The Oxford Internet Institute was kind enough to invite me to give the inaugural lecture in their Bellwether Series. The OII’s director, Professor Helen Margetts, introduced the series explaining that she hoped talks would anticipate what is to come in the space of internet and society…and explained that the word “Bellwether” came from a middle English word for a castrated ram, who was fitted with a bell and made to lead a flock of sheep. That’s pretty ominous compared to my assumption when I was invited, which was that they found someone named Bellwether to sponsor the series. If you are named Bellwether and are looking for something to sponsor, let me please suggest OII.
I took the opportunity to expand some of the thinking I’ve been doing about participatory civics and effective citizenship. Because I don’t always say what I meant to say, here are my notes for the talk with hopes that they reflect what I actually said. I wish I’d been able to blog, as I got excellent questions and would benefit from thinking and working through them as I work through these ideas.
There’s a photo from Tahrir Square that fascinates me. A man stands in the square, surrounded by celebrating protesters. He holds a handwritten sign that says, “Thank you, Facebook.” (Another picture shows him holding a sign in Arabic that says “Thank you, Al Jazeera”).
For some, this photo was proof positive that the internet had helped oust Mubarak and was showing its power in allowing people to organize for political change. For others, it was evidence that the self-importance of internet advocates had gotten out of hand. After all, the Arab Spring in Egypt had far more to do with economic factors and popular dissatisfaction than with any specific communications technology. This debate between those skeptical of technology’s role in organizing protests and those who see technology as central continues as we consider the protests in Gezi Square (where Twitter publicized protests that Turkish television ignored) and will likely be debated as we come to understand the #EuroMaidan protests in Ukraine. (The fact that the protests are known, in part, by a hashtag suggests the possibility of a digital protest narrative).
If it’s easy to lampoon the protester in Tahrir for giving too much credit to the internet, it’s easier to parody other, more purely digital forms of activism. Consider the spread of the Human Rights Campaign’s red and pink equals sign, which nearly three million Facebook users adopted as their profile photo after HRC changed their blue and yellow logo to the red and pink one in anticipation of oral arguments in front of the US Supreme Court on California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. As waves of pink and red swept across Facebook and Twitter, more than one wag wondered whether the Supreme Court justices were counting Facebook profile pictures before offering their ruling.
Is the protester in Tahrir deluded when he thanks Facebook for the fall of Mubarak? Do the Facebook supporters of marriage equality imagine that their actions will affect Supreme Court deliberations?
Malcolm Gladwell’s widely circulated critique of social media’s role in the Arab Spring (and, presumably, in later protests like Gezi Park) centers on the idea that “real” activism requires the trust developed from face to face interactions to lead people to risk arrest or assault. Online activism doesn’t involve real risk, and thus isn’t “real”: “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.”
(There are other critiques of a narrative of Arab Spring protests that give credit to social media that are more complex and subtle. The observation that a narrative that puts Facebook at the center of the Tunisian or Egyptian struggle implicitly puts Americans at the center of an Arab/African liberation struggle, denying agency to those who actually risked their lives strikes me as related, though harder to dismiss).
Presumably, Gladwell has even less use for HRC’s Facebook supporters than for those who retweeted bulletins from Tahrir. “Slacktivism,” a term coined in the 1990s, but brought to prominence by internet theorist Evgeny Morozov, posits that online activism may detract from “real,” offline activism by persuading us that we are having an impact even when we’re doing nothing. Slacktivism, Morozov and others suggest, is better understood as fashion or as pack behavior than activism. We might even understand slacktivism as exploitation of the young and impressionable by media-savvy campaigners raising money for their causes, as some critics of Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 campaign argued.
These critiques presume that participants in online activism are naïve and deluded. They also presume there is something more effective the online activists could be doing with their attention and energies. In the case of the Human Rights Campaign, presumably, those concerned should have campaigned against Proposition 8 when it was on the ballot in California, or, perhaps, worked to elect a President who would have appointed more liberal Supreme Court justices. In the case of protesters brought into the streets in part via the internet, there tends to be a lionization of some protesters and a blanket condemnation of others. If there’s no other path to social change in a closed society, like pre-revolution Tunisia or Egypt, and if protesters risk arrest or injury, they are celebrated. If there are other paths towards change, as in the US or western Europe, public protest is often dismissed as performance or self-indulgence, as with criticisms of the Occupy and Indignados movements.
