7 Ways Digital Can Help Activists

This update of The 6 Activist Functions of Technology is made for a US audience (American examples, no activists security section).

The slides are from my workshop at the Student Global AIDS Campaign winter conference:





10-Minute Intro to Digital Activism [Video]

Today I gave a remote talk to an undergrad digital communications class at Loyola University Chicago.  It’s a pretty good intro to digital activism, so I am posting it below.  Thanks to the instructor, Richelle Rogers, who invited me to speak and, as a former journalist, and came up with great topic questions for me.

Sections of the video:

  1. Introducing myself (1:09)
  2. What is digital activism?: An easy definition and an academic one (1:40)
  3. Digital identity on the web and the role it plays in activism?: The online disinhibition effect (2:20)
  4. How digital activism manifests on the internet?: mass self-communication, coordination, evasion (4:54)
  5. Famous cases that made a difference: Egypt’s Arab Spring and Kony 2012 (7:44)
  6. How activism may evolve as the web becomes more accessible: Rise of the mobile net (10:00)

Please be patient with the occasional technical glitches.

The 6 Activist Functions of Digital Tech

From the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring and Occupy Movements to nonprofits, bloggers, and political candidates, people hoping to change the world are using digital technology to do so.

It seems that every day we learn about a new tactic, social media tool, or argument about how technology has been over-hyped or undersold. The variety and complexity seems infinite.

I’ve been studying digital activism for the past six years, and during that time I’ve had the nagging sense that this variety is not infinite, that if we look at digital activism for long enough, we will start seeing patterns. What previously seemed like infinite applications will turn out to be a limited number of technological functions appearing in diverse contexts. Digital activism’s variety comes from context, not technical capacity. Today’s digital technologies are capable of a broad, but finite, number of uses.

So I’m going to make a bold claim, digital technology can only do six things for activists. These six uses can be carried out through a variety of tools (blogs, micro-blogs, SMS, websites, social networks, video, the list goes on) and in a variety of contexts (revolutionary struggle under a repressive regime, international social justice campaign, local advocacy, democratic political elections…), but there are still only six of them.

Activists can use digital technology to:

1) Shape Public Opinion

Collective resistance, protest, activism, advocacy: where do they come from? They come from a collective perception of injustice coupled with a belief that an alternative is possible. As social movement scholar Doug McAdam observes, in order for collective action to occur, “at a minimum people need to believe need to feel aggrieved about some aspect of their lives and optimistic that, acting collectively, they can redress the problem.”

What would make you feel aggrieved about your life? You’d need some information about your situation and maybe an explanation of why that situation was unjust. Social media is a great way to both generate and share this kind of information, especially when official news-generation companies (the mainstream media) are beholden to elites whose interests are different from yours or by a government that does not want to be criticized.

In China, many educated people get their news from Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Though censors are quick to delete information that reflect poorly on the government, people use clever misspellings and codewords to talk about information that matters to them. Despite the government’s desire to downplay a high-speed train crash last summer, the news got through. All this information about government corruption and incompetence makes people feel more aggrieved, less contented with the status quo, more desirous of an alternative.

Nawaat.org, a digital outpost of Tunisian dissent

The people of China have not yet risen up to demand an alternative, but the citizens of Tunisia did. The causes of the 2011 revolution are of course complex, but the Internet played an important role in challenging the legitimacy of President Ben Ali by shining a light on his corruption and abuses. Starting in 2004, the website Nawaat.org, operated by a group of Tunisian expatriates, provided a constant stream of information about political injustices in Tunisia. They occasionally created funny or entertaining digital videos framing Ben Ali as a tyrant or highlighting a particularly egregious instance of abuse of power.In 2010, shortly before the revolution, Sami Ben Gharbia, one of the founders of Nawaat, also started TuniLeaks, a site to bring attention to State Department cables detailing Ben Ali’s abused of power.

In Egypt, before anyone went out to protest in Tahrir, the Internet played an important role in fomenting opposition to Mubarak and challenging his legitimacy. According to Ahmed Saleh, one of the administrators of the Facebook page We Are All Khaled Said:

The Internet offered an open environment that politicized the youths, allowed them to raise awareness on possibilities of shaping their future, diversified their perspectives, anonymized their identities, gave them the taste of free speech, and pushed them to see through the regime propaganda and despise it.

In a recent article in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that the Internet was a space for formative public discourse even before the social media wave hit. In 1991, Tunisia became the first Middle Eastern country connected to Internet. In that decade, before the rise of blogs, web forums served an important political function:

Such forums became sources of un-reported news, discussion, social commentary, and political debate, paving the way for the region’s bloggers. In countries where political discussion was taboo… web forums created new spaces, outside of society, where political discussion was relatively safe.

