Final Blog – Digital Activism: it’s current and future role in causing social and political change

25 04 2011

In recent years, with the rise in popularity and use of social media, we are now presented with a new view on social activism we have never seen before, probably better recognised under the term ‘digital activism’. The invention of web 2.0 has given a whole new edge to socialising online and “The Internet is now about interactivity and conversation” (Gladwell 2010). This online revolution has allowed the ‘hypermedia campaign’ to be born, which allows simultaneous communication exchanges across vast outlets, enabling the “demands of the postmodern media, the 24/7 news and the global online audience” to be met (Erickson and Lilleker 2010 pp2). This ability to communicate and form campaigns on such a large scale certainly suggests that social media can cause changes.

But can digital activism currently cause political and social changes?

One view taken on digital activism is that of Zeynep Tufekci (2010) who believes, in terms of social and political issues, “the scale of our biggest problems is global”. I agree entirely. Major issues facing humanity in this day and age are generally global such as the economy, climate change and resource depletion.

So, can digital activism cause changes on a global scale?

Zeynep Tufekci (2010) believes it can by stating, “our natural scale of sociality is local, and the social web can bridge the gap.”

Unlike traditional activism, the web provides people with the ability to socialise globally, but still they don’t necessarily go beyond a localised level. Even if we did socialise on a global level, changes caused by digital activism would be unlikely because of the existing digital divide. Not all areas of the world are fortunate enough to be digitally equipped and freely access the web. In fact, only 28.7% of world population use the internet (World Internet Stats 2010). Government control also becomes a restriction in some countries. During the Libian/Palistainian conflict, Egyptian government on 27th March 2011, cut internet access in Egypt, preventing the use of Facebook and Twitter, the key communication tool for protestors (Al- Atrush 2011). Restrictions even goes as far as people fearing the use of social media. In some countries, as little as creating Facebook group, could end you up imprisoned. In India, a 19 year old student created a community called ‘I hate Shiv Sena’, resulting in convicted for criminal intimidation and hurting religious sentiment (Mishra 2009).

‘Strong ties’ and ‘Weak ties’

Another view taken on the topic of digital activism is Malcom Gadwell’s, which when published in his article “Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted”, generated much interest in the blogosphere. He stresses that digital activism can only make small change if any, as networks (online) are systems of weak ties (Gadwell 2010). In contrast, hierarchies (offline) are systems of ‘strong ties’ which are what is required for true activism to happen (Gadwell 2010). The point Gadwell is trying to make is that networks have the ability to get a mass of people to click a button to join an activist group, however effective social movements require people to make sacrifices achieved from building strong bonds between people, which he believes can only be gained from hierarchies. So basically, Gadwell (2010) believes social media can perform small tasks such as being able to socialise with friends, and not larger tasks involved in causing social change.

Supporting the view of Gadwell (2010), Carol and Hackett (2006) believe the focus of digital activism is maximising profit and market share, which welcomes weak ties whereas traditional activism focus on getting the message out, which encourages strong ties. Madrigal (2010) also supports Gadwells view saying, ”very few major activism projects succeed through Facebook or Twitter” (Madrigal 2010).

My initial response to Gadwells article was to believe different as I understood that social media could form ‘strong ties’. It was the student fee protests I wrote about in week 7 that inspired me to take this view, as a mass protest was successfully organised using Facebook and Twitter. However my view changed once I read the blog of a student protestor stating,

“a large number of people who had attended the rally went to Trafalgar Square, for a bit of an unofficial afterparty with music” (Succo 2011).

From reading this, what Gadwell (2010) was saying became clear to me. Despite social media gaining a mass audience for the protest, how many protestors represented ‘strong ties’? My guess is very few, as most protestors probably attended for social reasons.

 

 

 

 

 

From reading further into digital activism, it became even more apparent that what Gladwell says, is the truth.  According to Micah White, 80-90% of members of online groups set up by activists, rarely open campaign emails (Guardian 2010). Coming to think about it, I’ve lost count how many times I have clicked ‘join’ to a group in support of a friend even if it doesn’t interest me or to get rid of it from my requests.

