I participated in the Digital Activism #Now conference at Kings College London on 4 April 2014. As the title suggests, the conference was about trying to to reckon with the state of digital activism in the present moment: after the Occupy movement, the revolutions in the MENA region, but also, crucially, in the aftermath of the revelations about surveillance and data mining uncovered by Edward Snowden. This meant there may have been less naïve techno-optimism around the democratic potentials of participatory and social media that may have marked similar discussions in the past, as well as more acknowledgement of how integral the use of online platforms and digital media are to activism today. The audience was composed of a mix of academics and activists from a variety of contexts. This made for a lively and critically engaged discussion.
The first keynote, by Guobin Yang (University of Pennsylvania) discussed digital activism in China; he pointed out that it was very different from in the West because of heavy state censorship, weak civil society and a lack of formal institutional structures for citizens to make their voices heard. For example, in China the open letter (usually hand-delivered) remains the primary channel for citizens to express their concerns to politicians, and so the online petitions which are frequently used in Europe and North America are much less common, as are membership-led campaign organisations such as MoveOn.org. He said NGOs in China are less institutionalised, and so the concerns that are often raised in the West about “NGO-sation” as the depoliticisation of social movements do not really apply in China. He also asked, provocatively, if digital activism in China is actually less radical than the activism of the 1960s. However, he also suggested that it may specifically be its extra-institutional character makes it “a force for the state to reckon with”.
The smaller breakout sessions addressed hacking and hacktivism; digital propaganda; social networks and digital organising and digital transparency and secrecy. I was unable to attend all the sessions because some of them ran simultaneously. From what I saw (from the sessions on digital propaganda and social networks) some of the common themes that emerged included: the relationship of digital activism to mainstream politics and the mainstream media; the use of corporate online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter vs. the use of autonomous platforms, particularly in relation to state surveillance (discussed by Paolo Gerbaudo and Marta Franco’s contributions); the possibilities and limitations of using online platforms for organising purposes (discussed by Stephen Reid of UK Uncut; and the role of the state (what happens when states use techniques conventionally associated with networked social movements, as in the recent exposure of USAid funding of a Twitter-like app in Cuba?). I took part in the Digital Propaganda panel, which was framed by Joss Hands in terms of applying the theories of Theodor Adorno and Edward Bernays to online politics. My paper examined Twitter and online newspaper comments as a site for affirming or contesting austerity politics; Eugenia Siapera discussed the role of Twitter in disrupting austerity politics in Greece, the context of heavy police repression of street protests.
The final plenary session was by Gabriella Coleman of McGill University; it explored the politics of hacking, and drew on her forthcoming book Coding Freedom, which was based on extensive ethnography on hackers. An interesting discussion followed about the politics of hacking, and its possibilities and limitations (particularly how it may or may not extend beyond libertarianism). Coleman also raised a provocative point about how Silicon Valley startup culture may represent a kind of “gentrification” of hacker politics, so that time and energy that may have once been channelled into activist projects may be redirected towards developing businesses.
Overall, the day made for a very productive and engaging conversation. The conference blog has a short op-ed pieces from contributors. For a Storify of the conference using the #digitalactivism hashtag see this link.