I’m interested in understanding online activism in a way that avoids ridiculing a wave of youth engagement without uncritically celebrating it. I believe we’re seeing new forms of civic engagement online and I want to understand them while recognizing their (sometimes crippling) shortcomings. My goal isn’t to advocate for these new forms of civic engagement so much as it is to document what’s happening and understand many young people are drawn to these new forms of engagement. I’d like to understand when these movements, which I’m calling participatory civics, are effective in achieving their goals and why they fall short.
In particular, I’m interested in questioning a narrative that’s gained traction in the US, the idea of a “crisis in civics.” This narrative gained some prominence with Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” which warned that Americans were less likely to join voluntary organizations than in the past, and saw a correlation between declining participation in local organizations and broader civic participation. After leaving the bench, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor warned that young Americans weren’t learning the basics of how their government functioned and called poor grades on standardized civics exams a “crisis.” She responded to the crisis by founding iCivics, a nonprofit that teaches civics through online games.
Are the metrics Putnam and O’Connor choose to measure civic health the right ones? Poor grades on a civics exam are disturbing, but it may be a mistake to conclude that young people aren’t interested in community or public life. Joe Kahne and Cathy Cohen have been surveying American youth about their civic behaviors and see strong evidence of “participatory politics,” the use of digital media to engage in political discussion or share civic media. They suggest we may be missing the picture if we’re considering only traditional measures of civic engagement, like voting rates.
I want to offer a darker suggestion: given the level of disillusionment many Americans feel with the political process, perhaps we shouldn’t expect young people to get involved with traditional politics. On the left, excitement about a presumably progressive African-American president has given way to deep frustration with rising inequality, an unregulated banking system, ongoing military engagements and a culture of pervasive surveillance that’s starting to look like a national post-traumatic stress reaction to the 9/11 attacks. On the right, a prolonged economic depression combined with shifting demographics suggests a government so out of touch with the concerns of “ordinary” Americans that we would be better off without it. And both left and right can share frustration over a nation so polarized that our last two Congresses have been the least productive in recent history. The dominant narrative in US politics is of a government so dysfunctional that it lurches from potential shutdown to potential shutdown. Given the feelings of impotence some senators and congressmen are expressing, it’s hard to argue that young people should feel empowered to make change through the federal government.
I’m reluctant to extend my observations to the UK and the EU as I know so little about politics and public mood in Europe, but I will note an excellent, brief book by Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev: In Mistrust We Trust. Krastev examines a wave of popular protests in Europe and concludes that while protests may change governments, they are unlikely to change the underlying economic problems that drive students into the streets. Krastev worries that most European governments are powerless in the face of larger economic forces – Spanish and Greek governments may want to create jobs through government spending, but are forced into austerity by the threat of increasing interest rates. You can elect new governments, you can protests against those in power, he argues, but you’ve got no influence over the economic forces making nations unliveable. Again, it’s hard to posit a view of effective civics that involves influencing a powerless government.
Here’s an ugly, but plausible, explanation for the shifting engagement in civics: It’s not that people aren’t interested in civics. They’re simply not interested in feeling ineffectual or helpless. Ron Fournier, former DC bureau chief of the Associated Press, has been interviewing young Americans about their attitudes towards civics, and concludes that millennials have a deep attraction to service and a deep distaste for politics. (The reasons for this are a little surprising: Fournier notes that many high school students began volunteering as a way of marketing themselves for college admissions and ended up discovering their excitement for service in the process). This pattern of activism, not politics, holds true in conversations I’ve had with digital activists around the world for a project Center for Civic Media is conducting to document digital activism. We would interview participants in projects that seemed “political” to us as researchers – the people we interviewed were happy to be called activists but strongly resisted the “political” label, seeing politics as something professionalized, captured by powerful forces and entirely outside of their control.
If young people are disenchanted with politics, rightly or wrongly, how do we help them become effective civic actors?
