Citizens as Actors | rheacock | December 10, 2013


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Citizens as Actors

Bruce Etling

The Internet has not led to radical new forms of direct democracy, as some predicted in the early days of the Web, but it is hard to look at the major protests and political changes that have swept across the globe recently and not see myriad ways in which the Internet has empowered citizens Online tools continue to aid citizens in efforts to check government and corporate power and to highlight cases of corruption and abuse of power. The networked public sphere has continued to mature into a political force, marked by important victories such as the thwarting of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), Protect-IP Act (PIPA), and Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The Internet and social media have also enabled new forms of citizen dissent, the ethics of which are still under debate, including leaks of national security information by well-placed individuals in security bureaucracies and the emergence of “hacktivism” tactics as new forms of civil disobedience. In the most advanced of Western democracies, the Internet has created additional pathways for constituents to be heard by their representatives and made it easier for citizens to participate, through mechanisms such as e-voting in Switzerland. Still, the greatest changes to the citizen-government relationship appear to be those created at the grass roots by citizens, instead of those initiated from the top-down by governments.

The Internet and Protests

Citizens have increasingly used the Internet and social media to mobilize and coordinate protests. In the past few years alone, the world has seen a number of mass protests, including those connected to the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa, those sparked by election falsification in Russia, disputes over public park space in Turkey, protests over an increase in public transportation fares in Brazil, the Indignados movement in Spain, and the global Occupy movement. A common undercurrent in many of these protests is citizen pushback against corruption, entrenched political elites, and economic inequality. These protests were not caused by the Internet, but online tools and social media platforms have played important information-sharing, coordination, mobilization, and community-building roles when economic, political, demographic, and other structural factors have aligned to create conditions conducive for protests and political change.

The most spectacular and far-reaching examples of Internet-enabled protests remain those associated with the Arab Spring, which led to the fall of entrenched dictators in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt. Those events also undercut many arguments put forward by skeptics that online talk is cheap, that online activism is not real activism, that the Internet is more useful for dictators, and that the region was immune to the gradual but continuing expansion of democracy. For example, research in Egypt shows that social media, in particular Facebook, provided new sources of information that the regime was not able to counter, and that social media use greatly increased the likelihood that individuals would attend protests on the first day, when success is typically least assured and the risk of attendance the greatest. The Internet was also critical in shaping how citizens made decisions about the logistics of protests and their likelihood of success.1 Researchers have also found evidence that social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the region, especially among the young, urban, and well-educated; that spikes in online revolutionary discussion often preceded major offline protest events; and that social media helped spread democratic ideas across international borders.2 However, as events in the region since 2011 have shown, while the Internet may be especially useful for protests and issue-specific campaigns, social media have yet to provide an equivalent level of support to citizens in building democracy and creating new political institutions.

A significant benefit of the Internet is that it massively reduces the costs of mobilization and coordination of collective action. Event pages on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and similar local variants provide protest leaders with easy and low-cost ways to spread the word about protests and mobilize core constituencies and for protest participants to signal their intention to participate. Protesters can then also use social media sites, including video and photo sharing sites, to show the wider public their power in numbers, share popular signs and humorous memes, develop a group identity, and expose the reaction of the state, including government-sanctioned violence.

These tools are also used to provide alternative framings of the protest movement and protest activities. For example, while many have questioned the political impact of the Occupy movement, it is clear that the movement was able to push the frame of the “99%” into mainstream public discourse. The ability to put alternative framings and agendas into the public sphere is especially important in countries such as Russia, China, and Iran, where there is strong influence over or complete control of mainstream media outlets, including both print and broadcast. These tools also offer new ways for protesters to participate in movements and contribute to campaigns through, for example, creating, posting, and remixing user-generated video. More generally, online tools have also made easier identifying affinity groups and connecting divergent groups and parts of society that might have vastly different political platforms, but come together at times of political discontent and mass protests. Examples include nationalists and liberals in Russia united behind a common protest banner and Islamists, leftists, and youth movements in Egypt in the anti-Mubarak protests in 2011. Finally, the Internet and social media have created a public space for experimentation and learning at a local, national, and international level. This enables the diffusion of protest ideas and also allows movement leaders in one place to see what is working and what is not, and then adjust strategy, tactics, framings, and organizational efforts for greater success given local conditions.

