The Historicity of Digital Activism - Guobin Yang

The Historicity of Digital Activism – Guobin Yang

As we talk about digital activism #Now and assess the opportunities and threats facing it, it is necessary to emphasize its historical character. This is because there is a tendency in current discourse to treat digital activism as something never changing. Often, those who reject it as slacktivism or who embrace it as revolutionary both make it sound as if digital activism had an inherent and fixed character and were the same everywhere. The question of whether there might be differences across time and place is rarely asked. Asking such questions is to recognize that digital activism has histories — that it is a product of historical conditioning in specific contexts.

To show what may be gained by asking such questions, let me briefly compare and contrast two unlikely bed fellows in the galaxy of digital activism – China and the United States. At the risk of simplification, it may be argued that institutionalization is the distinctive feature of digital activism in the US, whereas digital activism in China is most notable for its non-institutional or extra-institutional character. These differences are not simply reflections of the two different political systems, but are formed in a historical process of social conditioning and everyday practices.

To say the very least, digital activism in the United States today is a facet of everyday life. It is dynamic, omnipresent, and is manifest in multiple forms. On the surface, the same could be said of digital activism in China, where, despite a powerful regime of internet censorship, digital activism has thrived. Yet the similarities stop there. Compared with the US, the diversity and dynamism of digital activism in China are of a very different kind.

Both in China and in the US, digital activism encompasses two broad categories. Sometimes, the internet is used to organize and mobilize offline activities. At other times, dissent and protest take place mainly online. Sociologist Jennifer Earl refers to the first type as e-mobilization and the second type as e-tactics or e-movement. Although both types abound in American society and although it is increasingly difficult to differentiate one type from the other, there is still a tendency in public and academic discourse to applaud e-mobilization that can successfully turn people into the street and to depreciate e-tactics and e-movement that is confined largely to internet networks. The extreme kind of criticism views digital activism of the e-tactics/e-movement type as clicktivism or slacktivism.

David Karpf counters convincingly that clicktivism, such as mass emails sent by advocacy organizations, is only a single tactic in a whole repertoire of action used by advocacy groups and it is unhelpful to understand it in isolation from the other components of the repertoire. Even so, there is still an acknowledgement that digital activism sits on the lower rung of a ladder of engagement which includes other, more effective forms of citizen participation.

If there is a ladder of engagement in China, then the online type of digital activism would rank much higher on the ladder in China than in the US. In China, ordinary internet users, known as netizens, and dissidents alike see the internet as essential to political expression and use it as such. When they protest online, their voices may be powerful enough to challenge government policies and officials’ behavior. That is why these online protests, labeled as “internet mass incidents” in official discourse, are viewed as serious threats to the legitimacy of the party-state and carefully guarded against through internet censorship.

Why is digital activism low on the ladder of engagement in the US and high in China? In significant ways, these differences reflect the institutionalization of social movements in the US and the lack of it in China. In any institutional field, including social movements, newcomers (in this case digital activism) are relatively weak; they run up against the established rules of the game in the field. In the United States, formal organization is by and large the rules of the game for social movements.

Since the radical protests of the 1960s, social movements in Western industrial nations have become institutionalized, characterized by the bureaucratization of social movement organizations and the routinization, rather than radicalization, of claims-making activities. Money, membership, and other resources have become crucial to the survival of bureaucratized organizations. The Internet developed in the United States alongside a firmly established civic society of non-profit, community, and social movement organizations.

The use of new media technologies by online activist organizations is embedded in a rich tradition of the operations of membership-based civic organizations. And so we see that alike other social movement organizations or interest groups in the United States, also online organization like are membership-based. Thus, more often than not, the Internet is treated merely as a new tool for carrying out routine activities (such as fundraising) for preexisting civic associations. Spontaneous and unorganized forms of online action of the kind known as “Internet mass incidents” in China are not only uncommon, but may be viewed with suspicion. For example, the unorganized but collective efforts in 4Chan and Reddit online communities to search for the Boston bombing suspects after April 15, 2013, a kind of online collective action not unlike the online hunting for corrupt government officials in China, was met with public criticism and cries of vigilantism.

In China, by contrast, digital activism was born into a weak civil society in the late 1990s. At that time, new types of NGOs were beginning to emerge, but they had minimal influence in interest articulation. Organizing for street protest faced great risks in a politically repressive environment. The mass media were owned and controlled by the state. Meanwhile, public frustration and anger with social injustices and government corruption were deepening. Under these circumstances, citizens and dissidents took to the internet to seek a voice. They found it there and then refused to let it go even as the government kept strengthening its censorship of the internet. By the early 2000s, a culture of contention and protest had already formed in Chinese BBS forums and online communities.

