Youth Digital Citizenship in Asia: From Activism to Literacy
By Audrey Yue, Elmie Nekmat, Annisa Beta, Kwok Yingchen
Audrey Yue, Professor and Head of Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore
Elmie Nekmat, Assistant Professor, Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore
Annisa R. Beta, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore
Kwok Yingchen, Research Associate, Cultural Research Centre, Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore
This paper sketches the emerging contours of youth digital citizenship in Asia. It reviews two normative approaches in understanding digital citizenship: the freedom and control approaches. Through a critical survey of contemporary digital activism in Asia, it shows how practices of digital citizenship in Asia have emerged as a site that oscillates between the freedom and control approaches. This paper proposes a third approach which focuses on digital literacy, which demonstrates the complexity of how young people’s online practices have shaped their political participation as civic actors and citizens.
Keywords: digital literacy, digital citizenship, digital activism, youth in Asia.
This paper sketches the emerging contours of youth digital citizenship in Asia. It begins by reviewing two normative approaches in understanding digital citizenship: the freedom and control approaches. Through a critical survey of contemporary digital activism in Asia, it further shows how practices of digital citizenship in Asia have emerged as a site that oscillates between the freedom and control approaches. To address this tension, it proposes a third approach which focuses on digital literacy, which demonstrates the complexity of how young people’s online practices have shaped their political participation as civic actors and citizens.
1.Digital Citizenship: Freedom and Control
Digital citizenship is broadly defined as the ability to participate online and as an extension of social inclusion. It is not another dimension or axis of citizenship, but a practice through which civic activities in the various dimensions of citizenship are conducted. It thus refers to the capacity and use of ICTs to plan, organize or conduct activities in the citizenship domains of the social, political, economic and cultural. The Internet may be a space for civic activities and engagement or may simply be a planning tool to enable these activities to occur.
Digital citizenship is a relatively new and contested concept. Its meanings and applications vary significantly. The term is situated at the nexus of the pervasiveness of digital technologies in a modern world with the promise of new modes of participation and the threats and risks associated with digital media. Digital citizenship is therefore a key arena to identify the capacity of digital multiliteracies to empower young people’s rights to participate effectively and belong. This alignment of digital citizenship to digital litearacies is already reflected in current European policy recommendations for digital citizenship to be embedded in the school curriculum so young people are not just provided opportunities to design, create, make, remix and share digital creative content, but also learn the broader issues associated with the ownership of data, privacy, and movement across different media platforms and social networks (McGillivray, McPherson, Jones, & McCandlish, 2016). Two contrasting normative approaches shape current studies on digital citizenship, especially in relation to young people: the freedom approach and the control approach.
In the freedom approach, digital citizenship is broadly defined as “the ability to participate online” (Mossberger, Tolbert, & McNeal, 2008, p. 1). This approach draws together issues surrounding access and social inclusion, namely digital participation and inclusion. Here, the view is that online technologies have fundamentally reshaped the meaning and function of citizenship. Where normative understanding of citizenship is distinguished by traditional or analogue citizenship, where communication tended to be linear and one-way (politicians and authorities talk to the public and public either responds or remains silent), digital citizenship assumes multi-layered, open-ended political interactions where individuals find ways to “recognize, contest and negotiate with the powers that exist to control them” (Coleman, 2006, p. 259). Akin to the concept of the netizen as a political subject constituted in cyberspace, this approach carries a transformative potential because of the simultaneous devotion to the nation, to the Internet, and to the cosmopolitan political spaces that cyberspace inaugurates (Poster, 2002).
The freedom approach resonates strongly with young people. Studies show that young people find fewer opportunities and less satisfaction in traditional, formal forms of civic engagement, and that many youths are resorting to finding new ways of practicing citizenship online (Harris, Wyn, & Younes, 2010; Ward, 2013; Rahim, Pawanteh, & Salman, 2011). The contemporary young person is already characterized as a'networked young citizen',one who is likely to practice citizenship in digital spaces (Loader, Vromen, & Xenos, 2014). They are more likely to avoid more traditional forms of political or civic organizations in favor of participating in horizontal, non-hierarchical networks, to be project-oriented, reflexive and to engage in lifestyle politics. In other words, young people are practicing citizenship online without conforming to the dutiful model of citizenship and mostly through social media platforms.
