When in early 2012, Invisible Children—then a little-known non-profit—launched the Stop Kony 2012 campaign, they surely never imagined its end point. Thanks to a stunning viral surge, their video would become one of the most viewed videos on YouTube. The video, calling for the immediate capture of Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony, received 98 million views and triggered the United States Senate to pass a resolution to send troops to the African Union. The masses had spoken.
The rapid virality of an online campaign—that is, the speed with which it spreads through social networks—is but one measure of its effectiveness. Outcome, of course, is another. By both of these measures, Invisible Children’s campaign could be considered a success: it reached millions and effected change in the US legislature—no small feat. But a third factor, arguably the most important, was missing: the Kony 2012 campaign failed to create long-term buy-in from individuals, limiting its longevity. Kony is still at large, and interest has waned.
Additionally, international development professionals roundly criticized the campaign for sensationalist reporting and its superficial depiction of Africa, sacrificing ethics for eyeballs.
Contrast that to the movements that have swept through the Arab world over the past two years. In 2010, just mere months before the streets of Tunis erupted in protest, writer Malcolm Gladwell wrote a heavily-criticized piece for the New Yorker entitled “The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted”. He asserted that digital activism is “simply a form of organizing that favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger”.
Gladwell’s criticism of web-only activism may apply to something like Kony 2012. But what he failed to see is that much of what we view as “digital activism” is, in fact, built on the “strong ties” of traditional activism: they are not separate. Often, digitally mobilized actions are the effort of months of meetings, general assemblies, and advanced planning. In other cases, actions that take place on the street as the result of online planning are where those connections get made. And the most successful movements bridge the two, allowing a positive feedback loop between the streets and screens: the online taps into the streets, which inspires more online discussion, which changes the information on the streets, and they evolve simultaneously.
Despite the media’s focus on the role of Facebook in the Arab uprisings, a deeper analysis of precipitating events shows a buildup of actions and ties over nearly a decade, enabling large-scale demonstrations. The same is true for countless actions labeled by the media as “digital activism”. This emphasis on digital suggests the use of laptops and mobile phones degrades the veracity of a movement. But as Alaa Abd El Fattah, Egyptian blogger and Tahrir Square revolutionary, once put it: “We don’t walk around classifying activism as printed, spoken word, photocopied. Is inkjet activism revolutionary?”
In 2008, Hossam el-Hamalawy , a long-time Egyptian blogger and member of the Revolutionary Socialists, issued “A Call to Blog-Arms”:
“The Internet is only a medium and a tool by which we can support our ‘offline’ activities. Our strength will always stem from the fact that we’ll have one foot in the cyberspace, and, more importantly, the other foot will be on the ground.”
The manifesto was penned not long after the September 2007 labor strikes in Mahalla, to which Hamalawy and others helped draw international attention by blogging and posting videos. But while the bloggers’ documentation of the events took place online, the strikes were for the most part organized and carried out without the help of online networks.
In Egypt, Hamalawy’s words have remained true. The online groups, blogs, and Twitter feeds mimicked the blurry realities on the streets, which in turn fed confidence and purpose back into groups on the ground.
In certain circles, there has been intense debate around the concept of digital dualism, the idea that our spaces online and off are distinct. This separation of physical and virtual selves implies that our movements and actions take place in mutually exclusive realms: an “online” campaign, an “offline” protest. We demarcate these spaces, sometimes adding a tone of superiority to describe the success of one or the other, depending on the perspective. We separate our movements and their participants into two distinct parts, when in reality, they are messier, the lines less clear.
But even when an action or movement relates to the Internet itself, success is equally driven by offline, behind-the-scenes work. And, importantly, a critical mass willing to take action for a cause.
The recent global boom of free speech and privacy advocacy online, prompted in part by the aftereffects of WikiLeaks’s revelations and the so-called Arab Spring, has seen numerous successes for online organizing. Anonymous—the hacktivist collective—got its start organizing street protests against the Church of Scientology and later against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) in Europe. Yet the actions incited by online campaigns back their notoriety.
In early 2012, following the proposal of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA)—two bills that would have created a legal procedure in the United States to censor websites—a group of human rights and free speech organizations, flanked by web giants like Wikipedia and Google, banded together in protest. Where Egypt had throngs of disaffected youth ready to jump to the street for political change, the United States had a strong, tech-savvy community ready to coordinate to protect Internet freedoms. Their actions, which involved “blacking out” their sites for a day, were organized largely over email and publicized over Twitter.
