Home » Blog » Africa » Overcoming apathy through participation? – (not) my talk at Personal Democracy Forum

Overcoming apathy through participation? – (not) my talk at Personal Democracy Forum

Micah Sifry, one of the founders of the Personal Democracy Forum conference, asked me to focus my speech at his conference on some of the recent writing I’ve been doing on digital activism and theories of change. Given that provocation, I wrote out a talk that would take me roughly an hour to deliver. And given that I’ve got 7-10 minutes on stage on June 3rd at the end of a long and action-packed day, it seemed wise to post the whole talk here for anyone interested after hearing my abbreviated version.

As it turns out, I just talked to Micah, and this isn’t the talk he was hoping I would give. So I’ll come up with something. In the meantime, here’s this.

Normally, my role at conferences about democracy and digital innovation is to share hopeful news and success stories from sub-Saharan Africa. Fortunately, at PdF, we’ve got Ory Okolloh, one of the pioneers of social media for transparency on the continent and around the world, so I can let her give you the good news and I, for a change, can tell a depressing African story.

Equatorial Guinea probably isn’t the most corrupt nation in the world… though it’s in the bottom 10. It doesn’t have the worst human rights record… though the record is atrocious. It’s not the worst place in the world to be born, though it’s in the bottom twenty, and it’s got the remarkable distinction of having worsening infant mortality despite rapidly rising GDP per capita. Right now, the “average” Equatorial Guinean is wealthier than the average Dane, but a Equoguinean child is more likely to die in infancy than a Haitian child.

Where Equatorial Guinea leads the world is in absurdity. The country’s leader, Teodoro Obiang Mbasogo deposed his uncle in 1979 and has been “elected” with 97% and 95% of the vote in the most recent polls… probably because the opposition politicians who aren’t in prison are in exile in Spain. The main threat to Obiang’s rule isn’t being voted out – it’s a coup… and the country fends off a coup every couple of years, including one planned by British and South African mercenaries, using Zimbabwean guns, and funded in part by Margaret Thatcher’s son. And if that sounds like something out of a spy novel, it was – Frederick Forsyth’s “Dogs of War” was written about a coup in Equatorial Guinea and the attempted coups in 1973 and 2004 both closely followed the plans that Forsyth outlined.

The guy who’ll probably end up leading Equatorial Guinea is Obiang’s son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang – aka Teodorín – who works as the country’s agriculture and forestry minister. This post pays $5,000 a month – not a bad salary, but probably not enough to purchase this $35 million estate in Malibu (by some accounts, the most expensive property in that extraordinarily expensive town) or the $30 million Gulfstream jet that ferries him there.

The most absurd thing isn’t the 200 foot yacht that Teodorín is building – complete with on board shark tank – or that his girlfriend, the rapper Eve, broke up with him over rumors that his father is a cannibal… rumors that Teodoro Senior spreads to scare his political rivals. No, the absurd thing is that Equatorial Guinea is a valued ally of the United States.

It wasn’t always this way. In the early 1990s, the Clinton administration began questioning the wisdom of maintaining diplomatic relations with one of the world’s greatest kleptocracies. In 1996, the US closed its embassy. But in the wake of 9/11, it made sense for the US to court one of Africa’s largest oil producers… and in 2006, the US reopened an embassy in Malabo, and Condoleeza Rice declared Obiang “a good friend“.


And lest you think things are different in the Obama administration, let me point out that the couple posing with the President and First Lady are President and First Lady Obiang.

At this point in the talk, you’re likely having one of two reactions. Either you’re deep into MEGO – My Eyes Glaze Over – territory, and glancing at your Blackberry, or you’re ready to start an “Arrest Teodorín Obiang” Facebook group. And actually, those two reactions are what I want to talk about, not the intricacies of Equoguinean politics… though any of you who know me know that I’ll gladly do that as well.

