Digital Activism & Power

The Big Question

Digital activism is a field is search of a central question. There are many possibilities being bandied about, and the nature of the question varies according to who is asking. Activists ask “how do I use digital activism in my campaign?”, which too often devolves into “how do I use digital tools in my campaign?” and a focus on the device or app of the moment. Academics, in turn, ask how digital activism affects not individual campaigns but systems: American politics or repressive regimes, for example.

The problem with multiple questions is that they obscures the fact that all these people are actually asking the same question: “Does digital infrastructure change the dynamics of power?” Each of the groups above would add their own modifier, or course. The activists want to know how digital activism will change the dynamics of power of their campaign, giving them the upper hand over their opponent. Academics want to know how digital activism changes the dynamics of power in Iran or China, a question that Patrick Meier, a member of our Strategy Group, has termed the “Tom vs. Jerry” debate.

Nevertheless, for all involved the central question is power. Because this topic is fundamental to all other questions of digital activism – its value, its legitimacy, its development – I will devote a series of posts to presenting different answers to this question and different ways to conceptualize it. This post is the first and answers the question according to a certain definition of power.

Defining Power

If we seek to answer the question “does digital infrastructure change the dynamics of power” we need to first define “digital infrastructure” and “power”. “Digital infrastructure” can be defined as the networks, devices, and applications that are engaged in the production and dissemination of digitally-encoded content. It is a deliberately broad term. The argument of digital activism is that the global digital network is fundamentally different from previous communications systems and we should appreciate this new system in all its complexity and reject the temptation to be reductionist. We cannot determine the effect of digital activism on power if we only talk about a handful of applications, like Facebook and Twitter.

The definition of power we will use in this post was developed by political scientist Steven Lukes‘ of New York University and is the most nuanced and broadly applicable definition of power I have yet come across. It is called the “three faces of power“. The three faces are:

1) Decision Making Power
2) Non-Decision Making Power
3) The Power to Define Interests

The first face of power, Decision Making Power, is the one we are most familiar with. It is the power to make and implement decisions. For example, when Proposition 8 came onto the ballot in California, it showed that those opposing gay marriage had greater power than those who supported it, because the referendum was decided in favor of same-sex marriage opponents. Those who opposed gay marriage implemented this decision by compelling same-sex marriage supporters to do something they would not do otherwise: cease same-sex marriages. This formulation of power – the ability to force someone to do something they otherwise would not do – is the most common conceptualization of power, but is actually only the most visible.

The second face of power, Non-Decision Making Power, is the ability to prevent an issue from even entering a decision-making phase. In the same-sex marriage example, this refers to the long period of time when same-sex marriage was not considered a valid public issue, and was kept off the political agenda.

The third face of power, The Power to Define Interests, is the most subtle. It refers to the ability of those in power to convince those they have power over to make decisions against their own interests. Examples include women supporting patriarchal systems, gay people opposing same-sex marriage rights, or poor people opposing universal health care. In all three cases, the powerless have been convinced to act in the interest of the powerful, rather than in their own interest. This form or power is perhaps the most insidious because, as long as those who are harmed by a policy align their interests with those benefit from it, there will not be any pressure to put the issue on the political agenda (face two) or to have a vote or similar open contest on the issue (face one).

How Digital Infrastructure Affects Power: Defining Interests

Digital infrastructure affects the mechanics of power by making it easier for activists to spread information (influencing interests) and to mobilize around that information (influencing the public agenda and decision-making). To demonstrate this, I will start with the third face of power and work up to the first since the power process actually begins with the third face (definition of interests) and ends with the first (deciding public contests). Continue reading

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