Digital Advocacy’s “Weak Ties” Should Not Be Underestimated

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.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version)  notes 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.  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.

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.


  1. pat donovan says:

    weak ties are all that are necessary. ie: speed-trap warnings, etc.
    (old school flashers, right?)

    acta is the avro arrow part two: the one click patent etc will DRAIN the economy.. Much the same way xerox fees are bleeding schools, universities.)

    the extentsions to property (locks, liseces, libal suits)
    are imaginary, bad law and the biggest land grab since newfoundland lost 25% of it’s terratory for a road never built

    throttling, censorship and filtering are beimng used to repress politics, biznesses (yes, like netflicks and online pharama),
    and news. (enjoy the latest UFO scare.. and think of the children)

    meanwhile, back at the hill, harper, playing musical chairs on the security council, gets dumped by portigal.

    there is a hint in all this.


  2. While digital advocacy alone may not get things change, it is a great way to try and things out in the open. It also allows concerned groups, no matter how disconnected they are, to exchange information easily. The new information technology has also allowed these groups to get their message out easier most of the time, to the point where they may get actual voters who would not normally care interested enough to look themselves.

    Digital advocacy, to me, is part of the process, not the whole thing.

  3. While I agree that digital advocacy is not what it takes to organize a strong protest on Parliament Hill, it has the very important function to *inform* people of what’s happening.

    Some people won’t care at all. Some will write letters to their MPs. Some will not, but will be better informed when going to vote.


  4. As someone who comes from a country with limited freedom, I respectfully disagree with Mr.Gladwell opinion

  5. Confront them at every …
    If digital advocacy didn’t matter then why bother even mentioning those ‘radical extremists’ 😉

  6. The future is ours to shape. The Internet is becoming an essential tool for democratic voices:

  7. Boiled Frog says:

    I Agree With Napalm
    Digital advocacy is good for informing people but it’s not good for accomplishing anything in a positive way. Thwarting legislation is not the same as writing legislation. For example, it’s not likely that digital advocacy will bring about electoral reform in Canada.

  8. Knowledge is power.
    The desires of actual people have far more representation than “the state” or “the media” does online. That is precisely what they cannot contend with. No matter the strength of “ties”, actual people spreading information is more potent than anything the corporation/state can do.

    Obviously there are situational differences, but come on. Populations are starting to get wise and some people don’t like it. 😉

  9. Jason K’s link to the BBC
    I’ll second that. Everyone should see this. Thanks Jason.

    Oh and Michael’s no weak tie, eh?

  10. The darker side of digital advocacy …
    No one likes change, especially when it involves your livelihood, but like it or not folks it’s already here. Today’s young generation, the ones who have grown up in the last decade, have a different perspective on the world than those who formulated the current copyright regime. Some Artists get it, others just buy into the industry propaganda. Some of the executive incumbents in the media industry are starting to get it but they just don’t want to accept it.

    Copyright has changed drastically over the last century, becoming more and more beneficial to the creator. Not that creators do not need compensation or protections for their work, but the balance got tipped too much in the favor of the copyright holders [not necessarily the creators] and with the advent of digital technology the means to tip it back fell into the hands of the public. This happened with such relative speed that the business was really caught with their pants down, and when your back is to the wall, you lash out.

    I only have to look at the prime example of old dinosaurs like Gene Simmons who recently ranted, “We should have sued all those pimple faced brats off the face of the earth – take their homes, their cars, Don’t let anybody cross that line.”, then packed up his bags and said he’s goin’ home.

    This attitude led to a recent denial of service attack on Simmon’s website by the 4chan group. Now it is hard to tell which party is being the bigger dumbass, but now appears it’s just not good enough for Simmons to sue those little punks, now he says they should go to prison and get… well, I’ll let him explain in his own words…

    “And, as stated in my MIPCOM speech, we will sue their pants off. First, they will be punished. Second, they might find their little butts in jail, right next to someone who’s been there for years and is looking for a new girl friend.”

    I’m not making this up:

    The unfortunate result of such attitudes is a ‘war’ between the industry and consumers with rhetoric that would make Kim Jong-il envious. The media industry’s struggle to remain relevant embittered the very people they were trying to retain as customers. Now, the generation who are moving into their prime spending demographic, have grown up to learning to disrespect an industry that just seems to be out to get them.

    This is not a healthy situation for either side and can only get worse unless cooler heads prevail. It seems obvious that new solutions are needed and a change that is ‘out of the box’ in regards to the old business models is necessary. This will not be easy, or pleasant, for many involved in the current business infrastructure, but should lead to new opportunities and most likely a better deal for creators in the long run.

  11. lol
    In other news, Gene Simmons is again at war with his fans:


  12. @Crockett + Napalm
    Personally I would have like to see Geist come out with threats of prison rape, to those popcorn farts that attacked this site a year ago (who were most likely industry based).

    I don’t agree with “hacking” anyone’s site. I think there is a message here that politicians need to step up to the plate to settle this in a way that’s acceptable to democratic and constitutional rights, and I agree with Crockett on this issue, that it will take a lot of “out of the box” thinking to force a solution here.

    To blame the internet for their problems, is to blame a medium. As one MS developer put it once, it’s like blaming Excel for tax fraud. It’s time to move on, and for both industry and politicians to show some leadership and move past this.

    It’ll be interesting if they can track these individuals down though. I think “operation payback” has been going on for quite some time. I’ve been following the progression of this online, but refuse to report on it because I’m a believer that the democratic system, and the pen is mightier than Kung Fu. I think those that are engaging in such attacks feel this system has broken down. The more people feel I think the worse it will get for all sides of this debate, and the real losers in all of this will be the individual artist, not the consumers. It’s never wise to take arms up against the hand that feeds you. Consumers are always right -> a fundamental successful business principle that seems lost today. Too much greed with very little demands being met, especially in the entertainment industries.

    But until solutions are presented, I’m going to throw on a nice pot of coffee and enjoy my entertaining read about popcorn farts, and jail rape for weeks to come.

  13. Kudo’s to Geist for not reporting on these attacks. According to media reports this group that is attacking Simmons is also monitoring their sucess through media, which would be the Hack M/O, however Sookman has been linking to these stories for quite sometime, but that shouldn’t suprize anyone since Sookman likes to give the attention seeking a**clowns in this debate exactly what they want.

  14. Typical for Gladwell
    As usual Gladwell’s research is so shallow that he misses all the scholarship done before, and instead draws conclusions based on snippets from magazine articles and his own opinions. All that has been retained of decades of scholarship by thousands of sociologists is the title of Mark Granovetter’s famous 1973 paper “The Strength of Weak Ties”. Extrapolating from the name of the paper and clearly not having read any of the research, Gladwell completely misses reality as well. No mention or apparent knowledge of the Philippines where text messaging toppled the president in 2001, among others.

  15. Corporate news
    …and a corporation at war with their customers:


  16. Here’s an interesting counter to Gladwell

    Memo to Malcolm Gladwell: Nice Hair, But You Are Wrong:

  17. Laurel L. Russwurm says:

    Naturally I blogged about “Small Change” way back when too:

    The social media has also played a very big role in Canada’s G20 activism.