Toward a Greater Understanding of Internet Activism

Internet activism through social networks like Facebook and Twitter clearly can work. Activists played important roles in bringing down dictators in the Arab world, stopping the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in Congress and electing Barack Obama—just to name a few examples. But how much did the Internet matter in making these watershed events possible? How effective is it likely to be in the future? And how would we measure whether activism “works” for society—not just the activists?

“Technology,” quipped the British architect Cedric Price, “is the answer, but what was the question?” Evgeny Morozov uses this pregnant observation to attack the “unthinking admiration of technology as panacea” in his iconoclastic 2010 book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. Morozov is, of course, right that too many advocates of “Internet freedom” consider the Internet the solution to every problem. If all you have is a hammer, nails abound!

Morozov rejects “cyber-utopianism,” the assumption that the Internet will necessarily make “modern authoritarian regimes more open, more participatory, more decentralized, and, all along, more conducive to democracy.” Instead, he demands cyber-realism—a “more down-to-earth approach to policymaking in the digital age.” But is Morozov right to be quite so skeptical of digital activism?

He is certainly correct that there is much more at play in these conflicts than the Internet, and that we cannot understand the role of digital activism in each situation without studying the various other historical, cultural, and economic factors at work. (For instance, rising bread prices played a key role in both Tunisia and Egypt—just as in the French Revolution.) We in the West who cheer Internet freedom all too easily overestimate the impact of tools like Twitter in countries such as Iran, where the number of people with effective access to digital media remains small.

Certainly, the Internet isn’t a one-way ticket to democracy. Internet-fueled revolutions succeeded in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, but Iran’s “Green” or “Twitter” Revolution in 2009 failed to unseat President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after a disputed election. The Internet has certainly made the violence of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s crackdown more visible, but it has not (yet) ended the Syrian Ba’ath party’s 46-year monopoly on power—nor shaken China’s Communist Party.

This is, as Morozov notes, partly because governments like Iran’s and China’s have successfully used social networking tools against digital activists. They have monitored dissidents to a degree unimaginable in the pre-Internet era, by closely watching social networks and forcing companies that operate them (or email or search engines) to turn over data. Such countries have also countered the messages of liberalism with messages of nationalism and resistance to outside interference. Illustrating how complex these debates can be, the Syrian government has branded its opponents as enemies of secularism and supporters—or at least dupes—of Islamic terrorism.

That Egypt’s Facebook revolution has, at least in the short term, served to replace a secular (if repressive) regime with a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood underscores Morozov’s point: We cannot assume that everything the Internet touches turns to democratic, pluralistic gold. Our assumption that everyone wants to be “liberated” is no less naïve and simplistic today as part of the “Internet Freedom Agenda” than it was when the same idea drove President George W. Bush’s neoconservative advisors to “liberate” Iraq—saying things like “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

But is Morozov too pessimistic? In the afterward to the paperback edition of The Net Delusion, written in October 2011, Morozov rejects the “cyber-pessimist” label used by many of his critics and instead re-summarizes his views as cyber-agnosticism: “an unyielding refusal to take any stance on the question of whether the Internet is a tool of liberation or repression.” Few would disagree that we must evaluate digital activism not “solely on the efficacy with which it achieves the goals it sets for itself” but on its “ecological effect on the broader political culture that produces it.”

Indeed, those who share what philosopher Thomas Sowell called the “constrained vision” of the perfectibility of man and society will find much to admire in Morozov’s rejection of “utopian social engineering—ambitious, ambiguous, and often highly abstract attempts to remake the world according to some grand plan.” But Morozov’s work is only the beginning of a self-conscious Internet realist enterprise. As Adam Thierer notes in his review of The Net Delusion, the problem is that Morozov offers little guidance on how to apply Internet realism in practice. Most of all, Morozov’s normative judgments rest on descriptive predictions about how Internet activism is likely to evolve. Having such a conceptual framework, even if not perfectly predictive, is essential to assessing whether digital activism “works” (normatively).

Fortunately, we need not build such a framework from scratch. Friedrich Hayek once said that “The curious”—meaning both unique and relentlessly inquisitive—“task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they understand about what they imagine they can design.” This rigorous skepticism has already been fused with political science into the “Public Choice” school—“politics without romance,” as the Nobel Prize winner James Buchanan artfully put it.

Public Choice theorist Mancur Olson offers a good starting point. In his seminal 1965 work The Logic of Collective Action, he tested the following seemingly straightforward hypothesis:

[I]f the members of some group have a common interest or objective, and if they would all be better off if that objective were achieved, [then] the individuals in that group would, if they were rational and self-interested, act to achieve that objective.

Yet if this were true, activism would be so easy as to be unnecessary: whatever problems were in our interest to fix, already would have been fixed—or, at least, there would be activist movements with strength proportionate to the popular recognition of the problem. But of course, in the real world, political “markets” are not perfect—as any protester in Syria or political organizer in the United States could tell you. Why not?

Applying the logic of economics, Olson explained the central problem of “collective action”:

[U]nless the number of individuals in a group is quite small, or unless there is coercion or some other special device to make individuals act in their common interest, rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests.