The second approach to digital citizenship is the control approach. Here, the young person is constructed as a not-yet-adult within the mainstream society, in need of protection and guidance, and their digital practices of citizenship portrayed as not-yet-citizenship (Bennett, Wells, & Freelon, 2011; Livingstone & Helsper, 2007; Jones & Mitchell, 2016). This framing of young people provides adults with justification for managing youth digital citizenship, evident in current national projects around digital media literacy, such as the Australian Government’s (2018) Digital Citizenship Guide or the Government of Canada’s (2018) Digital Citizenship Policy Development Guide. Adults are granted agency to frame what is considered a good digital citizenship and young people are framed as apprentice citizens who need to learn codes of communication. Discussions focus on normative ideas about dutiful citizenship—what should digital citizenship be like, how should digital citizen behave, the necessary discussions around appropriate use of technology, the risks associated with digital media (especially when users are children and young people), and issues of privacy, safety and media literacy (Ribble, 2011). Digital citizenship is thus defined through the norms of appropriate online behaviors, and digital citizenship education is seen as a means to prepare young people into responsible adulthood and civic engagement (McGillivray, McPherson, Jones, & McCandlish, 2016). The emphasis here is on educating digital natives to be a ‘good citizen’ by teaching them the appropriate codes of good behaviour in the same way that they are taught how to ‘behave properly’ in social settings.
The control approach has been criticized as unbeneficial to the young people it aims to protect because it stresses the greater need to protect them from online risks over their right to participate and be heard. As noted earlier, their exclusion from formal participation in the public sphere has, arguably, led them to engage in political discussions and learn about political and social issues in informal and familiar spaces availed to them by the Internet and social media.
These approaches are significant yet inadequate for the understanding of youth digital citizenship in Asia. While young people in Asia make up more than 50% of the world’s youth population, and have emerged as key civic actors in the region through the ubiquity of their online practices, discussions to date on youth digital citizenship have predominantly focused on the West. Asia’s global lead in terms of the rate of ICT adoption and smart city innovations warrants more scholarship about its young people’s technology use in the ambit of citizenship. In addition, these young people are experiencing the rapid transformation results from the region’s postcolonial independent movements of the 20th century to the neoliberal struggles of maintaining a competitive economy in the 21st century, amidst increasing wealth inequality and fears of loss of cultural identity. The following demonstrates how youth digital citizenship in Asia inherits this instability, and is a powerful conceptual tool for making sense of these issues.
2.Contextualizing Digital Citizenship in Asia: Digital Activism and Online Political Participation
The figure of the digitally literate “young Asian technological citizen” (Vadrevu 2015, p. 112), idealized by both the freedom and control approaches, operates as a nexus of tension between the two approaches, and emerges as a gateway to understanding the contradictory aforementioned pressures facing young people in Asia today. A critical survey of youth digital activism in Asia reveals the complexity of these tensions.
Existing scholarship on ICTs, youth digital movements, and politics in Asia have not explicitly drawn on the framework of digital citizenship. Even without a robust theory of digital citizenship, these scholars provide critical accounts that address the limitations of both the freedom and control approaches in describing the complex reality of digital youth experiences on the ground.
For instance, Epstein and Jung (2011) describe Korea’s socioeconomic change in the last half-century as one of compressed modernization and digitalization (p. 84)—also applicable to the urban centers of much of Asia—creating an atmosphere of immense promise, uncertainty and anxiety. They also note that while the Korean netizen movement is often associated with youth political voice, epitomized by the 2008 candlelight protests, it has more recently also spawned a darker underside of cyber-witchhunting, where young men hiding behind the veil of online anonymity malign, harass and doxx young women seen as having behaved inappropriately based on patriarchal Confucian values. Likewise, Therwath (2012) warns that although the transnational Hindutva movement initially empowered indentured Indian laborers and migrants in East Africa to stay connected with their religion and culture, its cyber-Hindutva successor has become increasingly violent and Islamophobic in recent years (such as publishing a hit-list of'enemies'), exploiting ICTs to circumvent legal action by both India and foreign countries while hiding its transnational organizational structure and sources of funding.
These practices of digital citizenship in Asia cannot be reduced to monolithic narratives of digital resistance (as per the freedom approach) or inappropriate technological use (as per the control approach). Youth assertions of digital freedoms remain structured by hierarchical social forces, challenging some inhibitive norms but reinforcing others. Lim (2013) argues that while social media activist efforts in Indonesia are sometimes able to mobilize mass support for underdog figures against corrupt bureaucrats, only campaigns that connect to urban middle-class users, and supported by mainstream media outlets are likely to gain traction. Latham (2007) suggests the Chinese state’s outdated view of top-down “orderly” media is ineffective against modern “disorderly” youth media production and consumption practices, such as treating state propaganda as a source of spam or parody; however, “disorderly” media in turn favors information commodification and advertisement, disempowering youth against the neoliberalization of China’s economy responsible for much of its wealth inequality. In Singapore, Zhang (2013) observes that youth activists feel pressured to differentiate themselves from the older generation of political activists by focusing on environmental, human rights, and geopolitical issues in a non-antagonistic fashion or by producing online alternative media such as blogs without direct involvement in politics.
