Digital Activism Decoded book now on sale at Amazon

We’re happy to announce that our book, Digital Activism Decoded: The New Mechanics of Change, is available on Amazon.com. We’ve been giving you chapter excerpts for two months, and we hope you’ve enjoyed them.

Now it’s time to enjoy the full content!

From Our Book: The Future that Digital Activism Makes Possible

Today’s excerpt, by editor Mary Joyce, presents a theory of change for how digital activism could change the global politics of power. Previous sections in the chapter explain the practical changes that the field of digital activism will need to pass through to increase its effectiveness and achieve this future state. The book is available for free download here and for hard copy sale here.

…Perhaps the greatest motivator for this kind of collaborative creation would be a shared vision of what is possible if the great potential of digital activism is realized—of the potentially transformative power of ubiquitous and dense linkages between citizens across the world. A new power grid is available and it is us. Unlike a traditional electrical power grid—a network in which power is generated only at the central point of production and money flows into the center while electricity flows out—this new human power grid would have many points of generation and almost infinite interfaces.

The new power grid is a decentralized network of individuals, each of whom can both produce and consume information, interact with the media, take action, and engage in protest. At the edges of the network, the term “consumer” does not apply anymore. While the organizer of an action may be called a “producer,” supporters who participate in the action are producers as well. The action is its participants.

The infrastructure of this new grid is the cables and radio signals that make up increasingly interconnected Internet and phone networks. The infrastructure is composed of applications like SMS and social networks that allow us to connect to one another with astonishing speed, increasing ease, and greater complexity. What will we do with this new network of software and infrastructure that connects us? What will happen when the power of the individual is organized through the grid and begins to push back on the center, the traditional locus of authority? How will the center change? Or will it not change at all?

Central authority, in the form of both governments and corporations, has always functioned through the cooperation of individuals within those institutions. The institution gets its power from the reliability of cooperation among the individuals within the institution. This reliability of cooperation used to require intense capital investment—the payment of salaries to soldiers or bureaucrats.

Traditional institutions are resource-intensive because they are forced to use extrinsic motivators like fear and money to ensure a significant and reliable level of cooperation. Digital campaigns, in contrast, can achieve their cooperation goals with radically fewer financial resources because a permanent time commitment is not necessary and a cause appeals to the idealism of the supporter, a free and intrinsic motivation. If many people can be engaged at low time commitment and low cost instead of high time commitment and high cost, as Harvard professor Yochai Benkler has posited in his book The Wealth of Networks, new institutions will arise.

Today, free and ad hoc organizations have demonstrated their ability to cooperate on discrete projects—a worldwide day of action, for instance—but have rarely formed the durable institutions that make cooperation reliable and would give them real power. This is one reason why it is so important that strategic knowledge be created. Digital activism needs to improve. Today we see marches, tomorrow we may see alternative political structures.

From Our Book: Beyond Us vs. Them

Today’s excerpt, by the futurists and cultural forecasters Sem DeVillart and Brian Waniewski, challenges advocacy groups to use the networking features of the Internet not only to connect with allied organizations and supporters but also to the corporate and political “targets” whose behavior they wish to change. Later in the chapter, Sem and Brian propose a network that would facilitate this kind of radical collaboration. The book is available for free download here and for hard copy sale here.

…Activists and advocacy groups have typically been repositories of values or points of view considered challenging to the status quo. This built-in sense of opposition contributes to an “us vs. them” mentality. Most organizations have abandoned the radical techniques of early activism in favor of the more businesslike methods of marketing and media relations or practices like culture-jamming, in which mainstream cultural institutions or their symbols are parodied or otherwise disrupted.

But every now and then, young angry voices hammer the face shields of riot cops and rubber bullets fly. Even putting such real-world radicalism aside, great quantities of money, energy, and intelligence are poured into the pro-con, right-wrong, left-right, good-evil rhetorical flurries that define network news programming and the tone of public debate off and online.

It is tempting for organizations to adopt competitive strategies toward peers engaged in like or complementary efforts, and the pressure to secure funding is especially acute in today’s financial climate. Thus, to impugn the methods or mettle of “competing” organizations can seem like the easiest path to success, a path well worn by the commercial sector.

