Digital Citizenship: The Good, The Bad, & The Role of the Internet

Picture of hand in a web of technological devices
Communication Internet, by Pixabay, Creative Commons

In the early history of democracies, political voting was inherently simple: it was the communication of approval or disapproval of policies, platforms, and so on. Dissention was normal, but the partisan politics we are familiar with today were almost nonexistent. Issues that one politician had with another’s proposal were addressed in a direct, timely manner. In terms of the general public, everyone was essentially getting the same information via the same means – the printed press. This meant everyone was getting the same information at the same time; there may have been differences in interpretations, but everyone was reading the same headline as their neighbor. Today, we have thousands of media vying for our attention on many topics, especially politics. Whether from CNN, MSNBC, NPR, or Fox News, we are bombarded with information on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media.

So, how did we abruptly shift from getting news from the same medium to getting news from every angle? The answer is simple: The Internet. The Internet completely transformed how we receive and access all media of information, including political information; politicians can directly speak to voters who then participate in the political arena without leaving their home. Technological advancements in communication play an important role in influencing electoral behavior, easing the accessibility of political information. The Internet makes it easier to find out a candidate’s platform, what they want to work for, and their history. By using the internet in this way, people are engaging in what is now known as “digital citizenship.” A “digital citizen” is one who engages in democratic affairs in conventional ways by using an unconventional medium such as their laptop or smartphone.

The media’s role in elections and politics has grown exponentially since the 1960s. Prior to television, presidential candidates relied on the radio, think of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats, and other interpersonal means to communicate with voters: caucuses, party conventions, town halls, and so on. As technology progressed and television became widely accessible, reliance on interpersonal connections diminished and reliance upon the media grew. Power transitioned from party leaders and bosses to the candidates – as they were able to take control of their campaign, so long as their actions were worthy enough to make headlines. This transfer of power once benefitted only the candidates; however, now the power resides with the media: for they decide what suits their audiences, and who America sees.

This transfer of power greatly impacts our political processes. When politicians are their own bosses, they are able to disregard societal “norms” and use populist rhetoric to enhance their performance in the political realm. Kellener asserts President Trump is the “master of media spectacle”; using populism to make headlines and instill fear into voters more susceptible to fear- and anger-based messaging, he was able to “use the disturbing underside of American politics to mobilize his supporters”.

Picture of various social media icons
Online Internet Icon, Pixaby, Creative Commons

The Good

ISTE.org layers the ‘digital’ components onto the definition of a conventional good citizen:

A good citizen… A good digital citizen…
Advocates for equal human rights for all Advocates for equal digital rights for all
Treats others with respect Seeks to understand all perspectives

Does not steal or damage others’ property

Respects digital privacy, intellectual property, and other rights of people online
Communicates clearly, respectfully, and with empathy Communicates and acts with empathy for others’ humanity via digital channels
Speaks honestly and does not repeat unsubstantiated rumors Applies critical thinking to all online sources, including fake news or advertisements
Works to make the world a better place Leverages technology to advocate for and advance social causes
Protects self and others from harm Is mindful of physical, emotional, and mental health while using digital tools
Teams up with others on community projects Leverages digital tools to collaborate with others
Projects a positive self-image Understands the permanence of the digital world and proactively manages digital identity

All of the characteristics of a “good digital citizen” may be applied to participating in democracy via the Internet. If everyone had access to the internet, more people would be able to register to vote as well as discussing and engaging in the political arena. If we seek to understand more perspectives, we could combat the political “bubbles” that we either choose to live in or are placed into by Facebook filtering your newsfeed depending on your online habits. If we used technology to advocate for social causes such as voter disenfranchisement, we could get more people engaged with our democracy.

Being a “good” digital citizen transcends holding personal values – it includes the pursuit of equality for all. We are lucky enough to live in a country where digital citizenship is accessible for most, but we are doing no justice by those who cannot access it by not utilizing this new form of citizenship.

 

The Bad

The era of digital citizenship is a result of the rapid spread in access to the Internet. If you have access to the Internet in America, you have the opportunity to register to vote (given that you meet the proper requirements set by your state), to research political platforms and to engage with others to discuss politics. Political participation (not exclusive to voting) has increased – people are engaging more in more discussions on every form of media; however, these discussions may not always be beneficial or productive. Kurst says, due to our emotionally charged atmosphere in the US, it is very easy (and very typical) for conversations surrounding politics escalate to attacks on opposing values. It is easy to rely strictly on what you are told from your favorite news source or directly from a politician and regurgitate the rhetoric, but it is vital to our unity as a society to fact check your information, and respectfully listen to the “other side.”

