Bridging traditional & digital activism: re-thinking political participation

Blog | October 18, 2016 | Monica Nthiga

“Digital activism can help formal forms of activism achieve scale – it’s not an end in itself” – Paul Mason, Amandla.mobi

Last week, we hosted one of our regular South-to-South Lab webinars, this time focused on how different organisations are using digital tools to create social movements.

Despite the fact that all the organisations involved in the discussion were trying to do just that, there was a healthy scepticism about just how far digital tools can go by themselves – and how out-dated that idea really is.

From South Africa, Kenya, Indonesia, Nigeria and the UK, those who took part were clear that digital activism is changing: it’s not about the number of clicks a campaign receives, it’s about a savvy combination of partnerships, persuasion and political knowledge so as to create change.

Protests, pressure and politicians – reframing the dialogue

Digital activism does not have a long history but, in the last decade, civil society and governance groups have been using the internet and mobile phones to build public awareness, public voice, and public pressure for change. Sometimes this has been successful but, all too often, it has not.

Well-known campaigns like #BringBackOurGirls or #BlackLivesMatter have mobilised huge, global engagement, but there is very little evidence as to when and how this type of public pressure actually brings about change.

The South-to-South Lab group were firmly in favour of working with government as a first step when creating these kind of campaigns, trying to understand what sort of ‘pressure’ or ‘evidence’ politicians need in order to gain the traction to act. This re-framing of the government-civil society dialogue has been a key theme within Making All Voices Count and our 2015 event ‘The Quest for Accountability: looking into the state’ examined at civil society and public action from the point of view of people in government and provided a range of evidence-based lessons.

“In seeking to understand the inner workings of the state, it is important to think about how state actors view citizens. Do they see them as subjects, users, allies or co-producers? How do various representatives and officials view citizen demands? Do they perceive them as legitimate or unreasonable? What determines whether state actors see citizen demands as being within the remit of their job?”

From our discussions at the South-to-South Lab, it’s clear that these lessons about approaching government are being incorporated into new, more mature forms of digital activism.

Partnerships – being ‘all things to all people’ is not possible

We’ve talked about this tension a lot within Making All Voices Count – in our ideal scenario, our grantees would not only understand the inner workings of government, but also understand technology, research and communication. In reality, that’s like asking for chocolate that doesn’t make you fat.

Our discussions this week emphasised the need for partnerships: partnerships between groups who could mobilise public debate online, organisations who could amplify our voice and act as catalysts to pressurize relevant authorities into action (such as mainstream media), organisations who could legitimately bring the perspectives of communities and individuals who couldn’t (or didn’t want to) take part in online activism, and organisations that had a real understand of what digital activism offers (large numbers of potential voters arguing for the same thing) and where it can be best applied.

No one organisation is going to cover all those things, and partnerships are key to making digital activism more than just a ‘flash in the pan’.

Politicisation – beware not just how you act, but how it looks

But… here’s the down-side.

When you’re dealing with highly publicised, political issues, the South to South Lab participants are wary about being seen as political.

Paul Mason from Amandla.mobi acknowledged that it was hugely important to recognise and publicly praise government actors when they deliver on their promises – a ‘name and fame’ rather than ‘name and shame’ approach. However, Hancu Louw from MobiSAM, who use mobile phones through the SAM (Social Accountability Mechanism) methodology to engage with local municipalities on service delivery, talked about a ‘dissonance’ between wanting to work with government as the most effective way to create change, and the public perception of being ‘too close’ to government and working for them.

It’s an undeniable tension, and one that reinforces the need for partnership, and for a re-framing of the dialogue between the public, activists and politicians.

“We need to help reduce the nervousness of state officials around 'people protests' so that they become more embracing... And we need to be part of helping to increase the quiet confidence of marginalised communities to push on for rights realisation.” Deborah Byrne, Making All Voices Count, South Africa

Take-aways

  • The sector is maturing. We’re no longer digital activists who only see one side of the picture – but sometimes, we’re also up against politicians and the public who each see us as being too close to the ‘other side’.
  • Digital activism cannot work alone. There are powerful pockets of collective action at play in creating political change; we’re working more and more with civil society, with grass-roots organisations, with local and mainstream media, with politicians, parliaments and presidential offices – because that is how we see change happening.
  • It's not just about 'getting the word out'. Digital activism needs to be recognised as a skill – one that requires finding a balance between online means of engaging and negotiating partnerships offline, politicians and public pressure.

It's complex and it is challenging but, for a relatively young sector, I think we’re doing pretty well at maturing as we learn from those around us.


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