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Red background with group of raised fists in the center, one holding a smart phone. Central image surrounded by four round icons containing the numbers 99%, the Anonymous logo, the Wikileaks logo, and the SOPA logo.

2013: Questioning Digital Activism

Diane Davis

It’s impossible to speak of social media activism without acknowledging accompanying issues of slacktivism, online bullying, censorship, unprecedented invasions of privacy, and the facilitation of extremist organizations and ambitions. It’s encouraging that in the last few years we’ve witnessed—in Cairo, in Tripoli, in Zuccotti Park—the use of social media technologies to organize massive groups into powerful political forces. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, podcasts, text messages, flikr, and various mobile blogging programs have made information sharing and event organization not only quicker and simpler but also infinitely more cost-effective, wide-ranging, and robust. These technologies, however, grease the channels of haters, bullies, conspiracy theorists, and both domestic and foreign terrorists every bit as much as they do advocates for democracy or the social good. Some of the tactics employed on behalf of the latter, in fact, are ethically and legally murky at best—we’re thinking of the hacktivist group Anonymous, for example. So in this year’s CFP, we invited submissions that engage questions at the intersections of advocacy, activism, and digital media technologies. 

We also invited Rita Raley, author of Tactical Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2009), to speak with us about her work and to do an interview for this issue with Trevor Hoag. She graciously agreed. In this interview she discusses current practices and future possibilities in the realm of tactical media. Citing a variety of examples and organizations—Anonymous, Critical Art Ensemble, student protests, the Occupy movement—she focuses on the highly contextual and pliable nature of tactical media practices. She explores ways of raising critical awareness about tactical media and digital privacy issues both inside and outside the college classroom and stresses the importance of tactical media’s future as a means of preserving meaningful spaces for political resistance and agency.

In “Networked Activism, Hybrid Structures, and Networked Power,” John Jones examines online activism in the context of networked power. He argues that theorists must push beyond the framework of networked versus non-networked activism to understand the role network structures play in all communication. Using Wikileaks as an example of networked activism, Jones describes the theory underlying the site. He then outlines how the concrete effects of Wikileaks’s activism suggest a role for networked action as a means of challenging established powers by isolating the networks they contain, thus making them vulnerable to forms of networked power. 

In “Resisting the Robust: the Internet Defense League and the Potential of Networked Kairos,” Jeffrey Swift posits a theory of “networked kairos,” where activists build networks of support in anticipation of potential threats. Rather than struggling to form in response to a kairotic situation, these activist groups take advantage of digital communication technologies to proactively generate networks of supporters around a broad cause. This network model allows them “to both create opportune moments and respond to them.” Drawing on Nassim Taleb’s recent work, Smith argues that the Internet Defense League (IDL) operates as an “antifragile” system. Whereas many more traditional activist organizations are hindered by distraction, lack of commitment, and a lack of immediate results, for these antifragile digital activist systems engaging with networked kairos, “the network itself is the success.” 

In “From  Activism to Occupation,” James J. Brown, Jr. takes up Malcolm Gladwell’s 2010 comparison between the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s and the “clicktivism” of today. He rejects Gladwell’s argument that networks lack hierarchy and therefore generate loose, less effective, connections within activist movements. Instead Brown frames activism in terms of writing; the way it occupies networks, human agents, space, and attention. Writing, then, doesn’t exert force from without to transfer power the way protests aim to, but sits in and shifts the momentum of the network itself. Locating rhetorical action and activist efforts inside the network and illustrating how they work from within, Brown asserts that writing is not ancillary to or a degraded version of activism but is in fact integral to face-to-face activism. It shapes networks themselves and imbues them with possibility by holding questions open.

In “Subtle Democracy: Public Pedagogy and Social Media” Joannah Portman-Daley engages Gladwell on activism in the digital age. She traces how several politically active college students use social media in their personal, academic, and civil engagement. She illustrates—via interviews and journal entries about their online activity—the varying degrees to which students characterize digital activity as activism in these contexts. A common thread Portman-Daley uncovers is the students’ belief in social media’s ability to enable greater access to information and foster connection and collaboration. She argues that this is fundamental to our understanding of equitable public pedagogy and key to progress, both individual and societal.

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