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Digital activism

Organising collective action
This week we will talk about online activism. More specifically, we focus on this question. How do digital technologies change activism?
We will begin with a simple question: How did people organise collective action before the advent of the Internet? Let’s say we want to organise a protest that cause for people to protests against the UK government’s easing of lockdown measures, including ditching rules on wearing face masks starting from July 19th 2021. We will probably start by defining what to achieve in these protests, identifying people who share common interests and who are willing to participate, and drawing an action plan.
As we go along with the protest, we need to educate participant so that we don’t deviate from our collective goal, we need to make sure that people do participate and those who don’t get punished so that the free rider problem won’t jeopardise the collective action. Now think about with our digital technologies, especially social media, how costly could all this be? We would need a formal organisation to organise all these actions. And here comes the logic of collective action in a seminal work by Olson published in 1965. In Olson’s logic of collective action, individuals are rational actors who will only participate if the benefit of participating outweighs the cost.
If group members can enjoy achieving a common object without contributing, they won’t contribute and will just free ride on others efforts. If every rational actor is thinking about free-riding on others efforts, no one will contribute and there will be no collective action. Therefore, before the advent of the Internet, conventional collective action typically requires formal organisations with resources to harness and coordinate individuals in common action.
This leads us to the following questions: How do digital technologies change the way we organise collective action? How do people organise online activism nowadays? Now we recall a few of the most influential social movements in the recent decade. For example, the Me Too movement against sexual abuse and harassment, the Occupy movement against social and economic inequality. Can you associate these movements with any formal organisations? Do you find formal institutional structure and formal membership in these movements as the case in a typical conventional collective action? Now the answer is no. There is a different logic in this movement, the logic of connected action.
Now the logic of connective action is based on personalised content shared across large-scale fluid social network on digital media. For example, there’s easily personalised action frame “we are the 99%” that emerged from the US Occupy protests in 2011 quickly travel the world via personal stories and images shared on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. Now another example is a Put People first campaign in 2001, promoting public mobilisation against social and environmental harms of ‘business as usual’ solutions to the financial crisis. Simple political messages with personal stories and images were shared using social media and reached a large audience. Now at the core of this logic is the recognition of digital media as important organisational agents.
People use digital media to share information and to harness and coordinate individuals in common action. Formal organisations either do not exist or hide in the background. They no longer take a central role. To answer the question we set
out at the very beginning of this video: how do digital technologies change activism? Digital technologies have become the organisational agents of online activism and facilitate connected action. Connected action nowadays make use of a relatively decentered, distributed and flattened social network. Connective actions are also unbounded in terms of geographic an issues borders. Connective actions are dynamic, as there’s no formal membership, and people may opt in and out as different engagement opportunities are showing up.

Dr Ting covers the following questions:

  • How did people organise collective action before the advent of the Internet?
  • How do digital technologies change the way we organise collective action?
  • How do people organise online activism nowadays?
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Digital Politics: Digital Activism and Cyber Warfare

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