{ICM820} Digital Dissidents


The dividing line between helpers and dissidents is ambiguous if not arbitrary. Often, a specific issue inspires a community that both aims for socio-political and cultural change, as well as offers support (helper) functions. An example of this could be the YouTube-based It Gets Better project, an  initiative that seeks to offer support for Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, Queer youth.

Similarly, there are different modalities of ‘digitally enabled social change’. For example, in their research, scholars Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport suggest this continuum of online activism from e-mobilization to e-tactics to actual e-movements:

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Digital Dissidents for Democracy

In terms of major aspirations of radical structural change, and acts of resistance, we all are familiar with the the  powerful examples of the Arab Spring, and brave individuals and groups (not only “We Are All Malala” but  also “We Are All Khaled Said”). Yet, political Internet activism has long roots, for example in the Mexican Zapatista movement.

Social media have recently brought different opportunities, and challenges, to E-mobilization, E-tactics, and E-movements. Here’s an insightful account by Rasha A. Abdulla,  associate professor in the department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo: The Revolution Will Be Tweeted. Read her account of Egyptian Spring!

2012-06-28 09.16.42Movements have gone global because of digital media. Arguably, the Occupy Movement, for example, has used an interesting mix of communicative tools and media, from hand gestures to online and mobile organizing — but certainly spread around the world because of social media. (Here’s a fascinating account of the birth of the movement). As we know, Occupy Sandy broadened the movement from protesting to doing hands-on disaster relief work. It also spurred a collaborative documentary project.

Other times, social media platforms feature more spontaneous political reactions and protests, such as the infamous YouTube Muhammad video and its tragic aftermath — and the related Twitter response #MuslimRage that followed, as a protest to a mainstream media story  (a condensed account with a great discussion and a slideshow on HuffPost).

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[Source: http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/19/opinion/obeidallah-muslims-rage/]

This excellent article from The Guardian showcases an array of examples of political digital humanitarianism (my term, but I’m sure you know where I’m going with it). The blog iRevolution, mentioned in the article, is one of my go-to sources of all things techie assistance from disasters to revolutions.

Media Reformers

But, sometimes, digital platforms are not only tools for democracy, but tools for surveillance by non-democratic regimes (as Evgeny Morozov notes).

And that leads us to a very particular form of digital community-building for social justice, the one by those communities that are concerned about our digital (human) rights, and reforming the media themselves, for a more democratic world (the terms often used are Media Reform and Media Justice).

Here’s a short and simple video I did (for a group of Freshmen students) on digital human rights; here’s a related blog post.

In some cases, and countries, media reform efforts take an organized, official form. An anti-copyright movement transforms into a political party, as in the case of the Pirate Party that is active in numerous countries.

Although internet access and digital divide are often considered as basic questions of infrastructure, and hence most often considered as the responsibility of national governments (and activism seeks to change those policies), there are numerous free wireless and mesh network projects that help underserved communities to gain access.

In other cases, issue-driven global communities are formed to counter corporate-driven Internet. Some advocate for, and create, open source code (see Katrina’s great comment on this as a reply for the Digital Helpers assignment); others wish to create a global community that wants to share their creative work with a self-defined licensing, not by corporate-owned copyright. See the short intro to Creative Commons below:


Back to Basics: Internet Freedom

Yet others are fear for diminishing freedom of the Internet itself. Apart from blatant censorship 2012-07-16 13.52.43and dramatic government responses such as the recent one in Syria, there are more ‘subtle’, yet no less important, challenges. Here’s a short video by the journalist/researcher/global internet freedom activist Rebecca MacKinnon (once more — she’s a favourite — in the Oslo Freedom Forum). Using the Nordic telecom company  TeliaSonera as a poignant example, she’s discusses her concern about the ways in which commercial imperatives and business practices may, in fact, endanger free online expression.

Here is an extensive list, compiled by Rebecca, of global and national organizations(communities?),  that work for maintaining the freedom of the networks. (Perhaps you’ll find inspiration from the list for your country case?)

And Personal Democracy Media, an organization of practitioners, scholars, activist, policy-makers already mentioned earllier, offers great video lectures on Net Policy & Activism. The videos showcase how important media policy-making has become in terms of democracy (and possibilities of community-building), and how it thus become a great interest to media-focused activism.


Yet, there are also are those who wouldn’t be interested in participating in global deliberations, but who use direct digital actions to make their voices heard; those whom some call cyber-terrorists, others hails as freedom fighters: The Anonymous and other hacktivist groups. Here’s a great article by the anthropologist Gabriella Coleman on the nature of the Anonymous as a community — “Our Weirdness is Free”. And here’s a Wikipedia timeline on the activism of The Anonymous.

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 3.17.18 PMThese are all concrete examples of the transformative power of digital media. But they still are relatively isolated experiments, digital communities for social justice only in the making. So the question becomes: Are we, postmodern individualist humans, capable of working together for true freedom and equality? Now that we know more about the world, and connect more easily with others, than ever before in human history — can we really accept others? Or are online communities temporary and fleeing constructions?

