How to Write a Nonprofit Blog

Screen Shot 2013-08-23 at 4.59.25 PMI know I rarely post such practical tips, but I created this list for a consulting client and thought I’d share.  The list is remixed from a blog post by Desi Cabrera of Miratel in Toronto.

  1. Write Focused Content: Keeping your content focused specifically on your organization’s cause and mission.
  2. Post Length of 200-750 Words: Short posts are more likely to be read and (because they require less work) more likely to be written. The ideal length is 500 words.
  3. Highlight Key Ideas: Some people won’t have time to read the whole post. If you put a few of the post’s key ideas in boldface, they will still get the main idea.
  4. Tell Stories About Real People: This type of post can be created at any time, is conceptually easy to create, and will be accessible to any visitor to the site. To ensure that informed consent is given, every person who is the subject of a story on the blog should sign a release form, ideally using a Google Form (the form is the text, they write their name in a text box and click submit).
  5. Write Lists: Top 5 reasons charter schools are over-rated, top 10 best practices of needle exchanges, top 3 environment NGOS in New Orleans – these types of posts are easy to read and provide a simple format for the writer. There is even a name for a blog post that in list form, a listicle.
  6. Include Photos/Video: In almost every aspect of social media and digital marketing, visual components such as photos and videos enhance the content that is being shared and should be included in blog posts. This is also a very quick way to create content. Individuals must sign the web release before their photo is posted.
  7. Have a Consistent Schedule: There should be a blogging calendar which states which day each person who commits to write for the blog knows they are responsible for writing a post. (For example, Allison might be responsible for posting every other Wednesday.) People can write additional posts when they want (for example, for breaking news), but with a calendar you will not find yourself with blank spaces where no one has blogged all week.
  8. Enable Feed (RSS) and Email Subscriptions: If a reader enjoys your blog you should make every attempt to make it as simple as possible for them to return. You can easily create an RSS feed using Feedburner and place sign-up in a visible place around the bog post so visitors who like what they read can receive new posts via feed or email.
  9. Look for Examples of Good Nonprofit Blogs: Start here:

Image: Etsy/LivyLoveDesigns

Navigating Privilege: When to Step Up, When to Step Back

The George Zimmerman trial has brought race back into the national dialogue, though not in a particularly useful way.  One news channel broadcast a segment on whether “cracker” is as bad an epithet as “the n-word.”  If you can’t write or say the latter without being offensive, the answer is “probably not.”

Wendy Davis: an interesting case study on conflicting intersectionality

At the same time, Texas women are fighting for their reproductive rights.  Their champion is Texas Senator Wendy Davis (left), a slim, blond, white woman with Barbie-doll styling, a Harvard degree, and a history of grit.

Only 44% of Texans are non-Hispanic and white, yet if you look at photos of a July 1 pro-choice rally in Austin, there are few people are color.  Maybe they weren’t there.  Maybe they weren’t photographed.  Either way, it’s interesting.

Most of us are privileged in some ways, disadvantaged in others.  This is because of something called intersectionality, the idea that our identities have multiple features.

Sometimes these intersections reinforce our disadvantage (for example, a poor woman who identifies as queer is marginalized in different ways for each of those characteristics).

At other times, our identities are a mix of characteristics that privilege and disadvantage us.  For example, a gay white man is privileged in his whiteness and masculinity, disadvantaged for being gay (which is why he may choose to stay in the closet).  In all cases this disadvantage is not an intrinsic result of the characteristic, but is a social construction which unfairly denotes some people as better than others.

I don’t know Wendy Davis or her thoughts on privilege, but she’s an interesting case study on conflicting intersectionality.  When she filibustered the anti-choice Senate Bill 5 on June 25th, she did so as a woman in a body which is 77% male and as a Democrat in a body that is 62% Republican.  It was appropriate for her to step up because she was in a position of disadvantage.

When she found herself standing on a podium composed mostly of white people at the July 1st pro-choice rally, she might have thought of stepping back (and pushing someone else forward), by getting a Latina or African-American woman a speaker spot on the program. In the context of the rally, she was in a position of privilege.

The idea of “step up, step back” is useful in thinking about how to navigate privilege and disadvantage.  The principle is part of consensus process and is used by many activist groups.  (Anarchists, who care a lot about being egalitarian, are particular proponents.)  On his blog, Enormous Face, artist Kalan Sherrard defines the step up, step back principle as “taking responsibility, but not taking over to dominate, a situation or group dynamic.”  (The New York General Assembly which formed during Occupy also has a whole page devoted to the concept.)

