In the Middle East, activists have used digital tools to bring about dramatic political change under repressive regimes, so why has digital activism had such a lackluster effect in a democracy like the US? The Global Digital Activism Data Set (below) shows that the US has more instances of digital activism than any other country, yet the US is mired in some of the most toxic and unproductive politics in recent memory. I’d argue that it is precisely America’s democracy and pluralism make digital activism less effective at bringing about dramatic change. In a country where everyone is free to speak and mobilize, many will. Attention is divided and the impact of any one initiative represents only one voice among many clamoring to be heard.
Figure 1: Distribution of GDADS Digital Activism Cases by Country
The result is a cacophany in which organizations and causes compete with each other for citizen support and for the attention of lawmakers. Such intense competition for attention means that each cause is likely to gain only a small number of supporters and a small fragment of lawmaker attention, resulting in little influence and little change.
Digital technology has allowed a far greater number of non-profits and informal citizens groups to have a public voice. Anyone can start a campaign through a blog, a website, a Facebook group, or a Twitter feed. But this ease of access means that competition for attention is fierce. It is good for every non-profit to have their own Facebook group or Twitter feed because it allows organizations to extend their communicative reach, but every organization waving their own flag also means that non-profits – even in the same cause area – are competing with each other for attention from both citizen supporters and law-makers. If they joined together, they would have a greater voice and more capacity to achieve change, yet most non-profits prefer to go it alone and improve their own standing rather than joining with others and losing some autonomy and control.
Of course, there are two quite different groups in America that are very good at speaking with one voice: corporate lobbying associations and the Tea Party. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America lobbies the government on behalf of over forty pharmaceutical companies. The American Petroleum Institute does the same on behalf of over four hundred oil and gas firms. Though they have a very different structure, members of various Tea Party associations are very good at speaking and acting with one voice, putting forward clear policy priorities and mobilizing members to vote for candidates that support those priorities. Of course, both of these powerful political forces are on the right, firmly supporting the status quo or even pushing America to be more conservative than it already is, making progressive change less likely.
Why can’t the Left get together again like they did in 2008 around the Obama candidacy? Perhaps it is the Left’s values of pluralism and autonomy that make it difficult to self-mobilize in unison. Liberals and progressives believe that diversity is a strength and that people should make up their own minds, not follow marching orders from some central authority. Yet this preferences for diverse causes and autonomous action also means that the Left is inherently resistance to the unified campaigns, directive mobilizations, and clear talking points that are the currency of influence in Washington.
This is not only a demand-side problem about advocates getting together to promote their causes effectively. It’s also a supply-side attention problem on the part of politicians, who are also suffering from information overload. Politicians and their staffs have a limited amount of time to respond to citizens requests in a meaningful way. One can only assume that the barrage of emails, petitions, and the like have produced a stream that politicians are unable to deal with, and the introduction of an official petitions site from the White House supports the assertion that government is willing to listen, they just need some means of moderating requests. (Of course, these simple measures are easily gamed – the most popular petition is one supporting marijuana legalization). In this context, it is understandable that politicians listen to the loudest voices.
America is a pluralist democracy that feeds on competition, it’s in our DNA. But these qualities also make it less likely that we will come together under one banner. Tunisia and Egypt are diverse societies with complex political interest groups, yet during their revolutions people across the political spectrum came together with one voice to oust their tyrannical leaders. Americans also need to come together if they want to force real change.
Until progressive Americans start to use digital technology to collaborate and form mass movements, power will rest in the hands of conservative forces who are already pooling their resources and speaking with one strong voice. We each have the freedom to speak for ourselves, but we will have more power if we speak together.