Familiar political tools like petitions, fundraisers, mass letter-writing, call-in campaigns now have online equivalents. But what about protest tactics like street marches, picket lines, sit-ins, and occupations? Where is the room on the internet for civil disobedience?
In the offline United States, civil disobedience is widely respected as a valid form of political activism. It also has a widely recognized form. Indelible images of Rosa Parks, lunch counter sit-ins, and street marches from the 1950s and 60s civil rights era established what civil disobedience looked like. Civil disobedience looked like an embattled minority bravely standing up in face of clear injustice. It looked like people taking a stand with their bodies and their identities, and often getting arrested.
This pattern of public, performative defiance of injustice, followed by arrest, has become part of the recognized script for political activism in the United States. It's how we expect activism to happen: on the streets, in public, where everyone can see your face. Adhering to a recognized script is essential to political activism that is reliant on the attention of the media to be effective.
But today, civil disobedience often looks very different. Networked technologies mean our opportunities for effective political activism have increased exponentially. Where activists once put their physical bodies on the line to fight for their causes, online activists can engage in digitally-based acts of civl disobedience from their keyboards. There are three major lines along which digitally-based civil disobedience is developing: disruption, information distribution, and infrastructure. Each has its own particular challenges and benefits.
Disruptive tactics like distributed denial of service (DDOS) actions and website defacements have a fairly long history in internet terms. Activists groups like the Electronic Disturbance Theater, the Strano Network, pro-Palestinian groups, and many others used DDOS and website defacements in their campaigns as early as the mid-1990s. These tactics aim to upset the status quo by disrupting the normal flow of information, thereby attracting attention to their cause and message.
Disruptive tactics are focused on the public: they aim to deliver their message to as many people as possible, either through exposing them to the disruption and dissent, recruiting them to take part, or both. To be effective, this type of civil disobedience needs to attract the attention of masses of people, typically through the mainstream media. If the media doesn't recognize or cover the actions as acts of protest, then the activist message will fall flat. (If an activist defaces a corporate website, and no one sees it, does it have political impact? Probably not.)
Information distribution-based tactics are built around the acquisition and release of hidden or secret informatin. In the past three years, we've seen this kind of protest take the form of whistleblowing, information exfiltration, doxxing (posting the names and personal information of targets online), and crowd-sourced vigilante investigations. These tactics are used by groups like Wikileaks and Anonymous. The idea is to move information from states of low visibility to high visibility, putting injustices in the public eye when traditional law enforcement avenues seem to have failed.
Anonymous has been developing crowd-sourced vigilante investigations in the US and Canada with Steubenville, #JusticeforReteah, and other ops. "Human flesh search" message boards are already popular in China, giving netizens the chance to bring formerly untouchable corrupt officials to justice. The FindtheBostonBombers subreddit was a home-grown example of this kind of crowd-sourced vigilante investigation. The goal of this class of tactics is to empower people to take action by adding to the information landscape.