Real Digital Power: Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman

My original list of 10 nominees for Newsweek/Daily Beast’sDigital Power Index.

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5) Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman

Corporation have great influence on public policy issues from environmental protection to campaign finance to healthcare reform, but until recently there was no advocacy organization committed specifically to using people power to hold corporation accountable to citizen.

That was until the launch, “a global movement of consumers, investors, and workers… standing together to hold corporations accountable for their actions and forge a new, sustainable and just path for our global economy.”

It’s not an easy goal, but the organization’s founder, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, is up to the task. She has already worked for some of the biggest digital and campaigning organizations in the world (,, and the AFL-CIO). Taren has turned “people over profits” from a slogan into an institution that hopes to transform the global economy and has the skills and commitment to do it.

Powerful Videos @ the Allied Media Conference

It’s the end of my first Allied Media Conference and I feel so grateful. My mind has been expanded to greater perception of injustice, and thus greater understanding of how the world needs to change and my role in that process. I am going to leave you with three excellent examples of digital video for social change from today’s sessions:

Egyptian Body Politic: Adaptation of #Tahrir

An animated adaptation of “The Dream” by Alaa Abd El-Fattah, translated by Lina Attalah. Voice narration by VJ Um Amel. (more info:VJ Um Amel,

It Gets Messy in Here

Trailer from a 30 minute doc by Kai Green challenging gender assumptions and gender identities by delving into the bathroom experiences of masculine identified queer women and transgendered men of color.

Fag Face, or How to Escape Your Face

16-minute film humorously from Queer Technologieschallenging the idea that you can recognize someone’s sexual orientation by seeing their face and then speaking ciritically about how facial monitoring software is used to restrict certain peopl ein society and how they might resist that. (more info:

AMC Day 3: Unnatural Disasters

Atom bomb
Bosnian war
Carceral complex
Death penalty
Energy crisis
Garbage dumps
Housing foreclosures
Inter-racial violence
Junk food
Killing fields of Cambodia
Nuclear waste
Office buildings
Queer violence

The vast majority of activists – even the most passionate and most effective – focus on a single issue. Few of us dare to study, explore, understand, absorb, and affirm the vast interweaving injustices that we humans have brought into being.

Yet two artists – Alixa Garcia and Naima Penniman – are daring us to do just that, to raise our awareness of all “unnatural disasters,” to envision a better future, and to take steps to change the global system.

The above list, the product of a group activity facilitated by Naima and her collaborators today at the Allied Media Conference, is a simple expression of this bold proposition.

This is network consciousness at work: the spirit of the Buddha in the age of the global internet. For more information on their work visit .

Star Wars: George Lucas’ Cold War Vision of the Digital World

The evil Darth Vader stands amid the broken and twisted bodies of his foes. He grabs a wounded Rebel Officer by the neck as an Imperial Officer rushes up to the Dark Lord.

IMPERIAL OFFICER: The Death Star plans are not in the main computer.

Vader squeezes the neck of the Rebel Officer, who struggles in vain.

VADER: Where are those transmissions you intercepted?

Vader lifts the Rebel off his feet by his throat.

VADER: What have you done with those plans?

REBEL OFFICER: We intercepted no transmissions. Aaah….This is a
consular ship. Were on a diplomatic mission.

George Lucas' Cold War vision saw computers primarily as tools of battle.

Star Wars: A New Hope is one of the greatest movies of all time and one of my personal favorites. So, in a departure from the usual content of this blog – and as an early Christmas present to MAP readers – here is an analysis of the digital vision of Star Wars.

Not only is Star Wars a great work of science fiction, it is a great work of computer science fiction. (The word “computer” appears 48 times in the screenplay, “Jedi” only 19). The digital world of Star War is deeply shaped by the computer science of the early 70’s. This is not surprising, since George Lucas wrote his screenplay at that time in California, a part of the world buzzing with early computer research. In the 1970’s, computers were expensive Cold War command-and-control devices funded by the military, not the personal and social tools we know today. This 1970’s vision of the computer is what we see in Star Wars.