The only reason I know these sordid details about the Obiang family is that the good folks at Global Witness, an NGO focused on exposing corruption and conflict around natural resources, have been churning out piles of research on Equatorial Guinea as part of a campaign to get the US government to put the Obiangs on the list of corrupt government officials who are prevented from traveling to the US, and to name and shame the banks, lawyers and PR firms that allow Equatorial Guinea’s rulers to move money into the US.

Global Witness’s campaign is a classic, old-fashioned advocacy through information campaign. With the help of journalist Ken Silverstein, they compiled a 32-page report – downloadable from their site as a PDF – using information they found by tracing bank accounts and by mining other US goverment reports, including documents from the Justice Department which speculate that the younger Obiang’s assets have primarily been siphoned off from EG public funds. Silverstein wrote pieces in Harpers, the New York Times wrote an article based on the report, and Senator Carl Levin called hearings on corrupt foreign officials, producing a 330-page bipartisan report.

Perhaps that report will lead towards the State Department revoking Teodorín’s visa and to him selling his mansion to someone less corrupt. And perhaps his need to party somewhere other than the Playboy Mansion will lead, in the long run, to democratic elections in EG. In the meantime, there have been small, but symbolic victories, like persuading UNESCO to end a prize for research in the Life Sciences named for Obiang senior.

I picked Global Witness as an example of a traditional advocacy campaign for a couple of reasons. They’re as good as it gets in the field of research-driven advocacy. They’re focused on good, important problems. And they have a strong theory of change.

“Theory of change” is a term I never heard until I started working for foundations. One of the main problems you face working at a foundation is choosing between rival good ideas. You’ve got a pot of money, and nice, well-meaning people come to you with cool, clever ideas for changing the world. It’s worth unpacking the logic behind any project you would consider funding. What do we want to accomplish, in the long run, and how would this project advance those goals?

Global Witness offers a straightforward theory – change is made by government policymakers, who can influence other governments through trade and immigration policy. You influence the targeted policymakers through high-prestige media, and you gain the interest of those media outlets by offering them novel information.

You may have noticed that there’s not much room for participation in Global Witness’s theory of change. If you read the New York Times story on Teodorín’s Malibu mansion, it’s not especially clear what you, personally, could or should do. Visit their website, and while there’s an opportunity for you to give and support Global Witness’s work, there’s no opportunity to sign a petition, write a letter to your congressman, post a tweet or a Facebook update. This might indicate that Global Witness is somehow “behind the times”, doesn’t “get” the web2.0 revolution. Or it might indicate that they don’t see a great value in organizing a popular online movement around their issues, and believe that change comes from people in power, not from ordinary citizens.

This contrasts pretty sharply with how a lot of people in this room likely think about organizing. We’re intrigued by the idea that our hundreds or thousands of Twitter and Facebook friends could be mobilized and help us accomplish the changes we want to see transpire. We believe there’s power to tools that allow us to share ideas, passions and causes with friends and friends of friends. It’s worth asking whether or not we’re right.

So let’s start with a cautionary tale. When Iranian reformers took to the streets to protest rigged elections last year, many people in America showed solidarity and support online. Over a hundred thousand people became Mir Hossein Moussavi’s friend on Facebook. Tens of thousands of people turned their Twitter icons green. Others modified their Twitter settings to make it appear that they were posting from Tehran, in the hopes of making the task of censorship more difficult. Hundreds of people launched proxy servers, which they promoted online. Thousands of people obsessively retweeted news from Iran to their networks.

The net result? Well, online support likely helped ensure that CNN and other news networks covered the protests for longer than they otherwise might have. But US media attention didn’t keep protesters out of jail or prevent Iran from censoring the internet. There’s a case to be made that the actions taken by US supporters of the Green Movement were counterproductive – they added credence to the regime’s case that US and UK forces were attempting to topple the Iranian government and that the Green Movement was an external, not grassroots, domestic force. There’s also a case to be made that there’s nothing online activists could do in the face of a determined repressive government and that we shouldn’t have expected any change to come from online activism.

