Complex and Contradictory: A New Way to Think of Digital Activism

The effect of digital technology on political contention is neither good nor bad, it is both. Yes, the Internet can help activists mobilize and re-frame public issues. It can also distract citizens and feed apathy. It can also help repressive governments watch and censor their citizens. The sooner we accept digital technology’s complex and contradictory effect on political power dynamics, the sooner we can move forward to answering more interesting questions about those effects. What contextual factors lead to these different outcomes? Why does one factor win out over others when all three are in play?

An article in the New York Times today shares interesting research by Navid Hassanpour, a political science graduate student at Yale. Navid’s research on the effect of cell phones black-outs during the Egyptian revolution revealed (through methodology not fully explained in the article) that decreased access to digital technology increased political engagement:

“The disruption of cellphone coverage and Internet on the 28th exacerbated the unrest in at least three major ways,” he writes. “It implicated many apolitical citizens unaware of or uninterested in the unrest; it forced more face-to-face communication, i.e., more physical presence in streets; and finally it effectively decentralized the rebellion on the 28th through new hybrid communication tactics, producing a quagmire much harder to control and repress than one massive gathering in Tahrir.”

These conclusions should not surprise anyone familiar with the revolution, as there was previous anecdotal evidence that the Internet shut-down forced people to seek information in the streets. However, demonstrating this phenomenon empirically is important.

However, the article’s author, the usually excellent Noam Cohen, makes an inaccurate conclusion from this evidence when he writes, “it is a conclusion that counters the widely held belief that the social media helped spur the protests.” Mr. Cohen still seems to be living in Dichotomy World: if turning off cell networks increased engagement, then their effect must previously have been exclusively distracting and apolitical.

It is far more likely that both conclusions are correct: digital technology facilitated both apathy and engagement. While the shut-down aimed to obstruct the work of activists already using the technology for resistance, and succeeded in that way by making the technology inaccessible, the countervailing effect of politicizing previously apolitical users overwhelmed the intended effect of stimying activists.

Figure 1: Effects of Digital Technology on Political Contention

We need to stop answering digital activism questions as if their answers are either/or dichotomies and start looking at them as continua where multiple dynamics have countervailing and contradictory effects. As the diagram above shows, digital technology can facilitate both apathy and political engagement, repression and empowerment. Even the distracting effects of the Internet, which I label “cyber-hedonism,” can run the range from the mildly repressive (consumption only / watching a pirated movie) to the mildly empowering (production of original content / lolcats). Some phenomena, like the nationalist hackers of China and Russia who attack opposition web sites in support of the government, fall in a confusing middle ground. Their actions empower citizens (themselves), but they are also indirect tools of government repression.

The purist arguments that digital technology has a uniquely positive or uniquely negative effect on political contention is becoming less and less viable. Understanding this phenomenon requires a willingness to deal with complexity. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” This is what the field of digital activism demands of us if we are to understand it.

image: Flickr/ekai

Social Media in New Orleans: The Rising Tide Conference

This past weekend I was a panelist at the sixth annual Rising Tide blogger conference here in my home town of New Orleans.  Video of the panel, on social media and social justice, is below.  I went to the conference as a spectator and ended up as a panelist because one of the scheduled panelists was waylaid by Hurricane Irene and I was asked to fill in.  Hopefully I did a good job on the fly. My opening remarks begin at 00:09:00.

Rising Tide 6 – Social Media, Social Justice from Jason Berry on Vimeo.

The Marriage of Scaled Hybridity and Uncle Sam

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

In my last post I discussed how the U.S. Government (USG) is funding civil society organizations (CSOs) abroad to help build their capacity to use new media in the pursuit of increased democracy and governance. Essentially, this initiative is based on the assumption that increased ability to engage in new media equals increased effectiveness in democracy promotion. However, without empirical evidence to test this assumption, it leaves new media development interventions open to criticism and failure. In this post I’ll outline why research focused on this small niche of USG funded organizations is important for more than just Washington bureaucrats.

Within the fields of both civil society and digital activism, one of the most debated topics is whether increased engagement in new media is in having a positive or negative influence on actors working towards increased democracy. On one hand, they represent invaluable tools for organizing and disseminating information – on the other they’re a window for repression and detached realities of progress. In short, it’s yet to be determined whether the ICT revolution is one of liberation technology or repression technology. A main reason this debate continues is the lack of research, particularly research along methodological lines of hybridity (a problem succinctly outlined in this post by Mary Joyce). Hybridity in this case refers to the identification of objects of analysis in which online and offline activity interact. This is a way to measure not only the digital footprint of activism, but also their real world implications. A key challenge of hybridity analysis is finding ways to scale research beyond qualitative case studies in a practical, cost-effective manner while still maintaining the richness of data required to measure offline activities.

