Digital Politics: Opportunities and Perils of a Technological Future

Introduction to the 2020 Virtual Edition on Digital Politics

By Mei-chun Lee

In 1971, the first personal computer arrived in the world; in 1989, the World Wide Web was invented. Less than half a century later, these digital technologies have profoundly changed the way people act and interact. As digital technologies became ubiquitous in everyday life, they were also interwoven into the political landscape of the twenty-first century. This virtual edition focuses on these digital politics, featuring seven articles published in PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review since 1995, one Ethnographic Explainer post from PoLAR Online, five postscripts, one author interview, and one Emergent Conversation. This collection revisits some key areas of digital politics, such as networked movements and digital governance, while also giving insights to emergent issues like disinformation and populism. This introduction attempts to probe the problem-space of digital politics so as to introduce this virtual edition.

The advent of digital media led some to envision the prospect of a more participatory, inclusive democracy, with its many-to-many communication model and anti-hierarchical network structure. Techno-optimists envision a new form of public shaped by the “new” media as distinct from the “old” one-to-many broadcasting media. In particular, studies of Free and Open Source Movements (e.g. Coleman 2013; Kelty 2008; Karanović 2012) demonstrate how people can connect and collaboratively develop a set of shared values without formal organization and leadership. Terms like “peer production” (Benkler 2006), “produsage” (Bruns 2008), “the wisdom of crowds” (Surowiecki 2005), “recursive publics” (Kelty 2008), and “distributed collaboration” (Shirky 2008) try to capture the participatory culture enabled by the Internet. Movements and protests mobilized on and through social media further demonstrate that digital technologies can be used as weapons of resistance and empowerment not only against authoritarian regimes (e.g. the Arab Spring; see Bruns et al. 2013), but also for disadvantaged groups (e.g. #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #Occupy; see Bonilla and Rosa 2015). Unlike traditional social movements, these “social media movements” connect individuals through the virality of hashtags and memes, forge horizontal collaborations, and produce what Manuel Castell calls “networks of outrage and hope” (2012). However, twenty years into the new millenium, scholars and citizens around the world are beginning to question the assumptions of techno-optimism.

As people are celebrating these digital-based movements, the dark side of the technologies also begins to emerge. Contrary to popular belief, the internet does not promise equal participation and unbiased inclusion. The widespread use of smartphones to access the internet has not eliminated digital divides. Policies and programs of “access for all” emphasize the deployment of technology infrastructure, but often disregard the complex social dynamics that determine how people access digital services (Omari 2018). Meanwhile, digital technologies have inscribed bias and discrimination in their very own codes that hurt the disadvantaged far more than the privileged (Eubanks 2018). More and more studies (e.g. Noble 2018; Matamoros-Fernández 2017) show that algorithms behind search engines and social media are sexist and racist, precipitating social polarization and conflicts, yet these algorithms are treated as commercial secrets hidden from public scrutiny (Pasquale 2015). In fact, as Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron revealed when the internet just started to popularize, digital culture is derived from a type of Californian ideology that “depends upon a wilful blindness towards the other—much less positive—features of life on the West Coast: racism, poverty and environmental degradation” (1996, 45).

Even the very idea of digital mobilization is now subject to harsh critique. Technology critic Evgeny Morozov (2009) calls our attention to “slacktivism”—“feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact. It gives those who participate in ‘slacktivist’ campaigns an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group.” The problem of slacktivism is that it might hinder more engaged, serious actions by encouraging people to think that political engagement and intervention are as  effortless as clicking “like” and “share.” Jodi Dean (2005) contends that digital participation runs the risk of technology fetishism and often simplifies the complexities of political problems to propose technological fixes. Both Castells’ observation of networked movements and Morozov’s critique of slacktivism are genuine aspects of digital participation. Digital participation encompasses a wide spectrum of varieties and degrees. Even within one movement, there are people who lead, actively speak out, and connect with others like “nodes” of the network while others simply follow. Rather than simply assuming that the internet enhances or hinders participation, we need more ethnographic studies that examine how people embrace different technological strategies in times of revolutions as well as in everyday politics.

What’s more worrisome in regard to digital politics and network participation, after all, is the rise of hate speech, disinformation, populism, and extremism—all of which employ the same viral strategies as liberatory digital movements, but in ways that produce distrust, hatred, and even violence. Facebook can ignite an Arab Spring, but it can also just as easily spread disinformation. Hashtags can speak for gender and racial justice such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, but can also spur hate crimes (Müller and Schwarz 2019). When social media continues to produce filter bubbles and echo chambers, when terror and hatred contaminate the digital space, when algorithms are written with sexist and racist messages, it is not a surprise that populiam and extremism find fertile soil to grow. danah boyd is right—“all too often, technology is designed naively, imagining all of the good but not building safeguards to prevent the bad. The problem is that technology mirrors and magnifies the good, bad AND ugly in everyday life. And right now, we do not have the safeguards, security or policies in place to prevent manipulators from doing significant harm with the technologies designed to connect people and help spread information” (cited from Anderson and Rainie 2020, 6).

