April 24, 2014

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Digital Activism and Non Violent Conflict

As a CITP fellow last year, one of my goals was to get a new project on digital activism off the ground.  With support from the US Institutes of Peace and a distributed network of researchers we pulled together an event dataset of hundreds of instances where people tried using information and communication technologies to achieve political goals.  The Digital Activism project launched.

The research team analyzed some 1,200 cases of digital activism worldwide, including some 400 cases from the past three years. First, we defined activism as efforts not just at regime change, but campaigns for policy changes at all levels of government. Second, we made sure this was a truly global sample – going far beyond the best-known cases that both sides in this debate had cited. Our initial research in this Digital Activism Research Project showed us how much more work can and should be done, one particular trend was apparent right away.

First, the definition of a case:

We define a digital activism campaign as an organized public effort, making collective claim(s) on a target authority(s), in which civic initiators or supporters use digital media.

Yes it was tough to construct the sampling strategy, and crafting this definition meant excluding cases that were intriguing but not quite relevant.  But we aimed for the highest of research standards, developed a thorough coder training program, discarded cases with little third-party info, and ended up with great inter-coder reliability scores.  And unlike other projects, we studied successes and failures.

What we noticed was that even though some of the most high profile news stories of digital activism featured campaigns that involved hacking and cyber crime, only a fraction of the total number of campaigns we studied from a wide range of reliable sources had any feature resembling “hacktivism”.  This could be good or bad depending on your aspirations for how people will use information technologies.

If you are interested, here’s the first substantive project report, “Digital Activism and Non Violent Conflict,” that goes through a few other findings.  And there’s replication data to play with!