Monopolistic digital platforms have taken over our daily lives, which directly impacts the way social movements and civil societies build networks and solidarities across borders. The use of social media as tools for communication, messaging, advocacy, and even mobilization during crucial political moments (e.g., Black Lives Matter, Colombian, and Chilean collective risings) undercuts these platforms’ exploitation and commodification of their users. Most activists use social media platforms to raise awareness and amplify messages among large populations. Thus, the immediate dilemma faced by activists is either remaining subsumed and, in a way, contributing to the vicious exploitation of collective data, or losing a wider audience. This quandary can be addressed by using mainstream media while promoting a transition towards autonomous platforms that are designed and operate to put the well-being of people first. This strategic response would require a step-by-step mapping of autonomous platforms that do not rely on exploitative premises while helping movements and the general population to transition to freer and fairer options.
Activists’ Dilemma in the Digital Public Sphere
Global development initiatives — like the Campaign of Campaigns, a feminist decolonial initiative to promote a coherent, macro-structural, global development agenda – face a dilemma when confronted with the monopolies of digital platforms in their work. This is especially true in the context of Covid-induced lockdowns, which obstruct mobility across borders due to the imperialist and colonial impositions of the Global North on developing countries. For instance, many activists in the Global South have been unable to travel abroad due to a lack of political will to recognize vaccines that have been approved and administered in many developing countries.
So far, the Campaign of Campaigns has used dominant social media networks to engage in dialogue with other social movements, as well as to disseminate information on matters of global justice to the wider population. For instance, we host a Facebook live event, simultaneously transmitted to YouTube, called, “Let’s Talk Economic Justice with the Despise Girls”, every two weeks. The event is aimed at an audience, not specialized in the UN or global issues, to broaden their understanding of feminist and decolonial analysis of economic, environmental, and social justice issues. We also share advocacy messages from different global campaigns on global justice issues on our Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. The paradox of utilizing monopolized social media to promote messages of global justice is self-evident.
Digital platforms engage in rampant data extractivism and surveillance, violate human rights to privacy and data use, dictate discursive trends, and further right-wing/fascist/fundamentalist/anti-democratic/anti-rights positions. This endangers the sustainability of social movements’ alternative knowledge rather than uplifting it. Furthermore, the dependency of social movements on these platforms can risk the achievement of their immediate and long-term goals. A case in point is when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanded Twitter to take down accounts of protesting farmers in India, or when due to an algorithmic function, messages disappeared on Instagram at crucial moments of mobilization during the Black Lives Matter movement.
The diverse natures of, and audiences on, different social media platforms cater to specific interests and concerns of activists and social movements. For instance, Twitter’s immediacy supports the exchange of analysis of ongoing and recent events; during COP26, people around the world found out in real-time through climate justice activists on Twitter about the conflict regarding the use of the term “phasing out” of coal in the Glasgow Climate Pact. The activists further highlighted how India successfully pushed for changing the language to “phasing down” and how the use of the term “phasing out” benefited developed countries. Meanwhile, Facebook offers a few options to reach out to groups with common interests, thereby, reducing the effort of activists in maintaining a captive audience for specific issues. These are a few of the tools that activists use for engaging audiences in global issues and advocacy, with webinars being transmitted live, or as in the case of the Despise Girls with the Campaign of Campaigns, with periodical live sessions to socialize debates on global advocacy and macro agendas. Instagram’s popularity helps reach audiences that would otherwise never engage in movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM). This is due to the simplicity of some common actions people can take part in, such as in the case of the BLM movement, many Instagram users shared a black image on 2 June 2020, to signal their support for the movement. However, as mentioned above, this action met with backlash due to the way the algorithm worked. Although TikTok is not a space that has been explored by activists and social movements, larger youth groups are interested in sharing their concerns and even engaging in common acts of protests when they see an opportunity (for e.g., hoarding tickets to Trump’s campaign events during his second presidential campaign).
Activists engaging in structural and macro activism are torn between boycotting social media and losing out on reaching large audiences, or continuing to use these platforms and in turn contribute to the vicious exploitation of collective data.
However, with intergenerational issues such as the climate emergency, social movements should be concerned that youngsters are siloed off in spaces of their own while discussing issues of economic, environmental, and redistributive justice. For instance, YouTube and Spotify, among others, provide a space to transmit self-made content like videos and podcasts that can prevail across time.
