Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Tangled Web

Why Malcolm Gladwell Is Wrong About Digital Activism

Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell's article in "The New Yorker" about how digital activism is the poorer relation to traditional activism has generated a lot of good debate in the blogosphere.

For those who haven’t had a chance to read the piece, Gladwell’s argument is that we have forgotten what real activism is and that social media and digital activism are poor approximations for traditional protest movements (he relies heavily on the U.S. lunch-counter sit-ins of the 1960s). The crux of his argument is that good, successful activism is due to strong ties, often within hierarchical movements, and bad activism is due to weak ties, like that friend on Facebook who you vaguely remember sitting next to in high school asking you to click “like” on a cause.

Few thoughts:

* My major problem with the piece is the way that Gladwell makes such a clear distinction between traditional activism and digital activism. In fact, the two overlap and complement each other. As Jillian C. York blogged, the two are false poles: 

[B]y drawing a distinct line between traditional” and “digital” (or online and offline, if you prefer) activism, pundits and journalists are doing a disservice to both the utility of digital tools and to the resilience of traditional advocacy.

The reality is that these days a good deal of activism will have some kind of digital component. As a label, cyberdissident is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Activists fighting oppressive regimes want to get their messages out and, unlike politicians who tend to fetishise technology, they just want to use the most effective tool, whether that’s a print flyer, a sit-in, or a Facebook group -- or a combination of all of the above.

Take Azerbaijan’s “donkey bloggers”: labeling them digital activists is something of a misnomer. They’re young activists who, because they’re not living in a cave, have chosen to use digital tools to skewer their government. They also do old-world things like meet and rally. They’ve probably even been known to wave a placard now and again. But just because they have chosen to use Facebook and YouTube as weapons of choice, does that make them lazy and ineffective?

Another big distinction Gladwell makes is between networks (weak, ineffective) and hierarchical structures (strong, effective). But the two have coexisted in the past and will continue to coexist. Activism has always had a mix of strong-tie relationships and weak-tie relationships. For instance, to use a Western model, there were the letter writers who met weekly in the church hall (strong ties) and then there were the people in the street who popped a few cents into a collection tin and got a lapel sticker in return (weak ties). To a degree, that dynamic has been recreated online. Nowadays, a few might gather to protest outside an embassy, while many will join a Facebook group. The dynamics of group involvement and the relative importance of various components of those groups were not clearly understood then and are certainly not now.

* As Lina Srivastava writes, the problem with Gladwell’s article -- and in many other critiques of the role of new technologies -- is that he elevates the “digital” as opposed to the “activism.” This makes us focus on the computers rather than what people do with the computers. But I think journalists and digital activists are themselves partly to blame for this fetishizing. Even in our use of “donkey bloggers” or “cyberdissidents” or “Twitter revolution” -- the reader-friendly tags and boilerplates so loved by journalists -- we tend to overemphasize the technology at the expense of the activism. And as people who are enthusiastic about digital activism, we are all too happy to emphasize the technology when something is cool and new and successful.

* The problem with any assessment of the impact of digital technologies is that, as the excellent report “Blogs And Bullets” points out, the evidence is still fragmentary and we are reliant on anecdote and intuition. Twitter, after all, is only four years old and it’s just too early to measure impact (it was always difficult to measure the impact of traditional activism as well). So articles or essays -- whether they be cyberutopian or cyberskeptic, to use the two extremes -- tend to trot out the same anecdotes again and again. In the cyberutopian camp, we have the open-source crowdsourcing project Ushahidi and the FARC protests in Colombia. And in the cyberskeptics camp, we have the critiques of the role played by social media in Moldova and Iran. It's just too early to know.

Iran now has become synonymous with the failure of social media (and there’s no doubt that Twitter’s significance was hugely exaggerated). My colleague, Persian Letters blogger Golnaz Esfandiari was quoted in the Gladwell piece, as she wrote a good article last year rightfully playing down Twitter’s role in the postelection unrest. So the reader might conclude that Iranians aren’t using social-networking tools at all in order to bring change to their country, but as Golnaz just blogged today, Iran's opposition continues to use Facebook for campaigning (they’re also launching a newspaper).

Gladwell, like any gifted writer, is selective about his juxtaposition of anecdotes. The civil-rights movement is the mother of all anecdotes: it has everything, bravery, drama, a shared sense of moral clarity. That noble example is juxtaposed next to a few platitudes a U.S. official makes at a conference and a wild claim that Twitter be nominated for a Nobel Prize. Not exactly comparing like with like.

