The Net Freedom Caveat

Civil society used to be composed of organizations that helped citizens undertake civic action. Now citizens are also taking civic action directly, using the Internet as their organizational infrastructure. Protecting civil society in the 21st century means protecting the Internet.

The Internet is a tool of freedom only if it is also free. Protect it.

Beyond Cyber-Optimism and Cyber-Pessimism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to Adapt: Analog Theory Meets Digital Activism

Time to fix the map: Analog theories do not fully explain digital activism. (image: Flickr/Alex E. Proimos)

Theory is like a map to a place one has never been. With the right theory, the new location is illuminated. The bank is across from the supermarket and the elementary school beside the park, just as predicted. With the wrong theory, confusion reigns. There is a bank, but it is across from the school, not the supermarket. There is no park. There is a new ice cream store in town, which would have been nice to know about, but the map did not indicate it. Discarding the map entirely seems an overreaction, but one does need to get out a pen, fix the errors, and add the new locations that are missing.

The above metaphor roughly describes the circumstances of analog theories of activism in the age of digital media. They lack the predictive power they once had because activism has changed.  Analog theories can explain some, but not all, of digital activism. (For example, analog theories accurately describe the centralized structures of campaigns initiated by NGOs, but cannot describe the decentralized networked structures of crowd campaigns like Occupy and the Arab Spring) (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013).

Of all analog theories of activism, social movement theory had the greatest descriptive and predictive power in the analog era, so its value in the digital era is the most highly contested.  When scholars began studying digital activism in the mid 1990’s, they immediately began to use social movement theory to describe the new types of activism they were seeing. (Cleaver, 1998; Froehling, 1997; Myers, 1994; Wray, 1998).  Though a number of other frameworks were applied, including rhetoric (Gurak, 1999), critical theory (Langman, 2005), and computer-mediated communication (Russell, 2001), social movement theory never lost its dominant position.

Why was social movement theory so appealing in describing the effect of digital media on contentious politics? First, and more importantly, it accurately described activism in the analog era, the context in which it was developed. It is a rich and well-developed body of theory, with many ready-made concepts, such as collective identity, that can be applied to digital activism.

Analog activism and digital activism also share structural similarities. Both involve claims, claimants, targets, and mobilization. As a result of this perceived ease-of-fit, much of the literature of digitally mediated contentious politics has been an extension of social movement theory (De Jong, Shaw, & Stammers, 2005; Earl & Schussman, 2002; Garrett, 2006; McCaughey & Ayers, 2003; Juris, 2005; Leizerov, 2000; Van de Donk, Loader, Nixon, & Rucht, 2004).

However, other scholars are beginning to describe how social movement theory falls short in its explanations of digital activism. Social movement theory assumes a central social movement organization that plans collective actions and mobilizes the resources necessary to carry them out. Yet the inexpensive coordination afforded by digital media make centralization less necessary and resource requirements lower. As a result, leadership is more fluid and rigidly hierarchical organizations are losing ground to hybrid organizations with more networked structures and networked crowds with fluid structures (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Chadwick, 2007; Dunn, 2012; Karpf, 2012; Tufekci, 2011; Shirky, 2009).

Moreover, much as digital activism is composed of isolated tactics and small campaigns that are not connected to broader social movements.  Social movement can only explain these smaller instances of contention as part of a larger whole.

Because analog social movements were resource-intensive, free-riding was an overarching concern and collective identity was seen as a providing a bulwark of solidarity and commitment (Hunt & Benford, 2007; Olson, 1965). These mechanisms operate differently when digital media is used. Because fewer resources are needed to coordinate, there is no longer the foregone assumption that a non-participant is benefiting from expended resources without earning that benefit through participation. Also, resource mobilization that does occur is more likely to be organized by participants than by a central social movement organization, again changing the calculus of the free-rider (Agarwal, Bennett, Johnson, & Walker, 2013).

The reduced role of central organizations, combined with the greater expectation of self-expression following the rise of social media, has reduced the value and necessity of collective identity frames (Brunsting & Postmes, 2002). More flexible personal action frames that legitimize the self-expression of the individual participant are also proving to be effective mobilizers (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013).

Yet, as Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg note in their forthcoming book, The Logic of Connective Action, these critiques should best be viewed as an adaptation of social movement theory, not a replacement.  Analog theory needs to be adapted and extended, but not discarded.

References Continue reading

The New Age of Generative Civil Society

TED made themselves generative. Will other nonprofits follow? (Image: NYTimes)

In 2009 TED, the prestigious global ideas conference, made an unusual decision: they created the free TEDx license and let anyone hold a TED conference. Now there are six or seven TED conferences every day. TED is influential because of the incredible prestige of being asked to speak there. That prestige is partially a result of limited supply of speaker spots: high demand + low supply = high prestige.  One would think that more conferences – and more speaker spots – would weaken the TED brand, but it has done the opposite. According to The Economist, “these events seem to add to the lustre of the main conferences, rather than diluting them.” By opening up the brand, TED has “inspired people to contribute to it for nothing.” TED allowed itself to become generative.

