Political Protest and the Digital Message

An article published in the NY Times last week that has been garnering a good deal of chatter and attention pulls together disparate incidents of public protest and revolt from around the world, and paints a global picture of discontent with politics and democracy. Followers of NDN's work won't be surprised by the argument: the world is changing rapidly, and precious few governments, political parties or elected officials are adapting adequately to the evolving conditions. Today's youth make up the largest generation in history, and yet they feel woefully unrepresented by their governments. The world's middle class has been growing, and yet they have suffered and regressed since the 2008 financial crisis. From New York to New Delhi, Berlin to Tel Aviv, in Spain, Greece, Egypt and Tunisia, people are turning out to protest their respective governments.

All these protests seem targeted less at the principles of democracy than at the institutions we have-- the parties, unions, trade associations and other bodies that dominate politics in most democratic countries. In Berlin just a few weeks ago, the Pirate Party-- yes, that same party founded in Sweden on a platform of radical copyright reform-- surprised everyone (including themselves) by winning 15 seats in the city-state's parliament. While it was tempting to cite the results as an indication that an increasingly young and tech-savvy electorate put data privacy, copyright reform, and internet policy at the top of their personal agendas, that probably wasn't what was actually going on.  Rather, a vote for the Pirate Party was a protest vote, a ballot cast against Germany's traditionally dominant parties, and in support of a burgeoning if inchoate faction that voiced a shared discontent with politics as it has been.

The policy demands of this growing global cohort may not be tech-focused (the impetus for revolt is the same as ever: high unemployment, low wages, prohibitive costs for food, housing, education, and everything in between...), but the mindset of the protesters-- the way they think the world should be-- is deeply informed by our internet age. Societies are increasingly networked through mobile phones and the internet in ways that are non-hierarchical and user-defined, and as a result, people around the world increasingly expect their government, party, and other representative institutions to be equally responsive to their demands. Needless to say, the current situation is frustrating, whether you're a liberal in America, a working class family in Europe, or an activist in India.

Just as these would-be dissidents are informed by new media in the way they think, so are they making use of new technology to pursue their agenda. The instances of online fora providing a fertile bed for the growth of dissent in North Africa is well-documented. The Pirate Party of Berlin, unsurprisingly, conducted much of their campaign online. And as I wrote last week, Mexico's silent majority-- terrorized by violent drug cartels, and frustrated with a self-censoring media and largely impotent government-- is anything but silent on the web. Even as the drug cartels unleash their brutality on supposed online informants, everyday Mexican citizens continue to turn to blogs and social media to share and gather potentially life-saving information.

In the United States, new mobile- and internet-based tools were effectively leveraged to help elect President Obama in 2008, and we're likely to see innovative and effective technology deployments by both parties in this election cycle. But in the intervening years, these tools have been of little help to liberals who have struggled to successfully advocate for policy, more often than not getting run roughshod over by a radical fringe of the Republican party.

Writing over at the Meta-Activism Project, Mary Joyce attributes this seeming failure of digital activism to a surfeit of voices in the digital space: while the U.S. can boast more instances of digital activism, the upshot of that volume is it becomes harder for all but the largest, loudest voices to be heard. As a consequence, large groups with the cohesion and singularity of message to speak as one are most effective in the crowded digital space: Joyce cites the Tea Party and corporate industry associations as two telling examples. We Democrats pride ourselves on being a big tent party, but under that tent-- a circus tent, it often seems-- no single, unifying messages emerges from the cacophony. (Joyce also just published a presentation she gave recently that pulls together and illustrates instances of public protest from around the world this year.)

The online component of Egypt's youth movement has similarly suffered since their great success in ousting Hosni Mubarak earlier this year. When activists had a single, simple rallying point-- out with Mubarak-- it was easy to rally people to the streets. Now, faced with a crowded marketplace of ideas and proposed actions against a more complex but perhaps equally pernicious opponent in the current governing council, online organizers have struggled to mobilize the same level of activity. Likewise Democrats met with success when the message was singular and broadly supported: elect Obama. When cohesion and coherence was lost, so too was the efficacy of a networked, non-hierarchical movement.

#occupywallstreetIn the ongoing protests taking place on Wall Street, the lack of any coherent singular message has become one of the hallmarks of the protest. A very smart note from Martin Bourqui, a liberal organizer based in New York, laments that while a vast majority of Americans support the notions behind these protests-- opposition to corporate-dominated politics, a desire to see banks held accountable for their role in causing current economic strife, etc.-- the farrago of messages and images emerging from Wall Street make an uncompelling case to bring most mainstream liberals out into the street. The poster at right captures the confusion: if there's no one demand, then how can a substantial constituency be built?

In Germany, the Pirates are scrambling to make the transition from a constituency of opposition to a party that can work within the democratic process and positively respond to the frustrated demands of the citizens who gave them their votes. In Egypt, the April 6th Youth Movement, riding high on their historic successes in February, now needs to mobilize its progress-minded supporters against ongoing brutality by the government's secret policy and pursue a more democratic, more representative government. And across the U.S., liberals are struggling to make their government work toward goals that are supported by a vast majority of the country, but stymied by an entrenched elite and a radical fringe.

To achieve these goals, each of these groups can employ digital tools with the same efficacy that they have in the past. But for these tools to be effective, these groups must first unify behind a coherent message, and pursue their demands through the democratic process as well as protest. Without a clear message, without a hierarchy, and without a political strategy, the real impact these movements can hope to have is very limited, and our politics will continue to be dominated by those who can master these elements.