…. We must find some way to move beyond “us vs. them” and rectify the contradictions—internal and external—that underlie it. We have already touched on how the structure of the Internet compresses the distance between potentially divergent points of view. With a mouse click, we can jump from the site of an organization like Greenpeace to the site of Dow Chemical and find points of view forged not in the reactive heat of debate but in the relative peace of collectively held strong convictions. We can experience the full force of the contradictions they establish.

To experience deep contradictions in the information we take in has never been easy, and the decentralized structure of the Internet does not help matters. On the Internet, everything is information, and, from a system’s perspective, all existing information is equally valid and true. No centralized or organizing order, no Dewey decimal system, or trusted curator keeps subject areas or sympathies separate. While some users may be confused, others may find they have a new recognition of and comfort with the contradictions basic to human beings and the world we construct to live in. The ability to act effectively while honoring and holding contradictions in mind may become more widespread. More people may come to understand and behave as if the deeds of Greenpeace and Dow Chemical are both equally the collective results of men and women facing their circumstances to the best of their abilities.

To honor contradiction is a first step toward compassion.

From Our Book: Utopia Meets Reality for Digital Activists

The final section addresses both the intended and unintended consequences of digital activism. Simon Columbus’ chapter on the persecution of digital activists explicitly addressed those unintended consequences and presents an exhaustive analysis of how political bloggers are persecuted around the world. In this introduction, Simon contrasts the utopian vision of the Internet in the 1990’s to its fraught present.

Simon blogs at i like patterns, where he’s also set up a dedicated page for our book.

The book is available for free download here and for hard copy sale here.

….When the Iranian authorities arrested Sina Motallebi in 2003 for criticizing the government in his blog and speaking with foreign journalists, the young Iranian blogosphere was alarmed. Repressive regimes have always moved to silence those who express themselves freely—so what made this arrest more shocking than earlier arrests of those critical of the regime? Motallebi’s arrest was one of the first instances of a growing trend in the political persecution of bloggers, and a direct challenge to the cyber-utopianism of the 1990s. Although the Internet allows activists greater access to the tools of mass communication and coordination, it does not protect them from persecution.

The Internet initially carried the promise of a space for free expression and communication, where individuals and groups from all over the globe could voice their opinions and concerns to a worldwide audience. This ideal was exemplified by the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, penned in 1996 by John Perry Barlow, a respected Internet theorist and a founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In it, Barlow declared the Internet free from the restriction and repression of offline political spaces:

Governments of the Industrial World . . . I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear. Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. . . . Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. . . . We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

This was the promise of a new frontier open to those who crossed into it first. But just as the Wild West has today come under the rule of law, the Internet was soon targeted by law enforcement officials. Now, although we are mostly free to visit sites run by citizens of all nations, governments decide what we are allowed to see and, more important, to create. Motallebi’s arrest signaled the end of an era of political promise for bloggers in Iran and in other countries as well. It was one of the first signs that the Web was not detached from the politics of real life but intimately connected with it….

From Our Book: How Activists Coordinate Online

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at Amazon.com. For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt is the first from the second section of the book, which addresses the practices of digital activism. This excerpt, by post-doctoral fellow Anastasia Kavada, explains digital activism through the lens of social movement theory.

…The Internet further helps activists to organize and make decisions. It facilitates processes of affiliation, allowing people to become members of the movement simply by subscribing to an email list or joining a Facebook group. Social movements have traditionally operated with an informal definition of membership. The ease with which activists can now join a protest network renders the process of affiliation even more fluid and flexible.

Online tools also aid collaboration, coordination, and the division of responsibilities among activists organizing a protest or campaign. Activists can use Wikipages to write to-do lists and messages of mobilization collaboratively. They can also employ calendar-matching services to plan meetings and gatherings. Interactive applications such as email, discussion groups, and instant messaging (and increasingly Internet telephony like Skype) can be used for decision making. Such collaboration can also be carried out through e-voting tools and other applications designed for aggregating preferences.

