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Topic Owners: Rainer + <b>Elana</b> + Mel - an HKS student, an MBA student, and an engineer (!)

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This page documents the session on online activism in the class "Internet - Issues at the Frontiers" on March 2nd, 2009. After the session we reordered some of the sections and paragraphs on this page to make more explicit what happened before and what during the session. Section 8 should be useful for those planning to give a similar class in the future.

Concrete Questions of the Week

  • How can the internet be used for social activism?
  • What are the success factors of online activism tools?
  • How do we define and measure success of online activism?
  • To what extent do these tools subvert hierarchies of power, to what extent do they create new hierarchies and gatekeepers?
  • What things can distributed activist communities do better than centralized online moevements?

Brief overview

Activism is "intentional action to bring about social or political change" ([1]). In this sense, activist have used the web for mobilizing people for all kinds of social causes, ranging from the tremendous success of the Obama campaign's online efforts to post-election citizen journalism and crisis mapping mash-ups in Kenya to your basic online petition or full-scale and often illegal hacktivist activities. New tools are emerging for coordinating concrete action and volunteering (Pledgebank, The Point, Zoosa) as well as fundraising and matching donors and social entrepreneurs (Facebook Causes, DonorsChoose, Socialvibe), and other tools not explicitly designed for social action in particular (Twitter, collaborative document editing, IMs and text messages) are being pressed into service by tech-savvy grassroots organizers, sometimes to great effect.

While online tools are being used by activists whose causes and organizations may have had long histories pre-internet, we also must consider internet activism in terms of new fields of action taken around issues of new issues of concern that the internet has given rise to -- see, for instance, Grey Tuesday, a day of coordinated electronic civil disobedience to distribute DJ Dangermouse's mashup, "Grey Album," or Berkman's own OpenNet Initiative which monitors and reports on internet filtering and surveillance practices by governments around the world.

Sandor Vegh, in his chapter of Cyberactivism edited by Martha McCaughey and Michael D. Ayershas suggests three categories of "Cyberacticism":

Category Uses Examples Tools
awareness/advocacy Blogging, petitions PETA, Blue Ribbon Campaign Websites, mass mailings, podcasts, RSS
organization/mobilization Campaigning, fundraising, volunteering, community building Moveon, Pledgebank, Al Qaeda, Myanmar uprising Websites, mass mailings, mobile applications, online/offline hybrids
direct online action/reaction Electronic civil disobedience, hacktivism Cyberattacks during the 2008 South Ossetia war DDoS, website vandalizing, trojans, mass mailings

While these categories may offer a useful initial framework, many activists leverage all of these categories of activism in their work.

In our opinion, the core structural and tactical questions to reflect on are the following:

1. An issue of tactics: What are the success factors of online activism tools? (And how much of the success of any given campaign can be attributed to the internet tools used as opposed to a superior ground operation or a more compelling issue/candidate?) Is there a generalizable model here? What are the parallels and differences with the way for-profit firms have tried to harness these tools? Further, as Ethan Zuckerman notes, "any sufficiently advanced read/write technology will get used for two purposes: pornography and activism. Porn is a weak test for the success of participatory media - it’s like tapping a mike and asking, “Is it on?” If you’re not getting porn in your system, it doesn’t work. Activism is a stronger test - if activists are using your tools, it’s a pretty good indication that your tools are useful and usable." What online technologies have yet to be fully exploited by activists and why?

2. How do we define and measure success of online activism? Do online tools for activists allow for one to feel simply satisfied with a lazier, shallow degree of involvement (the median earned by many Facebook causes prominently displayed on so many users' pages is under $50) or does it create new ladders of engagement? What is the meaning of your number of viewers, of addresses on your mailing list, or of Facebook friends for your cause? What is the fundamental difference between a computer mediated act of civil disobedience versus one offline?

3. Compared to traditional modes of activist engagement, digital tools change both the meaning and tactics of democratic participation. Still, we have to examine, who is in now and who is out now? Who has access and who still may not have it? How do old digital divides play out or new ones emerge? To what extent do these tools allow us to subvert hierarchies of power or to what extent do they create new hierarchies and gatekeepers? (i.e. Who participated by submitting questions to the YouTube Presidential debates in 2008? Given certain barriers to access, what voices or issues might not have been heard?)

4. Online activism often creates decentralized organizations, which act and react very differently than the centralized organizations most of us are used to, so both leveraging and counteracting distributed activist communities can be counterintuitive. What things can decentralized online movements do more easily than centralized (online or offline) ones, and what strategies might activists and/or their opponents do to take advantage of these tendencies to either promote or counteract a cause?