What is activism but an attempt to “make individuals act in their common interest?” Yet simply rallying large numbers of people to a cause often fails. Ever wonder why American food manufacturers use high fructose corn syrup rather than sugar? It’s because the tiny group of sugar cane growers in Florida, and the even less efficient sugar beet farmers in the Midwest, have captured agricultural policy—using import tariffs to raise the domestic price of sugar above the price of corn syrup. Since nearly all Americans bore part of an estimated $3.86 billion in higher sugar prices last year, why didn’t they—we—rally long ago to stop this naked transfer of wealth? Because large groups (like all consumers) have great difficulty organizing, while tiny groups can often out-lobby them. Activism therefore often fails to materialize at all.

Can the Internet help? In a 2003 article, Arthur Lupia and Gisela Sin, political scientists at the University of Michigan, began from the premise that “technology changes longstanding expectations about what people can learn about each other”—thus challenging some of Olson’s key assumptions. Most importantly, they find that “evolving technologies can transform groups once crippled by large numbers into groups capable of collective success.” Yet they also conclude that digital technologies can actually make activism harder for some groups. This ambiguous result led them to a call for further research that sounds remarkably like Morozov’s call for cyber-realism:

In sum, our work shows the importance of being more specific about the role of communication in theories of collective action. Without such specificity, it is difficult to understand whether and how technological advances that change communicative incentives and opportunities alter who joins with whom.

So, let’s take the most obvious specific example: SOPA. Copyright critics succeeded spectacularly in using social media to organize the general public against special interests—as this graphic makes clear.

How? And why did they succeed in stopping SOPA after failing to stop so many earlier expansions of copyright?

Obviously, social media lower organizational costs, especially of recruiting members. Less obvious is that, as Lupia and Sin explain, social media increase noticeability: “members’ ability to notice each other’s actions.” Even in 2003, there was little way to tell whether your friends actually followed through when you asked them to help join a cause. But today, it’s easy to encourage them to re-share material on Facebook or Twitter—and to “notice” whether they’ve done so. As political activist Patrick Ruffini recently told NPR:

We’ve long known that the most powerful thing in determining how you’ll be influenced to vote is a recommendation from a friend… And the ability to see in your Facebook news stream somebody taking action on behalf of a campaign who’s a trusted connection of yours is something that everybody who’s going to be active this year is going to want to look to harness.

Similarly, Lupia and Sin concluded that “evolving technologies convert venues where individual actions are effectively anonymous into settings where people can hold each other accountable for their actions.” While this has an obvious dark side (easier government surveillance), it is also critical to understanding why social media facilitate activism.

Social media allows members of large groups—think Twitter followers—to be “continuously bombarded with propaganda about the worthiness of the [cause],” creating “social pressures not entirely unlike those that can be generated in a face-to face group.” What better way to replicate face-to-face pressures than by replacing your Facebook profile photo with a “STOP SOPA” logo, as many did?

Jerry Brito, an Internet policy scholar at the Mercatus Center, celebrates the defeat of SOPA as an example of the Internet facilitating effective collective action while also addressing the related public choice problem of “rational ignorance” (it’s not worth the time for most voters to learn about the sugar subsidies, copyright over-reach, etc.). Yet he argues that it’s

unlikely we’ll see [such outpouring of public concern] very often. The reason is that the SOPA issue has a unique set of characteristics that allowed it to take advantage of the Internet’s latent power to overcome rational ignorance and to facilitate collective action by large groups.

Specifically, SOPA (a) was a simple issue (at least in its superficial, but effective, rhetoric: “copyright as censorship”); (b) rallied diverse free speech interests; and (c) appealed to corporate interests, who helped amplify grassroots activism. These are all sound points. But as with Morozov’s predictions about the dark side of Internet activism, it’s hard to say how the balance will tip.

The Internet clearly empowers large, dispersed groups (like dedicated Internet users) to organize against small but concentrated interests. As anyone who works in technology policy in Washington can attest, SOPA’s implosion made Congress more cautious—at least about Internet regulation, where fear of a digital activist backlash is greatest. Yet the House of Representatives just passed cybersecurity legislation (CISPA) despite efforts by some activists to brand it “Son of SOPA.” Does this mean Internet activism “failed?” Have politicians already recalibrated their approach to do essentially what they would have done anyway? To some extent, yes. But much more clear is that the victory of digital activists against SOPA led to more careful deliberation of CISPA, informed by independent experts, than with SOPA. The progress is even greater when compared to the attempt last summer by SOPA’s architect, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), to ram through a sweeping mandate that broadband providers track Internet users—and turn that information over to government. Only time will tell how the balance of power in these debates will tip.

And even then, it’s not clear we’ll learn the right lessons from whatever happens. The core point of this essay is that we have a limited analytical tool kit for predicting whether we will see more protests like that against SOPA—and whether they will work—just as we poorly understand how to support long-term democratization. Answering Morozov’s normative questions about digital activism requires better descriptive models—such as those offered by Public Choice, integrated with the historical, cultural, and social analysis Morozov uses.

