Malcolm Gladwell's Wrong about Digital Advocacy

Social media's 'weak ties' should not be underestimated.

By Michael Geist 20 Oct 2010 |

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. His column on digital media runs every Tuesday in The Tyee. He can reached at or online at

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Gladwell: What gets on the radar?

Malcolm Gladwell, the best-selling Canadian writer for the New Yorker, recently turned his attention to the use of Twitter, Facebook, and the Internet for digital advocacy. Gladwell dismissed claims that digital advocacy has been an effective tool, lamenting that "people have forgotten what advocacy is about."

He suggested that effective advocacy that leads to broad social or political change requires "strong ties" among people who are closely connected, committed to the cause, and well organized. When Gladwell examined digital advocacy initiatives he found precisely the opposite -- weak ties between people with minimal commitment and no organizational structure.

The Gladwell article was published two days after Canada, the United States, the European Union and a handful of other countries concluded negotiations on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. As I noted in last week's column, although some issues must still be sorted out, the countries have agreed on a broad framework and announced that no further negotiation rounds are planned.

With the draft agreement now public, it is apparent that one of the biggest stories over the three-year negotiation was the willingness of the U.S. to compromise on the rules associated with the Internet. When it first proposed the Internet chapter, the U.S. demanded new liability requirements for Internet providers (including the possibility of terminating subscriber access based on multiple allegations of infringement) as well as tough digital lock rules that went far beyond current international treaty requirements.

The near-final version is a far cry from the initial U.S. proposal, with the Internet provider provisions removed from the treaty and the digital lock provisions rendered more flexible to accommodate the wide range of global approaches to the issue.

Several factors are likely responsible for the dramatic shift. Unexpected political developments in Europe and the U.S. led to an aggressive European Parliament demanding greater protections for privacy and civil liberties in the agreement, while the upcoming U.S. Congressional elections may have increased pressure to conclude the agreement quickly, regardless of how imperfect it might be from a U.S. perspective.

The lack of transparency associated with the agreement may have also weakened the U.S. position, since it left negotiators unable to respond to public criticism, which steadily mounted as politicians, business and the public grew wary of a treaty being negotiated in secret locations behind closed doors.

A case study in raised awareness

Contrary to Gladwell's expectations, yet another critical factor was the role of loosely connected groups around the world who used the Internet to raise awareness with the public, politicians, and the media. Unlike many advocacy efforts in this field that are limited to domestic or local activities, non-governmental groups from the U.S., Europe, New Zealand, and Canada worked in parallel to turn ACTA into a political hot potato.

Their work was supported by dozens of academics, university clinics, activists and interested individuals around the world, who published papers, blog posts and tweets on ACTA and its potential effects. Concerned citizens took that information and created wikis to allow for further analysis or translated the materials into Spanish, French, and other local languages.

The steady stream of information about ACTA took a relatively obscure issue and gradually moved it onto the political radar screen, leading to Parliamentary hearings in Europe and uncomfortable questions in many national legislatures (including Canada's House of Commons).

While digital advocacy alone was not responsible for these efforts, it played a crucial role, providing instant dissemination of leaked documents and expert analysis. The battle over ACTA may not be the equivalent of the fight for civil rights in the 1960's, but the relative success in changing the terms of the agreement that was a top U.S. priority demonstrates the power of digital advocacy and the potential for weak ties and loosely organized groups to come together to influence global policy.  [Tyee]

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