Class Outline

The class consisted in five blocks:

  1. Preparatory work (Readings and Workshop Preparations)
  2. Introduction
  3. Guest Presentations
  4. Rocket Pitch Workshop
  5. Discussion


Our two guests were:

  1. Ethan Zuckerman, Berkman Center Fellow, Co-Founder of, providing both practical and theoretical expertise with focus on applications in the developing world
  2. Nicco Mele, IOP Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, founder of EchoDitto, former Internet Operations Director of Gov. Dean's presidential primary campaign in 2003


Assigned Readings

Optional Readings

Class Participation

To prepare before class, students were asked to do the following.

  1. Read the core questions and the brief overview , which will introduce you to the main topics of the session.
  2. Read the #Assigned readings (4 total, 2 short and 1 skimmable).
  3. Read and complete the Rocket Pitch #Workshop preparation exercise (takes no more than 20 minutes).

Rocket Pitch Workshop Preparation

The following assignment was used to prepare students for the in-class rocket pitch workshop.

During class, we will be splitting into 6 randomly assigned teams for a rocket pitch workshop session. Teams will be competing to create and pitch ideas for internet-based projects for various hypothetical clients, played (and judged) by the session team, the course professors, and our guests.

Assignment: Examine online tools (software programs and platforms) that have been or could be used for online activism. Come to class with a list of 5 tools or interesting causes/campaigns that you examined - at least one of them should be something new you've added to the list at #Tools. Each entry on the list should contain the following parts:

  • Name of tool -
  • 1-2 sentence description of what types of projects/demographics/causes this tool would be particularly suited to
  • AND/OR a link to an example of this tool being used for a specific activism project.

Requirements: The #Tools section below has some ideas for starters, but you must add at least one new item to the list as part of your 5 items. Tools must be internet-based in some way, but do not necessarily need to be limited to personal computers; cellphone/SMS apps, location-based tags and artifacts that somehow link or point to online spaces, etc. are also valid. Custom-developed applications that were developed and deployed for a specific project are ok, even if they cannot be reused for future projects - they're great examples.

Non-mandatory but probably helpful: you can read about the #Workshop format for the exact times and materials you'll have available, as well as the #Judging criteria.

Resulting Collection of Tools and Examples

The result of the rocket pitch preparation was an extensive list of online tools that can be used for social acticism. The tools can be clustered in a number of groups:

General Purpose Tools

  • Wiki-based tools - in order to create collaborative information depositories.
  • YouTube - Video is one of the most powerful resources for inspiring people. Integrating it with blogging and other tools can be very powerful (see Obama campaign)
  • DigiActive Introduction to Facebook Activism
  • TechSoup
  • MobileActive
  • Capitol Advantage Leading provider of Internet tools for congressional communication and civic participation.
  • DemocracyInAction is a non-profit that provides a suite of tools for progressive organizations, including fundraising, communications, and contact management.
  • Twitter Microblogging site that some are using for social activism. [2]
  • Generic mailing lists - Easy way to quickly reach many people who often signed up because of a common interest.
  • Tor [3] is a tool that works to anonymize one's Internet activities by encrypting transmissions and routing them through a series of volunteer nodes before completing a transmission. It is one way to hide one's identity while posting material for reasons such as leaks, or to avoid scrutiny from government authorities. It also circumvents many forms of content filtering.
  • Psiphon -- A human rights software project that allows citizens in uncensored countries to provide unfettered access to the Net through their home computers to friends and family members who live behind firewalls of states that censor.
  • PB Wiki - Collaboration and coordination mechanism.

Fundraising Tools

  • Facebook Causes
  • DonorsChoose
  • Zoosa
  • Socialvibe
  • Citizenbase
  • DiscoverScholars
  • All the "For every x people who join, I'll donate $y to z" groups on Facebook
  • Tipjoy - An online payment system specifically designed for micropayments or "tips." Tipjoy makes it easier and cheaper for individuals to make micropayments or donations (1-click payments; payment aggregation), and works with other platforms (e.g. Twitter).
  • Givewell researches charities and helps philanthropic persons find organizations that do good well.

