Essential Readings in Digital Activism
The Meta-Activism project has compiled the following list of recommended readings and media resources for the study and instruction of digital activism at the undergraduate and graduate level. You can follow the title links to purchase the resources or view them for free, depending on the publication options available.
Please contact the list’s author, David Faris, at [David AT meta-activism DOT org] to suggest an additional resource, citations and blurbs appreciated.
Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.
Benkler argues that digital technologies are having a transformative effect on economics and society. Not all of Benkler’s wide-ranging book is relevant for understanding digital activism (large chunks focus on economic changes) but Benkler posits that user-generated content on sites like Youtube is emancipatory – the process of enlisting ordinary people in producing content, rather than passively consuming it, is a contribution to human freedom. For Benkler, it is primarily the increase in individual autonomy wrought by the commons that is most important.
Brinkerhoff, Jennifer M. Digital Diasporas: Identity and Transnational Engagement. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
How do diaspora communities use the Internet to build solidarity? Brinkerhoff answers this question with a series of case studies, including Egyptian Coptic Christians. Brinkerhoff’s thesis is that digital diaspora communities function primarily to connect dispersed members of communities, to build solidarity, and to “reinforce or recreate identity” for newer generations who don’t have the same connection to the homeland. Her study of MyCopticChurch, maintained in the U.S., for instance, shows how diaspora Copts use the site to talk about Coptic traditions (including how such traditions often clash with those of the West), and to produce new iterations of Coptic identity.
Castells, Manuel. Communication Power. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Castells addresses many issues in this wide-ranging critical review of the Internet’s impact on democratic life. Perhaps most relevant is a deeper treatment of his idea of “mass self-communication” (also treated in the journal article cited below), in which mass publics leverage the capabilities of digital technologies to challenge global capitalist and statist hierarchies.
Deibert, Ronald J. Parchment, Printing and Hypermedia: Communication in World Order Transformation. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
Deibert’s analysis is at this point dated, written as it was before Youtube, Social Network Sites, or the rise of bloggers. But his framework transcends, in lasting ways, the applications of the moment to help us understand how digital technologies have empowered activists. In Deibert’s formulation, changes in communication technologies create distributional changes (in the “relative power of social forces”) and social epistemological changes (in “the web-of-beliefs into which people are acculturated”). In his formulation the Internet empowers non-state actors like transnational activists precisely because they are better positioned to take advantage of them then the rigid hierarchies of existing states.
Hindman, Matthew. The Myth of Digital Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.
Hindman’s book makes a series of relatively straightforward and skeptical claims about the ability of the Internet to deliver democratization, broadly conceived. First, he argues that power law dynamics exclude the vast majority of online voices from any real discourse, because a few sites get the vast majority of readers. To make matters worse, search engine “Googlearchy” reinforce the preferential attachment features of network theory by making the heavily-trafficked sites even more so. Finally, he argues that leading bloggers in the U.S. are largely elite-educated white men.
Kalathil, Shanthi, and Boas, Taylor. Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003.
Kalathil and Boas’s study focuses on eight countries and the ways in which savvy authoritarian regimes like China and Saudi Arabia have constructed elaborate mechanisms of control that can separate economic from political activity on the Internet. Because Internet access in authoritarian regimes is often funneled through state-owned or licensed providers, the authors argue that the Internet does not necessarily have liberating potential – its impact depends on the particular institutions and regulatory frameworks set up in specific countries. The authors do note that as Internet access becomes more pervasive and as regimes seek to exploit the economic benefits, they may find it increasingly harder to control political information.
Howard, Philip N. The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Howard’s book is perhaps the first to test theories of ICTs and democratization in large-N comparative fashion. Howard employs a “set-theoretic” approach to argue that across the large universe of Muslim and partly-Muslim countries, ICT diffusion has had a generally positive impact on democratization. He identifies three primary mechanisms – first, ICTs allow for more and better monitoring of the state by NGOs and individuals; second, they allow diaspora communities, NGOs and activists to network and share information and resources; finally, they provide journalists with new tools to challenge the state’s monopoly on information resources. While some intervening factors – like education levels and dependence on oil exports (i.e. the resource curse or the rentier state – may mitigate these effects, Howard ultimately tells a story that is very bullish on the long-run contributions of ICTs to democratization.