Digital technology helps the public shape public opinion. Anyone with an Internet connection can start a blog. Anyone with a smartphone can record and upload a video of police abuse. Not only can people act as citizen journalists, creating their own news stories, they can also educate and raise awareness of injustice by curating and re-broadcasting news stories to their friends using whatever social media platform they prefer, or even an old-fashioned technology like email.

The Internet can also be used to access foreign media and information. In China virtual private networks (VPNs) are a popular way for middle class Chinese to access news about their own country that is censored in China. However, it is important not to overstate the role that foreign information plays. The most powerful way to spread information is when the oppressed inform one another. The became agents of their own consciousness-raising.

User-generated content, the fact that people are sharing information with their friends and family, is different from past modes of mass information dissemination. In the past there have been brave journalists and television anchormen who have shared information with the public and fomented opposition to an unjust policy (for example Walter Cronkite’s broadcasts against the Vietnam War and Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts against McCarthyism). However, while these broadcasts did make people feel more aggrieved, it didn’t necessarily make them feel optimistic about change. They felt aggrieved, but alone, in front of the TV set. What could they do by themselves?

Social media is different because the means of information transmission also creates collective identity and collective grievance creates optimism: it’s not just me that’s mad, my friends are mad too. Maybe together we can do something. If my friend shares a news item with me about a corrupt official I know that 1) he knows, 2) he is mad enough to share it, 3) he knows that now I know too. To badly paraphrase Clay Shirky, social media creates a situation where I know that you know and I know that you know that I know: we have mutual awareness of our mutual awareness. It is not just me and my friends sitting alone stewing about an injustice in front of our TV set, it is my friends and I talking about this injustice in a forum, or a chat, or on my Facebook wall. And that conversation just might turn into action.

2) Plan an Action

Changing public opinion is a slow, low-burning, and often decentralized process. It is uneventful, it occurs under the radar. This is how it is able to occur at all. Yet, sooner or later, if there are enough people (of even just the right people) talking about their dissatisfaction, they will decide to take action.

Of course, action doesn’t just happen, it requires some planning, even if only to decide what the action is and when it will happen. Digital technology is useful for this too. Digital technology allows for the decentralized many-to-many communication of changing public opinion and the centralized few-to-few communication of planning an action.

Yet social media, and the mass participation it facilitates, are also changing how the prominent members of a moment perceive their role. They see themselves less as leaders and more as specially-skilled peers accountable to the rank-and-file. Activists in Russia are using a private Facebook group not so much to plan the pro-democracy protests there, but to act as a braintrust. According to the The Economist:

The main role in organising the protests belongs not to political parties or even to an official steering committee, but to Facebook…. Ilya Faybisovich, a Facebook activist… helped a dozen journalists, activists and opinion-makers to form a private chat group that has over time evolved into the brain centre of the protest movement. One of them is Yuri Saprykin, editorial director at Afisha-Rambler… says the group’s role is not to lead the protesters but to “sense their demands and formulate them”.

Social media is making decentralized and leaderless movements logistically easier, since participants can be in constant contact. Research has shown that large groups can use social media to reach decisions in the absence of leaders (see Alix Dunn’s work on the April 6th Facebook group in Egypt – PDF). However, even when planning occurs as it always did, in a small group of committed activists, video chat, text chat, free international online calling, and email make coordination cheaper, safer, and easier.

3) Protect Activists


Tor, a popular circumvention tool

The Internet and mobile technology provide benefits to the age-old planning process: they provide anonymity. Pseudonyms, encryption, throw-away cell phones, onion-routing: digital technology provides real protection for tech-savvy people who want to operate anonymously. Hacker groups like Anonymous and LulzSec, as well as whistle-blowers connected to Wikileaks have by and large remained at large (with Bradley Manning the major exception).

No shield of anonymity is absolute. In the absence of anonymity protections, planning online in a repressive regime – or even self-identifying as a dissident – is arguably even more dangerous than doing so offline, since digital footprints are easy to collect and track remotely. However, for those who do know how to protect themselves, the online world provides a safe space for plotting.

4) Share a Call to Action

The 11 senators are pigs! S&@t, Estrada is acquitted! Let’s do People Power! Pls. pass


Military needs to see 1 million at rally tomorrow, Jan. 19, to make a decision to go against Erap! Please pass this on

Protesters demanding Estrada’s ouster in Manila

These are some of the text messages Filipino youth sent to one another in 2001 before the overwhelming mobilizations that forced President Joseph “Erap” Estrada to resign. This was one of the first instances of digital activism playing a central role in forcing a head of government to resign, and it is still one of the most dramatic. People forwarded these messages to their own social networks and the call to action spread throughout Manila. Approximately one million Filipinos took part in the demonstrations, which at times filled the cities largest highway with people as far as the eye could see. An estimated one million citizens participated. It was because of digital technology that this vanishingly low-cost mass broadcast was possible.

