Digital Activism & Power

The Big Question

Digital activism is a field is search of a central question. There are many possibilities being bandied about, and the nature of the question varies according to who is asking. Activists ask “how do I use digital activism in my campaign?”, which too often devolves into “how do I use digital tools in my campaign?” and a focus on the device or app of the moment. Academics, in turn, ask how digital activism affects not individual campaigns but systems: American politics or repressive regimes, for example.

The problem with multiple questions is that they obscures the fact that all these people are actually asking the same question: “Does digital infrastructure change the dynamics of power?” Each of the groups above would add their own modifier, or course. The activists want to know how digital activism will change the dynamics of power of their campaign, giving them the upper hand over their opponent. Academics want to know how digital activism changes the dynamics of power in Iran or China, a question that Patrick Meier, a member of our Strategy Group, has termed the “Tom vs. Jerry” debate.

Nevertheless, for all involved the central question is power. Because this topic is fundamental to all other questions of digital activism – its value, its legitimacy, its development – I will devote a series of posts to presenting different answers to this question and different ways to conceptualize it. This post is the first and answers the question according to a certain definition of power.

Defining Power

If we seek to answer the question “does digital infrastructure change the dynamics of power” we need to first define “digital infrastructure” and “power”. “Digital infrastructure” can be defined as the networks, devices, and applications that are engaged in the production and dissemination of digitally-encoded content. It is a deliberately broad term. The argument of digital activism is that the global digital network is fundamentally different from previous communications systems and we should appreciate this new system in all its complexity and reject the temptation to be reductionist. We cannot determine the effect of digital activism on power if we only talk about a handful of applications, like Facebook and Twitter.

The definition of power we will use in this post was developed by political scientist Steven Lukes‘ of New York University and is the most nuanced and broadly applicable definition of power I have yet come across. It is called the “three faces of power“. The three faces are:

1) Decision Making Power
2) Non-Decision Making Power
3) The Power to Define Interests

The first face of power, Decision Making Power, is the one we are most familiar with. It is the power to make and implement decisions. For example, when Proposition 8 came onto the ballot in California, it showed that those opposing gay marriage had greater power than those who supported it, because the referendum was decided in favor of same-sex marriage opponents. Those who opposed gay marriage implemented this decision by compelling same-sex marriage supporters to do something they would not do otherwise: cease same-sex marriages. This formulation of power – the ability to force someone to do something they otherwise would not do – is the most common conceptualization of power, but is actually only the most visible.

The second face of power, Non-Decision Making Power, is the ability to prevent an issue from even entering a decision-making phase. In the same-sex marriage example, this refers to the long period of time when same-sex marriage was not considered a valid public issue, and was kept off the political agenda.

The third face of power, The Power to Define Interests, is the most subtle. It refers to the ability of those in power to convince those they have power over to make decisions against their own interests. Examples include women supporting patriarchal systems, gay people opposing same-sex marriage rights, or poor people opposing universal health care. In all three cases, the powerless have been convinced to act in the interest of the powerful, rather than in their own interest. This form or power is perhaps the most insidious because, as long as those who are harmed by a policy align their interests with those benefit from it, there will not be any pressure to put the issue on the political agenda (face two) or to have a vote or similar open contest on the issue (face one).

How Digital Infrastructure Affects Power: Defining Interests

Digital infrastructure affects the mechanics of power by making it easier for activists to spread information (influencing interests) and to mobilize around that information (influencing the public agenda and decision-making). To demonstrate this, I will start with the third face of power and work up to the first since the power process actually begins with the third face (definition of interests) and ends with the first (deciding public contests).

In order to determine how digital infrastructure affects The Power to Define Interests we must first determine how our interests are defined in the first place. In general, we can say that we define our interests through information. Let’s say I live in Egypt (which my colleague David Faris, knows more about than I). Egypt is a country in which the government frequently tortures people. If I am to campaign against the Egyptian government’s use of torture, I must first know that the government tortures people and then to know that this torture is against my interest.

If the government wishes to maintain The Power to Define Interests, it will first try to prevent people from knowing about the torture by embargoing all information about the topic. In a society like Egypt, where the mainstream media (TV, radio, print) is controlled by the state, the government can effectively limit the transmission of information about the use of torture. However, thanks to the Internet, the applications that operate on top of it, and the devices (like mobile phones) that create content for it, there are new forms of media which the government has less control over. As a result bloggers, like Noha Atef and Abdel Monem Mahmoud, and video activists, like Wael Abbas, use this digital infrastructure to disseminate information about the government’s unjust use of torture.

I say “unjust” because the presentation of new information is only part of defining interest. Let’s say I am a young Egyptian who reads a blog post condemning torture and then I read a pro-government newspaper article stating that Egypt uses torture to maintain order and to protect the country against terrorism. The mere presence of new information disseminated to a mass audience through the Internet, does not guarantee that I will see the issue in these new terms. However, digital infrastructure does create a competitive information environment where both current elites (the government) and their non-elite opponents (the digital activists) have the ability to transmit information to the public in a way that will help that public define their interests.