Joyce, Mary, ed. Digital Activism Decoded: The New Mechanics of Change. International Debate Education Association, 2010.
Joyce’s edited volume brings together experts to address the latest developments in the new field of digital activism. Because of the number of contributions, the book is difficult to summarize, but includes pieces defining the practice of digital activism, exploring the underlying causal processes. The book also includes case studies, a look at destructive applications of digital tools, and thinking about how repressive regimes have countered digital activism. It is designed as a classroom reader, where each chapter serves as the foundation for discussion of a different aspect of digital activism’s contexts, practices, and effects.
Morozov, Evgeny. The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. PublicAffairs, 2011.
Morozov is perhaps the world’s most well-known Internet skeptic, and “The Net Delusion” is his book-length treatise on how the Internet undermines, rather than promotes, global democracy. The book’s primary thesis is that the Internet will ultimately lead to easier surveillance, censorship, and propagandizing by authoritarian regimes, and that the initiatives of D.C. policy elites to promote democratization by digital dissent are misguided at best.
Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2008.
Clay Shirky’s narrative jumps from a lost cell phone in New York to Egyptian bloggers to “small worlds” theory and more. Using advances in our understanding of networks, Shirky’s book explains how and why “social media tools” are creating new opportunities for collective action, as well as who is likely to be heard online. He argues that these tools allow for “ridiculously easy group formation,” which in turn unites diffuse actors with common interests.
Srebreny, Annabelle, and Khiabany, Gholam. Blogistan: The Internet and Politics in Iran.
Srebreny and Khiabany begin with 2009′s Green Revolution as the starting point for a wide-ranging survey and critical analysis of the Iranian blogosphere an alternative public sphere. While that movement ultimately failed, the authors argue, through detailed textual analysis, that the Internet has indeed empowered a generation of dissidents and opened up crucial political and social space within Iran.
Wheeler, Deborah. The Internet In The Middle East: Global Expectations And Local Imaginations In Kuwait. New York, NY: SUNY University Press, 2005.
Wheeler’s book focuses on Kuwait, where she draws on extensive ethnographic research in the country’s Internet cafes. Her analysis tests the proposition that the Internet can lead to democratization via social transformation – in the millions of small interactions that take place between young people every day on the Web. While acknowledging the Internet’s potential to disseminate extremist thought and practice, she is ultimately bullish on the medium’s transformational potential, largely because of the ways it allows previously segregated groups in the region to come into contact with one another online.
van de Donk, Wim, Brian D. Loader, Paul G. Nixon, and Dieter Rucht, eds. Cyberprotest: New Media, Citizens and Social Movements. London: Routledge, 2004.
This book brings together 17 contributions from disparate authors to address the theory and practice of global “cyberprotest” movements. Case studies focus not just on anti-capitalist movements like the WTO protests in Seattle, but also on cases of identity-based protest in both the developed and developing worlds.
Yang, Guobin. The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online. Columbia University Press, 2009.
Yang’s book takes a critical look at the role of the Internet in social contention in contemporary China. Yang argues that while the Internet allows for new social alliances to challenge state power, there are also limiting factors. One of the more interesting factors identified by Yang is what he calls the “business of contention” – by which he means web sites that allow certain levels of dissent but only enough to ensure their continued existence at the pleasure of state elites. Yang in some ways appears to echo Benkler’s arguments about autonomy – the Internet is unlikely to bring about the demise of Chinese authoritarianism, but it also lends more autonomy and power to individual citizens than skeptics commonly admit.
Academic Journal Articles
Aday, Sean, Farrell, Henry, Lynch, Marc, Sides, John, Kelly, John, and Zuckerman, Ethan. “Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics“, United States Institute of Peace, 2010.
This excellent report for the United States Institute of Peace is primarily concerned with the methodology of digital activism research. The authors describe common errors in drawing causal links between digital technology use and political outcomes, such as improper case selection (only studying success), techno-fetishism/ignoring other causal factors, and contradictory effects. They also lay out a framework for locating the effects of digital technology use, which range from individual transformation to external attention. The methodological discussion is followed by a lengthy case study of the 2009 post-election protests in Iran, which makes use of the methodological approached presented earlier in the article.
