Digital activism also called internet activism (also known as web-activism, online activism, digital campaigning, digital activism, online organizing, electronic advocacy, e-campaigning, and eactivism) is the use of electronic communication technologies such as social media, email and podcasts (a digital audio file made available on the internet for a downloading to a computer or mobile device, typically available as a series, new installments of which can be received by subscribers automatically) for various forms of activism to enable faster and more effective communication.
Digital activism has proven to be a powerful means of grassroots political mobilization and provides new ways to engage protesters. Additionally, online actions can be important in countries where public spaces are highly regulated or under military control. In such cases, online actions are a better option than possibly physically dangerous “live” actions.
1.1 An Attempt at Understanding Digital Activism
Over the past few years, citizens around the world have become increasingly aware of and interested in the expanding use of digital technologies – mobile phones and Internet – enabled devices, for example – in campaigns for social and political change. These practices, which we refer to as “digital activism,” have been reported by journalists, dissected by bloggers, and eagerly studied by scholars, students, activists, and enthusiasts who wish to understand and replicate the most effective tactics(Aroldi, 2010). In our efforts to understand digital activism, however, we are too often presented with anecdotes and case studies: tales of political campaigns, like Barack Obama’s, that used a social network to mobilize volunteers; inspiring stories from Iran or Moldova about citizens broadcasting mobile phone videos on YouTube or giving protest updates on Twitter. Anecdotes are reported, lauded, hyped, and critiqued. Sometimes lessons and best practices are extracted that can be applied to other campaigns. The field, nonetheless, remains fragmented(Asmolov). Just as the mechanics of digital activism are clouded, so is the terminology. In fact, the phrase “digital activism” is not even the consensus term for the use of digital technology in campaigning.
The speed, reliability, scale, and low cost of the digital network are what enable the great scope and reach of contemporary activism. This phenomenon is what we focus on. We want a term to refer to this set of digitally networked campaigning activities – or practices – that is both exhaustive and exclusive. Exhaustive in that it encompasses all social and political – campaigning practices that use digital network infrastructure; exclusive in that it excludes practices that are not examples of this type of practice. Some terms fail to meet the criterion for exhaustiveness because they preclude relevant practices. For example, “cyber-activism,” “online organizing,” and “online activism,” are not exhaustive because they refer only to activism on the Internet, excluding the use of mobile phones and other offline digital devices in activism – distributing digital content on thumb drives, for instance. Likewise, the phrase “social media for social change,” which refers to the use of social applications like Facebook and Flickr for activism, is not exhaustive because it precludes other relevant activist applications like mobile SMS and email(Andviza, 2015). Other terms are exhaustive in that they encompass all relevant practices, but fail to be exclusive because they include irrelevant practices. “E-activism” and “e-advocacy” are earlier terms for digital campaigning practices that are derived from the word “email,” in which the “e” refers to “electronic.” At the advent of the Internet, the “e” preface was useful in differentiating mail sent by an electronic device, the computer, from mail sent by post, or a bound paper book from an e- book. However, the range of technologies that are electronic is far broader than those that are digital. So far, the terminology of digital activism has referred to particular types of infrastructure, both hardware and software. Cyber-activism refers to the Internet; social media for social change refers to social software applications; e-activism refers to electronic devices. The last term that fails the exhaustive and exclusive test is different in that it refers to content, not infrastructure. “Info-activism,” refers to the use of “information and communications technology to enhance advocacy work.” The other body of research defines info-activism as the strategic and deliberate use of information within a campaign. It’s not necessarily digital or Internet –based, in fact it often isn’t one of those two things at all.” While some info-activism uses digital technology, it need not. Effective info-activism could use printed flyers, stencils, or word-of-mouth. The scope of practices encompassed by info-activism is broader than those encompassed by digital activism, so the term is exhaustive but not exclusive(Juris & Players(2009).In this discourse, we are not arguing for the preeminence of the term “digital activism” over other terms. If someone is exclusively interested in the use of the Internet for activism, he or she can and should use a term like “cyber-activism” or “online advocacy.” However, we are arguing that –because it is exhaustive and exclusive – “digital activism” is the best term to discuss all instances of social and political campaigning practice that use digital network infrastructure(Joyce, 2011). 