Philip N. Howard: When Does Digital Activism Pack a Punch?

Phil Howard

Symposium Magazine this month published an article by CMCS Director Philip N. Howard, which explores the initial findings of a groundbreaking research project on digital activism. In the course of the study, supported by the U.S Institute of Peace, Phil Howard, Mary Joyce and Frank Edwards (both of the University of Washington) led a research team to analyze some 1,200 cases of digital activism worldwide, including around 400 in the past three years.

In the article, Phil describes the nuanced findings of the study, which do not hew to the familiar dichotomies of the debate between digital optimists and digital pessimists. Thanks also to a truly global sample of cases, which went far beyond the best-known examples, the research team found an array of partial successes which involved a rich diversity of tools and strategies that belie generalisations such as "Facebook revolutions" or "Twitter revolts". Many of them may not have involved the toppling of dictators, but yielded dramatic stories of local and regional change nevertheless.

The research paid specific attention to unpacking the answers to the question what the means are that make a digital activism campaign successful - and specifically at mobilizing people in street protest. The answer does not rest on one or the other specific tool being used; instead, a mix of online tools appears the most potent. As a tentative peek into the study's findings, Howard posits that:

[D]igital activism campaigns are most successful at drawing public demonstrations of protest when the government is the target. In addition, they are most successful when the regime is more authoritarian or when the campaign has employed multiple digital tools. [..] 

In other words, patterns of success and failure do not privilege Facebook over Twitter, or Vimeo over YouTube. [..] Having multiple tools, reaching your audience several ways, and having a diverse toolkit are the most important ingredients for impact.