Social media has proven to enhance many global conflicts, at times harming activists and threatening collective rights. Notably, Facebook was reluctant to prevent the spread of misinformation during the Covid-19 pandemic, and prioritized profit over ethics while providing ample space to far-right movements around the world. In 2021, Twitter’s policy for preventing harassment was abused by right-wing groups against anti-fascist movements. TikTok saw a rise of extremist content and it is not clear how it can be stopped. Social media, therefore, poses many challenges to those promoting social justice and human rights in the current times.
Furthermore, the way in which digital platforms exploit collective data is well-known. Data has been termed “the new oil” because it can be extracted and exploited as a commercial asset. This exploitation of users’ data by digital platforms is best exemplified with Meta‘s estimation of losses that Apple’s latest privacy changes — requiring consent of the users to track their activity across apps — would bring to the company. Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, is estimated to lose USD 10 billion in 2022, now that it is required to seek permission to track behavior for ad sales.
Therefore, activists engaging in structural and macro activism are torn between boycotting social media and losing out on reaching large audiences, or continuing to use these platforms and in turn contribute to the vicious exploitation of collective data. A major cause for this predicament is that most activists and social movements already have a presence on many popular social media platforms. Therefore, these platforms provide a quick way to reach out to these actors. This is also true when reaching out to large groups, and individuals in general, to raise awareness and amplify messages. Furthermore, quite often these platforms are the only means of reaching the larger public. A solution to this dilemma could be a strategy to use mainstream social media while promoting a transition towards autonomous platforms that are designed and operate in a way that puts the well-being of people first. To achieve this, we need to undertake a step-by-step mapping of autonomous platforms, while helping movements and the general population to transition to freer and fairer options. The proposal to develop parallel strategies in traditional and alternative media spaces should not only take into consideration what these platforms have to offer, but also acknowledge the need for developing new options.
Towards a Digital Public Sphere
Since there is an urgent need to democratize the digital world, here are a few principles and conditions that should be fulfilled to ensure that the efforts of social movements are fruitful while utilizing social media and digital platforms for activism:
- First, access to and use of the internet should be recognized as a human right.
- As with all human rights, the internet and digital platforms should be recognized as commons, and regulated such that the options at hand, including major digital platforms, have a public dimension with conditions such as accessibility, availability, and safety built into them.
- Self-regulation of data use by digital platforms is not enough. All social movements should strive to promote a UN global body for the governance of digital technologies that can assess and regulate the current and potential impacts of these technologies on the environment, labor market, livelihoods, and society. This body should ensure that the common good remains the ultimate goal and that it takes precedence over profits.
- Other issues such as regulation through taxation to avoid corporate abuse and proliferation of tax havens, and labor rights violations should be targeted explicitly in a cross-cutting manner by pertinent global and regional technical bodies.
- All efforts to govern and regulate digital platforms should have at their core, the inherent responsibility of states to protect citizens’ data. This will ensure that the public realm prevails over the private in every aspect of digital platforms while guaranteeing democratic principles for states.
- Parallelly, social movements should draft principles for digital platforms that promote the well-being of people and the planet with an ethics to democratize them and ‘communalize’ them.
- These principles should not only address the larger nature of the digital arena (i.e., data protection vs. data extractivism), but also the specificities of each ecosystem: what conditions should be placed for platforms similar to Facebook, promoting common groups with similar interests? What are the conditions that can enable the production and distribution of podcasts and videos that can replace Spotify and YouTube?
- Rather than replacing all platforms at once, the principles and needs of social movements and activists should be specifically mapped. This will clarify the specific and differentiated needs that may help in campaigning and awareness-building. For e.g., Spotify may appear to be useful for movements because podcasts reach a wider audience through it. Therefore, a deeper exploration of the strategies needed to adapt an alternative platform to this specific purpose should be undertaken.
- Along with mapping the specific purposes, the most impacted actors per platform should also be mapped to build alliances. Spotify and the music realm exemplify the potential of planning differentiated strategies for each platform for future mobilization and a potential transition to fairer and democratic spaces.
- The manipulative nature of digital platforms’ success should warn us about the power of ‘branding’. We should try to better understand the logics of branding for re-appropriating names and symbols and build those upon the platforms meant to promote social movements’ agendas. Therefore, our focus on digital platforms should not only be centered around the technological or regulatory arena, but should also expand to sociological framings, and establish larger dialogues with arts and culture.
Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, is estimated to lose USD 10 billion in 2022, now that it is required to seek permission to track behavior for ad sales.
Thus, a process of transition towards autonomous platforms will require some preparatory steps:
- To begin with, existing platforms and data systems that are grounded in principles of solidarity should be identified. A directory of such platforms in an accessible format would be a useful resource for social movements, more so in moments of globalized challenges.
- This exercise of identifying existing solidarity-based platforms will also reveal current gaps or missing elements in alternative platforms. This information should be used to develop a parallel initiative to fundraise for developing such alternatives.
- Certain networks such as the Women’s Major Group or the Civil Society Financing for Development Group, should politically back specific platforms which will be vetted positively. This will enhance the reach and presence of options that may already be out there but may be unknown. Networks of different constituencies should make a political commitment to use, uplift, and promote these platforms to actively support them.
- Networks and activists should draft and endorse a Manifesto for Digital Justice and Autonomy to simultaneously and actively promote a transition towards new platforms with ethical and collective feminist principles.
- Each network/movement endorsing the Manifesto should promote actions and spaces for awareness and capacity-building, and political dialogues to emphasize the interconnections between struggles for social/economic/environmental justice and digital justice, referring to the Manifesto and the collective efforts to achieve digital justice.
Simultaneously, we must take the following steps to transition to new platforms:
- Widespread promotion of the Manifesto for Digital Autonomy.
- Every material published in a canonic social media by activists and social movements should include a disclaimer, recognizing the negative impacts of these platforms.
- The disclaimer should also include a link to an alternative platform, with the invitation to see the same content on the new alternative.
- Although it sounds like a duplication of content, in order to eventually transition away from traditional media, each new piece of content published on traditional media, must also be published on alternative platforms, to begin expanding archives there.
5. A technical network/team of knowledge experts can be established to help social movements access the most suitable platforms for them and familiarize them with the process of transitioning towards autonomous platforms, pro bono.
Major collective efforts are essential to implement these proposed steps. A collective emerging from a Feminist Digital Justice Exploration could be a key measure in promoting some or just one of these possible entry points.
Activists and technical experts must lead the efforts to develop viable alternatives to traditional platforms. Evidently, financial support, capacity-building, and networking in support of autonomous platforms are essential to make a dent in the global dynamics of major digital platforms. The work that lies ahead of us, requires various groups of experts and networks from around the world to work closely and extensively map existing initiatives. Thus, on-ground work to fight monopolies is an up-hill battle that requires many actors to systematically work together.
Social movements should draft principles for digital platforms that promote the well-being of people and the planet with an ethics to democratize them and ‘communalize’ them.
Similarly, the path towards finding local solutions should be treated as a complex field. Based on a fractal logic, the structural inequalities and power imbalances we strive to eradicate everywhere are replicated at the local level as well. Therefore, we should be cautious about not idealizing any of these levels and spaces of intervention. For instance, when promoting local digital platforms run at the community level, we must bear in mind that dynamics of gender inequality will be at play. This might perhaps result in men having a dominant presence at the decision-making table compared to women. In fact, only women who have a lesser burden of unpaid domestic care work will be able to engage in such projects. Therefore, while collective solutions at the community level should be viewed for its full potential, inequality gaps should also be recognized and addressed from the start. Another issue that must be considered as a core concern is that macro and global dimensions have dynamics of their own. No action at the local level can replace what has to be done at the global level.
Furthermore, the monopolistic role of digital platforms presents many major challenges. This includes the concentration of wealth, tax evasion, financialization of life, massive human rights violations (including collective rights), deepening structural inequalities, and the decreasing role of the state. Notably, this comes at a time when the public sector is facing the worst attacks on its integrity and potential, with larger digital companies manipulating trade negotiations to prioritize corporate profits above the well-being of people and the planet, among others. Such major issues require collective action at a global level to effect change. These include regulation, accountability, transparency, a return to the relevance of the public sphere, alignment with principles like the human rights framework, gender equality, environmental integrity, etc.
Simultaneously, comprehensive and interrelated efforts to articulate the demands of social movements around the global challenges of our times should be pursued. These actions should feed off of the vitality and specificity of on-ground work. This way, the solidarity among and within movements can cover not only identity-based or thematic demands, but also weave in the different levels of engagement and lessons to address the complexity of our times. The digitalization of the world is one point of entry to cut across the demands made by global civil society efforts like the Campaign of Campaigns precisely because it transforms everything it touches. At the same time, the struggle for the democratization and regulation of the digital arena goes hand-in-hand with larger efforts for global and local justice. We have before us what looks like a massive technical problem, but in reality, we’re dealing with the new ways in which neoliberalism is reconfiguring itself, morphing into an even larger presence. Solidarity and mobilization are our best options to counterbalance the new tensions and, yes, even win in this struggle for the dignity and well-being of people and the planet.