This command-and-control conception of computing is necessary to Lucas’s plot and the difficulty of digital content transmission forms the dramatic tension of the film. The plot revolves around a set of stolen digital plans for the Imperial Death Star, which are ferried across the galaxy to the Rebels by Luke Skywalker in the hard-drive of a robot called Artoo. Darth Vader and the forces of the Empire are hot on their trail, trying to apprehend them and retrieve the plans.

If email existed, the movie’s plot would evaporate. Imagine the scene above, if email existed in the world of Star Wars:

IMPERIAL OFFICER: The Death Star plans are not in the main computer.

VADER: Where are those transmissions you intercepted? What have you done with those plans?

REBEL OFFICER: The moment we received the plans we emailed them immediately to the top Rebel commanders. They are already reviewing them to launch an attack on the Death Star. It’s already too late!

VADER: Well, crap!

The absence of email in the world of Star Wars is an artistic choice by Lucas. If the digital plans could be “transmitted” to Princess Leia’s ship (where the above scene occurs), then why couldn’t they be transmitted by the same means directly to the rebel leaders? They could, of course, but the film’s audience did not know that computers could do that. Though email did exist, the Internet at the time was a military-owned research network, and ordinary Americans did not know email or a computer-based communication networks existed. So the idea that plans could be transmitted one time and then needed to by carried across the galaxy on a physical disk inside a robot was a credible proposition.

Computers have a role in Star Wars beyond the central drama of the plot. Computers enter the action in ways large and small. In the world of Star Wars, however, they are command-and-control devices used in the operation of complex industrial and military machinery. Lucas has a Cold War vision of computing.

A computer runs the complex agricultural machines on Luke’s home planet of Tatooine:

Uncle Owen: What I really need is a droid that understands the binary language of moisture vaporators.

A computer helps Han Solo navigate his ship, the Millennium Falcon:

Obi Wan Kenobi: How long before you can make the jump to light speed?

Han: It’ll take a few moments to get the coordinates from the navi-computer.

The ship begins to rock violently as lasers hit it.

Luke: Are you kidding? At the rate they’re gaining…

Han: Traveling through hyperspace isn’t like dusting crops, boy! Without precise calculations we could fly right through a star or bounce too close to a supernova and that’d end your trip real quick, wouldn’t it?

Computers also help Luke and Han fight spaceship-to-spaceship through a neat 3D targeting interface on their laser cannons (this would be a Cold Warrior’s wet dream). A targeting computer is also used by the pilots when they attack the Death Star at the end of the movie (though Luke ultimately relies on the intuitive power of the Force over the computer).

Again, this is a fairly old-fashioned vision of the future of computing. Targeting was the technology that first got the American military into the business of funding computer research during WWII, when the military realized computers could be useful in calculating trajectories for firing missiles at fast-moving aircraft.

A single computer system also runs the Death Star itself. This computer is a little different, because it is part of a network – yes, like the Internet! In the middle of the movie, Luke and his friends are captured on the Death Star and one of the robots accesses its computer:

THREEPIO: We found the computer outlet, sir.

Ben feeds some information into the computer and a map of the city appears on the monitor. He begins to inspect it carefully. Threepio and Artoo look over the control panel. Artoo finds something that makes him whistle wildly.

BEN: Plug in. He should be able to interpret the entire Imperial computer network.

Artoo punches his claw arm into the computer socket and the vast Imperial brain network comes to life, feeding information to the little robot. After a few moments, he beeps something.

THREEPIO: He says he’s found the main computer to power the tractor beam that’s holding the ship here. He’ll try to make the precise location appear on the monitor.

Again this is a classic Cold War view of the Internet. In the 1970’s Vint Cerf, the Father of the Internet, was a scientist at DARPA, the Pentagon-funded research center that built the Internet. In a 2010 talk, Cerf described DARPA’s vision in building the Internet: “DARPA was looking for ways to build command-and-control systems that had no central structure, and were highly distributed, and that could be readily reconstituted.” A computer network that could run a huge military facility like the Death Star was very much what the Pentagon had in mind when they funded research on computer networking.

George Lucas and the Pentagon shared the same vision of the value of computing: better war machines. Today computers are certainly used by the military, but the most transformative use of computers is not targeting technology, but the Internet, another Pentagon-funded computer research project that received relatively little attention during its development in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s.

