Data and Activism

Introduction to Data and Activism

The constraints and repression facing civil society organizations (CSOs), grassroots groups, activists and concerned individuals1 are raising concerns worldwide. It is no longer a question of countries under dictatorships or totalitarian regimes; it is now extending to countries that are considered of a good democratic standing.

Civil society organisations, grassroots groups and politically-engaged individuals are at the forefront of defending basic human rights and liberties such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association; holding power to account, raising awareness and promoting participation, advocating for rights; and affecting change – all of which are fundamental to a free and democratic society. Furthermore, this space is an important catalyst for a wider civil political participation, through educating people about their rights and obligations as participants in the democratic process; engaging the public through mobilisation and campaigning; and supporting the plights of traditionally-marginalised communities by providing tools and access to political participation where it is denied. When the very space for such work is attacked, restricted or shrunk it backfires on citizen participation in general.

“Civil society faces unprecedented levels of restriction. Around the world, it is becoming increasingly dangerous to challenge power, and to do so risks reprisals. The CIVICUS Monitor finds that only three per cent of the world’s population live in countries where civic space is fully open. A consistent pattern is emerging of attacks on civil society organisations (CSOs) and activists engaged in defending human rights and fundamental freedoms from repressive state machinery, extremist groups and criminal forces linked to big business. While some of the worst conditions for civil society’s fundamental rights of association, peaceful assembly and expression are experienced in Africa and Asia, every global region has countries where civil society is repressed. Civic space is being seriously constrained in 106 countries, over half of all United Nations (UN) members. This means that the restriction of civic space has become the norm rather than the exception. It should now be considered a global emergency.” Source: CIVICUS

Civil society organisations, grassroots groups and activists are all facing funding cuts and greater restrictions, surveillance and profiling; online harassment and violence; obstacles in mobility across borders; and sometimes criminalisation, arrests and targeted killings. These threats and risks are becoming increasingly normalised as “part of the job.”

These repressive dynamics, which are no longer restricted to governments but have expanded to include corporations and hate groups, are having a direct impact on the security and wellbeing of human rights defenders both individually and collectively. They are also having serious repercussions on the crucial work these individuals and organisations do, and implications on the sanctity of the democratic process. This flag-raising context has come to be known as the “shrinking space.”

“The Shrinking Space is a metaphor that has been widely embraced as a way of describing a new generation of restrictions on political struggle. The concept of space itself has different definitions depending on who you talk to. Some understand it as limited to space to influence policy (a seat at the table) while others understand its meaning as political space to organise, to operate, to have a legitimate voice, to protest and to dissent.” Source: TNI

Many governments, security apparatuses, scientists, researchers and even artists across history have been interested in collecting data, something that is not inherently unjust. Data is a tool or a medium that can be moulded or stretched for at times oppositional purposes and to different extents of invasiveness. Data and Data and Activism is not an anti-data project but rather a space to explore the backstage and inner-workings of data collection – at times necessary and at times used to undermine the rights of a specific community or a certain individual. In today's quantified society, and with technology becoming crucial for a wide section of the society, data has become a by-product by default. What kind of data is collected? How is this data used? How can it be used? What impacts is it having or can it have in the future?

A research paper published in the Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly identifies online surveillance as having a “chilling effect on democratic discourse stifling the expression of minority political views”.2 Author Elizabeth Stoycheff looks at the possible effects of surveillance: “Knowing one is subject to surveillance and accepting such surveillance as necessary act as moderating agents in the relationship between one's perceived climate of opinion and willingness to voice opinions online.” Stoycheff parts from the “spiral of silence,” a political science and mass communication theory which contends that fear of isolation due to having differing opinions from the majority leads to silence instead of the voicing of opinions.

Though surveillance, mass data collection and subsequent profiling can have an alarming effect on freedom of expression, especially for minorities, the majority of people share a lot of information online. From social media to other digital communication platforms and various tech devices, we are exposing ourselves for the better part of our day. Opinions, beliefs, likes, consumer habits, which CCTV camera one walked past, health records, political affiliation... and much more. All this forms data that is collected, data that is taken without informed consent, and data that is inferred.

This data, when collected from different sources, analysed and cross-referenced can take a shape in a profile or a narrative: a picture of an individual, an organisation, or even a network of individuals and organisations. These profiles, or narratives, can be very telling of the person or the organisation, but they are not necessarily always accurate. Nevertheless, they at times play a role in decisions both automated and not, that could affect our lives and the lives of those around us.

In most cases, this collection is kept away from the public eye or framed in a way that doesn't explicitly explain its potential possible usages. With this lack of transparency and in the absence of public awareness, accountability, informed consent and the possibilities of rectification and appeal are undermined. It is unlikely that a person would know why they were denied a service or given different treatment. This can be rather inoffensive, like being offered the wrong pair of shoes in an ad. But when we are considering profiles and narratives that are politically motivated, the repercussions can be more serious. The invasiveness of data collection and the ubiquity of technology in today's quantified society pose questions around the impacts on individual and collective decision-making processes. We are starting to see these questions posed around formal political participation like the electoral process. How much of this data is being used to shape personal and public opinions? On the other side of the spectrum, how much of this data is being used to curtail or curb participation in the political debate and processes?

The first step in responding to a situation of risk is understanding the surrounding environment. Unpacking how data is generated and how it is or can be used to monitor and target activists and organisations is key.

We launch the series Data and Data and Activism by addressing questions around mobility as an important component of the work of civil society organisations (CSOs), grassroots groups, activists and concerned individuals. We will also look at other logistical aspects of activism: conferences and workshops, funding, online mobilisation and offline participation. We will examine datasets generated or harvested through a specific technology: CCTV cameras, IMSI-Catchers; or through formal processes like visa applications, PNR numbers and police databases. We will look at different technological tools and platforms: social media, web-based services, apps and devices. In addition and where possible, Data and Data and Activism will highlight mitigation strategies and privacy-oriented recommendations and alternatives.


1 In this text and across the project, we use “civil society organisations (CSOs), grassroots groups, activists and concerned individuals” as an umbrella term that includes Human Rights Defenders; politically involved journalists, lawyers and artists; unions and NGOs, among others.

2 Elizabeth Stoycheff (2016). Under Surveillance. Examining Facebook’s Spiral of Silence Effects in the Wake of NSA Internet Monitoring. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Vol 93, Issue 2.