Activism and the Duality of Digital Citizenship
By Natalie Pang
Institute of Policy Studies, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy
Communications and New Media Department, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
National University of Singapore
Many societies in Asia have witnessed an insurgence of activism that is mediated and sometimes facilitated by the Internet and social media. Studies have focused largely on the positive effects of social media on political and civic engagement such as voting, attending rallies, giving time and money, and volunteering. Such insurgence is testament to the growth and importance in digital citizenship. But concepts of digital citizenship is also changing, from normative ideas to more participative and deliberative citizenship. This essay argues that: 1) online activism is a modality by which citizenship is expressed but is also reflexive, shaping but also shape the ways citizens use social media to engage in civic causes in their communities. 2) Moments of activism offer lenses through which frames of citizenship may be understood, which are potentially in contest with each other.
Developments of the Internet towards greater connectivity and social media in the mid-2000s have contributed to an insurgence of activism that is mediated and facilitated by the Internet and social media. Studies of activism in the context of elections and social movements have focused largely on the positive effects of social media on political and civic engagement such as voting, attending rallies, giving time and money, and volunteering. Many of these studies however, are limited to the US context or apply concepts that have been developed in the US (Skoric, Zhu & Pang, 2016). While many studies are premised on addressing the effects of social media use, less is understood about the growth and role of digital citizenship as perceived and enacted by citizens. Digital citizenship, often referred to as the ability of citizens to use the Internet effectively and efficiently to participate in society (Mossberger et al, 2008), is a central tenet of activism. Ideas of digital citizenship, however, have been premised on Western traditions of practising citizenry in the contexts of liberalism, civic republicanism and ascriptive hierarchy. As such, discussions about digital citizenship has been normative, fousing on civic and political participation and the barriers that hinder individuals from participating.
Even as ideas about digital citizenship is changing, from normative ideas to more participative and deliberative citizenship, the notion of what defines good citizenship is not always clear in Asian contexts. For instance, there are diverse forms of democracy and in some cases, described as'flawed'(Hoey, 2018; Freedom House, 2018). Some countries are'partly free'as described by Freedom House but there are different reasons that make them so. One example is Singapore and Hong Kong, where the two countries score differently in civil liberties and electoral processes. These gaps allude to an urgent need for scholarship in the area of digital citizenship in various Asian contexts. In Singapore for instance, the link between civic participation and being a good digital citizen is not always apparent and clear.
Collective action online
While collective action and social movements are not new, they have become much more varied and societies have also seen more'transitional'types of activism rather than collective action and movements that sustain its course over time. Scholars have attempted to explain the phenomena in a few ways. Morozov (2011) argued that because the Internet has made it easy, relatively effortless and affordable for'groups [to] easily spring into action'(p. 180), there are many more that participates and joins in. Critics find such activism troubling, as they argue that participants may not understand the causes fully, are motivated to participate for self-representation, and undermine the democratic potential of the Internet and the issue(s). Breindl (2010) acknowledged the potential of the Internet to empower citizen participation in issues of concern, but would eventually lead to states imposing sanctions and regulations to the monitoring and surveillance of its citizens.
Describing the same phenonmenon of surging online activism, Bimber et al (2005) theorised that collective action in the contemporary media environment should be understood using the principle of crossing private and public boundaries. This implies that what is otherwise private talk can easily become public – and facilitate collective action and public deliberation without requiring central coordination. Unlike collective action in the past it has become relatively easier for collective action to emerge without the presence of a core group of activists, coordinating agency or institution.
Building on similar principles, Bennett & Segerberg (2012) argued that social media platforms has contributed to increased self-representations and identity formation especially on social network sites. Collective action should be understood as a spectrum, with individuals making personal connections to a common cause driving collective action. This is similar to Bimber et al (2005)’s notion of private-public boundary crossing, but also surfaces the idea that certain types of collective action based on'personalized content sharing across media networks'(Bennett & Segerberg, 2012, p.739) have the potential of shaping the nature of'action'– from collective to connective action, the latter involving acts of personal expressions, self-representations and sharing in the context of individualistic social networks. Bennett & Segerberg (2012) presented a typology of three types of collective and connective action, in which digital media have differing roles and effects (see Figure 1).
The idea that social social identities could drive collective or connective action for individuals has also gained traction in recent years. Key proponents of this thesis are found in The Social Identity Model of Collective Action (van Zomeren, Postmes & Spears, 2008) which demonstrated that social identity is a strong predictor of collective action.