Technology isn’t good or bad — it is what we make of it. And as one of the founders of the Pirate Bay, the file sharing site that helped to spark the founding of many European Pirate Parties (political parties), notes:

“You can’t beat politics with new technology all the time. Sometimes you have to actually make sure that politics are in line with what people want. A lot of people are giving up on politics and thinking they can solve issues with technology. These kind of arrogant behaviours towards the rest of the society are a bit disgusting,”

Assignment for this week: Video Screening & Blog Post


  • We are screening this movie because it describes the birth and development of an online community of dissidents (helpers? or criminals? Opinions on that differ.) While today’s assignment is about the ethics of communities, do pay attention to the nature of the community. How does it function? Who leads it? What is the relationship between on- and offline activities?
  • Please read  the aforementioned article by the  Coleman on  the Anonymous  — “Our Weirdness is Free”. And check out the Wikipedia timeline on the activism of The Anonymous.
  • Read also this recent news article on the Anon and the KKK.
  • And, please check out the reading “Handbook for Cyber Dissidents” on Dropbox – practical advise on blogging for those who want to have an impact. It also has a great short section on ethics.
  • Your task: To create a BLOG post either for or against hackers like the Anonymous.
  • Please consider this seriously, as we are living in ambiguous times, legally as well as  ethically-morally: Based on your readings for this session, do we need civil society groups such as the Anon to act as watchdogs, and even as those who implement punishments for wrongdoings? Should there be a universal code of conduct for online communities — rights and responsibilities,  a bit like the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If you were to name 2 main rights and 2 main responsibilities, what would they be? And what kind of (global) body could monitor compliance to those rules? Include one or some of these issues in your blog post.


  • Post your thoughts below as a comment. Be patient: if you are commenting here for the first time, as most of you are, I need to approve you and your comment. I might not be online exactly when you post, so you might not see your text immediately. Please note that you can use any name you want when commenting, to maintain anonymity. But, please, use your SJU email as your contact email in the comment so that I can identify you (only I see the email address).
  • Or, if you have your own blog,  or you wish to create a blog, and want to post this assignment there, please do so (bonus!) You can use any blogging platform, (Tumblr, Medium, etc…).  If you decide to do that, just post the link to your blog below (or on Facebook, if you don’t want the link to be public via this post).
  • The Handbook describes how to start a WordPress blog (such as this one). Here are some more thoughts about good blog posts
  • Due by 11/13, midnight.

{learning} The Lessons from the Anonymous


In the course ICM820 we screened the documentary on the hacker group The Anonymous:

This online community, often know for its pranks and anti-Scientology actions, but also for its more directly political actions such as Operation Ferguson and Operation HongKong. We used the Anonymous as a case study of online community-building (or creation, or spontaneous formation) because it is quite unlike many other protest movements and groups form the past. As Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist who has researched the group for a long time, noted in an article few years ago:

ANONYMOUS, WHICH CAME INTO BEING on the online message board 4chan eight years ago, is by nature and intent difficult to define: a name employed by various groups of hackers, technologists, activists, human rights advocates, and geeks; a cluster of ideas and ideals adopted by these people and centered around the concept of anonymity; a banner for collective actions online and in the real world that have ranged from fearsome but trivial pranks to technological support for Arab revolutionaries. In recent months, Anonymous has announced audacious plans to take down the seemingly invincible Mexican drug cartels; instigated and promoted the nationwide Occupy movement; and shut down the website of the Florida Family Association, which is behind the campaign against the television show All-American Muslim, and leaked the names and credit card numbers of donors.

This diversity of actors and purposes, alone, is a significantly different premise than that of many non-digital groups/movements, allowed precisely by virtual communication and organizing. Yet, we found several other take-aways that the Anonymous can teach us:

The SPEED and FLUIDITY of online communities:

What we took away from the documentary is that these online communities, while relatively easy to build, can be used in various ways. It’s almost scary just how quickly this movement came to be.

This is very much related to the lack of defined leadership – ideas and Operations take on like viral memes (this is the critique also about humanitarian campaigns such as KONY2012 – a viral campaign that overshadowed everything else related and then died so quickly):

As one Anonymous member said, we are like a flock of birds flying, if one moves we all move in the same direction. Somewhat like a push and pull movement that extends over a large amount of emotional spectrums.

ACCOUNTABILITY as a capital for (future) online communities that want to make a difference:

While these individuals or groups act anonymously and randomly, who is there to take accountability for the actions, especially when it causes people’s lives to be ruined? Stan Lee once said, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and the fact that these hacktivists have an amazing talent and a great deal of potential but are not owning up to it takes away from their credibility.

The power of the INDIVIDUAL in digital activism (think of Ed Snowden, too):

In the World of anonymous if you’re keeping your plans for your business secret, that is wrong, and all of your private files will be exposed, whether they hurt someone or not. All it takes is one person from the community to feel offended and boom, anonymous is blowing up your emails and phone lines, and creating horrifically mean memes and protesting outside your organizations doors.

At the same time, often the question for the Anonymous is about OUR FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS, as embodied by Internet Freedom. However varied as a group, the Anonymous exemplifies that , there is a new battle over meaning regarding freedom of expression, privacy, and so on, that is shaping our digital lives, globally:

Anonymous proves that, at the same time they are actually, whether legal or not, they are going out there and attempting to preserve our constitutional rights and freedoms.

We see that the overarching theme is to have something in common, whether that be a location, an idea, a favorite TV show, or a passion for fitness. In this case (as was stated in an earlier post) it was a group of ‘misfits’ with similar views on censorship, information freedom, and government policies who realized the truth of the age-old adage, ‘there’s power in numbers.’

While a lot of Anonymous’ efforts have been childish and unimportant, their efforts in the Middle East, their attacks on the hypocrisy of PayPal, Mastercard and The Church of Tom Cruise as well as similar organizations like Wikileaks, show that they have an important voice in society; the people should not fear its government – the government should fear its people.

Online, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE. You can find others who are interested in the same ideas, issues, products, etc. (think of Anderson’s Long Tail business model for the digital era, or Godin’s “We are all weird” slogan)…

In terms of what can this teach us about digital community building in general – is simply, it’s possible. If you have a group that feels strongly about something, truly believes something needs to be brought to justice, you can cause a blip in the system.

No matter who you are, what your cause is, and what you’re fighting for, on the internet you’re always bound to find someone who is willing to take up arms with you.

Or, as quoted by Gabriella Coleman: