Expert Commentary

Political change in the digital age: The fragility and promise of online organizing

2010 paper by the Berkman Center at Harvard University on frameworks for evaluating activism in the Internet age, particularly in repressive environments.

Since the events of the 2011 Arab Spring were set in motion, a debate has continued over how powerful a role the Internet itself can play in bringing about tangible social change. Evidence may continue to emerge that challenges any current theory. But in any case, new intellectual frameworks are required to analyze this question and guide further study.

A 2010 paper by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, “Political Change in the Digital Age: The Fragility and Promise of Online Organizing,” offers some insights and interpretive frameworks to help understand the interaction between digital and offline organizing and to measure the ultimate value of digital technologies. Though the paper was published in late 2010, it anticipates dynamics building in Egypt.

Key points in the paper include:

  • It is useful to distinguish between digital tools that simply allow for the flow of information and those that aid in true social organizing by activists. More attention should be paid to the latter — to the “means of overcoming the difficulties of online organizing in the face of authoritarian governments.”
  • The researchers note that “several countries that have more open media ecosystems by virtue of Internet and mobile phone communication still have not seen the same gains in the development of civil society organizations.… There are no examples we know of where the converse is true: a country in which the right of association surpasses the right to freedom of speech.”
  • Separating social action into three categories can help create a useful analytical framework: (1) Mobs: groups that form episodically and spontaneously; (2) Social movements: groups that are “focused on a single, long-term goal” that may take years to achieve, and that have both identifiable leadership and some organizational structure; (3) Civil Society Organizations (CSOs): these are set apart from mobs and social movements because there is the expectation of permanence and the “trappings of any other offline institution,” such as office space and staff.
  • Digital tools do not always favor social movements: “The ability of the state to carry out surveillance of online networks may make these communities more vulnerable than their offline counterparts.”
  • Though anonymity may, in principle, seem a solution for some social movements and CSOs in hostile online environments, this diminishes the very factors that bring about successful organizing, namely, “leadership and displays of unity and commitment.” Indeed, there are “no examples of influential political movements comprised of anonymous participants.”
  • One possibility is that “digital communities will emerge to serve as venues for deliberation and to provide collective leadership for smart mobs.”
  • Overall, the challenge “for improving the prospects of digitally assisted political reform in closed societies that must rely on decentralized networks is to adapt, emulate and transfer the benefits of highly organized civil society groups, as bottom-up decentralized organizing is more likely to survive in repressive regimes.”

Tags: technology, Middle East