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Digital Contention: Collective Action Dynamics in Social Movements for Internet Freedom
How does collective action operate in digital space, particularly for those social movements at the cutting edge of technologically innovative contentious politics? This dissertation analyzes activist (and hacktivist) groups engaged in what I call digital contention with state and corporate institutions over the future of Internet policy and governance, or what they see as “the freedom of the Internet.” Based on case studies of the Digital Rights movement and the Anonymous hacktivist collective, I use a combination of computational and qualitative analyses of online texts, along with participant-observation at meetings and protest events, to explore how certain collective action dynamics are changing in digital space. Specifically, these include how movements internally perceive political opportunities and threats, as well as how they construct frames to communicate to external audiences. I find that: 1) Political opportunity is less important than threat for activists in digital contention, which is likely due to the lower costs of collective action; and 2) The digital divide and technological knowledge gap create a barrier to frame resonance which digital activists address either through “strategic inclusiveness” or “communities of anonymity,” both of which encourage diversity among participants while also reifying other inequalities in different ways. These findings have significance for the study of social movements, communication and technology studies, and Internet policy. I argue that they portend changing dynamics that may ultimately affect all forms of collective action, and indeed the balance of power in whole societies, in the future as digital technology continues to spread into every facet of our lives.