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The Promise and Danger of Digital Organizing

April 27, 2021

With the advent of Web 2.0 and now exacerbated by Covid19, digital organizing has become increasingly central to federal, state and local campaigns. However, it is digital organizing’s global beginnings and reach that makes it so effective. From the Arab Spring in 2011, the Occupy movement that same year, the #MeToo movement in 2017, digital organizing has ushered in a new era of political movements, translating online action into in-person resistance.

Digital organizing functions in part due to the affordances of the tools available to us. Sometimes this means the social media apps we use daily and other times it includes tools meant to target specific populations, legislators or support campaign efforts. As digital organizing has grown in the past 10 years, so has the number of targeted tools. But they fundamentally involve the same components: existing networks, shareability, and public pressure. Social media apps such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter allow us to build loosely structured social networks based on personal beliefs and interests, which in turn help organizers to disseminate information to similar populations. This factor, coupled with the way applications are designed to instantaneously share information, allows information to spread more easily, while also providing a lower entry barrier for people who do not typically engage in political discussions.

The internet’s democratizing nature is one of the greatest strengths of digital organizing, bringing new people into the fold and lifting up stories that ordinarily would not gain exposure through traditional media. Last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests were sparked through witness videos shared on social media, ultimately leading to what analysts believe may be the largest movement in US history. At the peak of protests, half a million people were turning out in over 550 places nationwide, with marches and supply drops being coordinated via Facebook and safety precautions being shared on Instagram and Twitter. TikTok’s rise to popularity at this time led to a type of micro citizen journalism, as young adults captured their lived experiences of protest violence not being depicted in traditional media. The same radical transparency that emerged from live stream video during the Occupy protests and Spain’s 15M movement in 2011 lies at the center of TikTok’s potential as an advocacy tool.

As a public forum, social media also allows constituents to advocate for themselves by speaking directly to those in power, whether they be politicians or corporations. While citizens have been encouraged to contact their government representatives to effect change for decades, it is only now that these exchanges have become subject to public scrutiny, turning local issues into opportunities for collective advocacy. For corporations, this public pressure leads to an increase in corporate social responsibility since brands not only understand that consumers expect more, but also that their responses to both personal and social issues are now public for anyone to see. Issues of equity, social justice, environmental impact and labor rights are becoming more and more central to companies’ brands

However, many of the same affordances of digital tools have also been detrimental to democracies over the years, leading to an increase in misinformation and performative activism. Users who lack expertise or media literacy on a subject can appear as experts, leading to the spread of misinformation. While many associate the term “fake news” with the Trump administration, misinformation is in large a product of social media and polarization. In a study conducted by the University of Colorado, researchers found that out of a sample of 736 Facebook and Twitter users, those who identified as extremely conservative shared 26% of the fake news stories in the sample, while those who identified as extremely liberal shared 17% of the fake news stories. The prevalence of misinformation on both sides of the political spectrum points to some of the detrimental effects digital culture can have on democracy.

Ultimately, like any aspect of our lives that blends technology with civic life, social media as a political tool should be used intentionally, seeking to center and uplift the communities that need it most. Whether this be using Whatsapp to organize immigrant populations, revising data privacy policies, or building tools to limit the spread of misinformation, the technology should always work for the community, rather than around it.

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