Some issues are very much linked to social identities, especially when the issue is linked to pervasive discrimination perceived and experienced by the target group. Examples include African Americans (Postmes & Branscombe, 2002) and immigrants (Bourguignon et al., 2006). Women for instance, is a group that have faced various forms of discrimination, with the #MeToo movement unifying the attention and issues of sexual harrassment of women. In this case, there is a clearly identified group of interest and perceived as a target of discrimination. For someone who is part of such a group, increasing his/her identification with the social group can mitigate the otherwise negative physical and mental consequences they experience. This is known as the “rejection-identification-well-being protection process” (Branscombe et al, 2012, p. 119). Going by this reasoning, both collective and connective actions that allow the individual to identify with his/her target group have the potential to strengthen the sense of belonging to the group, but also improve his/her personal well-being. Such effects can also strengthen the critical mass of participants as well as convictions in the cause, thereby making the activism more visible and collectively sustainable.
Evidence of these propositions are emerging through various studies. Schumann & Klein (2015) found that while engaging in low-cost and low-risk activism such as signing online petitions and liking Facebook pages decreased the likelihood of joining face to face panel discussions and signing (non-online) petitions, such activities increased the sense of belonging to the group that individuals identified with. With the enhanced sense of group membership, individuals become more motivated by concerns for the group rather than hedonistic interests and this increased their future intentions to join other forms of collective form. Thomas et al (2012) study demonstrated that group discussions can contribute to increased efficacy perceived by members of a social group which in turn motivates collective action in the future.
Such'duality's inherent in the relationship between individual activism and their social identities where the actions of the individual is shaping and is shaped by the social identities one identify with. Take for instance, women who participate in #MeToo, a movement that comprises mostly women speaking out against sexual harrassment and abuse on social media platforms. While driven by shared experiences, the activism is also driven by their shared social identity as women who have experienced sexual harrassment and abuse. As they engage in different forms of activism be it speaking out, sharing their personal stories or giving support to others, such actions have the effect of empowering while reinforcing their social identity as women who share a common cause.
The search for'a good citizen'
Researchers such as Dalton (2015) and Zuckerman (2014) have linked massive participation in civic causes as online collective action to the possibility that ideals about citizenship are changing. Dalton (2015) asked:
“What does it mean to be a'good citizen'in America today? Take a moment to think of how you would answer. What are the criteria you would use? Voting? Paying taxes? Obeying the law? Volunteer work? Protesting wrongdoing? Being concerned for those in need? Membership in a political party? Trusting government officials?” (Dalton, 2015, p. 4)
The answers reflect what one thinks are the norms of good citizenship, which in turn determines how the individual acts in response to civic and political issues. For instance, duty-based citizens believe and engage in voting as more legitimate forms of actions compared to participating in protests, which are preferred by engaged citizens who believe in more direct actions. There are implications in the extent to which citizens accept and tolerate diversity in political opinions, as well as governance changing from being more passive to being more participatory and consultative. Dalton (2015) surmised that in the American public, citizenship norms are changing from duty-based citizenship to engaged citizenship due to changes in social conditions, and this implies that modes of engagement and participation moves from more conventional patterns like voting to more direct actions such as protesting.
Duty-based citizenship “reflect the formal obligations, responsibilities and rights of citizenship as they have been defined in the past…[while] engaged citizenship emphasizes a more assertive role for the citizen and a broader definition of citizenship to include social concerns and the welfare of others” (p. 5-6). The birth of millennials – broadly defined as younger citizens born from 1980 to 2000 have been discussed as one of the dominant reasons for changing norms of citizenship as well as the erosion of social capital in America today (Dalton, 2015; Putnam, 2000; Stein, 2013). In other words, while older citizens tend to ascribe to duty-based citizenship, younger citizens are more likely to question duty-based citizenship and believe in direct action in a variety of issues.
It is worth reflecting on the preconditions of'a good citizen'. It would be presumptous to think or assert that all citizens are equal in their choice to be a'good'citizen.'Good'citizenship are limited to the ones with the'goods'– in Batstone & Mendieta (2001)’s words, “the "good" citizen is one who enjoys the material conditions for the performance of their citizenship” (p. 2). Those with the time, who work regular jobs for instance, would be better able to vote or participate. But this view is limited to structural advantages or disadvantages of citizenship. With new media mediating and facilitating new forms of activism, individual activism can also have the effect of shaping how participants think about'good'citizenship, while being driven by existing norms of citizenship.
