Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have irrevocably transformed the ways in which people live, work, interact, and communicate with one another. A hallmark of the information technology age includes the fact that it is now simpler than ever to connect with individuals anywhere around the world, courtesy of social media platforms and other ICTs that facilitate far-reaching communication. Not only has this transformation in communication resulted in a broad range of new connections between individuals, but it has also transformed the ways in which activist efforts and social movements have unfolded. In the past, activism was restricted to the traditional world, or the world outside of digital devices, Wi-Fi, and Internet connectivity. Today, activism can manifest itself in two different worlds: the traditional world and the digital world, often times featuring intersections between each.
Digital activism has naturally increased alongside the wider-spread adoption of ICTs as a primary means of communication. In addition, while ICTs play an important role in promoting social change, individuals in the developed world often times have greater freedoms than individuals in the developing world to fully participate in social activism, particularly females. After analyzing the differences between the different roles of ICTs across both types of nations, this paper will then conclude with a reflection on how blog writing aligns with academic style writing.
O’Donnell and Sweetman (2018) proclaim, “the digital revolution is transforming how humanity lives, works, and relates with one another” (p. 217), and part of that transformation includes the ways in which social movement and other activist efforts take place. After all, “as technologies change, and as they alter the social architectures of visibility, access, and community, they also affect the contours of the public sphere, which in turn affects social norms and political structures” (Tufekci, 2017, p. 6). Part of the influence upon these political structures includes activism, especially since “activists generally are among the earliest adopters of digital technologies” (Tufekci, 2017, p. 13). As detailed in the following sections, activists have harnessed ICTs in the developed and developing world in different ways, either to promote activism directly or indirectly.
ICTs have been highly influential in both developed and developing nations. Developed nations have strongly benefitted from ICTs in part due to early exposure, as numerous ICTs were created in the developed world; moreover, relative freedom of speech and other political freedoms facilitate productive activist campaigns that frequently gain enormous traction online.
In contrast, ICTs do not yet play as strong a role in developing nations, in part because several nations continue to experience lower Internet penetration rates relative to European and North American populations. In addition, gender bias continues on a relatively significant scale in much of the world, which has complicated the effectiveness of ICTs in combatting various issues related even peripherally to gender.
Even though ICTs have played a prominent role in drawing global attention to serious human rights crises, political and social unrest, the need for egalitarian access to communications technology is needed to hear everyone’s voices. Thus, ICTs arguably have more room to grow in developing nations, at least in terms of how important their role will become.
Digital Activism in the Global North
Digital activism has assumed a preeminent role in developed nations, especially since numerous ICTs were designed by well-intentioned individuals from Europe and North America. The role of ICTs in everyday lives has increased dramatically with the introduction of smartphones, essentially mini-computers that double as phones and personal assistants. Smartphones are essentially a vital necessity in the developed world, with countless individuals dependent upon the devices for their personal and professional lives. They comprise the key medium through which people communicate, as well as how people learn about different news events and trending social movements.
In the developed world, one the most highly trending movements includes the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. This movement has harnessed the digital medium via ICTs to draw attention to “long-neglected” issues, particularly those related to long-term, system racism (Tufekci, 2017, p. 275). Through organizing protests and using Facebook to create events and invitations, BLM illuminates how ICTs can be effectively mobilized for bringing about positive social change. The success of BLM is even more remarkable, considering that the organization initially “encountered significant algorithmic resistance on Facebook” during its initial growth period online (Tufekci, 2017, p. 154). However, BLM triumphed regardless through establishing a robust physical and digital presence, which reveals why the organization has achieved a relatively high degree of success in raising awareness.
Digital Activism in the Global South
In contrast to digital activism in the developed world, the role of ICTs “in fostering development of underdeveloped countries is still being debated” (Sein et al., 2019, p. 7), especially since ICTs have proven to have uneven benefits for various nations. Regardless of the exact role of ICTs in developing nations, it is clear that “massive disparities in the values, uses, and benefits of ICT exist” (Bentley et al., 2019, p. 477) when contrasting developing nations with developed nations.
