A book by Evgeny Morozov that criticises shallow engagement

A book by Evgeny Morozov that criticises shallow engagement

The idea that new communications technology could play a massive role in social revolution really captured the popular imagination during the Iranian uprising of 2009. Up until then, social media like Facebook and Twitter was seen as ephemeral and frivolous, something for teenagers, and people who wanted to tell the world what they’d had for breakfast.

Suddenly, Twitter became the best way to get the news out of Iran. Twitter users around the world changed their location details to Tehran in solidarity, and people waited with baited breath for news and images from the streets. Iranian activists used twitter to communicate with each other and with the outside world. Activists and allies around the world were glued to their computers and smart phones, following the blow-by-blow suppression of the uprising. Suddenly we realised that social media could track political change in a way that was direct and unmediated. Activists could talk directly to each other, in real time. The possibilities for solidarity were astounding.

A similar process was observed during the Arab Spring: Wael Ghonim , for example writes about setting up the Facebook page for the 25 January movement that shook Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, and lead to the fall of Mubarak.

Technology was also used in the UK in 2011 by the students’ movement, as well as by Occupy, the Indignados and YoSoy132. Occupy still holds global meetings by online conference call using a service called Mumble . Many activists communicate and plan action using IRC .

One of the most encouraging developments has been the outbreak of solidarity. For instance, when union activists in Wisconsin in the US occupied the state senate to protest the removal of collective bargaining, activists in Egypt went online and ordered pizzas which were delivered to them. Small acts of solidarity like this are hugely encouraging to people in struggle.

Cyber-utopians vs Cyber-dystopians
The important question this raises is whether technology caused these uprisings, or merely helped to publicise them.

There is no definitive answer to this. Techno-determinists argue that technology fundamentally shifts the balance of power, and that politics will never be the same again. Their opponents argue that digital activism is a thin veneer that masks older forms of power that remain unchallenged.

We will look at the essential arguments on both sides of the debate, and allow you to make up your own mind. By evaluating both sides, we can develop good practice and avoid common pitfalls.

In the cyber-utopian corner we have people like Clay Shirky, who argues in Here Comes Everybody that mass collaboration changes everything: we are able to crowdsource ideas, politics and solutions to problems. Peer to peer theorists take his ideas even further: they argue that peer production, enabled by technology, is a new mode of production in the Marxist sense. They claim that new methods of working and interacting, facilitated by technology, give us the tools we need to build a better world.

On the other side we have Evgeny Morozov, who plays the role of a pessimistic Eeyore to the wild enthusiasm of the utopians. In The Net Delusion, he argues that technology allows the state and corporations to monitor and control us in an unprecedented way; our sense of freedom through technology is essentially a delusion.

So who is right?

Both sides make good points. The opportunities outlined by the utopians are worth understanding and aspiring too, but Morozov’s cautions are real and very valid. A good approach is probably cautious optimism: a realisation that technology provides lots of opportunities that must be embraced, but serious dangers too. If we know what the dangers are, we can do a lot to avoid them.

Science Fiction writer Cory Doctorow does a good job of finding the middle ground. In his novel For the Win, he describes sweatshops in Asia where teenagers work to build up credit in online games which they can sell to players in the West. Fed up with being exploited, they form a union online and in the games they play. When local textile workers go on strike, they work together and form an alliance between the old and new proletariat. In Little Brother and Homeland, Doctorow deals specifically with security issues.

The Rise of Clicktivism 


A typical Avaaz petition

A number of new organisations have embraced the power of social media for activism. The most famous of these are probably Avaaz, Change.org, 38 Degrees, and Sum of Us. Some sites allow you to create your own petitions and share them. Others are created by staff. When some one signs a petition, they are added to a database. The next time an issue comes up that needs support, everyone on the database is contacted and asked to sign the petition. Amnesty International does something similar by text message.

With more than 27 million participants, Avaaz is the most successful. These sites are successful because they make activism so easy: once you “join” Avaaz by creating an account, you can add your name to a petition, and share it on Twitter and Facebook with one click.

It’s wonderful that Avaaz has managed to engage so many people, but the jury is out on how successful this form of activism is. The most important criticism is probably that it’s not very deep: a click doesn’t require much commitment, so you are getting shallow engagement at best. Shallow engagement is not enough to seriously challenge power and change the world. At worst, it can cause people to disengage because they think they have “done their bit” by clicking, and therefore don’t have to join a picket line on a cold and rainy street.

A further criticism is that it is a passive exercise of power – by signing a petition, you are not taking action yourself, you are asking someone to do something for you.

Another problem is activist fatigue: getting three emails a week from Avaaz with titles like “48 hours to save the honey bee” and “24 hours to save the whale” can put off many less committed activists.

The limits of clicktivism

  • Shallow engagement
  • Passive – asking someone else to do something
  • Not always effective
  • Generates activist fatigue

LabourStart has been practising a form of this for years, by building an email database of trade union activists and inviting them to send protest letters off to companies that are misbehaving. Generally, LabourStart has been highly successful at mobilising activists and achieving results. It differs from Avaaz in that it mobilise people who are already union activists, so it suffers less from the online/offline divide.

Clicktivism is a useful way of engaging new activists, spreading the word and putting public pressure on powerful figures. However, it is important that it is never seen as a substitute for a serious challenge to power.

Outrage fatigue
Clicktivism can generate what we call “outrage fatigue”. A constant stream of daily emails seeking to provoke outrage and mobilise us to take action is exhausting and demoralising. Surely there is a better way to change the world that sitting at a computer screen and clicking?

Political hacking

Anonymous legion

Hacking is portrayed in the media as something malicious: hackers are people who steal identities and bank account details, breach secure websites and generally cause mayhem online. But what about hackers who specifically hack for political purposes? Anonymous is the most famous example of this, and organise anonymous online mass action. Anonymous’ most important cause is freedom of speech, and access to information. As an online tactic, anonymous action was originally started to challenge the Church of Scientology’s attempts to censor criticism. However, the movement has expanded dramatically since then, and supported activists during the Arab Spring by helping them

The movement has moved offline too – Anonymous Guy Fawkes masks are now a common site at demonstrations. What, if anything, is their relationship to the structured campaigns of unions? Anonymous is very difficult to engage with because it is not an organised group. It has no spokes people, and there is no centralised mechanism for making decisions, and no democratic accountability. However, Anonymous is able to mobilise a lot of people, for aims which are explicitly on the side of people and against structured power.

Anonymous is arguably a new organisational and tactical form, which some people have called swarm organising.

Organising the swarm

A murmuration of starlings. ©Walter Baxter. Licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.

A murmuration of starlings. ©Walter Baxter. Licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.

Swarm theory is an idea from biology that proposes that large groups can solve complex problems very efficiently. For instance, ant colonies can quickly find the richest food source, bees choose a new hive or starlings fly in exhilarating patterns.

Individual ants or starlings don’t understand the big picture, they follow simple instructions based on local information. And yet collectively, they are able to perform tasks of stunning complexity.

So what does this mean for our political organising? Can swarm theory be applied to human attempts to change the world? Humans are a lot more complex than ants, and we have competing stimuli pulling us in different directions. Yet when people act in unison, we’re capable of incredible creativity.

Swarm organising mobilises large numbers of people quickly around an issue, without attempting to build a long term structure. Examples include Anonymous, and also UK Uncut. This type of organising – facilitated by new technology – raises two immediate challenges to trade unionists:

  1. How do we mobilise people around campaigns that are important to us?
  2. How do we ensure that the dynamism of this form of organising isn’t lost?

Read more: Applying Swarm Theory to Networked Union Organising at Cyberunions.org