To meet their needs of coordination, social movements have also started to create their own Web platforms instead of using already existing ones that can only partly fulfill their needs. The European Social Forum launched such a platform in November 2007. Called OpenESF (www.openesf.net), the platform facilitates networking around common campaigns and initiatives by inviting registered users to create a profile and set up a project. These can refer to the preparation of the European Social Forum or to any proposal for social transformation as long as it conforms to the Charter of Principles of the World Social Forum. Projects are provided with a set of coordination tools including blogs, discussion lists, Wikipages, and task lists. As of August 2009, OpenESF had 970 registered members and 199 projects.

Spanning geographic boundaries, the Internet plays a vital role in coordinating protests across national borders. Still, activists often combine online tools with physical meetings, particularly for decisions that require lengthy discussion or negotiation among numerous participants.

For instance, while Indymedia activists organize on the international level through email lists, instant messaging, and the Indymedia Twiki, local Indymedia groups also meet regularly face-to-face. The same mix of online and offline coordination is present in the European Social Forum, where activists employ both email lists and physical meetings in the process of decision making.

Movements organizing online face greater risks of surveillance and suppression. Tweets, Facebook groups, websites, and blogs are all available in the public domain. Thus, the same Internet tools that help social movements to keep track of their opponents’ activities can also be used against them. For instance, during the 2009 G20 summit, the commander responsible for policing the protests admitted that the authorities were monitoring social networking sites. In an article published on BBC News Online, he said that such sites helped the police to assess the number of demonstrators expected in the streets and to get a sense of the activities being planned.

From Our Book: How Digital Activism Empowers Existing Elites

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at Amazon.com. For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt, by Kate Brodock, is from a chapter entitled “Economic and Social Factors: The Digital (Activism) Divide”. The chapter describes how contextual factors beyond digital infrastructure can affect digital activism outcomes. You can find Kate on Twitter and blogging here and here.

…Research indicates that economic differences limit not only access to technology but also the likelihood of an individual to take part in political activism. The 2009 Digital Activism Survey conducted by DigiActive, an organization dedicated to helping grassroots activists around the world use digital technology, found that digital activists, particularly in developing countries, are more likely than the population at large to be paying a monthly fee for home Internet access, to be able to afford a high-speed connection, and to work in a white-collar job with access to the Internet in the workplace.

In short, digital activists are likely to be prosperous, with their economic resources offering them a significant digital advantage. These initial findings indicate that the digital divide strongly influences digital activism because it tends to limit participation to the economic elite.

This research was corroborated by a report of the Internet and American Life Project of the Pew Research Center. A September 2009 Pew report—Civic Engagement Online: Politics as Usual, by Aaron Smith—stated that “whether they take place on the Internet or off, traditional political activities remain the domain of those with high levels of income and education.” Smith continues, “Contrary to the hopes of some advocates, the Internet is not changing the socio-economic character of civic engagement in the United States. Just as in offline civic life, the well-to-do and well-educated are more likely than those less well off to participate in online political activities.”

The digital divide is also made wider by the fact that not only do lower-income populations have less access to digital technologies, they sometimes must pay more for them. For example, the 2007 ITU-UNCTAD World Information Society report stated that the cost of broadband as a percentage of the average monthly per capita wage was around 2 percent in high-income countries, whereas broadband costs in low-income countries were more than 900 percent of the average monthly per capita wage. Higher income populations are not only likely to receive the higher-quality products of modern communications technology and in greater supply, they often are able to purchase them at significantly lower relative cost.

Combined with the research on digital activism participants from DigiActive and the Pew Research Center, these findings indicate that digital technology often mirrors rather than undermines preexisting divides in economic resources. Digital technology provides new communication capacities, but it is people of higher economic capabilities who are best able to take advantage of them….

From Our Book: How Mobile Activism Turned an Election in Spain

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at Amazon.com. For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt, by Brannon Cullum, a recent graduate of Georgetown’s CCT program, is from a chapter on digital activism devices, specifically the use of mobile phones. This selection presents an excellent case study of mobile activism from 2004. Though many case studies in the field are told as isolated narratives, they still form the basis of our knowledge of digital activism phenomena.