My friend and copanelist Evgeny Morozov is fond of the term “slacktivism” – he worries that we’ve made it so easy to be an activist (click here to turn your Twitter icon green!) that activism is often little more than a badge of affiliation. His fear is that if affiliative activism is this easy, we may never move on to more serious forms of engagement. I think there’s some justification behind this fear, but I don’t think that’s what happened in this case – I think people were willing to take action as activists: it’s just that the many of the actions people told them to take were somewhere in the spectrum between harmless and useless.

The smart, well-meaning folks who set up tools to allow people to turn their Twitter icons green might have been more focused on tactics than on theories of change. They saw an opportunity to harness the powerful forces of social networks to show affiliation and support. Or their theory of change was that a broad show of support would have an influence on the Iranian regime. Unfortunately, affiliation and support don’t appear to be forces that are particular influential with the Ahmedinejad government.

Let’s assume for a minute that it’s possible to influence the Iranian government. Maybe strong condemnation of the Iranian election by conservative Islamic leaders around the world would have had an influence. It’s not clear that whatever levers would have been effective in Iran are ones that activists in the US could easily move. Even with a good theory of change for promoting reform in Iran, it’s possible that there’s a disconnect between what it’s easy – or perhaps what it’s possible – to do with networks and social media and what would actually be useful in achieving change on the ground.

I think this disconnect happens fairly often. As Evgeny has pointed out, it’s one thing to line up 1.7m Facebook followers to “Save the Children of Africa“. But those followers have raised less than $12,000… and money is one of the currencies nearly all social change organizations need and know how to use, while the power of over a million affiliated members may not be something they’re able to harness.

Does this disconnect – the idea that what social media can do might not be what activist organizations want or need – mean that Global Witness is right to ignore social media in their campaign to change Equatorial Guinea? I don’t think so. It’s much easier to influence people in positions of power when you’ve got a mass of constituents on your side. As Samantha Powers points out in A Problem From Hell, governments don’t act to prevent genocide unless there’s strong constituent pressure. Equatorial Guinea is the US’s third largest African oil supplier – it would take an awful lot of constituent pressure to change the status quo.

So perhaps Global Witness should line up a million Facebook friends who “like” their campaign against Teodorín in the hopes that the Levin hearings will produce tangible results. But they’d likely do better if they could figure out something constructive for those users to do.

Political theorist Benjamin Barber offers the observation that “People are apathetic because they are powerless, not powerless because they are apathetic”. You’re right to be apathetic in the face of the story I just told about Equatorial Guinea, because it’s not clear that there’s anything productive you can do. Basically, by sharing this story, I’ve roused emotions – be they anger, compassion or boredom – but given you nothing you can do. Susan Sontag believed that, “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.”

If Global Witness accepts this idea – that it’s not the passionate who get active, so much as it is the active who become passionate – what opportunities should they offer supporters? In other words, what currencies can social media bring to the table… and are those the ones that movement leaders really need?

Here’s what most organizations have learned to use social media for:

– Spread the word to an audience that is less sensitive to broadcast media and has a tendency to believe that “if it’s important, news will find me”. This ability to spread the message comes at the cost of loss of control – the further the message spreads, it’s less likely to be worded precisely the way you’d like it to be.

– Display public support, showing that an issue’s got a constituency. However, people in power are increasingly aware that online affiliation is pretty low-cost… a million Facebook “likes” isn’t equivalent to a million people willing to make a phone call to a legislator, for instance. That discount rate – from affiliated followers to participatory followers – can be quite sharp.

All well and good… but potentially useless if that awareness and public support isn’t harnessed to a theory of change that attempts to influence a decisionmaker, propose a policy change, demand an action. This sort of social media participation runs the risk of being primarily participation for participation’s sake, providing the sense of involvement that’s essential to combat apathy, but not tightly linked to change.

The good news, in my view, is that smarter campaigns are starting to implement deeper, more potent strategies for using social media:

– Filter the truly engaged to the top. If we assume that activism, as with almost everything else online, has a Pareto distribution, we might assume that for every 1000 relatively passive supporters, we might find 10 deeply engaged activists and one emerging movement leader. And if the contention that participation begets passion, this particular long tail might be a slippery slope upwards, yielding more leaders than the average movement.

