Political Activism in the Digital Age
Wednesday, February 11, 2015 -- 4:00 PM
Ken Taylor

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.