Beyond Cyber-Optimism and Cyber-Pessimism

Note: A version of this article was published last week by the Indian magazine Pragati.

Both cyber-optimism and cyber-pessimism elide a more complex reality that combines elements of both positions. (Image: Flickr/Katie Tegtmeyer)

When citizens use digital hardware and software to bring about social and political change, it is called digital activism. But is this new type of activism more or less effective than the analog activism that preceded it?  Without empirical evidence, one is likely to answer this question based on one’s own temperament. A pessimist is likely to be a cyber-pessimist; an optimist is likely to be a cyber-optimist. When anecdotal evidence is brought to bear, these categories tend to persist. Patrick Meier, Director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute, calls the debate between cyber-optimists and cyber-pessimists “anecdotal ping-pong.” An optimist is likely to reference examples of digital success, like the Arab Spring in Egypt or the fight against SOPA/PIPA. Pessimists note the failed 2009 uprising in Iran or instances of so-called ‘slacktivism’, like KONY 2012, a campaign centering around a massively popular video, but which had little to no effect on its target, the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony.

Moreover, both terms can be used  to challenge credibility.  An argument branded with the term “cyber-optimist” or “cyber-pessimist” is also branded with the charge of intellectual bias.  The opinions of those who see a more positive effect of digital technology on activism are branded “utopian” “fools.”  Those who refuse to see any good in digital activism are called “cyberrejectionist.”  So, while some people do have different worldviews on the effect of digital activism, these terms are not only descriptive, they are also used as ammunition to discredit an intellectual foe.   The divisive use of these terms distracts attention from the very real questions about the effect of digital technology on activism.

Some scholars, however, are getting beyond the hype.  In their 2011 book, Digitally Enabled Social Change, Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport proposed two ways of looking at the effect of digital technology on activism: scale change and model change. In a scale change, activists carry out the same activities as in the analog era, but more quickly, at larger scale, and at lower cost. An excellent example of this type of change is the e-petition. It collects signatures like a paper petition, but at larger scale, because it can be signed by anyone at any time, and at low cost, because is can be started and distributed for free. Scale change can be dramatic. When the killer of a young African-American boy was allowed to walk free in 2012, a e-petition demanding justice collected two million signatures in two weeks. Prosecution of Trayvon Martin’s killer was subsequently undertaken by the state. Yet other e-petitions languish online with few signatures or simply fail to influence their targets.

Model change supposes an effect that is qualitative rather than quantitative. The theory proposes that digital activism does not mean just more and cheaper activism, but a different kind of activism. But how is digital activism different than analog activism? Activism used to be organised by formal organisations, such as unions and advocacy organisations. Now it need not be. Neither the Arab Spring, nor the Occupy Movement, nor the 15M protests in Spain had formal centralised leaders. The efficiencies provided by social media allowed participants to organise themselves. In studying patterns of Twitter followership during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, scholar Zeynep Tufekci pointed at new ways in which citizens grant influence to individuals by choosing to follow them on Twitter. Highly interactive leader selection, also used by the Pirate Party in Germany, is more responsive to popular opinion than analog forms of leadership structure. In other instances of activism, like the anti-Putin rallies that occurred before Russia’s 2012 election, action is facilitated rather than led. For one dramatic protest, in which protesters lined the Moscow ring road, participants signed up on a specially designed website that later vanished.

Yet digital technology can be harmful as well as helpful to activists, particularly in repressive regimes. In his 2011 book, The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov proposed an authoritarian trinity of digital technology: censorship, surveillance, and propaganda. While some governments, particularly in the Middle East, prefer to cut off unwanted political discussion and organisation, others prefer to watch it unfold to capture the perpetrators. In March of this year, the Government of Bangladesh began tracking bloggers and Facebook users in order to prosecute those making statements critical of Islam. Some more confident Governments, like Russia, not only block dissent and punish dissenters, but also step into the fray, making their own online arguments for the status quo using the full resources of the state.

Even in democracies, some propose that digital technology is bad for activism. In a famous 2011 article in The New Yorker, “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” the journalist and cultural commentator Malcolm Gladwell argued that the strong ties of offline relationships are significantly more effective than the weak-tie relationships of near-strangers who collaborate online. Referencing the Civil Rights Movement for racial equality in the United States, Gladwell mocks cyber-optimists, whom he believes would argue that the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. “would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail.” In Gladwell’s unnecessarily contemptuous analysis, digital activism is a poor substitute for the forms of activism that preceded it.

Yet many cases of digital activism resist clear categorization. They are neither successes nor failures, but fall in some middle ground. Was the Occupy Movement a success because of the hundreds of global mobilisations that occurred in the fall of 2012, without funding or central leadership, or is it a failure because those mobilisations had little effect on the systems of global capitalism that activists were protesting? Is China an example of an authoritarian state successfully admitting mass economic connectivity without any political effect or is even China losing political control of its internet as opinions, rumours, and satire spread through a rapidly expanding system of weibo microblogs?

Reality is more complicated than either cyber-optimism or cyber-pessimism. Technologies like Twitter, that allow coordination without formal leadership, also allow leaders to emerge, as happened in Egypt in 2011. Great successes of mobilisation may fail to achieve concrete change, as is the case of Occupy thus far. Even an old tactic, like a petition, can become the focal point of an innovative and highly digital campaign, like the campaign to demand justice for Trayvon Martin.

Cyber-optimism and cyber-pessimism elide and ignore these subtle distinctions in order to score rhetorical points. These arguments are possible because both cyber-optimist and cyber-pessimism are prospective positions: they seek to make claims about the future. It is easy to say that the future will be much better or much worse than the present. But the present is always more complicated. Digital technology does not have uniquely positive or negative effects on activism. Much depends on context, on the political system in which activists are operating, and on the complexity of the problem that they seek to remedy.  

The effect of digital technology on activism is not determined only by the affordances of the technology itself, but also by the actions of human beings: software designers, civil society activists, telecommunications companies, and governments.  As Ethan Zuckerman of the MIT Center for Civic Media wrote in Foreign Policy today, “the duality of our current conversation is limiting and disappointing.” An accurate perception of digital activism, which rejects simple categorisation, refuses to make broad characterizations based on single incidents, and looks for insight in a range of positions, is required for understanding. And citizens must understand digital activism in order to design, use, and regulate these technologies in a way that furthers justice and human welfare. That outcome is far from certain.

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