To be generative is to inspire and permit independent creative production.  The term entered the popular lexicon in 2009 in The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It, a book by legal scholar Jonathan Zittrain. In the book, Zittrain explains that the Internet became popular because it was generative: people were able to build things on top of it without the assistance or permission of its creators. The inventors of blogs, wikis, web pages, and computer viruses did not need to ask any owner of the Internet permission. The Internet both inspires and permits creative production not imagined or controlled by its creators.

Generative Civil Society in Russia

Mocking elite privilege in Russia. (Image: Wikimedia)

Generativity applies not only to technical systems, it also applies to social systems.  In February of 2010, a Mercedes carrying the vice president of Russia’s largest oil company, Lukoil, crossed into oncoming traffic, slamming into a small Citroen and killing its two occupants  The Mercedes had “special license plates” that made it exempt from traffic laws for no reason other than the elite status of the driver.

When official media gave an unlikely alternative version (it was the Citroen’s fault), bloggers called bullshit on the story and a rapper created an original rap video about the incident (“all video cameras break when they capture the evidence of my crime. You can shove your public opinion”). Another video, shot like a TV ad, shows a car doing crazy stunts to reach a Lukoil gas station.

Though the Lukoil official was not punished, the campaign birthed at least two durable civic organizations.  The LiveJournal communities Antimigalk and Blue Buckets Society, founded in the wake of the Lukoil case, are dedicated to achieving a ban on these special plates. While Antimigalki publishes photo and video evidence of violations, The Blue Buckets Society (named after the blinking blue flashers VIP vehicles use) organizes flash mobs. This is certainly something new: instead of civil society organizations creating a campaign, the campaign created civil society organizations.

The campaign against the impunity of the Lukoil executive was a generative campaign.  It was open and participatory. No one claimed it as their campaign or took a leadership role. They inspired  a response, but did not define what it should be. The message of the original activists was clear: “This situation is ridiculously wrong. There is a community of people that care about it. We invite you to be one of us.” Continue reading

What Does Digital Civil Society Look Like?

“I’ve been the victim of digital civil society!”

What does digital civil society look like? It’s more than “networks,” I know that much. Digital civil society features some incredibly complex constellations of various types of actors working in cooperation, synchrony, and even independently of one another.

For example, the “constellation” (my term) of organizations, individuals, and loose networks that implemented the 2012 Rush Limbaugh boycott in support of Sandra Fluke (as described by Miranda Neubauer ofTechPresident):

ThinkProgress has beenkeeping a running tally ofwhich companies have not yet responded to protests, as well asreactions by targeted companies on Twitter, using Storify. As theHuffington Postnoted, Reddit usersbegan an effort to persuade Limbaugh advertisers to withdraw their ad dollars. In addition to severalFacebook pagesand the Twitter feed@StopRush,Left Action,Credo actionandSum of Usorganized petitions targeting his advertisers in general….Shoq, the pseudonymous liberal blogger, has created a spreadsheet in an attempt to list all the various anti-Limbaugh efforts.

Seriously, how would you conceptualize that? Could you draw it? Would it be an animation with networks and individuals and organizations interacting, directing their actions at Limbaugh advertisers? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but this is the complexity we need to be able to describe (and explain!) if we are to understand civil society in the digital age.


Effects of the Internet on Legacy Institutions

The Internet is shaking the foundations of many of the institutions on which contemporary society is built. Here’s a little chart I made that summarizes some of these effects (click image to view full-size).

Screen Shot 2013-01-22 at 4.57.31 PM

* Lawrence Lessig
** Yochai Benkler

Digital Civil Society: Initial Thoughts

I’ve been starting to think beyond digital activism into digital civil society, beyond the digital actions take by civic actors to the system and institutions of which they are a part. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how the use of digital technology:

  1. Changes the dynamics of existing nonprofit organizations, particularly with regard to fundraising and membership.
  2. Creates new types of fast, cheap, participatory, often ephemeral organizations with fuzzy organizational boundaries and networked structures.
  3. Changes the ways these organizations – and unaffiliated individuals – interact with one another.

I’ve put some of my initial ideas in the presentation below, which I gave in Chile a couple of weeks ago.

Easy as International Activism

I’m currently in Europe doing some communications consulting for a public health NGO with a regional network. They want to do a campaign to increase regional access to a particular medication, so I suggested that they coordinate an international day of action – Google Spreadsheet workplan, e-petition signatures, locally-organized offline actions, Skype coordination calls.

