Cyberactivism: Online Activism in Theory and Practice

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In both these definitions, the emphasis on the political nature of cyber-activism begs the question of exactly what counts as political and what not. Is it a protest event? A series of events? A campaign?

Cyber-activism [draft] [#digitalkeywords] – Culture Digitally

A particular condition of being active? A mode of action? A process? Or does it refer to social movement actors and organizations? There are others who view cyber-activism as mainly a set of methods, tactics, and practices associated with the use of new technologies without stressing its political nature. Collectively called cyberactivism, these techniques can be used to advantage by social work advocates.

Yang , p. Earl and Kimport propose a continuum of online activism ranging from e-movements that happen purely online to e-mobilization that uses the internet to organize offline protest. For Lievrouw , p. There is a long-time debate about whether social movements are phenomena or meaning McGee ; Melucci Is cyber-activism meaning or phenomenon? Current discourse seldom asks this question, assuming instead that cyber-activism and its varieties are phenomena existing objectively outside of human consciousness.

Cyberactivism online activism in theory and practice

Without asking the question about subjective meanings and social constructions, what might be a bias objectivity becomes natural and a taken-for-granted truth. Certainly, in popular discourse, terms like cyber-activism, online activism, and digital activism are used to mean so many different things that they lose their specific meaning.

In this way, they can be used conveniently by critics and proponents alike for whatever purposes they want them to serve. Critical reflexivity about the subjective meanings of cyber-activism will at least make clear that what are taken as natural and objective phenomena may not always be the case and may often be a matter of interpretation. The second type of ambiguity arises out of the first part of the term. Cyber, online, internet, and digital — these are mostly used to refer to the spatial features of these technologies. Cyber- or online activism is often thought of in spatial terms.

Because these technological spaces are different from conventional spaces, there are persistent efforts to dichotomize cyber-activism and offline activism, with clear preference given to offline activism. This distinction was useful in the earlier stage of cyber-activism, when the technology was still limited in its reach and the use of the internet not yet a routine part of activism. Today, however, the internet, social media, and smart phones are much more prevalent than in the s. Online and offline action becomes highly interfaced. In this new digital environment, it is hard to imagine street protest activities taking place without at least some use of digital media communication.

Activism of all varieties, it might be argued, is now digitized to some degree. A more serious consequence of the spatial bias in the cyber-activism family is a hidden bias against time. But the discourse about cyber-activism clearly has a spatial bias. By fixating our attention on the dichotomy of online vs offline spaces, this discourse reifies the differences between the two and prevents us from asking other important questions.


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It is generally recognized that new communication technologies decouple time from place. This allows cyberactivism to happen in ways that are not limited by time-space as street protests were in earlier times. People in different time zones and continents now routinely take part in the same online protest event at the same time.

If cyber-activism has been accused of turning into slacktivism, is it an inherent attribute of cyber-activism or is it the outcome of historical political struggles? If contemporary cyber-activism is not living up to the revolutionary potential envisioned by its radical advocates in the earlier days, is it due to its inherent weaknesses or is it because it is up against forces far more powerful?

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The third type of ambiguity derives from the word activism. What is the boundary between activism and non-activism? Where does activism begin and end? In social movement studies, high-risk protests have been called activism McAdam , but so has everyday behavior with purportedly activist motivations Almanzar, Sullivan-Catlin and Deane There seems to be a tendency to conflate the more radical types of cyberactivism with its moderate varieties.

The etymology of activism contains such ambivalence. Activism and activists could be oppositional to the state, but could also be supportive of it Hoofd The moderate type of activism has been called civic action. Thus cyber-activism may refer to conflictual direct action such as hacking and denial of service attacks, but it may also mean consensus action of the civic type, such as the use of Twitter by non-profit organizations for community building or information sharing. The conflation of radical with consensus cyber-activism is an important feature of a history of domesticating and institutionalizing cyber-activism.

A subtle historical shift takes place whereby the more radical elements of cyber-activism are underplayed or even dislodged. On the one hand, there are government efforts to criminalize radical cyber-activists or corporate efforts to co-opt them. Thus over time, hacktivism takes on connotations of illegality as opposed to its early meanings of countercultural creativity and individual heroism Jordan On the other hand, a discourse is produced about the necessity of channeling cyber-activism into institutional politics.

Thus, important cyber movements like Moveon. Like mirror images, these two tendencies and two sets of discourses have the same effect of undercutting the potency of cyber-activism as an extrainstitutional praxis and absorbing it into normal institutional politics. This might be called the institutionalization bias. This leads to the last ambiguity I will address, namely, the confusion about the political efficacy of cyber-activism.

There is, to say the very least, an obsession with causation in the discourse about cyber-activism. Social movement scholars recognize the importance of studying outcomes Giugni ; Amenta et al , but they are also aware that specifying the causes of outcomes is methodologically more challenging than identifying the conditions of the emergence of a social movement.

If social movement organizers and activists at least exert some control over the shape of their movement by designing strategies, framing issues, and shaping identities, they cannot directly control the outcomes of their movements Amenta et al Furthermore, beyond their pronounced goals, social movements may have unintended consequences and may incur repression and backlashes.

Consequently, most works in this area subscribe to the theory that the outcomes of social movements are mediated by multiple factors Amenta, Caren and Olasky Outcomes are indirect, not direct. Although in the communication field, there is a fine literature on the mediated effects of internet use on civic participation e. A second confusion concerns the spurious specification of causes and outcomes. Although cyber-activism consists of multiple varieties, there is a curious tendency to cherry-pick the types of cyber-activism and then reject cyber-activism wholesale by claiming that that particular type does not cause an anticipated effect, such as democratization.

Thus, email petitions and online comments become clicktivism Shulman , which is alleged to be politically ineffective. Clicktivism then becomes a synecdoche for cyber-activism, and cyber-activism is then rejected on the ground that it is merely clicktivism. Meanwhile, the more radical manifestations of cyber-activism are omitted. The third confusion reflects an ideological imprint in current discourse about cyber-activism.


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  7. In the debate about cyber-activism and democratization, a question that often arises concerns China and is about whether cyber-activism weakens or strengthens authoritarianism. The logic of this argument runs as follows: China has an authoritarian government. Cyber-activism in China makes the authoritarian government more aware of its vulnerabilities, forcing it to improve governance and therefore making it more resilient. Conclusion: cyber-activism is good to authoritarianism. The problem with this argument is that it not only simplifies the meanings and practices to cyber-activism in China, but also presumes that authoritarian governments are incapable of change while implicitly putting the blame on citizens and activists seeking change.

    Here, the workings of a hidden efficacy bias turns cyber-activism into its own enemy. How to account for these ambiguities? Certainly, they reflect the difficulties of understanding rapid social and technological change. Jessup, Maryland, United States. Ships to:. This amount is subject to change until you make payment. For additional information, see the Global Shipping Program terms and conditions - opens in a new window or tab This amount includes applicable customs duties, taxes, brokerage and other fees. For additional information, see the Global Shipping Program terms and conditions - opens in a new window or tab.

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    See all condition definitions - opens in a new window or tab Read more about the condition. About this product. The contributors show how online activists have not only incorporated recent technology as a tool for change, but also how they have changed the meaning of activism, what community means, and how they conceive of collective identity and democratic change. Topics addressed range from the Zapatista movement's use of the web to promote their cause globally to the establishment of alternative media sources like indymedia. Cyberactivism is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the impact of the Internet on politics today.

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