The fine folks at Syracuse University’s Humanities Center invited me to deliver the keynote address in their annual symposium series, this year focused on “Networks”. Here are the notes and slides from my talk, with the somewhat weighty title, “Insurrectionist Civics and Digital Activism in the Age of Mistrust.”
About six weeks ago, I was in Accra, Ghana, one of my favorite cities in the world. I was meeting with a group of bloggers and social media users, because that’s what I do – I study digital media in the developing world, and specifically the ways people use media to make change. So I was thrilled with the guy in the red hat – Efo Dela – told me that he was one of the organizers of Ghana’s Dumsor protests.
Dumsor is Twi for “on/off” and that’s what’s been happening to the electric power in Ghana for the last year or so – it keeps going on and off, turning off for 12, 24, 36 hours at a time. In part this is happening because of climate change – there’s very litte rain so there’s not enough water in Lake Volta to provide hydropower.
But it’s also because Ghana’s no longer a desperately poor country, and these days, there are lots of people with air conditioning and television in a city like Accra, and they’re as pissed off as you and I would be if the power kept going off, especially because it’s 95F and humid in Accra much of the time.
Efo helped organize and promote a march of 5000 people from the outskirts of the city into the area around the capital, which got a lot of attention, because protests of that scale are very unusual in Ghana. Knowing that he’s a big figure on Ghanaian twitter, I asked him whether a lot of people in Ghana used the internet for political organizing, as he’d done. He immediately corrected me, saying, “Whoa, man, I’m not political.”
There’s a lot of places where I work where activists tell you that they’re not political, because to be seen as political is to risk your life. But Ghana’s not one of those nations – it’s a stable democracy that routinely scores higher on indexes of press freedom than the US.
So Efo wasn’t afraid of being arrested.
He was afraid that everyone else in the room would think he was an idiot.
Efo explained to me that Ghanaians are so frustrated with politics that within his generation of young, internet-savvy guys, no one wanted to be associated with either of Ghana’s major political parties. In fact, the easiest way to lose credibility in the Ghanaian internet community was for someone to declare you a member of the NPP or the NDC, the two major political parties, because at that point, anything you say is assumed to be said purely to score political points. To keep the online audience he currently reaches and to be effective at mobilizing people, Efo can’t even be seen being too friendly with politicians or prominent members of either party – he avoids even being in the same photographs with people who are closely associated with either major party.
As I listened to Efo explain his anti-politics to me, I was reminded of other conversations I’ve had in the past few years. Friends in Nigeria who took to the streets to protest that country’s removal of a fuel subsidy, which ended up raising prices on transportation and food, causing hardship for most ordinary Nigerians. Activists in Pakistan and India who collect information on corruption, reporting police or customs officials who ask for bribes, or taxi drivers who cheat passengers, using crowdmapping to document these patterns. Friends in Russia who use the internet to collect resources for people affected by natural disasters and provide relief that the government should be, but isn’t providing. What these movements have in common is the youth of their organizers, their use of digital media to organize and promote, and an insistence by their organizers that these efforts are not political.
You may have noticed that we’ve entered our 20-month long election process here in the US, and the front runners – at least in terms of pundit attention – are people who aren’t politicians – Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina – or who are at least very unusual politicians, like socialist Vermont representative Bernie Sanders. For many years, voters have been telling pollsters that they’re sick of politics – perhaps this is a year that people start voting that way as well.
If you happen to be running for office, this does seem like a wise time not to be a politician. When Gallup asked Americans in late 2014 about whether they would rate the honesty and ethical standards of a given profession as high or very high, politicians came out lower than used car salespeople and ad executives. (People who teach at colleges and universities come out at 53% in a poll in 2012, which leaves us well behind doctors and nurses, but better than lawyers.)
I teach civics, so you’re probably expecting me to tell you that this is a national crisis, that we need to figure out how to revitalize a generation of voters so that we don’t lose all that’s miraculous about American democracy, so we can strengthen what’s best in our political system and help emerging democracies in Ghana, Nigeria, India and everywhere else in the world that’s experiencing a crisis in democratic faith.
Unfortunately, I’m not that guy.
Actually, I’m having my own crisis of democratic faith at the moment. As we head into the 2016 elections, I’m having real trouble getting excited. Three years after the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook, we seem no closer to passing significant gun control legislation. We’re seeing unmistakeable signs that our climate is changing, but few signs that our legislators see this as a problem, never mind one that we could and should address.