With this challenge in mind, the small sub-set of CSOs receiving USG funding to support their democracy efforts in new media represent a unique sample from which to draw data from the broader spectrum of digital activists. Foremost, an organization receiving USG funds is generally bound to complete regular systematic monitoring of inputs, outputs, and outcomes coupled with at least one evaluation of population level impacts. A common yet disparaging theme of development project reporting is characterized by field staff writing lengthy reports only to be read once and then stuffed in a drawer never to see daylight again. The limited shelf life of these reports is understandable, they represent data specific to one project working in one country within a relatively narrow focus. A method for aggregating these individual reports and making them useful for cross-country comparison was exemplified by the Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a surge of billions of dollars to combat HIV/AIDS around the world initiated by President Bush and carried on by President Obama. PEPFAR instituted a rigorous format of reporting along standardized indicators as a requirement for any organization receiving its funds. The aggregate data from thousands of organizations across dozens of countries comes together in an annual report. This report allows PEPFAR to show demonstrable evidence of success to congress (thus ensuring continued funding), guides more effective programing, and adds a trove of data to the field of HIV/AIDS research.

A similar standardized reporting system initiated for CSOs receiving USG funding for new media promotion would have similar benefits, assisting in the discovery of conditions that allow the combination of new media and democracy promotion to flourish and where it’s destined to be fruitless or too risky an endeavor. A mandatory reporting system would also go a long way in solving one of the problems of scaled hybridity analysis, in that the collection of rich offline data falls not on the researcher traveling to each organization, but on trained staff within the CSO who are responsible for submitting reports on a regular basis.

A drawback to this method is that like all research, the usefulness of the data collected is dependent on the validity of the indicators and the quality of the measurements. In the field of digital activism, both of these areas have remained elusive from shared consensus. One possible starting point is the U.S Institute for Peace (USIP) report Blogs and Bullets , which outlines five levels of analysis for finding a comparable scale of measurement in regards to impact across organizations and countries. With considerable fleshing out it could serve as a useful framework to build standardized indicators that accurately capture hybridity.

Another distinct hurdle is that unlike success in battling HIV/AIDS, organizations working in democracy promotion may be wary to share a comprehensive record of their achievements, or even make public their acceptance of USG funds. Anonymity and limited public release of certain data are possible solutions, but caution would have to take precedence.

One more factor to consider is that standardized reporting across a sector is expensive for a development agency. It takes training, time and collaboration that require additional staff and funds from project budgets already stretched thin. PEPFAR can do it because it’s one of the largest development initiatives ever undertaken. USG funding to support democracy activists abroad in the use of new media is a relatively miniscule sliver of foreign aid, but as I wrote in my last post it has the potential to grow exponentially. But if this prediction proves true, it’s going to be critically important to have data that can answer the simple question: Is it a good idea? Developing a standardized hybridity analysis is beneficial not only for the USG, but also any international donor supporting democracy through new media. The results of such an analysis would help answer whether foreign funded democracy initiatives through new media support is a good idea, but also shed new light on the continuing cyber optimist – cyber pessimist debate.


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


Oslo Keynote: How to Use Social Media to Combat Extremism

Last summer Norway suffered a terror attack that struck at the heart of multiculturalism. Today I gave a keynote address at the annual conference of the Contact Committee for Immigrants and the Authorities (KIM) and decided to use that opportunity to discuss ways in which social media can be used to fight back against extremism and intolerance (slides below).  Social media can be used to create both narrow tribes living in echo chambers and inclusive communities that embrace difference.  It’s up to citizens to define the character of social media by challenging and exposing hateful ideologies.

Digital Media in Britain: A Boon and a Burden

Whether you agree with the rioters in London or not (I don’t, and I think it’s acolossal waste of time, a disruption of society, and unnecessarily destructive, but that’s just me… I also hated when my own beloved Red Sox fans ripped apart the Fenway area after the Sox won the ALCS in 2004), digital media played a definite role in both the mobilization of rioters, as well as the attempted suppression of violence.

