What exactly brought down the Berlin Wall? Those who see the end of the Cold War as a product of structural forces that pushed the Soviet Union into oblivion are unlikely to see the end of that civilizational struggle as the well-deserved reward for the patient work done by social movements, dissidents, and their foreign supporters. The latter actors, on the other hand, typically opt for historical explanations that attribute far greater importance to the contribution of human agency.
Given that many policymakers also believed that history itself was ending and that liberal democracy was quickly becoming the only game in town, it’s easy to see how easy it was to equate the global march of digitization with the global march of democratization. In the end, it did produce the formula which shaped digital activism for several decades to come: more information + more capitalism = more democracy.
It took the failure of the Arab Spring to seed some doubt into the minds of most observers, and it seems logical to ask just how much more effective various social and political movements on the ground could have been if they did not profess nearly blind faith in the ability of the “Internet model”—a faith that finds its expression in persistent queries as to whether we can run everything like Wikipedia—to resolve age-old social and political contradictions.
Blind faith in the “Internet model” finds its expression in persistent queries as to whether we can run everything like Wikipedia—to resolve age-old social and political contradictions.
Digital activism, of course, is not limited only to anti-systemic movements; if anything, the big change of the last decade or so has been the way in which it has gone mainstream and mundane. From boycotts of consumers goods to fund-raising efforts, such campaigns—propelled by the low cost of organizing them and the wide and immediate reach nearly guaranteed thanks to exposure via platforms like Facebook and Twitter—have become part of our everyday life.
There’s, however, a big difference between a digital politics that is primarily about finding more efficacious ways to adapt to problems around us and a digital politics that seeks to undo those problems altogether. This brings us to another problematic issue linked to digital activism: how could it not become a victim of its own success? To some extent, of course, this question has a very simple answer: this is what leadership is for. However, leadership is not such an easy problem to resolve in the realm of digital activism. Being a spokesperson is not the same as offering genuine strategic guidance, and many such movements explicitly reject the premise that they can ever have a leader, preferring to defend themselves as fully decentralized organizations.
Not all of contemporary digital activism is of the passive variety, of course. The last few decades have witnessed not just an immense fall in the costs of getting in touch with one’s peers but also in, say, launching sophisticated cyberattacks. Initially pioneered by movements like Anonymous, such “hacktivist” measures have become a nearly permanent feature of the contemporary digital landscape. And a related phenomenon is the rise of “computational propaganda”—the deployment of bots, big data, and algorithms in order to spread fake news and other types of propaganda, often for openly political purposes.
By now, it has become obvious that much of digital activism, especially actions aimed at mobilizing crowds to take action, depends on the benevolence of so-called digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Digital activism has never been so intermediated by these firms; their algorithms make or break certain causes, helping to divert the attention of the global audience that they control.
The main test of the efficacy of digital activism is in whether there emerges a way to translate immense online energy into deeply transformative and sustainable action plans.
All in all, thanks to the ongoing digitization of everything, the political sphere has become much more accessible to social forces, including many anti-systemic ones. This does not need to imply that the consequences of such “democratization” would necessarily be negative; it could also lead to a healthy “rejuvenation” of the public sphere. There are, however, several additional factors—including the growing role of digital platforms in intermediating most of our online activities—that do not bode well for the future of politics in the digital realm.
The main test of the efficacy of digital activism is in whether, over the next 10 years or so, there emerges a way to translate immense online energy that can now be harvested from all over the globe into deeply transformative and sustainable action plans. This will require us to rethink what it means to lead in an age of decentralization but would also probably make us question how much power we’d like to continue delegating to the digital giants. The other, more ominous future is the one where, failing to find such a path, we settle for the kind of digital activism of low energy but high damage represented today by distributed denial-of-service attacks and various forms of computational propaganda. This would not only be a rather destructive turn of events but also a terrible waste of online resources that could be better be deployed to resolve many of the world’s toughest problems.
Evgeny Morozov s a contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Net Delusion and To Save Everything, Click Here.
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