Activism, Repression, and ICT: What We Know Now

Patrick Meier (above), a fellow at Stanford, has shared a draft the literature review for his doctoral thesis, “Do ‘Liberation Technologies’ Change the Balance of Power Between Repressive Regimes and Civil Society?”. Though the loaded term “liberation technology” implies a certain bias in how that question will be answered, it is an important one: do information and communication technologies weight the scales in favor of civil society, in favor of repressive regimes, or is their value neutral? These types of literature reviews are critical in building the field of digital activism, one avenue by which ICTs are used to create more democratic societies.

Meier’s chapter provides a invaluable resource. Not only is he thorough and evinces a nuanced understanding of the subject matter, but he organizes that information skillfully. For those those of you who don’t have the time to read through the 54 pages of Patrick’s chapter, here is a summary with some analysis.

Review of the Quantitative Literature

Meier starts by reviewing the quantitative research in the field, which explores the link between democracy and ICT using statistical methods and large data sets. Yet most of these studies are of little use because the time periods they cover pre-date the most important developments in liberation technology. Chris Kedzie’s 1997 study uses a data set from 1993, before the birth of the world wide web. Toby A. Ten Eyck’s study from 2001 uses an even older data set from 1970-77. A 2009 study by Michael L. Best and Keegan W. Wade “supports the existence of a positive relationship between democratic growth and Internet penetration,” yet their 2002 data pre-dates important ICT innovations like Web 2.0 and social media.

Jacob Groshek’s 2010 study, which concludes that “Internet diffusion was not a specific causal mechanism of national-level democratic growth during the timeframe analyzed” uses data from 1994-2003, running into the same methodological problem as Best and Wade. As I noted in a review of Groshek “major social media platforms used for activism, like YouTube (2005), Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006), were created after 2003.” Meier also references the Global Digital Activism Data Set of the Meta-Activism Project, which shows a sharp uptick in digital activism cases starting in 2006, none of which is included in the existing studies.

The only study which looks specifically at the effect of mobile phones, by Fabien Miard in 2009 using data from 1991-2006, is discouraging. Miard concludes that “mobile connectivity is neither negatively nor positively associated with political activism”.

Yet quantitative studies that use more recent data offer more optimistic results. A 2011 study by Philip N. Howard, using Internet and mobile data from countries with large Muslim populations from 1994 to 2008 concludes that “it is the relatively large internet and mobile phone user base – a wired civil society – that consistently serves as a causal condition across multiple democratization recipes”.

Though Meier doesn’t draw this conclusion in his review, I would say that current quantiative analysis has not yet made a persuasive argument about the effects of ICT on democracy and that the seminal quantitative research on this topic has not yet been created… all of which bodes well for the usefulness of the Global Digital Activism Data Set.

Review of the Qualitative Literature

Meier seems more comfortable in his review of the qualitative literature, and I have to agree that it is deeper and richer than the quantitative material. As a way of organizing that material he uses the social movement analytic framework developed by the revered scholars Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald, the same structure used by R. Kelly Garrett’s 2006 literature review on social movements and ICT, which Meier credits as the best of its kind currently available. I agree.

The social movement framework has three part: “mobilizing structures” (mechanisms that facilitate collective action), “opportunity structures” (societal conditions in which social movements develop), and “framing processes” (attempts to create and disseminate movement narratives). This structure works well for the review, a testament to the continuing usefulness of pre-digital analytic frames to explain digital phenomena. In this section Meier analyzes how ICTs effect each of these three elements of the social movements framework. Continue reading

What Digital Tech Can Do For Activists: The Short Answer

by Mary Joyce (updated)

What can digital technology actually do for activists? The response to this question usually comes in the form of a long list of tools or a recounting of several case studies. But what if we looked at these tools and cases in the aggregate and focused on the similarities? Could we condense all the uses of digital technology into a few key functions?

This is what scholars and trainers have been trying to do recently and its a question that I’m quite interested in. Here is a list a what I think are the best functional typologies and then I’d be interested to hear what you think of them.

The first, from 2008, is from the Quick ‘n Easy Guide to Online Advocacy by the info-activism training organization Tactical Technology Collective:

1) Mobilising and Coordinating
2) Documenting and Visualizing
3) Informing and Communicating
4) Bypassing and Accessing

The second is from Anastasia Kavada‘s chapter “Activism Transforms Digital: The Social Movement Perspective,” which starts on page 101) in Digital Activism Decoded (PDF).

1) Accessing and Discovering Information
2) Disseminating Information and Reporting from the Streets
3) Coordinating and Making Decisions
4) Building Solidarity and a Sense of Collective Identity

The third, which is limited to social media, is from the introduction (PDF) to Beth Kanter and Allison Fine‘s new book The Networked Nonprofit:

1) Conversation starters like blogs, YouTube, and Twitter
2) Collaboration tools including wikis and Google Groups
3) Network builders like social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter

The fourth is mine.
It is still a work in progress:

1) Record: To encoding of information into a digital format.
2) Reveal: To publish or otherwise disseminate information.
3) Protect: To limit access to information
4) Process: To refine raw information into more useful form by grouping it or connecting it to other information
5) Co-Create: To collaborate in order to generate a online or offline product.
6) Aggregate: To bring together information, resources, or people.

