What We Talk About When We Talk About Digital Activism

[UPDATED] Usually when we talk about digital activism we talk about concrete anecdotes (the Arab Spring, the 2012 presidential race, the Koman/Planned Parenthood blow-up) or abstract trends (slacktivism, cyber-war, hacktivism). What we rarely talk about is how we talk about digital activism: Is our focus in the right place? Do we know what we’re talking about? Are we being honest?

For our second community post, I asked the Meta-Activism Project community what most bothered them about popular discourse on digital activism. Here’s what they had to say:

The Outsized Effect of Media Misunderstanding

The first insight is that there are a lot of people talking about digital activism. This means that digital activism discourse is shaped by diverse perspectives, not all equally well-informed:

Various groups of people – the activists, academics, media, business people, etc – all have the digital tools in common, and many are using them in similar and overlapping ways…[but] the depth of knowledge… that some of these actors have about digital activism, especially the connection to power dynamics/politics/social dynamics [is limited].

Kate Brodock (Executive Director of Digital and Social Media, Syracuse University + Strategy & Communications Advisor)

While many perspectives shape digital activism discourse, the greatest weight falls on the media. Kate believes that a lot of this misunderstanding “comes from the media… people [are] contributing to the conversation without understanding a lot past the technology/tool part of the equation.” António Rosas, MAP’s Research Director, also believes there is a “complete misunderstandings… regarding what is communication, power and politics.”

A journalist’ basic analytical unit is the concrete event (anecdote) and they are judged on their ability to write stories that will generate readership for their media company. Academics, who may have more nuanced and empirical knowledge, often present their ideas in ways that are complex and inaccessible, even if they are accurate. Activists, who implement digital activism campaign may lack the ability to reflect on on their campaigns for a non-expert audience, or they may not wish to spend time talking to journalists and academics.

Of these groups, the negative effect of misinformed journalists is probably greater than that of any other group. Because they are in the business of shaping public perceptions, they have an outsized influence on digital activism discourse that may not be proportional to their insight. The proliferation journalists-turned-digital-activism-pundits like Evgeny Morozov and Malcolm Gladwell play a large role in proliferating misunderstanding of digital activism.

There is an inherent tension between the complexity of most social and political phenomena and the simplicity with which these topics are portrayed in the media for commercial reasons. Patrick Meier summarizes the problem in swift succession:

The cyber skeptics and optimists dichotomy; Sensationalism around negative uses of technology as if it were a surprise and breaking news; Anecdotal diarrhea (a la Evgeny Morozov) at the expense of sound empirical research (a la Phil Howard); The lack of data-driven analysis and mixed methods research on digital activism The lack of data sets to support the above.

Patrick Meier (Director of Crisis Mapping & Partnerships at Ushahidi + MAP Strategy Group)

What is the source of this journalistic misunderstanding? As reporting budgets fall, even large media outlets are reducing numbers of foreign correspondents and beat writers, so many journalists are asked to write about a variety of topics, some of which they have limited expertise in. They do the best they can to learn the facts of the case, but may lack the discernment to ask the right questions or to judge the validity of their own conclusions. The fact that digital activism is new phenomenon makes the task of reporting on it even harder.

…Compounded by the Use of Misleading and Simplistic Frames

One trick used by journalists writing about topics outside their expertise is to rely on dominant yet simplistic frames. They can look to the way other writers have structured a similar story and frame their story in the same way. What are some of the popular frames? The first is success/failure:

There seems to be a near-total lack of understanding that digitally organized protests, even if they do not succeed in toppling a government or regime… can have longer-term effects that are difficult for us to see in the moment

David Faris (Assistant Professor of Political Science, Roosevelt University + MAP Strategy Group)

David also complains about mono-causation stories, which argue that digital technology did (or did not) cause a particular political outcome. Not surprisingly, it’s much more complicated than that. “It is the mobilization to which we can [assign] causality, rather than the ultimate outcome, which depends on many other important factors,” explains David. Digital technology is but one factor among many that causes the ultimate outcome of a political mobilization, yet this nuance is often lost in news stories.

Another misleading frame is that of real/fake activism, a frame popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his influential New Yorker article from the fall of 2010, “Small Change: why the revolution will not be tweeted”. The Arab Spring, which began a month later, demonstrated that in fact the revolution(s) would be tweeted. (E pur si muove, regardless of Gladwell’s argument.) Yet the frame is powerful, and one can still argue that digital activism is somehow not real activism, that is it “clicktivism” or “slacktivism”: ineffective and foolish.

Amy Sample Ward of NTEN, who is currently working on a book on the topic with Allyson Kapin, argues that even seemingly ineffective armchair activism is part of the process of effective mobilization in the digital age:

It’s true, that “liking” a post on Facebook isn’t going to “do” much. But, it shows us two things: First, that your supporters are listening and paying attention…. Second, that supporters are standing by to take the action you promote…. We should take those two messages as an opportunity to call our supporters to a bigger action.

Amy Sample Ward (Membership Director, Nonprofit Technology Network + MAP Network)

Is this Misrepresentation Deliberate?

Why do journalists use these misleading frames? In some cases, it is an honest mistake, journalists just doing their best, using an accessible frame to shape a story that they don’t really understand. But there is an element of cynicism as well. Journalists may rely on dominant frames out of laziness because they don’t want to think through of investigate the specifics of a case themselves. They can also rely on dominant frames because they know their audience will recognize them. They can take a popular frame and hook their own story to it, hoping that this will make their story more likely to be read, even if the frame does not truly fit the story.

Clay Shirky sees the use of simplistic and misleading frames as a deliberate and cynical attempt to gain readership. After all, stories about digital activism must compete with a tremendous amount of news, feature, and opinion pieces every day. A simple frame is an effective attention hook. In particular, Clay blames not journalists, but their editors: What bother him is:

Headline writers.

Pieces that say “Obvs Twitter didn’t cause Tunisians to suddenly turn out in the streets, but here’s how social media did aid the protesters…” get published under the heading “ZOMG Twitter Revolution!” (’cause, you know, who will click on a headline that doesn’t make a simplistic claim?)

A surprising amount of the pieces de-bunking mono-causal claims were responding to the headlines of various articles, when the writers of the original piece and their respondents were often in broad agreement.

Clay Shirky (Distinguished Writer in Residence, NYU + MAP Advisory Board)

What We Can Do

So what can we do about this misrepresentation and misunderstanding? Perhaps the place to start is with dialogue among the activists, academics, journalists, politicians, and business people who help to define and describe digital activism. Kate points out that there is a lack of discussion between these various actors:

I really think they need to connect, they need to borrow from each other (for instance, the business world may not be experts on the “activism” part, but they’ve spent a lot of time understanding some of the mechanisms behind the tools). I’d like to.. combine a lot of these different knowledge sets and better the field.

Kate Brodock (Executive Director of Digital and Social Media, Syracuse University + Strategy & Communications Advisor)

There are many of these “bridge” figures at the Meta-Activism Project. Clay Shirky strides the media and academic worlds as Distinguished Writer in Residence at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Kate herself worked as a social media marketer in the private sector and is now in a university setting. Patrick Meier’s work for Ushahidi connects him with digital activists around the world but he also has a PhD.

By speaking and listening outside of our comfort zones – academics to business people, journalists to academics, business people to activists – we can each play a role in making digital activism discourse more honest and accurate.


2 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Digital Activism

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