In many cases, offline protest events are still critical for these movements and issue campaigns; the success of exclusively online action is still quite rare. However, in defeating the SOPA/PIPA legislation, online actions were probably much more important than the small, offline protests held in cities across the United States. The mix of offline and online organization also varies depending on the individual movement. For example, in Brazil’s recent protests, offline organizational efforts by the Free Fare movement seem to have been important to organization of the initial protests, and helped to lay a foundation of dissent before just a small increase in transportation fares ignited large-scale protests. Those protests grew larger than anything seen before by organizers thanks at least in part to social media, and video evidence of police brutality also helped pull more Brazilians to the side of the protesters. It is worth highlighting that the Internet has been especially helpful for protests and issue-specific campaigns, but in many instances has not led online protest leaders to run for office, create political parties, or otherwise participate in mainstream politics (although there have been exceptions, including in Russia, Tunisia, and the Tea Party in the United States).

While the media and many scholars tend to emphasize more positive examples of social media empowering democratic social movements and civil society, the Internet does not pick favorites. Those that society has intentionally marginalized from the political process—including extremists, nationalists. and nativists—can just as easily use the Internet. Still, those with ideas that are on the margins and have little support to begin with rarely gain mass followings solely because of a larger potential audience on the Internet. It may be easier for such individuals to find each other than it was in the past, but this does not mean their ideas have become more popular.

An Accountability and Fact-Checking Platform

Citizens living in a range of international settings and under various regime types continue to use the Internet as a check on corruption, mismanagement, and abuse of power by governments, corporations, and political and economic elites. China has provided a number of examples where netizens have been able to highlight corruption and malfeasance, abuse by local officials, and cover-ups of scandals that the government-controlled media would not cover. Examples include the tainted powdered milk formula scandal in 2008, the infamous Wenzhou high-speed train crash, and numerous examples of land disputes and ecological disasters. As a check on corporations, we also see cases where workers are increasingly expressing their demands for better pay and working conditions to international customers and national leaders, such as multiple strikes by employees of technology producer Foxconn.

Online communities are able to bring issues to the forefront of the public debate that would not occur otherwise, especially where political or economic elites have control over national media. Citizen journalism platforms, including Canada-based NowPublic, Global Voices internationally, and Ridus in Russia, among others, play an important role in surfacing and publicizing cases of corruption and abuse of local leaders. At least in China, the central government seems willing to let local leaders take the fall when this type of corruption and abuse become publicized, perhaps to let off steam in an otherwise tightly controlled political space, even if structural changes at the national level still seem far off.

The Networked Public Sphere and Issue-Specific Campaigns

The rise of social networking and digital communication technologies has facilitated the creation of the networked public sphere, broadly defined as an online public space where citizens can come together to debate and decide what issues are most salient as well as determine how to act on them. While critics argue that online organization and protests are not equivalent to those undertaken by previous generations of social movements, the networked public sphere has had some important recent victories that undermine this skepticism. The starkest examples are online efforts that killed Internet-related legislation that was pushed by the music and recording industries. In the United States, online efforts averted passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Soon after, the international trade agreement ACTA lost support in the face of similar civil society opposition. Individuals can play outsized roles in the networked public sphere: one example is the Houston blogger who started an online campaign to ban the use of ‘pink slime’ (which food writer Michael Pollan describes as a kind of industrial-strength hamburger filler made from a mix of slaughterhouse scraps and treated with ammonia) in the hamburger served in the federal school lunch program. Within days of the online petition, the USDA allowed schools to drop the product, and major supermarkets stopped carrying it. Recently though, it still seems that collectives—informal and formal civil society groups and social movements—have more effectively leveraged the Internet in support of issue-specific campaigns.

