Failures in Digital Activism: A Macro View

Success, Failure, and Strategy

I recently returned from a long (mostly non-digital) trip and am just getting back into work mode. Today I checked the backlog in my Google Reader and came across an old post by Patrick Meier on civil resistance tactics used in Egypt’s revolution. The post ends:

I…. won’t repeat myself other than to conclude with this: protesting intelligently increases the chances of success. Protesting unprepared and spontaneously will not work, as I have written in this blog post regarding the Sudan protests…. It is important that resistance movements be smarter and better prepared.

This made me think of Evgeny Morozov’s chapter in The Net Delusion, which attempts to debunk digital activism as meaningless slacktivism (my response is here). Though Evgeny cites only one example of slacktivism – a Facebook group called “Saving the Children of Africa” – there are many more.

In fact, in most of the cases in the Global Digital Activism Data Set that the Meta-Activism Project is developing, the effect of the action is unclear and it is hard to attribute success based on the espoused goals of the activists themselves, who are often aiming at large and complex social problems like defeating corruption, securing human rights, and winning democratic freedoms.

Here Comes Everybody… Even if They Don’t Know What They’re Doing

There’s little debate that digital technology and social media facilitate activism: easy group formation and collaboration, near-free mass information dissemination, fast resource transfer, anonymity tools. Yet this facilitation is strategy-agnostic. It was just was easy to start “Saving the Children of Africa” as it was to start “We are All Khaled Said.”

Where previously activism resources – money, mailing lists, leadership positions – were given to skilled organizers by hierarchical organizations (I’m thinking of unions, political campaigns, and public interest lobbying here), digital technology makes the tools of activism accessible to all users, regardless of strategic capacity.

The result of this low bar to entry into activism is as follows:

  1. More campaigns by more people, most of whom are unskilled as activists;
  2. More failures resulting from poor strategy by the unskilled;
  3. A few amazing successes like Egypt, where skilled strategists have powerful organizing tools they previously would not have had access to.

Activist skill is the rate limiting factor in both the digital and pre-digital eras (see left). Though potential to start campaigns has increased, activist skill has not, leading to the dodgy track record of digital activism: a few amazing successes, many modest ones, and a lot of dross.

It is reasonable to believe that there has been some increase in the number of successful campaigns because of the introduction of digital tools – a scale change – and anecdotal evidence provided by people like Beth Kanter and organizations like bears this out. However, I think that the number of unsuccessful campaigns and actions still outpaces growth in effective digital activism, leading to a preponderance of ineffective campaigns and a perception by pessimists that digital activism is ineffective.

Closing the Strategy Gap

However, this perceptions that digital activism is ineffective is also inaccurate. Social media is a set of tools with certain affordances that can be brutally effective in the hands of savvy and strategically-minded activists, many of whom would not have been able to achieve the the speed and scale of their campaigns in the pre-digital era. Yet the flip-side of this broad access is that those without strategic skills can now also attempt to launch campaigns.

The key to increasing the rate of successful digital campaigns is to close the strategy gap by giving strategic knowledge to those who would like to engage in digital activism. Fortunately, the Internet is uniquely well-suited to information dissemination and many of the important lessons can be drawn from the existing fields of strategic communications, marketing, organizing theory, social movement theory, and theories of nonviolent resistance. The challenge now is to package this information in easily-digestible formats that can spread quickly through the Internet.


4 thoughts on “Failures in Digital Activism: A Macro View

  1. Pingback: Malcolm Gladwell’s Still Got it Wrong | meta-activism project

  2. Pingback: Measuring Success in Digital Activism | My Very Own Digital Footprint

  3. Pingback: Digital Activism–or Slactivism? – Cyber Activism

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