"The Economist" on internet activism | MIT Center for Civic Media

"The Economist" on internet activism

From the defeat of Hollywood-sponsored Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) to the flop of International Telecommunication Union’s crafty treaty, 2012 frustrated many government and company attempts to meddle with the internet. In its first 2013 edition, The Economist presents an interesting balance of what it calls “a big year for online activists”. The British magazine poses a thought-provoking question: are we witnessing the rise of a new organic political power like environmentalism in the 1960s and 1970s?

The analogy is compelling. In its dawn, the environmental movement was an umbrella term for heterogeneous groups: people concerned about nuclear plants, citizens interested in cleaning a particular river, anti-pesticide activists, and so on. Gradually, such different strands came together and eventually formed a complete political platform with a comprehensive discourse­ that went on to wield legislative and executive power – the green parties in Europe and elsewhere.

We can also observe myriad interests in the digital universe: open source supporters, online privacy advocates, governmental transparency enthusiasts, etc. The question is: will they converge to a common project able per se to attain and exert political power?

The Economist’s tentative answer is… no. And it suggests two reasons. First, internet issues hold smaller public appeal than environmental ones: the former can hardly claim that the future of Earth is at stake. Second, the shrink of the so-called pirate parties in Europe exposed the limitations of such a project. So, what is the purpose of digital activism? For The Economist, it is to act as an operational wing for other causes.

Coincidentally, the cover issue of the last MIT Tech Review offers a good example of the ancillary use of digital warfare. “Big data will save politics”, we come to know in the somewhat messianic headline. The issue offers an interview with the omnipresent Bono Vox (who exudes optimism: “the mobile phone, the Internet, and spread of information—a deadly combination for dictators, for corruption”) and a compelling analysis of the digital strategies in the last US presidential election. In another article, political strategist Joe Trippi, in spite of his positive attitude towards technology, provides a cautionary note: “New technologies can manipulate, empower, or do both.”