Activism in a Digital Age Thoughts after a podcast

Image by Alice Donovan Rouse, via Unsplash ( CC0 1.0

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I had a lot of fun writing and producing this podcast assignment for my post grad in Comms at Deakin. As someone that works in the nonprofit sector, I can easily talk about social change for hours on end without pausing for breath, but it’s been an interesting experience to write something short, sweet and then commit it to audio.

Needless to say, the five minutes allotted for this assignment are wildly insufficient to cover off even a fraction of the digital context for social change and activism. While I focused on what digital technologies mean for broad-based social movements, there are many more questions to be asked and interrogated.

The implications of digital technologies on leadership (an understudied area for social movements, according to Chesters and Welsh), are profound in impact. Not only can social justice leaders speak very directly to audiences through social media and online channels (especially important for movements of marginalised or disempowered communities), but the very nature of what leadership is even necessary for movements is changed. Some movements may not even have central figureheads that coordinate and direct activities; it’s a live experiment in whether leadership is something we can crowdsource.

Digital technologies also provide spaces and mechanisms for civil disobedience and guerilla tactics. Although some social movements have always been based on conventionally illegal or illegitimate acts, the digital sphere can provide safe channels and mechanisms for groups to organise, plan and execute displays of social action. This can be benign when it provides a method for social movements to coordinate and coalesce in draconian environments, but can also be a mechanism for much more ethically ambiguous activity. As has often been observed, one person’s “freedom fighter” is another person’s “terrorist”.

The intersect of digital technologies and social movements is still a nascent area of study, and the wider context is an emergent one, dynamic, organic and as full of failure as it is of success. There are some great texts on the impacts of technologies on the process of demanding change, but many older texts on the broader issue of how change happens still apply in a digital age; fundamental mechanism and methodologies of civil discourse, persuasion, movement building and cause-action remain true, even if the tools of the trade have evolved.

I’d like to see deeper and more detailed analysis and investigation about the potentialities of digital tools for activists, both in the informal mass movement space, as well as in the professionalised institutional nonprofit space. There are important questions to be asked and learnings to be gleaned about the opportunities afforded by technology, but also the limitations, challenges and obstacles. It will be increasingly important to understand the impact of technology on civil society space, as issues are debated and decided relating to privacy, metadata, net neutrality, policing, firewalling, state-based cyberwarfare, trolling and disinformation campaigning.

It’s a chaotic, fast-moving space, and one that is as exciting as it is perilous (at times).