Does Digital Activism Exist?

Alaa Abd El Fattah is an extremely smart blogger, developer, and activist. He is one of my go-to people for original and astute insights into digital activism and, when I asked him for feedback on a forthcoming anthology on digital activism I am working on (shameless plug), he did not disappoint:

Thought it was a good thing to reflect on how “ill defined” digital activism is. However I feel like the term needs to be “problematized” a bit. Does digital activism exist at all?

My initial (and decidedly nonintellectual) reaction was, “of course digital activism exists – I’m writing a book about it!” About a week ago, however, I was speaking to one of the contributors to said book who, during a rather heated exchange, blurted out something to the effect of “I don’t understand why there’s a need to differentiate between activism and digital activism at all!” Clearly there is a need to address this issue.

We can choose to address this question – “does digital activism exist?” – by erecting a straw man (much more fun) or by actually addressing the critics of digital activism’s legitimacy. First, let’s deal with the straw man by defining digital activism simply as “activism that uses digital technology.” If this is the definition, then it is very easy to prove that it exists. Activists are using digital tools all around us: in Moldova, in Iran, in Morocco, in Colombia, even in the United States. So if digital activism is just activism + digital, there are few who would argue that it does not exist.

However this definition, as I mentioned earlier, is a straw man. Critics of the conceptualization of digital activism as a field separate from activism set a higher standard. For digital activism to be a new field, the addition of digital technology to activism practice must be a change of kind not just degree. The addition of new technologies to the practice of activism thus far (like using fax for activism in the US or tape cassettes for activism in Iran) has not been construed as creating a fundamentally different type of activism, even though it did increase the communication and mobilization capacity of the activists using these technologies.

Previous technologies have represented only a change in degree (greater communication capacity) not a change in kind (new forms of activism). Despite the integration of these new technologies, the fundamental character of activism did not change because these technologies simply automated previous practices. Instead of posting a letter to Congress, activists could now send a fax. Instead of passing out handbills of Ayatollah Khomeini’s sermons, his supporters could pass out audio recording of them. For digital activism to be a legitimate new field, it must innovate types of activism that were previously impossible, not just automate old tactics.

This is not to say that digital activism is not also capable of automation. Much digital activism today is indeed a change of degree and not kind: email lists in place of mailing lists, Facebook groups in place of local meetings, blog posts in place of op eds. In fact, most digital activism today is automation. However, unlike the fax or the tape cassette, where the nature of the technology limited it to automation, today the use of digital technology for activism is limited not by the technology itself, but by our understanding of its capabilities.

When presented with any new technology we cannot help but use and understand it in the terms of previous technologies. There is the old story of the farmer who, upon seeing a wheelbarrow for the first time, dumps a load of vegetables in it and straps it to his back. He recognizes its value as a receptacle because he has seen one before, but he has never seen a wheel before (this is a while ago) so he does not understand its value in improving the efficiency of transportation. The limited value of a wheelbarrow strapped to his back is not a limitation of the wheelbarrow itself, but of his understanding of it.

In a more technological (and less apocryphal) example, when electricity was first being commercialized, it was suggested that it might be transmitted to consumers in batteries that would be delivered as milk was in the late 19th century: fully-charged batteries would be delivered daily by truck in the morning, used during the day, and picked up at night to be charged at a central location and then be replaced by fresh batteries the next day. This distribution system made ubiquitous electricity use seem inconvenient and impractical, but this perception was not a reflection of the true value of electricity, but rather of our limited ability to think beyond our current ideas of commodity distribution. The perceived inefficiency of commercial electricity was not a reflection of electricity itself, but of our limited understanding of it.

Like electricity and the wheel, our perception of the value of the Internet for activism is limited by our own ability to understand it. Just as the engineer wanted to deliver electricity by truck, we want to understand the Internet according to our current frameworks. Using new technology within the framework of old ideas leads to the automation of older practices, rather than the creation of new ones. As a result we automate the petition into an e-petition and automate the phone tree into a listserv. Automation is a good place to begin and it is nothing to be ashamed of. After all, the Internet is probably the most complex communication infrastructure ever developed, so if it takes us a little while to fully comprehend its political possibilities, that is understandable.

So, if I am arguing that digital activism is capable of more than automation, that it does indeed represent a difference in kind and not just degree and does “enable types of activism that were previously impossible”, I need to back that up with some proof. What are these new types of activism made possible by digital infrastructure?

One example of new types of activism made possible by the Internet is decentralized grassroots mobilization like the global “Where is my vote?” solidarity protests. Though short-lived, this type of activism is fundamentally different than the painstaking tactics of community organizers, who need weeks or months to build the social capital to hold large demonstrations. It also differs from the traditional flashmob, which occurs in a fixed location and has a single organizer. In the Iran example, these actions occurred simultaneously and internationally. Information cascades are part of the answer, yet there is much to these dynamics that we don’t yet understand.

Likewise, the mechanics of viral content in activism are also unknown but not unknowable. What made the Neda Agha-Soltan video such a global beacon when many other Iranian citizen media was also created and uploaded to YouTube? We currently think that viral content transmission is so chaotic that specific causes cannot be identified and reproduced, yet it is more likely that we simply do not understand the intense complexity of network dynamics and user-generated content. Today when we say that we don’t know how these activities work or how to recreate them it is not because this knowledge is fundamentally unattainable, it is just that we do not yet know.

Yet this is precisely what me must explore: new phenomena that demonstrate that digitally-networked global infrastructure does fundamentally change activism possibilities, that digital activism represents not only a change of degree, but also of kind. The digital activism of automation is indeed little more than activism + digital, but the digital activism of innovation, of new possibilities, represents the existence a new field of study and of practice.

5 thoughts on “Does Digital Activism Exist?

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