Digital Activism 101: It’s Not Just Digital

[UPDATED] I’ve been arguing recently about how digital activism is misunderstood but I admit, it’s partially my fault. Hell, the term itself is problematic. “Digital activism” implies that the activism I am interested in is only happening in digital space when, as researchers like Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina and Alix Dunn and Christopher Wilson of The Engine Room have pointed, digital and physical space are integrated in contemporary activism. What’s interesting to me is how digital tools are used in activism, but it is never a purely digital story. The full story of digital activism is a story of the integration of these two worlds.

This post proposes a new way of thinking about the integration of digital and physical activism. Below is a chart that moves through the steps for implementing a single tactic. (You can click the image to see it enlarged.) Activists can (and do) mix digital and physical tactics according to which is best suited to their needs at any given moment. I’ve called it a “choice matrix” because at each point the activist has a choice of whether to act in physical space, digital space, or a combination of the two. Let’s move through through the process:

Whenever digital technology is used for any activist purpose, the digital context matters: what technologies do citizens have access to and what apps do they use (or know how to use)? How free is their ability to both access and disseminate information?

These digital contextual factors are part of the overall context in which the tactic is carried out, including many macro factors in physical space, like the nation’s political system, economics, and demographics. All these contextual factors will help activists decide which tactic to implement and will determine the success of that tactic.

Once the they move into the planning phase, activists have the option of working in digital or physical space and likely work in both. They will use email to coordinate a face-to-face meeting. They will use chat or Skype to meet if meeting offline is dangerous or impossible (for example, if the organizers are in different countries).

Mobilization is also likely to be carried out in both digital and physical space (what Tufekci calls the “world of bits” and the “world of atoms”). They can disseminate the call to action on their blog or Facebook page. Supporters can send SMS to their friends. Though the message will move more slowly, spreading a call to action via face-to-face encounters can also occur.

The action may be digital or physical. Fully digital actions include a DDoS (hacker) attacks or e-petition. Offline actions include protest rallies or holding a strike. An offline action can be mobilized digitally, and vice-versa. A protest rally can be mobilized quickly via SMS (and is called a flash mob). You can learn about an e-petition while talking to a friend in a coffee-shop. (More tactics here:

Hybrid actions are also possible. Unlike an e-petition or a rally, hybrid actions require both digital and physical space to be carried out. One example of hybrid action is a letter-writing campaign in which letters are submitted by supporters via a website, then printed out and hand-delivered to an elected official in paper form.

Once the action has taken place, the tactic is not over. Perception is extremely important to whether an action will succeed or fail. This is where amplification comes in. As in the mobilization stage, digital tools are used to broadcast information. However, in this phase the information is different: the content is documentation of the action itself rather than a call to action.

While the action can be amplified online or offline, more and more we are seeing hybrid amplification: a citizen takes a video or photo digitally and then sends it to a TV station or newspaper for traditional broadcast. This is how all of Al Jazeera’s footage of the Tunisian Revolution was collected for broadcast in 2011 since its journalists were forbidden from entering the country.

The only place where I see a real divergence in the importance of digital and physical space is at the stage impact. So far as I can tell, impact only occurs in physical space. Whether the action succeeds or fails to influence citizens (ex: a safe sex campaign), government (ex: a campaign for or against a law) or private institution (ex: an ant-corporate campaign), those impacts are all felt offline. This is because there are no individuals or institutions that exist only in the digital space. Not yet, at least.

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