Targeting systems, military aircraft navigation, a command-and-control network for a military facility: this was the Cold War vision of computing in the 1970’s, but it wasn’t the only vision. At the same time counter-culture technologists envisioned computers in the way they act today: as personal devices for individual expression and creativity. In his 1974 book Computer Lib/Dream Machines, philosopher of technology Ted Nelson wrote:

Somehow the idea is abroad that computer activities are uncreative…. This is categorically false. Computers involve imagination and creation at the highest level. Computers are an involvement you can really get into, regardless of your trip or your karma…. COMPUTERS BELONG TO ALL HUMAN KIND.

This touchy-feely personal vision of computers is diametrically opposed to Lucas’ military vision, but it was a more accurate prediction of what computers became.(Ironically, Lucas embraced the intuitive and metaphysical worldview of the counterculture in the idea of the “Force,” created by all living things and used by the Jedi. Yet in his conception the Force and the computer are in opposition to one another. This is why Luke turns off his targeting computer and instead relies on the Force to guide him during the film’s climax.)

In the end, George Lucas got it wrong. The Cold War vision of computing was more a function of the prejudices and priorities of than period than the actual capacities of the computer. He would never guess that one day the Force would run through the Internet.

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.

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

Josh Price: Our New Research Intern

Josh on the Appalachian Trail

Summer is here and it’s time for interns. Our first is Josh Price, a political science graduate from Haverford who will graduate from the University of Chicago at the end of the summer with a master’s degree in Social Science. Josh is interested in social media, message framing, public opinion, and American politics. He also hiked the entire Appalachian Trail! This summer, Josh will be working the Research Director António Rosas on the Global Digital Activism Data Set, focusing on statistical analysis and building the representativeness of the data set.


Partner Focus: Philip N. Howard

Prof. Philip N. Howard

The Meta-Activism Project works because of all the smart people that devote their time, energy, and brain-power to the study of digital activism. One expert who has given some great support to the Meta-Activism Project is Philip N. Howard, Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Washington and author of The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam, one of the first books to subject international digital activism data to rigorous quantitative analysis.

Prof. Howard did us a solid by asking his students to collect cases for the Global Digital Activism Data Set, resulting in 243 new cases from 69 countries. He’s also advising us on ways we can continue to build our data set to make it more representative. From all of us at the Meta-Activism Project: thanks!

Malcolm Gladwell’s Still Got it Wrong

In October of last year Malcolm Gladwell wrote a much-read piece in the New Yorker arguing that the value of social media for activism was greatly overstated and older analog methods of organizing were more effective. The piece drew considerable criticism from the blogosphere, which picked apart his argument from a variety of angles. On Sunday, Gladwell was interviewed by Fareed Zakaria on CNN, seemingly having learned nothing more about digital activism.

“In light of all the things happening in the Arab world,” Zakaria observed, “you have been distinctly unimpressed by social media as a way of generating political discontent. Why?” This is an unusual question, since the idea that social media “generates” political discontent is a straw man argument – no one actually believes it. Zakaria asked the question either 1) because he doesn’t understand this or 2) was handing Gladwell a straw man that he could easily tear down. I’m going to give Zakaria the benefit of the doubt and go with #2.

Gladwell’s Flawed Proof

However, Gladwell did not hit this easy pitch by drawing the distinction between the motivations for protest (not digital) and the means of protest (quite often digital). Instead, he created another, even weaker straw man to defeat: that digital activism is no more that flash-mobbing. (By defining digital activism by its weakest avatar he used a similar strategy to Evgeny Morozov. Maybe that’s why he wrote the blurb for Evgeny’s book. But I digress.) Gladwell started off humbly (“I’ve been as dumbstruck as everyone else by what happened in the Middle East”) but soon threw a punch:

I can’t look in the past at social revolutions and see examples of cases where people had a problem, under dire circumstances, of getting lots of people together to voice their concerns…. Looking at history, I don’t see the absence of efficient tools of communication as being a limiting factor on the ability of people to socially organize.