When we teach civics, we usually teach some version of the “informed citizen” paradigm. In this model, your role as a citizen is to understand the political process and the issues of the day and to participate through voting for representatives, voting on legislation through referenda and contacting your representative when you’re concerned about an issue local or global. This model is so deeply ingrained in most modern, liberal democracies that we tend to forget that it’s a fairly recent development. In The Good Citizen, Michael Schudson argues that this model of the informed citizen is not the picture of American citizenship the nation’s founders had in mind, and that it’s not necessarily the apotheosis of the democratic state. Competitive elections and secret ballots weren’t part of early American democracy, which functioned more as a system to collectively affirm prominent elites as elected representatives. The party system that replaced early American democracy was less about debating issues than about alliances to parties that functioned as social clubs. It wasn’t until the reforms of the progressive era, in the early 20th century, that the idea that ordinary citizens should be informed about issues and active participants in political debates became a mainstream idea. (Schudson notes that this model often places completely unreasonable demands on citizens, and correlates to a sharp drop in voter participation).
For me, the most interesting part of Schudson’s analysis is his argument that we’ve moved away from the informed citizen model to newer paradigms, a rights-based model of citizenship that seeks change through the court system, and the idea of the “monitorial citizen,” who engages in civics by monitoring governments and other powerful actors. Whether or not these models of citizenship are the right descriptions of our current situation, or whether these are hopeful models (Krastev notes that monitorial citizens may simply discover the powerlessness of their governments, again and again), Schudson’s analysis introduces the idea young people disengaged from traditional politics might not be bad citizens under an old paradigm but good citizens under a new one.
I’ve taken to calling this new model of citizenship “participatory civics.” One of the characteristics of this version of civics is an interest – perhaps a need – for participants to see their impact on the issues they’re trying to influence. Practitioners of participatory civics have grown up on participatory media: they are used to being able to share their perspectives and views with the world, and to seeing their influence in terms of how many people read and share their words. This desire to see participation directly has been most apparent in the online giving space. Projects like Kiva and GlobalGiving allow people to support an individual entrepreneur in the developing world, rather than an organization focused broadly on eliminating poverty. Donors Choose lets donors support a specific project in a specific classroom rather than supporting a whole school or an organization working on educational reform. Kickstarter and Indiegogo let you support a single work by an artist rather than supporting a museum or a dance company, while Spacehive and Neighbor.ly ask individuals to fund projects that might once have been funded through tax revenues.
The popularity of these platforms with young donors may be pulling money away from traditional arts organizations (a parallel to the argument that online activism is pulling energy away from offline activism), or they may bring new donors into the space. The desire to see a personal influence on events may not be the most efficient path towards change, as not every issue benefits from a social media campaign or crowdfunding – some of the best advocacy is done behind the scenes, in ways where it’s very hard for a supporter to be a participant. And participatory models may not be as fair and inclusive as older models. Some of the debate over “civic crowdfunding” raises questions about whether wealthy, well-wired communities will benefit and poor, less-wired communities will lose out, if the desire to see an impact of your funding means you require to see how funding benefits you and your community, specifically.
Another aspect of participatory civics is that it tends to be driven by specific passions, not by broader adherence to political movements or philosophies. A movement like Invisible Children is hard to pin down in conventional left/right terms. Is it a left-learning human rights movement? A right-leaning, Christian-rooted movement for military intervention? The answer is that it’s neither: it’s an issue that cuts across traditional party lines and creates new and unusual coalitions. We are starting to see some of the same dynamics at work around an emerging coalition opposed to NSA of communications around the globe: left-wing privacy advocates, libertarians, nationalists furious at violations of sovereignty.
This escape from traditional political poles to explore the issues we’re most passionate about is liberating, but it’s worth remembering that passions have a downside. Many analysts of African policy – and more important, many Africans – argued that while arresting Joseph Kony may have been the passion of Invisible Children, it wasn’t a major priority for African development or security. And a public sphere built of passionate, self-interested people will likely have problems coming together to deliberate possible solutions, and may not even be able to agree on what issues are worth considering. I’ll examine this idea, that participatory, passion-driven politics leads to a pointillistic public sphere and how that public sphere might work, near the end of this talk.
I’m not trying to argue for the superiority or inferiority of participatory civics. Instead, I’m trying to acknowledge that this type of civics is on the rise and to see whether we can have a debate about this changing space that doesn’t recapitulate the decade-long “bloggers versus journalists” debate. When blogging came to widespread public attention a decade ago, we heard predictions that loose collectives of bloggers would replace CNN or the New York Times. Those tech enthusiasts sound pretty silly a decade later, but so do those who argued that only trained, experienced journalists could break significant stories. (Paging Glenn Greenwald!) A decade later, we’ve reached a new form of journalism that incorporates aspects of old and new models and has new strengths and weaknesses, a model where newspapers like The Guardian and The New York Times have blogs, columns and news stories and where writers may be bloggers one day and reporters the next. I predict similar developments around participatory civics, where it will become the norm, not the exception, for political and activist campaigns to rely on social media, crowdfunding and other digital techniques as well as advertising, lobbying and conventional fundraising.
