Posts Tagged Digital Activism

Political Protest and the Digital Message

2 October 2011

An article published in the NY Times last week that has been garnering a good deal of chatter and attention pulls together disparate incidents of public protest and revolt from around the world, and paints a global picture of discontent with politics and democracy. Followers of NDN’s work won’t be surprised by the argument: the world is changing rapidly, and precious few governments, political parties or elected officials are adapting adequately to the evolving conditions. Today’s youth make up the largest generation in history, and yet they feel woefully unrepresented by their governments. The world’s middle class has been growing, and yet they have suffered and regressed since the 2008 financial crisis. From New York to New Delhi, Berlin to Tel Aviv, in Spain, Greece, Egypt and Tunisia, people are turning out to protest their respective governments.

All these protests seem targeted less at the principles of democracy than at the institutions we have– the parties, unions, trade associations and other bodies that dominate politics in most democratic countries. In Berlin just a few weeks ago, the Pirate Party– yes, that same party founded in Sweden on a platform of radical copyright reform– surprised everyone (including themselves) by winning 15 seats in the city-state’s parliament. While it was tempting to cite the results as an indication that an increasingly young and tech-savvy electorate put data privacy, copyright reform, and internet policy at the top of their personal agendas, that probably wasn’t what was actually going on.  Rather, a vote for the Pirate Party was a protest vote, a ballot cast against Germany’s traditionally dominant parties, and in support of a burgeoning if inchoate faction that voiced a shared discontent with politics as it has been.

The policy demands of this growing global cohort may not be tech-focused (the impetus for revolt is the same as ever: high unemployment, low wages, prohibitive costs for food, housing, education, and everything in between…), but the mindset of the protesters– the way they think the world should be– is deeply informed by our internet age. Societies are increasingly networked through mobile phones and the internet in ways that are non-hierarchical and user-defined, and as a result, people around the world increasingly expect their government, party, and other representative institutions to be equally responsive to their demands. Needless to say, the current situation is frustrating, whether you’re a liberal in America, a working class family in Europe, or an activist in India. (more…)



NYT on Internet Freedom

17 June 2011

The New York Times has lately been doing an admirable job wrestling with the impact of social media, mobile phones and the internet on democracy movements and activism around the world.  Perhaps partly thanks to a certain ambivalence about social media among the paper’s top brass, the NYT has managed to avoid getting too caught up in the “Twitter Revolution!” zeitgeist, and has managed to present both the positive and the negative effects these new tools are having on the global prospects for democracy.

On Wednesday, Neil MacFarquhar had a piece on how activists in Saudi Arabia are taking to the public sphere of the internet for lack of the ability to convene in any real, physical space. Money quote:

Social media, which helped drive protests across the Arab world, seems tailor-made for Saudi Arabia, where public gatherings are illegal, women are strictly forbidden to mix with unrelated men and people seldom mingle outside their family.

Virtually any issue that contradicts official Saudi policy now pops up online, including the status of prisoners being held without trial or a call to boycott municipal elections this September.

Louai A. Koufiah, a Twitter enthusiast, quipped: “Saudis cannot go out to demonstrate, so they retweet!”

And last weekend, James Glanz and John Markoff covered the State Department’s growing and increasingly broad approach to supporting democracy activists using new technology, with a particular focus on constructing mobile networks in places like Afghanistan and North Africa that are entirely separate from the state-run apparatus and thus more (but, note, not entirely) secure.  From that story:

The Obama administration’s initiative is in one sense a new front in a longstanding diplomatic push to defend free speech and nurture democracy. For decades, the United States has sent radio broadcasts into autocratic countries through Voice of America and other means. More recently, Washington has supported the development of software that preserves the anonymity of users in places like China, and training for citizens who want to pass information along the government-owned Internet without getting caught.

But the latest initiative depends on creating entirely separate pathways for communication. It has brought together an improbable alliance of diplomats and military engineers, young programmers and dissidents from at least a dozen countries, many of whom variously describe the new approach as more audacious and clever and, yes, cooler.

Particularly glad to see them put in that historical context.  We’ve always supported democracy. The “internet freedom” push is simply an effort to defend our values in a modern context.



