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Xiao Qiang and Evgeny Morozov with dueling views of digital activism

Xiao Qiang is a long-time Chinese activist, and now teaches journalism at UC Berkeley, where he leads the China Digital Times project. He introduces his remarks at Ars Electronica by saying that his focus is “less about computing, more about human experience,” specifically the experience of people seeking space for free speech in China. He reminds us that China is digitizing rapidly, showing us the photo of a Chinese man, an IV strapped to his back, texting on a cellphone and reminding us that there are now 565m cellphones in China.

Some technologies are more open than others. There’s a “digital panopticon” that monitors cyberspace, symbolized by Jingjing and Chacha, a pair of cartoon characters with “cute panda names”, that remind users that the authorities are watching online activities.

Xiao encourages us to consider the full diversity of the Chinese media space. In mainstream media, there are official voices, which are strongly statist, and a second voice of reformist media. Once the Internet joins the picture, the world is far more complicated. Blogs include resistant and subversive discourse, and overseas Chinese website and alternative media like BBC/VOA introduce views rarely seen in Chinese media… though they’re generally blocked by the great firewall.

Using delicate language, Xiao walks us through the phenomenon of the river crab and the grass mud horse. (It’s complicated – here’s my explanation in an earlier post.) People react so strongly to censorship and are promoting these mythical creatures in online discourse because “Censorship is a form of violence agaist the human spirit.”

During the Sichuan earthquakes, Xiao reminds us, offices and government buildings fared well, but many school buildings collapsed. This showed people deep-rooted corruption in Chinese society. Journalists wanted to report on the story, but officials threatened people who explored it. The well-known artist and blogger Ai Weiwei – who helped design national stadium – wanted to explore the story, and began publishing the names of students who died on his blog. When that blog was censored, he put up the photo of a single lit candle and reposted the names elsewhere.

Recently, a formal hearing was held on the Sichuan earthquakes and school collapses. Seeing the report as a coverup, many people protested the report. Ai Weiwei documented the protests via video and has been spreading the documentary online, showing the difficulty of silencing dissent in a cloud age.

Journalist and academic Evgeny Morozov offers not a direct response to Xiao Qiang’s talk, but a healthy dose of skepticism about the possibility of digital activists changing the world via Facebook and Twitter. He begins with the story of Anders Colding-Jørgensen, a Danish psychologist who created a Facebook activism group to protest the dismantling of Stork Fountain in Copenhagen. Of course, the government wasn’t actually planning on dismantling the fountain, a national symbol. But his Facebook group implied that the fountain was under threat, and from his initial 100 invitations to the group, there were 27,500 members of a Facebook group demanding the fountain be saved within three days. At the peak, two people were joining per minute – Jorgensen decided to end the experiment shortly afterwards. (Amusingly enough, there are still more than 26,000 members, even though the fiction as been well exposed.)

Why do people join Facebook groups? “Just like we need home furnishings a Facebook group gives us cultural objects.” Evgeny terms this “slacktivism” – activism for slackers. It’s easy to do, and probably doesn’t do anything. He references a Facebook group called “Saving the children of Africa” – there are a million members of the group, and only $5000 has been donated. This may be okay – “Not every problem can be solved through an injection of funds, or by attention raising” – but the danger is that slacktivism distracts us from real activism.

“500,000 people might be less effective working together than one working alone.” Psychologists describe a phenomenon called “social loafing” – if you ask a group of people to pull on a rope, they’ll all pull less hard than if you asked them to pull individually. This makes some sense – if we’re all singing Happy Birthday together, we’re likely to be quieter than if we’re carrying the group alone. In activism, this might lead to the opposite of social synergy – “Increasing number of persons decreases relavent pressure from each person.”

When we join a Facebook group, Evgeny postulates, we are likely to follow the pace of the group rather than working at our own pace. We also shouldn’t take it for granted that Facebook activism is the limit to what’s possible with online activism. Evgeny offers Freerice as a different model – people participate because they want to improve their vocabularies, not to raise money for global hunger. “Through that selfish motivation, they probably do more than joining a facebook group.”

Evgeny offers some suggestions for effective online activism. “Don’t give the merit badge until people complete the work” – joining a group shouldn’t be recognized, while contributing should. Don’t allow people to fade into the background – encourage them to act. And don’t assume the Wikimedia model always works. It’s great that people can contribute to Wikipedia by fixing a stay comma – finding the lowest common denominator in online activism isn’t always a good thing.