A quick overview of digital activism

Much of the thinking within my thesis is highly influenced by the behaviours and effects of communities – specifically geographically defined communities. However to limit my research to just this kind of civic activity is to ignore much of the online participation that is reaching beyond the purely social. Digital activism covers a range of activities, usually focused around single or at least tightly focused sets of issues. In this post I am really looking at four areas:

  • Large scale campaigning specialist campaigning organisations
  • More general digital activism, perhaps from traditional groups like Amnesty
  • Political bloggers
  • Social reporters

So first to some descriptions – as ever up for debate  if you disagree. But to be clear – within the term digital here I am talking about email, web sites, and social media – including I am sure by the end of the week Quora – the categories below all use aspects of each of these and I don’t want to get into the detail of which tools they are using. The important point is that they are all responding to the fact that they have the opportunity to reach a wider network online.

Dedicated Campaigning Organisations or movements

A relatively new phenomena, there are a growing number of campaigning organisations who mobilise their members on a range of often global issues. Organisations such as Avaaz or Move on in the US or GetUp! In Australia. Members are in the hundreds of thousands and the members will have input into the topics which are campaigned on. This sense of community is an important motivator for action. The Avaaz site describes their aims like this:

Previous international citizens’ groups and social movements have had to build a constituency for each separate issue, year by year and country by country, in order to reach a scale that could make a difference. Today, thanks to new technology and a rising ethic of global interdependence, that constraint no longer applies. Where other global civil society groups are composed of issue-specific networks of national chapters, each with its own staff, budget, and decision-making structure, Avaaz has a single, global team with a mandate to work on any issue of public concern–allowing campaigns of extraordinary nimbleness, flexibility, focus, and scale. Avaaz’s online community can act like a megaphone to call attention to new issues; a lightning rod to channel broad public concern into a specific, targeted campaign; a fire truck to rush an effective response to a sudden, urgent emergency; and a stem cell that grows into  whatever form of advocacy or work is best suited to meet an urgent need.

In many ways this is the campaigning equivalent of the political party – and as they clearly say would not be possible without the power of social networked technologies.   Its worth noting that one of the founders of Avaaz has gone on to create Purpose – an organisation that is dedicated to setting up more ‘movements’ – bespoke movements – such as this one for the Lance Armstrong Foundation – LivingStrongAction. Is this clever marketing or a new form of civic participation?
Digital Activism from traditional organisations

Every campaigning charity you look at has a community section and is suggesting ways of taking action online alongside offline actions (on a personal note this is a source of pain and pleasure for me as prior to Public-i I was involved in a start up that was focused on building communities for charities……so we were clearly onto something but also clearly 12 years too soon). Greenpeace for example has a whole section specifically on “Campaign Online” where you can donate a tweet a day to Greenpeace. Good thing too – online activism is cheaper and has far greater reach than offline participation and in
terms of numbers it makes a lot of sense. This may be an extension of the support and information communities I posted about yesterday but may also be a parallel community which is dedicated to the
campaigning aspect of a charity rather than its outputs or services. The question of course is whether or not this activism is effective.

Political blogs

Political blogging, – by which I am talking about blogs which are set up and dedicated to communicating the political views of the writer, has grown hugely in scale over the last two years – Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale’s diary (until recently) are both considered to be mainstream news sources in the UK as is the Huffington Post in the US – and these are just the most high profile examples. The big question around political blogs is whether they have any effect on the political or media landscape. This is an area of thinking that really needed to considered alongside wider scale changes in how the media are changing to reflect the changes of the network society and as such slightly out of scope for me.

Social reporting

‘Social reporter’ is a practitioner defined terms which really refers to the informal reporting of events of topics from someone who is in some way connected with the event. Though you can hire social reporters for events the most effective ones already have some reach into the community you are trying to communicate to, which is is useful as the tools used for social reporting are social web services such as blogs, tweeter, posturous etc etc. I am also stretching this term to include community bloggers – people who write about their local area. My favourite of this is here at I love Tunbridge Wells – written by someone who is passionate about where they live. I consider this to be a different activity to someone using a blog as a basis of a hyperlocal community – this is a potentially rich resource for your local public sphere but not necessarily the basis of a community.

But does it work?