The bottom line is, when you are in a situation of disadvantage, step up.  When you are in a situation of privilege, step back.
Continue reading

3 Video Advocacy Styles

One of my side projects is creating a typology of digital activism campaigns.  This presentation presents a slice of that – three types of advocacy efforts in which digital video plays a starring role.

Here are the videos mentioned in the presentation:


In-personal screening of a documentary film convinces Secretary of Defense Panetta to improve the legal process for victims of military sexual assault.

Vertical Campaign

Video by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union shared via social media helps convince Global Fund to support harm reduction services for drug users in Russia (sub-titled in English).

Horizontal Campaign

A decentralized peer campaign, the It Gets Better Project, speaks directly to gay youth convincing them not to commit suicide. Continue reading

Webinar on Digital Nonviolence

Slides from my webinar on digital nonviolence, which I presented for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.  The presentation is about Civil Resistance 2.0, a crowdsourced project I began with Patrick Meier to update Gene Sharp’s canonical list of 198 nonviolent methods for the digital age.

Civil Resistance 2.0: 198 Methods Upgraded from Mary Joyce

Civil Resistance 2.0: A New Database of Methods

[UPDATED] Gene Sharp pioneered the study of nonviolent civil resistance. Some argue that his books were instrumental to the success of activists in a number of revolutions over the past 20 years ranging from the overthrow of Milosevic to ousting of Mubarak. Civil resistance has often been referred to as “nonviolent guerrilla warfare” and Sharp’s manual on “The Methods of Nonviolent Action,” for example, includes a list of 198 methods that activists can use to actively disrupt a repressive regime. These methods are divided into three sections: nonviolent protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention.

While Sharp’s 198 are still as relevant today as they were some 40 years ago, the technology space has changed radically. In Sharp’s “Dictionary of Power and Struggle: Language of Civil Resistance in Conflicts” published in 2012, Gene writes that “a multitude of additional methods will be invented in the future that have characteristics of the three classes of methods: nonviolent protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention.” About four years ago, I began to think about how technology could extend Sharp’s methods and possibly generate entirely new methods as well. This blog post was my first attempt at thinking this through and while it was my intention to develop the ideas further for my dissertation, my academic focus shifted somewhat.

With the PhD out of the way, my colleague Mary Joyce suggested we launch a research project to explore how Sharp’s methods can and are being extended as a result of information and communication technologies (ICTs). The time was ripe for this kind of research so we spent the past few months building a database of civil resistance methods 2.0 based on Sharp’s original list. We also consulted a number of experts in the field to help us populate this online database. We decided not to restrict the focus of this research to ICTs only–i.e., any type of technology qualifies, such as drones, for example.

This database ( will be an ongoing initiative and certainly a live document since we’ll be crowdsourcing further input. In laying the foundations for this database, we’ve realized once again just how important creativity is when thinking about civil resistance. Advances in technology and increasing access to technology provides fertile ground for the kind of creativity that is key to making civil resistance successful.

We invite you to contribute your creativity to this database and share the link ( or widely with your own networks. We’ve added some content, but there is still a long way to go. Please share any clever uses of technology that you’ve come across that have or could be applied to civil resistance by adding them.

Our goal is to provide activists with a go-to resource where they can browse through lists of technology-assisted methods to inform their own efforts. In the future, we envision taking the database a step further by considering what sequencing of said methods are most effective.

How Nonprofits Can Encourage Digital Innovation

Note: This is cross-posted from the Open Society Foundations blog.

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As the number of digital activism successes (and failures) increases, nonprofits are getting more serious about being digitally innovative. Some, like Oxfam, which has fundedshiftLabsand Greenpeace, which now has aDigital Mobilisation Lab, are creating internal projects dedicated to increasing digital innovation.

But what are the broader lessons for nonprofits and activists without the budget for an in-house innovation team? What kind of environment engenders effective digital innovation? Reflecting on the hundreds of digital activism cases I have studied over the years, I came up with a model I callARC:Awareness,Relationships,Crisis.


A lack of digital skills is often seen as a stumbling block to innovation. How can staff innovate digitally if they don’t know how to edit video, use HTLM code, or use a Twitter hashtag? Organizations likeTactical Technology Collectivehave addressed this problem by teaching human rights campaigners how to use a range of software tools that are useful to activists.

