Ethan Zuckerman on digital activism

At the Chicago Humanities Festival last month, Ethan Zuckerman delivered this talk on digital activism, which is long but well worth watching. In his speech, he offers a very well-reasoned middle path between cyber-pessimists, like Malcolm Gladwell, and cyber-optimists, like Clay Shirky.

Zuckerman, who is the new director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, also gives a more complicated and I think accurate account of the role that social media and technology played in sparking the revolution in Tunisia than could generally be found in the mainstream media.

Among the many other issues he tackles, Zuckerman makes a convincing case that activists are better off using large sites, like Facebook and YouTube, to organize and spread their messages rather than smaller platforms designed specifically for activists. Larger sites are far more difficult to incapacitate through distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks by governments, which has been a serious problem for sites like Irrawaddy.

It also significantly raises the costs of government censorship. If a site that is used only by a small number of activists is shut down by the government, only they will know about it. On the other hand, if governments choose to censor digital activism by shutting down sites millions are using primarily for entertainment, it heightens awareness of censorship and may get them out in the streets for the first time.

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