Digital Activism Decoded

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Book: Digital Activism Decoded. Ed. by Mary Joyce. Idebate Press, 2010



"Citizens around the world are using digital technologies to push for social and political change. Yet, while stories have been published, discussed, extolled, and derided, the underlying mechanics of digital activism are little understood. This new field, its dynamics, practices, misconceptions, and possible futures are presented together for the first time in Digital Activism Decoded."

Table of Contents

Preface….. by Mary Joyce

Introduction: How to Think About Digital Activism….. by Mary Joyce

Part 1: Contexts: The Digital Activism Environment

  • Infrastructure: Its Transformations and Effect on Digital Activism….. by Trebor Scholz
  • Applications: Picking the Right One in a Transient World….. by Dan Schultz and Andreas Jungherr
  • Devices: The Power of Mobile Phones….. by Brannon Cullum
  • Economic and Social Factors: The Digital (Activism) Divide….. by Katharine Brodock
  • Political Factors: Digital Activism in Closed and Open Societies….. by Tom Glaisyer

Part 2: Practices: Digital Actions in the Aggregate

  • Activism Transforms Digital: The Social Movement Perspective….. by Anastasia Kavada
  • Digital Transforms Activism: The Web Ecology Perspective….. by Tim Hwang
  • Destructive Activism: The Double-Edged Sword of Digital Tactics….. by Steven Murdoch

Part 3: Effects: What Is Digital Activism’s Value?

  • Measuring the Success of Digital Campaigns….. by Dave Karpf
  • The New Casualties: Prisons and Persecution….. by Simon Columbus
  • Digital Politics as Usual….. by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen
  • The Future of Advocacy in a Networked Age….. by Sem Devillart and Brian Waniewski

Conclusion: Building the Future of Digital Activism….. by Mary Joyce


How Activists Coordinate Online

This excerpt, by post-doctoral fellow Anastasia Kavada, explains digital activism through the lens of social movement theory.

Anastasia Kavada:

"The Internet further helps activists to organize and make decisions. It facilitates processes of affiliation, allowing people to become members of the movement simply by subscribing to an email list or joining a Facebook group. Social movements have traditionally operated with an informal definition of membership. The ease with which activists can now join a protest network renders the process of affiliation even more fluid and flexible.

Online tools also aid collaboration, coordination, and the division of responsibilities among activists organizing a protest or campaign. Activists can use Wikipages to write to-do lists and messages of mobilization collaboratively. They can also employ calendar-matching services to plan meetings and gatherings. Interactive applications such as email, discussion groups, and instant messaging (and increasingly Internet telephony like Skype) can be used for decision making. Such collaboration can also be carried out through e-voting tools and other applications designed for aggregating preferences.

To meet their needs of coordination, social movements have also started to create their own Web platforms instead of using already existing ones that can only partly fulfill their needs. The European Social Forum launched such a platform in November 2007. Called OpenESF (, the platform facilitates networking around common campaigns and initiatives by inviting registered users to create a profile and set up a project. These can refer to the preparation of the European Social Forum or to any proposal for social transformation as long as it conforms to the Charter of Principles of the World Social Forum. Projects are provided with a set of coordination tools including blogs, discussion lists, Wikipages, and task lists. As of August 2009, OpenESF had 970 registered members and 199 projects.

Spanning geographic boundaries, the Internet plays a vital role in coordinating protests across national borders. Still, activists often combine online tools with physical meetings, particularly for decisions that require lengthy discussion or negotiation among numerous participants.

For instance, while Indymedia activists organize on the international level through email lists, instant messaging, and the Indymedia Twiki, local Indymedia groups also meet regularly face-to-face. The same mix of online and offline coordination is present in the European Social Forum, where activists employ both email lists and physical meetings in the process of decision making.

Movements organizing online face greater risks of surveillance and suppression. Tweets, Facebook groups, websites, and blogs are all available in the public domain. Thus, the same Internet tools that help social movements to keep track of their opponents’ activities can also be used against them. For instance, during the 2009 G20 summit, the commander responsible for policing the protests admitted that the authorities were monitoring social networking sites. In an article published on BBC News Online, he said that such sites helped the police to assess the number of demonstrators expected in the streets and to get a sense of the activities being planned." (

How Governments Respond to Digital Activism

Excerpt, by Tom Glaisyer of the New America Foundation is from the chapter “Political Factors: Digital Activism in Closed and Open Societies”, which explores the effect of political context on digital activism outcomes.

