Political Activism in the Digital Age

11 February 2015


This week, we're asking about Cyber-Activism -- social or political activism mediated and enabled by the use of cyber-tools like email, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, podcasts and so on.  The internet has changed practically everything – from the way we work to the way we play.  It stands to reason that it would change the way we engage in social and political action too. 

Remember how hard it was to organize a spontaneous rally before the internet? You had to knock on doors, hand out fliers, hang posters all over the place. Today, you send out a tweet; it goes viral; and next thing you know thousands show up. Same thing with petition drives.  In the old days, you’d have to find a bunch of people willing to spend hours standing on street corners, trying to collect signatures from random passersby. That was a lot of work, and pretty ineffectual to boot. 

Of course let's not forget television, radio and even print. Those are all forms of mass media.  In their heydays, each of them had a huge effect on the way we organize and mobilize people. But those old archaic forms were much more top-down and hierarchical.  To be get your voice heard,  you had to be able to pay, or  your had to enjoy the favor of the gatekeepers, or had to force your way onto the scene through mass disruption. Cyberspace is the great leveler. It totally democratizes, for good or for ill, the way we communicate, organize and mobilize. 

These days if you want a start a petition drive, you don't have to spend tons of money. You don’t have to enlist tons of foot soldiers. You put it up on the internet. You share the link with like-minded friends and followers.  They share it with their friends and followers and so on and so forth!  And before you know it… presto -- you’ve got thousands, if not millions of people willing to stand up and be counted for the cause. 

Or do we mean, “sit down and be counted”?  Signing online petitions is a form of activism widely practiced from the comfort of the couch. And while couch potatoes certainly have the right to be heard too, they’re just a symptom of a larger disease, of that mixed blessing that is the internet. With the barriers to entry so low, way too many voices are vying to be heard. In the old days, maybe it was way too hard to be heard. Today every voice is amplified. When every voice is amplified, how can any voice be heard? 

Does that mean we want to go back to the days of the top-down gatekeepers? Well, were those gatekeepers all bad? They filtered out some of the noise. They certified some voices as worthy of our attention. They actually facilitated conversations that were more than a cacophony. 

That said, think of all these recent police shootings of young black men. Think of the anguished national conversation they have prompted. You think we’d be having these conversations if there weren’t cell phone cameras everywhere, each on of them connected to the internet, each one of them hooked up to the social media infrastructure that enables them to go viral overnight? 

Still, for every just cause that now gets a hearing, some number of shallow causes of no great social significance can get a hearing too. And what about about truth and reliability? Has the ratio of truth/falsity has been increased or decreased in the internet age? I’d guess that it’s decreased. I suppose sometimes you’ve got to take the good with the bad.  

But wait, there's more... Ask yourself who does the internet benefit most: nefarious actors with dark designs, or good guys with righteous causes? Seems like the internet enables some pretty ugly people to organize themselves in pretty ugly ways. And what about the big guys vs the little guys -- who gains more from the new ways of doing things?  It may seems like the internet is tearing down old power structures, but it's rapidly replacing them with new ones -- Amazon, Google, Facebook, etc. These aren’t little guys, at least not anymore. 

So where do we go from here? Our guest, Lucy Bernholz from the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, has some ideas. Tune in to find out.

Comments (7)

N. Bogdanov's picture

N. Bogdanov

Friday, February 13, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

What really grabbed my

What really grabbed my interest here is the idea that today?s connectivity might indeed allow too many voices to be heard at once. Though we always seem to question the credibility of mass news sources such as The New York Times or CNN, at least they provide us all with what, for the most part, are balanced and thought-through accounts. With the advent of social media, however, singular events are likely to be hijacked by popular opinion rather than by well-reasoned analysis. Social media, in removing the delay previously required to share your thoughts on something, has created what to me seems closer to a mob mentality than a democratic polis.
For example, what 10 years ago may have spurred open conversation between family, friends, and co-workers now polarizes social media users?despite the best intentions of those initiating any sort of movement in the first place! Consider the recent national action around police use of deadly force. Posting a cell-phone video of what on first glance appears to be a murder in cold blood garners public outcry, but outcry that takes mere minutes to manifest. How can we really expect our outrage to rest on a firm foundation if all we have seen is a single video, and a thread of charged comments? Personally, I don?t think we can.
At the same time, those same structures that allow what I describe above to happen also bring many a benefit to the activist cause? Looking forward to hearing how we might balance this one!

