Tag Archives: technology

Varieties of Anti-Corporatist Activism

By Paul-Brian McInerney

When I was in graduate school, my colleagues and friends introduced me to Charles Tilly’s Workshop on Contentious Politics. The workshop met weekly and featured a diverse pool of speakers from the sociology and cognate departments at Columbia and nearby universities. In structuring the workshop, Tilly created an environment of thoughtful deliberation. And while the topics presented at the workshop sounded interesting, they seemed very distant from my research interests at the time. Papers on state building, religious violence, political repression, and of course, revolutions were frequently discussed. These topics were far afield from the economic and organizational sociology I read for my research. Mildly daunted, I began attending the workshop anyway and soon became a regular. Continue reading


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Corporate Social Media and Activism

The recent kerfuffle surrounding Facebook’s emotional contagion experiment has produced a lot of discussion in tech social media and academic circles about ethics, the IRB, and the ability of a company to engage in this kind of experimental manipulation.

As several people have pointed out, companies are engaged in this kind of manipulation all the time. The practice of A/B testing websites and various news content is common and pervasive. Facebook is (and probably has been for quite some time) constantly changing which parts of the site you see to maximize clicks for their advertisers. Their goal is ultimately profit.

Bringing this back to movements, I see a parallel discussion occurring within movement circles, especially ones which are tech-oriented. Many movements, especially ones with more radical aims, often discuss whether to engage in social media mobilizing or whether to avoid it altogether. These activists generally recognize that mobilizing efforts via popular social media can be effective. The tension is that these social media sites are not in the business of supporting movements — they’re companies. They’re oriented towards profit. Moreover, many of these social media companies aid in state surveillance, either by being complicit in a PRISM-style program like we’ve had in the United States, or simply by making mobilizing plans available to everyone (it’s not that activists are unaware of this fact either — in my interviews with activists in Egypt, they talked about how social media channels were actually used in misdirection of police while alternative channels were used for publicizing meeting points during the first days of the 2011 revolution).

Radical tech activists have tried to set up a number of alternative sites for mobilization. Groups like the May 1st Collective and riseup.net have made it a point to build alternative networks for their organizations, and projects like Diaspora* have sought to break the centralization of social media sites altogether. But social media sites don’t work when there’s no people on them, and the people who use these alternative sites are probably already involved in these movements. Use of these alternatives sometimes requires a high level of technical competence and have a steep learning curve, so if you’re not already committed, then why bother? There’s no use preaching to the choir unless the explicit purpose is coordination of disciplined cadres. But in general, if the purpose is mobilizing people against particular targets, movements need to widen their bases and to get as much press as possible.

How do activists negotiate and reconcile these two positions? From what I can tell, not much social movement literature on movements and technology explores this. Social media is a tool, for sure. But tools have limitations, especially tools which are, in the end, at odds with activists’ moral worldviews. Activists have to wrangle with the morality of using them. There’s plenty of research to be done here.

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How about a social movement app?

Apparently a new iPad app called “Revolutionaries of the Past Century” (also called “Making of a Century” depending on where you look) was launched recently, and guess what, it lets you explore the past 100 years of revolutions and social movements. You can even look at the profiles of revolutionary leaders and their movements and how it relates to particular historical events. Digging into the background of the app a bit, I found that it was a Bahraini civil rights activist Esra’a Al-Shafei who had created the app (full article here). Pretty cool huh, a social movement app?

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Technology and Repression

When scholars think of repression, they often think of the state as the repressor. This misses a tremendous amount of repression undertaken by private actors. Of course, this has always been true—from Pinkertons to the KKK—private actors have been critical repressive actors. But, the rise of digital technologies brings the role of private repression into even greater relief.

Case in point: a leaked game plan by International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), a music industry group, to police online music globally. A blog post from TorrentFreak summarizes the report.

Now, I realize that where the digital rights movement sees free culture, IFPI sees piracy. But, it is also the case that many of the platforms targeted by IFPI and other entertainment industry groups are also used for non-infringing uses that are important to the digital rights movement and in no way illegal. So, this global game plan gives a unique view into private repression.