But lack of individual skill need not be a stumbling block. Individuals need an awareness of what is possible digitally, and relationships with people with the technical skills to polish and implement those ideas. For example, Ory Okolloh, the Kenyan blogger who initially had the idea for the crisis-mapping applicationUshahididid not have the skills to code a piece of software that would allow SMS messages to be posted to a public digital map, but she knew that this kind of software was possible. Then she contacted her developer friend David Kobia, who built the first version.

How can nonprofits increase this awareness? The Greenpeace MobLab held a six-daydigital mobilization skill sharein the Netherlands in late February. It brought together 100 international activists from Greenpeace and its partners to share tools and tactics. One of the methods used to quickly expose activists to a range of tactical possibilities was “speed geeking,” an activity like speed dating, where participants circulate around a room. At each station they are given a short demo of a tool or tactic. At the end of the demo they are not users – speed geeking is not a form of training – but it does create awareness.

For organizations without the financial resources to host a weeklong camp, examples of digital innovations can be shared in whatever format participants prefer: a list of links in a monthly email to the staff listserv, a monthly video hosted by a staff member tasked with increasing innovation awareness, slide presentations at staff meetings, video conferences where an innovative team shares the story of their success with staff working on other campaigns. The goal with these interventions is not to train staff to be able to implement these strategies, only to generate excitement and interest in new possibilities.


The more we understand about innovation, the more we understand that it is a social process. Even lone geniuses build upon the work of others, and it’s no coincidence that technically innovative companies are started by groups of entrepreneurs: Jobs and Wokniak, Gates and Allen, Zuckerberg, Saverin, Muskovitz, and Hughes. In the business world as in the nonprofit world, these relationships provide two values: skills and support.

The skills side is perhaps the most obvious. Programmer Bill Gates needed Paul Allen’s business savvy to cement Microsoft’s first intellectual property deals. Visionary Steve Jobs needed the technical skills of computer engineer and programmer Steve Wozniak to build the first Apple computers. In a nonprofit, campaign managers rely on video editors, web administrators, and graphic designers to implement the vision of a digital campaign.

The fact that relationships are needed for emotional support and encouragement, as well as hard skills, may be seen as touchy-feely, but it is tremendously important. When Jobs and Wozniak were building the Apple I computer in the early 1970’s, they were building it within a supportive community of computer hobbyists, known as the Homebrew Computer Club, that encouraged amateurs to build their own computers and software.

On the activism side, Ory Okolloh was also part of closely-knit and politically engaged community of African bloggers, like Erik Hersman and Juliana Rotich, who helped build Ushahidi from a piece of software into an organization. At the skill share, Greenpeace activists did not only learn skills from one another, they also built a global community around digital innovation for environment causes. This support is crucial in encouraging innovative individuals and small groups to follow through on new ideas.

Just as a community can provide support to innovators, it can also provide innovation-killing discouragement. Large organizations can be unintentionally conservative and bureaucratic. Staff can be made to feel that their job is not to achieve a goal but to perform a task. Organizations that see risk more as a possibility for failure than an opportunity for success will discourage staff from trying new things. This is particularly true of organizations that have thrived using older campaigning methods, leading to an “if it’s not broke don’t fix it” mentality.

One way to get around risk-averse tendencies in a large nonprofit is to allow a semi-independent project like shiftLabs to “hothouse” riskier projects. This means that shiftLabs implements the project and is its public face, such that a success furthers Oxfam’s goals, but a failure would not hurt its brand.

Organizations without a project like shiftLabs can begin by encouraging an environment where the voicing of innovative ideas is encouraged, even if these ideas are not always implemented. This “free speech” model of encouraging innovation pushes staff to think more creatively, while allowing the organization as a whole to implement only when it is ready. Small nonprofits and individual activists should seek to actively build supportive communities around their cause.


It is very difficult to innovate in a vacuum. Without constraints, all options are possible, efforts become diffuse and, if a solution is created, it applies somewhat to many situations and perfectly to none. Crisis (or at least a context of constraint) provides a firm reality check to any effort at innovation. There is a timeframe, a clear goal, specific users, and defined resources. In addition, crisis can encourage a conservative organization to get behind an innovation, since crisis creates a greater demand for results, even if it means breaking the rules.