I have enormous respect and fondness for friends like Eric Liu who are working to revitalize American democracy, appealing to our sense of patriotism and asking us to be part of the change we want to see in the world. I want them to succeed. But I’m starting to think that what’s going on in the US right now requires a different approach. I think we’re at a moment of very high mistrust, not just in government, but in large, powerful institutions as a whole. And I think if we want to revive our civic life, we need to think about a vision of civics that’s appropriate for an age of widespread mistrust.
Pew Research Center compiled dozens of polls to show the decline of American’s trust in government over the past few decades. In 1964, 77% of people told pollsters that they trusted the government in Washington all or most of the time. By 2011, that number was down to less than 20%. And while it’s rebounded slightly since that low point, I would point out that the only time in my life that a majority of Americans said they trusted the government was just before we invaded Iraq under false pretenses.
What’s interesting – and disturbing – is that Americans are losing faith not just in government, but in a wider set of institutions of public life. Gallup regularly polls Americans on their confidence in fifteen institutions. Over the past four decades, trust has increased in only two of those institutions: the military, and small business. For other institutions, trust has decreased, or collapsed. In 1975, 80% of respondents trusted medical system “a great deal or quite a lot” – by 2014, that figure is down to 37%. While no institution fares worse than Congress, down from 42% in 1973 to 8% now, it hasn’t been a good few decades for banks, big corporations, newspapers, television news, public schools or organized religion.
This rising tide of mistrust isn’t limited to the United States. Public relations firm Edelman conducts similar polls in countries around the world, asking about trust in a broad set of institutions and finds that trust is shrinking in most European nations. Where trust remains high is in a set of nations that includes successful autocracies like UAE, Singapore and China, countries that have made an implicit deal with their citizens that economic advancement will come at the expense of constraints on democratic participation.
It’s not hard to think about why levels of trust are lower in 2015 than they were in 1965. Richard Nixon’s criminal misconduct and impeachment was deeply corrosive to Americans’ faith and confidence in the presidency, specifically, and government more broadly.
The long reigns of Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s were another blow to confidence in government, as our most prominent political figures told us time and again that government couldn’t do anything right and that only the private sector could be counted on not to screw up important projects.
And in the spirit of bipartisanship and fairness, I’ll note that we could argue that Clinton’s extramarital affair and the ensuing impeachment didn’t do much to increase American’s confidence in their government or the people who led it.
More recently, we have evidence that our government isn’t capable of taking on really big challenges, like protecting the residents of New Orleans from the wrath of Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing flooding. Our catastrophic failure to protect people in the path of the storm and the flooding that followed suggested that the wealthiest nation in the world was surprisingly incompetent and powerless.
For those who’ve maintained faith that markets can save us if no other institutions can, the financial crisis of 2007-8 should give pause. Our most powerful financial institutions look shaky and fragile, and surprisingly dependent on government intervention to stay afloat.
The changing shape of media over the past forty years has a role in the rise of mistrust as well. Woodward and Bernstein showed us that the press was capable of exposing abuses at the highest levels of power, and encouraged a wave of investigative journalism aimed at exposing corruption in powerful institutions. The rise of the web has meant that you don’t need a powerful media organization to raise powerful questions through the media. The ability for people to publish and debate online has given us the revelations from Wikileaks and from Edward Snowden. But we’ve also seen the rise of a culture where everything’s up for debate, where the idea that the American president is a “secret Muslim” is debated for years online and off.
MSNBC commentator Christopher Hayes offers helpful vocabulary to understand this moment in his book “Twilight of the Elites”. Hayes suggests that the most significant divide in US politics today is not between left and right but between “institutionalist” and “insurrectionist” approaches to civic life. Institutionalists believe we need to strengthen and rebuild the institutions that have brought us this far, while insurrectionists want to overthrow the power of those institutions and either build new ones in their place, or see whether we’re able to exist without these sorts of institutions.
It’s not hard to see examples of insurrectionism in contemporary politics. Hayes identifies the Tea Party as the locus of insurrectionism in the Republican Party. As we’re seeing with the challenge of finding a Speaker of the House, those who would rather shut down the US government than compromise on Planned Parenthood or Obamacare are surprisingly powerful, in part because many really do want to shut down the government. But insurrectionists include those on the left who aren’t willing to line up behind Hillary Clinton because they’re not convinced that beating the Republicans would be a real victory if it leaves us with four or eight more years of partisanship and gridlock.