In today’s political climate, virtually everything is politicized – including our social media. We live in our “red bubbles” or “blue bubbles” and disassociate from anyone who may be on the other side. Thompson argues this is normal; we seek homogeneity in our marriages, workplaces, neighborhoods, and peer groups. However, when it comes to politics and the Internet, we are allowed to pretend like those without similar interests do not exist. When we ostracize a group of people and those people feel as though they are not being represented, we see members of the Republican party proclaiming they are the “silent majority,” which was a galvanizing force behind their voter turnout in 2016. By devaluing another side’s beliefs, we are dehumanizing those who hold them. This causes anger, frustration, and retaliation – all of which that may take place in the digital or physical realms. We cannot abandon our fellow Americans simply because we disagree; we have to realize the differences we have are much less than the commonalities we share.

The polarization of the two parties in America today discredits many media outlets. 47% of conservatives said they get their news exclusively from Fox News; while liberals get theirs from a more diverse set of news. Conservatives and liberals alike see anything that does not reflect their values as “biased”, in fact, members of society gravitate to information that reaffirms their beliefs and intentionally avoid information that contradicts said beliefs, according to Drs. Rouhana and Bar-Tal. This creates a biased interpretation of the news – information that is consistent with already-held beliefs are interpreted as fact and support for whichever side of the argument the reader/viewer ascribes to. As a result, Americans question the validity of news sources that contradict that of their personal beliefs. The crossroads of political polarization and declining trust in our media outlets is where fake news exists. Truth has become a relative term and is often manipulated by an ideology, not fact.

How can we fix the political polarization tearing at the social fabric of American society? Establishing trust “across the aisle” seems like a hopeless cause in today’s America. When asked how to “pop” the political bubbles we live in, Gerson claims, “[the] cause is not hopeless, because the power of words to shape the human spirit is undeniable. These can be words that belittle, diminish and deceive. Or they can ring down the ages about human dignity. They can also allow us, for a moment, to enter the experiences of others and widen, just a bit, the aperture of our understanding. On the success of this calling much else depends.”  The solution to diminishing this polarization is to listen – listen and realize the other person you are disagreeing with possess the same humanity you do, and this humanity should be respected.

@ symbol with American symbols
News Internet, by Max Pixel, Creative Commons

Digital Citizenship and Human Rights

Marginalized populations have always struggled to get their voices heard. Without active engagement in democracy, minorities struggle to achieve full citizenship. The Internet and digital citizenship have worked together to diminish this obstacle faced by minorities. Social movements such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and even the Arab Spring began and spread with the assistance of the Internet. Digital citizenship is linked to creating online communities to which people who struggle “fitting in” with their physical environment can find a home.

Using the Internet, citizens are easily mobilized on issues that concern them, whether domestic or international. They are able to pressure politicians to take actions against human rights violations and assist organizations doing field work where an injustice is present. For example, we are able to donate financially to the organizations making an effort to abolish the attacks on the LGBTQ+ community currently taking place in Chechnya, Russia. By being aware of it and all the other injustices taking place, we are able to assist in the resistance and make a difference in a way we could not have 10 years ago thanks to the Internet.

There are those who choose to not engage in politics in any shape or form, and there are those who use the Internet exclusively for political reasons. Wherever you fall within that spectrum, it is easy to agree that the polarization we have in America today is an issue that needs proper attention. It starts at the individual level: listening to what others who are different have to say, diversifying your news sources, and being open to disagreement. We must break out of our “bubbles” and not allow the influence of the Internet to shape our values for us.

The Spiritual Power of Nonviolence: A Modern Meditation on King’s Conviction

Choices. Source: Derek Bruff, Creative Commons

*** In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, we will repost the blogs from August in which writers looked at his legacy and words to see if the words he spoke and life he lived find application in society today. 