Even this opening gambit is extremely problematic, here’s why:

  1. Proving a Negative: The way Gladwell sets up his proof, he is right that social media is not needed for revolution if social movements in the past did not have collective action dilemmas (what he calls “getting lots of people together”). Yet really, how do you prove the absence of a collective action dilemma? You could look at thwarted protest movements, but what about the protest movements that never even emerged… BECAUSE of collective action problems? It’s a catch-22. He points to fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 (when “13% of East Germans had telephones”) as evidence that technology was not needed, but what if there had been 74% phone penetration? Perhaps the revolution would have happened a decade earlier. It is panglossian and a naive misreading of historical process to assume that the past could only have occurred in the way it did, that “all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”
  2. Social Movement ? Flash Mob: Second, by saying that social media is not needed because people did not have a problem “under dire circumstances, of getting lots of people together to voice their concerns” he is aiming at the most visible form of social movements – the protest action – but ignoring all the other components of social movements, like changes in the opportunity/threat structure, presence of mobilizing structures, and framing processes (hat-tip Doug McAdam), all of which happen outside of public view. Social media likely affects all those steps in the process. Here I think Gladwell is simply suffering from representation bias. He believes the full set of social movement processes is equivalent to the social movement processes he can see – people in the street.
  3. Problems with Historical Precedents: As Gladwell sets up his proof, social media is only useful if it solves some historic collective action dilemma. He does not “see the absence of efficient tools of communication as being a limiting factor on the ability of people to socially organize.” However, even if the limitation is not visible to him, it may still exist. Even those engaged in the activism, like Gladwell’s example of John Lewis, may not be aware of these limitations. If people in the past did not perceive an inefficiency in their process, that does not mean a more efficient process cannot subsequently be created. For example: printing press > typewriter > computer > computer + Internet. Each stage was the peak of technological advancement… until it was improved upon. Even if past activists were able to successfully mobilize and saw no collective action limitations to their work (and I’m sure they did), that does not mean that these processes could not be improved upon by access to new technology.

Seeing the Past with Rose-Colored Glasses

Gladwell has a real problem with idealizing the past. In idealizing the closed American media environment of the 1950’s and 60’s he says “The civil rights movement – all they had to do was essentially capture the three [television] networks.” What he presents as inevitable in hindsight was no doubt tremendously daunting and extremely difficult for activists at the time. All they had to do was co-opt a media structure owned by a conservative white elite – no problem!

In focusing on the successes of social movements in the past, Gladwell glosses over the limitations of past communication structures. The civil rights movement, by some measures, began in 1896. I find it hard to imagine that between that time and the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, civil rights activists would not have had a use for near-free tools for independent mass information dissemination and mobilization.

Good Points on Costs and Strategy

Occasionally in the interview, Gladwell makes a reasonable statement. For instance:

What I don’t know at this point is whether the balance of benefits and costs to the new technology will work out in the favor of the oppressed or whether they will work out in the favor of the oppressor.

This is a good and reasonable question, but his rhetoric does not reflect it. In his rhetoric it appears he has already made up his mind. He also notes that “the real work is elsewhere,” meaning that your must have a strategy and a core group of initiators before you can have a successful digital activism campaign. Again, this is true, but digital technology does not prevent people from being strategic, it only makes it easier to act in the absence of strategy.

Why Did Gladwell Even Do This Interview?

Since Gladwell does not really know what he is talking about regarding digital activism – or even theories of pre-digital social movements – why did he do this interview, which served as a platform for his ignorance? There is vanity, of course, but I would also guess that, since the incredible success of The Tipping Point in 2002, he has felt incredible pressure to create another intellectual master work. Seeing digital activism as a field getting a lot of attention, he decided to seek his fortunes here.

And that is fine, but he is an influential thinker and when he spreads false information through his lack of understanding he does a disservice to digital activism, which is already misunderstood. I would be happy to have Malcolm Gladwell as a colleague in research and honest analysis, but in his current mode as an under-informed talking head only interested in exploring one viewpoint, he does more harm than good.

(hat-tip to Nancy Scola of TechPresident for highlighting this interview.)

Wadah Khanfar: Internet in Revolutionary Context

Speaking at TED a few days ago Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera’s director-general and a seasoned chronicler of the Middle East, made an excellent contextualized argument for the value of digital activism: not as a cause of change but as a connector, not only as a means of mobilization but as a means of changing perceptions of personal power.

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