Digital Activism 101: Digital Activism’s Diversity

Digital Activism 101 is a series of posts introducing key concepts to students and activists.


In the past two weeks the Digital Activism section of Global Voices Online featured a story about a Moroccan teenager brought to court for posting caricatures of the King on Facebook, digital video documentation of poor residents evicted in Brazil, and threats of hacking to free a political prisoner inCôte d’Ivoire. This is but a brief selection of the diversity of digital activism implementations around the world. My last post in this series explained how digital tools have a limited number of functions that are useful to activists. This post is about how those limited functions are used to create an astounding array of tactical implementations.

The diversity of digital activism today requires a nuanced understanding. Digital activism is both effective and ineffective, naive and sophisticated, modest and revolutionary. Any student of digital activism must accept this complexity and seek to understand it and anyone looking to validate a purely optimistic (“digital technology challenges the status quo”) or purely pessimistic (“digital activism is lazy and ineffective”) view is bound to miss out on the bigger picture, in which both realities co-exist. This post will describe the basis from that diversity and a fundamental variation in digital activism between digital-only and hybrid digital campaigns.

The Foundations of Digital Activism’s Tactical Diversity

Over the past thirty years digital technologies – particularly the Internet and mobile networks – have grown from elite technologies of businesses and the universities in the rich world into global technologies of the masses: At present one in three people on earth is an Internet user and 13 in 15 are mobile phone subscribers. This spread is not only due to reductions in hardware cost, made possible by Moore’s Law, but also because increases in usability. Online communication and even media creation are becoming easier and easier. There is now a fad in parents uploading video of their toddlers using iPads.

The decrease in cost and increase in usability, in addition to the social values of connection described inMetcalfe’s Law, accounts for this high adoption. The result of this ubiquity is that digital technology has become part of our environments, used in every conceivable political system, culture context, and physical environment, by the richest and poorest people on earth.

The Scope of Digital Diversity

People use digital technology for solitary entertainment, socializing, stock-trading, spouse-seeking, shopping, subversion and everything in between. Even if different individuals all seek to somehow use digital technology for activism and social change, they will use different tools in different social, technical, economic, and political contexts. Even where contextual factors are similar (and they usually aren’t), activists bring their own skills, biases, and preferences to the task. Some activists are brilliant strategists that don’t really understand the technology. Some are talented technologists without the patience for planning. Some just get lucky.

With the incredible diversity of tools, activist skill-sets, and social, economic, and political contexts, it should not surprise us that digital activism is so varied, that sometimes is succeeds spectacularly and sometimes it fails miserably.

From this perspective it is also ridiculous to characterize all activist use of digital technology with a single epithet like “hacktivism,” “clicktivism,” “slacktivism,” or “armchair activism.” While all these terms describe an actual set of digital activism phenomena, these are only partial views.

Digital-Only Activism: Aggressive and Passive Extremes

When many people talk about digital activism (especially pejoratively) they are most often talking about digital-only activism, campaigns that are exclusively or overwhelming digital, as opposed to using a mix of digital and offline tactics. People are often critical of digital-only activism, either because it is too aggressive (hacktivism) or because it is too passive (clicktivism).

Hacktivism refers to digital activism that is destructive or disruptive of digital systems. The most popular example is the DDoS attack, an easy way to shut down a website. Hackers may operate as individuals or as loose networks, like Anonymous and LulzSec. In addition, many hacker groups carry out both political and non-political acts. While some actions seek a larger political purpose, like the cyber-attacks on Estonia in 2007, many are “for the LULZ” – just for fun. Despite being destructive, hacktivism is still nonviolent. Though digital technology has been used to mobilize offline physical violence, a digital-only action has never physically harmed a person. It is important to remember this.

Clicktivism refers to digital activism that occurs exclusively online, primarily through clicking links to donate to a cause, join a group, or sign a petition. Armchair activism and slacktivism also carry this implication of passive tactics. Clicktivism is indeed passive: you can do it from bed, for heaven’s sake. Thinkers like Malcolm Gladwell have argued that this kind of passive activism cannot be effective, and sometimes this is true. At times digital-only is insufficient to achieve the desired goal, as when the “greening” of Twitter avatars failed to provide any meaningful support to activists in Iran in 2009.

However, sometimes these uniquely digital actions can work very well, as in the recent campaigns to support Planned Parenthood against a loss of funding from the Komen for the Cure breast cancer foundation and to stop the over-reaching SOPA and PIPA bills from limit freedom of expression online. As Brian Fung wrote recently in The Atlantic, far from being ineffective, the “political expression that killed SOPA and PIPA and that convinced Komen to reverse itself last week took place almost entirely on the Internet, and produced decisive and nearly immediate results.” Pejorative terms like “slacktivism” describe activism that is digital-only and ineffective, and are misleading in that they seek to erroneously paint all digital activism with the brush of failure and foolishness.

Hybrid Digital Activism: Mixing Digital and Grounded Tactics

Though some campaigns are purely or predominantly digital, many, perhaps most, use a mix of digital and grounded (offline) tactics. During the Egyptian revolution protesters were mobilized by Internet, mobile phone, and word of mouth, to physically congregate in Tahrir Square. Grounded mobilization tactics were used as well and became particularly important when mobile phone networks and the Internet were shut down by the government.

Not all examples of revolutionary. In 2009, Pill Check Week, a campaign to draw attention to medicine shortages in southern Africa, mixed a digital mapping visualization tool with offline survey data collected by activists out in the field (NB:I’m employed by the funder). In 2008, the Obama campaign (NB: I’m a former employer), had a sophisticated social network platform, MyBarackObama, which allowed volunteers to publicize and track attendees to house parties used to persuade voters and recruit further volunteers. The event pages were online, the meetings offline.

Hybridity is little understood, even by scholars of digital activism. In a recent book chapter, Alix Dunn and Christopher Wilson of The Engine Room wrote:

Though intuitively of great importance, there has been little study of… communication bridging digital and grounded networks, and what consequences this might have for how we understand the interaction between online and offline activity in digital advocacy.

Even digital activism exists in the physical world, either in contexts or effects. We need to better understand this interaction.

An Expectation of Complexity

In describing the use of digital technology for activism it is important to avoid blanket value judgments and narrow interpretations. “Digital activism” is the use of digital tools in activism, but does not imply that only digital tools are used. Sometimes digital activists do use only digital tools in their tactics. Sometimes they use digital and grounded tools. Both types of campaigns have succeeded and failed.

The student of digital activism should have an expectation of complexity: in contexts, in outcomes, in tactical implementation. Accepting this complexity and seeking to understand it is the only way to advance in the study of digital activism.

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