There are two important causal questions for digital activism researchers: what causes digital activism and what does digital activism cause? The former is easier to answer. The latter is more difficult but also more interesting.
These two questions can be visualized in linear time where the causes of digital activism (from macro contextual factors like internet penetration rate to micro factors like activist motivation) result in an instance of digital activism (a Facebook campaign, a Twitter hashtag, an e-petition) which is itself the cause of some political or social result (mobilized supporter, a change in policy, even no effect at all). The image above shows these three events and the two causal relationships that overlay them. The instance of digital activism, in the middle of the causal stream, is both a result of the previous causes and a cause of the subsequent results.
1st Causal Relationship: What Causes Digital Activism?
The first causal relationship, the causes of a digital activism instance, are easier to get at, at least in terms of probability. Though we can never know every factor that caused a digital activism instance to arise (a blogger has a fight with her boyfriend, decides not to give him the camera she bought him, and instead uses it to capture a major instance of police abuse), we can still hope to identify the major contextual elements that correlate to instances of digital activism. The Global Digital Activism Data Set will perform this correlative function since it will be possible to correlate the number of instances (or successful instances) of digital activism in a given country to various social, political, technological, and economic contextual factors. For example, we might learn that the youth population and mobile phone penetration rate are more reliable predictors that an instance of digital activism will occur than political freedom and median income.
Here it is appropriate to acknowledge that causation is easier to pin down at the macro level of the nation-state than the micro level of the individual. We can say with confidence which national indicators correlate with national digital activism rates, but as the work of Cosma Shalizi has shown, it is difficult to tell why an individual joined a Facebook cause or followed a tweeted directive to join a protest. However, while questions of individual motivation are interesting, we can learn a great deal about digital activism even without this knowledge. We do not need to know what they acted, only whether or not they did.
2nd Causal Relationship: What Does Digital Activism Cause?
The second causal question – what does the digital activism instance cause? – is more difficult to ascertain but also more important. If there is a clearly visible change in the phenomenon that the digital activism instance aimed to influence (the end of a regime, passage of a new law), to what extent was digital activism responsible?
This is the domain of the “Facebook Revolution” and “Twitter Revolution,” terms that imply that there was an overriding causal connection between the revolution and digital activism instance. Of course, this would only be true if the other possible causal factors (role of traditional media, international pressure, elite intrigue, credibility of alternative governing parties) combined to play only a minority role, which seems unlikely.
If we wanted to demonstrate this type of causation in terms of probability we would need a data set that accurately recorded the relative strength of the same causal factors (to allow for direct comparison) according to a viable strength metric, a significant challenge in and of itself.
While we can determine causation through a rigorous qualitative process, such as interviews with key activists, review of media reports, and survey data, these conclusions only apply to the specific instance they describe. The conclusions could only be extrapolated to other scenarios if there the same qualitative data was available across a representative array of cases.
To give an example, we can only use the outcomes of digital technology use in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Syria to make guesses about the outcomes in Saudi Arabia if we have rigorous data on a range of relevant causal factors for all these countries, such that empirical comparative analysis can be carried out. There has been such an academic feeding frenzy in Egypt that it is reasonable to believe that we will have a reliable account of the role digital technology played in that revolution, but without equivalent analysis for other countries, there is no empirical basis for comparison, only plenty of grist for talking-head to make subjective comparisons to Saudi Arabia or Bahrain and make whatever conclusions they like.
How important is digital activism in shaping outcomes of political contention in which it is involved? What are the mechanisms of this influence? Are they the same across countries? We need better methods for answering the big questions of digital activism research.