Of course, digital calls to action can be infinitely more mundane as well. You know those mass emails from non-profits asking you to sign an e-petition or donate on their website? Those automatically-generated status message that let all your Facebook friends know you just donated and gives them a link to donate as well? Those are calls to action too.

In fact, while people in repressive regimes run the risk that their calls to action will be censored (China blocks messages calling for mass “strolling”), people in freer societies face the opposite challenge: there are so many advocacy messages that it is difficult to be heard. Free speech is not just free as in “freedom” but also “free beer”: it is really cheap and easy to broadcast a call to action online, so many people do.

While it is now easier to broadcast a call to action, it is also harder to be heard. It’s a catch-22 that activists and organizations try to make up with through attention-grabbing text and images that inspire strong emotional reactions, ranging from amusement to outrage. But it’s far better than the alternative, where the only people with freedom of the press were those who owned one.

5) Take Action Digitally

Signing an e-petition, donating online, changing your Facebook status message or avatar image to promote a cause, emailing your Congressman, carrying out a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack: these are just some examples of digital-only activism tactics.

These kinds of actions that can be carried out entirely from behind a screen in your bedroom are the most controversial form of digital activism because they seem passive compared to more aggressive offline tactics (an argument famously made by Malcolm Gladwell). The tactics are known by various derogatory names: slacktivism, clicktivism, armchair activism. Some people even think that digital activism means exclusively digital-only tactics, even though it is only one of the five mechanisms.

People like Gladwell are skeptical that these tactics can make a big difference, and there is a basis for that skepticism. Gene Sharp, the most prominent scholar of non-violent activism, divides the tactics of non-violent struggle into three categories:

  1. Protest and Persuasion: Symbolic acts of peaceful opposition and acts to persuade the opponent to adopt one’s position
  2. Noncooperation: Withdrawal of some form or degree of existing cooperation
  3. Nonviolent Intervention: Methods that intervene directly in a given situation by disrupting or destroying established behaviors, relationships, or institutions (and creating new ones)

Greened Twitter avatars

Most forms of digital-only activism tactics fall into the first category – protest and persuasion – which are least threatening to the opponent. Signing an e-petition, turning your Twitter icon green, even emailing your Congressman – these are all symbolic or persuasive in nature. They do not force a change in the situation.

However, there are three arguments in favor of digital-only tactics. The first is that they are a good first rung on the ladder of engagement. They do not demand much of the opponent, but they also demand little of the activist in terms of time and personal risk. You can sign an e-petition or join a Facebook group in a few seconds. If your only activism options were offline – attending a rally or meeting – maybe you wouldn’t get involved in the cause at all. However, because it is so easy to take that first step digitally, you will get involved. Then it is up to the organizer to convince you to keep moving up, becoming more involved in the campaign and having greater and greater impact.

The second argument of digital-only actions is that they are not all passive. When the company GoDaddy.com vocally supported SOPA, many customers dropped their accounts. Though this boycott (a form of noncooperation) could all be accomplished online, it hit GoDaddy.com where they could feel it: their bottom line. GoDaddy.com quickly dropped their support of SOPA.

Many instances of hacking, such as the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks that shut down a website by overloading it with requests could be seen as nonviolent interventions that prevent the opponent from carrying out their online activities. The Cablegate scandal, in which Wikileaks and its collaborators stole and disseminated US State Department diplomatic cables online, was an act of nonviolent intervention in the foreign policy of the United States because it damaged the relationships of confidence that the embassies had with the State Department and that embassy staff had with representatives of other nations. Though conducted from behind a screen, Cablegate was hardly passive.

The final and most effective argument in favor of digital-only tactics is that they work. Even the lowly e-petition has seen some dramatic successes recently. Mighty Bank of America, which had $134 billion in revenue in 2010, removed a $5 monthly debit card fee because of a consumer petition. The multi-platform decentralized social media campaign to convince Komen for the Cure to re-fund a grant to Planned Parenthood to pay for mammograms for needy woman was also successful.

Digital-only tactics can succeed, but it depends on the opponent. Bank of America was facing major public outrage and it was relatively easy for their clients to go elsewhere. Komen for the Cure relies on public goodwill to raise money. Bad publicity means that donors will take their money elsewhere too. In both cases the context fit the tactic, though this is not always the case. Changing your Twitter icon green did not much help pro-democracy activists in Iran in 2009. Just as it would be foolish to only consider digital tactics, it would be foolish to reject these tactics out of hand. They key is to be aware of all your tactical options and make a decision based on the relative strengths and weaknesses of you and your opponent.

6) Transfer Resources


PayPal’s donation widget

In the 2008 US presidential election, online micro-donations raised hundred of millions of dollars for President Obama and other candidates. New internet-mediated campaigning organizations like MoveOn.org fund themselves in a similar way. One of the greatest blows to Wikileaks in 2010 was when major credit card and payment processingcompaniesrefused to process donations to the organization. When a video of schoolchildren tormenting their elderly chaperone went viral in late June of 2012, a private citizen began collecting a vacation fund for her and $500,000 has been raised to date.