It is true that a culture of entertainment and play was emerging at the same time. Yet despite its diversions and distractions, it has not eroded the contentious aspect of Chinese internet culture. Indeed, mingling politics with play, Chinese netizens have developed a rich culture of using humor, puns, and coded language to express protest and evade filtering software. Harmonizing an online posting means censoring it. To be invited to tea by the police means trouble. Grassmud horse is not an animal, but the homophone of a curse word. Furthermore, seemingly apolitical issues – such as the sex diaries of a female blogger, a spoof video mocking a big-budget but unpopular film, or service blackout in online gaming communities – could also trigger Internet protests.

Although these issues attract attention more for their entertaining contents than politics, netizens often turn them into political discussion. In 2009, an online community of the popular computer game World of Warcraft agitated when its gaming service experienced a temporary blackout. A cryptic and apparently innocuous phrase–“Jia Junpeng, your mother wants you to go home to eat”–went viral in the gaming community, only subsequently to be appropriated by activists as a political slogan. When an activist-blogger was later detained by the police, his sympathizers sent postcards with the phrase to the police station, petitioning for his release.

A contentious Chinese Internet culture thus took shape through the interaction of multiple forces over a period of five to eight years after China was connected to the internet in 1994. What merits emphasis in this process is the role of users’ practices and habits in their daily production, circulation, and consumption of online content.The everyday practices of Chinese netizens combine elements of existing forms with creative adaptations of old forms or new inventions. They carry the burdens of historical memories and present concerns. To many, bulletin board postings were electronic versions of big-character wall posters, an important form of public expression in modern Chinese history.

This historical memory influenced the way people used BBS and partly explains why BBS was used for airing grievances from early on. On the campus of Peking University, an area called the “Triangle” had long been the center of campus wall posters in political campaigns and social protests. Not surprisingly, “Triangle” became the name of a university-affiliated BBS forum, one of the most active of its kind in its heyday.

When Sina launched its microblogging platform Weibo in August 2009, few people anticipated its fast track to success and national and even international influence. Many viewed it as a bad imitation of Twitter. Yet before long, user habits, Sina’s management practices and marketing strategies, as well as the contingencies of political control and the earnestness for personal expression, jointly gave Weibo a unique character and enormous popularity. In the first minute of the Chinese New Year in 2014,  863,408 messages were sent on Weibo. It is in the middle of such voluminous online traffic that many major online protests in recent years have taken place on Weibo.

From early on, Weibo allowed users to post videos and images directly with a tweet, a function that Twitter initially did not have. These videos and images were circulated numerous times along with comments using Weibo’s innovative forwarding and commenting functions. In comparison, Twitter’s retweeting function does not yet allow users to add comments to their retweets. Sina Weibo has many other minor functions that encourage user interaction and community-building, which have contributed to the rapid growth of its user base.

There are recent reports of the decline of Weibo and the rise of Wechat. Yet both my own observations and the comments made by some Weibo users, corroborated by the intense communication patterns on Weibo after the Kunming training station terrorist killing and the mysterious disappearance of the Malaysian Airline aircraft MH370, suggest that Weibo is well and alive despite a crackdown in the summer of 2013.

Has microblogging, or Web 2.0 more broadly, fundamentally changed the game of digital activism in China and elsewhere? One way of gauging an answer is to think of today’s internet landscape as still in the age of Web 1.0 but with the significantly larger size of internet users of the Web 2.0 era. What if over 500 million Chinese internet users are using electronic bulletin board systems (BBS) and not Weibo? I think they would be just as contentious and vocal as they are on Weibo. When internet protest started in BBS forums in the 1990s, there were significantly fewer numbers of internet users, but the forums were still alive with protest. It is not necessarily social media per se that generated the recent wave of digital activism in China or elsewhere. One might even argue that social media was born into an age of protest and at least partly owed their commercial success to this social condition.

Despite its efflorescence, digital activism has not become a legitimate and institutionalized form of interest articulation in China. Perhaps it is precisely because of its extra-institutional character that it is still a force for the state to reckon with. That is why “Internet mass incidents” are an anathema to state authorities. At the same time, government efforts to contain digital activism have only been partially successful. This is partly because habits already formed are hard to change. But again, it is also because digital activism is linked to broader social and political conditions, such as corruption and social injustices, which are themselves impervious to change. Under these conditions, digital activism persists as an important form of political engagement in Chinese political life.

Guobin Yang
University of Pennsylvania