Digital Activism Through The Ages: Continuing the Flashback

Following my previouspost, Digital Activism: A Look Back,on the history of evolution of digital activism thought, this post will continue to reflect on some scholarly works that highlight interesting cases of early digital activism that used the Internet to transform local organizing into global movements, a trend that grows and is more widely acknowledged today.

Information overload is consuming most of the rational idea spaces these days, with every blogger expressing an opinion and a distorted understanding of citizen journalism. However, the increase in “noise” also means that there is more attention to a wider variety of issues than was the case in earlier years. There is a continued importance devoted to offline action in international media. However, online action has begun to demand a significant amount of coverage as well. Government interventions and restrictions on internet freedom are mainstream news items today. However, it is interesting to note the precursors that have laid this road to mainstream showcase of online activism.

The ICBL and transnational activism

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) is one of the earliest, most effective digital activism campaigns. (Source:

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines(ICBL) that I referred to in my previous post has used the internet as the dominant mode of communication since 1996. A seamless integration of online and offline action, this campaign also took online lobbying to the next level, interacting with governments and policymakers through e-mails. This was also one of the first campaigns to use the internet to move beyond geographic borders, coordinating smaller dedicated movements across countries to work for the common campaign goal. Not only did the internet facilitate better organization across countries, but it also helped enable the treaty’s quick adoption. In her 2001 paper, Activism, Hacktivism, and Cyberterrorism: The Internet as a Tool for Influencing Foreign Policy, Dorothy E. Denning details the ICBL facts mentioned here, also discussing the usage of encryption as a method to circumvent government intervention, even in the late 1990’s (See here).

Firsthand Accounts and real-time reporters

University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Seth F. Kreimer recounts his own experiences during the demonstrations in Philadelphia against the Republican National Convention, during the summer of 2000. While television stations had occasional coverage of the protests, Kreimer says his access to information was through a website established by theprotestersthat provided images and real-time reports of the confrontations between the protestors and police(See here).

He also prudently points out the potential of the web to establish “two-way linkages with potential sympathizers” – a fact that was overlooked by Gladwell when he made his argument against the tweeting of revolutions. With the advent of social media, the bidirectional potential has only increased from the days of e-mails, blogs and chat rooms. This is not to say that linkages (strong or weak) to exchange expertise, information or resources are sufficient to create impact, but they are certainly essential.

The Zapatistas movement was supported by the La Neta computer network. (Source:

Discussions of protest networks are not quite complete without the ubiquitous Zapatistas group. In their 2005 book Digital Formations: IT and New Architectures in the Global Realm, Robert Latham and Saskia Sassen refer to the La Neta computer network, a civil society network, as a significant player in globalizing the Zapatistas movement. This network helped bypass the state’s restrictions in Mexico, and Latham and Sassen rightly observe that a local movement made this network into a transnational information hub.

Contemporary relevance of flashbacks

Lessons learned from these cases are just as relevant and significant to current scenarios as they were earlier. Technology continues to advance and become more adaptable to contemporary challenges. While the Zapatistas had a La Neta, there are tools today (such as this) to protect photographers in the thick of on-field protest actions. A look back at digital activism of any decade is indicative of the consistent thread of adaptability that is synonymous with this field. There is not much we cannot circumvent, hacktivize or digitize. After all, innovation is the lifeblood of this genre of activists.


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