In the lead essay for the “Cato Unbound” symposium this month, I analyze recent political movements that have been aided by Internet-based communication by positing a set of questions,
Activists played important roles in bringing down dictators in the Arab world, stopping the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in Congress and electing Barack Obama—just to name a few examples. But how much did the Internet matter in making these watershed events possible? How effective is it likely to be in the future? And how would we measure whether activism “works” for society—not just the activists?
I respond to the concerns raised by Evgeny Morozov in his iconoclastic 2010 book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (summarized in his short essay in TechFreedom’s free ebook The Next Digital Decade: Essays on the Future of the Internet). In general, I suggest that we simply do not yet understand the Internet’s effect on activism well enough to make strong normative judgments about it. But applying Public Choice theory can help us understand how developments in communication technologies are changing the relationship between an individual and the group in social movements. A few highlights:
- Social media lower organizational costs, especially of recruiting members, but also noticeability: “members’ ability to notice each other’s actions.” Even in 2003, there was little way to tell whether your friends actually followed through when you asked them to help join a cause. But today, it’s easy to encourage them to re-share material on Facebook or Twitter—and to “notice” whether they’ve done so.
- Social media allows members of large groups—think Twitter followers—to be continuously bombarded with propaganda about the worthiness of the cause creating social pressures not entirely unlike those that can be generated in a face-to face group.
- The Internet empowers large, dispersed groups (like dedicated Internet users) to organize against small but concentrated interests. As anyone who works in technology policy in Washington can attest, SOPA’s implosion made Congress more cautious—at least about Internet regulation, where fear of a digital activist backlash is greatest.
- Ultimately, the Internet does make coordination easier among like-minded people to provide reputational feedback about corporations and governments. However we must still be vigilant—governments can and do manipulate the Internet in overt and covert ways to stifle their populations.
- Activism works largely by imposing reputational costs on its targets. Online reputation markets deliver information much faster and more cheaply than ever before.
I conclude by saying: “The Internet may not necessarily make the world a better place in every way, but the more we understand how it changes our relationships with each other, the better equipped we will be to steer its evolution in more humane directions.”
In the coming days, Jason Benlevi, Rebecca MacKinnon and John O. McGinnis will all respond, leading to a spirited debate on the topic of Internet activism and to what degree technology really does enhance freedom.