The skinny

Mobilization of protesters, mostly teenage males, occurred through two main mediums:

  • Social networking sites, primarily Twitter and Facebook
  • Mobile communication, with a large portion of this being through Blackberry’s BBM service (beefed up text messaging)

The Boons

Depending on which side you’re supporting in the matter, social media was either a good thing or a bad thing for both.

If you’re the rioters, mobile technology and social platforms allowed for easy connectionto fellow rioters, fast flash mob organization, and a quick spread of sentimentto other parts of the country.

If you’re the police, in some cases these technologies offered you an easier way to find where riots were popping up, and, to some extent a trail to followwhile the sentiments spread.

The Burdens

If you’re the rioters, you’ve offered an easier way for police to trail you.

If you’re the police, unfortunately the speed that digital technology allows for connections to be made was too fast to followin most cases.

The Endgame

Not that there are actual winners, and not that digital technology was a necessary tool in the situation, but if I were to say which “side” was able to leverage social media fully, I’d go with the rioters. Despite the ability of the authorities to have some insight into actions and movements of the rioters, in many cases it was not soon enough to stop the spread of violence.

What Does This Mean

There are many things to consider when analyzing the role digital technologies play in activism/mobilization – number and type of connections, amount of publicly visible information, speed of information transfer– and these become increasingly important if we’re looking at a dual- or multi-sided situation.

Britain Seeks to ID Rioters as Iran IDed Protesters

Always nice to see when democracies learn a digital trick from autocracies.

Exhibit A:, a site of unknown ownership which aims to crowdsource the identification of British rioters and pass along the info to police.


Exhibit B:, a site set up in 2009 by The Information Center of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps which aimed to crowdsource the identification of pro-democracy demonstrators.

If there was ever an argument for the ethical neutrality of digital tools, I guess this is it. The meaning of a tool is defined by the use and affordances can serve to protect civil society (giving Zavilia the benefit of the doubt here) or target it.

How Do You Study a Moving Object?

This morning I was reading Digitize This Book!for my side project on digital epistemology when I came across this 2001 quote from a book byPeter Lunenfeld,a professor in theDesign|Media Artsdepartment atUCLA.

A critical theory of technological media will always be in inherent conflict with the practice of creating these very media. For if theory demands from its objects a certain stability, theory is itself free to break the tethers of its objects…. The pressures of the market and the innovations of the laboratory combine to make stability impossible within the practice of digital media, however. [emphasis added]

To “pressures of the market” and “innovation of the laboratory,” Lunenfeld could also add “political contention” as a force preventing stability in the practice of digital media. For example, at one time, digital activists really did have the upper hand on the political uses of digital technology, but repressive regimes are becoming savvier to these uses and such activities as organizing online – previously safer than organizing in the street – now also entail dangers of surveillance, interception, and persecution. The practice of digital media – this case the practice of the political use of digital media – is constantly changing, never stable.

This instability is one of the of the reason I find the study of digital activism so fascinating, the practice of digital activism is constantly evolving, constantly incorporating new tools, creating and refining tactics, reacting to opponents. Yet it is also a real problem for scholars: how do you study a moving object? Once we feel we understand something about digital activism – either because practices correspond to an existing theory or because we make up a new theory to explain those practices – those practices subsequently change, upsetting the theoretical apple cart. How is is possible to make truthful statements under these circumstances? Lunenfeld has an answer: the digital dialectic.

The digital dialectic offers a way to talk about computer media that is open to the sophisticated methodologies of theory without ignoring the nuts a bolts or, better yet, the bits and byte of their production. To repeat, the digital dialectic… grounds the insights of theory in the constraints of practice.[emphasis added]

By digital dialectic Lunenfeld means that digital theory and digital practice interrogate one another such that theory frames our understanding of practice and practice informs theory in a kind of feedback loop.

I like the idea of a digital dialectic because it stresses that both theory and practice must co-exist in order to understand digital phenomena, but I don’t think it resolves the problem of the instability of practice. Even a process of constant interrogation can fail at pinning down the truth. Practically speaking, I think our best bets are to constantly collect and analyze new data about practices of digital activism: start the tape early, never stop it, and continually analyze new results. This is an appealing methodology for the Global Digital Activism Data Set, although it is an expensive and exhausting one.

Second, I think we need to be honest about the short shelf life of digital activism knowledge. We need to be explicit about the time at which data was collected and not make statements about the present with old data. How old is old? I’d say data about digital activism practice is valid for about a year, definitely outdated in five, though I’d be interested in other opinions on that figure. The constant change of digital activism make it an equally fascinating and maddening subject for study, but with a little humility and a rigorous requirement for the most recent data, we may yet be able to understand it.