These are only a few examples of the ability of the Internet to act as a conduit for resources, specifically money. And, as the above examples show, these transfers can be important not only in funding new types of organizations, but in shifting the balance of power, either to an unlikely political candidate or away from an organization threatening state power.

Of course, it is not all good news. In his new book,The Moveon Effect, David Karpf explains how legacy nonprofits are experiences the problem of “analog dollars to digital dimes.” Their past fundraising methods of direct mail and membership dues are drying up, and they are not able to fill the gaps with online donations. New organizations the MoveOn, which do sustain themselves online, have much lower overhead – a permanent staff of a few dozen rather than a few hundred. Still, online fundraising is an important asset to digital activists and advocacy organizations.

1) Shape Public Opinion (Again)

Digital technology can be used to mobilize people to take action online or offline. But what happens next? What happens during the action and after? The value of digital technology does not end once the action occurs, it cycles back to the beginning: shaping public opinion of the action itself.

Activists choose an action because they think it will help them achieve redress of their grievance, either by convincing the opponent to change their policy or by removing the opponent’s power to enforce the policy, thereby opening a space for more sweeping changes.

However, very few campaigns are won through a single action, so while the long-term goal of the action is to seek a redress of grievances, the short-term goal is to help the activists mobilize for the next action by increasing their own power and legitimacy and decreasing the power and legitimacy of their opponent.

Surprisingly, power is heavily reliant on perception. The government of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was not fundamentally different the day before and the day after Muhamed Bouazizi killed himself, but people perceived in his story, and in the video of his family members protesting at the local government seat, evidence that Ben Ali had stepped beyond a threshold of permissible action. His government had not killed a citizen, his government had created such despair that the citizen killed himself. Ben Ali’s legitimacy (right to rule) had taken a fatal blow.

When Bouazizi’s family protested his death in front of town hall, they recorded a video of it an uploaded it. A few Tunisians watched the video, were outraged, and shared it using social media. Well-connected activists sent the video to journalists at Al Jazeera. Forbidden from reporting from within Tunisia, Al Jazeera was eager to report on the regime. Reporting by Al Jazeera brought the story to a national and regional audience, where it resonated. People in other towns began to protest, and finally the protests reached the capital. Local media, which at first was beholden to the regime, broke ranks and began favorably reporting on the opposition.

After Ben Ali resigned, news of the successful uprising spread rapidly, on regional satellite TV and US-based social media, two media outlets least susceptible to the control of Middle Eastern governments. People in other countries in the Middle East, were previously aggrieved by their lack of political rights. That was old news. Now, however, because of the example of Tunisia, they felt optimistic that change was possible.

Just as social media was important in created a collective sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo, it was now building on that initial dissatisfaction, using a recent event to convince even more people that change was possible. It was the beginning of an information cascade, which occurs when people observe the actions of others and then make the same choice that the others have made. The Arab Spring can be viewed as one of the most dramatic information cascades in recent memory and social media was important both in disseminating information and in collecting information and images to be re-broadcast by other media outlets.

And If We Win?

Shaping public opinion, planning an action, protecting activists, sharing a call to action, take action digitally, shape public opinion again: digital technology helps activists throughout the change process from the first spark of consciousness that the status quo is unacceptable to the international ripple effects of a dramatic action. The next post in this series will dig more deeply this cycle of digital empowerment.

A question that this post does not answer is now digital technology can help activists hold power and govern. All these functions assume that activists are on the outside, pressuring and challenging institutions of power like governments, corporations, and influential non-profits. But what happens when the activists when, when they take power? Will digital technology change the way governments were or will the centralized and hierarchical nature of government swallow digital technology and minimize its importance? This is the question that is playing our in the countries that underwent the Arab Spring last year. The answer is not yet known.

image: http://paulbalcerak.com/

UPDATED: February 2012, June 2012, and September 2016

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

The 4 Ways Tech Can Change Politics

How can people use digital technology to change politics? Starting from within political institutions and moving outward, people can use technology to change politics in the following four ways:


This is e-government – people inside government using technology to change government, usually to make it more efficient, but occasionally to make it more accountable and democratic. On the efficiency side you have e-filing of income taxes and clearinghouse sites like USA.gov. On the accountability and democracy side you have Recovery.gov and Data.gov, efforts to give people the information they need to hold government to account.

An interesting sub-group of insiders are those who use digital technology not only as a means of government reform, but as a model for how government should function. This is the idea of “government as a platform” or Government 2.0. As a recent post on O’Reilly Radar put it, “Gov 2.0 is about a transformation process involving innovation for transparency, collaboration, and/or participation,” it “does not exist in a government vacuum…. To the extent that it serves or interacts with citizens, those citizens serve as an operating environment for government.”

