If Information is Identity, Access to Information Technology Is Vital | MIT Center for Civic Media

If Information is Identity, Access to Information Technology Is Vital

This post was written in response to three readings: Radical Media, by John Downing, This is the Voice of Algieria, by Frantz Fanon, and Influencing Public Policy in the Digital Age (PDF), by the Alliance for Justice.

"The technical instruments, when they contain a sufficient charge to threaten a society, are never perceived in calm objectivity." -Frantz Fanon

Communications technologies, like radio, the press, and the internet, are a powerful means with which to change society. For this very reason, daily battles are fought over their control, regulation, and any decision which modulates their capacity for impact.

Fanon tells a rich tale of the critical role radio played in Algerian independence from the French. The relatively simple broadcasting of voice over airwaves had profound ramifications for a people revolting against their colonial oppressors and the conceptual generation of a unified nation-state. Initially unpopular in Algerian homes, the radio came to serve as the revolution's cohesive link and as an important symbol of identity.

We all know that information is power, especially in a revolution, but Fanon goes into greater detail and describes the Algerian revolution through the lens of information. There were literal battles and lives lost over information: who had it, who didn't, where it was acquired from, and what it meant for connecting with one's countrymen.

To the French, the information served up by radio was their primary link to their homeland. To many Algerians, it became the a manifestation of freedom itself. Fanon writes that Algerians listened to the radio not just for critical news, but also because of "the inner need to be at one with the nation in its struggle." Information is not just "the news" to humans, it is an integral thread in our need to connect with one another. Coupled with language, a daily information source can come to represent cultural identity and a sense of community far greater than the information's practical purposes. As more radio stations blossomed, they chipped away at French hegemony. As newspapers became polarized, the mere act of purchasing one at a newstand became political.

Reality, at least in human relations, is often a matter of perception. And the information and media we consume directly informs our perception. It's not just a matter of potential: we are what we read. So let's revisit our own media, radical or not, and consider what it makes us.

Another powerful medium, other than the radio, is photography. When one thinks of everything that happened in the 20th century, a series of iconic photos come to mind. In fact, I'd argue that our collective memory up through the early 1930's is hazy not just because those events happened a long time ago, but because news photography wasn't common until FDR's administration.

John Downing starts his book, Radical Media, with a powerful example: Sojourner Truth knew that photographic images are powerful. And she knew that the only images anyone ever saw of black women consisted of working in the field and toiling over washtubs. This sort of thing has insidious implications for our perceptions of the people pictured. So Truth hacked the media. She sat for portraits, dressed as one would when one sits for portraits, with knitting in her lap. In distributing these photos for years to follow, Truth reclaimed the mantle of femininity for black women in America. (Downing, vii).

Downing explores the radical alternative media, "the small-scale and varyingly formed media that express an alternative vision" to hegemonic policies, priorities, and perspectives. His endlessly qualified, ten-point definition of "radical alternative media" is maddeningly Stewart-esque, but one gets the point.

Downing's point, given the critical role media plays in society, is that media activism is necessary as long as public expression is blocked. The blockage may come from the excesses of capitalism, government secrecy, religious secrecy, or institutionalized racist or patriarchal codes, but it's there, and therefore radical alternative media is needed.

I connected Downing and Fanon's writings to a modern blockage of public expression: Influencing Public Policy in the Digital Age. The question of what social change organizations can and can't do online are, as of this writing, a far less dramatic scenario than the aforementioned. But the existing rules governing how social change organizations can communicate, with their members, other citizens, and elected officials, are a great primer on how to retard the meaningful use of a communications medium to change society.

Today, the internet allows organizations to engage in radical new ways of communicating. Nonprofits fit many of Downing's ten definitions of radical alternative media, in that they are consistently underfunded, frequently small-scale, they represent voices that would not otherwise be heard, appear in "a colossal variety of formats," and they exist to (a) express opposition and (b) "build support and network laterally against policies...of the power structure."

My career thus far has taken place in the epicenter of the nonprofit complex in Washington, DC, and working in technology, I saw the question of "What are we allowed to say on the internet?" come up numerous times. I had to become a bit of a lay expert on the narrow and broad interpretations of 501(c)3 vs. 501(c)4 status,* and the complcations that arise when an organization must inevitably have both, and what this maze of logic means for the poor navigational menus on your convoluted website.

The Alliance for Justice put together a report to attempt to clarify how decades-old IRS policies translate to today's hyperlinked world. The truth is, as with everything worth doing in our country, how far you push the envelope in this murky territory is entirely a matter of your lawyer's opinion (and it wouldn't hurt to have a good lawyer).

In the best of regulations, governments can be aloof and behind-the-times, technologically. There's an anecdote of a lawmaker who didn't give a hoot about digital rights management crippling technology until years later, when his granddaughter couldn't get her iPod to work as it should.

But many of the regulations in the case of nonprofit speech online haven't even been updated.

The IRS has launched a microsite, stayexempt.org, to walk nonprofit staff through the byzantine rules around basic practices like linking to a website.

Rules around advocacy, even on general issues rather than specific candidates, dictate that social change organizations avoid mentioning voting, elections, or identifying where the actual candidates stand on the group's core issues. There are countless other rules about what can and cannot be said, and violation is entirely a matter of interpretation (again, your ability to field a lawyer matters).

The internet allows countless varieties of expression, and the reality of unfettered communication is colliding with false dichotomies imposed by the IRS on nonprofits. One can picture the mid-morning crisis in a Farragut-area office in Washington, DC:

"A politician just 'liked' our Facebook Page! IRS reports never even use the word 'like!'"
"Uh oh...I think this jeopardizes our tax-exempt status. Block him!"

It seems silly, but these questions are coming up regularly as nonprofit employees try to navigate the new media environment. There are rules around elections, taxes, websites, sharing websites between two arms of the same organization, LINKING to other websites, PACs, volunteers, computer usage, and advertising. Can a nonprofit use social media for "lobbying" (talking to elected officials)? What if third parties leave comments on your organization's official blog posts? What if we host a listserv where people speak freely? Countless permutations arise, many of them at ends with the outdated, speech-chilling rules of the IRS. As members and the general public engage with organizations on Twitter and other media that improve communication between public interest groups and the public they represent, the artificial wall around discussing politics becomes more and more ridiculous.

I don't want nonprofits serving as front groups for nefarious political activities, except that they already are, and frankly, probably aren't as efficient a means of breaking the rules as the completely legal super PACs and countless other legal creations established for the sole purpose of funneling cash to politicians so they can buy TV ads and win reelection.

The groups I'm talking about are hardly radical in the traditional political sense of the word. But that's exactly the point. Every day in the existence of a social change organization, there are pressures to conform to a less ambitious agenda. The large foundations and large corporations who fund everything that is done in the space overwhelmingly prefer safe bets. Those seeking to feed the hungry or protect wildlife have better chances than those looking to prevent hunger or fight climate change that will impact all species. The general pattern is to reward those working on the symptoms of problems in a capitalist economy, and to starve those addressing the root causes of these symptoms. The truly radical have an even more difficult time being heard.

Given this environment, the least we can do is fight to keep the internet a free and open platform for alternative expression. Many of the rules restricting the speech of social change organizations (like being told not to bring up elections) fly in the face of the values of our democracy.

*501(c)3 status is regulated because this "nonprofit status" prevents your organization from having to pay taxes. Obviously the IRS has incentive not to allow too huge a loophole here. Except they already have, as 1.5 million such organizations have been created, with widely varying degrees of purpose and efficacy. There's evidence that the IRS has started paying attention, revoking the tax-free status of 275,000 nonprofits.