(As a side note, there’s a common implication in any article on “clicktavism” or “slacktavism” that traditional activism is always presented as utterly selfless, noble, and involving ultimate sacrifices, unlike the kids of today with their fancy-pants phones and their lattes and their narcissism.)

* Throughout the article, I kept thinking -- and I don't want to get all Clay Shirky here -- wouldn't digital technology make that more effective. Those brave Greensboro protesters would still have sat at the counter, but couldn’t their cause be broadcast more quickly through social media? Couldn’t the offline activities of the committed core be amplified to a critical point by the weak-tied masses (those of us clicking “like” and changing our avatars)? Gladwell’s argument is that it wouldn’t be, that we would be deterred from physically protesting because we had made an online “sacrifice,” but there just isn’t any compelling evidence to support either thesis. Or, while we’re doing counterfactuals, imagine the Montgomery bus boycott organized through Twitter and geo-location tools. There might have even been an app for that, written by some open-source whizz kid. Find the nearest car pool by logging in with your location-based phone. More flexibility and better organization could have meant a much larger number taking part.

Ultimately, Gladwell’s mistake is that he focuses on Revolutions rather than revolutions. The former are extremely rare but the latter are thankfully more common. We are so preoccupied with overthrowing governments and regime change, that we risk overlooking the incremental benefits that digital activism can bring everyday. (A hazing video in Armenia goes viral and leads to an officer’s conviction. A Russian blogger’s harrowing account of the state of a regional hospital trickles up into state-run media.) No, it’s not regime change, but it’s undoubtedly making a difference.
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Comment Sorting
by: Simon from: London
September 29, 2010 21:13
Couple of points:

1. It is precisely to clarify the differences between these two forms of activism why Gladwell draws these distinctions. The evangelists Gladwell criticises promote social media activism as being more than what it is. Gladwell paints the dividing lines. This is important for any campaigner to create a strategy operating on both levels - something that may have been overlooked if too much emphasis had been given to digital.

2. This is one of Gladwell's criticisms. He's describing the activism that underpins the tools.

3. Strange that it's too early to tell if Gladwell's right, but not too early to tell if he's wrong! You continue to use examples of light touch activism. Gladwell does not dispute this. If you disagree with Gladwell's position that social media activism does not have the same value or require the same level of commitment as traditional activism, prove it. I don't think you do believe this. In which case, you're not arguing that he's wrong.

4. Argh! This is exactly the kind of thinking Gladwell has just argued against! The point is that any kind of deeper involvement would necessitate a move beyond the tools you've described. The volume of the echo chamber may temporarily capture a few headlines, but the type of sustained commitment required to overthrow the deeply rooted systems Gladwell focuses on MUST go beyond that. It requires organisation, structure, hierarchies. Part of this central strategy may be to inspire low level activism (e.g. signing a petition, attending a local protest, donating some money), but at the heart - in it for the long haul - are the "committed core" as you say. It's naive to think these likes and twibbons would help it reach 'critical point' (what does that even mean!?).

You conclude by conceding Gladwell's central point: this low-level activism is only good at tweaks to the status quo - what already fits into the "media narrative" so to speak. You're aiming too low to challenge Gladwell's article.

by: Trinirum from: London
September 30, 2010 00:56
Yawn. U obviously dont get it

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
September 30, 2010 09:38
I'm interested to see you have ended up with this headline and position, given your cyber-skepticism lately on "There Are No Cyber Dissidents".

I made a chapter and verse rebuttal of Gladwell on my blog:

I agree that by falsely contrasting the 1960s civil rights activists in the south with the affluent and glib tweeters today, he is skipping over social movements in recent decades that either have succeeded (1980s disarmament movement, which influenced Obama's positions) or failed (Save Darfur movement, which didn't topple even the ICC-indicated Bashir), regardless of Twitter, and also overlooking those small victories (but not small to the victims) we can occasionally get from concerted email/web/twitter campaigns to try to prevent imprisonment of activists like Yuri Samodurov, who was on trial in Moscow over the art show this summer. And note that these social media combine; it's not like any one form is enough, and frankly, some very key personal contacts in these cases, often through personal or government quiet diplomacy, play a role too (but they need to be able to point to the noisier forms of advocacy to succeed).