The country that is trying this Government 2.0 approach most seriously is Great Britain, where thePrime Minister David Cameron’sBig Society program is cutting back on social services and asking citizens to step in and co-create British society. Practically, this means collaborative budgeting and unfunded local initiatives like people building a bike path in their village. A recent New Yorker article said of the Big Society, “This is Wikipedia government, collectively created by the impassioned, the invested, and the bored.” Without money (the country isin adebt crisis), access toinformation is the currency of this new endeavor. “Transparency is the Cameronian fetish; government is meant to be a ‘co-production’ of citizen and state.”

2. Entrants

Political institution can be changed not only by people already in government, but by helpingnew types of people enter government who previously would have been doomed to failure by their outsider status. The prime example here is without question the 2008 election of Barack Obama, where thousands of online micro-donations allowed the campaign tofund itselfwithout relying on the traditional big donors and PACs and for supporters to communicate with one another and self-mobilize without the direction of the campaign through social media tools like MyBarackObama.

Two other prominent examples of digital technology helping outsiders into office by reaching out directly to self-organizing supporters arePresidentRoh Moo Hyun in South Korea in, whose supporters mobilized online and via text messaging in 2002, and President Victor Yushchenko of Ukraine, whom the Orange Revolution brought to power, through the help of mobile technology and online citizen journalism in 2004.

The post-election atmosphere into which these candidate step is rarely peaceful. President Obama is brutally attacked from the conservative right and disappointed left. Yushchenko oversaw various government crises, including two dissolutions of Parliament, before losing the election of 2010. Roh’s story is surely the saddest. After a dramatic fall from grace he committed suicide in 2009. The difficulty these outsider candidates face once they enter formal political institutions is less a mark of personal failure than an indication of how truly threatened the old guard feel by these new insiders and how viciously they will fight to thwart them.

3. Pursuaders

The third group, pursuaders, seek to influence political institutions from the outside. This group refers not only to the digital activists that are the common theme of this blog, but also more traditional nonprofits and, perhaps most forcefully of all, business interests. In the persuader (or advocate or lobbyist) role, these groups have no interest in being members of the government, but seek to convince those in government to act and legislate according to their interests.

There are many types of pursuader individuals, from paid lobbyists to nonprofit employees to passionate volunteers. However, it is the least well-connected that are most likely to rely heavily on technology to make their voices heard and to mobilize supporters to take action on their behalf. To a corporate lobbyist with the Senator’s home phone on speed dial, creating an active Facebook group or trying to raise awareness of an issue through creating a hashtag on Twittermay seem not worth the effort. However, as the rise of astro-turfing has made clear, even the well-connected sometimes need a popular front to reinforce the legitimacy of their claims.

Even though digital activists are often seen as radical, and are jailed and harassed in repressive countries, they are actually operating within the existing political environment. They access the basic institutions of government and, even when they seek a leadership change, go about it through the proper institutional channels of elections. In the case of issue advocacy they are even less radical, asking only that those already in power side with them on a particular issue. Digital activists are not the radicals of this spectrum.

4. Usurpers

The true radicals here are the usurpers, those who use technology in their attempts to take political power, usually through violence. Though this site does not address violent activism often, its role in changing politics cannot be ignored.The Mumbai terrorists used encrypted Blackberry phonesto coordinate with one another during the 2008 attacks and seek information about the progress of the attacks, which has caused a backlash against encrypted mobile data not only in India but also in the Middle East.

In Somalia, the Islamist insurgency group Al-Shabaab uses their web forum, Al Quimmah, tocommunicate with the Western media and recruit fighters internationally. Their desire for power is serious, and they have been successful. According to Wikipedia, as of summer 2010 the group controls most of the southern and central parts of the country, including significant portions of the capital, Mogadishu. Where it controls territory it changes political institutions by Islamacizing them, enforcing the harsher tenets of Sharia law.

Once in power, these usurpers become insiders, butwithout the benefit of popular legitimation through elections. This insecurity causes them to use technology repressively to maintain control, as the once-revolutionary Communist Party does in China and the once-revolutionary mullahs do in Iran. Though in many cases usurpers limit technology use by their citizens rather than use it proactively to assert their power, the more creative governments use digital technology and social media offensively, such as China’s 50 Cent Party, Iran’s online identification of protesters, and Hugo Chavez’s heavy use of social media to maintain his popularity in Venezuela.


For those interested in exploring the intersection of politics and technology, it is important to understand the full spectrum. From the most conservative bureaucrat automating some of his tasks to the most radical terrorist using the Internet to legitimize himself internationally, digital technology is at play at all political levels, from the institutional center to the revolutionary edge. We will only understand how technology affects politics if we understand the interplay of its diverse manifestations.

image: ceBIT Australia

The Adjacent Possible in Digital Activism

If I am now standing on Broadway in Manhattan I cannot immediately be on the Miracle Mile in Chicago. I must first be in a taxi, then at an airport, then on a plane, then at another airport, then in another taxi and finally in downtown Chicago – and that is assuming I take the fastest route. Likewise, if I am 28 now I cannot be 30 or 15 tomorrow. I could be 29, but the possibility of changing ages from one day to the next only happens once a year.

