There's been a spate of good pieces on digital activism recently. “Technology Review” had a great story
on the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, detailing all the ways activists used social networking (among other online and offline tools) to get people out on the streets.
There was also an interesting piece in “The New York Times”
reporting on a new paper that argued that social-networking tools can “make you passive, can sap your initiative, [and] leave you content to watch the spectacle of life from your couch or smartphone.” This wasn’t an exercise in moral techno-panics (this is your brain on social media!), but looked at how, in the eyes of the report's author, social media actually kept people off the streets during the Egyptian crisis. Or:
Full connectivity in a social network sometimes can hinder collective action
So, wait, does social networking get people out on the streets or does it keep them at home?
The sooner we accept digital technology’s complex and contradictory effect of political power dynamics, the sooner we can move forward to answering more interesting questions about those effects. What contextual factors lead to these different outcomes? Why does one factor win out over others when all three are in play?
Joyce rightly points out the false dichotomy i.e. “if turning off cell networks increased engagement, then their effect must previously have been exclusively distracting and apolitical.”
It is far more likely that both conclusions are correct: digital technology facilitated both apathy and engagement. While the shut-down aimed to obstruct the work of activists already using the technology for resistance, and succeeded in that way by making the technology inaccessible, the countervailing effect of politicizing previously apolitical users overwhelmed the intended effect of stimying activists.
I wrote a few weeks back
about how the shooting and sharing of mobile-phone videos (in particular graphic footage of atrocities) is a profound example of digital activism. In short, the ubiquity of the hardware has democratized our ability to bear witness.
I was writing mostly about the way in which people have the opportunity, through cell phones and social networks, to show the world the horrors they are living through. Tufekci’s piece was mostly concerned with how these tools are used domestically and can help overcome the “collective action problem,” which authoritarian regimes rely on to survive.
When people think of social media and revolutions, I think the tendency is to think solely of activists organizing rallies on Twitter and Facebook (they do do that too.) But more important seems to be the way that social media and shared cell phone video footage help in building a shared consciousness, or as Tufekci calls it a “visible momentum.”
Another key dynamic is what's known as "preference falsification" to political scientists and "pluralistic ignorance" to social psychologists: when people privately hold a particular view but do not share it in fear of reprisal, punishment, or violating a social norm. In autocracies, this can cause a "spiral of silence" in which many wish for regime change, but are afraid to speak up outside of few trusted ties.
Indeed, when I was in post-Mubarak Cairo, my hosts kept pointing in amazement to various street corners where fierce political discussions were being held and often whispered, before remembering they could now speak up and adjusting their voice, "You never saw this. Nobody ever discussed politics openly, ever." Then they would pause and add, "Well, except online, of course. We all discussed politics online." And this is exactly what these autocrats had been able to stifle for many decades: an oppositional information/action cascade.
Such a cascade doesn't just mean that people learn about each other's views—it's reasonable that many knew that these regimes were unpopular. Cascades occur not just because of information, but also when people assess an opening and a reasonable chance of success—and as Pollock reports when "people realize[d] it was now or never." There are few moments more dangerous to an autocracy.
It is in this context Facebook "likes" of dissident pages such as "We are All Khaled Said," sharing of videos of regime brutality, online expressions of political anger, and acceptances of Facebook "invitations" to protest all matter as they help build a visible momentum which, itself, is a condition of success. A public is not created just because everyone individually holds an opinion but because there is multi-level awareness of other people's views leading to a spiral of action and protest. (I know that you know that I know that you know that we know ...).
Check out the piece. It’s a thought-provoking read.