My major disappointment with this piece from this world-renowned thinker on all kinds of important social and economic phenomena is that he has drawn virtually all his arguments (except on the 1960s) from the work of Evgeny Morozov, who I would argue is more than a cyber-skeptic; he's a gosudarstvennik who doesn't believe civic movements can -- or should -- ever succeed because they are too unruly or weak, and while states can be nasty, better to let the experts work with them incrementally if we hope to achieve anything. That sort of offensive quietism is unacceptable for any democracy, where of course citizens' movemens are strong -- including of the "weak-ties" of the Facebook kind that are in fact stronger than either Morozov or Gladwell are willing to concede -- precisely because they don't use them for activism (and Gladwell by his own confession today isn't even on Twitter at all -- those accounts with his names aren't run by him).

I agere that the "donkey bloggers" maybe don't fit into the niche of "digital activists" as do some of the environmentalists and "haktivists" or "cyberdissidents" of the Arab style But...who's judging all this? The prissyness and disdain that are in evidence each time a demonstration in a country is judged to be a "Twitter Revo" or a #fail are really unattractive. There are all kinds of styles and levels of involvement and these tools merely accelerate and amplify some of it, and in some cases likely delay effective organizing, but more research is needed -- and not only by skeptics if this is to be an open debate

The real issue here, I would content, is not the tools, but the politics. People judge revolutions not to be Twittery enough, or digital activists to be too effete, when they don't like the cause they espouse; when they *do* like it, as I have argued with Ethan Zuckerman of the Berkman Center, even a protest in Fiji or Madagascar can be blessed as a verified Twitter revolution (whereas people tweeting in Moldova didn't rise to that level for him -- a claim I vigorously dispute).

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
September 30, 2010 09:41
Iran isn't a failure of social media, although I totally appreciate that Persian experts are in a better place to make judgements on this. Given the ferocity of the regime, any movement would fail, and could only count on "losing as winning" in the "power of the powerless" paradigm. What was achieved is that story was made known to a far broader range of people than ever had occurred with such movements, and it won't be forgotten. It's not over yet. People still follow Iran on Twitter and still protest about abuses there and people inside, while heavily constrained, still get the word out. It's also unreasonable to say that this or that revolution "actually took place on Live Journal" or "really organizes on Facebook" when Twitter is very much integrated with both of these, and in fact I just read this week from a Russian that he feels Live Journal bloggers are moving to Russian Facebook.

As for the fancy pants, why, young man, when I was your age, I walked 10 miles to Central Park to protest nuclear missiles in Europe, and hiked miles to Manezh Square covering Russia demonstrations, I'll have you know, and there you are with your twitters and your flitters.

Underneath your skepticism, you're a hopeless romantic because you still believe in the magic of networking and amplification. But...there's still only imperfectable humans at the dashboard. And the "synapse" jump cannot happen so easily sometimes -- and when it does, sometimes natural obstacles prevent a worse counteraction, which is what we got in Iran.

Are you sure you want racists like the Ku Klux Klan to be watching in real time while bus boycotters organize on Ushahidi? Be careful what you wish for. Find the nearest carpool -- and find the nearest posse. Even so, unlike Morozov, I wouldn't give up at that realization, but get smarter.

While your note about what I would call "regimen change" instead of "regime change" is well taken, I don't want social media merely to become the state and the statists' latest tool for dilution and pacification by corralling everyone off to single issues (and I already see this being done with GONGOs in Russia).

by: Saoirse from: East Coast
September 30, 2010 15:57
Many civil rights activists in the 1960s were subjected to covert warfare by our government, which used various PSYOP tactics against them. One was social extermination through strenuous campaigns to slander people out of positions of influence and other social roles, such as that of the active church member, the productively employed citizen, etc.  Back then, it was illegal. You perhaps remember the Congressional hearings in 1974 that exposed this illegal COINTELPRO by our CIA. In 1989, NYU professor and attorney Brian Glick found that the program, which Congress assured the public would be discontinued in the 1976 report on the '74 hearings, had been in full operation in the 1980s, against activists helping refugees fleeing U.S.-backed civil wars in Central America, some of whom were Glick's clients.

These programs now are not only all LEGAL they've been supplemented by many more laws and the military's adoption of technologies that literally destroy private thought - and, therefore, private speech and the associations they can create.  That "strong-tie" phenomenon Gladwell speaks of is obliterated in this covert warfare, which is conducted right here by the Joint Forces. The gov't has obviously been aware of the research Gladwell has given us in his article for quite some time.

I live this hell every day. Millions of Americans do. George Bush promised (when he created his propaganda machine, the office of global communications) that covert warfare against anyone and everyone who dissented against the (for example) police state which our country has become ( would never end, and I have to tell you, it's a promise the Commander-in-Chief has kept, no matter what his name or skin color have been.