Ushahidi was created during the post-election crisis in Kenya in late 2007 and early 2008. At the time, the local media refused to report on acts of violence. Ory Okolloh was using her blog as a de facto news aggregator, but the task was too great and she also feared for her safety. She needed a platform that would allow Kenyans to publicly self-report instances of violence as they witnessed them around the country. The context of a nationwide crisis in a country with low Internet penetration but higher mobile penetration led to the creation of an application that linked SMS messages to a digital map.

This does not mean that nonprofits need to wait for violent street riots to attempt innovation. Every campaign is a reaction to a social, political, or environmental crisis. By linking innovation efforts to the concrete goals of specific campaigns, nonprofits are likely to get more practical and reality-driven results. By checking if staff members have the awareness and relationships needed to innovate digitally, organizations can begin to achieve greater digital success.

Stand with Planned Parenthood: Lessons from Crisis Response

Though Kony 2012 has received a lot of (deserved) attention on this blog and others, it’s not quite a success yet. While they succeeded tremendously at outreach, I have not yet heard of any political or military response in the direction of actually capturing Joseph Kony. With that in mind, I thought it worthwhile to take a closer look at smaller cases of digital activism that did achieve its goal: two successful campaigns by Planned Parenthood. – Mary

This is a write-up of a SXSW panel on March 12th written by Amy Sample Ward of the Nonprofit Technology Network. It originally appeared in The NonProfit Times. Boldface is not original.

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Just over one year ago, on February 18, 2011, Planned Parenthood Federation of America launched the largest integrated campaign in its history. The threat to defund Planned Parenthood was bundled in a larger packaged proposal of funding cuts to be voted on in Washington, D.C., though the exact date of the vote was unknown. Planned Parenthood launched a multi-channel campaign to ask supporters to stand with them, and at the 2012 SXSWi festival, they shared the three biggest lessons they learned as an organization from the process.

The first: Prime your community so they will be there when you need them. Nakia Hansen, now the Director of Social Media Strategy at The College Board, suggests that social media is a great way to do this. “We did it on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube by posting content they could remix or make their own, or just re-share what was posted by others.” Gabriela Lazzaro, now an Engagement Planner at iCrossing, believes engaging different audiences really requires transparency. “When the crisis happened, we already had education and information available on all of our channels in multiple languages so there was information to point people to.” Social channels were used to build up community and create a consistent space for engagement between the organization and individuals as well as amongst the community. “We weren’t asking for things on a daily basis, but just maintaining an open dialogue,” said Lazzaro. “It’s all about building the relationship and meeting them where they are, whichever channel, etc. So when you do need them, they are ready.

The second: Get control of the message early. Stephanie Lauf, the Director of Online Supporter Engagement at PPFA, explained “It was about standing with us, not supporting us. It was about being together. Within moments of the House vote, we had all our messages out through email, social media, YouTube, and even chaperoned emails through partners.” Amy Bryant, the Digital Content Manager at PPFA, explained that “in this case, we knew it was coming so we were at the ready. But when it comes to most crisis communication, that’s normally not the case. We are a large organization with multiple audiences, various teams and consultants. The instinct is to wait and get your message straight: get everyone together and decide what the message is, et cetera. But now, our supporters are asking us what to say right away. Even if you just post that you know it happened and you are working on it, that is better than nothing.” As Bryant explained, PPFA’s “abc” is Always Be Communicating. “We needed to be on the phone with each other to work on integration and coordination of the messages across channels. When this was a situation where we were all working 12 hours a day, people didn’t want another meeting, but in a crisis you have to get together at least once a day to be sure we were all together.”

The third: Engage with your supporters and give them meaningful calls to action. Hansen explained that in this campaign, stretching over two months, it was difficult at times to maintain the sense of urgency when the messages and situation remained the same. Lauf noted that “when the vote was pushed back, we just put a pink bus on the road to keep the momentum up.” Hansen also suggested that calls to action have to be broad: Sign a petition, call your congress person, change your profile pictures – things that people could do in one click up to bigger actions. Lazzaro shared that at one point, “we were getting tired of our own message. Three of us made a silly video kind of mocking ourselves but really explaining why this was a drawn out campaign and posted that on social channels. And lots of people responded; Salon even picked it up. We filmed ourselves calling congress to show how easy it really is.”

In addition to the content, Bryant emphasized that, “SEO [search engine optimization] is important for something like this. It’s really important to have a hub on your website so that when people are just searching in Google, and don’t automatically go to your Facebook page, they can still find everything. So we created a page that had pictures from celebrities and the community with signs that they ‘stood with us’, links to our social channels and links to actions, easy bullet points that recapped the issues and what is going on, and call-outs for journalists to get more background.”

