As I’ve written before, the Meta-Activism Project is putting together a data set of digital activism cases called the Global Digital Activism Data Set (GDADS). Today we’re on track to hit 800. The vast majority of cases are what one might call “liberal” or “progressive” – supportive of human rights, freedom of expression, and accountability. However, we often hear that digital technology is morally neutral and can be used to promote good or evil:
From Gaurav Mishra of Gauravonomics:
It has also become evident that the internet itself, like any other technology, is neutral and value-agnostic. So, it can be used for free expression and activism, but it can also be used for propaganda and surveillance.
From Chris Van Buren, writing for the Internet and Democracy Project:
Cell phones, Facebook and Twitter are morally neutral. Although they can be positive tools of peaceful protest and democratic engagement, they can’t prevent flashmobs become real mobs which break windows and destroy property, or worse. G-20 activists in London used Twitter to elude police and stage more coordinated (and sometimes violent) anti-globalization protests.
From Farhad Manjoo’s review of Clay Shirky’s new book “Cognitive Surplus” in the New York Times:
Shirky seems to be telling just half the story. Nearly every one of his examples of online collectivism is positive; everyone here seems to be using the Internet to do such good things. Yet it seems obvious that not everything and perhaps not even most things that we produce together online will be as heartwarming as a charity or as valuable as Wikipedia. Other examples of Internet-abetted collaborative endeavors include the “birthers,” Chinese hacker collectives and the worldwide jihadi movement.
Yes, digital technology can be used by activists for a host of evil things – violence! terrorism! misinformation! – and I wanted to include these examples of destructive and dangerous digital activism in the data set.
With this goal in mind, I went searching at the home of digital doom-saying: Evgeny Morozov’s Net Effect blog. I reviewed every single post. I found many examples of government repression and corporate malfeasance, but relatively few examples of private individuals or citizen organizations using digital technology for destructive political activism. I found a few examples of DDoS attacks (some possibly government-funded), but that’s about it. Certainly there are case of groups of individuals getting together to do nasty things – like harrassing 11-year-olds, but this activity has no greater social or political goal and thus can’t really be called digital activism.
My question – is perception of “bad” digital activism overblown? Are most of the bad acts online (those that counter values of human rights and accountability) actually coming from governments and corporations while most instances of citizen-driven digital activism are not destructive or violent? We need to stop talking vaguely about the “worldwide jihadi movement” and “sometimes violent” protests and start getting specific. Where are these destructive activism cases? Really, I want to know so I can put them in my data set.
Image: L. Marie/Flickr
My first thought in response to your question was, “Is there such a thing as bad activism?” Is it possible that if we rule out anything directly aggressive, anything non-political, and anything government-sponsored from a given field, what’s left is bound to be biased towards liberatory activism?
Maybe the first question to ask is, where’s all the “bad” offline activism? Then once we have some examples we can ask, how do those activists use digital tools?
A couple of examples of specifically digital “bad” activism did come to mind, though: first, the phenomenon of “human flesh search” in China, and second, the Al Qaeda-affiliated website Inspire that was said to be the reason for Burst.net’s voluntary mass censorship of 70,000 blogs:
Hi Mary, long-time no speak. I saw your tweet which referenced Evgeny Morozov’s tweet (which referenced this). Is there a particular reason he’s being a jerk, or is this the limitation of 140 characters…?
I don’t understand his gripe — you should use Google to find more examples overall, or of ones he’s written specifically? Obviously, you should not be faulted for asking for assistance.
Remember that “digital technology” is neutral largely because it is so broad. Were we to talk about router/filter/gateway technology, it’s pretty low-level so it generally can only be used for controlling/limiting communications (not a good value in your or my book). Facebook, by comparison, is a clear example of a high-level accountable network. You’d probably be harder-pressed to find regressive/destructive activism on such networks.
Thanks for the examples, Michael. We have a few examples of human flesh search engines in the database (4chan does this too), but I didn’t know about Al Qaeda’s web magazine. As for Burst.net, I am not sure that bomb-making is an example of digital activism. There must be a line between activism and straight-out guerrilla war and I think bomb-making may be it.
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Here’s another example…
I think there is an ideological difference between this type of people, and “progressives” (for want of a better word). Almost by definition we believe in openness, transparancy, ethical action, etc.
They believe in “the end justifies the means. Of course, I’m grossly generalizing (and from a personal bias). But if you say you want “bad” activism, then implicit in that is the idea that it’s activism by people who are acting in an unethical way – so of course they’re going to be sneaky about it.