Though it’s pretty clear that social media alone cannot currently make radical social or political changes, Mishra (2010) expresses the value that social media provides to activism. Social media is a tool which helps traditional activism in developing some strong ties and maintains strong ties as a whole (Mishra 2010).

The future

Currently, it is apparent that the social web is under used. Although everyone can become creators of information online, “90% of all users are consumers,” 9% are curators and only 1% are creators (Mishra 2009). Madrigal (2010) view is that currently, the tools within social media are new and people don’t have the bravery and dedication to use it with confidence. However he says over the next decade, he won’t bet against “powerful movements developing through social media” (Madrigal 2010). Supporting this, the Economist (2010) states “Perhaps we haven’t observed clear evidence of its revolutionary potential yet, but this shift alone seems extremely promising”.

On a global scale, digital activism have already been attempted such as when 350.org on October 24th 2009,  organised over 5200 efforts in 181 countries in attempt to change people’s attitudes towards emissions (350.org 2011). This signifies that there is clear potential on a global scale for digital activism to cause change, further strengthened by the many scholars who believe the digital divide gap is narrowing.  Communication is improving globally especially mobile phones being adopted by developing countries, most quickly in “sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia” (Joyce 2010 pp47).

So with these promising scholarly views and global digital communication improving, who knows what the future holds for digital activism? Maybe it will become the new cause of significant social and political changes.

Word count= 1099

References

350.org., 2011. Our team history. Available from:http://www.350.org/story [Accessed 17 April 2011]

Al-Altrush, S., 2011. Internet, mobile phones cut as Egypt braces for protests: Key communication tools used by protest organizers have been severed. Available from:http://news.discovery.com/tech/internet-cut-as-egypt-braces-protests-110128.html [Accessed 16 April 2011]

Gadwell, M., 2010. Small Change, Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted. Available from: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell?currentPage=all [Accessed 17 April 2011]

Guardian., 2010. Clicktivism is ruining leftist activism. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/aug/12/clicktivism-ruining-leftist-activism

Internet World Statistics., 2010. Internet Usage statistics: The Internet Big Picture World Internet Users and Population Stats. Available from: http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm [Accessed 17 April 2011]

Joyce, M., 2010. Digital Activism Decoded- The New Mechanics of Change. International Debate Education Association: New York

Lilleker, D, G and Erickson, K., 2010. Campaign Websites and Hypermedia Campaigning: Lessons from the Ed Balls Labour Leadership Campaign 2010

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Madrigal, A., 2010. Gladwell on Social Media and Activism. Available from:http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/09/gladwell-on-social-media-and-activism/63623 [Accessed 17 April 2011]

Mishra, G., 2009. Digital Civil Society Initiatives in India: Vote Report India. Available from: http://www.slideshare.net/cfp2009/gaurav-mishra-digital-activism-india-cfp-060409 [Accessed 17 April 2011]

Mishra, G., 2010. Social Media and Social Activism: Six Reasons Why Malcolm Gladwell is Wrong. Available from: http://www.gauravonomics.com/blog/social-media-and-social-activism-four-reasons-why-malcolm-gladwell-is-wrong/ [Accessed 17 April 2011]

Succo., 2011. First hand account of 26th March. Available at: http://blogs.londonmet.ac.uk/su/2011/03/29/first-hand-account-of-26th-march/ [Accessed 18 April 2011]

The Economist., 2010. Can you social network your way to revolution? Available from: http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2010/09/information [Accessed 18 April 2011]

Tufekci, Z., 2010. What Gladwell Gets Wrong: The Real Problem is Scale Mismatch (Plus, Weak and Strong Ties are Complementary and Supportive). Available form: http://technosociology.org/?p=178 [Accessed 17 April 2011]

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