International Communication in Social Movements and Interest Groups
Summary and Keywords
Ideas and people may be mobilized in order to influence the thinking of policy makers or society to either promote a specific point of view or enact policy in the form of laws or programs that benefit the ideas or people. This mobilization of ideas and people is known as political advocacy, which falls into two broad categories: social action and social mobilization, which can—but not necessarily—give rise to social movements, and interest and lobbying groups. According to Mancur Olson, groups are organized to pursue a common good or benefit. The success or failure of such groups can be explained using models such as the classical model, the resource mobilization model, and the “political process” model. The success of political advocacy is contingent upon a number of interrelated concepts and characteristics, including access to resources (money, people, and time), good leadership, a sense of identity or common focus, and the opportunity to be heard. A movement can distribute its message to its target audience—for example, policy makers, opinion leaders, potential participants, or the public at large—by means of information and communications technologies (ICTs). Two theses are used to assess the effectiveness of ICTs in political advocacy: the mobilization thesis and the reinforcement thesis. The inclusion of international communication has enriched our understanding of how, when, where, and why political advocacy is or is not effective.
Keywords: political advocacy, social mobilization, social movements, interest groups, lobbying groups, resource mobilization model, information and communications technologies, mobilization thesis, reinforcement thesis, international communication
Political advocacy is primarily the mobilization of ideas and people with the goal of influencing the thinking of policy makers or society to either (1) promote a specific point of view or (2) enact policy in the form of laws or programs that benefit the ideas or people.
Advocacy happens in many places and on many levels and through different methods. Descriptions for these methods often include words like grass-roots movements, interest groups, lobbying, and social movements. Though the concept is often associated with democratic societies, these types of activities can happen in non-democratic societies as well. Among the assumptions about advocacy are that democratic, pluralistic societies are loci through which there are many voices that want to be heard and the political process should, theoretically, provide as many avenues or forums as possible for those voices to be heard. In non-democratic societies, these activities are traditionally meant to challenge the status quo and are manifest in the form of protests, revolutions, and underground, clandestine activities.
Who Advocates for Change?
There are a variety of explanations for how ideas reach the ears of those who can make a change in a society. These explanations derive from multiple disciplines, comprising models of political, societal, and economic factors that open or restrict the processes by which advocacy is considered successful or unsuccessful. But first, it is important to ask who does the advocating for political and social change.
One of the recognized theoretical discussions in this area came out of Mancur Olson’s (1971) work on how groups work in the political process. Olson’s basic premise is that groups are organized to pursue a common good or benefit. It is in an individual’s interests to join groups that give them benefits. This is called rational behavior or the maximization of the individual’s interests. Another term for Olson’s groups is “civil society,” which includes interest groups, but also encompasses families, churches, and neighborhoods, associations that may not be political all the time. But an interest group is inherently political. It is an organization that “becomes active in [the] political process and seeks to have an impact on public policy” (Hrebnar 1997:8). An interest group represents a collection of individuals to the government. Interest groups work for the equitable access to public goods or collective goods. These are groups that are trying to get the attention of policy makers to do something for their benefit. But, since they can be part of the policy making process, they may be seen as policy makers themselves. Another important point that Olson raises is the free rider problem: the larger groups get, the more they provide benefits for which members do not need to give much to receive.
A social movement is also a type of group that advocates for political change. The differences between interest groups and social movements are the size and the level of focus. Interest groups usually focus on one particular policy or a very specific issue. Social movements exhibit greater geographic diversity and focus on issues that may require a broad range of policy changes. Social movements are large communities working to change broad social practices and structures. In some cases, interest groups may be subsets of social movements.
There are other terms for these types of groups: vested interests, special interests, pressure groups, and lobbyists (see Hrebnar 1997:8). Some of these terms are used interchangeably and may not always be clearly defined, but all refer to societal groups that are advocating in some way for political, social, and/or economic change.
How Do They Advocate for Change?
Scholars studying social movements and interest groups during the past few centuries have identified a number of factors that contribute to their success or failure. These models have a variety of names and emphasize different concepts as key to the success or failure of the movements.
One is called the classical model, epitomized by the French revolution, which others call a disturbance theory (see Salisbury 1969). The characteristics are a strain in the political structure, such as infighting among the political elites; followed by a disruptive psychological state in those whom the strain affects, like the lack of food; followed by some type of social mobilization leading to change such as riots in the street and massacre of the wealthy.
