The increasing centrality of digital technologies in the 21st century presents critical challenges to equity, opportunity, and security—as well as fresh opportunities to build social movements and advance change. In this climate, activists and advocates must make technology a cornerstone of their work. “The Digital CultureSHIFT: From Scale to Power,” a report produced by the Center for Media Justice (CMJ) with support from the foundation, explores how today’s movements can maximize the potential of the online space in the fight for justice.
Jenny Toomey, director of Ford’s work on Internet Freedom, sat down with CMJ’s executive director, Malkia Cyril, to discuss how to build effective social movements in an age of big data and digital technology.
The Digital CultureSHIFT report zeroes in on the role that technology increasingly plays in organizing and social movements. Why was it so important to do a paper like this right now?
We’re in an incredibly important period of human history where technology, media and culture—all these infrastructures that produce meaning—are actually shaping the economy, how we govern ourselves, how we work, how we play. They’re really changing the basic dynamics of human engagement. Yet those of us engaged as leaders in social movements haven’t necessarily shifted our approach to the way we work and make change. At the same time, the Internet and all of the cultural infrastructures the Internet touches won’t serve the goals of democracy unless social justice movements help shape them.
This is an incredibly rich report. How many activists and experts in the field did you talk to?
We talked to 30 activists in the field. We tried to talk to leaders who could speak not just about their own perspective and experience, but who could represent the experience of a base of people. So we talked to folks who ran either membership organizations, or organizations that had a wide reach.
Did you feel like there were a lot of people out there talking about the importance of culture and technology to this work, or did you feel like there was a gap?
The answer is both. Every single organizer or leader we talked to thought culture and the infrastructures that create culture were extremely central to their work. But they thought these tools belonged to someone else: A vast majority didn’t feel like they had the resources, expertise, or understanding to use them effectively. And they did see them as tools, not as an arena for struggle. But when it was put to them, for example, “What would happen if the Internet was not something that served your interests? What if you couldn’t use it effectively? What if, as in many countries around the world, when social upheaval happens, the Internet wasn’t available to you?” Then they were like, “Oh! I should be fighting for some level of communication rights, access and representation alongside my primary fights.”
What are the most important things people are going to learn if they read this report?
In the 1960s, when national organizations like the NAACP were growing, it was all about chapter formation around a central national organization. But today, you have groups like Color of Change, and other kinds of organizations and movements like Black Lives Matter, that emerged online to do offline work. That simple fact changes how we think about membership and democratic organizations. So we need to catch up with that, and make some big decisions about how we think about organizing in that context.
I would say 90 percent of those we interviewed didn’t identify with the debate around digital privacy. A big part of what we heard was that being surveilled or tracked was not something that their members experienced as a new thing, nor was it something that was specifically experienced online. Many felt like they didn’t understand how to meet the debate of the moment: For the criminal justice groups we interviewed, how to respond to this moment of predictive policing and police technology. For the immigrant rights groups we engaged, how to protect their lists, which are full of undocumented people they’re trying to organize. There were big questions they had no answers to and no resources around. They had no way to respond to these central concerns.
Separate from the actual findings, we see a divide between those who want to use the Internet to make something else happen, and those who wanted to fight for the Internet to make the Internet happen. That particular divide is extremely perilous, and one of the main drivers for me to try to do this report. I hope people begin to understand that we have to make a digital culture shift happen so that we can start both fighting for and defending our platforms, and using them differently to defend our world.
One thing I thought was very interesting in the study was some of the ways that the organizations that do the core surveillance and privacy work aren’t always prepared to be good partners to movements. There’s a history of groups that could be potentially good collaborators not being able find each other. How will this report be useful for folks on the tech and surveillance and policy side, as well as for those on the movement side?
What I think is true, and we’ve seen it time and time again—we certainly saw it in the fight around net neutrality, and I think we’ll see it as well in the fight around digital surveillance—is that technology and policy experts can’t win without the input of the communities who are being disproportionately impacted. They can’t win on online privacy acts. They can’t win on federal legislation. You can’t make any of that happen without stories, without people in local communities fighting for that change.
One of the things we’re hoping to use the report to do is to go and try to start building some of these cross-pollinated coalitions—particularly bringing criminal justice organizers together with some of these digital rights and privacy act experts, so that we can make legislation that is actually going to impact the lives of people who are disproportionately surveilled.
You’re an activist: You’ve done it for a long time, so you must be a pragmatist in some ways, but you’re an optimist. Have you ever seen it work before, that communities with such different targets and such different cultures have come together and actually won something bigger together?
Yes. That’s what we did with the fight around net neutrality. We had the same goals, but those goals have to be revealed. I wanted to ensure that communities of color, and other communities that have historically pushed the margins of debate, were able to use the Internet to represent themselves and tell their stories. There were many other organizations and leaders whose goal was to fight against corporate control of the Internet, or who wanted to focus on it as a free speech issue. Either way, the ultimate goal—of ensuring that this platform was in the hands of the people—was something that we shared.
It’s important to find that common goal and then find different ways to approach it. I’m not a lawyer. I’m not a lobbyist. I can’t organize the companies. But I can organize people. If we can broaden when we think about surveillance, if we can take it offline and understand that digital surveillance isn’t simply an online experience, I think we can make a set of goals that many different communities can get behind—and where we can build coalitions that can win.
For people from these different communities who read this, what would be a good way to begin to look for areas of common interest?
There are three first steps, and it depends on who you are. One is finding places where partnerships between technologists and community organizations can work. Two, priorities: if you’re an organization working on bread-and-butter social justice issues, then you should be thinking about how can you begin to take on fights around communication rights and access. Where do the issues intersect? Foundations also need to begin to think how they can resource partnerships and new priorities.
Finally, I think this whole thing relies on people. It relies on having experts who know what they’re doing, and on leaders who are competent in these issues and approaches. Whether it’s inserting expertise into organizations or developing the expertise of folks already in organizations, we need to make sure people are equipped to meet the demands of these times.