Other scholars more optimistically emphasize the possibility for ICTs to function as a “weapon of the weak” (Scott 1985), highlighting the potential of ICTs to produce limited forms of civic participation with potentially profound political effects. Tapsell (2018) uses Scott’s concept to analyze the landmark 2018 Malaysian general election that saw the overthrow of Malaysia’s dominant ruling party of 61 years, which he attributes to increased Internet penetration via smartphones—not only because the opposition was more adept at online campaigning but also because WhatsApp and Facebook were powerful platforms for disseminating information that deletigimize top-down propagandistic narratives. Similarly, Sreekumar and Vadrevu (2013) analyze the role of Twitter satirical accounts parodying, interrogating and delegitimizing monolithic government narratives of “progress, economic success, productivity and efficiency” (p. 244) in the 2011 Singapore general election. Although such satirical use of technologies were not aimed at political mobilization, its popularity has pressured the State to respond with “democratic counter critique and political engagement” over blunt censorship (p. 246). Rauchfleisch and Schäfer (2015) suggest that Weibo, despite being one of the most heavily monitored digital platforms in the world, fulfills some of the core criteria of a public sphere as netizens find creative ways to circumvent censorship and stay one step ahead of the authorities, such as by encoding sensitive political content with creative euphemisms.
The critical survey of digital activism above highlights the tensions between the freedom and control approaches that underpin normative studies of digital ctizienship. As these examples have demonstrated, the forces that shape young people’s online political participation are more complex than suggested by extant studies on emancipation or regulation. The following proposes digital literacy as a more salient third approach to understand the contradictions of these practices.
3. Digital Citizenship as Digital Literacy
This section develops digital literacy as a third approach in digital citizenship studies that moves beyond the oppositional freedom and control approaches. It extends existing emphasis on online competencies in terms of information and skills, and furnishes new insights into the quality of online civic participation that results in claims to and acts of citizenship. Digital literacy studies have burgeoned in recent years consequent of the increased cultural consumption of digital media and the turn to the production of digital media forms. The term can refer in general to individual knowledge about an activity mediated by digital media, as well as in particular to mastery in operation and proficiency in negotiating the affordances of digital platforms. The term'digital literacy'describes the skills and capabilities that are required by individuals to participate in a digitally-enabled society. Gilster (1997) first coined the concept to refer to “the ability to both understand and use digitised information” (p. 2). Central here is Gilster’s emphasis on the mastery of ideas rather than technical skills. The former highlights its conceptual definition while the latter draws on its standardized operational definition (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006). Gilster’s emphasis on the former draws attention to how digital literacy requires not just socio-cognitive competencies to evaluate, analyze and synthesize information, but that such information can enable individuals to mediate action and engage in the world. It draws attention to literacy not simply as the ability to read and write, but the capacity to understand and shape how information is consumed and presented. This emphasis prompts Lankshear and Knobel (2008) to suggest digital literacy as a social practice concerned with making meanings out of texts that are produced, received, distributed, and exchanged via the digital. For them, a social practice is not simply concerned with the way people read texts, but the ways people talk about, use, and encode beliefs and values about them, as well as the ways these texts socially connect them to others in different contexts. This framework of ‘digital literacies’ is thus more cogent to refer to the multiple ways in which people use and interpret the digital text, as well as the multitude of digital media forms that are constantly evolving. A review of early digital literacy programs in Asian schools, for instance, reveals the potential of such an approach to lay the foundation for social activism and “democratic participation that are more sustainable than those that focus only on skills” (Lim & Nekmat, 2008, p. 274). Such expansive view of digital literacies attends to the diverse practices that surround the digital society and their attendant policy implications, as well as their benefits to educational learning.
More recently, Luke (2017) draws this field together by encapsulating the debates on digital literacies under the framework of critical literacy. Critical literacy is not just about learning how to critique the government or corporations but knowing “how texts attempt to do things to people and places, how they can be contested and, ultimately, remade in constructive ways that work in the interests of [sic] people and their communities” (2017, p. 11). The author highlights how affordances of digital tools such as multimodality, interactivity, collaboration, intertextuality, and identity construction are significant to fostering critical inquiry. This development resonates with research on the digital divide that has also shifted the focus on material and skills access (i.e., technical competencies) toward mental and usage access (i.e., critical and cultural literacies) (e.g., van Dijk, 2004; D’Haenens, Koeman, & Saeys, 2007).