One of the reasons the conversations about the impacts of participatory media on journalism were so frustrating is that social media is an enormously broad category. It’s hard to make the case that Instagramming your lunch is an act of reportage, though the same photo-sharing technologies were used to report the London underground bombings. Questions about whether participatory media is journalism aren’t well answered by considering what platform was used – it’s more helpful to consider how a medium was used and what it was used for. I suspect the same is true for participatory civics. We need to distinguish between different acts of participatory civics and to judge them, at least in part, on their effectiveness in accomplishing citizen intent.
Here’s a diagram I’ve been using to organize my thinking about participatory civics. “Thick” and “thin,” the horizontal axis, refers to what’s asked of you as a participant in a civic act: do we need your feet or your head? In thin forms of engagement, your job is to show up: to the rally, to sign the petition, to change your profile picture. In thin engagement, someone else, presumably, has done the thinking and concluded that what’s needed to persuade or to make a point is mass participation. In thick engagement, your job is to figure out what needs to be done. Someone organizing a thick campaign knows they have a problem to solve and recruits participants as a way of finding possible solutions, as well as people capable of carrying out those solutions. Much of what occurred in the Occupy camps was thick engagement – Occupiers took responsibility for determining how the camps ran, what issues an Occupy camp focused on and how.
There’s a tendency to dismiss thin engagement as trivial and (sometimes) to celebrate thick engagement. First, it’s worth remembering that thick and thin are a continuum, not a binary. Creating a custom version of the HRW equality campaign logo is marginally thicker than replacing your Facebook icon with HRW’s logo (which is about as thin as you can get). It’s also important to realize that we want and need certain types of engagement to be thin. It’s not supposed to be hard to vote. If you need to brainstorm solutions that allow you to get to the polls and cast your vote – thick voting – that’s probably evidence of voter suppression.
The instrumental pole refers to engagement that has a specific, direct theory of change. To legally recognize equal marriage, I need to pass a law in the next cycle of ballot referenda. To get the law on the ballot requires 50,000 signatures of registered voters. I’m emailing to ask you to volunteer to gather signatures so we can get on the ballot and pass the law. Instrumental engagement usually has a target: a law to pass, a person or entity to persuade. (Instrumental engagement can also target the general public when it’s trying to change norms: we might want to reach everyone with a social marketing campaign if our goal isn’t to pass an equal marriage bill but to persuade people that gay and lesbian marriage is socially acceptable).
It’s often easy to identify a specific sphere in which instrumental engagement takes place. In the petition example, the campaign is unfolding in the legal sphere: we want to pass a law and we’re using the referendum process to do so. Campaigns that unfold in the legal sphere aren’t always so straightforward – consider the DREAM activists, who are seeking a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented young people brought to the US by their parents when they were children. Many DREAMers didn’t realize they were undocumented until they applied to college and discovered they would need to pay unaffordable out of state tuition. DREAMers have become a rallying point for immigrant rights in the US because they didn’t choose to immigrate to the US, and because they’ve been assimilated by being educated in American high schools.
Despite President Obama’s stated support for special status for DREAMers, Congressional dysfunction makes it very unlikely that DREAMers will be citizens any time soon. So some are choosing to hack the legal system – a group called the DREAM 9 have left the country for Mexico and attempted to re-enter the US and demand asylum, seeking a challenge to their status through the court system rather than the legislative system. They are accompanying this campaign with a documentation campaign using social and traditional media designed to give them some control over the narrative of their campaign, making clear that they’re seeking a solution for all young people in their position, not just individual asylum.
We’re used to seeing activism and civics unfold in the sphere of law. One of the fascinating aspects of participatory civics is that it’s unfolding in other spheres as well. I’ve turned to Lawrence Lessig’s 1999 book Code for a possible map of these spheres. Lessig’s key breakthrough in Code was the idea that technologies were regulated not just by law, but by code, markets and norms. If copyright holders wanted to ensure movies weren’t shared through the internet, they could seek passage and enforcement of laws that equated unauthorized copying with theft. They could also pressure operating system manufacturers to make it difficult or impossible to copy certain types of files on their systems, seeking to regulate through code. (Lessig wrote Code not long after serving as Special Master in United States v. Microsoft, and developed a healthy fear of the power a company like Microsoft had in making behaviors difficult or impossible through code). Lessig notes that we regulate through norms and markets as well. Copyright holders might work to make copying socially undesirable, terming it piracy. Or they might seek to make copying expensive and purchasing of digital music inexpensive.
