Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

From Mobs to Movements to Civil Society Orgs: What's Still Really Hard About Global Digital Activism

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, December 15 2010

A new Berkman Center report: "Political Change in the Digital Age: The Fragility and Promise of Online Organizing"

Researchers at Harvard's Berkman Center are out with a new report on digital activism under repressive regimes that makes a nice companion piece to Mary Joyce's guest post here yesterday on what exactly we're looking at when we're looking at online social engagement.

The nut of Bruce Etling, Robert Faris and John Palfrey's report, a 13-page piece called "Political Change in the Digital Age: The Fragility and Promise of Online Organizing" is actually a two parter. The first is the argument that even those of us who track this sort of thing closely are at risk of overemphasizing how the Internet has eased the flow of information in even authoritarian regimes, and underappreciating the extent to which real political organizing still remains incredibly hard, even in the Internet age. We might, in other words, watch in awe as video of Neda Agha Soltan's death during Iran's post-election protests goes viral, to give an example, and be too quick in seeing in it evidence of some sort of powerful social and political resistance, when the actual facts on the ground might not bear that understanding out.

Then there's part two. And it has to do with what, well, real digital activism might look like. The Internet might be good at helping the creation of "mobs," suggest the authors, and here they point to examples like Seattle's WTO protests and Colombia's No Mas FARC protests of examples of the sort of social entities they have in mind. And the Internet might prove powerful in creating social movements; here the authors suggest examples the the '60s civil rights movement in the United States, the above-referenced Green Movement in modern Iran, and even the 2008 Obama campaign. But, the report seems to argue, when it comes to authoritarian places on the planet, there still exists an especially uphill battle to create the sort of long-term and multi-focused civil society organizations -- MoveOn is floated as an example -- that the authors see as having the potential to be sustainable and strategic, and in that particularly powerful.

Mobs and movements might be enough to prod regimes into "responsive authoritarianism," suggests the report, but more difficult is the supporting of the real civil society organizations that are "the mainstay of civil society in consolidated democracies." And in that, at the moment, the picture's entirely cloudy on just "how far online organizing and digital communities will be allowed to push states toward drastic political change and greater democratization."

The trick, write Etling, Faris, and Palfrey, might be to figure out how mobs and movements can produce benefits similar to civil society organizations. "A challenge for improving the prospects of digitally-assisted political reform in closed societies that must rely on decentralized networks," they write, "is to adapt, emulate and transfer the benefits of highly organized civil society groups, as bottom-up decentralized organizing is more likely to survive in repressive regimes."

But it's there and elsewhere, you might argue, the Berkman report seems to assume something not entirely in evidence, at least not in the text. What are the benefits of long-term civil society groups, exactly? What's so great about quote-unquote offline advocacy groups that their digital counterparts might want to mimic? Certainly in the United States, at least, there are complaints that our non-profit institutions often aren't very good at what they do.

All in all, thought provoking stuff, and it's all here if you'd like to read the whole thing.

Update: As OliverM notes below, the link to the Berkman paper I gave above wasn't the best one. You can go and easily grab a copy of the PDF right here.

Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.

GO

wednesday >

Facebook Seeks Approval as Financial Service in Ireland. Is the Developing World Next?

On April 13 the Financial Times reported that Facebook is only weeks away from being approved as a financial service in Ireland. Is this foray into e-money motivated by Facebook's desire to conquer the developing world before other corporate Internet giants do? Maybe.

GO

The Rise and Fall of Iran's “Blogestan”

The robust community of Iranian bloggers—sometimes nicknamed “Blogestan”—has shrunk since its heyday between 2002 – 2010. “Whither Blogestan,” a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania's Iran Media Program sought to find out how and why. The researchers performed a web crawling analysis of Blogestan, survey 165 Persian blog users, and conducted 20 interviews with influential bloggers in the Persian community. They found multiple causes of the decline in blogging, including increased social media use and interference from authorities.

GO

tuesday >

Weekly Readings: What the Govt Wants to Know

A roundup of interesting reads and stories from around the web. GO

Russia to Treat Bloggers Like Mass Media Because "the F*cking Journalists Won't Stop Writing"

The worldwide debate over who is and who isn't a journalist has raged since digital media made it much easier for citizen journalists and other “amateurs” to compete with the big guys. In the United States, journalists are entitled to certain protections under the law, such as the right to confidential sources. As such, many argue that blogging should qualify as journalism because independent writers deserve the same legal protections as corporate employees. In Russia, however, earning a place equal to mass media means additional regulations and obligations, which some say will lead to the repression of free speech.

GO

Politics for People: Demanding Transparent and Ethical Lobbying in the EU

Today the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) launched a campaign called Politics for People that asks candidates for the European Parliament to pledge to stand up to secretive industry lobbyists and to advocate for transparency. The Politics for People website connects voters with information about their MEP candidates and encourages them to reach out on Facebook, Twitter or by email to ask them to sign the pledge.

GO

monday >

Security Agencies Given Full Access to Telecom Data Even Though "All Lebanese Can Not Be Suspects"

In late March, Lebanese government ministers granted security agencies unrestricted access to telecommunications data in spite of some ministers objections that it violates privacy rights. Global Voices reports that the policy violates Lebanon's existing surveillance and privacy law, Law 140, but has gotten little coverage from the country's mainstream media.

GO

More