While ideas about citizenship may be conceived of as the relationship between the citizenship and the nation as represented by the state, it could also be imagined as one’s relationship with the nation as mediated by their social identities. This implies that while there are social identities that reinforces one’s beliefs about what is good citizenship, there exists other social identities that may be in conflict with what one believes to be norms of citizenship. For those who dominantly believe in duty-based citizenship but perceive themselves as close to individuals who may be suffering from the issues identified, may be forced to confront contesting frames and ideas about citizenship in the extent by which they support direct actions.
Contesting citizenship frames
Proposing that ideas about citizenship are changing, Kliger-Vilenchik & Thorson (2016) suggested that research on citizenship may be best studied though framing and the approach that there are contesting frames. Frame analysis is a way of understanding how different actors organise and define situations and experiences (Goffman, 1974). It has been applied to many studies, including news media and how certain issues are framed (Gamson, 1992), and how such frames are used by citizens to make sense of issues as informed by their personal experiences (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2009).
At the macro level, there are issues or realities with frames that may be competing (Vliegenthart & van Zoonen, 2011; Kliger-Vilenchik & Thorson, 2016). This is notably linked to norms, resources and power – in other words, certain frames become more dominant when they are linked to individuals or groups with power and resources, or when they resonate with existing norms and practices. But the examination of contesting frames should also be carried out through the lens of connective/collection action as a spectrum of participation in each case, as such actions can also be reflexively shaping frames of citizenship and strengthening or weakening notions of social identities.
Frames have also been examined in the context of collective action, with movements being framed by activists to persuade, organise and mobilise participants. For instance, Goh & Pang (2016) found motivational frames as dominating the White Paper protest, following by diagnostic and prognostic frames. Such studies however, are limited to understanding how organisers frame their movements and does not include how the same movements reflect emergent ideas of citizenship.
Take for example, a pride movement which began in 2009 in Singapore known as Pink Dot, and a counter movement known as Wear White which began in 2014. Pink Dot is an annual gathering in support of the LGBTQ+ community in Singapore but the #wearwhite campaign started in 2014 by a Muslim religious teacher to promote traditional family values and protest against homosexuality. This movement saw an unprecedented unity of Christians and Muslims in Singapore, with a number of Christians in joining the same campaign and taking the lead in promoting the campaign in 2016. This demonstrates how social movements can challenge otherwise stable social groups, as Christians and Muslims that are usually distinct groups in not only Singapore, but also in many parts of Asia.
Borrowing Dalton & Welzel’s (2014) work in contrasting allegiant and assertive citizens, a thematic analysis of online posts from both movements from 2014-2017. From the analysis, four key areas emerged which are reflective of the allegiant and assertive citizenship in both movements: value priorities, institutional trust, activism and knowledge. The analysis revealed that there are contesting frames of citizenship which can be found in both movements.
Inglehart (1990) studied how societies shift in their values over time. For instance, older generations, due to significant events in their formative years tend to value materialist values as opposed to postwar generations who have been observed to place more emphasis on what Inglehart termed as ‘postmaterialist’ values. Dalton & Welzel (2014) argued that these values are reflected in notions of citizenship, with allegiant citizens giving greater importance to materialist value and order. Assertive citizens on the other hand, place greater importance on participation, the right to be heard, as well as postmaterialist or emancipative values.
From the analysis, participants of Pink Dot showed both allegiant and assertive citizenship frames. In 2017, new rules were introduced that forbade foreign sponsors and to only allow Singaporeans and Permanent Residents at the rally. A number of participants disagreed with the new rules, critiquing the level of control and lamented the lack of open participation which reflected priorities in making voices heard. In response to the same rules, other supporters of Pink Dot actively asserted, at times rationalised the new rules and argued that they can be beneficial for the movement. Such responses reflect priorities in not only the desired outcomes of Pink Dot, but also the importance placed on order and rules. Assertive citizenship frames also included critiques of the movement, calling for the annual rallies to move beyond ‘mass picnics’ and called for more direct action. Posts in the Wear White movement on the other hand, appealed to traditional values that the movement is protecting, which shared the emphasis on order.