…The use of mobile phones during the 2004 general elections in Spain illustrates how ordinary citizens can shift the direction of an election. On March 11, 2004, days before national parliamentary elections, three trains were bombed at a Madrid train station, killing 192 people and injuring hundreds more. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing and before any evidence had surfaced linking any specific terrorist organization to the event, the governing Popular Party (PP) publicly stated that the Basque terrorist

group ETA was behind the bombing. By the end of the day, the Islamist terrorist organization Al Qaeda had claimed responsibility for the act. The Spanish government, known for taking a hard stance against the Basque group, continued to assert that ETA was culpable, in part because making the Basque terrorists appear responsible would benefit PP in the upcoming elections against the Socialist Party. Many Spaniards were outraged that the government was choosing to blame Basque terrorists for Al

Qaeda’s work and believed that the PP was trying to cover up evidence that linked Al Qaeda to the bombings. Opposition leaders believed that Al Qaeda targeted Spain because of Prime Minister

Jose Maria Aznar’s support of the war in Iraq and that Aznar was downplaying the role of Al Qaeda in an effort to improve his party’s chance in the election. Citizens, agitated by the apparent manipulation of information, began to call for demonstrations to express their mistrust of the government.

According to blogger Andre Serranho, the first SMS message was sent March 13, the day before the election, and simply stated, “The government lied. Pass it on.” Other messages soon began

circulating, such as:

18:00 PP head office Genova St. no parties silence for the truth. Information poisoning at 18:00 PP Genova pass it on.

We want to know before we vote.

The truth now, stop the manipulation, your war, our dead. Pass it on!

No one has been able to identify the source(s) of the texts. The Socialist Party has vehemently denied responsibility. Spain has an official ban on political demonstrations in the 24 hours prior to any election. Activists and concerned citizens ignored the ban and gathered anyway. By 11:00 p.m., more than ten thousand people had gathered in front of the PP headquarters in Madrid. In Serranho’s account of what transpired on March 13 and 14, he notes that the majority of Spaniards he spoke to acknowledged

that they had forwarded text messages to their contact lists. Spain had a mobile penetration rate of 94 percent, indicating that most residents of the country had mobile phones capable of sending 64 Digital Activism Decoded and receiving texts; March 13 saw a 20 percent increase in text messages, March 14, election day, saw a rise of 40 percent. Thousands of texts were passed around asking Spaniards to vote for the Socialist Party and to demonstrate against the Popular Party.

These tactics proved successful. The large size of the group that gathered at PP headquarters showed how many people were upset with the incumbent party. In a surprising turn, the Socialist Party defeated the PP at the polls, with turnout for the election estimated at 77 percent—an 8 percent increase from the previous election.

Thus was demonstrated the power of persuasive text messages. It can be posited that many Spaniards who received text messages trusted the sender enough to believe the accusation against the government and decided that the best way to protest was to vote for the opposition party.

From Our Book: Are New or Old Apps Best?

Today’s excerpt, by Dan Schultz, who will soon begin graduate studies at the MIT Media Lab, is from a chapter entitled “Applications: Picking the Right One in a Transient World,” The chapter offers practical advice for activists on how to choose the applications that will support their digital campaign.

…You can easily get caught up in technology hype, and sometimes that isn’t such a bad thing for an activist to do. Campaigns that use a new technology to accomplish something groundbreaking often end up generating positive attention for themselves. There is also no question that identifying and diving into what will become the next Facebook or Twitter would help you gain traction on the digital front. Using tools that are a bit further along the adoption curve, however, can have some real benefits.

Established systems have established networks, precedent, popularity, and brands. By using a brand that people recognize, trust, and use, you will increase your own credibility and remove some of the barriers to involvement in your campaign. If your intended use takes advantage of network benefits, then the larger user bases of popular sites are going to prove to be a vital asset. Even if the tool is going to be used for something private, like internal communication, you could find the robust support base that comes with established tools to be invaluable.

Another major blow against “cutting-edge” technology is the vast increase of added risk. The tool could disappear, it might be unstable, maybe its popularity is just a fad, maybe it just isn’t going to grow any more—the list goes on. If longevity and stability are important for your purposes, you’ll need to be careful before making commitments to a tool that has only been around for a year. If, however, you are OK with the risk of being forced to change directions at some point down the line, don’t give this concern a second thought.

Of course, completely new isn’t necessarily something to avoid. There will be times when new tools do something that nothing else can do or they are simply superior in the areas you care about. You should also recognize that even the most established tool could become obsolete in a week. What is important is that you know what you’re getting yourself into and assess and address your risks accordingly.

