New forms of activism

epa02109159 Some 6,000 indigenous people take part in a protest against a polemic government bill on water resources or 'Law of water' in Quito, Ecuador, 08 April 2010. EPA/JOSE JACOME

New forms of activism use social media channels to debate, discuss but also to spread information rapidly and freely. Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools increasingly became the favored space where citizen start their participation in protests by either posting a photo, an information for the press, or support a cause by liking its page or following its hashtag. Iranian opponents to the newly reelected Iranian government also used other types of communication technologies such as mobile phones. The 37-second long video of an Iran woman being killed by a sniper during a street demonstration was taken with a mobile phone. A doctor sent this video to some friends living abroad who posted the video on YouTube, which was then picked up by major international broadcasters such as CNN or BBC.

When a citizen demonstrates on the street and sees a horrific scene, she/he records it on his phone and sends it to friends to post it on the Internet. This video is then seen by millions of people on the Internet and also traditional channels such as TV. This is a good example of how new medium of communication have transformed citizen participation in activism: it enables them to access global audiences and gives them more visibility. It also gives more power to citizens for they have new surveillance tools that can be used against abusive political leaders.

Online and offline spaces feed into each other and meet in a semi-virtual space where local and global meet. This is what Castells describes as the space of autonomy, where urban and online actions reinforce each other; and where long-lasting family or friendship networks cooperate with spontaneous or instantaneous gatherings.

When comparing the Arab spring with other new activist movements such as 99%, los indignados, or the Icelandic revolution, they have common elements. Mobiles phones and Internet based information and communication technologies “played a major role in spreading images and messages that mobilized people in providing a platform for debate, in calling for action, in coordinating and organizing the protests, and in relaying information and debate to the population at large.”[1]

When facing an injustice or a situation that a society rejects, people tend to identify with the victim and act against the agent responsible for the situation. In the case of Tunisia for instance, the population identified with the young man who committed suicide in protest against the Tunisian government and police. In the case of Iceland, the population rejected the consequences of the financial crisis and decided to take action against the government and parliament who let the situation happen. In the case of the indignados and 99% social movements, the population identified with the victims of the economic downturn such as the young unemployed and the families who lost their houses. To overcome the fear triggered by these situations communicating and sharing with peers is key.

New ICTs are growing and will expand in the future mostly in the global south. Young activists of the Arab Spring were born with the new ICTs and knew instinctively how to make best use of it to diffuse the information and organize the protests. Often, a technology is built with an intention. But users develop it with unexpected uses and needs: “If the Californian culture of libertarianism and individual entrepreneurship defined the early history of cyberspace, we should be asking ourselves what the future of cyberspace holds as the center of gravity for usage and innovation shifts to the global South.” [2]

Culture and values are ideas shared by a society, a social group, a family about what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable and what is not, what is appropriate and what is not. Everything we do, need, eat, how we interact with one another, is strongly influenced by the culture we were born in and the one(s) we have lived in. Values are ideas shared by a society, a social group, a family about what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable and what is not, what is appropriate and what is not. Cultural patterns of reactions emerge and are passed on to future generations. With time, humans comply with these patterns for they feel obliged to[3].

Culture is the product of an evolution. In such a changing world with ever-accelerating global flows of information, wealth, power, and images, people tend to regroup around primary identities to adapt to the confusion and uncertainty. The search for identity, collective or individual, becomes the fundamental source of social meaning.[4] This search for identity, enhanced by the generalization of new ICTs, might well trigger the emergence of a sense of global common identity, which in turn, will provide the missing component to create an international community.  An international community, based on Postnational and universal values, would enable to overcome the conflict between universal objectives and particular states’ interests.[5]

The missing element for an international community –namely a sense of common identity– can become reality thanks to the generalization of new ICTs. As described by cosmopolitanism, the international reality is made of multiple and overlapping identities. Indeed, individuals belong to various groups and communities, which becomes even truer with all possibilities offered by new ICTs. Furthermore, thanks to access to information, more and more people, political and business leaders, organizations and communities are aware that global issues are shared around the world and common to all individuals. The new digital realities where time and space do not exist reinforce this sense of sharing common global issues.

Often decried as a factor of uniformization, new ICTs might in fact enable non-state actors and in particular global civil society and individuals to grow a sense of common identity thanks to the increasingly urgent needs to protect their environment, which comprises of peace, nature, or health. This new understanding of the globality of most issues and of their solutions is giving rise to a new feeling of belonging to humanity that will not substitute to national or local identity but will add to it.

[1] Castells, Manuel (2012) Op Cit p.250.

[2] Ibid, p.265.

[3] Licht, Amir, Goldschmidt, Chanan, Swartz, Shalom H. (2005) Law and Corporate Governance, International Review of Law and Economy, Vol.25 p.229.

[4] Castells, Manuel (1996) The Rise of the Network Society, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Vol. I. Cambridge, MA and Oxford, UK: Blackwell, p.15.

[5] Held, David (1995) La democracia y el orden global: Del Estado moderno al gobierno cosmopolita. Barcelona, Spain: Paídos, p.124.