Two Paradigms of Digital Activism

At the Guardian Activate Summit last month, social media entrepreneur Gaurav Mishra (full disclosure: we dated) argued that there are two digital activism paradigms: information and inspiration:

In the first paradigm of digital activism, you work with a disadvantaged group that suffers from limited access to even the most basic information and tools for self-expression. So, you use simple-to-use digital devices like Nokia mobile phones and Flip video cameras and simple-to-use digital technologies like text messages and online video to enable them to access basic information and share their own stories….

In the second paradigm of digital activism, you work with a group that is anything but disadvantaged. This group is at ease with using always on internet and mobile devices, both for instantaneous access to information and for self-expression and social interaction. Here, the digital activist isn’t trying to solve a crisis of capability, but a crisis of caring. Here, the aim is not to empower with information, but to engage with inspiration.

As my italics indicate, I think Mishra’s real point is not about information vs. inspiration, but rather about the much thornier dichotomy of privileged and not. In the first paradigm, the disadvantaged are given tools to act on their own behalf. In the second, the “advantaged” act as digital advocates for the disadvantaged.

There are very intelligent people who are interested in the second paradigm – using digital tools to solve the “crisis of caring” of the privileged for the less privileged. Social media commentator Ethan Zuckerman frequently writes about using digital technology to bridge this divide.

However, I believe that the ultimate goal in promoting digital activism should be to help the disadvantaged speak for themselves. Trying to convince the advantaged to care for the disadvantaged reinforces and to some extent condones this power gap and robs the disadvantaged of agency. If injustices are solved while old institutions of inequality remain intact, we are treating the symptons instead of the root causes of that injustice.

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