Global Debate: Impact of New Media on Collective Action and Social Change
With the advent of Facebook and twitter and even before the Arab spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, a debate erupted about the real impact of social media tools on peaceful social change and civic engagement. In his controversial article, Why the Revolution Will not be Tweeted, Malcolm Gladwell argued against the efficiency of social media tools for activism. Using the American civil rights movement as a point of reference, he asserted that online activism allows only weak links or relationships to develop amongst people. Adding that online organizing lacks the hierarchy and structure required to make organized activities work and endure. And that online activism also lacks the “high risk” that compels people to act.
Responding to Galdwell in, Why Malcolm Galdwell is #Wrong, a prominent young blogger, Maria Popova asserts that, while “slacktivism” (passively associating with online causes) is a real problem, social media has been vital in raising awareness about critical issues and galvanizing action around them. “While awareness is certainly not a sufficient condition for activism, it is a necessary one” she adds:
Most human rights violations, from discrimination to genocide, can be attributed to one or both of two root causes: pluralistic ignorance (the tendency of a group’s members to incorrectly believe that the majority condones an injustice) and diffusion of responsibility (the conviction that someone else will take action against the injustices we are aware of). It takes a critical mass of awareness and assignment of responsibility for injustice to end. While the social web, with its inherent anonymity and predilection for slacktivism, may do little in the way of assigning responsibility, it has a monumental effect on awareness.
Popova also debunks Galdwell’s assertion that online activism carries low risk, by reminding us that political bloggers and online journalists in non-democratic countries such as, Egypt and Yemen are getting detained for expressing themselves online. And that governments in countries like China and Uzbekistan are infringing on freedom of speech online through heavy online censorship and cyber attacks on bloggers and online activists. Hence online activism does carry serious physical security risks in closed societies.
Responding to Gladwell’s point about the lack of hierarchies within the social web, Popova says: “Ultimately Gladwell’s mistake is seeing online and offline social networks as disjointed mechanisms”. She insists that hierarchies within the social web do exist, giving the example that those with a large following on twitter can draw on their online network to reach large audiences. Giving examples from her personal life, Popova also dispels the claim that online interactions don’t allow strong relationships to be built, adding that connections on social media can and have led to deep conversations that then transformed to offline relationships.
Social media and internet scholar Clay Shirky in his book, Here Comes Everybody: the power of organizing without organizations, points out that ICTs have created new incentives for groups to act collectively by cutting the costs and difficulties, which existed in the past, associated with collective action and with managing groups.
On the other hand, Evgeny Morozov who studied “the dark side of the internet” and how it is used to impede democratization, targets the more optimistic view of the internet. In his book, The Net Delusion: the dark side of Internet freedom, he stresses that the internet is good and bad for promoting democratic policy–it helps both dictators and democratic movements. He sites the Iranian government’s swift reaction after the “Green Revolution” when it used the very tools used by citizen activists and protesters to identify and arrest protesters.
His main theses is that the internet has become the new front for State propaganda, censorship and surveillance. And that for digital activists social media can implicate them much more easier than traditional State intelligence. Morozov cautions against the Western coverage of the internet that is mostly dedicated to exploring the positive or “Cyber Utopian” side of the internet. His philosophy is one of “cyber realism”, where he urges a balanced understanding of the way the internet is used. He also cautions against “slacktivism” and points out that Facebook and twitter will not and cannot replace traditional forms of activism; they should only compliment “real-life campaigns”.
The Egyptian activist Ala’a Abdel Fattah, responds to those who caution against “slacktivism” by reminding them that, “slacktivism is a dangerous notion when you have options to do actual politics, but then choose to do something easy.” However under Mubarak’s era “slacktivism normalized political participation”, he says. He also adds that in Egypt, “factories and universities is where the real politics happen”, and the internet supported that by offering a medium that built,“a single narrative that talks about revolution”.
Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist who explores the intersection between technology and society reflects on the use of technology during the Arab Spring and how it aided collective action by citizens. Tufekci’s research and analysis implies that dictators in the Middle East did not fall earlier due to a “collective cost problem”, meaning that citizens were not collaborating effectively because they perceived the costs to be too high (torture, detention, censorship, restricted organization). According to Tufekci this “collective cost problem” was the key factor in allowing authoritarian regimes to endure for decades.
Although Tufekci acknowledges that there were multiple factors that led to the toppling of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia through popular revolt; she also credits the “new-media ecology” composed of satellite TV, cell phones with video capacity and social media platforms (Facebook and twitter). This “new-media ecology” made it much harder for governments to censor and to breakup complex many-to-many networks of citizens connecting via social media after expressing common preferences for change. However Tufekci, cautions that although new media tools have worked in creating a “cascade” to get rid of unpopular dictators, it is not clear how those same tools will work in the democratization phase.
She adds that huge mobilizations, organized via social media, have often not led to changes in policies at the desired scale in countries like Egypt, Turkey and Ukraine. The reason she says, is that social media has had the effect of a double-edged sword by allowing fast, large-scale and cost efficient mobilization; leading to the loss of valuable time (before the advent of the internet) that was previously spent to slowly organize and strategize, in order to identify tactics that will sustain momentum.
In her critique of Morozov’s book, The Net Delusion, Tufekci asserts that the Internet has been one of the most empowering technologies in human history, and that the problem lies not with the technology, but with “citizen disempowerment” and “politics that has failed”. She continues to say:
I do think Morozov underestimates the ecological effect of the Internet in potentially undermining the legitimacy of authoritarian regimes. Crushing of dissidents individually may certainly help an authoritarian regime remain in power in the short term, but too much repression, coupled with an unhappy citizenry that is able to share their displeasure with one another, can hollow out a regime’s legitimacy, ultimately crippling its capacity for repression, as there is almost no purely coercive regime. In other words, while increased capacity for surveillance may be a very real threat to individual dissidents, broadening the repressive apparatus often ultimately backfires, especially under conditions with lower barriers to collective action and information diffusion, both of which are promoted by the Internet.
[T]here is, “no “killer app” that makes some campaigns more successful than others.” The more diverse the digital toolkits, the higher the possibility of success.
Finally, a research study a the University of Washington in Seattle, looking at the relationship between digital activism and non-violence, collected the first most comprehensive data set of protests from around the world. The study concluded that digital activists rarely resorted to cyber-crimes or hacking. And that Facebook and twitter where the social media tools that globally dominated digital campaigns. However, the study also noted that there were variations across regions and that there is, “no “killer app” that makes some campaigns more successful than others.” The more diverse the digital toolkits, the higher the possibility of success. The target of digital campaigns also mattered: “If the objective is change of government or government policy, civil society groups have demonstrated success with just modest street protests and a few digital tools. Both recipes for success are true regardless of regime type.”