Tom Glaisyer:

"…The responses of governments will likely follow one of several paths. Some governments will fail to adapt in any way and continue to operate as bureaucratic hierarchies despite the challenge from networked movements. Others will choose to follow an adaptive approach as a result of the success of their newly networked opponents and incorporate peer-to-peer practices. Such adaptation in open societies, as described above, might accommodate oppositional movements as it has in the United States. Closed, authoritarian societies like Iran or China, on the other hand, will, in all likelihood, adapt to digital technology by using it to repress opposition movements. The disposition of the government toward digital activism will be significant in defining the impact that this kind of activism has on a society.

Open Governance

In societies where political leaders and state institutions understand both the power of digital activism and the opportunity it presents for doing tasks differently, digital activists will likely be able to play a significant role as the structures of governance change. Such governments will embed digital networks of contention and cooperation into their operations, seeking to engage cooperative networks externally and recognizing oppositional networks as they arise as legitimate actors. In this context, governments and activists will likely learn the new dynamics and the political system will tend to move through the transition with the least amount of upheaval.

Agnostic Governance

Democratic governments that fail to recognize the emergence of digital activism, its possibilities, and the threat to established institutions will likely misunderstand any activism that occurs. Activists will find themselves in opposition and underappreciated. More than likely, such governments will misjudge the power of nascent movements and accede to their demands when unnecessary and refuse to compromise when it is in their interest.

The transition to a world where digital activism plays a role in governance will be bumpy, as traditionally strong institutions are challenged and the concept that activists can play a supportive role will be unacknowledged.

Closed Authoritarian Governance

Where open dissent is unwelcome, digital activism will almost certainly be repressed. In a few cases, governments will succeed in both tightly limiting access to digital platforms and in squashing dissent through traditional means. Where digital activism is at all possible, a contest between surveillance and countersurveillance technologies will ensue. In the bleakest case, the tools of digital activism will be used to enlarge government control over the population and likely result in less freedom." (

The Digital (Activism) Divide

Excerpt, by Kate Brodock, is from a chapter entitled “Economic and Social Factors: The Digital (Activism) Divide”. The chapter describes how contextual factors beyond digital infrastructure can affect digital activism outcomes. [1]

Kate Brodock:

“…Research indicates that economic differences limit not only access to technology but also the likelihood of an individual to take part in political activism. The 2009 Digital Activism Survey conducted by DigiActive, an organization dedicated to helping grassroots activists around the world use digital technology, found that digital activists, particularly in developing countries, are more likely than the population at large to be paying a monthly fee for home Internet access, to be able to afford a high-speed connection, and to work in a white-collar job with access to the Internet in the workplace. In short, digital activists are likely to be prosperous, with their economic resources offering them a significant digital advantage. These initial findings indicate that the digital divide strongly influences digital activism because it tends to limit participation to the economic elite. This research was corroborated by a report of the Internet and American Life Project of the Pew Research Center. A September 2009 Pew report—Civic Engagement Online: Politics as Usual, by Aaron Smith—stated that “whether they take place on the Internet or off, traditional political activities remain the domain of those with high levels of income and education.” Smith continues, “Contrary to the hopes of some advocates, the Internet is not changing the socio-economic character of civic engagement in the United States. Just as in offline civic life, the well-to-do and well-educated are more likely than those less well off to participate in online political activities.”

The digital divide is also made wider by the fact that not only do lower-income populations have less access to digital technologies, they sometimes must pay more for them. For example, the 2007 ITU-UNCTAD World Information Society report stated that the cost of broadband as a percentage of the average monthly per capita wage was around 2 percent in high-income countries, whereas broadband costs in low-income countries were more than 900 percent of the average monthly per capita wage. Higher income populations are not only likely to receive the higher-quality products of modern communications technology and in greater supply, they often are able to purchase them at significantly lower relative cost.

Combined with the research on digital activism participants from DigiActive and the Pew Research Center, these findings indicate that digital technology often mirrors rather than undermines preexisting divides in economic resources. Digital technology provides new communication capacities, but it is people of higher economic capabilities who are best able to take advantage of them….”