Castells, Manuel. “Communication, Power and Counter-Power in the Network Society.” International Journal of Communication 1 (2007): 238-266.
Castells describes what he calls the “rise of self-communication” and formulates a theory of the effects of this process on political and social spaces. These “horizontal networks of interactive communication” are unsettling both modes of corporate and political control, as social movements increasingly adopt the organizational patterns of networked communication platforms. Digital tools thus allow for the expression of “counter-power” as individuals increase their autonomy vis-a-vis the institutions of global capitalist society.
Chowdhury, Mridul “The Role of the Internet in Burma’s Saffron Revolution” The Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Berkman Center Research Publication No. 2008-08.
Chowdhury uses the Saffron Revolution to highlight the importance of digital activism in transnational campaigns, and explains how digital tools were most important in Burma as information transmitters to international audiences. Particularly important were networks of Burmese exiles in Thailand and India, who monitored events inside Burma via the Internet. Chowdhury also notes the importance of international activist sites like Free Burma, and their role in organizing, via Facebook and other online platforms, solidarity protests with the Burmese during the Saffron Revolution itself. Despite these international activities, and actions of Burmese citizen journalists, the revolt was put down.
Deibert, Ronald, and Rohozinski, Rafal. “Liberation Vs. Control: The Future of Cyberspace” Journal of Democracy Vol. 21, No. 4 (October 2010): 43-57.
Deibert and Rohozinski argue that far from being “liberation technologies” as Diamond contends in an earlier JOD article, digital activists often operate in contested arenas penetrated by hostile government actors deploying sophisticated online surveillance and filtering techniques. Their argument is not, as Morozov might argue, that digital activism is a “delusion” but rather that we should be careful not to attribute liberating potential to digital technologies in all environments, and that genuine change requires “the implementation of liberal-democratic constraints” to protect human rights online. These constraints would apply both to digital activists and to the corporations, criminal enterprises and governments whose shadowy activities comprise the core of the article.
Bimber, Bruce, Flanagin, Andrew and Stohl, Cynthia. “Reconceptualizing Collective Action in the Contemporary Media Environment.” Communication Theory Vol. 15, No. 4 (November 2005): 365-388.
Bimber, Flanagin and Stohl make an argument that digital media reduce the costs of “information, communication, and coordination.” Thus the calculus of the free-rider problem is altered by reducing the costs of contributing. Digital media make the boundaries between public and private “porous” and therefore alter the conditions under which individuals are likely to make a contribution. These changes fundamentally change (and make less important) the focus of traditional collective action theory on free-riding and hierarchical organization.
Diamond, Larry. “Liberation Technologies.” Journal of Democracy Vol. 21 No. 3 (July 2010): 69-83.
In this review article of digital technologies in authoritarian countries, Diamond comes down firmly on the side of their liberating potential. While noting the increasingly sophisticated surveillance and filtering operations of states like China and Iran, Diamond argues that activists have still managed to leverage the properties of digital technologies to organize online campaigns of dissent, like China’s Charter 08. He reviews the now-familiar ways that digital technologies aid dissidents – by providing networked means of organizing tactical innovations for protests, and more importantly, for undermining the state’s control of information. His narrative includes disappointments like the Green Revolution’s failure to overturn the 2009 presidential election results in Iran, but argues that even so, these technologies, harnessed by determined digital entrepreneurs, have changed the calculus of control between authoritarian regimes and their opponents.
Drezner, D. (2005). “Weighing the scales: The Internet’s effect on state-society relations.” Paper presented March 2005 at conference: “Global Flow of Information,” Yale Information Society Project, Yale Law School.
Drezner argues that the Internet has unquestionably posed new challenges to authoritarian control of information. Pointing to the role of online news sites in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution as well as the growth of the Iranian blogosphere, he acknowledges the reduced costs of organizing dissent online. But he notes that these cost reductions work both ways, and that regime monitoring is also cheaper now. Drezner’s article stands out as an early iteration of the argument that an increase in the availability of information provided by digital tools can lead to informational cascades” that undermine authoritarian control suddenly and unexpectedly.
Earl, Jennifer. “The Dynamics of Protest-Related Diffusion on the Web.” Information, Communication & Society. Vol. 13 Issue 2 (March 2010): 209-225.