New Forms of Civil Disobedience

Networked technologies have also enabled new forms of civil disobedience. Two forms of digital disobedience have been on the rise recently: DDoS attacks that take down websites (and other “hactivist” tactics such as defacing opponents’ websites) and leaks of national security information. The ethics and legitimacy of these tactics, to say nothing of the outcomes, continue to be fiercely debated. Even if consensus never emerges, it seems very likely that these news forms of civil disobedience will continue for the foreseeable future and that they will continue to be highly disruptive to traditional legal and political institutions. Leaks certainly occurred before the Internet, but the leak by Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning of US diplomatic cables was unmatched in its scale and by Manning’s choice to distribute the cables through the Internet via the Wikileaks website, instead of primarily through a traditional print publication.

The use of DDoS attacks by activists is controversial within digital activist communities. Some argue that DDoS attacks are also legitimate forms of civil disobedience. Others view such activity as akin to digital vandalism. These types of attacks have taken place for decades, in support of a range of different causes, from the Zapatista movement in Mexico to more recent DDoS attacks both in support of and against Wikileaks. DDoS attacks are also frequently used by proxies of the Russian, Chinese, and Syrian governments to attack domestic and international opponents of those regimes. In the case of the Russian election protests, DDoS attacks were also used by the Russian branch of Anonymous to take the website of the pro-Putin youth group Nashi offline. Hackers also released internal Nashi emails that purportedly proved that the group pays journalists and online communities for positive coverage of itself and the Russian government.

The long-term political impacts of these new forms of civil disobedience remain unclear. The Manning case does not seem to have led to any major changes in US foreign policy or to drastic shifts in US public opinion against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Manning has since been sentenced to 35 years in prison. The US State Department cables Manning leaked to Wikileaks appear to have had a larger impact in other countries. For example, the leaked cables appear to have played a role to the Arab spring protests after they were used by activists to attest to the corruption and excesses of the rulers at the time. The evolving Snowden case, however, has led to a national and global conversation about US government surveillance practices, the role of private companies in these practices, and user privacy. The efficacy of DDoS attacks is not entirely clear either, since most sites come back online fairly quickly. DDoS and other hacker attacks seem most useful in raising awareness and gaining attention for social movements, a critical issue for all activists who, even in the new media ecosystem, still struggle to gain attention among the many new voices and sources of information available in the broader media ecology.

Despite the success of citizens in pushing back against governments and corporations, large institutions continue to dominate the Internet space. This makes it difficult for individuals to act autonomously and securely online, especially for activists who may work at cross-purposes to both corporate and government interests. Platforms and software exist that can help citizens counter this trend, such as anonymizers and tools for encryption and secure email and speech. Unfortunately, these tools have not yet gained wide adoption beyond the most tech-savvy of users, but that may change as a result of revelations about the reach of NSA and other government surveillance programs. The renewed interest in these tools was demonstrated recently by the tremendous increase in subscribers to Lavabit’s secure email service, whose owner ultimately closed the company instead of betraying his promise to provide secure email to his customers. But this example also points to a weakness of these tools, as they are often run by small companies or groups of users that do not have the legal and lobbying clout to push back against governments.


Digitally mediated collective action by individuals and groups is constantly evolving as activists continue to experiment, learn, and adapt from one another and from the reaction of states, corporations, and other power holders to their efforts. Recognizing the importance of online, grassroots support, corporate and state actors are increasingly trying to harness the power of the Web as well. It is unclear if governments and corporations will be able to create “astroturf” online communities that have the authenticity and legitimacy of emergent protest movements, but it may be enough to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt through well-financed misinformation campaigns. It is also unclear how widely the lessons of single-issue campaigns such as SOPA/PIPA can be applied, or if new forms of digital disobedience will ever be accepted by majorities as legitimate political acts. The power dynamic between governments, corporations, and citizens has not been totally overturned, but digitally empowered civil society actors continue to disrupt that status quo in ways that was hard to imagine even just a few years ago, and on a global scale that has surprised even the most optimistic among us.


  1. Zeynep Tufekci and Christopher Wilson, “Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations From Tahrir Square,” Journal of Communication, 62 (2012) 363-379
  2. Philip N. Howard, Aiden Duffy, Deen Freelon, Muzammil Hussain, Will Mari and Marwa Mazaid, “Opening Closed Regimes: What was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring?”, Project on Information Technology & Political Islam:

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December 11, 2013


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