MYTH: It’s a Twitter Revolution! Digital tools make all the difference.
MYTH: It’s just slacktivism! Digital tools don’t matter at all.
FACT: Online tactics are closely integrated with offline tactics and context.
FACT: The story of impact is the story of that integration.
Winners and losers, all or nothing, zero-sum games: maybe it’s a sign of the times, but people seems to want to put digital activism into a corner. Even sophisticated digital practitioners (like the COO of DoSomething.org, pictured above) want to assign digital activism an extreme value: either it is “changing the world” or it is “slacktivism with no purpose.” The reality, however, is more complex.
The “Twitter Revolution” vs. “slacktivism” debate has been argued since before the Arab Spring. Yet both of these perspectives are inaccurate. “Was it online or offline?… That is absolutely the wrong question,” argued UNC Chapel Hill sociologist Zeynep Tukekci recently. Online and offline worlds are not separate. “The reality is obviously… it’s integrated.”
When activists organize an offline protest through email and Facebook or tweet an image of offline police abuse or meet offline to design a digital video, it is misguided to argue that half of these actions didn’t matter. When digital tactics are used, they are often closely integrated with offline tactics and always exist within an offline political, economic, and social context.
Understanding the effect of digital tactics on activism outcomes means understanding how digital factors balance against other causal factors. Digital tactics are one causal factor among many and all complex political outcomes are multi-causal. Notes Clay Shirky, “the ‘It’s not a cause’ argument [against digital activism] cuts both (all) ways. Economics, legal frameworks, youth bulges, etc… are all factors.” Digital is just one more causal factor that we need to add to our analysis.
Digital activism narratives that ignore the role of either online or offline factors are unlikely to be accurate. Rather than picking a narrative of digital revolution or digital slacktivism and then building a story around that this misleading narrative, we should seek to tell the story of integration: How are both online and offline tactics and tools being used to achieve activists’ goals? What is the offline (political, economic, social) context of a digital tactic and how does that explain its success or failure?