The new social and political implications
#BrusselsLockdown. Cats hidden in cabinets, one eye fixed on the scope of an assault rifle, or wearing cardboard armour: on November 22, 2015, cats ran a commando operation on Twitter. The city was on high alert following the terrorist attacks in Paris, and the authorities asked internet users "not to communicate information that terrorists could use online." A ban that web users sidestepped in good humour, with what came to be known as "the kittens of Brussels." Was this funny campaign really so innocent? Not quite, according to André Gunthert, who holds a chair in visual history at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS). According to Gunthert, these images were a humorous means to pass on an inherently political message of protest. In a way, he says, web users took back the power "that ultimately we are denied in the political arena, and which has now been regained."
Social media and forums now give rise to movements, often delocalised, which take the form of hashtags (#geonpi), flash-mobs (les artichauts d’Hadopi), or more organised activist collectives (Anonymous, Occupy, Nuit Debout). These new tools and numeric strength are breathing new life into historic practices like petitions, donation drives, or boycotts. Even political parties and NGOs are getting in on these digital practices. In our democracies, seen by some as ageing, is the internet really creating a lasting revolution in political, and more broadly social, engagement?
Is internet the key to a new militant empowerment?
In 2016, just 1% of French citizens were registered members of a political party. That figure alone speaks volumes on the current disillusion with the traditional forms of involvement in representative democracy. Is the transition to more flexible digital spaces which are more open to society helping stem the drop in activism? Can it encourage older activists and foster new callings? As Dominique Cardon and Thierry Taboy noted in their introduction to this topic, Barack Obama's first presidential campaign (2008) remains a watershed, which created a sense of renewal thanks to a very dedicated team of activists which supported the future president's team online. What remains of that dynamic now, eight years later?
Whether they're called Nation Builder or DigitalBox, activist empowerment Content Management Systems, which are directly based on Obama's campaign, follow a simple principle: providing a full kit with all of the features required for a digital strategy. Website creation and publication, tools to collect donations or track fund-raising, and the resources needed to build a broad community including activists, sympathisers, donors and the merely curious. The heart of the product is the database, which centralises the information gathered online by activists and from other sources (public or private data). Obama, for example, created a virtual war chest with Catalist, "the most impressive database ever created (...) with 220 million Americans listed and up to 600 pieces of data per person," according to the Terra Nova foundation. The objective: to create precise sketches of the communities that will form around the candidates. Who are they? How should we talk to them? How can we mobilise them? Those are the questions that NationBuilder and similar tools are designed to answer. Online magazine Numerama explained that "the real revolution is in communities." Obama used these tools to create a community of 1.2 million "activists."
Thanks to better-managed, more broadly distributed, more personalised communications, as well as an internal social network that can be used to organise independently, digital makes it easier to get involved. This attractive dynamic extends beyond the strictly political sphere. The organisations and NGOs that work with petition platforms (CARE, Osez le féminisme, Climat21) have the same objective: to take advantage of the biggest possible email lists and the information that goes with them, to target e-mail campaigns as accurately as possible, and then view the community of signers.
The use of activist empowerment CRM can certainly increase the relevance and effectiveness of electoral marketing and political and social e-mail campaigns. But does it really create change? Doesn't the activist energy of campaigns like those of Barack Obama in 2008, or Bernie Sanders, who came out of nowhere to nearly defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries, depend on their personalities? On another level, when an "electoral strategy start-up" like Liegey Muller Pons offers customers a way to target undecided, easily-influenced voters, it's certainly an advantage for those customers - but it is also the opposite of a revolution in terms of campaign strategy. In short, not what's needed to revitalise representative democracy.
Donations and boycotts: the mass effect of "small-scale engagement"
Does this evoke a need to go beyond traditional activism? Petitions, micro-donations, crowd-funding campaigns, and boycotts: internet has dramatically increased the number of ongoing day-to-day opportunities for engagement or at least involvement.
When they finance YouTubers on Tipee, sometimes with very small monthly contributions, aren't web users helping support the plurality of information available online? "Small streams make mighty rivers," proclaims the homepage of MicroDon. This initiative, created in 2009 by Pierre-Emmanuel Grande, is founded on the concept of "embedded generosity," which is attached to everyday activities. The system is simple: every time a customer makes a purchase, he or she can decide to round up the amount to the nearest Euro and donate the difference to a partner charity. This social business now also offers a pay rounding system, and plans to expand to monthly bank statements or online transactions. One million euros were collected in 2015. This type of mass effort can refresh historic practices like donations...
Another example: with 130 million users for Change.org and 42 million for Avaaz.org, petitions are increasingly gaining access to the public debate and even to government bodies. For example, after a petition garnered 430,000 signatures in early 2016, François Hollande pardoned Jacqueline Sauvage, who had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing her abusive husband. Naturally online petitions cannot explain everything, and the media does continue to play a key role. Strength in numbers remains the key asset of all pressure groups, something which the website i-boycott.org, created in June 2016, clearly understands. Its ambition: to bring together people who want to get involved in boycotting companies considered socially or ecologically irresponsible to push them to change.