Spiritual power is real.  When confronted with the imminent threat of violence during his (and many others’) campaign for equal civil rights for black Americans, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. unequivocally stated, “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering.  We will meet your physical force with soul-force.  Do to us what you will, and we will still love you.” (Ansbro, 1982).  How does an indomitable ethic of nonviolence like King’s develop?  How did his tactics inspire his followers in the pursuit of equal rights?  In addition, how does nonviolence fit in a modern strategy for social change?  This post explores these questions.

The Existentialism of King: An Agent’s Choice to Fight for Freedom

King’s personal existential philosophy, interpretation of agape, and radical devotion to the teachings of Christ all paint a clear picture of a personal belief system impelled to fight for freedom and equality.  Underlying these three central tenets to King’s moral code, the teachings of existentialist thought is particularly fascinating and underappreciated to laypersons with a vested interest in the teachings of King.  While research for King’s devotion to the Christian church is extensive, his critique and praise of existentialist philosophers as far back as his doctoral dissertation at Boston University’s School of Theology has not received nearly as much attention.  When considering his theory of nonviolence, the moral and philosophical building blocks upon which he constructed his tactics and theory of civil resistance find their intellectual seeds in the writings of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and other existential philosophers.  This intellectual genealogy is especially apparent in his definition of freedom, his emphasis on an agent’s choice to actively pursue freedom, and the inter- and intrapersonal benefits to be gained from the pursuit of freedom in an agent’s lifetime.  Instead of ‘person’, ‘individual’, etc., the term ‘agent’ is used in this section to denote the verbiage used in existential philosophy, though King often used the term ‘man’, ‘mankind’, and the like.  ‘Agent’ specifically relates to the role of freewill / agency, a cornerstone of existentialist philosophy.

King understood the intrinsic link between individualism (the concept of self-differentiation from a social group, order, and / or hierarchy) and the pursuit of freedom.  This a fundamental part of King’s theory of nonviolence: the mere act of speaking out and / or behaviorally resisting structures of power meant to suppress an agent’s rights and liberties is a declaration of an agent’s individuality against a collective’s power.  Although the existentialists proposed oftentimes contradictory viewpoints on the role of religion and God in this endeavor (e.g. Nietzsche and his rejection of any form of higher power, Kierkegaard’s emphasis on an agent’s commitment to God, etc.), King obviously drew philosophical inspiration from his theological studies and unwavering commitment to the Christian doctrine of faith.  Throughout the Christian Bible, true followers of Christ are described as making a deeply personal and individual choice to commit their lives (both spiritual and physical lives- this dualism is characteristic of Christian theology as well) to the teachings of Christ.  King believed (as the existentialists before him) an agent must individually choose to pursue freedom without interference from an external influence.  In this sense, freedom is not ‘given’; it is earned.  This bold separation from and then condemnation of unfair power structures (such as institutional racism) is a testament to the power of an agent’s choice- rebuking social influence (this rebuke Nietzsche proclaims is the ‘highest form of individualism’).

King reiterated the stakes of the pursuit, specifically once an agent makes the choice to pursue freedom actively, famously stating:

“I can’t promise you that it won’t get you beaten.  I can’t promise you that it won’t get your home bombed. I can’t promise you won’t get scarred up a bit- but we must stand up for what is right. If you haven’t discovered something that is worth dying for, you haven’t found anything worth living for.”

This awareness of and commitment to the ultimate price for the pursuit of freedom, death, is reminiscent of Heidegger’s proposed relationship between a moral agent and death in The Courage To Be.  According to Heidegger, death arising from conflict between an agent and the world around him or her is an achievement of authentic existence.  Authenticity is another cornerstone of existential philosophy.  King, alongside Heidegger, believed death arising from the pursuit of freedom is one of the greatest forms of meaning an agent can achieve.  This orientation towards death frees an agent to pursue the cause of freedom from repression without fear of losing his or her life in the process.  The unshackling of fear (the fear of death and suffering) arising from this dedication to the cause of nonviolent resistance is, in many ways, a direct metaphor for the very shackles eschewed by King’s followers during the civil rights movement.

Non-Violence. Source: ϟ†Σ , Creative Commons.