Correcting a Misguided Critique of Clicktivism

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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Micah White just came out with another “assault on clicktivism” article. This one is even more absurd than the last. (My previous response to White is here.)

I’ve never met Micah White. But he strikes me as the worst type of leftwing activist. He’s like one of those fifth-year-senior college socialists who *still* think the workers of the world are going to unite any day now. They choose tactics because they’re exhilarating and fun. They don’t listen to criticisms from allies. And then they announce that the lack of revolutionary fervor among fellow progressives is the true problem.

In this case, his theory of why the workers of the world haven’t thrown off their shackles is, literally, “it’s MoveOn’s fault!”

White is a senior editor at Adbusters. He has become convinced that digital activism, as practiced by MoveOn, PCCC, GetUp, DFA, Avaaz, and pretty much every other prominent netroots advocacy organization is “degrading” leftwing activism.

(…Yeah, I know what you’re think right now. “Wait, Adbusters is still being published?!?”)

In his latest missive, White complains that clicktivism has been “deployed by a dying American empire … to cripple the revolutionary potential of a whole generation.”

His problem with MoveOn isn’t that e-petition are too easy. His problem is that MoveOn makes use of “marketing culture.” Netroots groups like MoveOn use A/B testing to gather passive democratic feedback from the membership. Your decision to open a message and take an action tells a netroots organization something about the will of the membership. It also informs decisions about what actions to request and what message frames to employ.

Call me a sellout if you’d like, but that kinda sounds like a good thing. During my time on the Sierra Club Board, we often wished for that sort of membership feedback (hell, any sort of membership feedback). We designed processes – online and offline – for gathering such feedback. But they could be tremendously slow and sometimes costly. A/B testing isn’t perfect, but I just can’t muster a lot of anger at organizations that develop new tools for listening to their membership.

White also rails against MoveOn’s use of backchannel e-mail lists, writing:

“It is worth noting that past MoveOn employees communicate via a private email list and thereby accomplish one of their greatest deceits of all: using their organizations as mouthpieces to celebrate each other publicly without disclosing their back-room personal ties.”


No. It is not “worth noting” that past MoveOn employees have a listserv. That’s neither surprising nor controversial. Past Sierra Club Board members also have a listserv. So do a bunch of friends I made at a conference one time. There’s even a listserv for everyone who participated in a high school training I ran for the Sierra Student Coalition in 1998. Listservs are simple and easy. Networked professionals use listservs to maintain connections, particularly once formal work-ties have dissolved. EVERYONE knows that. It’s the opposite of “worth noting.” It’s common knowledge, and not the least bit deceitful.

The deepest pathology in White’s article comes in its second paragraph, where he writes, “If#OCCUPYWALLSTREET fails, it will be because we’ve blindly adopted “best practices” put forth by wealthy Californian techies turned reformist campaigners.”

#occupywallstreet is an action that Adbusters is planning for the fall. They’ve decided that 20,000 activists will descend on Wall Street and stay there until “their demand for real democracy is met.” (Seriously, what kind of theory-of-change is that? Sign this guy up for a New Organizing Institute training. The most basic one available.) White is already announcing, 6 weeks beforehand, that when this utterly fails, it’ll be the fault of MoveOn, Avaaz, Color of Change, and the PCCC.

Here’s the thing: just yesterday, 15,000 Rebuild the Dream supporters attended district meetings at congressional offices. The PCCC and DFA meanwhile are working round-the-clock on the Wisconsin recall elections. They’ve developed excellent campaign ads, fielded 3 dozen organizers, and have nationwide volunteers making GOTV calls through That’s real organizing. It’s powerful, and time-consuming, and substantive, and not-at-all-just-signing-epetitions. The “clicktivism” that White bemoans is being used to mobilize serious, sustained collective action, both online and offline.

Micah White should stop blaming the netroots for his organization’s irrelevance. His organization is irrelevant because it is apparently run by people who lack a single ounce of critical self-reflection. Frankly, I don’t think White has the organizing chops to get 20,000 to engage in mass civil disobedience. That’s tough work, and he appears to be more interested in writing flowery prose, bitching about actual organizing. That always bugged me when I was a full-time organizer. It bugs me even more now.

There are plenty of thoughtful critiques to be made of the political netroots. But this just isn’t one of them.

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