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, February 14, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

I suppose that insofar as

I suppose that insofar as consensus reassures people of their judgment, the speed with which attitudes and reactions get expressed can make us feel more reasonable. Unless, of course, we don't agree with the first impression. But so much of what gets posted smacks of echoing what others have said I often feel like I'm in a Turing test. That seems to me a mammoth shortcoming, the lack of all the other human interactions that help us sort out the reverberations of attitudes flitting about us from what the flesh-and-blood interlocutor genuinely thinks.
Another issue is a perennial question in all efforts to express ourselves or persuade one another: Why? Why do we feel that unanimity is the required test of reason? It is as if we feel others have a duty to agree. Perhaps we would get truer to reason, and to the emergence of language, semantic and syntactic, by exploring our differences? Is it possible, for instance, that the much celebrated "linguistic competence" is short of complete both semantic and syntactic? What if logic is as flawed as experience deems it impoverished of meaning? And experience (the episteme) as impoverished of sense as logic seems to portray it? If so, perhaps we have, not a duty to agree, but a duty to differ? Maybe this can show us a drama more completing than logic or experience alone? Maybe this can show us how to beat the Turing test?   

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Brooke Gladstone covers all

Brooke Gladstone covers all the parameters of this issue on a regular basis, though not in every episode, of her weekly NPR program On The Media. Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in all internet issues.
The fact is, politicians might spend the day reading hundreds, in DC maybe thousands (with the help of staff) of emails from constituents and activists of every kind. But they spend hours every evening talking on the phone to rich donors. Which is more influential? The steady stream of unsolicited opinion become a kind of blur of cliches, or the living voice offering support with one hand and laying out rules for its use with the other? One commentator, himself a politician, observed that the result, while not likely to contradict the expressed opinions of constituents, is careful not to contradict the wealthy support either. This is why politicians seem to hesitate so much in campaign events, especially in response to unprepared question from voters. They are thinking hard of how they can ease the concerns of the questioner without offending the funder. Automated petitions just don't really stand a chance, except to help the politician formulate the interests of his backers. What I fear is the development of a program which scours the internet to reduce opinions expressed there to a manageable map of expressed views complete with a well marked pathway through the linguistic mines there. All we need now is cyborg consensus.
The world is only in its numbers. Consensus is a conceit of rightness offered us a facile term of our knowing it. It is only where we are intimately particpated in the most rigorous sense of proving that facile term undiscerned us that we share fully in each other's views. That sharing is the strict opposite of consensus and the 'only-in-its-numbers' the world is. It is hard to see how the internet can be anything but a cyborg consensus in the face of this distinction. Can love be mass-produced? Can polity? Between the urge to "flame" and the reflex to enthuse there is little room for meaningful discussion. Where people do get down to brass tacks, they tend to be dismissive of those who try to throw a wet blanket on their enthusiam for unexamined presumptions.

Or's picture


Monday, March 2, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

In the digital age, barriers

In the digital age, barriers to posting and receiving content are low and every voice seems to be amplified, so how can any voice be heard? But do all voices really stand an equal chance to being heard in first place? And how low are these initial barriers anyway? The Internet has existed for decades and there are still 4.4 billion people around the globe without any sort of access to it! In the U.S. alone, the country with the most access to internet in the world, there are 50 million people without Internet (including those by choice).The number of people disconnected is staggering and could eventually grow bigger as digital technologies get fancier and more expensive by the day. Digital tools are definitely a marker of inequality, so how reliable is cyber activism to achieving certain goals? Not only that, but the fact of the cyber tools being so incredibly unstable and in constant evolution naturally causes generational gaps regarding the use of these tools. Social and political activism mediated by the use of cyber tools from the comfort of one?s couch is surely happening, but could it be that we are facing an elitist type of activism that represents only a certain cyber elite?

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, March 3, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Perhaps as a confirmation of

Perhaps as a confirmation of this view is the success of the campaign for 'net neutrality', very much an elitist issue concentrated in the hands of heavy users of the internet. We might not influence congress, but we're assured, for now, of getting our pirated downloads!

Truman Chen's picture

Truman Chen

Sunday, April 19, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Your initial remark sums it

Your initial remark sums it up perfectly: there is the danger and reality of too many voices speaking at once degrading political discourse to popular opinion. This is because the vital essence of activist politics, and politics in general, remains the same regardless of the technological progress that at times affects the workings of politics. To be specific, the essence of good politics is competent voices speaking at the right time and in the right way. The uploading of a video that becomes viral and jumpstarts a political movement cannot be appropriately judged as political, I think. This confusion has led us to forget the importance of a politics that is based on widely public debate between serious representatives of their respective causes. For example, the television during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement showed gruesome footage that helped galvanize the movement, but that alone would not made anything political. The politics comes in with actual physical movement and organization led by a hierarchy of leadership, embodied by figures such as MLK, Malcolm X, and other lesser known figures. Until those organizations and leaders arise, and public discussion happens between these organizations, there is no true activist politics. Activist politics represents the oppressed mass, but it never has been and never will be the oppressed mass arguing all at once; there is a filter through competent leadership that steers the political ship in the right direction. For that reason, social media and the internet will not save us from our abysmal politics; only what has always worked will continue to work. Thus, the only reasonable question now is not if it'd be better without social media, but how do we adapt political organization to this new environment?

inggil's picture


Monday, August 3, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Online campaigns have shown

Online campaigns have shown us that it has a big influence in terms of voter. So, digital age is really helpful for political activism.