Earl makes two distinct arguments – first, that the diffusion of online protest tactics should be thought of as a kind of “diffusion of innovation.” What has been termed “five-minute” activism can be quite effective via the cumulative effect of a series of small and easy actions (like signing a petition). Earl also argues that the diffusion of these tactics may have unpredictable effects on organizers and participants, and may force us to revise our understanding of certain social movement processes. She also likes the participation of new groups of actors in online protest activities to the spread of a disease to new sub-groups. These sub-groups are also likely to alter our understanding of traditional social movement behavior. As she argues, “Guided by their own social backgrounds, not by social movement norms, the behaviour of these new organizers is not likely to be easily accounted for by the existing social movement theorizing on organizing and leadership, thereby producing model changes.”
Etling, Bruce, Faris, Rob, Pelfrey, John Goreham. Political Change in the Digital Age: The Fragility and Promise of Online Organizing.
In this Berkman Center report, the authors argue that in authoritarian environments, the access to alternative information provided by the Internet is not enough to foster democratization. Because freedoms of association have typically not kept up with the increased freedoms of speech afforded by the Internet, traditional civil society organizations (CSOs) will find it difficult to meet the needs and demands of increasingly informed citizens. Only the decentralized, non-hierarchical structures of digitally-networked online organizations can reasonably challenge authoritarian regimes. The authors cite a number of cases – such as the We Are All Khaled Said group in Egypt and Iran’s Green Movement.
Faris, David. “The End of the Beginning: the Failure of April 6th and the Future of Electronic Activism in Egypt.”
In the aftermath of the failed 2009 follow-up strike to their successful 2008 action, Egypt’s April 6th Youth Movement was at a crossroads. Faris’s article explains the regime’s response to digital activism and outlines the conditions under which such online dissent is likely to be successful in the future.
Faris, David. “Revolutions Without Revolutionaries? Network Theory, Facebook and the Egyptian Blogosphere.” Arab Media & Society, Fall 2008.
Faris traces the rise of the April 6th Youth Movement in Egypt, a loosely organized digital collective that emerged to support the actions of laborers in the industrial city of Mahalla. Faris explains why the group chose to organize on Facebook, and how understanding the properties of networks helps us understand how the group can affect a society in which less than 20% of the population has internet access.
Garrett, R. K. (2006). “Protest in an Information Society: A Review of Literature on Social Movements and New ICTs.” Information, Communication and Society, 9(2), 202-224.
Garrett’s article is a review mostly focused on the period between 1996 and 2004, when scholarly attention first became focused on the ways that what he calls Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) may impact the various facets of collective action – through the lense of social movement theory. Thus the main divisions of analysis are on mobilizing structures, framing processes and participation levels. Garrett finds wide divergence in scholarly findings about whether ICTs increase participation in collective actions. Garret cites research suggesting that ICTs may strengthen group identification and thus make passive participants more able and likely to contribute low-cast participation.
Other work highlights the ability of ICTs to unite dispersed actors with common interests, like transnational activist networks (citing Sikkink among others). ICTs may easily “pool small-scale acts of support” and while he notes Bimber’s argument that more information does not lead to more action, he notes that the ability of ICTs to more effectively filter and integrate that information may ultimately lead to more collective action. He appears to be an early articulator of the idea that by increasing protest repertoires, ICTs enable collective action by more loosely-linked sets of actors focused on things like street protests, and cites research that anticipates the sousveillance argument, by noting that citizen surveillance with ICTs may make government actors more accountable. Research also suggests that by reducing the number of participants needed to keep movements alive, ICTs may make such organizations, loose as they may appear to be, more durable.
Finally, he cites research suggesting that the absence of gatekeepers allows groups to more easily arrive at coherent mobilizing frames in the absence of hierarchy. For all such claims there are of course dissenting views and dissonant research but the general thrust of the piece appears to agree with the idea that ICTs enhance collective action across a variety of spectra.
Goldstein, Josh. “The Role of Digitally Networked Technologies in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.” The Berkman Center, December 1st, 2007.