– Generate feedback… and critique. Jason Sadler’s 1 Million T Shirts for Africa project is a great cautionary tale about getting feedback from social media even if you weren’t seeking it. A well-meaning, if poorly considered, project for aid to Africa was rapidly critiqued by smart Afrophiles who study the pitfalls of the aid industry and pointed out that a large donation of t-shirts would do more economic damage to local manufacturers than it would benefit the poor. Sadler ended up changing his idea entirely and is now trying to figure out how to channel his energies towards more productive forms of aid… which raises the interesting question of how the project could have differed had he begun by engaging with the people who criticized the project via social media.

– Match problems to specific skill sets. For me, this is the most exciting part of Chris Hughes’s Jumo project – not using social media to show affiliation or to try to raise money, but to try to match organization needs and volunteer skill sets. Online volunteering sites like Nabuur.com have figured out that the challenge with this model is that you need to listen hard to the people you’re trying to benefit – in their case, communities in the developing world – as well as to the volunteers. What this implies for many organizations is that they need to define the problems could be addressed by volunteers.

While I’m skeptical of the power of social media to affect change simply by reaching new audiences and encouraging affiliation, I do think there’s a successful strategy that tries to use affiliation and reach to use social media to sustain media interest in issues beyond a specific news event. Equatorial Guinea doesn’t make it into the New York Times all that often – this is a function of the difficulty of reporting from there (a supply issue) and a perception that Africa stories don’t have much of an audience (a demand issue). Were we to launch our own Twitter campaign to call attention to Teodorín – perhaps a shark fin added to our icons – we wouldn’t put much direct pressure on Equatorial Guinea, but we would send a signal to the New York Times that we would read and amplify additional coverage of the country.

We may underestimate this importance of this power. Media coverage is driven in no small part by what editors perceive to be the interests and concerns of the audience. The twittersphere’s embrace of the Iran protests helped the story dominate the newshole in US media for a good part of two weeks… and the story might have dominated media longer had Michael Jackson’s death not refocused the mainstream and citizen media lenses. Demonstrating a demand for in-depth reporting on undercovered stories is a first step in shifting issues out of the shadows and in front of the spotlight.

But it’s only a first step. To channel that attention and push it towards constructive action, we need a plausible theory of change. We need to figure out who we’re asking to make a change, what we’re asking them to do and what will persuade them to change their behavior. And this is where online activism needs to get as smart about organizations like Global Witness as organizations need to get smart about social media.

I believe that the shift towards participation online means that movements that don’t invite our active participation are going to suffer and wither. It’s imperative to enable participation if you want people to react to your cause with anything but apathy. I also believe there’s a danger that the energy we’re capable of summoning through social media will dissipate without impact if we don’t learn from experienced, seasoned activists and build strategies that figure out who to target and why, not just novel new ways to gain attention. My fear is that, until we bridge this gap between what social media can offer for activists, and what activist movements need to create change, we run a risk of letting participation revert to apathy.

19 thoughts on “Overcoming apathy through participation? – (not) my talk at Personal Democracy Forum”

  1. Ethan – Thank you for this post, which, as I suppose you intended, seems to contain a generalizable criticism of the notion of a social media revolution.

  2. Highly perceptive, Ethan, and very timely. We are just embarking on a new website design and continuing to formulate our own approach to social media and online communications with our “stakeholders” – which we have pretty well defined but will continually change.

    Thank you for your good words and insights – you have articulated much of what we do and attempt to say and do.

  3. Gary – absolutely, my hope is to complicate the notion of social media revolutions and help people figure out how to harness them to revolutions – especially slow, gradual revolutions – already underway.