These scholarly developments suggest that digital literacy is a social practice as well as a form of critical literacy. They also share two common features. First, they eschew the focus on learning for technical skills by treating technology and literacy as social practices enshrined in critical inquiry. This emphasis enculturates competencies that allow people to interrogate the relationship between language, technology, and power, and engage in social action and justice. Second, they focus predominantly on literacy education in schools and the competencies of children and young people. This stems from the theoretical influence in new literacy studies and genealogy in educational pedagogy, in particular on the centrality of technology to the lives of digital natives and the capacity of schools to prepare them with resources and skills for meaningful participation. Here, digital citizens are “those who use technology frequently, who use technology for for political information to fulfil their civic duty, and at work for economic gain” (Mossberger et al., 2008, p. 2).
This understanding of digital citizenship is closely aligned with Bennett et al.’s (2011) understanding of'actualizing citizenship'that distinguishes between dutiful citizenship (a traditional model of citizenship organized around rights and responsibilities), and'actualizing citizenship'as a mode of civic engagement characterized by personal engagement with peer networks that source information and organize civic action using social technologies that maximize individual expression (p. 834). While online environments function as sites for learning and practicing various forms of citizenship,'actualizing citizenship'flourishes in digital networked environments through participatory media that blurs the line between producers and consumers, non-hierarchical and multi-directional sources of creative civic inputs, and user generated content that allows for self-expression and individualization. As the capacity to practice political and economic citizenship online relies on daily access to digital technologies as well as educational and technological skills, digital citizenship is inseparable from the capacity for wider participation in a society. Digital citizenship captures not only how people practice citizenship online, but also how these practices interrelate with their offline lives (Coleman, 2006; Bakardjieva, Svensson, & Skoric, 2012; Couldry et al., 2014; Choi, 2016).
This approach considers digital citizenship as a complex assemblage of technical, social, political, legal, and commercial processes that cultivate fragmented, multiple and agonistic digital spaces and digital citizens (McCosker et al., 2016). Here, digital citizenship is defined by “the acts of citizenship” rather than by online participation by itself where the “digital citizen is both a result and an effect of making claims about rights” regardless whether these rights exist or not yet (Isin & Ruppert 2015, p. 62). This approach challenges dualisms that distinguishes between digital and real worlds, and rights and responsibilities when thinking about citizenship. In this way, the lines between private and public, online and offline, local and global, become blurred while citizenship becomes inseparable from other everyday practices. Digital citizenship is not seen as another dimension or axis of citizenship, but a practice through which civic activities in the various dimensions of citizenship are conducted.
In Singapore for example, social media such as Facebook has enabled young people to form their perception of public opinion on LGBTs by drawing on global and social sources of information (Yue, Nekmat and Beta, 2019, forthcoming). Through sensing and sense-making, they evince a socially and critically literate practice of valuing and trusting information based not solely on state’s agenda-setting, but in ways that resonated with the ideologies produced by their own life worlds and experiences. Similarly, in Indonesia where the political positioning of young Muslim women is shaped by gender and religious norms, digital citizenship is manifested in quotidian practices on Instagram through the everyday online self-presentation of a feminine and obedient form of pious subjectivity, and its attendant creation of online and offline communities that have also supported new female collectivities and entrepreneurship and women as political agents in the creation of alternate publics (Yue, Nekmat and Beta, 2019, forthcoming). Rather than engage the spectacle of activism and advocacy, these quiet acts of citizenship have also become influential to civic change.
Such examples show the ubiquity of digital platforms to evince diverse creative civic inputs, ranging from the formation and reformation of public opinions, individual and group identities, and activism and commerce. These civic participations materialize the actioning of critical literacies into social practice: in Singapore, the ability to form public opinion by acquiring, blending, juxtaposing and decoding diverse information from multiple sources and via groups with shared and opposing values and identities; in Indonesia, the public visibility of women through self-representation and social expression via religion, politics and business. These practices, while collective in their public voices, further demonstrate civic participation as singular acts of individuations produced by convergent media and peer platforms. Central here is not just the spectrum of online participation, but how online participation is enculturated in embodiments that are physical, socio-cognitive and corporeal. It is through these embodied modes that literacy as the civic of citizen and city takes its optimal form as a mode of acting in and on the world.
This paper has critically reviewed the two normative approaches of freedom and control that underpin current digital citizenship studies. Highlighting the Western-centric nature of dominant scholarship and the universality of the concept that has the tendency to erase the specificity and exigency of young people, this paper, through its critical survey of the tensions of digital activism, has prosposed digital literacy as a third approach to extend digital citizenship studies in general, and youth digital citizenship in Asia studies in particular.It has drawn on digital literacy’s features of critical literacy and social practice to emphasis the need to consider how digital citizenship is actualized through online engagement that results in civic participation. While acknowledging that citizenship and digital citizenship are deeply divided and unequal across Asia,the social practice and critical approach to digital literacy provide a timely remedy to address these disparities, especially towards understanding the digital citizenshipof young people in Asia as a new mode of civic-making in conservative societies with high media and state controls.
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