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.
The people of China have not yet risen up to demand an alternative, but the citizens of Tunisia did. The causes of the 2011 revolution are of course complex, but the Internet played an important role in challenging the legitimacy of President Ben Ali by shining a light on his corruption and abuses. Starting in 2004, the website Nawaat.org, operated by a group of Tunisian expatriates, provided a constant stream of information about political injustices in Tunisia. They occasionally created funny or entertaining digital videos framing Ben Ali as a tyrant or highlighting a particularly egregious instance of abuse of power.In 2010, shortly before the revolution, Sami Ben Gharbia, one of the founders of Nawaat, also started TuniLeaks, a site to bring attention to State Department cables detailing Ben Ali’s abused of power.
In Egypt, before anyone went out to protest in Tahrir, the Internet played an important role in fomenting opposition to Mubarak and challenging his legitimacy. According to Ahmed Saleh, one of the administrators of the Facebook page We Are All Khaled Said:
The Internet offered an open environment that politicized the youths, allowed them to raise awareness on possibilities of shaping their future, diversified their perspectives, anonymized their identities, gave them the taste of free speech, and pushed them to see through the regime propaganda and despise it.
In a recent article in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that the Internet was a space for formative public discourse even before the social media wave hit. In 1991, Tunisia became the first Middle Eastern country connected to Internet. In that decade, before the rise of blogs, web forums served an important political function:
Such forums became sources of un-reported news, discussion, social commentary, and political debate, paving the way for the region’s bloggers. In countries where political discussion was taboo… web forums created new spaces, outside of society, where political discussion was relatively safe.
Digital technology helps the public shape public opinion. Anyone with an Internet connection can start a blog. Anyone with a smartphone can record and upload a video of police abuse. Not only can people act as citizen journalists, creating their own news stories, they can also educate and raise awareness of injustice by curating and re-broadcasting news stories to their friends using whatever social media platform they prefer, or even an old-fashioned technology like email.
The Internet can also be used to access foreign media and information. In China virtual private networks (VPNs) are a popular way for middle class Chinese to access news about their own country that is censored in China. However, it is important not to overstate the role that foreign information plays. The most powerful way to spread information is when the oppressed inform one another. The became agents of their own consciousness-raising.
User-generated content, the fact that people are sharing information with their friends and family, is different from past modes of mass information dissemination. In the past there have been brave journalists and television anchormen who have shared information with the public and fomented opposition to an unjust policy (for example Walter Cronkite’s broadcasts against the Vietnam War and Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts against McCarthyism). However, while these broadcasts did make people feel more aggrieved, it didn’t necessarily make them feel optimistic about change. They felt aggrieved, but alone, in front of the TV set. What could they do by themselves?
Social media is different because the means of information transmission also creates collective identity and collective grievance creates optimism: it’s not just me that’s mad, my friends are mad too. Maybe together we can do something. If my friend shares a news item with me about a corrupt official I know that 1) he knows, 2) he is mad enough to share it, 3) he knows that now I know too. To badly paraphrase Clay Shirky, social media creates a situation where I know that you know and I know that you know that I know: we have mutual awareness of our mutual awareness. It is not just me and my friends sitting alone stewing about an injustice in front of our TV set, it is my friends and I talking about this injustice in a forum, or a chat, or on my Facebook wall. And that conversation just might turn into action.
2) Plan an Action
Changing public opinion is a slow, low-burning, and often decentralized process. It is uneventful, it occurs under the radar. This is how it is able to occur at all. Yet, sooner or later, if there are enough people (of even just the right people) talking about their dissatisfaction, they will decide to take action.
Of course, action doesn’t just happen, it requires some planning, even if only to decide what the action is and when it will happen. Digital technology is useful for this too. Digital technology allows for the decentralized many-to-many communication of changing public opinion and the centralized few-to-few communication of planning an action.