Another model is called the resource mobilization model. Its conceptual flow begins with a closed system structure, often led by a group of political elites, followed by tactical responses using existing social resources such as funding, people, and leaders, leading to some type of change. This model is usually applied to research on small, targeted activities such as those by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (www.madd.org), a coalition which advocates stricter penalties for those accused of driving while under the influence of alcohol.
Another model comes from Doug McAdam’s (1982) work on the civil rights movement. He called the advocacy during the 1960s in the US the “political process” model. It included political opportunities defined as a willingness in the political structure to listen to proposals for change; cognitive liberation or having a strong, salient message; sufficient and appropriate resources; a response of the opposition which would lend some legitimacy to the advocacy; leading to some type of change.
More recently, Keck and Sikkink (1998) have explained that transnational advocacy networks (TANs) are invaluable in linking domestic interest groups that may be stifled by the system in which they exist with others around the world who may have an interest or a stake in what they are doing. These TANs share information and services, exchange people and experts, and provide outside sources of funding that they hope will lead to policy change. The authors emphasize the importance of “information politics” or the ability to provide information to relevant audiences.
Though they have phrased them in various ways, most scholars have included the following interrelated concepts and characteristics as vital to the success of political advocacy: access to resources (money, people, and time), good leadership, a sense of identity or common focus, and the opportunity to be heard. But each also includes a reference to a movement’s ability to get its message to any number of constituencies – policy makers, opinion leaders, and decision makers; potential participants; or the public at large. The channel through which to accomplish this has traditionally been the mass media. New communications technologies have expanded the channels (media) through which these groups can do their work and distribute their messages.
International Communication and Political Advocacy
One big change these new information and communications technologies (ICTs) create for any movement of political advocacy is another, new window to both see the world and be seen by the world. Though internet websites and email are often used as the principal examples of these ICTs, they are not the only types. There are cell phones, satellites, digital cameras, social networking sites, blogs, video sharing sites like YouTube and others. Some of these are different technologies altogether, others are simply differing uses of existing technologies, sometimes referred to as Web 2.0.
Authors have attempted to place these technologies in the historical context of development. Harold Innis’s (2007) seminal work on the political power of communication networks actually ends with the printing press, emphasizing that the tools used to connect people may simply be extensions of past communications and technological achievements. In his book The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communication, Paul Starr picks up where Innis leaves off, arguing that the connection between political action and citizens “increasingly depended on […] media for access to the public’s eyes and ears” through advances in information and technology (Starr 2004:385). More recently Elizabeth Hanson has placed ICTs in their historical development context by arguing that “one innovation leads to another, as each encourages experimentation to address its predecessor’s limitations” (Hanson 2008:38).
The connection between political advocacy and ICTs is a fluid one. In The Marketing of Rebellion, Clifford Bob (2005) notes that one of the reasons for the international notoriety of some very local protests was the combination of smart targeting of their messages (intelligent use of resources) to international audiences with whom the message would resonate (using appropriate channels). But, more importantly, there were similar protest movements that did not get much international attention. Unexpected good timing can be just as vital as targeted messaging.
Understanding the caveat that, for the most part, ICTs are used for entertainment purposes, their growth and development potentially adds to both the number of voices and the number of channels for their vocalization for political purposes. Ideally, access to structures of political change is not limited to traditional political contacts, but can now come from anyone either at home or through a publicly or privately funded locale – like libraries, universities, or internet cafes. This provides people or groups with the opportunity to get their message out to a wider audience than before the internet.
This characterization is what has come to be known as “internet optimism,” or the belief that ICTs have the potential to have a positive effect on society. There is also the concept of “internet pessimism,” defined as ICTs that are simple tools used to solidify the existing global inequities – in socioeconomic status, in racial and ethnic groups, and in gender, for example. Both of these attitudes have had a profound effect on the manifestation of political advocacy through these technologies or their use for political advocacy. Internet optimists would say that finally unheard groups can be heard and their policy requests can be more seriously considered. Pessimists would argue that existing arms of power can use these new forms of communication to better monitor opposition activities and act to suppress them.
There are two, intersecting ways that this relationship has played out. First, there are a number of new channels and techniques for connecting and distributing a politically mobilizing message. Second, these channels and techniques take place at a number of differing political levels: international, regional, national, and local (or subnational). While these characterizations may not capture every single example, they provide a working heuristic for understanding this complex relationship.
