From Cyber-Autonomism to Cyber-Populism: An Ideological Analysis of the Evolution of Digital Activism

  • Paolo Gerbaudo King's College London
Keywords: Digital activism, ideology, social media, populism, autonomism, internet, counterculture, popular culture, techno-politics, techno-determinism


The analysis of digital activism has so far been dominated by a techno-determinist approach which interprets the logic of activism and its transformation as directly reflecting the properties of the technologies utilised by activists. This line of interpretatoin has been manifested in the popularity acquired by notions as “Twitter protest” or “revolution 2.0” in the news media and in academic discourse. Moving beyond this reductionist trend, this article proposes an ideological approach to the study of digital activism and its hisstorical transformation, which can better account for the combination of political, cultural and social factors involved in shaping it. I identity two main waves of digital activism, corresponding not only to two phases of technological development of the internet (the so-called web 1.0 and web 2.0), but also to two different protest waves, the anti-globalisation movement, and the movement of the squares that began in 2011, each with its own dominant ideology. I argue that reflecting the seismic shift in perceptions and attitudes produced by the 2008 crash, and the connected shifts in social movement ideology, digital activism has moved from the margins to the centre, from a countercultural posture to a counterhegemonic ambition. I describe this turn as a transition from cyber-autonomism to cyber-populism as the two defining techno-political orientations of the first and second wave of digital activism. Reflecting the influence of neo-anarchism and autonomism in the anti-globalisation movement cyber-autonomism saw the Internet as an autonomous space where to construct a countercultural politics outside the mainstream. To the contrary cyber-populism, informed by the populist turn taken by 2011 and post-2011 movements, sees the Internet as a “popular space”, which needs to be appropriated by ordinary citizens, turned away from consumption activities and towards the purpose of popular mobilisation against the neoliberal elites. This shift that substantially modifies the way in which activists conceives of and utilise digital media goes a long way towards explaining the differences in digital activism practices, and their contrasting views of the internet as a tool and site of struggle.

From Global Justice to Occupy and Podemos: Mapping Three Stages of Contemporary Activism