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Social media stew plays potent role in global digital activism

Report: Getting down to specifics affects outcome

- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2013

When it comes to using the Internet's power to spark political change, it turns out that more is still more.

Though Facebook, Twitter and other sites are thought to be the dominant social media sites used for digital activism, a new study argues that when it comes to activism globally, all Internet sites are created equal.

Researchers Phillip Howard, Mary Joyce and Frank Edwards of the Digital Activism Research Project (DARP) examined 1,200 cases of digital activism worldwide and found that one of the primary keys to success was employing every tool in the digital toolbox to pressure regimes and organize activists across borders.

"There is no 'killer app' that makes some campaigns more successful than others," their report concludes. Though various uprisings such as the Middle East political revolts known as the Arab Spring seemed to primarily utilize Facebook or Twitter to advance the plight of the people, "even the most technology-intensive social movement should never be called a Twitter or Facebook revolution."

The strengths — and drawbacks — of Web-based political organizing have received increasing scrutiny following the popular uprisings after the disputed 2009 Iranian election and the so-called "Facebook Revolution" that toppled longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. But the organizing power of social media sites also has inspired a counterattack from authoritarian regimes, who have grown increasingly sophisticated in monitoring and restricting the flow of online information.

According to the report, other important components to a successful online movement are when the people target a specific government policy and when the people are able to link up internationally with organizations for support.

Overall, digital activism has grown exponentially in recent years, in large part because of the ease in which activists are able to get a large number of ordinary citizens involved quickly and in large numbers, without the authorities being able to track the recruitment efforts.

But the ease with which Web surfers can click "like" to pet causes also has raised questions about the commitment and durability of Web-based protests compared to traditional face-to-face recruiting efforts.

Mr. Howard, a professor of communication and international studies at the University of Washington, refers to this as "clicktivism." Many skeptics of online political movements believe that this ease has caused less-passionate and less-dedicated citizens.

"One of the myths of digital activism is that you can put up a website and change the world," he said. "There's still sweat equity that goes into it."

Despite that, University of Arizona professor Jennifer Earl, author of the book "Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age," argues that digital activism has many advantages. She said that online political action drastically reduces the cost of protesting and largely eliminates the need to be present when organizing.

But Ms. Earl also acknowledges the brevity of many digital political movements and causes.

"Participation can be much more episodic online," Ms. Earl said. "Not every cause needs something that endures over decades."

"I'm not arguing that flash activism should replace long-term activism, but I'm arguing that they can complement each other," she said.

The DARP study also found that online petitions can be surprisingly effective.

"People think petitions are useless because politicians don't read them," Mr. Howard said. "They think they're only affected by stuff that comes from their district ... But petition technology is becoming really good at figuring out who lives in the appropriate district relevant to the politicians who needs to get involved to pass a certain law."

Ms. Earl agrees.

"Both in the U.S. and abroad, there are tons of examples of online petitions leading to positive results," said Ms. Earl.

Researchers said there is a misconception that digital activism often leads to violence when the protests make it to the street. The study, however, points out that online protesters tend to follow the nonviolent approach of a Gandhi and Martin Luther King in their approach more than Che Guevara or Malcolm X.

According to the report, "Of the campaigns we looked at, only 3 percent involved offline violence, and 2 percent involved hacking against targets. As a general rule, digital activism is focused on civic engagement, not harming people or property."

Mr. Howard believes that this nonviolent approach is due to the structural make-up of most online movements.

"Most digital activism is linked to citizen journalism. They're not themselves hackers," Mr. Howard said. "These campaigns don't start off with hackers. They start off with pretty average citizens."

In many authoritarian countries, government officials have adjusted to the digital challenge and have begun implementing restrictions to the various social media sites.

"In a lot of countries, the level of Internet freedom is greater than traditional press freedom. But what we're seeing is that governments are waking up to the power of the Internet," said Adrian Shahbaz, an Internet freedom researcher at Freedom House, which promotes free institutions worldwide. "Governments are realizing that the Internet is the last bastion of independent journalism."

In countries like Saudi Arabia and Kyrgyzstan, government "trolls" have been spotted on social media sites posting comments praising the authoritarian government and condemning those who speak out. In Bahrain, government officials reportedly have hired hire Western PR firms to use tactics to promote the government and thwart popular online protests.

Still, digital activists remain ahead of the game in relation to their authoritarian counterparts.

"Authoritarian governments are getting better at stifling attempts ... but democratic initiatives are getting more creative," Mr. Howard said.

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