New Channels and Techniques
Across levels and issues, ICTs have provided new channels of communication: websites, email interaction, blogs, video-exchange sites, texting, and social networking sites, to name a few. Some of these have built on existing applications of technology and others are truly new ideas. There are also new techniques such as a different type of activism focused on technological tactics, mobilizing existing or new constituents, and fundraising.
Websites continue to proliferate, expressing the perspectives of many groups on their social, economic, and political status and the potential for change in that status. These range from sites which advocate homes for the homeless (www.homesforthehomeless.com/), food for the hungry (http:/foodbankscanada.ca/main.cfm), and better race relations (www.sairr.org.za/) to others which encourage mobilization for better police coverage of certain areas of a city, changes in neighborhood activities (www.nettila.net/), or the removal of a local judge. With access to the requisite equipment and training, these sites can be updated and changed quickly to reflect the needs of the interested parties.
Email distribution lists have slashed the investment time needed to get a message out to a large number of people. Also, email messages travel much faster and may even be more reliable than traditional mail or even fax to some places. The use of generic email hosting services such as gmail, aol, hotmail, and yahoo has broadened the possibilities of fairly discreet message exchange.
The euphoria about the blogosphere, online personal commentary on innumerable topics, has provided a voice for a variety of politically and socially relevant topics. Blog writers have targeted journalists whom they felt were presenting information that was not sufficiently researched, they have called out politicians for doing things they felt were wrong, and they have mobilized their readers to respond to political situations. In Typing Politics, Richard Davis (2009) argues that blogs are becoming political players simply because politicians recognize that bloggers have audiences and, therefore, have influence over them (see Chapter 5).
Recognizing, again, that much of the venue is used for entertainment purposes, video and photo exchange sites like YouTube, Daily Motion, and Flickr provide space for the exchange of information and the advocacy of a point of view. During the 2008 US presidential campaign period, the candidates utilized this medium to reach potential voters. Bob Boynton studied this phenomenon and initially found that third party candidate Libertarian Bob Barr had the most viewed single video at the outset, even though the other candidates had more total videos, supporting the idea that these new channels provide space for more voices (Boynton 2008:5).
Cell phones and other wireless communications devices can be the locus for many of the applications already discussed. But one specific activity – texting – is unique to cell phones. While this is akin to instant messaging or chatting (or the online activity of Twittering), texting can be politically useful in and of its own right. In their book Mobile Communication and Society, the authors provide a summary of the research that has been done on the impact of cell phones. Not all of it is politically related, but there have been examples of texting in political mobilization. For example, in January 2001, thousands of Filipinos participated in massive demonstrations to oust then President Joseph Estrada. Studies indicate that the gatherings happened principally through cell-phone texting (Castells et al. 2007:186 ff).
Social networking sites are a more intricate form for online communication, moving past chatting, email, and simply visiting websites. Earlier incarnations of social networking sites were called chat rooms (also known as bulletin boards, instant messaging, discussion groups, and, at one time, USENET groups). Participants (or members) of social networking sites are able find other like-minded individuals with whom they can exchange ideas, rant about others’ actions, and, to a certain extent, flame (criticize on the internet) people or groups who they see as responsible for problems. These forums are relatively anonymous. Overall, participants use them to voice fairly strong feelings about a subject. The anonymity also means that participants do not necessarily have to agree with the other participants, but may pretend to do so in order to change ideas or foment dissension.
One drawback to this proliferation of ICT channels is what David Shenk (1997) has called data smog. In his book of the same name, subtitled “Surviving the Information Glut,” he argues that humans have a difficult time processing all the information available through technological sources. Another issue is the passive nature of the medium: users must seek out information and, often, the information they seek conforms to their interests and desires, something Andrew Shapiro (1999) has called “narrowing our horizons,” or the ability to only see what we want to see. But this also means that those who want to mobilize those who think like them to help advocate for political change may be able to accomplish that goal more easily than before.
In addition to new channels, there are new techniques that have evolved to utilize the unique characteristics of the World Wide Web, such as hacktivism, mobilization, fundraising, and fact checking. Much of this activity requires a working understanding of the domain name system. Activists must know how to register domain names and be creative in choosing them. Some of this activity has come to be known as cybersquatting, or buying a number of potential domain names (such as potential campaign site names) and then either selling them to the person or group or creating parody or flaming sites. One way to be a good activist is to find domain names that are very similar to, or a common variation on, the name used by the target of the activism. One group who did not like Microsoft Corporation’s business practices bought “mircosoft.com” and posted negative material about the computer company’s activities.