The Futility of Violence for the World & for the Self

The quote “[h]e who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.  And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you”, (in)famously uttered by Nietzsche, conveniently links King’s existential philosophy with his ardent rejection of violent resistance throughout the struggle for equal rights.  To ensure sustainable, ethical, and transformative social change, he proclaimed, his followers and the agents of other prosocial movements must understand the utter impracticality of violent resistance.  The real meat of his theory and practice of nonviolent protest, again built on his existential philosophy and Christian beliefs, lies in his interpretation of the amorality of violence and is dressed in the observation of violence as, albeit shocking and ionizing, a tactically inferior method to institutionalize long-lasting, meaningful equality in any given culture.

Before exploring King’s refutations of violent protest, an operational definition of his nonviolent civil resistance is necessary.  When King constructed his theory of nonviolent civil resistance, he first drew inspiration from the Greek form of love, agape.  This is a general goodwill towards all men (similar to Kant’s categorical imperative), and in the words of King himself: “…affirms the other unconditionally.  It is agape that suffers and forgives.  It seeks the personal fulfillment of the other.” (Ansbro, 1982).  Using this love-force as a fundamental building block, King espoused civil resistance and protest must seek to benefit society as a whole, not merely one faction or group.  He believed racism perverted the soul of a racist person just as it led to violence against a victim; in this way, the eradication of racism (and racist policies) would benefit society as a whole, not just the subjugated race.  Nonviolent protest grew from a form of love (agape), and required the user to respect the fundamental personhood of their ‘enemies’ (in the case of civil rights, the enemy is a racist people).  This absolute respect of personhood forbade the protester from willfully engaging in violent behavior.  Violence committed against a counter-protester is violence committed to all of humanity.

Taking his cue from Gandhi’s “Satyagraha” concept, King believed a revolutionary movement, such as the pursuit of ethnic / racial equality in the United States and beyond, could not base itself on the permission of its fighters to act violently.  Concerning the larger world outside his resistance, King writes violence has no place in the movement for four reasons:

  1. Violent resistance would inspire an annihilating response from the “well-armed white majority”;
  2. Violent riots have historically not warranted an increase in funding for anti-poverty efforts (which he claimed is central to the eradication of racial injustice);
  3. Like Nietzsche’s foreboding warning, protesters become the very monster they aim to undermine and destroy should they commit acts of physical violence against structural violence;
  4. Violence cannot appeal to the conscious of the majority holding power over the repressed minority.

The use of violence is inherently contradictory to the message of equal rights, as messages of equality presume a social / legal system capable of handling internal conflict without need for force or domination.  From a macro perspective, the use of violent force in the civil rights movement lead by King (and a clear differentiation from others’ movements, such as Malcolm X and Garvey) is a self-defeating paradox that would threaten to destroy the fight for equality both from within and without.  Any attempt to solicit sympathy (an emotional response) or deconstruct the unjust power structures repressing black Americans (a practical or behavior-based response) would immediately disintegrate upon the awareness of the use of violence by Kingian civil rights activists.  Again, violence is a self-defeating gambit.

On the individual level, King warned of the moral cost of violent behavior.  Violence, which King believed was an aberration of God’s intended natural design, would easily desensitize the user to other acts of violence (this is the ‘best case’ scenario) or utterly corrupt the user and impel future acts of violence (this is the ‘worst case’ scenario).  The destructive power of violence assaults the very spiritual self of the user, driving him or her further from the Creator (the Christian God), and twists his or her capacities of moral judgement.  To King, violence was not only physical but also psychological.

twitter. Source: Hamza Butt, Creative Commons

A Modern Struggle for Social Equality

Taking the lessons from King’s theory,–notably the moral and tactical arguments in favor of nonviolent social change–how can peacemakers in 2017 and beyond utilize nonviolence for prosocial ends? The answer may lie in an invention of modernity, namely the evolution of information and communication technologies (ICTs).  Prior to the universal dissemination and usage of ICTs, the theaters for nonviolent protests were limited to select spaces in the public sphere.  The public sphere, defined as a space where persons can freely engage in the share of information and critique of social issues, has expanded far beyond its scope in the 1960s.  Nonviolent protests are no longer limited to physical locales such as restaurant counters, bus stops, or streets; now, there is access to online forums.  The transfer of information through technology has empowered proponents of nonviolent prosocial movements to communicate through social platforms with audiences from thousands, to millions, and even billions.  Today, the directionality and power of a message anchored in nonviolent resistance and protest receives magnification whereas thorny issues continue to plague the relationship between ICTs, social movements, and the ICT users themselves.