Action Tools

  • Anonymous
  • Pledgebank
  • Free Connie. A friend of mine from college, now at USC law, is defending a woman who suffered from BWS and has served her time in jail. With the help of another one of our friends, he put together this site for public activism on her case.
  • iPetitions
  • Carrotmobis the opposite of a boycott. Businesses compete with one another to see who can do the most good (locally sourced produce, green energy etc) and carrotmob organises a huge group of people to descend on the business and buy products "in order to reward whichever business made the strongest commitment to improve the world".
  • [4] - The New Zealand Internet Blackout
  • ...based (I suspect) on the American blackout to protest the Communications Decency Act back in '96.
  • "Stealth," a piece of machinima created with the WoW engine - this was created to help visualize a fairly abstract proposal to screw up copyright law in Britain, and at the same time mobilize a demographic that's (at least stereotypically) apathetic about politics.
  • Relay for Life of Second Life - 'nuff said
  • Action Tools - Allows users to create petitions, search for and sign petitions, complete surveys, and debate issues. Also provides tools to help users make informed decisions on political issues.
  • Megaphone Desktop Tool - Developed by Give Israel Your United Support and discussed in this London Times article. It delivers real-time alerts and enables automated voting to help users show their support for pro-Israel articles, videos, blogs, etc.
  • A social action network where you can: 1. learn about causes, 2. connect to good people & nonprofits, and 3. take action.
  • Smart Mobs, less a tool than a strategy for protest and just-in-time organization which is enabled by the proliferation of digital devices. Used successfully as a means of political protest in certain foreign countries. Occasionally confused with flash mobs, but not identical.
  • Again, more strategy than tool: activists use specialized blogs (like this one on marijuana legalization) to redirect their user base toward participatory governance websites such as the Citizen's Briefing Book. In turn, their issues gain additional salience with policymakers.
  • Form letter generators - Makes government lobbying easier. By allowing people to supply addresses, a form letter can be generated and sent in their names from the lobbying organization. M2Z used this tactic when advocating for free broadband Internet (see here)
  • StickK [5] What is the biggest problem with save-the-world projects? Follow through, of course. Bind yourself to the mast.

Information Distribution Tools

  • Freeople
  • Crisis mapping mash-ups in Kenya
  • Global Voices
  • Frontline SMS
  • TheUpTake, a citizen journalism site whose efforts are summarized here. An example of their success in promoting political awareness is the coleman / franken recount and trials. link.
  • - community-funded journalism site, where freelance reporters publish proposals for local-interest stories that they want to write, and users contribute money to the proposals that interest them until there's enough for the story to be written.
  • - site where voters can report problems at their polls in real time, mapped by district, so that you can tell where problems are occurring during an election even if there isn't some horrible disaster that gets lots of national news attention
  • World Volunteer Web Supports the volunteer community by serving as a global clearinghouse for information and resources linked to volunteerism that can be used for campaigning, advocacy, and networking.
  • (Using flash drives to distribute information in a controlled manner) -CKennedy

Session Recap

Introduction (10 Minutes)

At the beginnning, for 10 minutes one member of the teaching team introduced the guests and explained the ground rules of the rocket pitch workshop.

Guest Presentations (50 minutes)

Next, our guests gave short case study examples of projects they've worked on and tactics they've used.

Ethan Zuckerman: Using tools for good causes in a development context
Lecture slides have not been made available, but many of the topics covered by his presentation can be found in his blog posts, especially the following:

Nicco Mele: How to run an online campaign?
Nicco talked about the dominance of email as a fundraising tool in campaigns compared to social media platforms like Facebook. One of the big advantages of online fundraising for a campaign is that the candidate himself has to spend substantially less time with fundraising. Lecture slides have not been made available, but Nicco has a Website and a very active Blog.

Workshop (30 minutes)

Class was divided into 6 teams. Teams roleplayed the parts of teams assigned to create internet-based projects for various activism scenarios. They competed to create the best 2-minute rocket pitch of their project idea.

  • Each group got 5 big sheets of paper ("slides") and a marker for each round. They did not have to use the paper. However, projector setup counted against their time...
  • Groups could use any resources (including computers) and work anywhere they want.
  • The presentation could be and use any things or people the teams wanted.
  • They got 30 seconds to set up and 2 minutes to present.
  • 20 minutes: Scenario prep
  • 10 minutes: Scenario presentations and #Judging


Scenario 1: It is July 2008. You are approached by the John McCain for President campaign. They are looking for a new internet strategy. If your plan is approved, the budget for internet operations of all kinds will be substantial. What strategy will you pitch the campaign?

Scenario 2: An Iranian blogger is currently being jailed and prosecuted for sedition thanks to the political content of his blog, including a post that referred to President Ahmadinejad as a “dictator.” You are living in Iran, and a group of students from Harvard contact you asking for help structuring an internet campaign with the goal to get the blogger released.

Scenario 3: Rock on Kids! is an initiative that provides public school teachers with specialized training and free musical instruments. Their aim is to offer music education to low-income students in US schools with no instrumental music program. They ask you to develop an internet strategy to mobilize musicians to support teachers in a school close-by and raise $50.000 within six months (a guitar costs $50, training for a teacher is $400).


Aside from the tight time restrictions and low-tech presentation tools, each team had an additional constraint to deal with, announced in class right after teams had formed.

Teams 1-2: Regardless of whatever else their scenario description may have stated, these teams were operating on a $0 budget.