Hacktivists are usually very technically literate people who utilize the internet and other technologies for politically motivated protests. The most visible form of their actions are “denial-of-service” attacks, which are computer programs designed to disable websites by flooding them with repetitive information. Other manifestations include defacing websites by taking over web pages and replacing them with politically charged pages, stealing and possibly publishing sensitive information that was supposed to be secure, and posting watchdog websites that make constant commentary on an organization’s actions (see, for example, www.icann.org and www.icannwatch.org).
New techniques for mobilization via ICTs are also emerging. Howard Rheingold (2002) discussed this in his book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution describing the use of the internet and cell phones to gather people quickly and relatively anonymously for a variety of purposes. In the 2004 Spanish elections, there is some evidence that text-messaging was influential in the outcome. In Spain, political demonstrations are forbidden in the 24 hours before elections. In this election, cell phone traffic increased 20 percent the day before the election and 40 percent on the day of the election in a virtual political gathering (Pfanner 2004). The election outcome was surprising to many observers, with the defeat of the Popular Party. Though a causal connection cannot be made, the potential of wireless activity as a tool for political mobilization is worth exploring.
In addition, the internet permits information to be posted and disseminated quickly and then taken down just as quickly. During the 2000 US presidential election, a group of activists followed the three presidential debates around the country, mobilizing protestors through quickly created websites whose URLs were www.(the%20day%20of%20the%20debate).org. Though the protests did not result in a large number of protestors, some believe that the participation was increased because of these sites. Other techniques for mobilization have included encouraging mass emails through a website, providing contact information for the targets of the protest and the posting of information that might persuade people to be involved.
A third technique centers on resources, specifically fundraising. With the increasing effectiveness of security software, accepting money online is becoming more commonplace. This trend is not only national. The ease of credit card transactions – and the concomitant ease of foreign currency exchange – coupled with the willingness of credit card companies to provide consumer fraud protection have made the possibilities for donating to a chosen cause global. One unique way of raising money on the web is the example of thehungersite.com (www.thehungersite.com/). Site creators have convinced some companies to advertise with them. Whatever the companies pay for the advertising goes to provide food for their programs. The site encourages visitors to click on the advertising and to buy from the sponsoring companies.
A fourth technique has arisen through blogs and social networking sites. Citizens who monitor government and media are performing their own evaluation of “official” sources of information. In September 2004, a US lawyer watched a story on CBS news discussing documents which claimed that then president George Bush had not fulfilled his duty in the US National Guard. Within 24 hours he had posted evidence on his blog that the documents were fabricated. CBS news anchor Dan Rather backtracked on the story and eventually left the network (Devine 2005:48). ICTs are empowering groups to check the facts from other sources of information.
Detractors claim that the shortcomings of technology plus the monitoring and tracking ability of others with greater knowledge or experience negate any positive impact ICTs may have. It is true that technology does exist to monitor and even prevent “undesirable” communication, but the possible uses – some of which are yet to be discovered – still have provided movements with a platform whose uses are deemed valuable, even if to a smaller rather than larger extent.
As stated above, there are a variety of characteristics that are required to obtain policy change. The information itself (the messages) and the channels through which it goes seem to work in tandem with the other characteristics of access to resources (money, people, and time), good leadership, a sense of identity or common focus, and the opportunity to be heard. In fact, the interrelationship may be necessary for a movement’s success.
Categories of Political Advocacy
Traditional social science has looked at advocacy in two broad areas: (1) social action and social mobilization, which can, but not necessarily, lead to social movements; and (2) interest and lobbying groups. These can also be divided along international and national lines and the distinction is sometimes necessarily blurred as groups target the political entities that can help them achieve their goals.
Social movements can be organized at differing levels and across issue areas. There are national movements, which take place within the geopolitical boundaries of an existing state, such as the Civil Rights Movement in the US in the 1960s; subnational movements, which begin as subnational, but take on greater regional or international dimensions, such as Kurdish attempts to find a homeland or any of the conflicts in the Balkans during the 1990s; and international movements, which focus on issues that are not traditionally tied to a state, such as the abolition of land mines, or the consequences of globalization. ICTs have had an impact on each of these types of movements.