What works for regulation works for civics and activism as well. As theories of change that focus on law and politics grow more professionalized and less accessible to new civic actors (or as those new participants lose faith in their ability to influence law and politics), we’re seeing innovative strategies that work in the three other spheres.
In response to the Snowden revelations about pervasive NSA surveillance, a group of Icelandic media activists began a project called Mailpile. Mailpile is a new email client, designed from the ground up to make it easy to use PGP encryption to protect your email from being read if intercepted. While there is some belief that the NSA can read some PGP-encrypted email, probably by intercepting the private key and user passphrase on a compromised computer, widespread use of encryption would force the NSA to do vastly more work to analyze the content of mail, and would protect users who the NSA had not explicitly targeted for intense surveillance from having their mail “swept up” in data collection efforts. By writing software to make encryption easy and commonplace, their instrumental strategy seeks change through code. (Code, in Lessig’s usage and mine, includes all technical systems – any technology, design or architecture designed to make some behaviors easy and others hard uses a code theory of change, including LaTour’s door closer).
Many social media campaigns operate in the space of norms, seeking to change public opinion, as with the Equal Marriage campaign. Some are more targeted than others. Carmen Rios is a young activist based in Washington DC, upset by a disturbing rape case in which teenage girls were sexually abused by high school athletes. She started an online petition campaign, demanding that the largest association of high school sports coaches commit to teaching a curriculum about sexual violence to their athletes as part of their coaching. After collecting 70,000 signatures, she was invited by the coaching organization to meet and has been working with them to develop their intervention, working with a fellow activist who was a successful high school athlete. Rios’s campaign seeks to change two norms – the deep and troubling norms around athletic success and a sense of sexual entitlement, and the norms of where and when sex education is offered in high school – and is a helpful example of thin engagement in an online petition that’s led to real, offline action.
Rising interest in the space of social entrepreneurship shows the popularity of theories of change in the market sphere. My favorite example here is of a young Pakistani woman, who I’m privileged to have a visitor in my lab at MIT. Khalida Brohi is from Balochistan, one of the tribal regions of Pakistan, where cultural practices demand women remain profoundly isolated from society, essentially locked in their houses after they marry lest they be seen by a man other than a family member. Khalida was lucky to be educated in Karachi with the blessing of her father, who defied traditions to ensure his wife and daughters learned to read. When she returned to her village for a school holiday and discovered that a childhood friend had been the victim of an honor killing, she began a Facebook campaign against honor killings that gained international attention, but also got her banished from her village. She returned years later with a new idea: she created a company to market the distinctive embroidery made in the Baloch region and invited local women to come for sewing classes and training to take out microloans and start embroidery businesses. The embroidery program created a space where married women could interact with one another, something that hadn’t existed previously in her village, and has become a channel for teaching women to read and write, what Islam does and doesn’t teach about women’s rights as well as how to advocate for their rights within their families. While it’s become increasingly clear to the men in the villages that the program is changing their relationship with their wives, the area is desperately poor and the men need the income the women are generating. Khalida’s work, leveraging market mechanisms to fight for women’s rights and using the internet to find customers and supporters, has now spread to more than 25 villages and she plans to work with 1 million women in the next ten years.
Effective activism is rarely exclusive to one of these spheres. The DREAMers aren’t just challenging immigration legislation in court – they’re trying to win normative battles as well, producing videos where they “come out” as undocumented as a way of making documented people more visible as a step towards social acceptability, much as gay rights activists have used a similar strategy. But thinking in terms of spheres is a helpful way to think about what theory of change underlies an act of instrumental civics.
But how should we think about the Human Rights Campaign’s Equal Marriage icon? If this is a strategy that unfolds in the legal sphere – i.e., if we believe that 2.7 million Facebook icons will influence the decision of a panel of judges – we’re probably being stupid. We might have more of a case if we see this as a campaign about norms. My students Nathan Matias, Molly Sauter and Matt Stempeck made the argument that, since support for gay rights correlates strongly to whether you know gay people in your family or social circle, showing people that they have friends who are supporters of marriage equality might sway public opinion, mainstreaming equal marriage and marginalizing equal marriage opponents.