1.1.1 Egypt – A Perspective of Digital Activism in Africa . The Egyptian citizenry, despite low Internet-adoption rates, can be strongly influenced by political bloggers. The key that has lain in cultivating relationships with the independent media is engaging in four types of activities that augment the media establishment: 1). Breaking stories that otherwise would have been overlooked, 2) documenting stories with unique textual, photographic, or video evidence, 3) transmitting stories to a global audience, and 4) “red-lining,” in which blog activists speak about topics that are officially off-limits to the Egyptian media. Egyptian bloggers have broken major stories on sexual harassment in the streets of Cairo, documented the persecution of Sudanese refugees, broadcast police brutality stories that otherwise would have gone ignored, and spoken up about the Egyptian military when the newspapers could not. Time and again, a small set of Egyptian digital activists has coordinated activities to alter government actions in substantive ways (Tufekci, 2015). By January of 2011 there were 4.7 million of Facebook users in Egypt, 78% of which were 15-29 year old youngsters, representing a penetration of only 5.5% with respect of the total population and 22% of all Facebook users among the Arab countries, within a system with a relatively high Internet freedom ranking according to the Arab Social Media Report of the Dubai School of Governance (2011). According to the same report, in the first quarter of 2011 almost 2 million new Egyptian Facebook users were added in Egypt, one of the fastest growing rates in the world(ASMR, 2011). Making use of this emerging public space for social and political protest, the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said” was created as a protest channel to bring justice for the crime of this young citizen journalist. A day of rage and protest against torture, corruption, poverty and unemployment was organized for January 25th (2011), which at least 85,000 people pledged on Facebook to attend to the event. Additionally, social networks were sparked with changes in profile pictures with Egyptian flags and messages inviting to the demonstrations and status updates with allusive slogans. The original protest became a series of protests and civil resistance that extended for several weeks until finally, Mubarak resigned on February 11th 2011. The whole situation gained international attention through Facebook, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos in spite of attempts from the government to infiltrate social media and shut down Internet connectivity. The ensuing strategy of the revolutionaries can be summed up in the words of an activist, quoted by Philip Howard (2011)saying: “we use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.” The North African youth learned how to use Web 2.0 tools to bypass state censorship. Hammelman and Messard (2011) describe how this deeper involvement with social media exploring and production was progressively fostered in Egypt prior to the uprisings in January of 2011. One example of this is the April 6 Youth Movement (A6YM) which, as early as 2008, had organized a social media based demonstration that attracted quite a few online supporters but which did not have an important repercussion in the streets. This group was also involved in the ‘We are all Khaled Said Facebook page,’ which reached a membership of 350,000 in January 2011 (Khamis and Vaughan, 2011). 1.1.2 The Horn of Africa Perspective under study A study conducted on 10 countries within the Horn of Africa that included Djibuoti, Eriteria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda and Somaliland. All countries covered by the study, except Eriteria, have constitutional provisions for the protection of freedom of association, assembly and expression. All countries have ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and the international covenant on civil and political rights. However, legal personality of civil society organizations (CSOs) emanates from domestic laws and the latter often do not provide for the former. Here below I discuss a few of the key finding from the study: • All national constitutions provide that these protections can be restricted in narrow circumstances including protecting the freedom of others, public security, public order, Page 6 of 10 public safety and public health. These provisions at the constitutional level are generally compliant with international standards. It is generally agreed internationally that these restrictions may apply to restricting CSOs from partisan political campaigning, fundraising and support of political parties and these are in fact prohibited in most national laws in the region. However, these narrow exceptions can be referred to in inappropriate circumstances. In general terms, national interest and the protection of public values are among the most likely excuses employed by the executive body in order to curtail basic human freedoms. • In the past decade or so, the relationship between civil society organizations (CSOs) and governments has been characterized by what one may call “mutually assured distrust.” • As a result, progressive constitutional provisions are being undermined by the introduction of new restrictive legislation. • International and constitutional protections are also being threatened by the regressive practices of civil society organizations regulating bodies. • Governments in the region are also imposing informal barriers on civil society organizations (CSOs). • Space for Civil Society Organizations to operate is shrinking fast in the greater Horn of Africa. • The first wave of CSO restrictions occurred from 2005 – 2010, when new legislation was introduced requiring CSOs to register. In 2005, with NGO Proclamation No. 145/2005, Eriteria became the first country to set the trend of shrining the operating space of CSOs in the Horn of Africa. Page 7 of 10 • Due to restrictive legislation and the regressive practices of HOA governments, some CSOs are forced to work under the cover of acceptable development programs, such as health projects The report concluded the recommendations for how CSOs in the region, their allies and regional governments can work to reverse these worrying trends and reclaim space for their own operations and for enjoyment of freedom of association across the region. 