Nearly a year after this campaign, bringing us up to just this last month, another crisis campaign launched when Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced that Planned Parenthood was ineligible to apply for funding.

Heather Holdridge, who joined PPFA about six months ago as the Director of Digital Strategy for Advocacy and Fundraising, explained that though this campaign lasted only about 4 days, “It was interesting in that those three lessons were incredibly difficult and yet easy the way it played itself out. When our President was notified that this was happening through a phone call, it was a shock and we knew that it was at some point going to become public but we didn’t know when. So, as far as priming our community, there wasn’t any education or communication component in advance. But, our work had been primed through the two month campaign; supporters knew what kind of attacks PPFA was often under, they knew what we really did and what our services were. So, the community was primed through seeing the fight before. When the story came out, we were ready with an email and social media updates; but beyond that we didn’t know what to expect.”

Lauf explained, “your initial reaction is to fill back up the pot when the money is pulled to ensure services don’t lag. Within three hours of launching that email, we saw that people were really [upset] and they needed something else to do that wasn’t just giving money.” Bryant said that during the previous campaign, and throughout their work, PPFA maintained a story bank, collecting stories from community members about what Planned Parenthood had meant to them. “So, when Komen news hit we were able to go into the story bank and pull real stories of women accessing breast health and breast cancer support through PP” Bryant explained. “It is so important to have those stories from your community ahead of time. If we had had to call around and look for stories, it would have taken days.”

Holdridge shared that they “didn’t have a game plan after that email because we didn’t know what the response was going to be. You have to be nimble and prepared. Bryant said, “we have never seen that kind of activity on our Facebook page – we couldn’t refresh the page fast enough to even read and respond to the amount of messages we were getting.” Hansen suggests, “that calls for more than just the digital or social media staff to get together and get online to help respond because of the amount of messages. More people in your organization need to be able to get involved and engage when it is an all-hands-on-deck situation.”

Holdridge continued, “we were able to be responsive and fast in the online space because we knew the parameters of the message and what we could do. There was a lot of action taken by the community that we didn’t prompt. Even though a Tumblr blog wasn’t our site, we still promoted it because it let people that wanted that action have a place to go and to show that the community was strong and taking action for us.”

Whether your organization is involved in policy or advocacy, controversial or not, considering your crisis communication response before a crisis happens can help you, as PPFA staff noted, be nimble, responsive, and keep up with the pace of your community.

5 Lessons from Kony 2012

Kony 2012 began as an unexpected viral video that Invisible Children, a California-based non-profit, uploaded to Vimeo on February 20th and to YouTube this past Monday. Today those two videos have over 65 million views, “Kony” is a trending topic on Twitter, and the phrase “Kony 2012” returns over 4,000 hits on Google.

Yet, perhaps because of its wide reach, the video has had an effect that is rather different than what the creators intended. Here are some lessons learned:

1) Long and serious can go viral…

“Viral video” is a byword for visual chewing gum: short, stupid, easily sharable entertainment. Of the top viral videos of 2011, as identified by, the longest was 3 minutes and 48 seconds long. The most popular was the so-bad-it’s-almost good autotuned monstrosity “Friday”. In my digital activism trainings I tell participants that 3 minutes is the absolute upper limit for an advocacy video. After that, people would just stop watching.

These two truisms about viral video – that short and goofy are most likely to be shared – have been presented with a significant opposing argument: Kony 2012, the longform video on a serious subject, has been passionately shared and viewed.

Kony 2012 did not break the rules of video construction. Rather, it abided by them with rare skill. The video proved that by living up to the requirements of advocacy video – visually appeal, strong emotional hook, accessible narrative structure, inspiring call to action – one can break the seemingly iron law of distractibility: if an advocacy video is good enough, its length can stretch to several times what was previously possible.

2) … but the model is problematic.

Yet I wouldn’t recommend that other NGOs blindly follow the Kony model. The first reason is cost. While we don’t know how much the Kony video cost, we do know (from Invisible Children themselves) that the group spends 46% of their annual budget on “media and film creation,” “awareness products,” and “awareness programs.” The video also features sophisticated motion graphics (animation), computer-generated effects, and a soundtrack of recognizable pop songs, all of which costs money. Is a massively popular video a better way to serve their cause than building another school or another early warning system in Uganda?