While I find my students’ argument compelling, I think understanding a campaign like this purely in instrumental terms misses important nuances. The opposite pole from “instrumental” is my model is “voice,” a term adopted from Albert Hirschmann’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty, a short book on economics that has important implications for political theory. Hirschmann sets out to explore a question that’s not well explained by classical economics: how do customers respond to a firm whose goods decrease in quality? Classical economics tells us that customers are rational actors and will leave a firm as soon as another firm offers a better product at the same price. But that’s not what happens: some customers stay with a firm out of loyalty, and some go further and express their concerns to management, hoping the firm will achieve its previous level of quality.
This is an interesting observation for economists, but the implications for politics may be more important. If you’re dissatisfied with your mobile phone company, you can exit and choose another one. But, despite what Americans say when our party loses an election, very few of us pick up and emigrate to Canada. Literal exit is rare in this case, though Krastev argues that many young people are figuratively exiting by disengaging with politics. The alternative is voice, expressing our dissatisfaction with a firm or a nation in the hopes that we can reverse its decline.
Hirschmann considers an instrumental case for voice – if enough of us raise our voices loud enough, we may persuade our mobile phone company or our nation to change its path. But it’s likely that voice is an important path to civic engagement even when we are not directly advocating a policy or norms change.
Voice is often the first step towards engagement in instrumental civics. We use voice to identify with a movement before taking more instrumental steps, whether this involves coming out as a DREAMer, or identifying as an ally by turning our Facebook icon pink. By using voice to affiliate, we identify with a cause and prepare ourselves to take other steps.
Second, voice begets voice. It’s hard to come out as gay – or as undocumented – when you’re the only one in your town or university to do so. When other people talk about a controversial issue, it’s easier to share your voice and experience, as the member of a marginalized group or an ally.
Third, voice sets agenda. One of the great potentials of participatory media is that it allows a large segment of the population to share their perspectives and opinions and, sometimes, find an audience. When an engaged public raises their voices, individually and collectively, on an issue, they signal interest in a topic to professional media outlets, who will often pick up the issue, exposing it to a broader audience. When social media and the professional press discuss an issue, they often introduce the issue to policymakers’ agenda – Invisible Children was successful in doing this with Kony2012, as were activists focused on Darfur a decade ago.
Finally, voice builds movements through synchronization. A symbol, like the HRC’s Equal Marriage symbol, given strength through widespread adoption, can become a rallying point for a movement, bringing together participants working in different spheres around a common narrative.
My sense is that the synchronizing function of voice is critical if we are interested in effective civics, not just participatory civics. While there’s a great deal of raised voices around responses to NSA surveillance, and some exciting legal and technical projects, there’s still need for a common narrative and a broad movement that responds to surveillance. Legal approaches by themselves may fail, as what the NSA did appears to be outside most interpretations of existing US law – stronger laws offer no assurances they will be enforced without sustained public outcry. Projects like Mailpile will only succeed with widespread usage, which requires a shift in norms (encryption by default) and a shift in markets (punishing companies that produce unencrypted, cloud-based email and rewarding those that enable user-friendly end-to-end encryption).
Applying this matrix – thin/thick, instrumental/voice – to case studies of digital activism offers me some hope that we’re experiencing not an exit from civics, but a change in the shape of participation. I predict this change will become mainstream and that debates over whether online activism is slacktivism or meaningful participation will become as uninteresting as debates about whether bloggers are journalists: some blogging is journalism, some online activism is slacktivism. Evaluating the success of any online engagement requires asking what a civic actor hoped to achieve and whether she achieved it. Does a thin engagement take advantage of strength in numbers? Does thick engagement take advantage of the creativity of those involved? Do instrumental approaches have a believable theory of change? Do voice approaches build engagement and grow movements?
