Use of Digital Technologies for Civic Engagement and Political Change: Lessons Learned

29 September 2011 - A Workshop on Other in Nairobi, Kenya


In light of the impact of social media and other Internet tools in recent events in the Middle East and Africa, there is need to dialog on the lessons learned, and how the digital technologies, and the Internet in particular, are emerging as important tools for political change, and not just commerce, communications, and information exchange.

This proposed workshop, “Use of Digital Technologies for Civic Engagement and Political Change: Lessons Learned and Way Forward,” addresses the main theme of the Nairobi IGF, namely, “The Internet as a Catalyst for Change.” The proposed workshop is aimed at providing an opportunity for panelists and participants from around the world to share experiences about using digital technologies to shape civic engagement and political change.

Despite the increasing interest in the use of digital technologies for effecting change, we still lack insights into the relationships people in emerging information societies have with the technologies that are shaping their worlds. The discourse still posits the digital user as homogenized, young, middle class, Western, and (mostly) male. Furthermore, the stories about the transformative powers of the mostly young, Digital Natives often provide a monotonic, rather than varied, view of social change.

Against this background, the proposed workshop on seeks to tackle these knowledge gaps. It hopes to look beyond heroes and singular case-studies, and explore processes of change. It will also shed light on how technology serves as a catalyst for social change and political participation in the rapidly changing landscape of political action in the global South.

With panelists from Asia, Africa and Latin America, the workshop will discuss perspectives on how the Internet has been used by activists to increase citizen engagement and political change. Discussions will be focused on the following questions:

1. How can digital technologies help increase civic engagement, and influence political change, and do digital natives become agents of change?
2. What are the challenges to using digital technologies in effecting change?
3. How can the influence of digital technologies on political change, and the role of digital natives be enhanced?
4. What are the key lessons learned in using digital technologies for change, and what does the future hold?

Each of these questions will be discussed in turn by panelists, followed by brief question and answer sessions, contributions from remote participants, and finally, a wrap up by the moderator.



A brief substantive summary and the main events that were raised:
The workshop started with a discussion of the question of how digital technologies can increase civic engagement and influence political change. It was observed that the question can be viewed from two lenses, namely: i) do digital natives use technology in a manner different from the rest of us, and ii) what unique contribution do digital natives bring to the discussion around digital technologies?

It was also pointed out that although digital natives are more fluent with technology, this in no way offers them any advantages in influencing events more than people active on the ground. In other words, technology is only a catalyst, and cannot be a substitute for the work being done by people.

The panelists also mentioned that tools have evolved over the years, and accordingly, the value of their contributions to change. For example, the emergence of Twitter, smart phones and other tools means that news can now be gathered by participants on the ground, and disseminated in near real-time.

The digital native was also defined as someone who thinks with his or her fingers tapping on the keyboard, establishing a direct connection between their brains and the keyboard. Furthermore, digital natives do not do a lot of analysis; they just present the facts as they are. It was also pointed out that a major problem with the use of digital technologies to bring about change is that we now have a multitude of contrasting voices which often do not check facts, with slander and gossip going viral very easily and quickly.

Despite this limitation, it was pointed out that digital natives are people who understand and use technology, and are able to translate the use of technologies into action, whatever that action might be. Thus, digital natives do not only use technology as an end itself, but as a means to effecting change.

Another important perspective on digital natives was the idea that digital technologies now make it possible for people who are physically separated by large distances to have common causes. In the same vein, digital natives mobilize using their peer-to-peer connections to bring about changes in powers structures.

Discussions included examples such as Côte d’Ivoire where real-time reporting on events there had significant impact on the reporting of elections in that country. Similarly, bloggers and other digital natives in Pakistan helped put on pressure to bring about effective responses to political or environmental crises, and the alleviation of distress in the country. Digital natives also waged a campaign for the introduction of online payment services in Pakistan. These examples, and more, demonstrate the impact of digital technologies and natives in effecting change.