The second problem with this model is that in order to uphold the strong narrative structure that made the video engaging (good guy, bad guy, struggle, climax), the film-makers were forced to greatly over-simplify the situation in Uganda. First of all, Joseph Kony, the war criminal they want to bring to justice, isn’t based in Uganda anymore, and is far less of a threat than he once was. The list goes on.

You can’t have it both ways. You can discuss your cause in an accurate and nuanced way, or you can simplify it to make it easily comprehensible and immediate. The question is where to set the balance between accuracy and accessibility. I think Amnesty succeeded in this video, which is also creatively ambitious and features high production values. In it the scene of one political prisoner being saved by supporter petitions is told intentionally in symbolic terms as a dramatic allegory. The question of whether Kony 2012 set the right balance between accuracy and accessibility is harder to answer. They reached many more people by presenting a misleading message. Was this the best way to help their cause?

3) Popularity won Invisible Children the blessing of mass awareness… and the curse of mass scrutiny.

Most organizations that create sharable content want the content to enhance their organization’s brand as well as achieving the campaign’s objective. There’s nothing wrong with that. An organization with a recognizable and credible brand (think Amnesty, Greenpeace, Doctors Without Borders) can fundraise and campaign more easily. Invisible Children probably hoped that the campaign would help them achieve their goal of seeing Joseph Kony arrested and also enhance their own brand recognition.

The video certainly did increase their brand recognition, but not in the way they intended. From the first day that video starting spreading quickly – around March 7th – skeptical stories began appearing. These stories weren’t just coming from liberal academics and Africa-watchers but from mainstream news outlets and pop culture blogs.

Invisible Children was not ready for the institution scrutiny they received. They could not have known that their video would go viral, but that was certainly their intent. The video is clearly ambitious. They should have made sure their own house was in order before taking an action to increase their public profile. At the very least, they should have ensured that their scores on public nonprofit monitoring services, like Charity Navigator, were above reproach. They also should have come up with better responses to potential criticisms. As it was, they responded with a rather petulant Ke$sha quote, which did not raise their credibility.

4) When your medium is social media, you really can’t control the message.

Invisible Children relied of a sympathetic public to share their video. The people were their medium. Yet users of social media do not just pass along content. They comment, they challenge, they respond. This is not what Invisible Children wanted.

It’s telling that Invisible Children’s action kit, which they pitch at the end of the video, includes posters. A poster can be distributed socially, but it is not meant to be interactive. You either hang the poster or do not. You’re not expected to doodle on it or add your own message.

Invisible Children hoped supporters would pass along their videos and post their posters passionately but uncritically. They treated the public as a social media audience, one that would help them out without engaging them critically.

Yet this is not how social media works. Journalist Paul Ford says that the fundamental question of the web is “Why wasn’t I consulted?”. Asking a supporter to share content is implicitly asking them this question. For all the care and skill they put into their video, Invisible Children had no control over how it was ultimately perceived. None of us do.

5) The campaign was a success… but in an unexpected way

On Friday I unexpectedly spent spent several hours at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport (personal lesson: do not fly standby to SXSW). While in the airport I did something I rarely do: I watched network nears, CNN to be specific. During the 10 hours I was in the airport their were at least three segments on Joseph Kony and the situation in Northern Uganda on CNN (the only channel playing in the airport). Sandwiched between segments on poisonous face creams and the founder of Spanx there were three news segments about human rights abuses in Africa. That was pretty amazing.

It would be true to say that the Kony 2012 campaign changed the agenda, pushing this ignored issue into the mainstream (and new) media, but this is only part of the story. After all, the human rights abuses in Uganda are not new, it is a situation that has been going on for years. So what made it newsworthy?

The controversy of Kony 2012 was the real news hook. None of the news segment took the video at face value. One asked Mia Farrow (yes, a celebrity) about her criticisms of Invisible Children. Another segment was called “Kony: Setting the Record Straight.” Kony 2012 was successful not because it generated attention, but because it generated controversy. It was an imperfect campaign, but people will look back on it as a success, not for Invisible Children as an organization, but for the issue of child soldiers and for raising awareness of the human toll of conflict in Africa.

Digital Activism 101: e-Petitions Edition

Why do people who criticize digital activism launching many of their attacks at e-petitions? About once a month an article appears in my feed reader with a title like “Real Change Means Getting Offline,” “The Revolution will not be Tweeted” or “A Critique of Clicktivism.” These articles are written with great seriousness by people who think they are the first to realize that, like offline activism, online and hybrid activism often doesn’t work. (Thanks for the insight). They also often target e-petitions.