Four points bear making to better understand digital activism—and to help steer its use for good. First, the same tools and methods of activism used to influence, change, or overthrow governments are used every day to rally support for philanthropic, philosophical, or cultural causes, and to discipline companies—from our favorite coffee shop to giant multinationals. These examples may teach us more about activism because there are more frequent and less complex than revolutions.

Second, activism works largely by imposing reputational costs on its targets—be they autocrats whose thuggery is broadcast on YouTube, Congressmen who fear being labeled sponsors of censorship, or local businesses who want to avoid negative blog posts or Yelp reviews. But reputation also disciplines activist groups—addressing one of the Morozov’s key concerns. While economists have long studied reputation markets, we still do not fully understand how the Internet has changed them. Santa Clara Law Professor Eric Goldman offers a conceptual framework in an his essay, the “Regulation of Reputational Information,” in the free collection of essays TechFreedom published last year: The Next Digital Decade: Essays on the Future of the Internet (including an essay by Morozov summarizing his arguments). Goldman’s key insight was that reputation systems (like customer review sites or eBay’s ratings) on the Internet serve as a “secondary invisible hand” helping to guide Adam Smith’s “primary invisible hand” of self-interest by “helping consumers make better decisions about vendors.” This was true even before the Internet, but online reputation markets deliver information much faster and more cheaply than ever before. Such rating systems, in turn, are themselves subject to reputation markets—a third invisible hand.

Ultimately, the efficiency of information markets depends on the availability of useable data. Thus, through “Smart Disclosure,” government can actually help provide raw material for activism. As Brito argues, lowering the cost of information helps to overcome the rational ignorance of voters. The example of Google’s Transparency Report (showing how often governments demand that Google turn over user data or take down content) illustrates both how private companies can bring reputational pressure to bear on governments and how they can enhance their own reputations by being more transparent about dealings with government.

Third, activists, working largely through reputation markets, are already changing the way Internet companies relate to their users. Most notably, in 2006 Facebook launched News Feed, a rolling ticker of everything their friends shared. Ironically, users who considered this “Facebook stalking” used Facebook to rally against the site—taking advantage of the increased noticeability of their message made possible by News Feed itself. Facebook has responded to this and other missteps by developing a process for soliciting user comment and votes on changes to its rules. With over two million Likes, the “Facebook Site Governance” page may be the beginning, however modest, of the kind of participatory self-government of social networks Rebecca MacKinnon calls for in her new book Consent of the Networked: the Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.

Fourth, perhaps the most important policy debate flowing out of this issue is that over deputizing online intermediaries. As MacKinnon rightly notes, making “intermediaries… liable for their users’ and customers’ behavior… is precisely the legal mechanism that enables an unaccountable government to delegate the bulk of censorship and surveillance to the private sector.” However noble the goals—protecting children, defending copyrights, promoting cybersecurity or punishing defamation—intermediary liability bolsters the power of oppressive governments and encourages companies to censor or not to provide open fora in the first place. Either way, governments can indirectly hamstring digital activism. Avoiding such indirect “architectural censorship” requires a better understanding of digital media.

In the end, understanding digital activism may also help governments manipulate the Internet in precisely the ways Morozov worries about—just as understanding public choice can make it easier to craft electoral choice mechanisms to favor incumbents. But the same is true of medicine and many other branches of science. The Internet may not necessarily make the world a better place in every way, but the more we understand how it changes our relationships with each other, the better equipped we will be to steer its evolution in more humane directions.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Berin Szoka surveys recent developments in Internet activism. The 2009 Green Revolution in Iran may have failed, but activists in the United States defeated SOPA, a bill that would have imposed significant restrictions on the Internet. Szoka concludes that the Internet helps solve a significant problem in activism: It makes it easier for like-minded people to provide reputational feedback about corporations and governments. Still, we must pay close attention to the fact that governments can and do manipulate the Internet to repress their populations.

Response Essays

  • Jason Benlevi argues that digital activism rarely gets the kind of results that real-world activism can. In any conflict, reality usually beats virtuality. Though he is no Luddite — and though he has a career record to prove it — Benlevi argues that online activism is often a hostage to the medium that carries it. That medium, in turn, exists in the real world, where it is controlled by corporations and governments. Social media activism is at its strongest when it does what the medium was designed to do — provide consumer feedback on corporate products. It’s not so effective at challenging oppressive governments.

  • Rebecca MacKinnon urges a close attention to the particularities of time and place. Protest movements are more and more using social media, but they may stand or fall based on other factors. Laws and Internet architectures may vary, rendering the medium more or less conducive to citizen activism. It becomes increasingly important to pay attention to what makes for good or bad Internet law, because the results in this area may prompt virtuous or vicious cycles throughout society.

  • John O. McGinnis argues that the Internet and associated technologies can and will change the terrain on which policy choices are made. Not only does it become easier for dispersed interests to aggregate, but information technology can also shift the focus of our political culture. Empiricism and evidence will become relatively more important as facts become easier to check; ideology and unsupported intuition will lose a good deal of power. For these reasons, McGinnis is an optimist.