Book Review: Digital Activism Decoded

Digital Activism Decoded was written with the goal of starting a conversation and is very aware of its inherent flaws starting the book with a few caveats and admission of biases. The book certainly does not exist in a vacuum; it is an attempt to begin to have a neutral, academic conversation where there was a lack of it before. It exists in the shadow of pseudo-scientific publications by authors such as Clay Shirky and Evengy Morozov heralding the internet as either the harbinger of justice or doom. Unfortunately, being published in 2010, there was no way for the authors to consider Tahrir, the “Arab Spring,” or Occupy. It is edited by Mary Joyce, the new media operations manager for Obama’s 2008 campaign and consists of 12 essays divided into three sections.

Joyce lays out the goals and structure in her introduction and tries to provide a common set of terms that will be used over the course of the book i.e. digital tools/digital activism as opposed to cyber activism/electronic disobedience. The three parts of the book are the contextual factors, conceptual factors, and value of digital activism in a global society. Joyce asserts that we are too often presented with anecdotes. Because the use and relevance of tools are constantly changing, relying on anecdotes means we will never truly understand digital activism. It is the goal of the book to move beyond anecdotes and towards underlying mechanics. In order to do that the book will be divided into three parts: firstly, contextual factors, secondly, conceptual framework and thirdly, the value of digital activism in “global society.” Joyce differentiates between digital and analog, reminding us of the 1s and 0s that make up a shared digital language. The state of the field dictates Joyce must explain why she has chosen digital activism the term to describe the phenomenon of study. She asserts that it is exhaustive and exclusive, including mobile phones while excluding electronic devices like the fax machine.

Part one asserts that digital activism environment has four elements, infrastructure economic social and political. In the first essay, “Infrastructure: Its Transformations and Effect on Digital Activism” by Trebor Scholz reviews the major events of the digital sphere from its inception in ARPANET in 1969 to the time of writing. Scholz splits his analysis into 1969-1994: A Closed Research Network, 1995 – 2000: Commercial Takeover and Standardization of the Internet, and finally 2001 – present as the age of social media, customization and the participatory turn. Internet users are shaping the digital world and thus we must be vigilant about what we create.

The second essay, “Applications: Picking the Right One in a Transient World” by Dan Schultz and Andreas Jungherr is a snappy written handbook (the authors debate “New Hotness” or “Old Reliable” pros and cons) for how you too can use digital tools to become a digital activists just keep in mind a few guideline. The authors provide an overview of how activists should pick which digital tools they utilize. The authors describe the life cycle of technology as having two parts: the hype cycle and the adoption phases.

The third essay is, “Devices: The Power of Mobile Phones” by Brannon Cullum. Cullum focuses on the portability and pervasiveness of mobile phones to indicate their power. 4.1 billion people worldwide have mobile devices (47). With mobile phones, information can radiate out rapidly on pre-existing networks (pg. 50). Communication can continue even when mainstream media are cut off (51). Cullum provides an over view of tactics (57) for mobile phones, and focuses on the SMS messaging capacity of most phones. He identifies three case studies the first of which is People Power II in the Philippines which used mobile phones to oust President Joseph Estrada in 2001. The second case study was the parliamentary elections in Spain March 2004 and the attacks days before. Activist’s protests and voter turnout resulted in the Popular Party being defeated by the Socialist Party. Cullum also cites environmental advocacy action taken by Greenpeace Argentina.  The challenges of mobile activism include barriers to use (for example coverage, expense) and the fear of government surveillance. After spending the entire essay telling us how powerful mobile activism is, the author devotes one singular line to how telecommunication  companies can often be owned by authoritative states like Ethiopia, Iran, Nepal and shut down SMS services/ coverage (68).

In the fourth essay, Katharine Brodock examines the: “Economic and Social Factors: The Digital (Activism) Divide.” She sees three areas of interest firstly, unequal access, secondly, unequal skills, and thirdly, censorship. With unequal access Brodock finds that digital tools do not undermine but mirror preexisting divides in economic resources. Nonetheless she refers to leapfrogging as a way for developing nations to skip over stages of tech adoption directly to lightweight technology like mobile phones in lieu of bulky desktops. In addition, cultural norms can also restrict access i.e. girls in Uganda who can’t use computers because they can’t run to get the computer as it is considered unladylike. Even when access is acquired, there is still the problem of unequal skills and a steep learning curve associated with digital tools. Brodock asserts that the digital divide matters because if only a certain small group of wealth skilled people can get to the tools digital activism loses its equalizing appeal/the entire point of its “great potential”

In the final essay of part one Tom Glaisyer addresses the “Political Factors: Digital Activism in Closed and Open Societies.” He divides societies into open, democratic societies and closed, authoritarian societies. The prognosis is not very positive for those in closed authoritarian societies. Glaisyer asserts that open governance provides potential for usage of digital tools, whereas in authoritarian societies it may present more of a risk to protesters.