Goldstein focuses on the use of electronic media as alternative mobilizing and information platforms during the events leading up to and during Ukraine’s so-called Orange Revolution. He explains how “a relatively small group of activists and citizen journalists helped create a distinct information environment that challenged the narrative presented by state sanctioned mass media.” Goldstein also narrates how opposition groups like Maidan and Pora used the Internet as a means of coordinated messaging and protests, in ways that clearly foreshadowed the tactics of the Arab Spring. This melding of the tactical potentialities of mobile phones and the Internet took place years before Twitter, and highlights the importance of form and use above specific applications.
Hassid, Jonathan. “Safety Valve or Pressure Cooker: Blogs in Chinese Political Life.” Journal of Communication 62 (2012): 212-230.
Hassid takes a welcome break from the “do social media help bring down authoritarian regimes” discourse to look at the effect of blogging on civil peace in China. Hassid’s thesis is that the media play a critical intervening role in preventing outbreaks or disturbances based on information from blogs. When traditional media stories get the story first, he argues, they are able to tamp down on public unrest, but when blogs break stories, they tend to create public firestorms. As he argues, “Few studies trace the relationships between online content, traditional media, and the consequences for state and society.” Newspapers often drive issues – Hassid argues that the average time between an issue about corruption or energy policy appearing in a newspaper and on a blog is 6 days and 4 days respectively. Blogs, on the other hand, break stories about religion about 6 days before those issues appear in newspapers – they also appear critical in reporting about natural or man-made disasters. The latter issues tend to explode into public protest.
Karpf, David. “Understanding Blogspace.” Journal of Information Technology & Politics, 5:4: 369-385.
How has blogging evolved? Dave Karpf offers a four-part typology of contemporary blogging, arguing that blogs have differentiated and evolved far more quickly than the pace of scholarly understanding. Most relevant for the study of digital activism is his understanding of what he calls “Community blogs.” As he says, “the goal of a community blog is to create a space for the development of communities-of-interest. These blogs are meant to facilitate discussion and promote collaboration or collective action.” The software used by community blogs often leads participants to become more engaged and to participate in various collective actions. He supports this argument with data from the American blog Daily Kos.
Karpf, David. “Online Political Mobilization from the Advocacy Group’s Perspective: Looking Beyond Clicktivism.” Policy & Internet: Vol. 2: Iss. 4, Article 2.
Karpf argues that the “clicktivism” critique advanced by digital skeptics like Malcolm Gladwell misses the point of this kind of engagement. Most advocacy groups, Karpf argues, use “clicktivist” strategies like e-petitions only as an initial strategy in a larger campaign, and also conceptualize them as the first step of what he calls the “ladder of engagement” – an effort to get petitioners to do more than just sign something.
MacKinnon, Rebecca. “Flatter world and thicker walls? Blogs, censorship and civic discourse in China.” Public Choice 134 (2008): 31-46.
In this compelling article, MacKinnon details both the emergence of Chinese blogging and the state’s response, which involved, as she argues, the “delegation” of censorship to platform providers. She notes that in combination with state monitoring, these tactics have been quite successful in impeding the flow of political information, and thus she is skeptical of the Internet’s potential to instigate dramatic, sudden change. However, the breakdown of barriers and the emergence of civic discourse about non-political subjects on blogs and bulletin boards offers the possibility of slower, longer-term change.
Mann, Steve, Nolan, Jerry, and Wellman, Barry. “Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices For Data Collection in Surveillance Environments.” Surveillance and Society 1(3): 331-355.
The authors outline the concept of “sousveillance” – the use of digital tools by citizens to monitor states or corporations. As they argue, “The role reversal between the surveilled individual and the act of surveillance allows for the exploration of the social interactions that are generated by these performances.” While cautioning against the possibility of “ubiquitous total surveillance” of all against all, the authors come down firmly on the emancipatory potential of inverted surveillance practices.
Marmura, Stephen. “A net advantage? The internet, grassroots activism and American Middle-Eastern policy.” New Media & Society April 2008 10: 247-271.
Marmura investigates the use of the Internet by social movements advocating for Palestinian causes to test whether the Internet really does empower weaker actors at the expense of entrenched hierarchies. While he concludes that the Internet is “a powerful tool” for such interests, he tempers his enthusiasm by suggesting that entrenched power hierarchies are difficult to dislodge, and that pro-Israeli groups appear to have taken equal advantage of the Internet’s capabilities.