Why and How Cyber-Skeptics Attack e-Petitions

These authors tend to focus on e-petitions because e-petitions may be the easiest digital activism tactic to implement, and require the least skill and time commitment. Anyone can set up an e-petition it in a few seconds with absolutely no strategic forethought. Based on this low bar to entry, it’s likely that e-petitions have a high failure rate (I’m hypothesizing here). As such, they are an appealing to cyber-pessimists and cyber-skeptics looking for an easy digital activism target. These polemicists set up this false syllogism:

The False Logic of e-Petition Attacks

  1. IF e-petitions = digital activism (This is false. In fact, digital activism encompasses a wide variety of tactics and tools, of which e-petitions are just one example)
  2. AND e-petitions are ineffective (This is false. Sometimes they are ineffective, sometimes they are effective. It depends on context.)
  3. THEN digital activism is ineffective (This is false. Even if e-petitions are often ineffective, they are but one example of digital activism. You cannot defeat the whole by defeating a part.)

Dissecting an e-Petition Attack

Yesterday’s editorial in The Stanford Daily, the university’s student newspaper, is an example of this type of attack. The article’s title, “Activism is More than Clicking a Button,” fits the cyber-pessimist paradigm perfectly in that it makes a statement that seems totally reasonable and at the same time grossly misrepresents what digital activism is. It defines its target, digital activism, as narrowly and weakly as possible (as “clicking a button”) in order to make it easier to knock down. In rhetoric, this is called building a “straw man argument” (portraying an opposing argument in weak terms so it is easier to defeat). It’s lazy and inaccurate.

Let’s look at how the article uses this misleading rhetorical trick to make it’s argument. The final sentence paragraph is “How effective is this new form of digital activism?” This is a totally reasonable question and an important one. However, the Editorial Board (no individual authors are named) are not asking the question directly, they are asking it rhetorically, which means they propose that the answer is evident. Since the answer to this question is not evident, how do they make it seem so? Here’s one sentence from the paragraph:, one of the larger online sites for generating “e-petitions,” has a dizzying array of topics subject to online activism: Apple’s labor practices in China, MPAA movie ratings, North Korean refugees and more.

First of all, if you want to challenge the legitimacy of an idea, put it in quotes. We don’t put quotes around “e-mail,” so putting quotes around “e-petitions” is simply a rhetorical device to make the technology seem new and unproven. For example, I might write that the activists of the Occupy movement are seeking to create change. Or I could write that the “activists” of the Occupy “movement” are seeking to create “change.” It’s a nifty trick for making your target seem inherently questionable since the quotes imply the phrase “so-called”: The so-called activists of the so-called Occupy movement….you get the picture. The author also calls the array of petition options “dizzying” in order to make them seem chaotic and slightly addled.

Assigning Causation is Difficult in All Activism, Not Just Digital Activism

This article is more honest than most because it does provide arguments from the opposition: certainly believes in the efficacy of online petitions: It cites a number of examples of petitions that have arguably led to companies and governments amending policies. For instance, after an online petition drive at and a mass exodus of customers, Bank of America decided not to implement a new $5 per month banking fee. Verizon similarly dropped a proposed $2 online payment fee after highly negative Internet coverage and 130,000 signatures.

Now, these are indeed cases of what would be considered successful e-petitions, but the authors don’t present the evidence in that way. They present this evidence as a “belief” of, not objective evidence that e-petitions can work.

They reason they give for being skeptical of this evidence is that it is unclear “how critical… the online petitions [were] in achieving these ends.” Now, maybe the authors do not understand this, but in many instances of activism it is unclear what tactic actually caused a given outcome. This is true of offline as well as online activism. The fact is simply that most social and political change outcomes are multi-causal. It wasn’t just the protest, it was also the decrease in oil prices, the elite lobbying, the dissent within the leader’s political party, the international pressure… again, you get the picture. The problem of assigning causation to a tactic does not mean the tactic was not successful, it means that causation is difficult to assign because multiple forces are at play. (Zeynep Tufekci’s has an excellent post on the problems of assigning causation in digital activism, for those who are interested).

Why Digital Activism is Likely to Increase – not Decrease – Engagement

The authors then take another page from the cyber-pessimist playbook, by referencing the buzzword slacktivism and stating:

Citizens who may have otherwise engaged in effective advocacy, such as writing their representatives or protesting, might instead feel content signing online petitions without realizing that each signature has a minimal effect on the policymaking process.