Teams 3-4: These teams were aiming for a launch date 4 months in the future, and had a full-time team of engineers at their disposal for those 4 months.

Teams 5-6: These teams had gotten offers from 10,000 volunteers to help out on the project in their spare time. However, half those volunteers were ESL learners and the other half did not own a computer and were not very familiar with the internet.

Team Presentations

Team 1: Recruited musicians to film music videos and give street concerts at which donations were solicited; after the first round of instruments were delivered, their young recipients were filmed playing on them, and that video used for promotional purposes as well.

Team 2: Usage of TOR/PGP for anonymous communication. Cultivated a network of bloggers by getting bloggers to identify with the problem.

Team 3: Commissioned their engineers to create a mashup that would display the needs of schools; sell extra engineer man-hours to other projects for extra income. Stage a battle of the bands with an entry fee (for bands) of either money or volunteer time. Get instruments from famous musicians donated for an instrument auction at the battle.

Team 4: Elected not to use their engineering team in favor of gathering demographic information. Use pervasive technologies to get feedback from the population, for instance putting touchscreens in churches.

Team 5: Group volunteers into bands and have them prepare to host and play at house parties to fundraise for the organization; get celebrities to attend as many of these house parties as possible. have ESL volunteers work with ESL children. Accept donations via the web.

Team 6: Building a secure (and probably noncommercial) blogging platform that can be used by protest bloggers.


Presentations were be judged on the following criteria, evenly weighted.

  • Tactics: Is your strategy well-articulated? Can we envison how you will carry out your game plan, and do we believe it's probable that you will reach your goals with the resources and timeframe you've been allotted?
  • Measurement: What is your goal? Have you defined what it would mean for your project to be successful, and how you will measure and determine your success?
  • Analysis of competition: Did you articulate why your approach is better than others that might exist?
  • Utilization of the Internet: Are you taking full advantage of the online medium? (Why would your project be more difficult/impossible offline?)
  • Leveraging your audience: Did you articulate who you are trying to engage, and in what manner? Will your community be (or be working against one that is) centralized, decentralized, or hybrid - and why? If you are trying to build a community, how will you most effectively leverage the type of community you have chosen to build? If you are not trying to build a community, why not?
  • Creativity: Are you using tools or processes in an unique way that nobody has tried before? Are you advocating a cause or reaching an audience not commonly addressed through this medium? Are you in some way doing something crazy and new?

Note that teams were not judged on how well they pitched the cause, only the project. They were working under the assumption that the judges were playing the roles of well-informed supporters of the cause who would potentially fund their project.


The jury members gave the following points:

Team Ethan Zuckerman Nicco Mele Jonathan Zittrain Terry Fisher Total
Team 1 18 18 20 20 76
Team 2 15 18 18 21 72
Team 3 21 26 18 16 81
Team 4 15 18 18 17 68
Team 5 19 21 20 25 85
Team 6 22 23 21 20 86

Discussion (15 minutes)

At the end, we reconnected our initial four questions to the workshop cases and discussed some additional questions by students.

Examples were:

  • How would we measure the success of the video platform proposed by team 1? By the number of uploaded videos? The number of views? How much would these numbers actually say about the level of engangement of the target group?
  • Team 4 suggests to out touchscreens in churches. Which age groups and which soicioeconomic groups might be automatically excluded by that? Which groups are just not media literate enough? In how do we care and should we care about such a problem?
  • The free blog hosting service proposed by team 6 is very vulnerable to legal and technical counteractions because it is centralized (i.e. in one speific place). Are there more decentralized alternatives that would make communication safer because it cannot be as easily interrrupted or intercepted?

Teacher's Guide

Evaluation of the Class

We found the class well-balanced in the sense that it gave students a number of different ways to approach the issue: through research and self-study (during preparation assignment), listening to and discussing with experts (during the guest lectures), creating their own ideas and approaches to activism (during the rocket pitch) and discussion among each other (at the end).

However, the anecdotal character of the lectures and the pitch became slightly overdominant over the structural theorectial questions at the core of the session. We think the class could convey how pervasive issues of, for example, lacking success measures are through all typical applications od online tools for activism are. But at the end of the session there was not enough time to bind everything together and connect the discussed examples to the more abstract discourse about measuring success, inclusion/exclusion, and decentralization.

Use of Technology

Our use of internet technolgy - asking class members to submit tools suitable for activism - and social technology - the rocket pitch itself - was very successful in engaging the class. During the workshop there was no time and no possibility to disengage from the class by hiding behind a laptop (a frequent challenge that can turn up in technology classes).

Suggestions for Future Iterations

It is important to manange class time very strictly in this experimental session design. There should be at least 20 minutes for discussion at the end of the session.