Compared to assertive citizens, allegiant citizens tend to have greater trust in institutions. This should also be understood in the context of Singapore, where there is trust in institutions tend to be much higher compared to other countries (Gallup, 2017). In response to the sanctions on Pink Dot, contesting frames can be found, either perceiving them to be beneficial for the movement, or perceiving them to be disruptive. For participants in the Wear White campaign, the discourse tend to be on how existing policies are sound and high trust in institutions.
The differing levels of trust in institutions manifest in the ways civic action is valued, supported and imagined. Because of their value priorities, allegiant citizens are expected to trust in more traditional forms of action and engage with legitimate authorities to effect changes. Because assertive citizens tend to place importance on more emancipative values and have low trust in institutions, Dalton & Welzel (2014) argued that they are likely to support civic actions that challenge elites and defy the odds in a non-violent manner.
It is notable that while many posts in Pink Dot are reflective of assertive citizenship, evidence of allegiant citizenship can also be found which can sometimes be in contest with the messages supporting heroic action (“bravery amidst odds”) and Pink Dot being a movement comprising networked voices of many individuals. For instance, calls for certain types of action alluding to more conventional acts such as writing to the minister question the meaning of civic actions that are viewed as bandwagon. Allegiant citizenship frames in Pink Dot and Wear White played out differently in an interpretive manner, with Pink Dot participants supporting the campaign with references to the citizen’s pledge, while Wear White participants referenced'pro-family policies'of the government. Both types of citizens made sense of their civic actions with references to symbols and policies of the state, but are opposites in terms of their support or non-support of Pink Dot.
Participants in Wear White also support actions framed to distance themselves from LGBTQ members of the Pink Dot movement, identifying themselves as'conservative majority'.This is a clear identification of LGBTQ people as being the'out-group', once again demonstrating how social identities are used to drive action.
Knowledge is an important aspect of citizenship. Carpini & Keeter (1996) introduced the concept of good citizens as being informed citizen, taking ownership of the process to acquire enough knowledge to make rational decisions such as knowing who to vote for, deciding on their support for different issues. With many more sources of information, it has become much more important that we pay attention to how citizens think they should acquire knowledge, and/or what sources of information are regarded as authoritative and credible.
While not mutually exclusive – as it is quite plausible for participants to discuss and use more than one source of knowledge – the discussion of knowledge manifests differently in their respective contexts as allegiant or assertive citizens. Because of their relatively higher trust in institutions, allegiant citizenship frames “research evidence” as sources of authoritative information in both Pink Dot and Wear White. Religious texts are also well cited in many posts and regarded as a source of knowledge.
For assertive citizenship frames, personal stories are cited as sources of inspiration as well as information. Unlike allegiant citizenship, assertive citizenship possibly involves civic action that involves personal stories and personal connections and do not rely on research evidence as the only source of knowledge.
Digital citizenship research in Asia
Commenting, sharing, liking, posting – as well as more coventional forms of activism such as attending rallies should be understood as a spectrum of collective/connective action. In the case of Pink Dot, while the annual rally is the main feature of the movement, online actions are perhaps more meaningful when understood as enactments of citizenship. The analysis revealed that there are contesting citizenship frames even within the same movement, and it is crucial to pay attention to them. Social movements are also useful as the lens to examine emerging enactments and contestations of citizenship, as they can'disrupt'and reveal distinct social identities underlying various forms of activism.
Issues are both local and global
Research on citizenship in Asia need recognise that because our societies are now highly networked, there are many similar issues driving various forms of social movements and collective/connective action today. Take for instance, Pink Dot. While it is a type of gender-based movement, it also reflects cultural shifts towards the protection of minorities and marginalised. But the citizenship frames in each issue can manifest differently. Many issues are also not framed in a single movement or collective action. Intertextual analyses are useful in drawing out the connections not only between each culture, but also within each issue.
The analysis in the paper has demonstrated the ways emergent forms of citizenship are changing and contrasted through the lens of social movements and collective/connective actions. The presence of network digital media plays an important role, functioning as a platform to support each cause and issues of interest, but is also a key modality through which ideas about citizenship are enacted and played out.
Duality of activism
In this essay two types of duality are discussed which are linked to the civic action – or activism – of individuals. On one hand while individuals are driven by their social identities to action, the same activism shapes their ascribed sense of social identities. Additionally while the types of civic action is driven by extant norms of citizenship, one’s activism can also shape his/her sense of citizenship. Social movements which are linked to underlying issues and causes can provide a lens through which potentially contesting frames of citizenship may be understood over time.
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