Internet Activism? Let’s Look at the Specifics

Berin Szoka is right to argue that while the Internet brings new dimensions and power to activism, we must not be naïve about the power of networked technologies. It is important to unpack the factors behind successful—and unsuccessful—online activism. Examples of both abound. Internet connectivity and widespread social media adoption do not on their own guarantee activism’s success. The Internet is not some sort of automatic “freedom juice.”

Success or failure of digital activism depends on a plethora of variables—economic, cultural, religious, commercial, political, personal, and accidents of history. In his seminal book The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam, Philip N. Howard, a professor at the University of Washington and expert on technology and political change in the Islamic world, concludes that while the Internet and mobile technologies do not cause change, change is unlikely to happen without sufficient mobile and Internet penetration.[1] Indeed, the two Arab countries in which dictators were deposed without civil war in 2011 were Tunisia and Egypt—both of which have relatively high rates of Internet penetration and social media use compared to many other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. However, as I discuss at some length in my book Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt did not spring immaculately from Twitter and Facebook. Movements for political change in these countries developed and matured over the course of a decade; then when the right moment came activists were in a position to take advantage of them. Activists experimented with networked technologies, honed their messages over time, built support networks, and generally worked to use Internet and mobile platforms to their maximum advantage. They also spent a decade building offline relationships both nationally and regionally and honing offline protest skills. The revolutions’ successes in Tunisia and Egypt, as Szoka rightly points out, had much to do with widespread economic grievances and anger over state corruption.

Another factor was the relative lack of sectarian divisions in Egypt and Tunisia as compared to other countries in the region. This contrasts sharply with Bahrain which also boasts deep Internet penetration and widespread social media usage, but whose society is torn asunder by a deep sectarian divide between majority Shiites and Sunni political elites. This divide has enabled the ruling Al Khalifa family to suppress dissent violently and with impunity—aided by other geopolitical factors including support from neighboring Saudi Arabia, which considers Sunni activism on its doorstep to be a dangerous sign of Iranian political meddling. Then there is the presence in Bahrain of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, a geopolitical rather than a technological reality that makes rapid political change in Bahrain all the less likely. In Syria, Internet penetration was much more shallow and online communities much weaker to begin with. This combined with a sharp sectarian divide has meant that while activists have been able to use the Internet to get information out to the world about the Assad regime’s atrocities against its own people, conventional geopolitics—not new media—will be the decisive factor in deciding when and how Assad will fall from power.

Success or failure of digital activism in authoritarian states also depends on the regime’s technological capacity, skill, foresight, and planning. As I describe in detail in the third chapter of my book, the Chinese government took the Internet seriously as both a political threat and economic opportunity from the moment it began to allow commercial Internet services in the mid-1990s. The Chinese government built the world’s most sophisticated system of filtering and blocking for overseas websites, including most famously most Google-owned services, Facebook, and Twitter. At the same time, the government encouraged the development of a robust domestic Internet and telecommunications industry so that Chinese technology users can enjoy an abundant variety of domestically run social media platforms, online information services, Internet and mobile platforms, and devices produced by Chinese companies. By imposing strong political and legal liability on Internet intermediaries, the government forced companies—many financed by Western capital—not only to foot the bill for much of the regime’s censorship and surveillance needs, but to do much of the actual work.

Online activism still does occur in China, but due to multiple layers of censorship and surveillance, activism’s successes have for the most part been local, presenting minimal threat to the power of the central government and Communist Party. Users of the Chinese Twitter-like social networking platform Weibo have ruined the careers of local and provincial officials by exposing their corruption. Chinese “netizens,” as they like to call themselves, have also called attention to specific errors or incompetencies of specific parts of the bureaucracy, which the central government has then moved to fix—which in many ways boosts the central government’s power and credibility as compared to local governments or specific ministers seeking to develop independent power bases. To date, activists who have tried to use social media to build national movements for systemic political change have consistently gone to jail or been placed under house arrest, their supporters and friends often harassed and threatened with loss of jobs and educational opportunities even if they have not technically committed any crime by Chinese law. The case of the blind activist Chen Guangcheng may or may not serve as a watershed moment for Chinese activism—it remains too early to tell. But if it does, the reasons for digital activism’s success in China will have as much to do with offline domestic and international factors as with anything technological: a leadership crisis at the top of the Communist Party precipitated by the downfall of the power-hungry Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai; plus specific developments not only in the U.S.–China diplomatic relationship but also U.S. domestic partisan politics, which Chen’s supporters have taken skillful advantage of, using social media of course.

To complicate matters further, the Internet itself—its technical architecture as well as the regulatory constraints shaping what people in different places can and cannot do with it—is a variable. We cannot treat the Internet as constant—either across geographical space or across time—in our calculations about the success of online activism. In Thailand, for example, the relative weakness of online activism is the result in no small part of heavy liability placed by national laws on Internet intermediaries. Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act holds Internet service providers and website operators legally responsible for the activities of their users. This, combined with an antiquated lèse majesté law banning insulting comments about the king, has resulted in the arrest of people involved with running activist and opposition websites and made it difficult for online activism to achieve critical mass.[2] In Azerbaijan, a blanket surveillance system imposed by the government on Internet and mobile network operators is combined in a politically insidious manner with media manipulation, arrests, and intimidation of online activists. This has, in the words of Internet scholars Katy Pearce and Sarah Kendzior, who recently concluded a multi-year study of the Azerbaijani Internet, “successfully dissuaded frequent Internet users from supporting protest and average Internet users from using social media for political purposes.”[3]

Thus while the Internet often empowers activism, it is also used in many parts of the world as an insidious extension of state power—sometimes with the direct collaboration of companies seeking market access; sometimes much more indirectly due to the fact that Internet and mobile companies are conduits and repositories of vast amounts of citizens’ personal data, and also make commercial decisions that have a profound impact on people’s digital lives and identities.

Back home in the United States, this is precisely why recent political movements against legislation like SOPA and CISPA that Szoka describes are so important. SOPA would not only have built a “great firewall of America” but would have imposed liability on Internet intermediaries in a manner that was ripe for political as well as commercial abuse. CISPA, in the name of securing America’s networks, will also legalize and institutionalize mechanisms of government access to citizens’ private communications that lack accountability, inviting abuse against which citizens will have no meaningful recourse as the legislation is currently written.

Whether the Internet remains conducive to political activism, or with liberal democracy for that matter, is by no means guaranteed. We face a virtuous or vicious cycle depending on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist: Activism is urgently required—nationally and globally—to ensure that the Internet remains compatible with activism.


[1] Philip N. Howard, The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[2] Danny O’Brien, “Verdict Postponed in Landmark Thai Internet Freedom Case,” Committee to Protect Journalists, April 30, 2012.

[3] Katy E. Pearce & Sarah Kendzior, “Networked Authoritarianism and Social Media in Azerbaijan,” Journal of Communication (2012) ISSN 0021-9916.

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.