In this newly competitive media environment, more is demanded of information. In an information monoculture propaganda and outright lies can define interests because there is nothing more credible to compete against them. However, in a competitive media environment pieces of highly-credible information, such as a video of torture in a police station (warning: video content is disturbing), can be broadcast. Defining interests becomes a more competitive game between elites and activists, since both now have the ability to broadcast to a mass audience, and thus a game where either side may potentially win.

This is not to say that governments cannot limit the transmission of alternative information over the Internet (the Chinese government, for example, is quite good at this). This is only to say that digital infrastructure introduces a means of broadcast to non-elites which was not previously available. As a result, it changes the mechanics of power by presenting a challenge to elites who manipulate information. Elites may meet this challenge by successfully controlling these new channels (as China has) or by ceding power to digital activists (as Egypt has). However, the fact remains that a new means of challenging the information monoculture has been introduced. Because of digital infrastructure, activists now have greater Power to Define Interests.

How Digital Infrastructure Affects Power: Putting Issues on the Public Agenda

After a citizen has determined that a policy is not in her interest – for example, that her government tortures people – that person may choose to take action to change that policy. This action may take the form of an activist campaign to 1) convince those in power to change the policy or 2) replace the person in power with someone who will be more sympathetic to the activists’ interests. Option 2 necessitates a public decision (who should rule?), and thus speaks to Decision Making Power. However, the first option, convincing those in power to change the policy, is a pre-cursor to a public decision. It involved the effort to put an issue of the public agenda, which speaks to the second face of power, Non-Decision Making Power. Since we are looking at this from the perspective of the activist, not the authority, this means that the activist is seeking to move the issue from non-decision (off the agenda) to decision (on the agenda and subject to a public contest).

Unless the activist has elite access and influence and can personally lobby those in power to change their policy (which is unlikely) that activist will need to mobilize others to help put pressure of those in power. Digital infrastructure assists activist here as well by quickly disseminating a call to action among potential supporters in a way that is 1) decentralized and thus harder to control and 2) free to the activists since those that forward the message absorb any cost of sending the message.

Here it is not the cheap broadcast function of the network that we are referring to (though broadcast technologies like email listservs are valuable for mobilization) but rather to technologies in which supporters pass on the message (email and SMS forwarding, re-tweeting). Unlike the centralized mechanics of broadcast, which push information out from the center, networked communication distributes information in a decentralized and step-wise path between acquaintances, though they may be unknown to the activist. In an exercise of the second face of power (agenda-setting), the goal of this mobilization may be to raise awareness of an issue by holding local events, organize bloggers to write about the topic (as Egyptians did to draw attention to sexual harassment) or, in more democratic countries, to encourage people to write letters to the editor on an issue.

How Digital Infrastructure Affects Power: Winning the Public Contest

Activists use the digital network to mobilize people to put an issue on the public agenda and will use similar mobilization techniques to win the contest that results. The ability to win the public contest is the final and most visible face: Decision Making Power. Mobilization to win the contest looks similar to mobilization to put the issue on the agenda. A mix of broadcast and networked message dissemination may be used. The chief difference is that digital action must effectively integrate itself into the institutional process through which the decision will be made. The campaign will now focus on determining the outcome of an election, legislative vote,or referendum and, as such, can be more focused than mobilization to put an issue on the agenda or to define interests.

How Digital Infrastructure Affects Power: Further Study

It is perhaps because decision-focused digital activism campaigns are more focused that they receive more attention from those interested in writing digital activism case studies. This is in spite of the fact that, once the public contest arises, many of the important power shifts have already occurred. In order to understand how digital infrastructure changes power dynamics, there should be increased focus on defining interests and agenda-setting, where the first effects of the power shift are felt. Once a public (and visible) contest arises, activists already have two of the three types of power. Only the contest for institutionally-sectioned authority remains. In answering the question “does digital infrastructure change the dynamics of power?”, we must look not only at the most dramatic cases but the more subtle factors that allowed that public contest to occur.

image: Flickr/memories_by_mike

3 thoughts on “Digital Activism & Power

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  3. Thanks for this excellent post, Mary. It connects quite well with a presentation I gave at Middlebury College a couple weeks ago about how digital tools and new media are affecting the dynamics of nonviolent struggle and how repressive governments are finding ways to clamp down on the use of these tools. Here is a ten minute clip from the presentation.

    In it I make the connection between the distinction between traditional media and new media and the distinction between monolithic and pluralistic views of political power. I believe this connects well with your comment, “digital infrastructure introduces a means of broadcast to non-elites which was not previously available. As a result, it changes the mechanics of power by presenting a challenge to elites who manipulate information.”

    In my presentation I looked at the strategic use of digital tools and social media (not JUST the tools themselves) in struggles in Iran, Burma, Ukraine, Egypt, and Colombia.

    I think that some of the key points you are raising in your work is for the broader understanding and appreciation of new media and digital tools to move beyond the tools themselves and start focusing more closely on the strategic use of those tools by social movements in a given context.

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