I suggested they aim to mobilize action in a minimum of 10 countries. “Wow, that’s so straightforward” said the staffer as I made my suggestion. “That’s totally doable.” And it is.

Change happens slowly, but in some moments I realize its cumulative effect and I have to be amazed.

What if the Real Shift in Power Happens Online?

The current style of analyzing the effect of digital media on politics is to look at the offline political outcome (a street protest, an electoral result, regime change) and then look back to the internet and see if there is a causal link.

But what if the offline action is not the phenomenon but the epiphenomenon? What if the real change in power, the change which determined that the protest would occur or the regime would fall, occurred before the people ever hit the streets or the voting booth? What if their interaction with one another on the internet – contact with new ideas and one another, ability to discuss, deliberate and vent, to safely reveal preferences, to plan and coordinate – made the offline outcome such an extreme likelihood that the offline manifestation is almost a footnote?

How would this power shift occur online? It is not unreasonable to say that, in the digital age, the currency of power is no longer physical force or even money, but the ability to command attention. To push the idea further, what if we say that, in the political sphere, attention acts as a proxy for perceived legitimacy and thus for soft power? That would mean that the process of gaining attention – for a person, for an idea – which happens online, is the real shift in power and the offline actions that result from that shift in attention – be it rebellion or simply a loss at the polls – is simply a result in the change in power that occurred online.

It is not new that loss of legitimacy causes changes in power because people and ideas who lack legitimacy lack authority. It is new that this shift in perceptions of legitimacy happens in a different sphere than the institutions of power. It is different if the power shift happens in the world of bits instead of the world of atoms.

Those currently in power seems to understand this on some level as both democracies and dictatorships are seeking to close, control, and limit the net. But are they controlling the wrong thing. The Chinese government seeks to limit offline collective action and they do this by limiting the words, ideas, and conversations that lead to collective action. They are trying to stop the online power shift from occurring so an offline power shift will not occur. Is this possible?

In the end, if we consider the shift in power to be a shift in power to be a cognitive shift on the part of the person who is socially exposed to new ideas and changes his or her opinion, then what dictators really need to o is police thought and the only state that really seems to be attempting this (or was under its previous leader) is North Korea. Though dictatorship persists, totalitarianism has been on the decline since its great failure in WWII. It is just too hard.

Power shifts as a personal and cognitive shift on the part of the individual citizen, where that change in thinking is mediated by the internet: perhaps this the phenomenon we should be trying to study.


AMC Day 2: The Benefits of Exile in Cyberspace

Summer is conference season and MAP is reporting live. Over the next few days I’ll be reporting from the Allied Media Conference in Detroit and David Faris will be reporting from the Global Voices Summit in Nairobi.Check out this blog and ourTwitter streamfor reports and ourFacebook pagefor photos

– – – – – – – – –

People come to theAllied Media Conferencebecause of sessions like “Radical Organizing from the Dancefloor.” The conference, its presenters, and participants are not afraid to look for deep cultural meaning – and opportunities for resistance – in seemingly benign practicese.

Exilic space facilitates new expression of gender and dance in Jamaica. Exilic spaces exist online as well.

The session was co-lead byanthropologist/DJLarisa Mannandimmigrant rights activist/media producerThanu Yakupitiyageand explored how to create safe spaces for the creation of joy and social capital at the intersection “political activism and the pleasure and experimentation of the dancefloor.” Yup, sounds awesome.

During the session Larisa brought forth a concept from her research: “exilic space” – spaces of exile. In a blog post explaining the concept she writes:

Subordinated people have always relied on “exilic spaces” for survival and renewal. These… spaces are carved out by practical and creative acts. In exilic spaces like underground dance events, the uncivilized can make the most of their independence from the constraints of “civil” life: the unruly and vulgar embrace grime and glamour, playing with categories of gender, sexuality, race and class.

What happens in these spaces could be called “leisure” or “parties” or “hedonism.” But serious work can happen… if it is truly exilic. People create and share cultural/material resources on terms not dictated by mainstream society…. People play out alternate identities….

While exilic spaces can be sites of struggle against dominant power, they are often not seen as revolutionary either by more mainstream political movements and organizers, or by the state or elites, who prefer to police them in relation to concepts of propriety and property.

Does this sound familiar to anyone? It reminds me of insular online communities like 4chan and groups like Anonymous where members also develop alternate (or anonymous) identities in a space not governed by civil life through creative media-making. The outside world sees their activities and creative output as acts of hedonism, trolling, or perversion, but these are also spaces for the development of new culture (4chan had a major roll in popularizing visualmemes).

Larisa studies physical exilic spaces of music and dance culture, but these spaces exist in the online world too, and may be seen as analogous in that they are also spaces for the safe germination of new ways of being. Isolation in cyberspace can be harmful, but is can also be helpful in nurturing the subcultures that keep mass culture innovative and resilient.


Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.