Archive | October, 2010

How effective is community media in creating civil society?

29 Oct

This Wednesday, October 27, 2010, a group of four groundbreaking digital activists came to The New School and presented their work and ideas.  These activists work with a range of mediums, from video and photography to radio and blogging, however they all were focused on the same broad goal, using media tools to empower those who have historically been silenced.

Liz Hodes, from Digital Democracy discussed a project where Haitian women were given cameras and asked to film and document gender-based violence, thereby giving these women a tool to speak out.  James Lebbie from Sierra Leone’s Cotton Tree News played a portion of an audio program named InsaiSalone, in which two women gossip about societal problems that the government can fix, such as corruption and infrastructure.  Lebbie described this program as the one “politicians fear the most.”  Lova Rakotomalala, the French Language Editor of Global Voices, an online blogging aggregator discussed how blogging had exposed the coup in Madagascar from last year.  Finally, there was WITNESS, a global video advocacy program presented by Pricila Neri.

Each of these speakers presented their programs with an air of optimism, but acknowledged that there were challenges and dangers to working in the human rights and advocacy field that might not be readily apparent to a casual observer. At one point Rakotomalala showed a global bandwidth map, which looked something like the one below, showing the fundamental lack of internet connectivity, or “internet penetration” in the Global South.  As most of these projects are internet-based, one must question how effective these initiatives are in creating real civil society among populations that do not have access to internet.  While mobile technology could affect this imbalance, can it really be a platform for substantive civil society discourse?








In our last post, we discussed real activism vs. ‘slacktivism’, the idea that clicking a Facebook ‘Like’ button can not replace offline actions for social change.  Malcolm Gladwell’s recent piece in The New Yorker , “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted About” caused quite a stir by claiming that social tools are ineffective at causing real social change. Gladwell claimed that real activism is caused by strong social ties, and that our new social tools, such as Twitter and Facebook, are driven by weak social ties. Pricila Neri, representing WITNESS, acknowledged this dilemma in her own work.  These organizations seemed to refute Malcolm Gladwell’s argument to some degree.  For example, Cotton Tree News, by giving ordinary citizens a space to publicly critique their government, has caused real physical change.  Additionally, WITNESS has been in existence for 18 years and allows victims such as child soldiers who have witnessed numerous human rights violations to record information, re-telling their stories and broadcasting those videos to targeted audiences to bring about change.  While questions about the effectiveness of community media still remain, the record of these organizations shows that with the right strategies and methods, offline change can occur as a result of dedicated individuals using mobile tools to pursue change.


Digital vs. Real Activism: Will the Revolution be tweeted??

20 Oct

In his article Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be tweeted, famed author and writer for the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell argues that digital activism cannot replace traditional activism. He argues that tools of social media such as Twitter and Facebook cannot replace real world human–to-human connections that form the basis for and sustain real social movements.

Gladwell calls these friendships, alliances and allegiances in the real world ‘strong ties’, that create the commitment and sacrifice necessary for ‘high-risk activism.’ Electronically mediated social connections are distant relations that have no real capability to galvanize people towards change. He adds that real, ‘high-risk activism’ requires strategic planning, organized leadership and a hierarchical structure, in order to ensure discipline and avoid conflict and error.

In ‘A mild defense of Social Media’, Daniel W. Drezner disagrees with Gladwell that digital social networks do away with strong ties or lack hierarchy. He says, “Networks eliminate neither hierarchical power nor strong ties — they’re simply expressed in different ways. Actors in central nodes, with lots of dynamic density among other actors, can command both power and discipline. Not all networks will look like this, but the ones successful at fomenting change will likely resemble it. To put it more precisely: social networks lower the transactions costs for creating both weak ties and strong ties, loose collaborations and more tightly integrated social movements.”

In his article Gladwell states, “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life … The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvelous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”

According to David Pell of Forbes blog, for many of us “our online world is an extension of our offline lives,” and disagrees with Gladwell that, the use of modern channels to communicate and the ‘activism-driving trait’ are somehow mutually exclusive. He says it is foolish to separate online and offline relationships and that while “activism does not require technology, technology certainly doesn’t stop activism.”

In response to Gladwell’s piece, Jillian C. York believes that the very distinction between traditional and digital activism altogether is unnecessary, for digital tools are “complementary to traditional activism.” Furthermore, strong ties or not, expressions of traditional activism such as marches often involve “the outliers”, folks who care but only enough to participate that one time. She claims that while Gladwell might argue that one time involvement in the real world also poses a high risk for the parties involved, “digital involvement in repressive societies can present similar risks, with both the most serious and sometimes the less outspoken being arrested.”

Leo Mirani of the Guardian says that if “real activism” is defined as taking to the streets and protesting, then Gladwell is right to say that we have indeed forgotten what “real activism” is. However, in citing the spread of reports of human rights abuses to mainstream media in India through the help of social media as an example, he states, “if activism extends to changing the minds of people, to making populations aware of what their governments are doing in their name, to influencing opinion across the world, then the revolution will be indeed be tweeted.”

Ultimately whether you agree with Gladwell that social media is an inadequate forum for ‘high-risk’ activism or whether you believe it is the new face of revolution, I think there is something that most of us can agree on… The social media-scape is still evolving and until we understand it better, sites such as twitter and facebook are an effective tool to share and spread a message.


“We are more alike than we are unalike…

4 Oct

… But the way we are unalike matters.”

Gary Younge’s newest book Who are we – And should it matter in the 21st Century discusses the problematic nature of the labels of race, religion and gender. He draws on case studies from around the globe to highlight the notion that our individual identities are too often decided by who is judging or asking, when it is our experiences as humans that should shape who we really are, and instead of finding a common higher ground to overcome the issues that come hand in hand with identity, our society is becoming increasingly divided. As the discourse of national borders has amplified, the result has been an increase in nationalism worldwide, and instead of border relations becoming friendlier, they have grown increasingly hostile with groups retreating into divided camps.

Younge’s own experiences with identity, life as a black man of Barbadian heritage growing up in the UK, and various encounters in through Sudan, Paris, the former Soviet Union, and more recently, Brooklyn, has taught him that:

“Identities are about how we think about ourselves in relations to others. But those thoughts do not come out of a clear blue sky. Identities are rooted in material circumstances. In certain circumstances, whether you are British, black, gay, Iraqi, Hindu or female can be the difference between life and death, poverty and wealth, citizenship and statelessness. Power, resources, and opportunity are in play in how we choose to understand (or misunderstand) the value of ourselves and others.”

Who are we – And should it matter in the 21st Century, illuminates fact that how we define ourselves affects every part of our lives, and that if we really want to reach a common humanism, we must fight for it.

“When the gentile condemns anti-Semitism, the white challenges racism or the citizen takes on xenophobia, the lift the sense of siege on ‘the other’, creating possibilities for the Jew, black, or foreigner to denounce the dupe and the demagogue in their own community.”

Younge describes the dilemma American census takers face with their identity, and how ones concept of their self is constantly being questioned. Since identity is fluid and constantly evolving, the rigid and certain stereotypes that ‘mixed’ or ‘other’ box checkers face further aggravate the ‘equal opportunities’ that supposedly provided to all. Gary states that the census is a way to “bring order to the chaos” and while “those boxes are not meant to make us feel good, they give us a sense of what’s going on.”