Malcolm Gladwell in an article for the New Yorker said “The revolution will not be tweeted”

He believes that effective activism means you need to take risks and that the weak ties of the social web are not enough the effect this. Below are some selected quotes which outline his argument:

“The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently
managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source
of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

Social media provides a platform for low risk activism and the situation in Iran was a result of western journalists lazily looking at English speaking tweets”

The Iranian reference is with respect of the 2009 election protest which were, at least in the eyes of Western media hugely helped by mobilazation and communication via twitter and this belief was endemic to the extent that the US government asked the Company to postpone system upgrades so as not to have downtime during the critical period. The more sceptical commentators point out that as the Western Media were only really looking at English language tweets and the twitter take up in Iran is low that this is a distorted picture. However this overlooks the fact that whatever the effect on the national situation the global opinion was formed largely using social media – and that is an effect in its own right.

But Gladwell’s argument is primarily a social capital one and he relies on the belief that online ties are by definition weak ties. I don’t agree – much of your ‘friends’ mix on social sites will be made up of weak ties but there will also be some strong ties in there which have only grown because of the ability of social media to overcome barriers of time and place – the literature around online community substantiates this. However my main criticism is the fact that Gladwell seems to be taking a binary position – campaigns are either online or offline. Coleman and Bluhmer in “The Internet and Democratic Citizenship” address this point:

“Whilst email and the web site have been crucial in forging a mass campaign with finite resources, we could not have sustained it without the organised support of local groups who meet regularly and hold frequent public meetings”. The capacity of civic and political networks to switch between online and offline modes of communication contrasts with political parties, which in almost all cases expect their online operations to be little more than marketing vehicles for organisations that can only ever possess legitimacy in a physical environment. (p134). (Coleman and Bluhmer 2010)

But returning to the question of whether online campaigns have an effect we need to look at the great claims that have been made for digital activism citing evidence to show cause and effect between campaigns and outcomes – for example the online petitions to Downing Street which derailed the Road Pricing trials in 2007. Its too simplistic to say that it is a direct relationship and there are
always other facts at work however it is evident that the ability to raise mass participation quickly and effectively brings new pressures to bear on the decision making process by the means, for
example, of an email campaign. Stuart Shulman in his 2009 paper “The Case Against Mass E-mails: Perverse Incentives and Low Quality Public Participation in U.S. Federal Rulemaking,” is sceptical
about the long term benefits of these campaigns:

“While the limited policy impact of these communications is clear, the long-term political impact of these campaigns is more difficult to assess. At least three possible pathways are imaginable for the immediate future. First, a norm may emerge that e-mail campaigns are a nuisance rarely worthy of careful consideration. To some extent, this is happening already.
This in turn may result in a second generation of e-advocacy Web sites that prompt commenters to write better comments and to engage in more deliberative behavior. Second, formal rules may emerge within and across agencies with guidance from the Office of  Management and Budget, or via a new law that will change the way these comments are received and processed. Already many agencies are shutting down e-mail as an avenue for public comment and forcing commenters onto the Regulations.gov Web form. A third possibility is that these campaigns accelerate and the agencies come to rely on DURIAN-like information retrieval and natural language processing tools as the only possible means to manage the comment flow as it increases. In this case, the predictions by Emory and Emory (2005) of a “technological arms race” in public comment may be realized much to the detriment of the public role in rulemaking.  Ultimately, notice and comment rulemaking is about generating new information relevant to the decision at hand. Until the interest groups can find a way to tap more effectively into the
collective wisdom of their members, perverse incentives will cloud the case for public participation via e-mail. “

This accusation of ‘Slacktivism’ or ‘Clicktivism’ is frequently leveled at digital campaigns by more tradditional campaigners. This comment from a recent guardian essay outlines the objection clearly

Exchanging the substance of activism for reformist platitudes that do well in market tests, clicktivists damage every genuine political movement they touch. In expanding their tactics into formerly untrammelled political scenes and niche identities, they unfairly compete with legitimate local organisations who represent an authentic voice of their communities. They are the Wal-Mart of activism: leveraging economies of scale, they colonise emergent political identities and silence underfunded radical voices.

Campaigning has a long and very proud culture and set of values – its in many ways tribal. I think we need to consider how much of these objections are actually cultural rejection of new techniques and
how much are valid criticism. The interesting thing is that they are not objecting on the basis that these campaigns don’t work – they are objecting to the low level of commitment that they perceive from the participants. The issue hangs between the articulation of digital campaigning as being effective media manipulation and the idea that it is a new way of enabling wider scale ‘proper’ participation.  Proper in this context is reasoned public debate – a contribution to the public sphere.  In his paper “Online Political Mobilization from the Advocacy Group’s Perspective:Looking Beyond Clicktivism” David Karpf articulates this concern here:

“Among academic observers and public intellectuals, there is a pervasive concern that the digital media environment has made clickstream activism (also called “slacktivism” or “clicktivism”) too easy. The fear is that the resulting waves of minimal-effort engagement hold long-term costs for the public sphere, either by further dispiriting the issue
publics who find their online petitions and e-comments ignored, or by crowding out more substantive participatory efforts. Digital activism, from this perspective, is a novel phenomenon, and it carries a set of hidden costs that ought to be considered in the public discourse and in revisions to public policy.”

