Cyber-activism [draft] [#digitalkeywords]

“Certainly, in popular discourse, terms like cyber-activism, online activism, and digital activism are used to mean so many different things that they lose their specific meaning. In this way, they can be used conveniently by critics and proponents alike for whatever purposes they want them to serve.”

The following is a draft of an essay, eventually for publication as part of the Digital Keywords project (Ben Peters, ed). This and other drafts will be circulated on Culture Digitally, and we invite anyone to provide comment, criticism, or suggestion in the comment space below. We ask that you please do honor that it is being offered in draft form — both in your comments, which we hope will be constructive in tone, and in any use of the document: you may share the link to this essay as widely as you like, but please do not quote from this draft without the author’s permission. (TLG)


Cyber-activism — Guobin Yang, University of Pennsylvania

In the English language, cyber-activism is a compound word that came into currency in the early 1990s. Although the first half of the word, cyber, appeared later than the other half “activism,” in their current meanings, both components were 20th-century inventions. Cyber- is traced to Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948), but is often associated with the science fiction of William Gibson, who is credited with popularizing the word “cyberspace” in his novel Neuromancer (1984). This origin gives cyber-activism, as opposed to the interchangeable terms “online activism” and “digital activism,” the special connotation of magical new possibilities associated with cyberspace in science fiction (Jordan 1999).

Since the 1990s, a host of synonymous terms has appeared to make cyber-activism part of an extended linguistic family. It includes: electronic activism, online activism, internet activism, web activism, and digital activism. Because  the word “protest” is often used interchangeably with “activism,” the family also includes cyber-protest, electronic protest, internet protest, online protest, and digital protest.

In addition, there are many other terms of kith and kin, such as tactical media (Garcia and Lovink 1997), radical media (Downing 2000), new media activism (Kahn and Kellner 2004; Lievrouw 2011), alternative media (Couldry and Curran 2003; Lievrouw 2011), hacktivism (Denning 1999; Jordan and Taylor 2004), and networked social movements (Juris 2004; Castells 2012).

Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they have slightly different shades of meaning.  Terms that were used more often in the 1990s, such as radical media and tactical media, seem to have more radical connotations than later coinages. Although digital activism has not replaced other synonymous terms, it now appears more often than cyber-activism, but it does not have the sci-fi and magical connotations of cyber-activism.

That there are so many words for describing what purports to be comparable phenomena suggests that something of magnitude is at stake. It betrays deep ambiguities and anxieties concerning the meaning and significance of cyber-activism and its cognates. This essay identifies four ambiguities and traces how these ambiguities are an integral part of a set of discourses about cyber-activism that produces political effects distinct from the effects of cyber-activism as political praxis.


The first type of ambiguity concerns the very objects of inquiry.  What is meant by cyber-activism, online activism, or digital activism? The difficulties of defining cyber-activism is reflected in the approach adopted by one of the few books with “cyber-activism” in its title. Recognizing that “defining cyberactivism is as difficult as defining activism before the internet,” the editors of the volume Cyberactivism: Online Activism in Theory and Practice decide not to offer a definition (McCaughey and Ayers, 2004, 14). One author represented in the volume, however, defines online activism “as a politically motivated movement relying on the Internet” (Vegh 2003, 71). He then goes on to distinguish among three types of online activism: awareness/advocacy; organization/mobilization; and action/reaction.” (Vegh, 2003, p.72) This often cited definition takes into account both the content of online activism and its technological method. Howard (2011) takes a similar approach when he defines cyberactivism as “the act of using the internet to advance a political cause that is difficult to advance offline.” (p.145).

In both these definitions, the emphasis on the political nature of cyber-activism begs the question of exactly what counts as political and what not. Vegh’s notion of online activism as a politically motivated movement further complicates the issue by raising the additional question of what exactly counts as a movement. Is it a protest event? A series of events? A campaign? A particular condition of being active? A mode of action? A process? Or does it refer to social movement actors and organizations?

There are others who view cyber-activism as mainly a set of methods, tactics, and practices associated with the use of new technologies without stressing its political nature. The literature on advocacy in social work, for example, views cyber-activism as methods: “New advocacy methods that use technology to change public policy have been developed and provide us with new avenues to address the changed political economy of social welfare. Collectively called cyberactivism, these techniques can be used to advantage by social work advocates.” (McNutt & Menon, 2008, 33). Yang (2009, p. 3) defines online activism as “contentious activities associated with the use of the Internet and other new communication technologies,” but stresses it as a cultural and political form. Earl and Kimport (2011) propose a continuum of online activism ranging from e-movements that happen purely online to e-mobilization that uses the internet to organize offline protest. For Lievrouw (2011, p. 19), “alternative/activist new media employ or modify the communication artifacts, practices, and social arrangements of new information and communication technologies to challenge or alter dominant, expected, or accepted ways of doing society, culture, and politics.”

