Activism in a Digital Culture

by Joss Hands, James Quinney

New Left Project's James Quinney talks to Senior Lecturer in Communication, Film and Media, Joss Hands, about new media and the potential that technology might have for activists.

First published: 21 December, 2010 | Category: Activism, Media

Joss Hands is Senior Lecturer in Communication, Film and Media and Co-Director of the Anglia Research Centre in Digital Culture at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. In his latest book “@ Is For Activism”, he examines the transformation of politics through digital media, including digital television, online social networking and mobile computing.

There’s often a lot of hype surrounding the potential of new technologies. How significant do you think computer mediated communication has really been for activists?

In many ways activists are no different from anybody else in our media saturated society – computer mediated communication (CMC) is of profound importance for them as for anyone else, in that it offers new modes of interaction, new opportunities for cooperation and new resources for action, and has even shifted the nature of subjectivity and what it means to be ‘together’. The question as far as activism goes then becomes: does it change things in a way that can increase the capacity to hold state and corporate power to account, to build new forms of resistance and to construct alternative ways of producing and living beyond the ever more oppressive and exploitative grip of neo-liberalism? There is a strand of critical thought which very much answers that question in the negative. For example the political theorist Jodi Dean (2009) argues that much of the communication online functions in the way of what she calls, taking the phrase from Slavoj Zizek, ‘interpassivity’: that is, it is a form of communication that actually reduces action by creating the illusion of doing something, when in fact nothing is being done. Signing online petitions, blogging or tweeting about one’s outrage amounts only to adding more and more to an endlessly circulating stream of messages that reach nobody and affect nothing – but give the persons sending them a chance to salve their conscience without actually risking anything.

This is a broad view that has recently been reflected by Malcolm Gladwell, in an article that created quite a stir in online circles and represents much online activism as mere ‘clicktivism’. While it is no doubt true that a lot of what passes for activism online might be defined as such clicktivism, and that the impact of much clicktivist style activism is limited in its impact, I believe such pessimism is overstated. For one thing the act of making an effort to write something, click a link, tweet or sign a petition – even if the message itself is lost or goes unread – the commitment, however small, of reinforcing and restating ones own principles or point of view represents some kind of act of social solidarity that may otherwise never happen, and that is not nothing. And that is the worst-case scenario: some messages surely do get through, even if to a small number of people, but the interconnected distributed nature of the web means that small circles can soon expand.

Yet beyond this not all activism online is clicktivism or anything like it. The clicktivism thesis appears only to take into account immediately obvious forms of online only practices. But of course most activism, like the networks of CMC more broadly, interlaces the online and offline worlds to the point at which it makes little sense to try and think of them as completely separate entities, given that digital computer networks are now an inextricable part of our everyday reality. Over the last decade we have seen a great many movements and causes enhanced by CMC. The most famous of these has been the Zapatistas, whose supporters used the Internet to turn a local struggle into a global movement. But we also see this in smaller ways in everyday struggles – we have witnessed UKUncut move from a network of social media sympathies into concrete actions springing up across the whole country in unpredictable and effective ways. Not to mention the more than impressive student mobilisation and occupations – much of which has been coordinated on-line and indeed orchestrated in action via social media, and also mediated and re-mediated to huge secondary audiences, bypassing the usual constraints and filters of the corporate media system. This kind of CMC enabled action has a lot of resonance with the idea of ‘Multitude’ proposed by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2004); that is, the intelligent new collectives of technically informed ‘singularities’ can come together, coordinate themselves, and act with a kind of collective intelligence against globalized capital wherever it is present, and the fact that capital is so ubiquitous means it is also uniquely vulnerable to such action.  Of course one should also resist getting too carried away. Shutting down Vodafone stores for an afternoon will not seriously undermine a corporation of such a scale and reach as Vodafone, but it can shift public opinion and in that sense contribute to political solutions - but if such a protest were generalised and widened, who knows what could be achieved. As we have seen with the scale and swiftness of manoeuvre of the students protests this has, at the very least, put the issues of public sector cuts, student fees and the corporatisation of higher education at the centre of the political agenda, as well as entailing a refusal of the usual official media narrative.

As your question hints, one should resist the temptation to see the introduction of a new technology or media as a magic bullet – this was evident in the hype surrounding Twitter in the Iranian uprisings, which turned out to have far less significance than was reported at the time. But the aggregation of many movements and causes, working independently but also overlapping where necessary – finding links, articulating new forms and evolving through the discovery of shared interests and practices – has the capacity, I believe, to effect significant change.

Media companies like Vivendi, Disney, Bertelsmann, News Corporation, etc. seem to have wasted little time expanding their media empires to the internet. How successful has this corporate take-over been? Do you think people like Tim Berners-Lee’s original vision of free information accessible to everyone lives on?