1.1.3 Is it banal to underline the importance of mundane tools for digital activism? I don’t think so. In many other sectors, specialized or emerging tools are of much greater practical importance than mundane ones. Investment banking is arguably deeply shaped by highly specialized tools, and some parts of digital marketing seem entirely preoccupied with emerging ones. While political operatives and volunteers are certainly also often enthralled by the newest gadgets, in reality, the tools they rely on are mundane. Technologies like email, search engines, and mobile phones are not cutting-edge nor are they designed for political use. But technically, they allow for low cost transmission, sharing, and storage of information. Socially, they connect campaigns with existing infrastructures and networked communities, allow for distributed communications among those involved, and are already familiar to users. Mundane tools like email and search engines are parts of the built communications environment that surrounds us; tools that many of those who live in wealthy countries are beginning to take for granted as they do running water and electricity. Even if they leave these tools behind for communication via IM or social networks and find some other way of sifting through the vast expanse of the Web, my view is that these new tools will only come to matter for political mobilization in so far as they become ordinary. When the internet connection fails, the tools that activists miss are not the emerging or Page 8 of 10 specialized ones, but the mundane ones that are integral to so much of what they do – they miss their email, not their social networking site or campaign website. 1.2 Building the Future of Digital Activism The field’s ultimate success or failure will be determined by the daily practice of digital activists. For digital activists to succeed in using digital tools in contests against the forces of oppression and injustice, those practices must continually increase in effectiveness. Thus, the success of digital activism lies in creating sustainable means for the continual improvement of practice. Currently, digital activism advances by creating and disseminating best practices in tactical knowledge – lessons on how to use a specific digital tool in a given context to achieve a strategic goal. The strength of specificity – of disseminating the exact details of a successful campaign, as DigiActive does – is that knowledge about the latest innovations and tools is conveyed to a wider audience. Its weakness arises from the field’s quickly changing best practices; accordingly specific tactics have a short shelf life. E-petitions were effective lobbying tools in the United States at the end of the twentieth century. Overutilization and revelations about the ease of participation have greatly lessened the impact of such activism. Facebook and Twitter are now very popular activism tools. They are almost certain to become less effective; if they do remain of significant value to activists, the successful practices associated with them will certainly have changed(Tufekci, 2011). Despite the shortcomings of tactical knowledge, the field of digital activism relies on it because activists do not yet have their own body of strategic knowledge – a set of analytical tools that can be used across a wide range of contexts. The best we can do now – and what the best purveyors of tactical knowledge rely on – is to take bodies of strategic knowledge from the pre-digital era and apply them to the new field of digital activism. What areas should be mined for their insights and Page 9 of 10 tactics? Public relations has useful advice about strategic communications, cause branding, and message dissemination. Earlier activists created strategies of community organizing, including the use of supporter social networks for recruitment, power mapping of allies and opponents, and leadership through devolution of authority to local organizers. The field of nonviolent civil resistance also provides a body of knowledge about how authoritarian regimes are sustained and how they can be destabilized. Scholars of media and communications call upon ideas like information cascades to describe how peripheral knowledge can pervade a society, changing the perceptions and realities of political power(Boyd, 2008). The African continent is a case in progress with regard to digital activism process. In some countries, especially newer democracies or countries undergoing political transitions, those in power are fearful of civic activism. Seeing its power, officials in governments with no previous experience regulating political protests or public debates have come down with a heavy hand, erring on the side of preventing change rather than encouraging it. In other countries, including France and the United States – partly in response to the fear of terrorism – well established civil liberties have been suspended or cast aside in the name of security. Such measures, from mass surveillance to martial law, reduce the space for civic life, the space where citizens do the work of improving our communities. REFERENCES Andviza, E., Cantijoch, M., & Gallego, A. (2009). Political Participation and the Internet: A field essay, Information, Communication and Society, 12(6), 860-878. Aroldi, P. (2010). Generational belonging between media audiences and ICT users. In F. Colombo, & L. Fortunati(Eds.), Broadband Society and generational change. Berlin: Peter Lange. Page 10 of 10 Asmolov, G. (2010). Online cooperation as an alternative for government? Global voices, August 30th . Breindl, Y.(2010). Critique of the democratic potentialities of the Internet: A review of current theory and practice. 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