Before the Streets: Digital Precursors to Mass Mobilization

In my last post I spoke of my desire to see how big the digital activism “iceberg” is, to study the many unnoticed actions that precede highly visible “Twitter Revolutions” and mass digital mobilizations. In my current task for the Global Digital Activism Data Set I am inputting posts from Global Voices“cyber-activism” category. I started out with recent cases and am now back in 2007. And 2007 is interesting.

In 2007, few of the dramatic digital activism cases had yet occurred, but you can see the seeds of mass mobilization. So far, one of the biggest predictor of mass mobilization seems to be active and politically-aware digital communities and smaller digital campaigns. Here I’ll present three examples of the pre-cursors to major digital mobilizations.


Colombia’s great digital mobilization is One Million Voices Against the FARC, a massive international protest movement in the winter of 2008 against the terrorism perpetrated by FARC guerrillas. However, there were several digital precursors to this action. Back in the spring of 2007, bloggers started talking about their own lack of political engagement. One blogger even wrote about the FARC: “There are more than 3 thousand Colombians kidnapped at this moment, which under no circumstance should be allowed.” That same year, a smaller digital anti-FARC campaign was started, Free Emanuel, a popular blog-based campaign to free a young child held hostage by the FARC. Also in that year bloggers helped to organize Colombia’s first Internet Week, both a sign of the growing digital engagement of Colombian society and of netizen’s ability to self-organize. In fact, Colombia had been using digital technology for activism for almost a decade: the transparency web site Congreso Visible was founded in 1998.


There are other examples of netizen coordination predating important acts of digital activism. The Kenyan Blogs Webring, a community of cross-linking blogs, was born in 2004. Mzalendo: Eye on Kenyan Parliament, one of the first digital transparency initiatives in Sub-Saharan Africa, was created by one of the web ring’s founders in 2006. In early 2008, members of the webring came together to create the SMS mapping software platform Ushahidi in the aftermath of a violently contested election. Ushahidi is now probably the most prominent and widely used piece of software created specifically for activists.


And yes, what about Iran, the most dramatic of digitally-enabled protest? Before people came out on the streets in June of 2009, Iran already had a vibrant and politically-engaged blogosphere, had already seen mass digital campaigns like One Million Signatures for women’s rights of 2006, the 14Mordad blog campaign to free jailed students in 2007, and the 2008 Google-bomb campaign in support of Gaza. There was certainly no guarantee of mass digital mobilization, but multiple contributing factors were present a year before the 2009 protests.

None of this implies the direct causation of a technologically deterministic statement like “strong blogosphere = revolution” but, as in the analogue era, the ability of members of an opposition to create dense networks where they can discuss, coordinate, and mobilize offline make these kinds of actions more likely.

The moral here is not that certain digital contexts lead inexorably to digital revolutions, only to encourage those who seek to read the digital tea leaves to look at the causal factors that have preceded mass mobilizations in the past and to look for the telling details in current cases of digital contestation.

Images: Mark Petersen, DataBlog, Touch Iran

Seeking Digital Activism Case Studies

The Meta-Activism Project is putting together an open data set of digital activism cases from around the world called the Global Digital Activism Data Set (GDADS). In order to collect these case studies we have created an online submission form which allows anyone to submit a case by providing 5 pieces of information:

1. Title
2. Year
3. Country
4. 1 to 3 Sources
5. Your Contact Info

Please submit you case now using the short link and feel free to share the link with your networks.

We have collected over 100 cases already, which you can download at

For more information on the Global Digital Activism Data Set project please visit

Thanks for your support!

6 Years vs. 8 Months: New Methodology Win

Here at the Meta-Activism Project I frequently write about the need for better methodologies for understanding digital activism. The endless stream of disconnected case studies and un-winnable debates between optimists and pessimists just aren’t cutting it anymore.

Because I now find myself to be a methodology geek, I was really happy to see this analysis of old and new research methods in this month’s Wired. The article is about how Google co-founder Sergey Brin is using the massive computational power his company made famous to crunch data on Parkinson’s disease, which he has a 50% of developing later in life. His goal is to find a cure.

At left is a rad info-graphic of how Sergey and the National Institute of Health produced one study on Parkinson’s. While Sergey used computers to parse his results and released them as soon as the analysis was done, the NIH went the traditional route of multiple studies, data-crunching by a statistician, and journal-based peer-review for publication. They reached the same result: Sergey in 8 months and the NIH in 6 years.

Self-publication on the Internet has ended the monopoly of academic journals over the publication of research findings. Though these journals certainly impart credibility, other entities, like Google, can now serve the same purpose. Also, it is sometimes in the public interest to simply get ideas out there instead of waiting months or years for a gatekeeper’s seal of approval. This was the original idea between Research@DigiActive which, during its brief lifespan, published original research on digital activism.

The field of digital activism needs better methodology, but exactly what that methodology should be is still open for debate and exploration. (There is more to life than multivariate linear regression.) I hope that the Meta-Activism Project will not only build new knowledge, but develop new methods for doing so.

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