Over 100,000 sites went dark on January 18, 2012, with most posting explainers that included links to sign a petition or call representatives. As a result, more than one million emails were sent to Congress, countless phone calls were made—Wikipedia estimated that eight million people used the site to look up their representatives’ phone numbers—and Google’s petition against the legislation received more than seven million signatures. Street protests erupted in San Francisco.
What some might call “slacktivism”, or shallow engagement, was backed by an ongoing critical mass willing to work in many capacities to ensure their Internet usage continued in a way they saw fair and free. The online blackout allowed rapidfire organization, but without the further engagement it spurred, it’s unlikely the bills would have met their timely ends. Social networks grew rapid support and awareness perhaps not possible even a decade ago. Creatively linking these appears to be the key component to success.
In the Philippines, the story continues. A few months after the defeat in the US of SOPA and PIPA, President Benigno Aquino III signed into law the Cybercrime Prevention Act, a vaguely-worded bill that would have, among other things, criminalized libel on websites. From the outset, the bill was widely denounced. The United Nations Human Rights Council called it “excessive”, while the National Union of Journalists issued a scathing condemnation of the act. Within weeks, activists had organized their own blackout protest. Then, they went a step further, petitioning the Supreme Court of the Philippines to declare the Act unconstitutional. They protested in the streets. And then, in the summer of 2013, they pulled out the big guns, crowdsourcing the creation of a new bill—inspired, no doubt, by the similar efforts toward Brazil’s Marco Civil da Internet—that would repeal the Cybercrime Prevention Act whilst guaranteeing a host of other online freedoms. The bill was successfully submitted to the Senate and awaits voting.
Malcolm Gladwell’s declaration that the revolution would not be tweeted couldn’t have come at a worse time. Mere weeks later, he was proven wrong as first Tunisians, then Egyptians included Twitter in their revolutionary toolboxes, using it both to coordinate location during the protests and to ensure that their voices resonated throughout the world.
While the role of Twitter on the ground remains muddy more than two years later, the communication it afforded between disparate groups and individuals around the world is clear, as is the cascade effect it engendered for movements globally. From Tahrir Square to Jack London Square to Taksim and well beyond, the anti-authoritarian message that first went viral in Cairo has begun to spread much farther, beyond the borders of Egypt and the imagined borders of the Arab world all the way to the Americas, coalescing with other movements along its way.
Alongside the Arab Spring occurred another interesting phenomenon: the era of the whistleblower. The timing was fortuitous, though the fusing of the transparency movement with the revolutionary movements in the Middle East and North Africa is no simple coincidence: the decline of openness in the West has appeared to reach its nadir at around the same time Tunisians and Egyptians felt ready to overthrow their dictators.Although the first major NSA leak happened almost 10 years ago,
WikiLeaks launched today’s ripple effect in 2010, leading to the ultimate set of leaks released to the press by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The faces of Snowden, Julian Assange, and Bradley Manning have reached their own virality, spread through social networks and in physical spaces by those who just a year ago may have claimed to have “nothing to hide”. Their faces quickly became printed on masks and worn at protests—virtual martyrs for a shared cause. Few paid much attention a decade ago, as civil liberties organizations began their fights against the NSA, but today we are all aware. We could all be Snowden.
Campaigns that don’t tap into living, thriving networks—that circumvent them for instant gratification or virality—will ultimately fail to produce lasting results. On this point, Gladwell was correct: without strong ties, we will not find longevity in our movements. And yet, without well-cultivated networks and a finely-tuned sense of timing, we are unlikely to catch the waves necessary for virality.
Cultivating longevity of a movement means thinking beyond the mindset of digital dualism and maximizing available technologies and strategies. Today, many of those tools are digital. But those seeking to inspire change still must look beyond petitions and tweets, forward to new technologies and backward to the methods of advocacy that preceded these tools.
“Anybody restricting themselves to one particular tool or one particular method is never going to manage to explore the entire space afforded by the craft,” laments Smári McCarthy, a founding member of the Icelandic Pirate Party and information activist. “An artisan must understand how all of the tools at her disposal work.”“[The] entire online/offline dichotomy is mostly a fabrication made by people who don’t really understand subtlety,” he adds, emphasizing that it’s all about maximizing resources. “There is no ‘digital organizing’. There is just organizing, and then there are tools to organize.”