Since my work as the lead blogger on the Obama campaign, I've spent a lot of time thinking about how the Internet both empowers and inhibits grassroots change. While experts often credit the Internet as the major factor that lifted Obama to the presidency, it's also true that the Internet nearly brought the campaign down. For every megaphone the Internet provides to truth-tellers and democratic organizers, it also elevates con-artists, hate-mongers, violent extremists, and most troublingly, government authorities who aim to crush free expression.
Foreign Policy's Evgeny Mozorov has written extensively about how the Internet helps strengthen the grip of autocracies. He describes how the Iranian government has been identifying Green Movement activists in photos through crowd-sourcing, using activists' Facebook accounts to target and arrest collaborators, and seeding fake blog posts and video clips to spook and fragment activists. Mozorov mocks the "techno-utopians" who preach that the proliferation of online and mobile tools will inevitably usher in social progress.
Having spent nearly two years closely observing the ups and downs of the Obama campaign, I have no illusions about the Internet's capacity to do harm. Viral misinformation about Obama presented major problems for us: it seemed like everyone had an aunt or cousin who had received an email warning them that Obama was a crypto-Muslim.
Of course, we wouldn't have been able to overcome these hurdles if we didn't use the Internet to effectively organize and empower our supporters. By the end of the election, we built a 13 million person online army that responded to attacks, organized hundreds of thousands of offline events, and contributed over half a billion dollars in small donations. We succeeded because we combined powerful technologies with core organizing principles -- storytelling, relationship building, leadership cultivation -- and channeled our supporters' enthusiasm into concrete, meaningful action. The Internet didn't deliver Obama; our supporters -- empowered by a sophisticated online strategy -- did.
In the end, it's not the tools that will deliver change, it's the people who use them. That's why the effort to bring digital activists together, to pool their knowledge, to develop strategies for using these tools to avoid pitfalls and meaningfully organize -- is so critical.
And that's why I've joined the Alliance for Youth Movements (AYM), a new organization supported by Google, Twitter, Facebook, Howcast, Blue State Digital and other major tech companies, which seeks to empower young digital activists.
In my role as Director of Strategy and Communications, I'll be working with Executive Director David Nassar to identify, connect, and support leaders who are using technology to organize for social change. Right now, I'm in London for the AYM Summit, where activists representing over fifty youth organizations are convening with leaders in the technology, government, and NGO sectors.
A big part of what I'll be doing at AYM is overseeing the development of our new website, Movements.org, where we'll be hosting a livestream of the London Summit on Wednesday and Thursday.
Once Movements.org is fully launched, we'll interview activists, tech leaders, and organizing experts, cover the latest developments in digital activism, explore the emergence of new tools, and analyze what's working and what's not. For example we'll be looking at questions of how groups are using Facebook to not simply accumulate fans, but to drive supporters to take concrete, offline actions; how citizen watchdogs use mobile devices to report police corruption, while safeguarding their anonymity; and how is Twitter being used not simply to create an echo chamber with fellow activists, but to reach influential journalists and government officials.
Our hope is that, by learning from youth activists and tech experts across the world, we'll be able to develop a comprehensive set of case studies and best practices -- a sort of collective knowledge base for digital activism.
Mozorov is right -- the Internet has not brought about the End of History. The same struggles that have played out for ages -- between powerful interests and grassroots activists, oppressive regimes and dissident voices -- will continue to play out. The question is, who will take better advantage of powerful new technologies: the top-down controllers or the bottom-up organizers?
As Robert F. Kennedy told a group of students in South Africa, "Our answer is the world's hope; it is to rely on youth."
Technology will never replace the difficult, usually unglamorous work required to produce lasting social change. But it's clear that online and mobile tools can dramatically expand the power of grassroots organizers. Indeed, the world-changing potential of dedicated youth leaders -- armed with today's technologies -- would have astonished Bobby Kennedy.
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