There is a long-time debate about whether social movements are phenomena or meaning (McGee 1980; Melucci 2006). Is cyber-activism meaning or phenomenon? Current discourse seldom asks this question, assuming instead that cyber-activism and its varieties are phenomena existing objectively outside of human consciousness. Without asking the question about subjective meanings and social constructions, what might be a bias (objectivity) becomes natural and a taken-for-granted truth. Certainly, in popular discourse, terms like cyber-activism, online activism, and digital activism are used to mean so many different things that they lose their specific meaning. In this way, they can be used conveniently by critics and proponents alike for whatever purposes they want them to serve. Critical reflexivity about the subjective meanings of cyber-activism will at least make clear that what are taken as natural and objective phenomena may not always be the case and may often be a matter of interpretation.


The second type of ambiguity arises out of the first part of the term.  Cyber, online, internet, and digital – these are mostly used to refer to the spatial features of these technologies. Cyber- or online activism is often thought of in spatial terms. Because these technological spaces are different from conventional spaces, there are persistent efforts to dichotomize cyber-activism and offline activism, with clear preference given to offline activism.

This distinction was useful in the earlier stage of cyber-activism, when the technology was still limited in its reach and the use of the internet not yet a routine part of activism. Today, however, the internet, social media, and smart phones are much more prevalent than in the 1990s. Online and offline action becomes highly interfaced. In this new digital environment, it is hard to imagine street protest activities taking place without at least some use of digital media communication. Activism of all varieties, it might be argued, is now digitized to some degree.

A more serious consequence of the spatial bias in the cyber-activism family is a hidden bias against time. Whether the internet as a technology has a space bias or a time bias is open to debate and not my concern here (see Frost 2003 for an argument in favor of internet’s space bias). But the discourse about cyber-activism clearly has a spatial bias. By fixating our attention on the dichotomy of online vs offline spaces, this discourse reifies the differences between the two and prevents us from asking other important questions. It is generally recognized that new communication technologies decouple time from place. This allows cyberactivism to happen in ways that are not limited by time-space as street protests were in earlier times. People in different time zones and continents now routinely take part in the same online protest event at the same time. Another consequence of the spatial bias is that it neglects that cyber-activism itself has a temporal and historical dimension – today’s cyber-activism is not the same as twenty years ago. If cyber-activism has been accused of turning into slacktivism, is it an inherent attribute of cyber-activism or is it the outcome of historical political struggles? If contemporary cyber-activism is not living up to the revolutionary potential envisioned by its radical advocates in the earlier days, is it due to its inherent weaknesses or is it because it is up against forces far more powerful?


The third type of ambiguity derives from the word activism. What is the boundary between activism and non-activism? Where does activism begin and end? In social movement studies, high-risk protests have been called activism (McAdam 1986), but so has everyday behavior with purportedly activist motivations (Almanzar, Sullivan-Catlin and Deane 1998). There seems to be a tendency to conflate the more radical types of cyberactivism with its moderate varieties.

The etymology of activism contains such ambivalence. Activism came from the German word Aktivismus, which was first used by the German philosopher Rudolf Eucken in his 1907 book The Fundamentals of a New Philosophy of Life to refer to “the theory or belief that truth is arrived at through action or active striving after the spiritual life.” (OED, 3nd ed.). In continental Europe during World War I, activism meant “advocacy of a policy of supporting Germany in the war; pro-German feeling or activity” (OED, 3rd ed.). Only by 1920 did activism come to mean active participation or engagement in a particular sphere of activity; spec. the use of vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.” The earlier usage in this sense stresses its “vigorous” character. OED’s 1920 quotation for activism is: “Above these people is the ‘brain proletariat’, restless, alert, dissatisfied, repressed… The thought of this brain proletariat has many aspects-from Buddhist passivism to Bolshevist activism.” And its 1960 quotation: “The sizzling flame of activism is visible in both the agricultural and pastoral districts.” In the same way, OED defines an activist as “A person engaged in or advocating vigorous political activity.

Activism thus had several different meanings in its early history – an orientation to life in Rudolf Eucken’s philosophy, a pro-German activity during WWI, and a vigorous political activity.  Activism and activists could be oppositional to the state, but could also be supportive of it (Hoofd 2008).

Current discourse about cyber-activism retains both the “vigorous” and radical meanings of activism and the less vigorous and more moderate meanings. The moderate type of activism has been called civic action. As opposed to protest, civic action such as community festivals events have only implicit (or latent) purposes, no explicit claims (Samson, McAdam, MacIndoe, & Weffer-Elizondo 2005, 685). Thus cyber-activism may refer to conflictual direct action such as hacking and denial of service attacks, but it may also mean consensus action of the civic type, such as the use of Twitter by non-profit organizations for community building or information sharing.