“New Hotness” Pros

  • If the service grows, you benefit as an early adopter.
  • The tool might provide something new or improved.
  • You might discover a groundbreaking way to perform digital activism.

“New Hotness” Cons

  • It could fall flat, leaving you without an audience.
  • It could die off completely, leaving you without a tool.
  • It could change dramatically, possibly in a way that causes it to lose its original appeal.

“Old Reliable” Pros

  • You probably aren’t the first one trying to use the tool for activism, so there will be precedent and best practices to learn from.
  • The larger user base provides network benefits.
  • Established brand means others will be able to understand immediately how and why you are using the tool.

“Old Reliable” Cons

  • Depending on your intent, you might have to fight for attention in an environment filled with noise from other causes.
  • You might find yourself invested in an obsolete technology.

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at Amazon.com. For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

From Our Book: Why the Term “Digital Activism?”

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book, Digital Activism Decoded and on June 30th the paper version will go on sale at Amazon.com. For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt, by Mary Joyce, is from the Preface and explains why we choose to use the term “digital activism” and how it relates to other related terms.

….Just as the mechanics of digital activism are clouded, so is the terminology. In fact, the phrase “digital activism” is not even the consensus term for the use of digital technology in campaigning.

If the term “digital activism” is contested, why do we use it in this book? Because the speed, reliability, scale, and low cost of the digital network are what enable the great scope and reach of contemporary activism. This phenomenon is what we focus on. We want a term to refer to this set of digitally networked campaigning activities—or practices—that is both exhaustive and exclusive. Exhaustive in that it encompasses all social and political campaigning practices that use digital network infrastructure; exclusive in that it excludes practices that are not examples of this type of practice.

Some terms fail to meet the criterion for exhaustiveness because they preclude relevant practices. For example, “cyber-activism,” “online organizing,” and “online activism” are not exhaustive because they refer only to activism on the Internet, excluding the use of mobile phones and other offline digital devices in activism— distributing digital content on thumb drives, for instance. Likewise, the phrase “social media for social change,” which refers to the use of social applications like Facebook and Flickr for activism, is not exhaustive because it precludes other relevant activist applications like mobile SMS and email.

Other terms are exhaustive in that they encompass all relevant practices, but fail to be exclusive because they include irrelevant practices. “E-activism” and “e-advocacy” are earlier terms for digital campaigning practices that are derived from the word “email,” in which the “e” refers to “electronic.” At the advent of the Internet, the “e” preface was useful in differentiating mail sent by an electronic device, the computer, from mail sent by post, or a bound paper book from an e-book. However, the range of technologies that are electronic is far broader than those that are digital. Activists have used Dictaphones, electronic megaphones, and VHS tape recorders, but these technologies are not digital because they do not encode and transmit information as the digits 1 and 0, as is the case with a digital device. They do not make use of the low-cost scalability of the global digital network. While non-digital technologies certainly have value for activism, they will not be the subject of this book.

So far, the terminology of digital activism has referred to particular types of infrastructure, both hardware and software. Cyberactivism refers to the Internet; social media for social change refers to social software applications; e-activism refers to electronic devices. The last term that fails the exhaustive and exclusive test is different in that it refers to content, not infrastructure.

“Info-activism,” a term coined by the international training group Tactical Technology Collective, refers to the use of “information and communications technology to enhance advocacy work.” However, as project leader Dirk Slater commented in a recent online dialogue hosted by the organization New Tactics in Human Rights: “I’d define info-activism as the strategic and deliberate use of information within a campaign. It’s not necessarily digital or Internet-based, in fact it often isn’t one of those two things at all.” While some info-activism uses digital technology, it need not. Effective info-activism could use printed flyers, stencils, or word-of-mouth. The scope of practices encompassed by info-activism is broader than those encompassed by digital activism, so the term is exhaustive but not exclusive.

In this book, we are not arguing for the preeminence of the term “digital activism” over other terms. If someone is exclusively interested in the use of the Internet for activism, he or she can and should use a term like “cyber-activism” or “online advocacy.” However, we are arguing that—because it is exhaustive and exclusive—” digital activism” is the best term to discuss all instances of social and political campaigning practice that use digital network infrastructure.

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