Research Report: Digital Activism and Nonviolent Conflict

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Leading a meeting of project research assistants in the summer of 2013

I founded the Global Digital Activism Data Set (GDADS) project in 2011 with members of the Meta-Activism Project to create a stronger empirical foundation for claims about digital activism around the world.   The second version of the GDADS, on which this report is based, contains 426 digital activism campaigns from 100 countries and dependent territories,  ranging from 2010 through 2012, coded according to 28 variables.  (The data is available here.)

When I became a graduate student at the University of Washington in 2012 I brought the GDADS with me and it formed the cornerstone of the Digital Activism Research Project (DARP), which I co-founded with Phil Howard, a professor at the university.  We applied for and received a grant from the United States Institute of Peace to hire further research assistants to work on the GDADS, which I managed from 2012-2013.  I wrote the final report in collaboration with Phil Howard, the principal investigator, and Frank Edwards, a fellow student.

Report description from the DARP website:

In order to analyze the relationships between digital activism and non violent conflict, we investigated thousands of campaigns from around the world and assembled protest event data more comprehensive than any previously collected.

We define a digital activism campaign as an organized public effort, making collective claim(s) on a target authority(s), in which civic initiators or supporters use digital media. With a team of over 40 coders, reviewing hundreds of cases and two decades of digital activism, we used the highest of social scientific standards to build the best available data set on one of the most important trends in global politics.

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Digital Activism is Civil, Non-violent, and Rarely Involves Hackers
Despite prominent media coverage of hacking and cybercrime, both physical and technical violence are extremely rare in digital activism.

Facebook and Twitter Dominate Global Activism, But There Are Plenty of Regional Phenomena
Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube may be the most popular tools for digital activism around the world, but there are interesting regional variations. For example, E-petitions are most popular in North America and Northern Europe, regions with strong democratic traditions. Global, there is no “killer app” that makes some campaigns more successful than others.

Success Depends on Target Type and Tool Diversity
If anything, using a diverse digital toolkit causes some campaigns to succeed and others to fail. Digital activism has a demonstrated, positive impact on drawing people to the streets to protest, especially when civil society groups use digital tools and changing government policy is the goal. If the objective is change in government or government policy, civil society groups have demonstrated success with just modest street protests and a few digital tools. Both recipes for success are true regardless of regime type.

Frank Edwards, Philip N. Howard, Mary Joyce, “Digital Activism and Non-Violent Conflict,” Digital Activism Research Project, 2013. 23 pp. Seattle, University of Washington.

Click here to download the report (PDF format).