    Jeff, thanks so much for commenting. I hope it’s clear that I have the utmost respect for the work Global Witness is doing and would like nothing more than to help bridges between the clever folks attending a conference like PdF and the committed, strategic, thoughtful activists who make up your organization. And if you want to start a campaign to add shark fins to people’s Twitter icons, you have my blessing, though I reserve the right to laugh at you as well… :-)

  4. christina goodness

    Thought-provoking, and very helpful. I wonder if levels of participation (once defined by Sherry Arnstein) from simply informing to consulting to partnership to delegated power to citizen control are relevant? Even if you don’t like her spectrum, it seems your point is that when the media is social and participation is at an individual level, sometimes we mistake informing others of our support for actual citizen control.

  5. Passion can equally lead to the invention of new means of “participation” if there happens to be a lack thereof.

  6. Excellent post, and perfect timing for me. I am in the process of becoming a “real” activist, as opposed to the Internet/letter-writing kind on the issue of medical cannabis. In California, where medical cannabis is legal, sick and suffering patients are daily tormented and harassed by police who apparently are either ignorant of the law or openly defy it.

    2 things I think you left out and could have added:

    1. One other problem with social media tools: they tend to preach to the converted. Many, if not most of my FB and Twitter friends already think the way I do. So even though I hope my words and links can help change some minds, the reality is they probably do more to make me feel good than to change minds or influence policy.

    2. Real activism is about exercising your free speech rights. Most people think free speech means you can post on your FB page that you support Tibet, or oppose dictators and oil companies. Wrong. Real free speech is the courage to speak truth directly to power. Real activism involves speaking openly and without fear, not hiding behind the anonymity of a screen name or the relative anonymity of a 10,000 person Facebook group.

    I know lots of people who benefit enormously from medical cannabis. But the nearly century-old government propaganda machine has buried the lies about this substance so deeply that most of my acquaintances (like most of yours) won’t admit it publicly. I can only assume a large part of the silence among the supposedly Progressive Hollywood enclave in Malibu stems from their (perhaps justified) fear. Understanding this de facto restriction on free speech is the first step to understanding why courageous activism, open resistance, is necessary and American.

    Thanks again. I’m a writer and filmmaker and your post helped to direct my thinking to what is my best strategy to *help patients.* The people in Malibu should not be thinking, “How can we keep dictators out of our neighborhood?” but “What can we do to stop the criminal looting of Equatorial Guinee and help her suffering people?”

    Love the Sontag quote. Reminds me of Edward Abbey’s even stronger one: “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.”

    Jonathan Steigman
    Mountain View, CA

  7. Channeling Scott @heif from meetup on his”let’s” insight, what more can be done from people wanting change in repressive situations other than “lets raise awareness”. I’ve tried “let’s help enter data” into Ushahidi w handheldhumanrights.org so that Burmese groups could visualize each others problems and speak with one another about them, but that’s a hard ask. Curious if more gaming dynamics will help that process, but otherwise I’ve found that to get mass support particularly for complex issuesis a hard narrative to maintain. There’s no payoff as direct as “we’ve built a school” and hard to get people to relate, and so commit, If they’ve never heard of the country.

  8. Pingback: Activisme et Hacktivisme sur Internet | Dico Micro

  9. Compelling questions. Dealt with theories of change when I was also working in the foundation world. We were focused on grassroots community organizing (before the web) that often involved direct action around local issues. Much of the disconnect you refer to can be understood if you recall why Alinsky wrote and taught about *local* organizing. Very difficult to generate participatory action on global issues — or problems located thousands of miles away. Now I’m a writer and filmmaker coming at these kinds of concerns with a very different set of difficult challenges.

  10. Pingback: Gov 2.0 Week in Review | International News - Stay up to date with the latest World News, Finance & Business, Green News, Technology and Sports

  11. Pingback: Gov 2.0 Week in Review - O'Reilly Radar

  12. Pingback: Links for last week « The Barefoot Technologist

  13. Pingback: Two Paradigms of Digital Activism :

  14. Pingback: Two Paradigms of Digital Activism | meta-activism project

  15. Pingback: Vom Nutzen der Partizipation oder Was sind 1 Million Facebook Freunde wert? » E-Partizipation, Potenziale, Social Media » E-Demokratie.org

  16. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » The lobbyist and the quilt

Comments are closed.