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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.

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