But there’s evidence of insurrectionism outside of politics as well. At MIT, we’re in the midst of an entrepreneurship craze – you may be experiencing this at Syracuse as well. The coolest thing you can do as a college student is graduate – or leave before you graduate – and found a startup. The lamest thing you can do is join a large, established company – and large, established companies no longer mean IBM or Bank of America, they include Google. There’s a strong sense that the way in which you can leave your mark on the universe is not through existing, powerful institutions but through small, nimble structures that haven’t yet had time to become calcified and bureaucratic.
So insurrectionism looks like more fun than institutionalism, and I’ve already made it clear that sympathetic to the insurrectionist stance, at least for the purposes of this talk. But there’s an open question for insurrectionism and civics: Can insurrectionists make meaningful, lasting social change?
My choice of images here suggests that I think the answer is yes, but I want to complicate that story. The image is from the March on Washington, one of the high points of the US civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. led over a quarter million Americans to Washington to demand an end to segregation and discrimination, and in the following years, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. But for the March on Washington to be effective, Reverend King and the rest of the movement had to influence a government that was capable of passing these powerful and sweeping laws. I don’t have confidence that a march on Washington could have this effect today, that our Congress could pass reforms on this scale. And if we can’t march on Washington, where do we march?
The model pursued by the civil rights movement is one we still use today: elect the right people to office, and influence them so that they take action on the issues you care about. In other words, our power as citizens comes from influencing the institutions that govern our country. The NRA are institutionalists when they work to influence legislators to oppose any gun control, and the Human Rights Campaign are institutionalists when they work to bring equal marriage to the Supreme Court. Despite radically different points of view, their core methods are similar, and they both depend on confidence in these core civic institutions.
But change is lots harder for insurrectionists. If we decide that Congress no longer represents the will of the people – because members are so beholden to donors, because representatives now have to speak for 700,000 people rather than the 30,000 they spoke for when we founded the nation, because partisanship is so high that very little legislation gets passed, then any strategy that involves Congress – whether it’s elections, lobbying, letter-writing campaigns, sit-ins, or even marches – can’t accomplish major change.
And so, often, insurgents are revolutionaries. They have lost confidence in the possibility of making change through any existing institutions, so they wanted to smash them all and start again. That’s what we saw in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Sudan, countries where cartoonish dictators had ruled for years and where every institution of the public and private sector was part of an unjust system. And when people rose up against those governments, we tended to root for the revolutionaries, because it seemed absurd and impossible that these corrupt institutions could be reformed or changed.
But it hasn’t gone so well for the countries of the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, where activists launched the revolution that spread throughout the region, civil society leaders received the Nobel Prize for the simple reason that theirs is the only nation that had a revolution and didn’t descend into anarchy. The successful revolution in Libya and the failed one in Syria have both turned into bloodbaths. In Egypt, we discovered an uncomfortable truth of revolutions – if you topple a powerful authority, the likely outcome is that whoever was next most powerful and organized will take power: in Egypt, it was first the Muslim Brotherhood, then the army, an institution that has demonstrated that it’s capable of the indignities and cruelties of the Mubarak regime.
Revolutions where we replace existing flawed institutions with new, different institutions are exceedingly rare. That’s one way to understand the Occupy movement. The goal of Occupy wasn’t to oust a president or a mayor, but to change the way our society organizes and governs itself. That’s a tall order – many people involved with Occupy would argue that the movement had difficulty governing itself within encampments, never mind scaling the model of General Assembly to govern a city or a nation.
If we’re skeptical that we can make change within institutions, if we’re worried that many revolutions seem to lead to more harm than good, what’s left to try?
I’m seeing lots of examples of a third way, a form of civics that starts with a simple question: “What’s the most effective way I can be a civic actor?”
In 1999, professor Lawrence Lessig wrote a book called “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace”. It was a seminal book in the field of cyberlaw, but turns out to be very handy for activists as well. Lessig wanted to explain how societies regulate behaviors. We use law to make some behaviors legal or illegal. But we also use markets to make some undesirable behaviors expensive – think of taxes on cigarettes. We use norms to regulate: no one enforces a law that says we walk on the right side of the sidewalk or a staircase, but most people do. One of Lessig’s key contributions of the book is pointing out that code – as well as architectures of the physical world – can make certain behaviors possible or impossible. Put a CD into your laptop, and your operating system will probably offer to make a copy of the disc and store it on your hard drive. Put in a DVD, and it will allow you to watch the movie, but not copy it. Code makes one behavior – ripping a CD – easy, while making ripping a DVD hard.