National Movements and ICTs
Movements have an extreme variety of purposes or goals. At a national level, movements are generally those internal to an existing state and whose desired audience is the government of that state and not the regional or international community. Many of these are overtly political – advocating a specific political party or position, ranging from the relatively calm, nonpartisan analysis of public policy (www.publicagenda.org) to calls for secession (www.partiquebecois.org) or political/geographical independence (www.rojavatv.org.uk). Others are social – advocating education reform, improved welfare services, or better race and ethnic relations, sometimes focusing on specific regions and even communities, or even neighborhoods.
ICTs add to this process by providing an outlet for those who might not have one through traditional media channels. For many movements at this level, even though the target audience of their message may be small, some type of technological prowess is needed and even expected. Regardless of the number of page views or responses, a well-designed and well-maintained website adds a sense of legitimacy to the movement. Connection through wireless communication is vital. Grass-roots movements to cut teen smoking or decrease violence on television, for example, use their websites to link to research that supports their position, but that they would never have been able to fund themselves. Because the target is often a local level politician or policy making body, these sites can be used for some very personal interchanges, with photos of the offending garbage dump or testimonials from local citizens.
Interest Groups and Political Platforms
One large subgroup in this area is the use of ICTs by political interest groups and as a tool for political parties. Throughout the 1990s, ICTs became an extremely politicized tool for elections, campaigns, and policy agenda formation. By the beginning of the twenty-first century most candidates and political parties in countries where elections are considered democratic had regularly updated websites. In addition, there were countless interest groups, think tanks, and grass roots organizations that posted their positions. There were also media websites that gathered and analyzed election-related information in unprecedented scope and depth. There was the explosion of parody sites, web pages that made fun of candidates and positions, some clearly and other subtly. And, finally, there was a proliferation of misinformation distributed via technology. One of the most discussed was an email that circulated during the 2008 US presidential campaign claiming to have evidence that Democratic candidate Barack Obama was Muslim. Even though Obama always insisted he was a Christian, information circulating via technology has an impact. “The rumors and misconceptions are under the radar, but their sway with voters shows up in the polls” (Vaughan 2008).
Though the complete, often complex, effects of the internet and other technologies are just beginning to be systematically studied, there is anecdotal evidence of the impact the technologies have had on democratic processes. For example, some scholars credit the internet for the gubernatorial victory of third party candidate Jesse Ventura in the US state of Minnesota. Virtually a neglected candidate for much of the race, there is evidence that Ventura’s websites, coupled with his name recognition as a professional wrestler, were instrumental in mobilizing general support and eventually votes in his win. US President Barack Obama announce his vice presidential running mate via text-messaging – only to people who had signed up to be notified through his campaign website (Stelter 2008).
One area that has been more of an issue in the US, but is also becoming one in some other democratic countries, is the mobilization of the electorate to actually get out and cast votes. In the example from the 2004 election in Spain, turnout at the polls was 77 percent, up from 69 percent in the previous election. One related response is that experiments with voting over the internet have been somewhat successful and the possibilities for widespread use of this technique are on the horizon. But the internet has also been used as a forum for voter motivation. In the US, for example, the nonprofit “Rock the Vote” campaign is designed to inspire a younger generation to be more involved in politics (www.rockthevote.org). Part of its success is its partnership with the global media organization MTV. Even between elections, the movement has made an attempt via its website and other media to keep youth politically engaged.
Subnational Movements and ICTs
One of the unique characteristics about subnational groups is that they seek international recognition and, hopefully, resources and legitimation, for their cause. ICTs provide methods for reaching this goal by: providing a platform to get the message out, sometimes in real time and usually through numerous sources; uniting small, disparate populations that may have similar goals; and focusing them on the situation in one place.
One of the earliest, and most cited, examples of how the internet was instrumental in this process was the rebellion in the Chiapas region of Southern Mexico in 1994. By 1996, the Zapatista rebels were creating web pages and sending emails to the Mexican government demanding protection against the negative effects of neoliberalism on the rural poor. They also used the space to post essays and poetry about the possibility of a “new” democracy in Mexico. Across the internet, they issued a global call for a forum on the issues they were facing and, in July 1996, 3000 grassroots activists from 42 countries met to discuss the situation (see Bob 2005).
A second example is the Kosovo war of the spring of 1999, sometimes referred to as the “Internet War.” The Kosovars spent much of their time trying to stay online (via online radio principally) in order to broadcast their situation to the world. One of the techniques used was online diaries, precursors to blogs. Young people from Kosovo would recount some horrific experiences and post them on websites or send them out to the world via mass emails. These came into the hands of some journalists and some policy makers who used them liberally to support intervention in the area.