Technology is not just designed naively; sometimes, it is designed wickedly. It is not a secret anymore that platform companies and web publishers collect our data with AND without our consent—when we click “agree” on those pages-long legal notes not knowing what we’ve agreed to—and use them to target us for commercial and political advertisements. As Shoshana Zuboff points out, in this age of surveillance capitalism, “digital connection is now a means to others’ commercial ends” (2019, 15). The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal exemplified how our social media data have been exploited to manipulate elections. Nadler et al. call this complex of technological infrastructure and datacraft the “digital influence machine” (DIM). They argue that “the use of the DIM to identify and target weak points where groups and individuals are most vulnerable to strategic influence is a form of weaponization” (2018, 1). Indeed, what the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal taught us is that these political ads and disinformation campaigns are part of larger information warfares that are supported by a complicated transnational network of platform companies, data brokers, marketers, politicians, parties, and governments. Facing public criticism and government investigations, however, these platforms and companies are still characterizing these problems as “misuse” and  “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” and focusing on technological solutions such as detecting inauthenticity and removing fake accounts with automatic processes, instead of “acknowledging the core product of platform tools for audience engagement are vulnerable to manipulation, hacking, or exploitation” (Acker and Donovan 2019, 1604). Platforms are not just technologies per se; they are the key players in the political economy of surveillance capitalism. Thus is it vital for studies of digital politics to take corporate infrastructures, algorithms, designs, and policies into account.

David Beer is right that “we can no longer think of our lives as mediated by information and software, but that they are increasingly constituted by or comprised of them” (2009, 987). Digital practices and politics have become so entangled that we cannot discuss one without considering the other. So, what are fruitful anthropological approaches to these conditions?  Articles and conversations in this virtual edition all approach the digital as lived experiences  with particular socio-political dynamics. Themes explored in these articles include political mobilization and the rise of populism (Westermeyer, Cesarino), digital governance and control (Adunbi, Kaljund), digital access and freedom of speech (Hultin, Omari), surveillance (Larson), and fakeness and disinformation (Shirinian, the conversation on fake news and anthropology). Technologies evolve rapidly, as does digital politics. Most of the articles in this virtual edition were published within the past five years and this collection also provides up-to-date postscripts. Additionally, anthropologists Andrew Graan, Adam Hodges, and Meg Stalcup took part in a conversation on emergent issues of fake news, disinformation, and political propaganda. In bringing together different aspects of digital politics, this virtual edition invites readers to join us to reflect on how power is reconstituted in the digital age, how technologies give birth to new political subjects and new forms of politics, and what actions are possible to fight back the exploitation of surveillance capitalism.

Mei-chun Lee is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at University of California Davis. Her dissertation, “Code for an Open Government: Digital Activism and the Uprising of Civic Hackers in Post-authoritarian Taiwan,” examines a Taiwan-based hacker community and their political experiments translating the idea of openness from technologies to governance. She is now curating a Virtual Edition on “Digital Politics” for PoLAR.

Works Cited

Acker, Amelia, and Joan Donovan. 2019. “Data Craft: A Theory/Methods Package for Critical Internet Studies.” Information, Communication & Society 22 (11): 1590–1609.

Anderson, Janna, and Lee Rainie. 2020. “Many Tech Experts Say Digital Disruption Will Hurt Democracy.” Pew Research Center.

Barbrook, Richard, and Andy Cameron. 1996. “The Californian Ideology.” Science as Culture 6 (1): 44–72.

Beer, David. 2009. “Power through the Algorithm? Participatory Web Cultures and the Technological Unconscious.” New Media & Society 11 (6): 985–1002.

Benkler, Yochai. 2006. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New York ; London: Yale University Press.

Bonilla, Yarimar, and Jonathan Rosa. 2015. “#Ferguson: Digital Protest, Hashtag Ethnography, and the Racial Politics of Social Media in the United States.” American Ethnologist 42 (1): 4–17.

Bruns, Axel. 2008. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and beyond: From Production to Produsage. New York: Peter Lang.

Bruns, Axel, Tim Highfield, and Jean Burgess. 2013. “The Arab Spring and Social Media Audiences: English and Arabic Twitter Users and Their Networks.” American Behavioral Scientist 57 (7): 871–98.

Castells, Manuel. 2012. Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity.

Coleman, Gabriella. 2013. Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Dean, Jodi. 2005. “Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics.” Cultural Politics 1 (1): 51–74.

Eubanks, Virginia. 2018. Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Karanović, Jelena. 2012. “Free Software and the Politics of Sharing.” In Digital Anthropology, edited by H. Horst and D. Miller, 225–241. London; New York: Berg.

Kelty, Christopher M. 2008. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham: Duke University Press Books.

Matamoros-Fernández, Ariadna. 2017. “Platformed Racism: The Mediation and Circulation of an Australian Race-Based Controversy on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.” Information, Communication & Society 20 (6): 930–46.

Morozov, Evgeny. 2009. “The Brave New World of Slacktivism.” Foreign Policy 19 (05).

Müller, Karsten, and Carlo Schwarz. 2019. “From Hashtag to Hate Crime: Twitter and Anti-Minority Sentiment.” SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 3149103. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network.

Nadler, Anthony, Matthew Crain, and Joan Donovan. 2018. “Weaponizing the Digital Influence Machine.” Data & Society Research Institute.

Noble, Safiya. 2018. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. 1 edition. New York: NYU Press.

Omari, Jeffrey. 2018. “Digital Access amongst the Marginalized: Democracy and Internet Governance in Rio de Janeiro.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 41 (2): 277–289.

Pasquale, Frank. 2015. The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shirky, Clay. 2008. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Reprint edition. New York: Penguin Books.

Surowiecki, James. 2005. The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Anchor.

Zuboff, Shoshana. 2019. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Hachette Book Group.

About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh:

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