In space and in time we understand the idea of the “adjacent possible” and even see it as obvious. Change happens incrementally and, even if we can conceive of a radically altered state, we realize that there are several steps we must pass through to reach it.

However, as the subject of change becomes more complex – a city, a country, a culture – we forget about the concept of the adjacent possible and suddenly believe that radical change can happen from one moment to the next: elect the right president and a generally conservative and striated society will become progressive and egalitarian, enact the right law and get soft money out of politics, amend the Constitution and bring about racial equality. It is not a fluke that the election of President Obama, the passage of McCain-Feingold, and the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments did not bring about their intended outcomes in the short term. In complex systems, radical change cannot happen if one piece changes while others remain the same.

Small change in the short term, however, does not negate big change in the long term. The amendments passed in 1865-70 ending slavery and granting African-Americans the rights of citizens made it possible for a black man to be elected president 140 years later. What was previously impossible becomes commonplace, and by the time the change occurs it often does not seem so radical because of the many intermediary steps that brought society to that point.

From this perspective it was always unreasonable to expect digital technology to bring immediate radical change. By the same token, it is reasonable to expect that the changes wrought by technology in the short term will merely extend the previous reality: repressive regimes will use digital technology to repress, criminals will use digital technology to commit crimes, attention-seekers will use technology to seek attention.

Yet we are also seeing dramatic changes, where the incremental steps of change are happening much faster than in previous eras. So far, we are seeing this mainly in the realm of economics. In a world where news is digitized and available for free through a digital network, people will not want to pay for news. In that world it is less likely that a news company will stay in business. In a world where music is digitized and available for free through a digital network, people will not want to pay for music. In that world it is less likely that a music company will stay in business. We wanted global democracy and we got BitTorrent.

This is not to say that increasing democratization is not possible, only that it is one of a variety of outcomes that are still distant. I am by no means a skeptic, but I do not believe that a dramatic increase in democracy is even in the adjacent possible, we are still several incremental steps away… which means we are actually closer to a future in which technology extends the status quo.

Stuart Kauffman, a theoretical biologist whose idea I am almost certainly bastardizing here, came up with the idea of the adjacent possible as a way to explain increasing biological complexity over time. As soon as the first amino acid existed, it became more likely that a slight change in that amino acid would create another type of organic chemical, “as actual molecules are formed, new adjacent possibles come into existence and old ones disappear”.

However, unlike molecules, we humans have conscious agency. We can see a number of futures that technology could help us achieve. As long as we are not pure determinists we believe that we have some ability to influence those outcomes. But that does not mean change is imminent, it means we need to build out into adjacent possibles now available to us, realizing the incremental steps that lead to radical change.

What are the incremental steps towards the “great potential” of digital technology? Is it increasing penetration mobile rates? Bringing down the cost of processing power? Building global norms for openness on the Internet? Ensuring net neutrality? These are all potentially important and there are likely more besides. According to Kauffman, “what becomes Actual can acausally change what becomes Possible and what becomes Possible can acausally change what becomes Actual,” so our idea of the digital possible will play a role in determining the digital actual that is yet to be.

image: Flick/Loli

Where is All the “Bad” Digital Activism?

As I’ve written before, the Meta-Activism Project is putting together a data set of digital activism cases called the Global Digital Activism Data Set (GDADS). Today we’re on track to hit 800. The vast majority of cases are what one might call “liberal” or “progressive” – supportive of human rights, freedom of expression, and accountability. However, we often hear that digital technology is morally neutral and can be used to promote good or evil:

From Gaurav Mishra of Gauravonomics:

It has also become evident that the internet itself, like any other technology, is neutral and value-agnostic. So, it can be used for free expression and activism, but it can also be used for propaganda and surveillance.

From Chris Van Buren, writing for the Internet and Democracy Project:

Cell phones, Facebook and Twitter are morally neutral. Although they can be positive tools of peaceful protest and democratic engagement, they can’t prevent flashmobs become real mobs which break windows and destroy property, or worse. G-20 activists in London used Twitter to elude police and stage more coordinated (and sometimes violent) anti-globalization protests.

From Farhad Manjoo’s review of Clay Shirky’s new book “Cognitive Surplus” in the New York Times:

Shirky seems to be telling just half the story. Nearly every one of his examples of online collectivism is positive; everyone here seems to be using the Internet to do such good things. Yet it seems obvious that not everything and perhaps not even most things that we produce together online will be as heartwarming as a charity or as valuable as Wikipedia. Other examples of Internet-abetted collaborative endeavors include the “birthers,” Chinese hacker collectives and the worldwide jihadi movement.