But he goes on to conclude that:

The email action alert constitutes a single tactic in the strategic repertoire of political advocacy associations. Longstanding concerns about the possible perverse incentives underlying such “clicktivism” or “slacktivism” make the mistake of treating e-petitions as a single-minded campaign effort, rather than as an individual tactic within a broader strategic mobilization effort. The research community’s predicted harms to the public sphere have not occurred, and this is because we have failed to recognize the placement of email in the suite of campaign tactics used by progressive advocacy groups.

It is also important to note that these campaigns are not always comfortable for the relatively liberal political mainstream as these tools are also effectively used by extremist groups. Its worth returning to Sunstein’s description of group polarization to acknowledge this:

“Group polarization is occurring every day on the Internet. Indeed, it is clear that the Internet is serving, for many, as a breeding ground for extremism, precisely because like-minded people are deliberating with one another, without hearing contrary views. Hate groups are the most obvious example. Consider one extremist group, the so-called Unorganized Militia, the armed wing of the Patriot movement, “which believes that the federal government is becoming increasingly dictatorial with its regulatory power over taxes, guns and land use.” A crucial
factor behind the growth of the Unorganized Militia “has been the use of computer networks,” allowing members “to make contact quickly and easily with like-minded individuals to trade
information, discuss current conspiracy theories, and organize events.” The Unorganized Militia has a large number of websites, and those sites frequently offer links to related sites. It is
clear that websites are being used to recruit new members and to allow like-minded people to speak with one another and to reinforce or strengthen existing convictions. It is also clear that the Internet is playing a crucial role in permitting people who would otherwise feel isolated and move on to something else to band together and spread rumors, many of them paranoid and hateful.”  (Sunstein, The Daily We)

I think its clear that digital activism has an effect and that mass mobilization is both dramatic and impactful. Its more difficult to say what the longer term effects of digital activism are. Is the
networked society building a population of people who are more informed and more willing to participate or are we all being lulled into thinking that the simple clicking of a button means that we
have discharged our civic responsibilities? Because the slow speed of policy and decision-making its probably too soon to really understand the effect that these campaigns have had on our political landscape and it will be difficult to do so when government is already adjusting to accommodate new forms of engagement itself (see section on Crowdsourcing).

How much of this is really more about the blurring of lines between the media and the individual and the revolution in this space that we have seen over the last 10 years? There is a blurring of the lines between journalism, activism and participation that is putting pressure not just on the traditions of offline activism but also on the nature of the political party – where we see mass participation movements growing that are held together by shared values rather than interest in a narrow topic I believe that we start to see a new form of participation which challenges the ways in which people have previously engaged with issues. This effects government and media and some adjustments will be needed in order to accommodate the voices that are coming together online that doesn’t just mean agreeing with them. As people articulate their views via this mass movements and listen to well informed individuals on political blogs we will need to find some way of channelling this positively into our democratic processes if we want these processes to remain relevant to the conversation.

At a local level the picture is different – individuals do engage with global campaigns but these tools and techniques are also used to mobilize residents about very local issues. What is not clear is whether or not there is any link between people who are active globally and those who are active locally – this is something I intend to pick up in my field work.

I will leave the last words to Stephen Coleman from his paper “The Networked Citizen” as I think this describes the most compelling argument as to why we need to take these new digital movements seriously and find some way to connection them to our decision-making processes – whether they reflect media manipulation or genuine debate:

“Governments must learn to engage constructively with online civic networks. Engaging with entails more than nodding recognition and occasional funding. Rather than inviting citizens
to visit badly-designed government web sites to find civic information or interact with elected representatives, politicians and officials should be going to the civic networks in which people
articulate and represent their own interests and values – and they should be pointing other citizens in the same direction. Just as in the past politicians spent many evenings in drafty civic halls or behind tables in public libraries, they should now be seeking out and entering into dialogue with the online networks that represent the new loci of active citizenship.”  (Coleman, Networked Citizen)

    • curiouscatherine

      January 15, 2011 at 1:16 pm

      Thanks for the addition Brian – definitely one to include – C.

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