These four sources are written by authors, focusing on different niches of digital technology for different intended audiences, yet the challenge is clear: How to you distill hundreds of cases and dozens of tools into a handful of functions that are both exhaustive and mutually exclusive in that they encompass all relevant phenomena while having minimal internal overlap? The goal of creating a list of functions which fulfills the divergent goals of brevity and breadth is not easy.

So, what do you think? Is any of them perfect? How might they be re-mixed?

Images: drcorneilus, Mykl Roventine, AugustaGALiving, boklm / Flickr

Liberation Technology and Digital Activism

by Mary Joyce (updated)

Liberation technology is “any form of information and communication technology that can expand political, social, and economic freedom”. It is the focus of a new program at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, and the subject of an excellent article by Larry Diamond in the July issue of the Journal of Democracy (PDF h/t Patrick Meier) .

I see liberation technology as having a certain overlap with digital activism in campaigns that support the values of freedom, but there are important distinctions. Digital activism is defined as “the practice of using digital technology to increase the effectiveness of a social or political change campaigns.” However, the particular change outcome of a digital activism campaign is quite broad. In some cases, such as those described in the destructive activism chapter of Digital Activism Decoded (PDF), the goals of these campaigns are counter the interests of freedom.

In addition, as its name implies, liberation technology takes the applications and devices of digital activism – the technology itself – as the the lens through which this phenomena is viewed. Digital activism broadly writ includes the technology element but can be seen through a variety of lenses, such as social movement theory, which focuses on the actions of groups of individuals and sees the tools they use as merely instrumental.

Finally, liberation technoology can exist outside the bounds of activism. The Ministry of Health allowing patients to access their personal health files online would increase freedom of information, yet it is not an example of activism, which is generally extra-institutional. Likewise, a farmer using a mobile phone to learn market prices for his produce gains economic freedom through his technology use, but is not engaged in a campaign for social or political change.

My interest in studying digital activism is founded on a fundamental belief in human agency, that we must understand digital activism better so that we can make intervention to increase its effectiveness in promoting the causes of freedom, justice, and human dignity. As such, the cause of liberation technology is near and dear to my heart. I am really looking forward to seeing how Stanford’s new program – and this new field – develops.

Image: Program on Liberation Technology

From Our Book: How Activists Coordinate Online

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt is the first from the second section of the book, which addresses the practices of digital activism. This excerpt, by post-doctoral fellow Anastasia Kavada, explains digital activism through the lens of social movement theory.

…The Internet further helps activists to organize and make decisions. It facilitates processes of affiliation, allowing people to become members of the movement simply by subscribing to an email list or joining a Facebook group. Social movements have traditionally operated with an informal definition of membership. The ease with which activists can now join a protest network renders the process of affiliation even more fluid and flexible.

Online tools also aid collaboration, coordination, and the division of responsibilities among activists organizing a protest or campaign. Activists can use Wikipages to write to-do lists and messages of mobilization collaboratively. They can also employ calendar-matching services to plan meetings and gatherings. Interactive applications such as email, discussion groups, and instant messaging (and increasingly Internet telephony like Skype) can be used for decision making. Such collaboration can also be carried out through e-voting tools and other applications designed for aggregating preferences.

To meet their needs of coordination, social movements have also started to create their own Web platforms instead of using already existing ones that can only partly fulfill their needs. The European Social Forum launched such a platform in November 2007. Called OpenESF (, the platform facilitates networking around common campaigns and initiatives by inviting registered users to create a profile and set up a project. These can refer to the preparation of the European Social Forum or to any proposal for social transformation as long as it conforms to the Charter of Principles of the World Social Forum. Projects are provided with a set of coordination tools including blogs, discussion lists, Wikipages, and task lists. As of August 2009, OpenESF had 970 registered members and 199 projects.

Spanning geographic boundaries, the Internet plays a vital role in coordinating protests across national borders. Still, activists often combine online tools with physical meetings, particularly for decisions that require lengthy discussion or negotiation among numerous participants.

For instance, while Indymedia activists organize on the international level through email lists, instant messaging, and the Indymedia Twiki, local Indymedia groups also meet regularly face-to-face. The same mix of online and offline coordination is present in the European Social Forum, where activists employ both email lists and physical meetings in the process of decision making.

Movements organizing online face greater risks of surveillance and suppression. Tweets, Facebook groups, websites, and blogs are all available in the public domain. Thus, the same Internet tools that help social movements to keep track of their opponents’ activities can also be used against them. For instance, during the 2009 G20 summit, the commander responsible for policing the protests admitted that the authorities were monitoring social networking sites. In an article published on BBC News Online, he said that such sites helped the police to assess the number of demonstrators expected in the streets and to get a sense of the activities being planned.

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.