Political vs. Apolitical Swarms

Gaurav Mishra has a very interesting response to my post on the seemingly low level of “bad” activism despite the admitted value-neutral nature of digital technology. He writes:

Even as we celebrate swarm behavior on the social web (and what is digital activism if not “good” swarm behavior), we should remember that self-organized swarms can quickly turn into unruly mobs.

White the Western media focuses on China’s human flesh search engines as an example of online mob behavior, such behavior seems to be at the heart of American internet culture. Spend some time going through the guest list at ROFL Con, browsing through examples of viral web memesat Know Your Meme, Internet Famous and You Should Have Seen This, reading through comments on 4Chan‘s anonymous board /b/, or following Twitter’s trending topics and you’ll be amazed at the human capacity to celebrate the trivial and the distasteful.

I agree that these are valid examples of malicious swarm behavior, but they are not examples of bad digital activism. The swarms Gaurav refers to are apolitical. Their actions are taken for the entertainment of the members of the swarm with little thought or care to the social effects of their actions. A political swarm of digital activists, by contrast, takes action in order to achieve a goal of society-wide change at the local, national, or international level.

The existence of malicious apolitical swarms of meme fans and bullies should not be used to prove the prevalence of malicious digital activism tactics like anti-goverment DDoS attacks or the organized intimidation of a religious group. They are two separate phenomena.

Image: wildxplorer/Flickr

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