It is important to distinguish here between distinct elements of the Internet and Web, primarily between content and infrastructure/protocol. The World-Wide-Web is actually a set of protocols running on top of the Internet. It is the Web that enables the ease of use, the hyper-linking and the familiar and ubiquitous web browser. Its protocols take advantage of the distributed nature of the Internet - its many-to-many character - and hence explain its widely recognised democratising potential. Large global media corporations have indeed moved onto the Web in a in a big way, but what they have tended to do, at least in the early days, was to take advantage of the Web’s capacity to distribute moving images, music and other forms of rich media, and to treat it as an extension of a read-only mass media. From that perspective they have certainly tried to colonise the contents of the medium, with a great deal of success, given their huge advantage in terms of content, journalism, movies, music and so forth. In the late 1990s and early 2000s this was becoming an increasing concern, undermining the ideals of the Web as a kind of open encyclopaedia of knowledge collaborative space, as envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee as he was writing the code at CERN. While these organisations certainly moved to dominate content provision, the underlying distributed infrastructure of the Internet and the Web remained in place. But the use of the Web for user created content was more limited at that stage, indeed critics such as Douglas Rushkoff (2000) in the late 90s complained that the Web had turned the Internet into a giant mall with its read-only tendencies. 

However these big players were out manoeuvred by Web natives with the introduction of what has been popularly referred to as Web 2.0 in the noughties – the explosion of user created content providers that took advantage of the Web’s two-way communication and read/write capacity. While the big media players have tried to capitalise on this – for example News International buying MySpace – they have not been particularly successful. In amongst all this there has been a burgeoning of alternative non-commercial organisations taking advantage of the relatively low cost of entry to the Web, the most successful and well known of which are sites like Indymedia and ZNet. From that perspective I would say the colonisation by the big media players has been partial, but is far from complete and from that perspective the ideals of the Web live on. Having said that the situation has been complicated now because the biggest Web 2.0 companies have themselves become dominant, and threaten the Web by over-centralising, taking advantage of the capacity to create value from the free labour of their users. We can see the impact of this most clearly in the placing of News International’s Web content behind a pay wall in a desperate attempt to find a way of generating revenue online, and the obvious limitations of this enterprise. On top of this there has been a widespread marshalling of copyright law, where businesses have devoted huge resources to leveraging the power of the law and the state to contain the perceived threat from peer-to-peer networks that enable the sharing of content outside the system of enforced scarcity.

However, I would suggest the most pressing threat is the challenge to net neutrality, which would change the opportunities to access the infrastructure of the network itself. If a two-speed, two-tier Internet were to be introduced it could price out civil society, leaving it in the slow backwaters of cyberspace while the dominant corporate players are effectively in charge, and thus at the same time undermining fundamentally the vision of openness that was part of the Web’s rationale. The other subtler structural threat is ironically also one of the strengths of the Web, that is its scale-free topology. Although the Web is a distributed system, allowing any element to link to any other, it also allows for limitless clustering of links, and over time this builds up into a set of de facto hubs accumulating a lot of influence, as with the Web 2.0 players. We see this most clearly with the dominance of Google in Web search, a dominance which is then transferred into other areas. Of course this can also work in favour of anti-corporate sites such as Indymedia, whose scale and interconnectedness offers a real strength for social movements and for activists generally, and as such on open Web can still survive against the tendency for hubs to develop - but it is still very difficult to compete with organisations that have huge capital resources at their disposal, and should net neutrality disappear this may even be fatal to non-corporate entities.

So the battle for the soul of the Web is ongoing. Indeed the latest front of this struggle is in the introduction of ‘apps’ to access the Internet, in particular via mobiles and tablet computers, which are becoming more and more central in CMC, cutting out the web all together. Here the very software platforms themselves become proprietorial portals though which other data flows in a kind of new enclosure – in that scenario what was the Web really will be transformed into a giant series of disconnected shopping malls. Cyberspace as private space will be highly detrimental to the hope of retaining the Web as, even at least partially, a commons.

After the mainstream media’s disastrous performance with regard to the build-up to the Iraq war and what with the decline in print circulations and concentration of media ownership, there seems to be some consensus that the mainstream media is in a period of crisis. Do you think this is significant for activists?