Yet social media, and the mass participation it facilitates, are also changing how the prominent members of a moment perceive their role. They see themselves less as leaders and more as specially-skilled peers accountable to the rank-and-file. Activists in Russia are using a private Facebook group not so much to plan the pro-democracy protests there, but to act as a braintrust. According to the The Economist:
The main role in organising the protests belongs not to political parties or even to an official steering committee, but to Facebook…. Ilya Faybisovich, a Facebook activist… helped a dozen journalists, activists and opinion-makers to form a private chat group that has over time evolved into the brain centre of the protest movement. One of them is Yuri Saprykin, editorial director at Afisha-Rambler… says the group’s role is not to lead the protesters but to “sense their demands and formulate them”.
Social media is making decentralized and leaderless movements logistically easier, since participants can be in constant contact. Research has shown that large groups can use social media to reach decisions in the absence of leaders (see Alix Dunn’s work on the April 6th Facebook group in Egypt – PDF). However, even when planning occurs as it always did, in a small group of committed activists, video chat, text chat, free international online calling, and email make coordination cheaper, safer, and easier.
3) Protect Activists
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
WEAR BLACK TO MOURN THE DEATH OF DEMOCRACY.
Military needs to see 1 million at rally tomorrow, Jan. 19, to make a decision to go against Erap! Please pass this on
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:
- Protest and Persuasion: Symbolic acts of peaceful opposition and acts to persuade the opponent to adopt one’s position
- Noncooperation: Withdrawal of some form or degree of existing cooperation
- Nonviolent Intervention: Methods that intervene directly in a given situation by disrupting or destroying established behaviors, relationships, or institutions (and creating new ones)
Most forms of digital-only activism tactics fall into the first category – protest and persuasion – which are least threatening to the opponent. Signing an e-petition, turning your Twitter icon green, even emailing your Congressman – these are all symbolic or persuasive in nature. They do not force a change in the situation.
However, there are three arguments in favor of digital-only tactics. The first is that they are a good first rung on the ladder of engagement. They do not demand much of the opponent, but they also demand little of the activist in terms of time and personal risk. You can sign an e-petition or join a Facebook group in a few seconds. If your only activism options were offline – attending a rally or meeting – maybe you wouldn’t get involved in the cause at all. However, because it is so easy to take that first step digitally, you will get involved. Then it is up to the organizer to convince you to keep moving up, becoming more involved in the campaign and having greater and greater impact.
The second argument of digital-only actions is that they are not all passive. When the company GoDaddy.com vocally supported SOPA, many customers dropped their accounts. Though this boycott (a form of noncooperation) could all be accomplished online, it hit GoDaddy.com where they could feel it: their bottom line. GoDaddy.com quickly dropped their support of SOPA.
Many instances of hacking, such as the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks that shut down a website by overloading it with requests could be seen as nonviolent interventions that prevent the opponent from carrying out their online activities. The Cablegate scandal, in which Wikileaks and its collaborators stole and disseminated US State Department diplomatic cables online, was an act of nonviolent intervention in the foreign policy of the United States because it damaged the relationships of confidence that the embassies had with the State Department and that embassy staff had with representatives of other nations. Though conducted from behind a screen, Cablegate was hardly passive.
The final and most effective argument in favor of digital-only tactics is that they work. Even the lowly e-petition has seen some dramatic successes recently. Mighty Bank of America, which had $134 billion in revenue in 2010, removed a $5 monthly debit card fee because of a consumer petition. The multi-platform decentralized social media campaign to convince Komen for the Cure to re-fund a grant to Planned Parenthood to pay for mammograms for needy woman was also successful.
Digital-only tactics can succeed, but it depends on the opponent. Bank of America was facing major public outrage and it was relatively easy for their clients to go elsewhere. Komen for the Cure relies on public goodwill to raise money. Bad publicity means that donors will take their money elsewhere too. In both cases the context fit the tactic, though this is not always the case. Changing your Twitter icon green did not much help pro-democracy activists in Iran in 2009. Just as it would be foolish to only consider digital tactics, it would be foolish to reject these tactics out of hand. They key is to be aware of all your tactical options and make a decision based on the relative strengths and weaknesses of you and your opponent.