While I’m excited to see the diverse ways digital media is being used for civic engagement, I am worried about some of the limits to these techniques. In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky argues that the internet has changed politics and activism because the ability to find like-minded people online and to mobilize networks for friends makes rapid group formation incredibly easy. This argument seems to prefigure the Arab Spring and the wave of protests the US, Latin America and Europe have been experiencing, where large movements seem to spring up overnight. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekçi has been trying to figure out why it’s so hard for these popular movements to sustain themselves and turn into effective political movements, observing that the Tahrir youth were pushed aside in the Egyptian polls by the Muslim Brotherhood (and later the army) and that the occupiers of Gezi Park have decamped and formed neighborhood fora that seem unlikely to pressure Erdogan or achieve their political goals. Some protesters are highly successful in marshaling counterpower, ousting a dictator, but they have trouble converting counterpower into governing power.
Tufekçi offers an analogy to explain what she thinks is going on. In the past decades, it’s become much easier to summit Mt. Everest – packaged trips promise to help non-elite climbers summit Everest supported by sherpas, oxygen, etc. While more people are summiting Everest, more are also dying – if something goes wrong, non-elite climbers are less able to rescue themselves and others on the mountain. In this analogy, social media is a sherpa, an oxygen tank for protest. In the past, bringing 50,000 people out for a protest required months or years of planning and negotiation between different interest groups. When those groups took to the streets, they represented the hard work necessary to build coalitions, and their presence was a signal to authorities that they faced well-organized, deep resistance. Gezi Park, Tukekçi argues, brought together a coalition that had no common issues other than frustration with Erdogan – nationalists, Kurds, Allawi, gay and lesbian Turks – and, because it brought them together so quickly and with little compromise, the coalition was unstable.
The problem of bringing protesters together into deliberation is a special case of a general problem: if civics is driven by passionate participation, how do we create a deliberative public space? Most democratic theories of politics rely on public deliberation as a path towards public input into processes of governance. The problem with participatory civics is not the absence of paths towards public input – it’s the overabundance. If I’m passionate about UN intervention in the Central African Republic and you’re concerned with legalizing raw milk sales in your town, we can both share our views and rally our forces, but it could be very challenging to get me to listen to you, or vice versa.
This isn’t a new problem, of course. When Walter Lippmann questioned the idea of an informed, engaged public in Public Opinion and The Phantom Public, arguing that the public was more likely to be manipulated by self-interested elites, he was eluding, in part, to these issues. Average citizens, Lippmann proposed, were unlikely to know what was important enough to deliberate, and unlikely to have the information to engage in those deliberations – instead, they are more likely to be incensed and roused by issues marketed to them. John Dewey’s proposed solution in The Public and Its Problems is a free and informative press. A truly free press resists manipulation and creates informed citizens capable of deliberation. But Dewey’s optimism offers little to address problems of attention and agenda-setting, and the challenge of helping a passionate and participatory public choose the issues to deliberate.
Writing at the beginning of the participatory revolution in journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel offer the idea of the “interlocking public.” They hope that a press that’s professional and amateur, digital and analog, can solve this problem. Looking for information on the Central African Republic, I will encounter something on raw milk, and vice versa. If I don’t, you can advocate for raw milk and tell me why it’s important and I can explain why I care about the Central African Republic, and why you should, too. It’s an encouraging vision, but my inner Lippmann wonders whether we’re heading into a public sphere where those loudest and most effective in advocating for their causes set the agenda for those who are quieter. Perhaps we will see voice become exit: in participating to further our passions, we exit from deliberation and from other discourses we are less interested in. Perhaps this pointillist public sphere will come into focus and remain unfocused at others.
I don’t want to end my thinking at this level of abstraction because this question of how we teach civics to people who’ve grown up with the internet is an utterly practical one. I am lucky enough to work regularly with activists who work online and who organize young people around important issues. One of these people is Andrew Slack, head of a group called The Harry Potter Alliance, which uses themes from pop culture to introduce young people to civic participation and activism. They’ve launched a campaign around The Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins, which are garnering attention through a series of four Hollywood movies. The books portray a post-apocalypse nation where residents of rural districts are dominated by a wealthy urban elite. The HPA’s campaign, We Are the Districts, links the film to income inequality in America and in the world and invites fans to take arms against inequality in the ways Katniss Everdeen takes arms against a corrupt government.
Right now the campaign is quite thin, and focused on voice – HPA invites you to video yourself giving a three-fingered salute, a gesture of resistance in the books and films. But Andrew and his colleagues are building a very clever marketing campaign, and they are profoundly aware that they need to help their young participants move to thicker, more instrumental forms of civics. So I leave you with a question: Civics is changing. How do we help the young people inspired by The Hunger Games use digital tools to become participatory, passionate and effective civic actors?