Is my 10 minutes of tapping out this comment on my iPhone effective activism? If you read it - if I am allowed to post it, so you and others can see it and even learn more at the link above - is that activism? I'll still be typing my random comments somewhere else tomorrow, building no community, no strong ties, not even doing the real work I feel I must do to be an ACTIVE-ist, just the way my government wants it, because they know the answers to these questions: no.

I have no ability to use a phone freely, my email, to join activists in other groups, be it at my former church, or anywhere else, or to start my own group without support and backing. There are many reasons for this, but the objective of each battle strategy in use against me is the same: a virtual prison.

That's why, instead of sitting down in the front of the bus, I stood up when the bus driver threatened to have me arrested because I pushed back when he tried to portray me to my fellow passengers (many of whom were my neighbors)  as a racist, elitist and even godless social  malcontent with a very carefully orchestrated PSYOP, street theater. Did you know the military uses public transportation in their covert war? It's true. There's even a department that coordinates it. Did you know your military uses ultra-sonic messaging tools to alter your perceptions, and, therefore, your behavior (not just directed communications such as this one, which have narrow parameters - online activism works, or it doesn't, as activism - which do not explore postulates other than those given that may be more valuable to understanding an issue; see above)? This bus driver didn't have me arrested (surprise, surprise; covert warfare isn't effective if it's not covert, and a legal action is not private), and their little PSYOP wasn't at all successful because I kept my cool and acted fearlessly, with alacrity and confidence. Wish all such of my protests turned out that way.

So all I can say is social networking tools are great for those who have First Amendment rights. For the rest of us, not so much. We have to stand up as and where we can, alone. Wonder why Gladwell didn't mention that.

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
October 01, 2010 20:03
I have a dream, that one day information will actually lead to better citizens; a dream where humans are not merely content with their own comfort, but care about the welfare of others. I have a dream that technology won’t be harnessed into better surveillance tools and weapons, not into sophisticated entertainment systems, but into deepening human understanding and global peace. I have serious doubts, however, that these dreams will be realized on this side of the grave. My experience has shown that greater amounts of information-no matter the level of rhetoric or speed of delivery-has had little effect upon changing human nature. But we must still make the effort, if only for our own hearts.

by: Luke Allnutt from: Prague
October 03, 2010 13:32
@Simon thanks for your comments. I definitely think social media activism has been overhyped. I actually tend to be more on the cyberskeptic side of things, but thought Gladwell created huge divisions (between traditional and online activism) when I don't think they're there.

I can't prove that online activism is more effective than traditional activism -- that's my point and thus my referencing of Blogs and Bullets. No one can prove it, including Gladwell, or me. It's just too early.

You said: "The point is that any kind of deeper involvement would necessitate a move beyond the tools you've described."

I wasn't in any way arguing that it wouldn't. Some people sit and the counter, some people tweet about it. A combination of traditional and online activism. Just in the same way that some people sat at the counter and some people wrote about it or handed out leaflets. Very few people in the activists' world are arguing for a minute that digital tools will replace sustained involvement. (Journalists might now and again though)

Reaching critical point means that because of mass awareness (and support) of certain issues, governments and other groups have a harder time acting with impunity. As Alan Rosenblatt just blogged, "It was the combination of what we saw on television and the mobilization of feet on the ground that gave rise to the anti-Vietnam War movement. Television was not the revolution, but it played a role by revolutionizing how we saw war." Twitter is no different here -- not perhaps significant in direct organization, but important in getting out the word.

You seem to setting up a straw man here, thinking I'm someone who believes in the power of twibbons and clicktavism and that Facebook will save the world. I'm not. (see my piece on Twitter and revolutions here. I just think that Gladwell just painted with an incredibly broad brush.

@Cathy. Interesting as always.

"What was achieved is that story was made known to a far broader range of people than ever had occurred with such movements, and it won't be forgotten. It's not over yet. People still follow Iran on Twitter and still protest about abuses there and people inside, while heavily constrained, still get the word out."

Couldn't agree more. Might just have been an overactive copy editor, but the New Yorker subhed -- why the revolution will not be tweeted -- is perhaps the most inaccurate part of the piece. I think the revolution will be tweeted, but probably not organized on Twitter. What role social media will have organizing dissent is very debatable, but in terms of getting the word out, of broadcasting revolutions etc, well, Twitter and social media in general is here to stay in some form or another…

About This Blog

Written by Luke Allnutt, Tangled Web focuses on the smart ways people in closed societies are using social media, mobile phones, and the Internet to circumvent their governments and the efforts of less-than-democratic governments to control the web. 
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