Home People Ethan Zuckerman on the Big Picture of Digital Activism

The field of digital activism is too often the victim of tunnel vision. People start with case studies and news stories and try to understand outward, but the explanatory light cast by one digital activism case on another is fairly dim: If we really understand what happened in post-election Tehran in 2009, that doesn’t mean that we will understand what happened in Sidi Bouzid in 2010. Likewise, if we really understand what happened in Cairo in 2011 (and a lot of academics and journalists are looking into that question now), that does not mean we will understand what happens in Riyadh in 2012 or in Beijing in 2015.

What we need is more people that are thinking in big-picture terms, asking challenging questions and then going to the cases to answer those questions. We need to ask broad questions and then search the case studies for evidence, not work in the opposite direction, asking narrow question about the mechanics of the last digital activism case. Ultimately, we need to answer the question, “what is the effect of social media on political change?” not “how was Facebook used in the Egyptian Revolution?”. Because cases are so different fr0m one another (Iran ’09 vs. Tunisia ’10 vs. Syria ’11, for example), understanding each case in turn is not additive. We need to think bigger.

Ethan Zuckerman, the new Director of the Center Civic Media at MIT and a close colleague of mine, has clearly been thinking about the big picture. While most of the above video, from last month’s Chicago Humanities Festival, hits on familiar themes – case studies of social media use in Tunisia, Kenya, and China, forms of censorship and surveillance, political DDoS attacks, the latent value of citizen journalists, the value of apolitical platforms like YouTube and Facebook for political action, the problem with the fact that those “public” spaces are actually privately owned – he also hits on a lot of some big picture ideas. It’s a long video, and as such likely to be watched by few people, so I’ll curate it a bit. Here are the big ideas:

  • The 2011 revolutions (Arab Spring, European acampadas, US Occupy movement) in historical context: “…are we seeing a new world order? I would actually argue that what we are seeing is much more complicated than what happened in 1989. In 1989, as we had the collapse of communism, there was at least a system out there that people said, ‘well, why don’t we try that instead?’. ‘We’ll try free markets and a loose welfare state. It seems to work okay for the US.’ And now that doesn’t seem to work either. And so we’re literally hitting a point where no knows what’s next.” (00:02:40)
  • Asking the big question: “To what extent did digital media matter in the Arab Spring and, beyond that, to what extent could digital media matter for social change?” He doesn’t answer this question, but it’s important that we start asking these questions, and asking them in public – not just the questions we can answer now, but the questions we eventually need to answer, the questions we need to focus on as digital activism scholars, even though they are harder than the narrow questions. (00:02:53)

  • The second important big idea that he raises (see above screenshot of his slide) is to push back against both the cyber-optimist and cyber-pessimist views expounded the the top intellectual proponents of each field. He challenges Gladwell’s position that real activism means high-risk, which can only be offline, because it can only be motivated by our strong tie relationships, which can only form offline. Ethan points out that 1) many people now for strong ties online, 2) social movements likely rely on weak ties too, because you can’t have a successful protest with just you and your mom, and 3) people using online media may also be taking offline risk (00:04:00). In other words, Gladwell creates false dichotomies of risky, effective, strong-tie, offline activism and non-risky, ineffective, weak-tie, online activism that are actually much more complicated and intertwined.
  • Ethan also challenges that cyber-optimist perspective of Clay Shirky, who is best-known for his book on how digital media allows for ridiculously-easy group formation. Ethan points out that the key moment in the building of the street protest in Egypt was when the Egyptian government turned off the Internet and people were forced to go to Tahrir Square in order to learn what was going on and to participate. This observation, which we can call the “kill-switch paradox,” (turning off the Internet increased, not decreased mobilization), needs to be addressed. There is clearly not a 1-to-1 correlation between the digital connectivity of politically engaged people and the likelihood that those people will be mobilized.
  • A challenge to cyber-hedonism (idea that because web is mostly used for frivolous entertainment it cannot have meaningful effect on politics): “… when you build something that can be used by a whole lot of people, some small sub-set of those people are activists, and they’ll find a way to use that tool for change” (00:22:00). This is a big deal because it acknowledges that activism and hedonism are not mutually exclusive uses of the web. Most of the web can be used for cute cat pictures and porn and pirated moved, but the small amount of online activity dedicated to politics can still have big effects.

I look forward to more people asking these big questions and thinking about digital activism in terms of trends across space and time and not from the relatively narrow perspective of individual case studies.

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