convention, during the summer of 2000. While television stations had occasional coverage of the protests, Kreimer says his access to information was through a website established by theprotestersthat provided images and real-time reports of the confrontations between the protestors and police(See here).

He also prudently points out the potential of the web to establish “two-way linkages with potential sympathizers” – a fact that was overlooked by Gladwell when he made his argument against the tweeting of revolutions. With the advent of social media, the bidirectional potential has only increased from the days of e-mails, blogs and chat rooms. This is not to say that linkages (strong or weak) to exchange expertise, information or resources are sufficient to create impact, but they are certainly essential.

The Zapatistas movement was supported by the La Neta computer network. (Source: http://notmytribe.com)

Discussions of protest networks are not quite complete without the ubiquitous Zapatistas group. In their 2005 book Digital Formations: IT and New Architectures in the Global Realm, Robert Latham and Saskia Sassen refer to the La Neta computer network, a civil society network, as a significant player in globalizing the Zapatistas movement. This network helped bypass the state’s restrictions in Mexico, and Latham and Sassen rightly observe that a local movement made this network into a transnational information hub.

Contemporary relevance of flashbacks

Lessons learned from these cases are just as relevant and significant to current scenarios as they were earlier. Technology continues to advance and become more adaptable to contemporary challenges. While the Zapatistas had a La Neta, there are tools today (such as this) to protect photographers in the thick of on-field protest actions. A look back at digital activism of any decade is indicative of the consistent thread of adaptability that is synonymous with this field. There is not much we cannot circumvent, hacktivize or digitize. After all, innovation is the lifeblood of this genre of activists.

@nikisrinivasan

The Untold Story of RNN

Last week I had the privilege to interview Abdullah Al-Fakharany, a Cairo-based citizen journalist who helps run something called Rassd News Network (RNN). Rassd is an Egyptian Arabic acronym for Raqib (observe), Sower (photograph), Dowin (write). RNN, as it is known in Egypt and across the Arab world, began as a joint voluntary effort in Cairo before the November 2010 parliamentary elections, which were expected to be (and in fact were) brazenly rigged. Fakharany and his friends built, through Facebook, a network of about 100 volunteer journalists across Egypt, who would upload videos and write short news stories that fit into Facebook’s status update bar. There was no television station, no real hierarchy, no long news stories. It was news reporting for the Twitter age. Al-Fakharany told me that their big break came during the Tunisian uprising, when RNN was the first to break the news of Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abadine Ben Ali’s departure. As Al-Fakharany recounts it:

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