Meier, Patrick. “The Impact of the Information Revolution on Protest Frequency in Repressive Contexts.” Paper presented at the 50th International Studies Association Conference in New York City, February 15-17, 2009.
Postmes, Tom. “Collective Action in the Age of the Internet: Mass Communication and Online Mobilization.” Social Science Computer Review 2002 20: 290.
Postmes, relying largely on late-90s mobilizations, particularly the 1999 WTO protests, argues that “The Internet mobilizes people by spreading alternative views and news—and the parallel emergence of subcultures supporting collective action.” He argues that the Internet empowers marginalized actors and provides avenues for the expression of voices that in more traditional contexts would be blocked by social hierarchies. Crucially he argues that this process might reinforce group identities at the expense of individual identities, making people more likely to identify with and partake in collective actions. By making it easier to join and participate groups, it affords opportunities for “outsiders” to become part of decision-making processes. His online survey suggests that while activists and sympathizers are still more likely to participate in online collective actions, the Internet does increase the tendency of non-activists to participate in such actions, compared to offline organizing. Overall he challenges the idea that the Internet is an isolating medium and thus unlikely to produce collective action.
Tufekci, Zeynep and Wilson, Christopher. “Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations From Tahrir Square. Journal of Communication 62 (2012): 363-379.
Wielding original survey data and adding actual metrics to anecdotal interpretations of events, Tufekci and Wilson are able to demonstrate that many Egyptians did in fact learn about the January 25th, 2011 protests through social media. As they argue, “the early participants in the Tahrir Square demonstrations tended to rely on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, phones, and E-mail for the information about the protests.” Their analysis challenges the assumption that satellite TV is still the most important contributor to protest participation, though of course other forms of communication were important as well. More than a quarter of the sample first heard about the protests on Facebook, which makes sense considering the growth of Internet access in Egypt during this time period. They also demonstrate that individuals who had previously participated in Egyptian protest activities were likely to have used social media to disseminate dissident information.
York, Jillian. “The Arab Digital Vanguard: How a Decade of Contributed to a Year of Revolution.” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Winter 2012: 33-42
York situations the Arab uprisings of 2010-2011 within a broader context of digital activism that stretches back the better part of a decade. York notes the differential authoritarian media environments of Egypt, where content was largely not blocked, and in Tunisia, where it was. She argues that in Tunisia, blocking mundane content backfired, as it taught activists how to access blocked content and how to become dissidents. The turning point may have been the rise of social media in and around 2006, which gave dissidents new group-forming skills. She also notes the role of “translators” like Global Voices, which brought Arabic and French-language content from places like Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain to broader global audiences.
Youmans, William Lafi and York, Jillian C. “Social Media and the Activist Toolkit: User Agreements, Corporate Interests, and the Information Infrastructure of Modern Social Movements.” Journal of Communication 62 (2012): 315-329.
Youmans and York argue that their goal is “our goal is to highlight the mismatch between the commercial logic of platforms such as Facebook and the needs of activists using social media as public information infrastructure” rather than assuming that the needs of corporate entities like Facebook and those of the activists using them match up perfectly. They argue that because these platforms were not intended for use by dissidents, changes to their architecture and legal structures can have negative ramifications. For instance, Facebook’s refusal to allow anonymous pages is due to the necessity of “monetizing” users’ profiles, and negatively impacted the activism of the We Are All Khaled Said group in Egypt. The authors also discuss, among other cases, Youtube’s decision to take down graphic videos of torture and abuse posted by users in Syria. Finally, they warn of cooperation between social media platforms and authoritarian regimes, accusing Facebook of providing user information to authoritarian regimes when requested. They urge users to relocate to platforms that protect privacy and point to efforts like the Global Network Initiative as imperative for erecting an architecture and legal structure that protects dissidents and forces companies to disclose their relationships with authoritarian regimes.
Newspaper and Magazine Articles
Shapiro, Samantha M. “Revolution, Facebook Style.” New York Times Magazine, January 22nd, 2009.
Shapiro interviews and spends time with members of Egypt’s April 6th Youth Movement (circa late 2008) in the aftermath of their successful April 6th, 2008 sympathy strike with laborers in Mahalla.
