Dissertation Abstracts

Digital Contention: Perception, Framing, and Identity Processes in Movements for Online Rights and Freedom

Author: Jared M Wright, wrigh245@purdue.edu
Department: Sociology
University: Purdue University, United States
Supervisor: Dr. Rachel L. Einwohner
Year of completion: In progress
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Social Movement , Digital Space , Opportunity/Threat , Framing
Areas of Research: Social Movements, Collective Action and Social Change , Communication, Knowledge and Culture , Political Sociology


How does collective action operate differently for social movements in online space, particularly for those at the cutting edge of shaping what they see as the freedom of that space, whilst also being shaped by that very same space in which they operate? This dissertation analyzes social movement groups engaged in what I call “digital contention,” which is the contentious politics between activists, corporations, and governments over Internet policy, online space, and the rights of entities operating therein. Through a combination of qualitative and computational analyses of archival texts, websites, and social media, along with first-hand participant-observation, I have sought to understand how these activists perceive political opportunities and threats in their digital environment, how they strategically work to overcome framing obstacles related to the digital divide and the knowledge gap in order to recruit followers and resonate with wider audiences, and how solidarity and collective identity operate among virtual participants who rarely, if ever, meet face-to-face. I focus on one of the most well-established digital rights organizations, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), as well as what can be considered a radical flank of digital contention, the Anonymous hacktivist collective. Analyses show that, first, when technological affordances are highly leveraged in online movements, the costs of collective action becomes so low that political opportunities lose salience as a motivating factor. Ipso facto, threat becomes far more dominant in group documents and frames, especially for the more radical Anonymous. Second, I show how the more formally organized EFF develops specific education strategies to address digital inequalities and places more emphasis on experts and accreditation; meanwhile, the more informal Anonymous largely fails to address this gap and relies more heavily on crowd-sourcing and unaccredited “citizen science”. However, Anonymous’ open and anarchic structure allows it to be more accessible to outsider populations, while the EFF appears to indirectly reify some socioeconomic inequalities by being to a large extent only accessible by certain privileged groups in society. Third, I argue that online activists engaged in digital contention exhibit a unique form of what I call “liminal solidarity” although the role of collective identity differs dramatically between the EFF and Anonymous. This project extends the literature on political opportunity structures and threat, framing, and solidarity in social movements by empirically demonstrating the importance of spacial considerations of the digital realm.

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