Another important issue that was raised was the impact of the digital divide on the use of digital technologies in effecting change. It was pointed out that many people in developing countries do not have access to these digital technologies, and hence cannot participate effectively in the movements they spawn. For this reason, it was suggested that governments should work to increase the accessibility and affordability of these technologies.

At the same time, it was pointed out that it is offensive to refer to these social movements as a “Facebook revolution” or “Twitter revolution” simply because such appellations dismiss the significance of the many people who are offline, have never accessed the Internet, and who risk their lives participating in demonstrations and marches that fuel these revolutions.

The issue of the digital technologies, and how to make them useful to more activists around the world was also discussed. In this regard, a participant from Yemen said that they are trying to document human rights violations, and are having problems training people on how to use these tools.

A number of participants shared suggestions on various resources and digital technologies for effecting change. Among these are the Tactical Technology collectives, Mobile Active (a repository of mobile technologies for activists), as well as the use of screen shots to share information and confirm facts on the ground.

Panelists also discussed the challenges to using digital technologies to affect change and increasing civic engagement, as well as the question of how the influence and use of these technologies can be advanced. It was pointed out that one major challenge is the common phenomenon these days where digital natives are used by large powerful players as pawns in policy processes. In addition, there are challenges that stem from the relationship between the offline and online worlds. People sometimes confuse reality with what happens online. In the same vein, it is often difficult to translate online causes and successes offline.

Another important challenge that was pointed out is the over-dependence on technology. For this reason, movements based on digital technologies are susceptible to being disrupted by government, as well as corporate actions.

The digital divide is also an important challenge in the use of digital technologies for effecting change. In particular, there is need to improve the accessibility and affordability of telecommunications resources, and increase efforts to localize and make these tools available in local languages, as well as rural areas. This will help reduce the elitist nature of digital technologies, and help bring them to the masses. This is especially important because most people affected are disadvantaged, and without any access to information or mobile phones.

With regards the way forward, it was suggested it is important to understand that there are various issues such as the legal, social and political environments that affect digital natives and their use of digital technologies to effect change. For this reason, it is important to understand the context in which one operates.

With regards governments, it was strongly felt that governments should stay out. This is especially so given that we are talking about civic participation, and getting the voice of the people heard. Furthermore, it was suggested that the way the Internet is structured, its values, principles, and how it is governed are completely different from what governments are used to, and hence, all the more reason why they should stay out.

At the same time, it was pointed out that governments are becoming more savvy about using digital technologies to increase civic engagement. Government officials and agencies are now setting up Facebook and Twitter accounts, and leveraging social media. This is not surprising, given that governments across the world are seeing the Internet providing space for people to take on issues they usually do not. For this reason, the debate about control is getting more heated in the global Internet dialog space.

It was also pointed out that it is important to recognize that governments also have their interests. In addition, it is important to use open tools which allow civic participation, and negotiation with government from a position of strength, rather engaging in dialog which is often dictated and controlled by governments.

Conclusions and further comments:
The discussions covered various aspects of the issue of using digital technologies to increase civic engagement and effect political change. Panelists and participants discussed various issues such as defining the digital native, examples of the impact of digital technologies, as well as the various challenges in their use around the world to effect change.

Although digital technologies were reported to have profound effects on increasing civic engagement and effecting change, it was also recognized there are various challenges to the use of digital technologies to their use in this regard. Among these challenges are the risk of being used as pawns, the persistence of the digital divide in many countries, and the risk of confusing reality with what happens online. It was also mentioned that efforts should be redoubled to increase access to digital technologies, reduce the digital divide, and increase access to information.

In conclusion, it was pointed out that it is important to recall that social networks are human networks, and that it is important to remember that its not all about technology. Finally, it was concluded that governments should not interfere in the use of digital technologies by digital natives, especially given that the main objective is to increase civic participation.

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