Yes, digital technology can be used by activists for a host of evil things – violence! terrorism! misinformation! – and I wanted to include these examples of destructive and dangerous digital activism in the data set.

With this goal in mind, I went searching at the home of digital doom-saying: Evgeny Morozov’s Net Effect blog. I reviewed every single post. I found many examples of government repression and corporate malfeasance, but relatively few examples of private individuals or citizen organizations using digital technology for destructive political activism. I found a few examples of DDoS attacks (some possibly government-funded), but that’s about it. Certainly there are case of groups of individuals getting together to do nasty things – like harrassing 11-year-olds, but this activity has no greater social or political goal and thus can’t really be called digital activism.

My question – is perception of “bad” digital activism overblown? Are most of the bad acts online (those that counter values of human rights and accountability) actually coming from governments and corporations while most instances of citizen-driven digital activism are not destructive or violent? We need to stop talking vaguely about the “worldwide jihadi movement” and “sometimes violent” protests and start getting specific. Where are these destructive activism cases? Really, I want to know so I can put them in my data set.

Image: L. Marie/Flickr

Tactical vs. Strategic Success: Why Both Matter

by Mary Joyce

Imagine you want to win a race. You begin training every day, change your diet, and greatly reduce your time. You’re in the best shape of your life. However, on the day on the race, you finish two seconds late and lose the race. Instead of being the guy in the middle leaping over the finish line, you’re the guy in the white shirt who almost made it. Was this a success or a failure?

In digital activism, this kind of situation occurs all the time. Activists are successful in completing the tactics they have laid out for themselves (getting thousands of people in the street, developing a coherent message, building a flexible organization) but they fail in their ultimate goal (overthrowing a dictatorial government, throwing out the results of a rigged election). The 2009 post-election mobilization in Iran is a perfect example: successful mobilization, failure in goal of overturning election results.

Currently the value of a digital activism is in the eye of the beholder. The optimists say that the mobilization made it a success. The pessimists and skeptics say that the mobilization was a failure because they did not achieve their ultimate goal.

But both sides can be right if we look at this empirically as tactical success vs. strategic success. A strategy is a plan that includes a series of actions taken to achieve a goal. Each action is a tactic. So if your goal is to win a race, your tactics would be to train, to go on a special diet, to measure your times to track your progress. Likewise, if your goal is to overturn an election result, you may decide that taking to the street, to show the government that you do not accept the result, is a good tactic. Maybe you are wrong.

Often, when a digital tactic succeeds, the technology worked, but the strategy was somehow flawed. We need to know how and when the technology works so that best practices can be replicated. We need to pay attention to tactical successes. But we also need to remember that tactical success + strategic failure is not good enough. Digital technology provides that means for activists to record, process, reveal, co-create, request, and aggregate in a way never before possible. But technology doesn’t solve the strategic questions of target, audience, message, opportunity structure, alliance-building, isolation of opponents… the list goes on.

A failure of strategy of is not a failure of technology. It just reveals technology’s limits.

image: Danimal1802/Flickr

Why Digital Activism Matters

On Thursday, President Obama gave a speech to a group of bank executives who collectively make up one of the world’s most powerful economic groups. He was there to scold them for the “failure of responsibility” that precipitated the financial crisis. That day was also Earth Day. Though scarcely recognized, it is meant as a reminder of the unsustainability of much of what constitutes modern life, and the degradation of earth, sea, and air that results. At first glance, these two events might seem unrelated, but they are part of the same nagging voice, telling us in different ways on a daily basis that we need to change the structure of our global society.

The idea that we need to change how the world operates is so daunting that the natural reaction is to deny that it is true. I am not speaking of true denial, of those who say that global warming is a hoax or new financial regulation is unnecessary. I do not think there are many people who believe that anymore. I am talking about denying that the change we need is systemic. I am talking about the desire to believe that we can fix these problems piecemeal, with small reforms here and there, with new oversight bodies, by driving hybrid cars. One reason we cling to these easy answer to answers that maintain the current patterns of our lives is because we do not believe that we can create a truly better world.

Yet to change the world, we need to change one thing: power. Not a transfer of power from one institution to another, or one leader to another, or one party to another, but the dissemination of power among the world’s citizens such that the divide between the most and least powerful is narrowed and no one can act with impunity. This is not a new idea. We have various institutions – such as one man/one vote and equality under the law – that try to enshrine this idea of equality of power, though it has not yet been achieved.

To lessen the power divide in our global society the path is not through the doors of current institutions, which are structured on historic power dynamics. We must instead look at the ground on which those institutions stand and see how the infrastructure beneath them could be made to shift such that the institutions would have no choice but to change. When examining this infrastructure, we should pay close attention to that which is new, which is different, which presents innovative modes of power distribution and creation.