Now please, I beg you, show me one empirical study that demonstrates this dynamic. Show me one study that shows that digital technology makes politically active people less politically active. To me the more convincing argument is that social media activism, because it is so painfully easy to take (yes, by clicking to join a group or sign a petition) would make the biggest impact by engaging the previously inactive and politically apathetic, since it provides the smallest incremental step between doing something and doing nothing.

It is then up to online organizers to mobilize these people up the ladder of engagement to more and more meaningful activism. As Amy Sample Ward of the Nonprofit Technology Network noted recently on this blog. There is no such thing as meaningless digital activism:

It’s true, that “liking” a post on Facebook isn’t going to “do” much. But, it shows us two things: First, that… supporters are listening and paying attention…. Second, that supporters are standing by to take the action you promote…. We should take those two messages as an opportunity to call our supporters to a bigger action.

Even the smallest action is at the very least a statement of interest that identifies people to be mobilized. The authors ignore this.

e-Petitions Amplify the Problems of Democracy, But They aren’t the Cause

Then, unsurprisingly, the authors give examples of spectacular failures of e-petitions: the pro-marijuana petition to the President voted up on the petition site in 2011 (clearly not the most pressing issue the President should be dealing with), or the anti-Road Tax petition in the UK that forced down a sensible proposed tax in 2007. This is totally fair. Sometimes petitions succeed, sometimes they fail. (Causation, by the way, is difficult to assign in both cases.) I would not argue if this was their argument.

But they go a step further, they start arguing against petitions because they are democratic. The authors write:

In addition to doubts about the efficacy of online petitions, the Editorial Board questions whether effective online petitions are even desirable. In the span of a few months in 2006 and 2007, the Road Tax petition managed to accumulate more than 1.8 million signatures in a nation of just 60 million; the British government was, according to the Westminster study, subsequently forced to scrap its road tax plans that “many considered an unpopular but necessary path to safeguard the environment.” When government steps in to make difficult decisions…. the ease and swiftness with which online petitions can garner the appearance of massive public opposition to a measure may kill legislation aimed at the long-term, best interests of constituents.

Wow, that is really the argument you are going to make? You are going to argue against e-petitions because they quickly and dramatically demonstrate public demands, and public demands are sometimes stupid? (With 1.8 million signatures you cannot claim that the petition was creating by some narrow interest group.)

Sometimes the people are wrong. Sometimes they vote and lobby against their own self-interest. Sometimes governments are unable to effectively explain the long-term benefits of short-term pain. But this is a problem with democracy, not with e-petitions. E-petitions didn’t make people short-sighted and tight-fisted. Let’s at least assign blame only where it is warranted.

Sensible Guidelines for Judging an e-Petition

The authors give two examples of successful e-petitions but dismiss them as being unpersuasive. They present two examples of unsuccessful e-petitions and find them very persuasive, without stating why. They finish their article by stating: “the Editorial Board suggests to readers that they do more than sign a petition if they want to bring about change.” I don’t think anyone would argue with that.

But they also state that “the overall efficacy of such petitions has not been convincingly shown.” Fine, fair enough, but in order for an individual to decide if they are going to sign an e-petition, they don’t need to know the “overall efficacy” of the e-petition, they just need to know the likely efficacy of the one e-petition they are thinking of signing. Here are some rules of thumb for making that decision:

How to Decide Whether to Sign an e-Petition

  1. Who is the petition aimed at (who is the target)?
  2. What constituencies does this person care about (who has influence over him/her)?
  3. Are you a member of one of those constituencies?

If you answered “Yes” to question 3, you are signing a petition with a real chance of success. If you answered “No,” your petition has less chance of success. This is why a petition to Bank of America by Bank of America customers worked and a petition to President Ahmadinejad by American college students does not work. It’s not rocket science. It’s a calculus of influence and identity.

This is a sensible basic rubric for engaging intelligently with e-petitions, but it’s not what the authors chose to put forward. They preferred to score rhetorical points, then throw their hands up and say “the jury is out.” Whether it fails or succeeds, digital activism is now a central mechanism of political action around the world. Let’s try honestly to understand it instead of making knee-jerk arguments.

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., 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, 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 vocally supported SOPA, many customers dropped their accounts. Though this boycott (a form of noncooperation) could all be accomplished online, it hit where they could feel it: their bottom line. 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 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.


UPDATED: February 2012, June 2012, and September 2016

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