Does Digital Activism Exist?

Alaa Abd El Fattah is an extremely smart blogger, developer, and activist. He is one of my go-to people for original and astute insights into digital activism and, when I asked him for feedback on a forthcoming anthology on digital activism I am working on (shameless plug), he did not disappoint:

Thought it was a good thing to reflect on how “ill defined” digital activism is. However I feel like the term needs to be “problematized” a bit. Does digital activism exist at all?

My initial (and decidedly nonintellectual) reaction was, “of course digital activism exists – I’m writing a book about it!” About a week ago, however, I was speaking to one of the contributors to said book who, during a rather heated exchange, blurted out something to the effect of “I don’t understand why there’s a need to differentiate between activism and digital activism at all!” Clearly there is a need to address this issue.

We can choose to address this question – “does digital activism exist?” – by erecting a straw man (much more fun) or by actually addressing the critics of digital activism’s legitimacy. First, let’s deal with the straw man by defining digital activism simply as “activism that uses digital technology.” If this is the definition, then it is very easy to prove that it exists. Activists are using digital tools all around us: in Moldova, in Iran, in Morocco, in Colombia, even in the United States. So if digital activism is just activism + digital, there are few who would argue that it does not exist.

However this definition, as I mentioned earlier, is a straw man. Critics of the conceptualization of digital activism as a field separate from activism set a higher standard. For digital activism to be a new field, the addition of digital technology to activism practice must be a change of kind not just degree. The addition of new technologies to the practice of activism thus far (like using fax for activism in the US or tape cassettes for activism in Iran) has not been construed as creating a fundamentally different type of activism, even though it did increase the communication and mobilization capacity of the activists using these technologies.

Previous technologies have represented only a change in degree (greater communication capacity) not a change in kind (new forms of activism). Despite the integration of these new technologies, the fundamental character of activism did not change because these technologies simply automated previous practices. Instead of posting a letter to Congress, activists could now send a fax. Instead of passing out handbills of Ayatollah Khomeini’s sermons, his supporters could pass out audio recording of them. For digital activism to be a legitimate new field, it must innovate types of activism that were previously impossible, not just automate old tactics. Continue reading

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