Friday, 30 August 2013

Role Of The Web In Political Activism

I'm going to be talking to you today about the role of the Web in political activism. So I spent time with these activists and asked them whether or not they were using social media, whether or not they were engaging with the Web, and why they might be doing it.

Going out into the field and speaking to political activists is really important, because it gives you an insight into their ideology, their motivations, and why they think it's important to use certain Web technologies.

In order to go and speak to these activists, I needed a method of research that combined computer science and social science. And that's where Web science came in.

I have a background in international relations, so I knew about political ideology in theory and doing an MSc in Web science, and knowing about networks and organisation online was really important for me.

So with that in mind, I turned up in London, ready to observe how these political activists were using the Web for their protests. And what I found was that, broadly now, in 2013, there appears to be a lot of apathy, or even outright hostility, towards the Web and social media.

The main reason? The NSA.

The story had just broken that large American online corporations, like Facebook, Twitter, and Google, were cooperating with the NSA and collecting lots of personal data about citizens from not just America, but all around the world. This was something that had kind of been known beforehand, but not to this scale. And it put a lot of these activists off engaging with these mainstream websites and these mainstream social media services, because they saw them now as part of the establishment.

If you look back towards the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, these technologies were technologies of liberation for many people. But now, only two years later, they have become technologies that symbolise surveillance by the state, the loss of privacy by individuals, and the general ability for both corporations and governments to keep citizens in line and stop these kind of protests.

Discovering this was extremely important for both my research, but also for Web science. Because I think it showed how it is very important to look at both the social and the technical aspects of the Web together.

The Web is this thing, which is computers, but also humans. It's humans influencing technology, and technology influencing humans. And if you don't look at how one affects the other, it is very difficult to say for certain how society is being changed and developed.

So, in my experience, taking a problem and taking historical analysis of something like political activism and saying, OK, we know that political activists have engaged with the Web since the early 2000s, and this has changed as new technologies have come in, but how is it going to change in the next decade? In the next two decades? And what does that mean for the way we do politics in this country?

Some questions that will be arising, which I think only Web science can answer, are, are we seeing a change in the relationship the citizens have with states and governments? If people exist online and connect to these kind of networks, do they then stop having as much of a connection to their state and their government in their local area? Does that then change politics? Does that then change the way that we debate?

All these kind of things are really important discussions, which are going to take place in at least the next 10 years.

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