In this day and age, a natural place to look for this new kind of infrastructure is the global digital network that connects ever more of the world’s citizens through the Internet and mobile phones. Here we have an infrastructure that really is new, where anyone on the network can create and publish to a mass audience, where the cost of mass publication approaches zero, where communication is no longer centralized, where people can not only broadcast to their peers on a mass scale, but also coordinate and mobilize interactively, where influence travels among peers through consent, rather than from authority figures through the monopoly of force.

There are many uses of this new infrastructure. Repressive governments are using it to monitor their citizens and businesses are using it to inundate us with increasing levels of advertising. The point is not that this new infrastructure can be used is old ways of course it can. The question is: in what new way can it be used? How can we leverage this low-cost, decentralized, and peer-based infrastructure to challenge the economically-striated, centralized, and hierarchical infrastructure that determines the power dynamic of our modern world?

Digital activism offers the practical means of testing the capacities of this new digital infrastructure to change the global power dynamic.  Each campaign, each mobilization, each “wiki leak” reveals more of what is possible. The struggle against unequal power is older than history itself. The digital network is just the most recent tool in conquering it. It is also the most powerful such tool we have ever had. Because so much is at stake, it matters that we get digital activism right. It is with the historic importance of digital activism’s role in mind that the Meta-Activism Project carries on its work.

image: Flickr/kevin dooley

Digital Activism & Power

The Big Question

Digital activism is a field is search of a central question. There are many possibilities being bandied about, and the nature of the question varies according to who is asking. Activists ask “how do I use digital activism in my campaign?”, which too often devolves into “how do I use digital tools in my campaign?” and a focus on the device or app of the moment. Academics, in turn, ask how digital activism affects not individual campaigns but systems: American politics or repressive regimes, for example.

The problem with multiple questions is that they obscures the fact that all these people are actually asking the same question: “Does digital infrastructure change the dynamics of power?” Each of the groups above would add their own modifier, or course. The activists want to know how digital activism will change the dynamics of power of their campaign, giving them the upper hand over their opponent. Academics want to know how digital activism changes the dynamics of power in Iran or China, a question that Patrick Meier, a member of our Strategy Group, has termed the “Tom vs. Jerry” debate.

Nevertheless, for all involved the central question is power. Because this topic is fundamental to all other questions of digital activism – its value, its legitimacy, its development – I will devote a series of posts to presenting different answers to this question and different ways to conceptualize it. This post is the first and answers the question according to a certain definition of power.

Defining Power

If we seek to answer the question “does digital infrastructure change the dynamics of power” we need to first define “digital infrastructure” and “power”. “Digital infrastructure” can be defined as the networks, devices, and applications that are engaged in the production and dissemination of digitally-encoded content. It is a deliberately broad term. The argument of digital activism is that the global digital network is fundamentally different from previous communications systems and we should appreciate this new system in all its complexity and reject the temptation to be reductionist. We cannot determine the effect of digital activism on power if we only talk about a handful of applications, like Facebook and Twitter.

The definition of power we will use in this post was developed by political scientist Steven Lukes‘ of New York University and is the most nuanced and broadly applicable definition of power I have yet come across. It is called the “three faces of power“. The three faces are:

1) Decision Making Power
2) Non-Decision Making Power
3) The Power to Define Interests

The first face of power, Decision Making Power, is the one we are most familiar with. It is the power to make and implement decisions. For example, when Proposition 8 came onto the ballot in California, it showed that those opposing gay marriage had greater power than those who supported it, because the referendum was decided in favor of same-sex marriage opponents. Those who opposed gay marriage implemented this decision by compelling same-sex marriage supporters to do something they would not do otherwise: cease same-sex marriages. This formulation of power – the ability to force someone to do something they otherwise would not do – is the most common conceptualization of power, but is actually only the most visible.

The second face of power, Non-Decision Making Power, is the ability to prevent an issue from even entering a decision-making phase. In the same-sex marriage example, this refers to the long period of time when same-sex marriage was not considered a valid public issue, and was kept off the political agenda.

The third face of power, The Power to Define Interests, is the most subtle. It refers to the ability of those in power to convince those they have power over to make decisions against their own interests. Examples include women supporting patriarchal systems, gay people opposing same-sex marriage rights, or poor people opposing universal health care. In all three cases, the powerless have been convinced to act in the interest of the powerful, rather than in their own interest. This form or power is perhaps the most insidious because, as long as those who are harmed by a policy align their interests with those benefit from it, there will not be any pressure to put the issue on the political agenda (face two) or to have a vote or similar open contest on the issue (face one).

How Digital Infrastructure Affects Power: Defining Interests

Digital infrastructure affects the mechanics of power by making it easier for activists to spread information (influencing interests) and to mobilize around that information (influencing the public agenda and decision-making). To demonstrate this, I will start with the third face of power and work up to the first since the power process actually begins with the third face (definition of interests) and ends with the first (deciding public contests). Continue reading

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