In Part 2 the essays attempt to examine digital actions in the aggregate. The essays mainly address the debate between which word is operative in “Digital Activism.” It features the opinions of Anastasia Kavada who in “Activism Transforms Digital: The Social Movement Perspective” argues that activism is the key word. Kavada provides a summary of the often contradictory field of social movement studies (102) and asserts that pre-existing networks and the face-to-face are vital parts of digital activism. Though Part 2 claims it will look at digital actions in the aggregate, Kavada focuses heavily on the Global Justice Movement. She offers up SPIN as a handy acronym for decentralized structure: Segmented, poly centric, and integrated. These structures are facilitated and reinforced through the use of digital tools. These digital tools make disseminating information across networks easier but are nonetheless tools and activism remains the most important part.

In the next essay, Tim Hwang offers the opposing view in, “Digital Transforms Activism: The Web Ecology Perspective.”  He begins his essay by providing an anecdote about the three wolves t-shirt and asks how can we harness or consciously replicate these kind of cultural activities? Hwang then presents us with the Web Ecology project. It may have been beneficial to know that the author founded this project prior to reading. Hwang suggests that there might be a prescription for going viral. Hwang argues that an understanding of web culture is key to effective digital activism

Steven Murdoch provides a review of all the malicious applications of digital tools in a piece dramatically entitled “Destructive Activism: Double-Edged Sword of Digital Tactics.”  He discusses blocked access/DDOS attacks, destroying or defacing virtual property and brings up Anonymous under organizing. Perhaps most poignantly, the author brings up an anecdote about how animal rights activists released his information and he suffered harassment unjustly. The introduction talks about how academics cannot keep using anecdotes but here in this paper the double edged sword guy was a victim of info leak harassment. Digital activism utilizes tools that can be used for malicious criminal ends. Nonetheless authorities will also learn to use those tools to crack down on criminals. Murdoch concludes on an ethical note, suggesting that this crack down might mean the removal of legitimate tools for activism.

In Part 3, the essays attempt to measure the value of digital activism. According to Joyce values can be categorized into, optimists who see digital tools as a radical game changer (Clay Shirky), pessimists who believe that they will make things worse for activists (Evengy Morozov), and persistent who do not believe it will do either of these things (Obama 2008 Campaign) It is also at this point that I read the back cover and realized that Mary Joyce was the new media operations manager for the heavily cited 2008 Obama campaign.

In the first essay, “Measuring the Success of Digital Campaigns” Dave Karpf provides two metrics of success. He suggests that they should be tactical and strategic. Tactical measures examine the numbers by measuring success in terms of individuals/tweets/likes (152) whereas strategic measures success in term of actual outcomes.  Activists must be aware of their strategic goals by examining what they have, what they need and what they want. Karpf asserts that digital tools impact most importantly the “what they have” part of the how-to equation.

In essay nine “The New Casualties: Prisons and Persecution” Simon Columbus assert that the web does not detach from the politics of real life (166.)  Bloggers are generally arrested for political reasons, Columbus finding that 162 of 202 bloggers arrested from 2002-2009 were for political reasons. The charges generally remain unknown or it is a bogus charge like tax evasion. Anonymity, fame, freedom campaigns and self-censorship are listed as countermeasures.

In essay ten, “Digital Politics as Usual” by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen urges us to give up the idea that digital tools present a radical break from politics as usual. Instead of focusing on the “great potential” Nielesen offers digital tools as the “new normal.” Nielsen has developed a categorization for digital tools as he rightfully feels that neither talking too specifically about ever-changing tools like twitter nor the massive “internet” is helpful. He divides them into three categories: firstly, the mundane tools such as email, phones, search engine. Nielesen argues that these are the most important to digital activists. Emerging digital tools social networks like Twitter. As emerging tools are not widely used they have not become incorporated into the new normal for the vast majority of activists. Finally, specialized tools include software that groups use to address their specific needs. Nielsen sees numerous problems with digital tools, amused that the very thing often championed about digital activism (easier dissemination of information) leads to the problems of communicative overload.

The final essay is “The Future of Advocacy in a Networked Age” by Sem Devillart and Brian Waniewski. They argue that now we have used the internet for disseminating information it is time to develop a sense of overview and interconnection. Content producers such as bloggers/journalists should be linking the micro to the macro so that readers do understand the impact of a Honduran farmer’s life on their own produce.  These interconnections and inclusive coalitions will be vital in the networked age.  The authors comment on an Us vs. Them problem they see in activism, which is especially interested considered in the context of Occupy.

Mary Joyce concludes by arguing that we must build the future. Currently, digital activists focus on the dissemination of tactical knowledge, which suffers from a catch-22 of either being too specific to be applicable or too generalized to be helpful. Since the field does not yet have strategic knowledge, theorists must borrow it from the pre-digital era (211) this knowledge gap is the problem for the field of digital studies. Joyce uses a power grid analogy to emphasize the decentralization of the digital era.  She ends on an empowering note about the world belonging to all of us and the future is ours to create. The book is keenly aware of its shortcomings and biases – although many of these could have been made clearer. It was assembled under the shadow of pseudo-scientific books published to sell as opposed to contribute to the building of a field. The books main shortcoming and strength is that it was simultaneously published too early and at just the right time. It was undoubtedly necessary for a neutral, academic perspective to be published – but the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring demand the same attention. A second collection of essays with the same neutral, academic perspective is certainly needed. Joyce has taken the first step here but it is time for a second step.


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