These methods of regulating rarely exist in isolation – we usually use a mix of law, code, norms and markets to shape behaviors. But understanding these as four particular ways to influence human behavior is helpful.
I find Lessig’s four methods of regulation especially helpful for activists. I think of the four forms of regulation as levers an activist might try to move. And when one of those levers is stuck, it’s often a good idea to pull on the other three levers. If you’re frustrated by your personal inability to make change through law – the essence of institutionalist activism – either because you think our institutions or broken, or you despair at your personal ability to change them, you’ve got at least three other ways to try to change the world.
I’m deeply frustrated – ashamed, really – by US government surveillance of domestic and international users of the internet by the NSA, as revealed by Edward Snowden and the journalists who worked with him. But I don’t have a lot of confidence that either President Obama or this Congress will make more than cursory changes to our surveillance apparatus… and I’m not sure how I’d even verify that these changes took place, given the NSA’s track record of lying to Congress.
So it’s gratifying to see a wave of activism that focuses on building tools to make communications unreadable even by intelligence agencies – Signal, Mailvelope, PGP and Tor. This software is challenging to build, and it can be complicated to be involved with these projects – friends who work developing open source security software tell me that they have a very hard time flying in the United States due to frequent supplemental screenings. But the adoption of this software as it becomes more user friendly shows the potential to make change in an area where change sometimes looks impossible.
So maybe surveillance doesn’t have you worried. Climate change should. But it’s been fascinating to watch entrepreneurs look for ways to make money and make change around alternative energy, from the boom in home solar installations, and the adoption of wind turbines as alternative revenue stream for farmers in rural areas. Most visible may be Elon Musk’s ambitions for Tesla motors, where he’s trying to build the world’s most desirable car that just happens to be battery powered. It’s worth examining whether these strategies are really routing around mistrusted institutions – Musk is seeking some massive subsidies to build his plants, and I’d be a lot less likely to put solar panels on my roof without a tax break. But these are definitely efforts that try to make change one consumer at a time rather than one law at a time using the power of markets to make change at scale.
The years since Trayvon Martin’s death have made clear that the US is not the post-racial paradise some had hoped for after President Obama’s election. And the death of Michael Brown was a reminder that black teens are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white peers. The #blacklivesmatter movement wants to pass laws, but its leaders also recognize that disproportionate violence against black people isn’t going to be ended just by passing laws or putting cameras on every police officer – it was already illegal for Michael Slager to kill Walter Scott. We need to change the norms of our society so that black men and boys aren’t automatically viewed as potential threats.
There’s a tendency to dismiss online activism as slacktivism or clicktivism – and no doubt some is. But online activism can be very powerful as well, particularly when it comes to shaping norms.
#iftheygunnedmedown was a campaign to call attention to the images used to portray Michael Brown after his death. Media outlets found Brown’s Facebook account and chose a picture where Brown was photographed from below, giving prominence to his height. Media outlet The Root found another Facebook photo in which Brown looks much less intimidating, and juxtaposed the two, asking “If they gunned me down, what picture would they use”, pointing out that how news media portrays a victim has influence on whether we see that victim as innocent or culpable. The campaign quickly became participatory with African Americans selecting pictures from their Facebook accounts that portrayed them at their most and least “acceptable”.
And like all online campaigns, it went a bit off the rails as white teenagers saw the hashtag as a great excuse to post pictures of themselves drunk at parties or behaving badly. But most contributions stayed within the spirit of the original, and soon there was a Tumblr featuring contributions.
Within three days, the New York Times had featured the #iftheygunnedmedown campaign and discussed the significance of the imagery used to portray Michael Brown. Many newspapers changed the image they used to depict Brown, and the imagine initially critiqued became hard to find online. It’s a long road from changing photo choice to eliminating racism, but #iftheygunnedmedown is evidence that online campaigns can shape media more broadly, and perhaps shape norms.
But here’s an uncomfortable truth for insurrectionists: if you’re effective in building a new system that changes the world, you probably become an institution in the process. If your solar panel company finds itself selling millions and transforming the climate, pretty soon you’ve become the electric company.
Some of the most ambitious experiments in insurrectionism are trying to build a world without institutions at all, where we’ve structurally worked our way around centralized points of control. Bitcoin is the most visible example, a currency that needs no central bank, no support from a world government to maintain it. Its architecture depends on the cooperation of thousands of people and their computers but promises resistance to the attempts of a small group to seize control over it – though there are concerns that Bitcoin may already be vulnerable to central control by unions of bitcoin miners. Some of the most ambitious promoters of bitcoin hope that these distributed architectures could provide a powerful new way to govern legal contracts, eliminating the need for branches of government and judiciary… but there real questions about whether it can even scale to be a currency that people use broadly.