The failure of the media to do its job in the run up to the Iraq war is undeniable – that this itself can be considered a contribution to ‘crisis’ is less certain. In many ways this was simply business as usual. Nobody should be surprised about profit-oriented organisations acting in line with their own, namely their owners, interests in defending the right of capital to maintain itself at almost any human cost. Though it must be added that capital is not itself unified and different segments of capital can offer some degree of plurality within the system. Some, very rare, critical voices did find their way through the industrialised news system, though usually questioning the success of the operation rather than its murderous immorality. The ‘crisis’ as such, at least as the corporate media themselves understands it, is one of their diminishing profit-making opportunities – not their ‘failure’ over Iraq, which they see as an anomaly rather than a condition of their standard operation. The falling rate of profit, from which much of the news media now suffer, is certainly a crisis for them, but I’m not sure how significant this is for activists. I certainly think that the development of participatory, open and critical forms of media is fundamentally important in underpinning real democracy, but the extent to which this is connected with the decline of ‘mainstream’ media is ambiguous.

Certainly it can be argued that this decline is a result of free online content, Web 2.0 and so forth, as well as general shifts in behaviour, but in the short term at least that in itself is not likely to have a great impact on activism. The hope that decline would lead general consumers of news to move to alternative sources of news – opening up spaces for new kinds of popular journalism and advocacy – as opposed to giving up all together, would be the ideal. But I think it is questionable that this is happening, at least when it comes to the traditional newsstands and TV. One worrying trend is that where quality journalism does exist, since it is expensive to maintain, it may be the first to go. We certainly see that with Fox news in the USA, and with the British tabloid press, revenue can be maintained by moving to highly partisan, personalised attack journalism, generally from the right; creating false controversies, pumping out emotive provocative propaganda and generally whipping up a confused and volatile public mood. Such journalism may create greater social rifts between different segments of society, and in that regard contribute towards an increasing hostility in elements of the population against the mainstream media, but again whether this will move beyond a general cynicism remains an open question. As long as the majority of mainstream news requires large amounts of capital investment to maintain itself, and this needs to be found through advertising and sales, the best hope for a critical mainstream is to struggle to maintain public broadcasting, but as most research indicates these broadcasters still tend to reflect the interests of the existing state and corporate power. 

Recently the Government’s outlined a proposal for far-reaching powers to snoop on email and web traffic, which the London School of Economics has said will lead to “a tipping of the balance in favour of state power and away from the individual”. How do you think this will affect activists?

It shouldn’t affect them at all, at least to the extent that they don’t allow it to intimidate or control them. That’s not to say it should be accepted or not resisted, but in notionally free societies the power of surveillance is in its capacity to discipline individuals into internalising a set of rules or norms to which they would not otherwise subscribe, to isolate them and integrate them into a particular structure of authority. This includes, I think most significantly when it comes to the kind of data mining the question implies, what Greg Elmer (2004) has referred to as ‘profiling’. Here databases use accumulated data mining techniques to predict behaviour, and in the case of activists to pre-empt and curtail dissent. However, this is not so much about individuals and their loss of personal privacy but about the creation of generalised patterns of social control. Thus the threat is actually about reducing the power of the collective, the multitude - the aim is to isolate individuals until they are totally privatised self-contained units, just as capital requires. This is an evolution of the logic of the prison and of its perpetual surveillance. Clearly surveillance in the context of digital communications is not desirable, and should be fought against, but at the same time it should not lead to self-censorship, to withdrawing from online social interaction or from seeing digital communication as a realm of hostility and risk, which is precisely what such schemes are designed to inculcate.

As Noam Chomsky has argued in the past, there is no point in activists trying to hide their views, given that one of the central aims of activism is to make the case for them, especially in democratic societies where free speech and assembly are, at least notionally, still protected. In an age when the boundaries of private and public have become so eroded, the porous line between networked spaces of communication, the public arena, and action need to be treated as zones of contestation rather than retreat. In that context counter surveillance has come to be a significant and useful tactic – we can see this in the way that digital cameras, video recorders and mobile phones have been used to capture the behaviour of the police and other groups, and has then been circulated online to great effect. The kinds of events that have previously been invisible can longer be kept so – most notably the police involvement in the death of Ian Tomlinson at the London 2009 G20 protests, which become public. So making things as public and open as possible is one way of simply ignoring the threat of surveillance, and in so doing to undermining its power. We can see this in the use of Twitter and Facebook during the student protests and occupations – the communication is mostly out there for all to see, but that hasn’t meant the students have been at a disadvantage. On the contrary their intelligence and speed of manoeuvre has led to inspiring scenes in which they have been outwitting the police, avoiding attempts to contain them with pre-emptive kettles and cordons, learning collectively as they go.


Castells, M. (2000). The Rise of the Network Society 2nd Edition. Oxford: Blackwell.
Dean, J. (2009). Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies. Durham: Duke University Press.
Elmer, G. (2004). Profiling Machines. Cambridge MA. : MIT Press.
Hardt, M., & Negri, A. (2004). Multitude. London: Penguin.
Rushkoff, D (2000). Coercion. New York: Little Brown & Co

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