Nancy Scola wrote a terrific post about a new report from the Berkman Center called Political Change in the Digital Age: The Fragility and Promise of Online Organizing.
The paper is a great primer on political activism in repressive regimes, how change happens and what makes it so hard and risky.
Nancy nails the key, and most provocative, argument in the paper: “We might, in other words, watch in awe as video of Neda Agha Soltan’s death during Iran’s post-election protests goes viral, to give an example, and be too quick in seeing in it evidence of some sort of powerful social and political resistance, when the actual facts on the ground might not bear that understanding out.”
Here is one of those videos just as a reminder:
But what changed on the ground, politically as a result of the protests? We’re not sure, certainly not as much as the protesters or the watchers hoped in the moment. Of course, as the authors of Political Change in the Digital Age quoting Marshall Ganz point out, these kinds of regime-change movements take a long time to realize. So these protests may have planted a seed, created supporters, put into motion future change that we won’t know about for years.
The authors hit on the key issue facing activists using social media. This is what I’ve called Phase Three in the development of social media for social change. Phase One was the wonderful euphoria at the beginning of this century of discovery of social media. Look at this amazing stuff, we shouted. Look at all of these free, ubiquitous, easy-to-use tools that enable regular people blog and have a voice they’ve never had before. Watch them create videos, make their own playlists and share songs, and then watch them connect with new and old friends online and create their own social spheres. Wahoo, look at power seep from institutions and move towards individuals!
Phase Two was seeing what all of these tools did to organizations that embraced them. That’s why Beth and I wrote The Networked Nonprofit, to understand and examine what happens internally and externally to nonprofits that are organized more as social networks than stand alone institutions. In short, wonderful things happen as outsiders get out and insiders get in. Networked Nonprofits include wonderful organizations like MomsRising.org, charity:water, Surfrider Foundation.
And now we’re inching our way into Phase Three. We’re connecting, pinging, poking, friending, fanning, running for our causes – made much easier in countries like ours that encourage free association and speech – but what is it all adding up to? In other words: so what?
The Berkman paper focuses on the use of the Internet to strengthen and power nongovernmental organizations and efforts to reform authoritarian regimes. There have been significant limitations to these efforts, largely because these governments simply shut down the sites and flows of information to the networks of activists. As the authors note, “Efforts at digital organizing in Iran do not appear to have been effective. In the run-up to the disputed election, the Mousavi campaign sought to use Facebook to rally supporters. The government responded by simply blocking access to Facebook. Online communities that congregate at a single URL are easily dismantled; organizations that rely on a centralized nodes and hierarchical structures are trivial to break up.”
Although our government is less likely to shut down sites, at least publicly, we still haven’t connected all of the dots from outrage or empathy or concern expressed online and political success on land. We know they need to be connected, that social change actually happens on land, always, but how we make that connection and whether lighter engagements, all of that pinging and fanning (derisively called slactivism by some), actually makes a difference in and of itself is the next set of questions to be answered.
Lucy began this discussion a few months ago. And it needs to continue. Here are a few first steps:
- Organizations need to o consider more carefully how to integrate their online and on land efforts.
- We need to overcome our addiction to online analytical tools, all of those pretty and instant charts and graphs and engage in more traditional evaluation methods to find out what people knew as a result of their online engagements and what, if anything, they did as a result.
- Most all, I want to know what is working, where is social change actually happening (distinguished from acts of loving kindness, like collecting coats in winter time, which are wonderful, necessary things to do but not social change.) Where and how are all of these efforts actually making a difference?
Don’t be cowed by the difficulty of these tasks. As I wrote above, we’re just at the beginning of Phase Three, so we have time to explore it and figure it out. It’s good to know, at least, what phase we’re in!