QR Code AvatarCivil Resistance: Digital as a Non-Violent Alternative

The efforts of digital activists can be linked to traditional nonviolent protests and civil resistance activities. Gene Sharp, political science professor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has written extensively on nonviolent protest movements, particularly anti-government resistance movements, as a means to affect change. Sharp (2005) talked in his book Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential about the potential of nonviolent efforts in the digital world.

In 2012, researchers Patrick Meier and Mary Joyce began updating Sharp’s 198 Nonviolent Methods chart (originally created in 1973) to serve the digital activist ("Civil Resistance 2.0," 2014). Ultimately, Meier and Joyce’s crowd-sourced database, "Civil Resistance 2.0 ," includes digital and technology-enhanced means of resistance. They recommend digital tools be used in “Protest and Persuasion” type of resistance, which is the kind of engagement we might ask our own social media savvy students to participate in as a gateway to civic engagement.

Some of the methods of using social media for straight digital or digitally-enhanced boots-on-the-ground (BoTG) activism include:

  • Maps and Maptivism - Mapping incidences of an activity being protested.
  • Quick Response (QR) Codes - Quantifies the impact by “counting” participants as they scan a posted sign on location at an activist event.
  • Media Hijacking - Changing or controlling the conversation.
  • Hashtag Trends - Expanding the conversation and getting users in discourse with one another by having them talk on the same hashtag. Many users follow these trends out of curiosity, so it can be a great tool for increasing awareness and drawing new folks into the conversation.
  • Flash Mobs - Spontaneous BoTG action that is coordinated covertly through social media networks.
  • Check Ins - Power in numbers. Like the use of QR codes, this is a vehicle for tracking participation and level of support for a cause or issue based on how many people “check in” as attending. This is also a recruitment and mobilization tool, as friends often watch each other’s check-ins so they can meet up.
  • Frontload Search Engine Results - Use of keywords in order to impact position in search engine results.
  • Livestreaming - Provides “access” and some degree of “participation” to interested parties across the world of direct action efforts through video streamed live of an event. This also serves to record points of conflict that could be misrepresented or avoided altogether in mainstream media sources. ("Civil Resistance 2.0," 2014)

These above methods are also identified in the Civil Resistance 2.0 database as “10 New Methods.” There are other methods of digital or digitally-enhanced engagement beyond those listed above in that they rely on media, rhetoric, or behavior that is limited to new media and social media.

  • Trolling - Interrupting the opposition’s social media “conversations” to correct or clarify or counter points. These “troll” comments are aimed directly at specific users, not to a general conversation. They are often instigatory in nature.
  • Hashtag Hijacking - Like trolling, this is when opposition interrupts a conversation on social media. However, comments made as part of a hijacking are directed to a general audience (readers of a specific hashtag). The goal is for the opposition to enter the conversation abruptly and take it over, changing the direction of the conversation to suit/fit their position.
  • Internet Talk Radio - Like blogs and digital advocacy videos, this is a way of circumventing mainstream media voices and messages so that alternative voices and messages can be heard. This is the 2.0 version of underground, amateur, or Indyradio.
  • Viral Video - Videos that expose abuses of power, wrongdoing, or just have jarring messaging can go “viral” on media hubs like Vimeo and YouTube with widespread “liking” and “sharing” efforts through social media.
  • Meme-ing - Enhancing phrases or images that are well-known in the public sphere to mock or drive home a particular civic, social, or political message. This is also entertainment messaging, as most meme’d media is quite witty ("Civil Resistance 2.0," 2014).

Chances are good that young adults are familiar with some of the items on the above lists. Maybe they see them as entertainment, maybe they’ve even participated in some of them, and maybe they don’t know what to call this activity or how it can translate to meaningful participation in the social and political realm. That’s where teachers of writing and rhetoric can step in.

In my own composition classes, where digital advocacy is a primary focus, we choose semester-long topics (a cause or issue) and engage on three new media fronts: Twitter, Wordpress, and YouTube. We talk about and look at case studies of many of the methods and strategies outlined above, and students acquire functional literacy in hashtagging, trolling, meme-ing, and creation of digital advocacy (in the style of Public Service Announcements [PSAs]) video creation. Though we discuss the strategies that might seem more aligned with “activist” efforts—which certainly is an option for students in my courses—because they are still fairly new to engaging civically and politically using new media tools, I focus my efforts on helping them hone their voice as informers and advocates. I’m essentially teaching the traditional “modes” of writing (expository, narrative, analysis, argument, and persuasion), but through a multimodal, multimedia, social lens where audience and purpose take on new meaning for them.

Through discussions of digital and visual rhetoric, as well as lessons on these digital and new media literacies, teachers of writing and rhetoric can help ensure that our students will be effective consumers and producers of meaningful digital materials (that serve a civic purpose) and also function effectively as digital activists using the same tools already employed around the world to affect change.

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