Another type of organization is the Chinese religious movement Falun Dafa. Li Hongzhi, the leader and founder of Falun Dafa (www.falundafa.org), was forced into exile in the US. He uses the organization’s website to not only post information, but also mobilize followers. Some believe that an unauthorized demonstration of more than 10,000 people in Beijing was possible because of internet access. The Chinese government has claimed that Falun Dafa is a doomsday cult, that they advocate superstition, provoke disturbances, and threaten social stability. The Chinese government has banned websites about Falun Dafa. It has also installed software that attempts to block internet users in China from all Falun Dafa sites based elsewhere. In addition, it has created an anti–Falun Dafa site in an attempt to counteract the movement. Chinese officials have been known to spam, hack, and put viruses on sites that contain Falun Dafa information.
International (Trans-Border) Social Movements
Truly international social movements usually cut across issues more than geographical or geopolitical boundaries. Groups that have mobilized around certain issues have had varying degrees of success in utilizing ICTs to promote their agendas. Activists around a number of issues have been able to use ICTs: human rights, religion, political oppression, social problems such as hunger and literacy, war/peace, environment, and health. These are different from Keck and Sikkink’s TANs which are defined and global networks that aid a group within a country.
There are some characteristics of ICTs that provide added value for international movements. One is anonymity, or the ability to hide behind technology. A second, seemingly paradoxical, characteristic is the power of the internet to reach large numbers of people and be known for one’s work. Third, as discussed, ICTs can function as a mobilizing agent in the same way as on a national level, but the “governments” which are the focus of attention are international organizations.
Though the technology exists to track down IP address owners and server locations, some movements are able to capitalize on the sense of anonymity that the internet can offer. One group that has made its mark on the internet is the environmental movement known as the Earth Liberation Front (http:/earth-liberation-front.org/). There is no leader and no main office. All communications go through a press officer who says he receives all communiqués anonymously and distributes them via the website and other traditional media channels. Those who want to participate in the front’s activities can go to the website and learn how to accomplish specific tasks like “Setting Fires With Electrical Timers.” If there is interference from governmental authorities, the website provides guidance on what to do: “If an Agent Knocks – Federal Investigators and Your Rights.” The web keeps the movement together in a virtual way.
Alternatively, others want the opposite of anonymity. They want to be known by as many as possible for what they do. One of the most cited examples is Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams’s efforts to eradicate landmines. With some of the same characteristics as the Earth Liberation Front, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL, www.icbl.org) also has no front office, but is an association of independent NGOs working around the world. A description of Williams at the Nobel website acknowledges that something of a “mythology” has arisen that what has made the ICBL so unique has been its reliance on electronic mail. Though not the sole factor, it was an important one.
A third benefit is the ability of individuals and groups to mobilize around issues addressed in international organizations. One of the most visible examples of this has been the protests against the World Trade Organization at the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s, many of which have been promoted through the internet. Another less well-known example is the defeat of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) in the Organization for Cooperation and Development (OECD). The agreement was intended to develop rules on how member states treat foreign investors. It became clear that a broad coalition of NGOs, which were not very well funded, were able to use the internet as a strong component in assuring that the agreement was not passed.
Effectiveness of ICTs in Political Advocacy
For those who study politics and the relationships between the governing and the governed in the context of new technologies these differences between internet optimism and pessimism have come to be called the mobilization and reinforcement theses. Briefly, the mobilization thesis states that use of ICTs will attract those who, for other reasons, are unable, or find it difficult, to make connections in the offline world. These people or groups then organize with the goal of changing a specific policy. Richard Davis (1999:175) states, “This new tool [ICTs] will reinvigorate the public’s interest […] since people will see the potential for acquiring information and expressing opinions.”
The reinforcement thesis claims that all ICTs do is encourage greater activity by those who already would be involved in a politically oriented action. Pippa Norris puts it this way: “The more skeptical perspective suggests that online resources will be used primarily for reinforcement by those citizens who are already active and well connected via traditional channels. […] But this function continues to dash the hopes of those who believe that the internet should facilitate a more deliberative or direct form of democracy” (Norris 2001:218–19). Norris ultimately comes to the conclusion that the reinforcement thesis reflects the reality of the political process.