Meanwhile, another case reveals the power of digital technologies to aid in the repression of dissent—this time by an unusual government repressor—the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). Digital technologies played a key role in the FDA’s surveillance of watchdog scientists who felt that political concerns were being put ahead of good science and public health. The NYT report on the surveillance is shocking. According to the Times, over 80,000 digital documents were put together based on screen captures, key logs, and flash drives connected to work computers. The story, and the rather tepid reaction to it, will certainly make other potential whistleblowers think twice before they try to blow the whistle.

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Protest Psych – Counseling for the politically wayward

I’ll be honest with you, I’ve got a copy of LeBon’s The Crowd that I keep meaning to read. Of course I’ve internalized what we all now think he was saying—protestors are crazy!—because social movement scholars have spent the last thirty years insisting that protestors are rational actors behaving in politically salient ways. But I’ve got this nagging curiosity that I keep meaning to do something about: Maybe LeBon was writing about a fundamentally different time. Maybe protests and protestors were different. That’s not what this post is about, because I’ve ­not pulled LeBon back down from the shelf.

Anyway, it was with this general line of curiosity that an article from the Times of India struck me broadside: Protestors against a proposed nuclear power station were made to undergo psychological counseling.  What’s this now? Seriously? The People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy has been protesting for some time, but as best I can tell from a quick perusal of the web, this is the first time there’s been an attempt to brainwash them. Maybe it’s not brainwashing, maybe it’s less sinister. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has demanded an explanation from the Indian government. No other details seems to be publically available at this point. Also noteworthy: this psychological intervention follows on the heels of a government investigation of the possibility that PMANE’s work is supported by “foreign funds.” The investigation led to the detainment and deportation of a German national.

There’s no need to belabor the analysis here. India is truly a social movement society. I’ve never been to India when there wasn’t a bandt or strike or sit in or walkout or protest that effected trains, taxis, rickshaws, airplanes, government workers, women carrying water, men breaking stones, and a thousand other activities and sectors. So a protest against a new reactor is nothing new. But at a time when western security forces are developing more and more refined responses to large-scale protests, it seems that the Indian government is moving LeBon-ward. Diagnosing the protestor as patient and administering the cure.

Which brings us back to The Crowd. I wonder if LeBon got some things right about the world he lived in. Maybe, like the Fantastic Mr. Fox tells Rat, “certainly she lived, we all did. But it was a different time; let’s not use a double standard.” But then when I see the Indian government treating protest like a disorder I settle back into the conventional wisdom: LeBon was crazy. I guess I really should read his book.


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Occupy as a Testbed for Protest Technologies

While the OWS (and affiliated Occupies) have taken up a great deal of our space here during the first month of the blog it has been good to see that many of my colleagues have been making connections between Occupy and other movements. My own interest was piqued by this piece in Wired’s Threat Level blog on a State Department funded initiative at the New America Foundation aimed at supporting democratic protestors but which is using the Occupy movement as a test bed for their technology.

The idea is to create a portable wireless communications and internet network that activists could use to coordinate activity and disseminate news and accounts in a way that gets around media filters and state censorship regimes; think of some of the censorship that occurred during the Arab Spring and the problems that protestors in places like China and Iran still have to find a way around. The problem faced by this initiative, as well as many attempts to bring complex and delicate technologies into places that may not have the infrastructure, or even an hostile infrastructure, is the number of problems that arise in real-world situations that are difficult to predict or model in a lab.

By using Occupy the researchers are able to gain some real world experience for how their technologies may be used (so far not so well) but it also raises issues of who should have control of this technology and whether a planned sort of technology like this is better at addressing this sort of problem than DIY hacks and local work-a rounds.

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Twitter vs. the Human Microphone

Frida Berrigan

A few months ago, I was at a peace conference in Barcelona (I know, some people have all the luck). It was organized by War Resisters International and brought together campaigners from all over the world to share information and analysis about war profiteering.

It was a fairly low-tech gathering. A lot of people had laptops and international cellphones and most of us needed little radios for translation, but it was at an old Salesian monastery crowded with greenery and little palazzos and very few of the presenters used that old Pentagon technology—the Powerpoint. Continue reading

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