The conflation of radical with consensus cyber-activism is an important feature of a history of domesticating and institutionalizing cyber-activism.  A subtle historical shift takes place whereby the more radical elements of cyber-activism are underplayed or even dislodged. On the one hand, there are government efforts to criminalize radical cyber-activists or corporate efforts to co-opt them. Thus over time, hacktivism takes on connotations of illegality as opposed to its early meanings of countercultural creativity and individual heroism (Jordan 1999).  Radical cyber-activist organizations and practices like Indymedia and the Occupy Wall Street movement were subject to policing (Downing 2001; Pickard 2006; Sullivan, Spicer & Böhm 2011; Gillham, Edwards, and Noakes, 2011). On the other hand, a discourse is produced about the necessity of channeling cyber-activism into institutional politics. “The digirati needs to learn how to make friends and win influence in Washington,” Richard F. O’Donnell warned in 1996 . Otherwise they would be “courting irrelevance.” (O’Donnell 1996). Thus, important cyber movements like eventually becomes member-based non-profit organizations. Like mirror images, these two tendencies (and two sets of discourses) have the same effect of undercutting the potency of cyber-activism as an extrainstitutional praxis and absorbing it into normal institutional politics. This might be called the institutionalization bias.


This leads to the last ambiguity I will address, namely, the confusion about the political efficacy of cyber-activism. There is, to say the very least, an obsession with causation in the discourse about cyber-activism. Social movement scholars recognize the importance of studying outcomes (Giugni 1998; Amenta et al 2010), but they are also aware that specifying the causes of outcomes is methodologically more challenging than identifying the conditions of the emergence of a social movement. If social movement organizers and activists at least exert some control over the shape of their movement by designing strategies, framing issues, and shaping identities, they cannot directly control the outcomes of their movements (Amenta et al 2010). Furthermore, beyond their pronounced goals, social movements may have unintended consequences and may incur repression and backlashes. Consequently, most works in this area subscribe to the theory that the outcomes of social movements are mediated by multiple factors (Amenta, Caren and Olasky 2005). Outcomes are indirect, not direct. Although in the communication field, there is a fine literature on the mediated effects of internet use on civic participation (e.g., Xenos and Moy 2007), to my knowledge, this literature has not received the attention it deserves in the discourse about the impact of cyber-activism.

A second confusion concerns the spurious specification of causes and outcomes. Although cyber-activism consists of multiple varieties, there is a curious tendency to cherry-pick the types of cyber-activism and then reject cyber-activism wholesale by claiming that that particular type does not cause an anticipated effect, such as democratization. Thus, email petitions and online comments become clicktivism (Shulman 2009), which is alleged to be politically ineffective. Clicktivism then becomes a synecdoche for cyber-activism, and cyber-activism is then rejected on the ground that it is merely clicktivism. Meanwhile, the more radical manifestations of cyber-activism are omitted.

The third confusion reflects an ideological imprint in current discourse about cyber-activism. In the debate about cyber-activism and democratization, a question that often arises concerns China and is about whether cyber-activism weakens or strengthens authoritarianism. The logic of this argument runs as follows: China has an authoritarian government. Cyber-activism in China makes the authoritarian government more aware of its vulnerabilities, forcing it to improve governance and therefore making it more resilient. Conclusion: cyber-activism is good to authoritarianism. The problem with this argument is that it not only simplifies the meanings and practices to cyber-activism in China, but also presumes that authoritarian governments are incapable of change while implicitly putting the blame on citizens and activists seeking change. Here, the workings of a hidden efficacy bias turns cyber-activism into its own enemy.


How to account for these ambiguities? Certainly, they reflect the difficulties of understanding rapid social and technological change.  We should also recognize that cyber-activism is so diverse and fluid that it inevitably comes with ambiguities. Yet insofar as we can identify hidden biases underlying these ambiguities and confusions, I would argue that the existence of these ambiguities is not accidental, but political. Ambiguities serve political purposes.

The four types of ambiguities are roughly associated with four hidden biases, which I have called the objectivity bias, the space bias, the institutionalization bias, and the efficacy bias. The objectivity bias hinders a more reflexive approach to  cyber-activism. The space bias diverts attention from seeing cyber-activism as a historically contingent political struggle. The institutionalization bias favors consensus and institutionalized over radical cyber-activism by first lumping together the radical with the moderate and then omitting the history of a parallel process of policing, institutionalization, and co-optation. The efficacy bias dismisses cyber-activism as ineffective by focusing on its palmy side and ignoring its radical wing. Ironically, when cyber-activism does seem to have clear political impact, as in China, this efficacy bias is then turned around to serve the argument that the effectiveness of cyber-activism actually works to stabilize rather than subvert authoritarian rule. Efficacy undoes itself.

What does an account of the ambiguities of cyber-activism as politics tell us about the nature of cyber-activism? More than anything else, it shows the importance of understanding cyber-activism and its family of words as a set of discourses with political effects of their own, distinct from the effects of cyber-activism as political praxis.  “There was a steady proliferation of discourses concerned with sex,” Foucault wrote, “…an institutional incitement to speak about it, and to do so more and more; a determination on the part of the agencies of power to hear it spoken about, and to cause it to speak through explicit articulation and endlessly accumulated detail” (History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, p. 18) As Foucault wrote of sex, so we can write the same about cyber-activism or the internet. The steady proliferation of discourses concerned with cyber-activism, I have argued, has weakened rather than strengthened it as a political practice. The ambiguities about cyber-activism are elements of a discursive formation that undercuts the power of cyber-activism. Such a discursive formation is, in proper Foucauldian fashion, a formation of power.


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