Information Activism - Tactics for Empowerment (TTC)

Posted by Denisse Albornoz at Dec 26, 2013 11:15 AM |
This is the first of a two-part analysis of information activism for the Making Change project. This post looks at the benefits and limitations of increasing access to information to enable citizenship and political participation.
Information Activism - Tactics for Empowerment (TTC)

10 Tactics for Information Activism. Courtesy of: http://bit.ly/19cHh9S

CHANGE-MAKER: Maya Ganesh

PROJECT
: 10 Tactics for Information Activism

METHOD OF CHANGE
:
Information activism at the intersection of data, design and technology

STRATEGY OF CHANGE
:
-Demystify the technology, strategy and tactics behind information activism. -Train people on how to use them for their projects. -Empower people and increase political participation at the grassroots

I came into the office today and CIS Director gifted me the Red House edition of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘We are All Born Free”. Skimming through it, I found a series of graphics and artistic interpretations of Articles 1 to 30:

The purpose of this book is to find “exciting ways to socialize young people to very real issues”, rewrite human rights in a “simple,accessible form” and stimulate imagination to “observe and absorb details in a way that words struggle to express”. While specifically targeted for 12+ children, these images create associations and connections that trump the dullness of black and white texts for any audience; offering an alternative way of presenting complex bodies of knowledge crucial for our survival, such as the Declaration of Human Rights.

Change: information interventions to inspire and facilitate change-making among civil society networks.

In the same spirit, Tactical Technology aims to use information design strategies to create similar associations in the field of activism. The Tactical Technology Collective is an organization dedicated to the intersections of data, design and technology in campaigning. Its has two main programs: Evidence & Action that works with data management in digital campaigning; and Privacy & Expression that provides digital security and privacysupport advice to activists. The collective envisions change as a creative and pragmatic intervention that inspires and facilitates change-making among civil society networks. We interviewed Maya Ganesh, who is part of the E&A program, and our conversation shed light on benefits and the challenges of using visual advocacy strategies to create social change.

On this opportunity, I will explore the potential of information activism to create opportunities and spaces of engagement. Following Saussure’s dyadic model of the sign, it will be split in two parts. The first entry will look at the ‘signified’: the ideas, associations and cultural conventions derived from information and how these could solve crises of civic engagement and citizen action. The second entry will look at the ‘signifier’ -the shapes and sequences that compose the knowledges navigating political activism. These will be viewed from the strategic, design and technological point of view. Both parts will be informed by our conversation with Maya and complemented by literature on political engagement in the digital age. On a less academic note, the posts will also refer to the experience of graphic designers, artists and bloggers who are experimenting with information design to express dissent in transnational platforms.

Part 1: Is Information Power?

‘Transforming Information into Action’ is Tactical Technology’s take on the traditional idiom ‘Knowledge is Power’. The collective’s experience shows there are a number of steps to transform raw data into political power and for the purpose of this analysis, I will only look at information disseminated with this particular intention. This will aid to understand the relationship between increasing information availability and having it trigger civic action in contemporary activism. According to Fowler and Biekart, acts of public disobedience and activism after 2010 share the objective of reclaiming active citizenship through ‘novel ways’ that counter traditional political participation mechanisms (2013). Hence, we want to know if information activism is one of these ‘novel’ strategies enabling citizenship in the digital era.

More power to whom?

Overcoming information inequity
If information activism is “the strategic and deliberate use of information within a campaign”, the first step is to question the type of information used in these campaigns. While many scholars claim that access to political opinion increases participation in the democratic process by fostering debate and inclusive deliberation on policy issues (Dahl, 1989, Bennett, 2003, 2008; Montgomery et al. 2004,) Brundidge and Rice’s exploration of Internet politics shows that strategies that merely increase access to information are flawed by design. They claim that increasing information mainly benefits the middle class, who counts with previous exposure to political knowledge and hence processes it with greater ease. This group ultimately dominates the public discourse widening -what they call- the ‘knowledge gap’ between socioeconomic classes (Brunridge and Rice, 2009, Bimber et al. 2005). This is the ‘information’ version of the gentrification of politics explored by Shah in the Whose Change is it Anyway thought piece, and a definite deterrent of collective action at the grassroots level.

A basic example to show how this manifests in the information environment is this info-graphic on Social Activism created by Column Five and Take Part and presenting the findings on their 2010 study on Social responsibility:

Example 1:
Social Activism Study (2010): How can brands engage Young Adults in Social Responsibility? 

http://www.2012socialactivism.com/images/infographic.png
Access complete info-graphic here: http://www.2012socialactivism.com/images/infographic.png

The information is clear, the presentation is clean. This graphic could mobilize the middle class citizen who works in a company and  has time and money to spare in donations and fund-raising activities. The graphic is informational yet it does not offer alternative participation avenues for groups outside of the politically savvy, young, educated and affluent circle (Brundidge and Rice, 2009) Instead, it reiterates socioeconomic inequalities from the offline community into the information landscape. With this in mind we asked Maya whether gentrification was a barrier for info-activism interventions at the grassroots:

MG: The things we are documenting are by citizens with socioeconomic barriers and obstacles. It is not our mandate to reach out to the ‘common citizen’ but it is very much our mandate to look at what is happening and what is happening to people with socioeconomic barriers who are lower on the ladder.  If you look at Syrian info-activism, these are people facing the worst situations you can imagine, and they are doing it [...] and we document what they are doing, trying to understand it, pull out trends and then showing people.