Donations and boycotts: everyone contributes at their own level, like the hummingbirds which inspired Pierre Rabhi, with clicks in the place of droplets. "The fact that it's easy doesn't imply a lack of commitment," argues Benjamin des Gachons, director of Change.org. The people involved in these digital engagement platforms are betting that engagement will increase over time. Just a donation, just a signature, just reposting a hashtag? Online, they say, you have to look at the "journey" as a whole, rather than at individual acts. Why not. But currently data is still lacking, and the question of the true intensity of these clicks, however useful they may be, remains open.
The social and political power of the net: creating new collectives
The unique aspect of the internet is the web users' constant engagement through social networks, forums, comment boxes, blogs and all of the other spaces where they can share information and hold conversations and debates. The internet moulds opinions and produces varied discussions, sometimes on an expert level and in other cases victims of trolling, a “mixture of noise and mobilisation," in the words of sociologist Dominique Cardon. This leads to increased citizen participation.
The emergence of the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag, for example, created a space for debate capable of (re)creating politics. This “noise," which is an accumulation of hashtag-style information and opinions, can also be used to rally a community at specific moments. Example: “the pigeons” (#geonpi). In late 2012, the French government announced the 2013 draft finance law, which was unpopular with certain entrepreneurs. This led to a public discussion on Facebook among several “business angels." Their hashtag was popular on Twitter, and a few days later the first protests were organised, leading the government to cancel the measures they opposed. In just a few days, a community which thought it was barely or not at all represented by the traditional bodies (Medef, CGPME) was able to effectively band together and mobilise.
“The new trend on the internet is creating collectives: we start with individuals and we create collectives in increasingly newer formats,” summarises Dominique Cardon. These collectives can also unite people who do not necessarily belong to the same movements. According to futurologist Valérie Peugeot, “it’s very new." She recalls the movement, which emerged online, as a result of the Hadopi law. Following an online movement combining citizen counter-assessment work and political lobbying, the debate materialised in the public space in the form of flash mobs - notably those of the “Artichauts” - bringing together people from very different backgrounds.
These self-organised, fluid communities which host one-off actions are not always short-lived. Movements like Anonymous or Wikileaks were born on the internet, in the same way that, in another field, Italian political party 5 Star was formed from the blog of Beppe Grillo. According to journalist Xavier de la Porte, “the open data movement can be seen as an indirect consequence” of the Wikileaks affair, “which has changed something in the information ecosystem” by popularising the role of whistleblowers and triggering a profound debate on legislation. Just like “the idea that in a world that is increasingly controlled by information technology, the counter-powers also come from information technology,” which is also strengthened by the impact of Wikileaks. To what extent these developments are indebted to the web as such is still uncertain. This is particularly true given that these developments in the digital world often mix with existing debates, sometimes acting as their virtual sounding board. For example, the petition against the French government's planned labour reforms brought together young people's feelings of uncertainty on the web, exceeding one million signatures in one month. Or the YouTuber collective which launched #OnVautMieuxQueCa (#We’reworthmorethanthat), which freshened up the rhetoric of the law’s opponents, which had been somewhat dry until then.
Is digital actually refreshing activism?
Within this multitude of initiatives, the impression of novelty can be misleading. “The study of activist methods presented as “new” causes confusion between new themes and new activism,” notes political scientist Johanna Siméant.
While digital increases opportunities for commitment or at least involvement, it does not currently seem to have increased the number of activists or engaged citizens. Thierry Vedel, a CNRS researcher at CEVIPOF, notes that in political discussion forums: “A minority of participants gets involved at the very core of the messages, and the majority just read them." This is also the conclusion of Julien Boyadjian, who has worked on “political tweeters." The profile that he has established is “closer to offline activists than non-activist tweeters." That is: those who “tweet” politicised messages are not representative of the internet, but the result of a highly selective social and cultural group.
Sébastien Rouquette, author of a study on comments on press articles, also shows that the reasons for not getting involved are stronger than those for doing so: disappointment in the quality of discussions and arguments, self-censorship, fear of being tracked down or misunderstood, etc. In fact, spaces that encourage free speech, which are more flexible, horizontal or consensual, paradoxically reveal the reality of unequal access to public speaking. Daniel Mouchard had already demonstrated this in 1990 with a study of AC general meetings! The obstacles to participatory democracy and consensus are well-known, but digital does not seem to help people overcome them. We need to be more balanced here, however, as although the initial studies have demonstrated limited expansion, some digital movements have not been researched in depth. This is the case, for example, of petitions, which were already infrequently studied by researchers before their 2.0 incarnation, and remain so despite their new digital versions.
Finally, while many researchers have heralded the emergence of a new activist, opposed to the indoctrination of traditional activism, and more free, mobile, committed on several fronts and enlightened, this phenomenon could be less linked to digital than to a classic trend of dissenting movements. According to Thierry Vedel, “the internet supports and guides more than it creates new forms of militancy which appeared from the end of the 1970s." The anti-globalisation movement - deterritorialised, flexible and horizontal - is often taken as an example. This is a conclusion which is too close to the obvious to be 100% correct: digital increases opportunities to get involved politically and socially, at varying levels of intensity, but it is clearly not enough to “activate” commitment and collective action... which remain dependent on individuals and their culture, education and history.