6) Transfer Resources
In the 2008 US presidential election, online micro-donations raised hundred of millions of dollars for President Obama and other candidates. New internet-mediated campaigning organizations like MoveOn.org fund themselves in a similar way. One of the greatest blows to Wikileaks in 2010 was when major credit card and payment processingcompaniesrefused to process donations to the organization. When a video of schoolchildren tormenting their elderly chaperone went viral in late June of 2012, a private citizen began collecting a vacation fund for her and $500,000 has been raised to date.
These are only a few examples of the ability of the Internet to act as a conduit for resources, specifically money. And, as the above examples show, these transfers can be important not only in funding new types of organizations, but in shifting the balance of power, either to an unlikely political candidate or away from an organization threatening state power.
Of course, it is not all good news. In his new book,The Moveon Effect, David Karpf explains how legacy nonprofits are experiences the problem of “analog dollars to digital dimes.” Their past fundraising methods of direct mail and membership dues are drying up, and they are not able to fill the gaps with online donations. New organizations the MoveOn, which do sustain themselves online, have much lower overhead – a permanent staff of a few dozen rather than a few hundred. Still, online fundraising is an important asset to digital activists and advocacy organizations.
1) Shape Public Opinion (Again)
Digital technology can be used to mobilize people to take action online or offline. But what happens next? What happens during the action and after? The value of digital technology does not end once the action occurs, it cycles back to the beginning: shaping public opinion of the action itself.
Activists choose an action because they think it will help them achieve redress of their grievance, either by convincing the opponent to change their policy or by removing the opponent’s power to enforce the policy, thereby opening a space for more sweeping changes.
However, very few campaigns are won through a single action, so while the long-term goal of the action is to seek a redress of grievances, the short-term goal is to help the activists mobilize for the next action by increasing their own power and legitimacy and decreasing the power and legitimacy of their opponent.
Surprisingly, power is heavily reliant on perception. The government of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was not fundamentally different the day before and the day after Muhamed Bouazizi killed himself, but people perceived in his story, and in the video of his family members protesting at the local government seat, evidence that Ben Ali had stepped beyond a threshold of permissible action. His government had not killed a citizen, his government had created such despair that the citizen killed himself. Ben Ali’s legitimacy (right to rule) had taken a fatal blow.
When Bouazizi’s family protested his death in front of town hall, they recorded a video of it an uploaded it. A few Tunisians watched the video, were outraged, and shared it using social media. Well-connected activists sent the video to journalists at Al Jazeera. Forbidden from reporting from within Tunisia, Al Jazeera was eager to report on the regime. Reporting by Al Jazeera brought the story to a national and regional audience, where it resonated. People in other towns began to protest, and finally the protests reached the capital. Local media, which at first was beholden to the regime, broke ranks and began favorably reporting on the opposition.
After Ben Ali resigned, news of the successful uprising spread rapidly, on regional satellite TV and US-based social media, two media outlets least susceptible to the control of Middle Eastern governments. People in other countries in the Middle East, were previously aggrieved by their lack of political rights. That was old news. Now, however, because of the example of Tunisia, they felt optimistic that change was possible.
Just as social media was important in created a collective sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo, it was now building on that initial dissatisfaction, using a recent event to convince even more people that change was possible. It was the beginning of an information cascade, which occurs when people observe the actions of others and then make the same choice that the others have made. The Arab Spring can be viewed as one of the most dramatic information cascades in recent memory and social media was important both in disseminating information and in collecting information and images to be re-broadcast by other media outlets.
And If We Win?
Shaping public opinion, planning an action, protecting activists, sharing a call to action, take action digitally, shape public opinion again: digital technology helps activists throughout the change process from the first spark of consciousness that the status quo is unacceptable to the international ripple effects of a dramatic action. The next post in this series will dig more deeply this cycle of digital empowerment.
A question that this post does not answer is now digital technology can help activists hold power and govern. All these functions assume that activists are on the outside, pressuring and challenging institutions of power like governments, corporations, and influential non-profits. But what happens when the activists when, when they take power? Will digital technology change the way governments were or will the centralized and hierarchical nature of government swallow digital technology and minimize its importance? This is the question that is playing our in the countries that underwent the Arab Spring last year. The answer is not yet known.
UPDATED: February 2012, June 2012, and September 2016