Maybe you buy my argument that there are ways to be effective outside of existing institutions, maybe not. But there’s another problem we all have to cope with when we consider the future of civics. Whatever problems you or I have with institutions of democracy, they’re designed at their base to be deeply equal for their participants. The beauty of the democratic election is that each of us has a single vote, that whether you’re richer, or more famous, or have a better job, we’ve got the same opportunity to influence an election. In theory.
In theory, democracy works because each single person has one vote and all those votes are equal in the eyes of the law. But equality is not equity, and that’s an important distinction to understand for anyone working on social change. Equality implies that everyone has an equal change to participate, but doesn’t recognize that an equal chance may not lead to equal participation. Equity recognizes that playing fields aren’t level, that people may need disproportionate amounts of help to have equitable participation.
Last year, a law went into effect in Alabama that required a photo ID – usually a driver’s license – to vote. This month, Alabama announced they were closing 31 DMV offices across the state, including every one in counties where the population is 75% black. Black and white people have an equal right to vote in Alabama, but voting in Alabama is likely to be deeply inequitable.
The Voting Rights Act, one of the laws that the March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery march fought for, prevented states with history of voting discrimination from making changes to voting laws that were likely to increase inequity. But in 2013, the Supreme Court found in Shelby County, Alabama vs. Holder that this requirement to consider the effects on equity when changing voting laws was unconstitutional. After 50 years of legal protection for equity in voting, we’re likely to see some deeply inequitable voting outcomes in the next few years, a reminder of how important equity has been towards democratic practice and how hard the US has worked to put it in place.
Despite the infuriating case in Alabama, legal institutions are often a powerful tool for equity. And equity is a problem for the theories of change I’ve been celebrating here tonight. You’re a lot more likely to change the world with code if you’re a great programmer. You’re more likely to change the world by building a new company if you’ve got millions to invest. Equity even comes into play around norms based activism – you’ve got far more power to shape norms if you’re a celebrity, or if you wield a great deal of influence online.
How will we know if these changes to Alabama law exclude African Americans? We’ll monitor and see whether fewer Black people vote in 2016 than voted in 2012. Equity is about outcomes – we can’t just look the laws because it’s possible to have equal rights under the law and inequitable opportunity to exercise those rights. We need to monitor the equitability of other activism we undertake, including activism around norms using digital tools. Is online activism more powerful for #blacklivesmatter than for established politicians, brands and other incumbent powers?
“Monitoring” sounds passive, but it’s not – it’s a model for channeling mistrust to hold institutions responsible, whether they’re the institutions we’ve come to mistrust or the new ones we’re building today. When the Black Panthers were founded in Oakland, CA in the late 1960s, they were an organization focused on combatting police brutality. They would follow police patrol cars and when officers got out to make an arrest, the Panthers – armed, openly carrying weapons they were licensed to own – would observe the arrest from a distance, making it clear to officers that they would intervene if they felt the person arresting was being harassed or abused, a practice they called “Policing the Police”.
Monitoring the police remains a critical feature of democracy. We know of the murder of Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer because Feidin Santana was brave enough to film and share the video of his death. Now we’re seeing movements like Copwatch that train citizens on their rights in taping arrests. And monitorial citizenship happens through more formal ways, like civilian oversight boards that have the right to investigate police shootings.
Monitorial Citizenship is a powerful way of holding institutions responsible that benefits from technology because it allows many people working together to monitor situations that would be hard for any one individual to see. One project our lab is working on in Brazil is called Monitorando a Cidade – it invites neighborhood groups to select issues in their community to monitor and gives them crowdsourcing tools that let them map problems in their community and advocate for change.
I want to bring you back to Efo Dela, my Ghanaian friend who’s not political, despite organizing protest marches. If you feel like you can change the world through elections, through our political system, through the institutions we have – that’s fantastic, so long as you’re engaged in making change. If you mistrust those institutions and feel disempowered by them, I’m with you – but I challenge you to find ways you can make change through code, through markets, through norms, through becoming a fierce and engaged monitor of the institutions we have and that we’ll build.
The one stance that’s not acceptable, as far as I’m concerned is that of disengagement, of deciding that you’re powerless and remaining that way.
I think we have an amazing opportunity to harness the mistrust many of us are feeling and turn it into real change. That’s the challenge I’m working on and the challenge I’d ask you to join me in working on.