One Year Later: Arab Spring Aftermath Offers Insights

The wave of protests that swept through the Arab world last year – what we all call the “Arab Spring” – involved various methods of mobilization and communication of citizens that have since led to region-wide, progressive instances of revolutionary upheaval. At MAP, we’ve of course been paying most attention to the use of digital technology throughout. I’ve pulled out a few insights – some obvious (but worth solidifying) and some big-picture/not-so-obvious. Let us know what else you think is important.

Digital technology usage has become more sophisticated.

  • Digital technologies offered a way for people to connect, communicate, and in many cases mobilize. This isn’t new per se, but the speed and proliferation that it occurred this time around was. Not only did the connections happen, but they led to mobilization quickly and perhaps more effectively than in the past, and instances of mobilization became very wide-spread throughout the region as well (so not just quicker and more effective in one instance, but more prolific).
More people are paying attention to and using the information of digital activists.
Another important trend to highlight, and one that isn’t going away, is that this type of digital communication is being used heavily for various purposes aside from the mobilization and communication of direct political or social actors. For instance, journalists and media outlets have turned heavily to these tools to get information for reporting purposes….which has it’s pros and cons (see below).

It’s not just to the benefit of the activists anymore.

We started to see this in Iran in 2009, when governments or anti-freedom groups started “fighting back” using digital technology. It happened slowly, and was not very effective or organized. We saw it more organized in the London Riots and othermovementssince.

The real notability of this shift came when I was speaking with a friend in Syria, asking him how things were, that it sounded rough from where I was standing (note: this was before it actually GOT rough), and he said point blank, “you can’t trust any of your media (by the way, he’s mostly American), or Twitter. They aren’t accurate, and we’re safe.” It turns out thatpeople had hijacked the hashtags to report fake bomb attacks andhyperbolizewhat was happening on the ground. Something we’d seen before, but to minimal degrees. (See below point).

Ok, who to trust….. Joe (that would be my first inclination, but…)? Twitter (this would be my second outlet, and first in the cases where I didn’t have a friend on the ground)? The press (but everyone tells you not to go there)?

And this leads me to the next high-level insight….one I’ve spoken about before

Verification is super important!

In case you didn’t know…. but what’s happened now if that because these tools are in the hands of several different actors, there will be these hashtag hijackings and manipulation of information that we all need to be very careful of. Combine that with the fact that this digital information is being used for multiple purposes, this really muddies the waters. When getting fast information becomes the name of the game, it becomes more difficult to practice discipline when we’re consuming and especially sharing that information.

This is so important, because if it isn’t streamlined or worked out, it has the potential to ruin whatever systems are put into place moving forward. If we’re presented with a pile of information, no way to sift through it, and no way to verify it, I ask you how useful that pile of information is at that point – to activists orothers.

It depends on who’s being challenged and how receptive they are to public outcry.

Mary recently described the Arab Spring within the context of aConstructive/Destructive framework of network affects on nation states:

“In this example, networked actors used social media like Twitter to broadcast elite anti-regime narratives. This mechanism of international agenda-setting made it difficult for other heads of state to oppose the movement publicly, giving the activists a conducive international environment in which to push for regime change. Activists also used social media to mobilize the actual street protests which forced the Tunisian and Egyptians dictators from power.

In this example we see networked technology being used to challenge state power at the highest level by challenging the legitimacy of state institutions and the authority of rulers.We can say that its overall effect was positive since the political orders emerging in Egypt and (moreso) Tunisia are likely to be more democratic and concerned with public welfare than those that preceded them.

We should watch out for Eastern Europe/Central Asia as a possible next hot spot for outbreaks.

Anyone who’s been following this region know 1) it’s highly volatile at the moment and 2) they’ve already used digital technologies to mobilize and communicate in the past, so they’re ahead of the curve.


Ok, do you have anything else for us? Also make sure to check out David’s thoughts on the matter.


Clicktivism, Schmictivism. Move on, literally.

Last week, The Guardian ran a piece called “Clicktivism is ruining leftist activism,” (12 August 2010) by Micah White. The basis of it was that digital activism has been diminished to mere tallying of things like clicks, email subscribers, Facebook followers… you name it.

