Digital rights advocates: Dilemmas and challenges of working with the public

Efrat Daskal

On June 1 2014, presenter John Oliver from Last Week Tonight, focused a large segment of the comedic journalism show on the issue of net neutrality. The right to net neutrality has always been considered one of most complicated aspects of digital rights, with a great deal of technical nuance and complicated understandings of ICT market forces. Yet, Oliver was able to accomplish something that many others within the digital rights advocacy community had been unable to do, communicating the topic in a way that successfully persuaded 47,000 U.S. citizens to file an official claim to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in an appeal to preserve net neutrality. The large number of claims sent by Oliver’s followers that night caused the official FCC website to crash. It only took Oliver 15 minutes to successfully appeal to the public to involve them in digital rights advocacy, something that professional activists in the space have been working to perfect for over 20 years.

As this example demonstrates, garnering public attention and involvement has the potential to contribute to policy change at national levels as well as a long-term change in the global political landscape of internet governance. Yet engaging the public isn’t easy, and digital rights advocates around the world encounter a multitude of problems when they try to educate citizens or recruit them to participate in their activities.

The foremost challenge is persuading members of the public to contribute time and money to a political or social cause. This is true for almost any kind of advocacy. As scholars have repeatedly pointed out, recent decades have seen a drop in conventional political participation as well as traditional volunteering to attain certain political or social goals. Second, most citizens still do not have sufficient knowledge or understanding of this complex area of policymaking and might therefore be less motivated to contribute to causes which appear unfamiliar or irrelevant to their lives. Finally, as these organizations operate largely from a Western “political rights” perspective, they might be perceived within certain countries as strategic communicators who aim to undermine the autonomy and well-being of their host country, especially in non-Western countries or unstable democracies. Thus, in order to achieve their goals, the organizations have to find ways to negotiate with local social actors and their activities must be adjusted to the local context both ideologically and practically.

So how do they do that? This question is the focus of a new research project sponsored by the Internet Policy Observatory which aims to shed light on issues related to public involvement in digital rights advocacy around the world and furthermore aims to offer suggestions and best practices for advocates to improve their work with the public. Towards these goals the study will explore the public related activities of digital rights organizations operating around the world on their strategies for recruiting non-financial help; requesting money and offering services to the public while focusing on three questions:

  1. What to know – which arguments and stories the organizations use in order to persuade the people to support their cause?
  2. What to do – which actions and activities the organizations offer to the public in order to get involved?
  3. What to wear – which banding techniques the organizations use in order to get the public interested and excited?

This study will aim to answer these questions while exploring the activities of 15 digital rights advocates working in different countries from three different continents. For those of you who wish to learn more about the project, please feel free to contact Efrat Daskal in the following email: efrat.daskal@mail.huji.ac.il