Some scholars have come down on both sides. Bruce Bimber (1998:158) writes: “There are many theoretical and empirical reasons to doubt a simple and direct connection between changes in information and communication technology and the political behavior of the public.” He continues that “this does not lead me to reject the idea that the Net will have significant effects on public life,” like decentralizing the control of media organizations over the flow of news or opening up the government to more public scrutiny.
One criticism of the research on these two theses is that, for the most part, they have been limited to a national context. But other scholars have been attempting to broaden the perspective. Anna Greenburg (1991) makes the observation that the analysis makes sense when looking only at the individual level. She describes how an analysis of the two hypotheses might look through the eyes of social movement theory, which focuses on groups. She says that the theory points to the central role of institutions and that groups and organizations are a source of “pre-existing communications networks,” for which the internet can be used as a channel (1991:96).
In summary, ICTs are not the only thing that political and social activists need to succeed. But they can add dimensions to existing assets that groups can utilize to achieve their goals. At the same time, there are trade-offs. Groups become more visible and, sometimes, even vulnerable themselves to scrutiny and security breaches. Even though it may be some time before large numbers of individuals around the world are connected to ICTs, groups of activists, as they pool resources, have a good opportunity of exploiting the potential of the internet and other technologies in the near future. In Information and American Democracy: Technology in the Evolution of Political Power, Bruce Bimber (2003:191) finds that ICTs may be the most influential at the very local level with small, often ad hoc, groups because of their ability to have the characteristics of “speed, opportunism, and event-driven political organization.”
The marriage of ICTs with political and social advocacy not only breaks down traditional geopolitical boundaries, but crosses disciplinary and conceptual boundaries as well. Much of the work on political advocacy comes from sociology, and international relations scholars have adapted it to better explain what they see. The inclusion of international communications has enriched the understanding of how, when, where, and why political advocacy is or is not effective.
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Hanson, E.C. (2008) The Information Revolution and World Politics. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.Find this resource:
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McAdam, D. (1982) Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930–1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:
Norris, P. (1999) Who Surfs? New Technology, Old Voters and Virtual Democracy. In E. Ciulla Kamarck and J.S. Nye, Jr (eds.) democracy.com: Governance in a Networked World. Hollis: Hollis Publishing Company, pp. 71–91.Find this resource:
Norris, P. (2001) Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty, and the Internet Worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:
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Wehling, J. (1995) Netwars and Activists: Power on the Internet. At www.spunk.org/library/comms/sp001518/Netwars.html, accessed July 2009.
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Links to Digital Materials
Center for Democracy and Technology Guide to Online Political Advocacy. At www.cdt.org/speech/political/guide/, accessed July 2009. While this website is a little outdated, the materials and links it offers provide a good beginning guide for those wanting to do online political advocacy.
The Earth Liberation Front. At http:/earth-liberation-front.org/, accessed July 2009. This is an environmental activist organization that has no leader, no address (other than this website), and no public organization. It advocates some violent activity for environmental protection that harms things but not people.
European Digital Rights Initiative. At www.edri.org/, accessed July 2009. Members of European Digital Rights have joined forces to defend civil rights in the information society. The need for cooperation among organizations active in Europe is increasing as more regulation regarding the internet, copyright, and privacy is originating from European institutions, or from international institutions with strong impact in Europe.
The Hunger Site. At www.TheHungerSite.com, accessed July 2009. The Hunger Site was founded in 1999 to focus the power of the internet on a specific humanitarian need; the eradication of world hunger. The staple food funded by clicks at The Hunger Site is paid for by site sponsors and distributed to those in need by Mercy Corps and Feeding America (formerly America’s Second Harvest). Funds are split between these organizations and go to the aid of hungry people in more than 74 countries, including those in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and North America.
An Introduction to Activism on the Internet. At www.backspace.com/action/all.php, accessed July 2009. A site that aggregates information internet activism with links to statistics and tools.
ONVIA Tracking Recovery. At www.recovery.org/, accessed July 2009. This is a watchdog website that tracks US President Barack Obama’s economic recovery spending. A nice example of the combination of political ideology and the aggregation of web resources providing information that might be otherwise difficult to find.
The Seattle Community Network. At www.scn.org/, accessed July 2009. One of the earliest online community networks, Seattle has successfully kept its focus very local, working on community-related issues.
Witness: See it, Film it, Change it. At www.witness.org/, accessed July 2009. WITNESS uses video and online technologies to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations. The site says that it “empowers people to transform personal stories of abuse into powerful tools for justice, promoting public engagement and policy change.”