Empowering information communities

Offline networks support information dissemination
In this respect, offline community networks are key to bridging the knowledge gap cited above. The relationship between organizations like Dawlaty, SMEX and Alt City and groups in the Arab region function as a core of ideas and resources from which localized methods and solutions emerge (read more here). This flow of information, coupled with the offline support, makes information from less visible demographics visible, deepens democracy and creates opportunities for these actors to participate and set the public agenda (2009). We asked Maya in what other ways information activism facilitates this process:

MG: We have moved on a lot from information activism. 10 Tactics is quite old for us now but it is still interesting to see how this stuff works. This material was produced in 2008-9 and is very popular with our audience. A lot of our work now is [...] take this material to newer communities of activists or people who have been around for a long time but are getting involved with the digital for the first time. That’s one part of our work and it’s sort of self-sustainable that way.

Therefore the value of information activism, rather than increasing the quantity of available data, is how it enables diversity and visibility of political opinion in the public sphere. One of the better known examples of information design interventions that gloat inclusiveness is:

Example 2
Occupy Design: the collective that builds “visual design for the 99%”:

Occupy 1

2011

Occupy 2

2011
Images courtesy of Experimenta Magazine:  http://bit.ly/1hGpvOP

By presenting income and unemployment statistics about the American middle and lower class in the public space, activists from Occupy Design made the claims of the Occupy Wall Street Movement visual and visible. This enabled this group, the 99%, to reclaim the space not only through physical mobilization but also through the expression of subjectivities and open -graphic- power contestation. According to Pleyers, the pervasiveness of the movement both at the offline, online -and in this case, visual- levels created opportunities of horizontal participation, asserting spaces of democratic experience (2012).

From Information to Action

Is information enough?
Nevertheless, exposure to powerful images does not necessarily guarantee impact and influence, much less civic engagement. We asked Maya what she thought motivated civic action:

MG: External things push you over the edge. A flash-point issue could tip you over to do something different, even if you are that someone that has never been involved in anything. The gang rape in Delhi for example: it has sparked a lot of people who have never been involved and are now pushed to [act]. There are different precipitating factors and that’s why the stories of people: what people do, how they do it and why they do it, matters.

Delhi Gang Rape

Women protesting in Bangalore after the Delhi gang rape. Photo courtesy of Dawn: http://bit.ly/1cAFLRP

Whether it is ‘external things’, a ‘flash-point issue’ or ‘precipitating factors’; the individual must make a connection between new events and how they affect the current status quo. A set of critical skills must be in place, as well as a desire to participate in civic life. (Brundidge and Rice 2009, as well as Montgomery et al. 2004) Richard Wurman, the american graphic designer, refers to this in his book ‘Information Anxiety’. He posits that there is an ‘ever-widening gap’; a ‘black hole’ between data and knowledge that limits our ability to make sense of information; even if it is vital for our context and survival. “The opportunity is that there is so much information; the catastrophe is that 99 percent of it isn’t meaningful or understandable” (Wurman et. al 2001)  How do we reconcile this challenge with Tactical Technology’s mandate? What is the turning point between exposure to information and engagement in civic action?

In this post two issues behind information dissemination have been explored:

  • The risk of creating homogeneous political discussions by catering only to middle class’ interests; overlooking diversity of political expression in the public discourse.
  • The need for offline communities to facilitate information dissemination on the ground and mainstream the technical and financial support offered by collectives such as Tactical Technology.

The next question is how info-activism creates the connections between data and information to trigger civic engagement, and on this note, we proceed to analyse the role of the ‘signifier’ in information dissemination on the next post. Part two post will look at the strategy, design and technology behind the symbols and sequences of information, and how these determine the citizen’s perception of its ability to create change.

Access Part 2: Information Design, following this link:

Sources:

  1. Biekart, Kees, and Alan Fowler. "Transforming Activisms 2010+: Exploring Ways and Waves." Development and Change 44, no. 3 (2013): 527-546.
  2. Brundidge, J.S. & Rice, R.E. (2009). Political engagement online: Do the information rich get richer and the like-minded more similar? In Chadwick, A. and Howard, N.H. (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Internet Politics (pp. 144-156). New York: Routledge
  3. Bennett, Winston. "Communicating global activism." Information, Communication & Society 6, no. 2 (2003): 143-168.
  4. Bennett, W. Lance. "Changing citizenship in the digital age." Civic life online: Learning how digital media can engage youth 1 (2008): 1-24.
  5. Dahl, Robert A. Democracy and its Critics. Yale University Press, 1989.
  6. Kathryn Montgomery et al., Youth as E-Citizens: Engaging the Digital Generation. Center for Social Media, 2004. Retrieved February 15, 20
  7. Pleyers, Geoffrey. "Beyond Occupy: Progressive Activists in Europe." Open Democracy: free thinking for the world 2012 (2012): 5pages-8.
  8. Shah, Nishant “Whose Change is it Anyways? Hivos Knowledge Program. April 30, 2013.
  9. Wurman, Richard Saul, Loring Leifer, David Sume, and Karen Whitehouse. Information anxiety 2. Vol. 6000. Indianapolis, IN: Que, 2001.

Document Actions