Sustainable Activism: Reflections From PDF14


The 2014 Personal Democracy Forum offered a great array of panels and inspirational speakers. A core theme was how to encourage more interaction in civic forums, especially through the use of technology. Particularly in this age of social media and the so-called “digital natives” Millennial generation, this seems like an important topic to take on.

While many tools exist for citizens to engage in political dialogue, one of the common criticisms of these tools is that they don’t generate a lot of depth of interaction. The tools encourage “slacktivism,” which is the idea that simply clicking “like” on a political cause, or retweeting “bring back our girls” makes people think they’ve done enough to bring about real change. Zeynep Tufekci highlighted this point in her presentation at PDF when she suggested that while the surface level tools exist for engagement, in contrast to something like the civil rights movement, those tools sometimes fail to create the infrastructure necessary to actually bring about real change.

Nowhere is this highlighted more than in the Occupy movement. This global phenomenon of political movement, which was inspired by the Egyptian revolution, garnered a tremendous amount of attention and certainly raised awareness of a number of important issues of equality. But despite having every technology tool at its disposal, the movement has struggled to retain its momentum because of lack of focus and infrastructure. Some argue that it’s because of the reliance on technology as a substitute for infrastructure, Occupy is in danger of becoming more of a meme than a movement.

This idea was further expanded on by a panel specifically on the use of memes as political discourse, and the potential for memes to evolve into movements. The speakers on this panel, Katy Pearce, Andre Banks, and Jason Q. Ng, highlighted several strengths that memes have, especially their ability to raise awareness quickly through viral distribution across social networks. But they also identified weaknesses in the medium, suggesting that these “high context” messages were largely spread only when humorous or satirical, and often lacked significant political weight, and failed to have a significant impact. Worse yet, because of the potential for government censorship or restriction of access to the internet as we’ve seen in China, Iran and Turkey, this kind of messaging is easily repressed, and those who participate are often easily identified as targets for retribution.

So what’s the solution? First, there needs to be more institutional support for the infrastructure of change. Public and private institutions need to provide funding not only for the gee-whiz technologies that get activism started, but for the long-term infrastructure of organizations that sustains activism in the face of opposition and repression. Second, the tools that act as a first-round engagement need to be developed both to add more security, and to complement rather than replace the core infrastructure necessary to support sustained activism in the face of opposition. While anonymizing tools like Tor and encryption tools like PGP help, they need to be made both more readily available and easier to use for those who are not technologically adept. As other speakers, such as Tantek Çelik of IndieWeb pointed out in his presentation at PDF14, the more that activists can control their own data and rely less on centralized networks to protect their data, the more access they will have and the more options they will have to protect their identity and avoid retribution.

While technology has changed the world of political activism significantly, there is much yet to be done to make the tools available and have them support, rather than distract, from creating sustainable movements for social change.

About the Author: Nate Heasley is the Founder and DIrector of Goodnik, a nonprofit organization that supports social entrepreneurs. Mr. Heasley attended the 2014 Personal Democracy Forum courtesy of The Andrew Goodman Foundation.