Social Media in Egypt: A Second Public Sphere

14 February 2011

I’ve been mostly silent on the “social media revolution in Egypt” meme because, frankly, I didn’t want to join an already crowded chorus until enough information had emerged for the beginning of an actual analysis.  Justly or not, the idea of the uprising in Egypt being a “Twitter revolution” or “Facebook revolt” has become one of the major narratives in the American media.  This shouldn’t be surprising, given the way the same narrative caught on during Iran’s uprising in 2009. And, as Luke Allnutt argued well, there’s an element of the “Twitter revolution” story that’s appealing to Americans because, in some vaguely imperialistic yet satisfyingly altruistic way, it gives us a bit of the credit for the empowerment of the disenfranchised people of Egypt, Tunisia and wherever else.

But it’s becoming more and more clear that in Tunisia and especially in Egypt, social media really have played pivotal roles in driving the uprising. “We are All Khaled Said,” the Facebook group originally created to commemorate the brutal death of a young businessman at the hands of the Egyptian policy, was created last June by Wael Ghonim, the Google executive and activist blogger who has become a reluctant face of the movement since his release from prison and an emotional interview on Egyptian television this week. The group is widely credited with helping catalyze the initial protests last month. The “April 6 Youth Movement,” another Facebook-based, youth-led democracy movement, also helped turn people out to protest, while Twitter has been a constant source of Egypt news for people around the world. (more…)



Paper Release & Webinar: ICT in Mexican Civil Society

20 January 2011

Today, I’m proud to release a new paper entitled “Information and Communication Technology in Mexican Civil Society.” It’s based on the research Ana and I did in Oaxaca and Mexico City back in the fall, and is an overview of how the people, movements and organizations that make up civil society in Mexico have adopted new technologies including mobile phones and social media to facilitate and improve the effectiveness of their work.

The best part is a series of case studies represending the most effective tech-based initiatives of the past several years. The paper is available in both English and Spanish. If you’re interested, I will host a webinar tomorrow, Friday, January 21, at 12:30pm EST to offer an overview of the paper’s findings and answer questions. Please RSVP to receive webinar instructions.

As a taste, here’s an excerpt from one of the fascinating projects I profile in the report: a blogging platform for women called “Mujeres Construyendo.” While not strictly “civil society,” as it’s set up as a for-profit endeavor, MC lives in the space of social entrepreneurship, somewhere between the business world and the nonprofit/civil society world. It’s a great example of a project that leverages the power of the global network to address a specific gap in civil discourse:

“Mujeres Construyendo” is a blogging platform for Spanish-speaking women, created by Claudia Calvin Venero to address a “digital glass ceiling” she observed in Mexico. Venero has recruited over 350 contributors from all over the Spanish-speaking world, encouraging them to engage online, and teaching them the necessary skills; now, their writing covers issues ranging from international politics to the trials of being a mother. Over 4,000 women around the world are in the network of Mujeres Construyendo, many of whom have taken courses taught by Venero. Her courses touch on a range of women’s issues, but the message to her students is always the same: they must overcome the “culture of silence” that keeps many Latin women from engaging in public dialogue, and recognize that the internet is a powerful space to raise their voices about the issues that affect their lives. Next year, she’ll be offering a course exclusively for female legislators in Mexico, making them more aware of the “self-marginalization” of women, and encouraging them to raise their own voices online and in government.

Mujeres Construyendo is one of a handful of emerging online platforms for engaged citizens to share their ideas and experiences, and participate in public dialogue. ”Revolución con Letras” is another: without the specific focus on women and women’s issues, the site welcomes posts from citizens about social issues, and allows readers to identify the best, most useful articles. Sites like these are an important development for the engagement of Mexican civil society online, as they give platforms for even those people unaffiliated with any organization and without sophisticated technological skills to engage in public dialogue online. For the internet to successfully become a “second public sphere” in Mexico, sites like these will be essential.

I hope you enjoy the report!



No “Twitter Revolution,” But a Connected Revolution in Tunisia

18 January 2011

When Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in front of a government building after being robbed and slapped around by the local police, his desperate and tragic act sparked a tinderbox of anger and resentment against the Tunisian state. As news of Bouazizi’s self-immolation spread, so too did a nationwide wave of protests, and on Friday, longtime dictator Ben Ali fled the country.

With most Western media looking elsewhere, and journalists in Tunisia sharply censored, Twitter became one of the only sources of information about what has come to be called the “Jasmine Revolution.” Among the protesters, Facebook and YouTube allowed them to share stories, videos, and encouragement, while e-mail, text messaging, and other social media were among the ways that Tunisians communicated, rallied, and coordinated their movement. (more…)