During the 2009 post-election protests in Iran, YouTube proved useful for raising awareness and mobilising people; but later, the Iranian government used these videos to crowd-source the identification of protesters.
Activists used Skype to communicate during the Egyptian uprising thinking it was safer than the terrestrial telephone system; however, when they examined files from the intelligence agency in the chaos after Mubarak’s fall they learnt their Skype calls were being closely monitored by Egypt’s security service .
One of the most circulated images appealing for public sympathy and money following the 2015 catastrophic Nepal earthquake turned out to be a ruse—an old image from North Vietnam—its circulation initiated by unknown people with unknown motivations.
These examples serve to remind us that while digital technologies are now deeply entangled with activist practices that are focused on contributing to social change, the philosophies and capacities embedded within these technologies often contradict, counteract, or challenge social justice and human rights aspirations—sometimes in unexpected ways that could not have been predicted.
A decade ago these kinds of examples would have more than likely been used to support cyber-optimist and cyber-pessimist arguments—and these one-sided perspectives are still easy to find in academia, journalism and in public debate. But after at least a decade of widespread use of technologies for activism in countries all over the world we seem to have—at last—turned a corner; nuanced debates and discussions about activist-technology entanglements and their implications are far more common.
This issue was motivated by our shared desire to explore these entanglements with scholars and activists who are working within, experiencing, and researching the frictions caused by technologies when they are used for activism. We use the term ‘friction’ as Anna Tsing does—as a metaphor for the diverse and sometimes conflicting engagements that make up our contemporary world or what she calls ‘zones of awkward engagement.’ Tsing defines friction as ‘the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference’ that continually co-produce culture (Tsing, 2005: 4). Through an examination of frictions between aspirations and realities, between needs and constraints, a critical analysis of global connection is possible. In this way, the concepts of entanglements and frictions support us to explore the complex realities of co-dependent relationships between activists, technologies and the corporations who create them, in ways that support us to move beyond the old, dull and tired ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ technology narratives.
Past issues of Fibreculture have examined activist philosophies from angles such as social justice and networked organisational forms, communication rights and net neutrality debates, and the push back against precarious new media labour. Our issue extends this work by capturing the complexities associated with the use of technology in activist contexts, and offering insights into how practitioners, scholars, and the makers of digital and networked technologies do and might need to work more collaboratively and pragmatically to address social justice issues.
This issue includes ten academic journal papers as well as seven invited articles from practitioners who are working on the very front lines of activism and technology. This section from practitioners is a first for the Fibreculture Journal. These articles allow us to better understand the decisions made by organisations and activists who are leading debates, negotiations and discussions and from those who have most at stake because they depend on technology working and working well for activism.
By dwelling in between and within frictions and entanglements, the activist practices described and interrogated in the academic papers and practitioner articles that follow reveal tensions, weaknesses, and sites of contested power within fields such as international development, human rights, social movements, and community development. Articles explore how philosophies of technology and activism become enmeshed through struggle, acceptance, compromise, or submission (Tsing, 2005; Crosby and Notley, 2014); and the ways in which these negotiations speak to broader mythologies and tensions embedded within digital culture—between openness and control; political consistency and popular appeal; appropriateness, usability, and availability.
Labour activism and the consequences that flow from entanglements with technologies are emphasised in a number of essays in this issue. Katie Ellis, Gerard Goggin, and Mike Kent investigate disability activism movements, arguing that digital technologies work both for and against the disability justice project. Their focus on protests against welfare and work reforms in the UK reveal how disability activists, mainstream media, social media, and state apparatuses entangle to problematise the aspiration of being ‘fit for work.’ Other frictions arising from disability activism confronting technology—for example, between the philosophy of Universal Design and the needs of specific individuals—are also investigated. Laura Forlano and Megan Halpern use speculative and participatory design methods to elucidate the role of emerging technologies such as automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics in narratives concerning the future of work. This promotion of ‘material deliberation’ is intended to encourage labour activists to engage more deeply with technologies.
Software cultures that elevate alternative and activist practices over other forms of participatory media activities also feature as a recurrent theme. The nuanced material politics of alternative social media projects is the focus of Robert Gehl’s piece. His discussion about how developers are ‘critically reverse-engineering’ Twitter reveals an ongoing friction of activist projects: that of people with different evaluative frameworks working towards similar goals. A detailed discussion by Adam Fish about the politics of ‘mirroring’ as practiced on videos by the hacktivist network Anonymous is another take on activist software cultures. Drawing on Haraway (1992), he situates these mirroring activities as having the effects of ‘diffraction’—a mapping of interference rather than replication or reflection, as the name suggests—that serve to visually map a contestation over networked visibility.
Also touching on software cultures, Theresa Züger, Stefania Milan and Leonie Tanczer offer an overview of emergent digital civil disobedience practices—such as ‘cloud protesting’—discussing the frictions that arise due to anonymity, multiple agendas, and loose affiliations. Their article reminds us of the often-porous boundaries between fields that spark tactical media activities, politically motivated artistic interventions, and more traditional modes of civic subversion; but calls for new articulations of civil disobedience focused on digital dissent. Sky Croeser and Tim Highfield extend the theme of civic dissent through their study of the Greek antifascist movement. Their article stresses how events and dynamics must be considered in the context of several interrelated trends affecting Greece, and argues that this movement is created and constantly recreated through spaces, events, social media technologies, and unexpected and temporary alliances. We are also reminded that people, who do not consider themselves activists, or even part of a movement, perform many of these associated activities.
