As someone who studies both online protest and repression, I am often struck by the dismissive quality of many scholars’ focus on digital engagement: from scholars who wrongly assume one can’t make or maintain close and trusting ties online, to those that either explicitly or implicitly argue that “real protest” is what happens in the street, to those who use intentionally denigrating phrases like “slacktivism” and “clicktivism” to describe low-cost forms of engagement. These are all ways of guarding the sanctity of revered forms of protest and putting long term activists and high cost activism on a pedestal. It is policing the labeling and assumed meaningfulness of other forms of engagement.
Reactions to the Kony 2012 viral video showcase these criticisms of online engagement and the denigration of other forms of political engagement all too well. It has led me to wonder: why do so many activists and scholars seem to suggest that, when it comes to political engagement, it’s their (1960s) way or the highway to young people who are coming of political age in the digital age?
In my view, research is not analogous to art authentication—researchers do not get to decide what is “genuine” or “authentic;” we should not get to decide what is a valuable classic versus what is “rip-off.” As sociologists or political scientists, our academic training doesn’t provide us with special expertise in making decisions about whose actions and what kinds of actions are valuable.
Instead, what researchers do get to do is study how the dynamics of different forms of engagement may differ, and we are specifically trained to conduct research that allows us to understand whether different forms of engagement have different political, social, or cultural impacts. Importantly, researchers should not get to assume the answers to these questions—although many seem to be willing to do so in the case of online activism, given their belittling of this activity. Unfortunately, at present, there seem to be more people who deride online activism than study it.
In fact, what we know about mobilization is that you almost never get a massive number of people to participate in very costly, risky things. Indeed, you almost never get that many people (as a proportion of the population or even as a proportion of people who agree with a particular issue) to participate in any form of non-institutional political action at all. Yet, in the face of such a massive outpourings of political interest – some estimate 100 million views of this video so far, many followed with small actions to support change — the question in the public dialogue seems to be: how many ways can long term activists and scholars find to minimize the actions of so many? Coupling that with the generational appeal of criticizing the interests, concerns, and civicmindness of youth (does anyone remember that terrible rock music and the nonsense that brought with it in the 1960s?), we had a perfect storm in the public dialogue around Kony 2012.
Nicolas Kristof does a great job at taking critics of Kony 2012 to task on the specifics of this case, arguing that this level of public attention can make a real difference. But, I think there is a larger issue to be dealt with it– why aren’t we asking how it is that a campaign can get 100 million people, including lots of young people, to tune into such a serious political issue, even if only for a while? Why aren’t we focused on how amazing it is that a country whose public dialogue is often so insular has become interested in stopping human rights abuses in Africa? Being honest, what activist organization wouldn’t want 100 million people to be knowledgeable about an issue they are concerned with, and to have some of those folks take even short-term or low-cost action on the issue?
In the end, what I am arguing is straightforward: we should treat comparisons of street and online activism as research questions, not normative judgments. We should try to understand how processes, or dynamics, differ instead of engaging in the policing of difference. We should explore questions like what getting 100 million people even ephemerally tuned in to an issue can accomplish (and the processes that lead to 100 million people tuning into something). We shouldn’t rush to judgment or denigrate tactics or forms of engagement that differ from what we are used to or have historically studied. Let the research findings fall where they may, but let’s do the research first.