Information overload likely threatens the point of impact of a particular movement.  The inundation of internet and its users with blips and soundbites, e-signing petitions, event invitations, podcasts, and the like, the original power of prosocial movements may dilute beyond the original critical mass, that is, the potency of a message to inspire behavioral change in the receiver of the message.  There is no doubt King’s nonviolent movement hit the critical mass for change; King’s role in the normalization of equal rights for black Americans is without real dispute.  However, a new threat arises and threatens to subvert the power of prosocial change.  The threat today is apathy. This apathy arises from too many texts, DM’s, and tweets for a reader to devote moral and cognitive energy towards every message he or she receives.  Extreme diffusion of a person’s identity, characteristic of a society far too ‘plugged in’ than it knows how to handle, is an insidious problem.  A user may feel morally vindicated after retweeting a ‘social justice’ message, share a Facebook post, or caption an Instagram photo, and this vindication is misplaced.  What behavioral change occurs after making a post? Do tweets inspire policy change at the highest level of government? Can a Facebook status provide justice and catharsis in the same capacity King’s Freedom March did?  Perhaps with enough users speaking in solidarity, utilizing true spiritual power for the betterment of their fellow man and woman. Without a physical commitment to mitigate injustice, such as the sit-ins, marches, and boycotts reminiscent of King’s movement, social justice messages may just be that: messages floating in the ether.

 

References: Ansbro, J. J. (1982).  Martin Luther King, Jr.: Nonviolent Strategies and Tactics for Social Change.  Lanham, MD: Madison

Human Rights in the Age of Online Activism

Online activists are often termed as “social justice warriors” by those who doubt their impact. Self-identified “trolls” cast ridicule on these individuals, beliving social media activism is useless. How merited are these claims, and how useful is online activism?

Source: pixiekult, Creative Commons.
Source: pixiekult, Creative Commons.

Social media users have transformed online platforms from casual social atmospheres to an environment of learning. The online practice of calling out culturepublicly identifying and shaming individuals for offensive statements or actions, is harsh while providing an avenue for social change. There are plenty of issues with this practice – bullying minors, for one;however, there is a need for accountability in today’s age where people can spread harmful opinions across the web in seconds. A popular Tumblr blog called “Racists Getting Fired” participates in online call-out culture in a practice sometimes known as doxxing – publicly spreading information about individuals with the intention of harming their social or work lives. The blog details the work information of the individual(s) in question and contacts the employer, which can lead to the termination. Some claim this is too harsh of a practice, yet others say that these are simply the consequences of posting racist or bigoted opinions online.

An activist holds a "Black Lives Matter" signs outside the Minneapolis Police Fourth Precinct building following the officer-involved shooting of Jamar Clark on November 15, 2015. Source: Tony Webster, Creative Commons
An activist holds a “Black Lives Matter” signs outside the Minneapolis Police Fourth Precinct building following the officer-involved shooting of Jamar Clark on November 15, 2015. Source: Tony Webster, Creative Commons

The use of hashtags has also been an effective tool in raising awareness for human rights. Groups of activists tweeting #blacklivesmatter or #noDAPL has raised global awareness for these issues. Social media allowed activist groups to spread the word about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, when the media turned a deaf ear. Social media has been a platform for organizing protests and spreading knowledge about public dissent over the murders of black individuals at the hands of the police. Many outside of the Black community would not be aware of the heartbreaking stories of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and so many more without the aid of social media. Twitter in particular has been useful in giving voices to activist leaders such as DeRay McKesson, and giving rise to celebrity activists like Zendaya.

Protester against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Source: Fibonacci Blue, Creative Commons.
Protester against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Source: Fibonacci Blue, Creative Commons.

The power of social media cannot be understated. To suggest that online activism isn’t real or impactful is simply false. Successful maneuvering of social media platforms creates significant changes in society through the impact of an individual who cultivates awareness and makes knowledge accessible to millions. In the past, those with the loudest voices and the most opinions were those with the most power and money, and the proper connections to global media. Today, the advancement of social media has favored the voices of the marginalized minority groups–people of color, LGBT, disabled, indigenous, Syrians in Aleppo–have been heard globally by millions when they have been silenced for centuries.