Zuckerman, Ethan. “The Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism.” Weblog entry. WorldChanging. 8 March, 2008. Accessed 20 June, 2011.
Zuckerman’s article (actually it’s a summary of a talk he has given), argues that the Internet allows for both serious activity (activism) and unserious activity (posting pictures of cute cats). It is here that Zuckerman famously stated, “Porn is a weak test for the success of participatory media – it’s like tapping a mike and asking, “Is it on?” If you’re not getting porn in your system, it doesn’t work. Activism is a stronger test – if activists are using your tools, it’s a pretty good indication that your tools are useful and usable.” The underlying point is that oftentimes tools created to share funny pictures of cats (or for other non-activist purposes like Google Easrth) can be turned into incredibly useful activist tools. And regimes attempting to shut down these sites (like Youtube) will train ordinary citizens in activism, by forcing them to find workarounds.
Ben Gharbia, Sami. “The Internet Freedom Fallacy and the Arab Digital Activism.” Weblog entry. September 17th, 2010. Sami Ben Gharbia.
The Tunisian digital activist Sami Ben Gharbia makes a strong case against official U.S. involvement in Arab digital activism. He argues that some USG-sponsored initiatives, like the Arab blogosphere map, tend to adopt lenses relevant to policymakers but somewhat divorced from realities in the region. Furthermore, U.S. initiatives tend to be freighted with the foreign policy goals (and contradictions) of the state – meaning that bloggers in Bahrain get ignored while bloggers in Iran are highlighted and assisted. Affiliation with American-funded initiatives or organizations puts the dissidents themselves at risk, and invites a crackdown from repressive regimes. Finally, some U.S. organizations with an interest in digital activism in the Middle East, most notable Cyberdissidents.org, are funded by neoconservative groups with uncertain agendas.
10 Tactics. Dir. Tactical Technology Collective. Perf. Namita Singh, Alaa Abdel Fattah, Rebecca Saab Saaade, Helen Darbishire, and others. Tactical Technology Collective, 2009.
This 50-minute film of digital activism case studies from around the world serves as the centerpiece for an “infoactivism” training suite on activism tactics (mobilize, witness, visualize…) that also includes a set of tactics flashcards and a companion web site www.infoactivism.org with additional case studies and practical advice. Though the suite is designed to train activists in the use of digital technology, the film could also be used to present the global phenomenon of digital activism to students.
Though the creators of the film, the training organization Tactical Technology Collective, prefer the term “infoactivism” to “digital activism” because of the former’s stress on the use of persuasive information in advocacy, the cases and tactics in the film are all examples of digital activism as well. The film can be downloaded for free from the web site (www.informationactivism.org/en/Download) and a trailer is also available.
Burma VJ. Dir. Anders Řstergaard. Perf. “Joshua” (pseudonym). Oscilloscope Laboratories, 2008.
The film tells the story of the September 2007 Saffron Revolution through the lens of brave “video journalists” who filmed the uprising on hand-held cameras and smuggled the footage out of the country to share their truth with the world. Other parts of the film, which were reconstructed, have caused controversy. The film is well-made, emotional, and suspenseful, one of the best accounts of heroic citizen journalism and the power of digital media. The DVD is also available for sale and on Netflix.
The Green Wave. Dir. Ali Samadi Ahadi. Perf. Navid Akhavan, Payam Akhavan, and Shirin Ebadi. Dreamer Joint Venture and Wizard Ug, 2010.
This film tells the story of the 2009 Green Movement uprising through animated vignettes of digital citizen media created by activists in Iran, along with video footage and talking head interviews to give context. The film is an informative and heart-wrenching account of a tragic revolution and of the power of social media to allow the oppressed to create their own narrative, even in defeat. The film is on the festival circuit but has not been released, though there is a page for it on Netflix and a trailer on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQANWA-dyp4/)
iRevolution: Online Warriors of The Arab Spring. Prod. Taryn Fixel and Scott Bronstein. Perf. Amber Lyon, Astrubal, Gigi Ibrahim and Mona Seif. CNN, 2011.
This film, produced for CNN’s Special Investigations and Documentary unit, features interviews with digital activists from Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain, and was well-reviewed by digital activists and their advocates.