Further investigations of the affordances and consequences arising from the use of social media for articulating dissenting discourses can be found in Nathan Rambukkana’s study of race-activist hashtags. Frictions emerging from activists using hashtags that might be filtered by corporations are explicated through the cases of #RaceFail and #Ferguson. Facebook’s ‘algorithmic filtering’ of #Ferguson is situated as a case in point, illustrating how social media filtering practices can affect whether or not we see controversial, fractious, or political content. Philosophies of autonomy and privacy in relation to digital technologies are explored in Becky Kazansky’s article. She problematises the framing of privacy as a predominantly individual responsibility, exploring the origins of this framing, and she discusses ways in which this burden of responsibility might be shifted away from activists and vulnerable groups.
Entrenched social hierarchies and their effects on the shaping of activist technology uses and practices are another shared theme of this issue. Miriyam Aouragh, Seda Gurses, Jara Rocha and Femke Snelting discuss how the development of supposedly appropriate technologies are compromised by time pressures and needs for efficiency during moments of urgency. They highlight how the justification of these processes as divisions of labour, paradoxically reproduces traditional hegemonic dynamics. The shaping of activist practices by stereotypical gender roles in the Occupy Movement are investigated by Megan Boler and Jennie Phillips in their article. This critique of gender bias is part of a wider exploration of the paradox of activists using corporate-owned software platforms.
Across the practitioner articles in FCJ MESH we can identify a number of particularly pertinent themes. The struggle to support the need to be both private and visible across digital networks—sometimes at the same time—is a source of friction addressed by Sam Gregory in his article about the politics and practices of citizen witnessing. Maya Ganesh and Stephanie Hankey describe how surveillance, data sharing, aggregation, and the storage of metadata have different impacts for different actors and how activists can be a group at-risk of exposure. They also make us aware of issues surrounding corporate attempts to make things seemingly ‘frictionless’ by hiding the functionality of technologies. Ivan Sigal and Ellery Biddle describe how the realities, efforts, stories, and needs of some activists are obscured when the media misrepresent the emancipatory potential of digital technologies (we would argue that same can be said when researchers do this). Another messy entanglement affecting activism and technology are the realities of free speech ideologies often embedded within social media dynamics—a subject tackled by Jillian C. York. Nathalie Maréchal describes a project exploring the opportunities and challenges associated with evaluating the world’s internet and mobile companies on policies and practices related to free expression and privacy in the context of international human rights law. Through a study of the Open Development Movement, Zara Rahman reveals tensions between the aspirations of activists and the needs of those they are trying to help. Finally, Zamzam Fauzanafi reminds us how the dynamics of community organising continue to shape community projects that focus on creative uses of technology.
In the late nineteenth century, pragmatist philosopher William James wrote, ‘There can be no difference which doesn’t make a difference,’ to stress the importance of thoughts and theoretical positions having practical effects (James, 1898). This rousing sentiment is a seductive call to action, but fails to consider how ‘making a difference’ is perceived, measured, or publicised through different evaluative lenses. In contrast, the nuanced stories attached to diverse activist practices discussed in this issue show how ongoing frictions between philosophies and practices continue to deliver outcomes that make a difference to some and not others. Disagreements about what should be valued will remain a variable in projects that use technology to challenge dominant social, cultural, and economic paradigms. However, this collection builds a compelling case for using the energy derived from frictions—produced by activists with different realities, needs, and evaluative frameworks—to inspire and develop action that ensures technologies work and work well for activism.
Frictions will continue to emerge as global technologies work to universalise needs, experiences, and contexts (Crosby and Notley, 2014). Accepting frictions when activism and technology come together also allows us to explore ‘the messy and surprising features’ of global encounters across difference that ‘should inform our models of cultural production’ (Tsing, 2005: 3). While we can be cynical about the likely consequences of uneven power dynamics embedded within these frictions, the more hopeful perspectives that emerge in this issue suggest that for this co-production to be productive—and for activist uses of technology to flourish in different contexts—negotiations and compromises must be made between regulators, technology producers, and activists if we are to transform friction into meaningful actions that are capable of supporting positive social change.
Pip Shea is a digital media researcher, designer, and educator. She investigates how digital cultures and new organisational forms are shaping creative, civic, and activist practices. She is a director at Farset Labs hackerspace and technology charity in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Tanya Notley is a Lecturer in Internet Studies and Digital Media in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at the University of Western Sydney. As a researcher, board member and adviser, Tanya works closely with a number of NGOs to design and implement communication technologies.
Jean Burgess is Director of the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology. She researches the everyday uses and politics of social and mobile media platforms, as well as new digital methods for studying them. Her books include: YouTube (Polity Press, 2009), Studying Mobile Media (Routledge, 2012), A Companion to New Media Dynamics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), and Twitter and Society (Peter Lang, 2014).
issue doi: 10.15307/fcj.26