Hackers rarely involved in digital activism, finds new report by Phil Howard

Phil Howard

Hacking and cybercrime are extremely rare in cases of digital activism despite popular media coverage which would often suggest that the two are closely linked.

This was just one of the findings of the new report Digital Activism & Non-Violent Conflict, which was published by CMCS Director Philip N. Howard on November 20 [Announcement | Full report]. Howard is Professor of Media and Communication Policy and Governance at CEU's School of Public Policy.

“Digital media have transformed the ways in which citizens around the world engage in politics,” states the report, “and there are a growing number of occasions where the internet, social media, and information infrastructure seems to play an important role in the evolution of activism and non-violent conflict.”

Through investigating hundreds of digital activism campaigns from around the world and assembling protest event data more comprehensive than any previously collected, Howard and his colleagues Frank Edwards and Mary Joyce at the Digital Activism Research Project have provided a base on which to build future policy and research related to the effect of digital technology on civic engagement, non-violent conflict, and political change around the world. Phil Howard described some of the definition and methodology issues involved on the CITP's Freedom to Tinker blog, and the researchers have made replication data available.

Key findings

  • Digital Activism is Civil, Non-violent, and Rarely Involves Hackers
  • Facebook and Twitter Dominate Global Activism, But There Are Plenty of Regional Phenomena
  • Success Depends on Target Type and Tool Diversity

The power of digital activism first came to public notice in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings which began in 2010/11 and led to a period of intense political destabilization in many Arab countries, notably in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. The use of Twitter, Facebook and other online tools, especially those available through mobile phones were hailed by activists and the media as powerful tools for a new generation of activists, while threatened governments went so far as to block connections to certain web services and even shut off internet access for their entire populations.

The report suggests that the true effect of these online activism methods has been overestimated however and that the use of Facebook, Twitter or other online tools alone do not guarantee campaign success. Nor has there been a learning curve either for activists or governments which would have caused a rise or fall in the success of campaigns as activists become better able to wield these online tools and governments become better able to combat them.

The data collected in the report provides a much needed source of data on this issue which should inform future reporting, research and policy development.