While he offers a small glimmer of hope at the end, rallying digital activists to “jettison the consumerist ideology of marketing that has for too long constrained the possibility of social revolution,” he paints a pretty dismal picture of how digital activism campaigns are now run: just like marketers, it’s all about the numbers and how many you can get and nothing more.

The huge glaring problem with this piece? It stops there. It stops at giving a laundry list of campaigns that advertise a huge “member” base and the fact that digital activism has become nothing more than a numbers game.

Dave Karpf responded by highlighting how many activists have used this marketing model since well before the dawn of the internet (“Let’s move past the tired Clicktivism critiques please,” 12 August 2010). One of Dave’s main points is the fact that, in White’s criticism, there was no discussion or even mention of the process put in place after those clicks occur, the Ladder-of-Engagement.

He argues that “actual social justice organizing looks nothing like the fiction White compares digital activism to. Organizing is hard work. We create change by building power and mobilizing relationships, applying pressure on decision-makers that would prefer we went away. Real activism (to use White’s own phrase) isn’t about “the power of ideas or the poetry of deeds.””

[Sidenote: Dave points to a great example of White’s worst passage, although I’d be prone to pick “Exchanging the substance of activism for reformist platitudes that do well in market tests, clicktivists damage every genuine political movement they touch. In expanding their tactics into formerly untrammelled political scenes and niche identities, they unfairly compete with legitimate local organisations who represent an authentic voice of their communities. They are the Wal-Mart of activism: leveraging economies of scale, they colonise emergent political identities and silence underfunded radical voices.”]

On that note, I’d also like to have a marketing discussion with you.

As a marketing strategist and social media marketer who’s had many clients in the private and the non-profits spaces, I can’t tell you how many organizations I’ve seen that have tried to base success on click-through-rates, RSS subscriptions, Twitter followers etc. When those people become our clients, we sit them down day one and have a conversation about what success means to them. 100% of the time, success is not actually the number of followers they’ve got on any given social network or email list. It’s “more money (profit or donations), more supporters, more influence, more brand awareness, etc”. We make it clear that to accomplish those goals, you have to turn the numbers into something valuable – and that’s what we ultimately end up working with them on. It does no good if you have 10,000 Twitter followers if your goal is to create actionable, organized social change. Your 10,000 mean nothing. Zilch.

My point is that, if we’re going to rip apart this idea of Clicktivism, and basing everything on numbers etc, I’d like for Mr White to run his analysis of how these organizations turned those numbers into value for themselves. I would bet you that MoveOn has achieved what it would consider tremendous success from their “measly click-throughs.”

How? They went past the numbers and linked them to something more engaging than a click, which is only the first rung of the Ladder-of-Engagement. When White discusses the loss of passion for a cause, or, as Dave put it, the loss of soul of Digital Activism, he doesn’t look at the clicks that were turned into passionate supporters.

Esra’a hit the nail on the head in her post “Is digital activism ruined?,” (12 August 2010). One of her observations jumped out at me:

“We have people who really do preach that clicking a petition or a link or simply RTing something is “enough,” when it isn’t. Our job is to communicate how and why it isn’t – often we fail, because we ARE dealing with an overwhelmingly lazy (and sometimes numb or unaware generation) – even right here in the Middle East. I think this is something we digital activists have been dealing with for many years and only now it is being discussed on a larger scale.”

The real deal? This isn’t just a digital activism problem. Unfortunately for White, he simply drew a comparison between bad digital activist campaigns and bad marketing campaigns. Anyone worth their stuff as a marketer will tell you that the numbers is only the first step, and that those numbers must be linked to a strategy and goals if the campaign is going to be a success.

Mary added a comment supporting the idea of needing to put all of these “measurements” that White talks about in the context of a strategic framework.

“I utterly agree with you Esra’a – [clicktivism,] the bottom rung of digital activism (RTing, changing an avatar) is just that – the bottom rung, the first step. Strategic organizers can mobilize these people who self-identify as caring about a cause to take more significant actions with greater impact. Only intentional nay-sayers or people who don’t understand the mechanics of activism would equate the failure to mobilize “clicktivists” to achieve campaign goals with the failure of digital technology for activism. Just as in the offline world, digital campaigns are multi-faceted, including a range of tactics for a range of supporters over a long time horizon.”

It’s only then that we can begin to make sense of the numbers, and understand their true impact.

What do you think about Clicktivism? Does it have it’s place in Digital Activism?

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