Many citizens in the developing world do not enjoy equitable or even equal access to ICTs, and this unequal access can often times be attributed to gender: “Divides exist in relation to extent of use: in developing countries, there are 20 percent more male than female Internet users,” with that same figure rising up to 44 percent in the world’s least developed nations (Heeks, 2017, p. 203). As the disparities in Internet access continue based on gender, other social issues will also persist, including inadequate access to education. In essence, Internet access could serve as a barometer for other forms of access.
When it comes to gender inequality, technology is a point of discussion and concern because it affects millions globally. Some factors that aggravate the gender technological divide are discussed as follows:
Access to digital technology and media:
According to O’Donnell and Sweetman (2018), the poorest and most marginalized groups tend to be last to access and benefit from ICTs. Recent data estimates women are 10 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone. In some regions the gender gap is higher: the same information source suggests women in South Asia are 26 percent less likely to own a mobile than men, and 70 per cent less likely to go on the Internet (p. 219). Poverty is a factor that hinders many people from having access to the latest technology; without today’s technology it is nearly impossible to keep up to date with the latest news, voice opinions on the Internet or take part of online activism. Poverty afflicts women disproportionally in many cases due to single motherhood, low educational attainment, and the gender wage gap. According to Oxfam International (2020), women are in the lowest-paid work across the world. Globally, they earn 24 percent less than men. Income inequality definitely affects the women’s lives and hinders them from having the technology they need to improve their lives.
Access to digital literacy and careers:
Another area in which gender equality is lagging is access to digital literacy. According to UNICEF (2021), “inequality in education represents a major contributor to the gender digital divide” (p. 10). In many parts of the developing world, young girls do not have access to a proper education, and with that comes the inaccessibility to the digital education girls need to enter the tech industry. O’Donnell and Sweetman (2018) note that the roles in the new technologies are disproportionately filled by men rather than women, thus the teach world is heavily male-dominated and careers in technology design are dominated by men. They present figures from 2012 that showed women holding 17% of jobs in tech in the UK and 25% in the US. The end result is that content, applications and tools are mainly developed by men (p. 221). The digital divide stems from the inequality in education, if more girls were to have the education they need to fill those jobs in technology, ICT careers could be equally available to both genders without any regards.
Gender violence is a problem worldwide and the Internet is not immune to it.
Women around the globe are subject to harassment, name-calling, and bullying when they speak their mind about social issues. Such harassment may escalate to rape and death threats. It is no surprise that many women reevaluate their social media relationship and choose anonymity by choosing a pseudonym. This phenomenon sheds light on how some women are carefully weighing the choice to be public or hide their identities. Conversely, Internet trolls may also utilize the feature of anonymity to attack women online. Stats from a survey conducted by the World Wide Web Foundation (2020) found that 52% of young women globally have experienced some kind of digital harm, and 87% of them believe the problem is getting worse.
O’Donnell and Sweetman (2018) point out that these threats – and the affordances of anonymity and surveillance provided by ICTs – can see digital technologies associated with an intensification of gender divisions. Some examples include ICT-related violence against women such as that reported in Zambia by male partners in arguments around use of ICTs; ICT-enabled harassment of women including trolling, cyber-stalking, and revenge porn; and ICT enabled control of women such as use of spyware by men in Cambodia to track and watch female partners (p. 204). Women around the world are subjected to patriarchal and controlling behaviors that makes it difficult for them to associate ICTs with helpful tools that can improve their lives.
Where do we go from here?
Nonetheless, when women make favorable strides in socioeconomic advancement, they have been gradually beginning to acquire the same liberties and social freedoms that their male counterparts have enjoyed (Heeks, 2017, p. 204), including the more liberalized use of ICTs. Women frequently advance in their socioeconomic status after acquiring sufficient skills or education for achieving financial autonomy, and ICTs can offer a source of education to people who otherwise may not have a place in traditional educational systems, particularly if prohibitive school fees preclude attendance at schools. Through acquiring a free education via the Internet on an ICT, individuals are already taking the first proactive steps towards reducing the global divide between the haves and the have nots.
Even though ICTs have also provided the chance for people to strengthen and empower their own economic opportunities, as well as improve their self-confidence and literacy levels (Sein et al., 2019, p. 15), more work needs to be done in terms of equalizing the field between men and women when it comes to technological accessibility.
First, all girls around the globe need to have equal access to schooling no matter where they live, and there must be a bigger push for digital education for girls as well as tech-related career opportunities for women. Education and careers are tightly entwined as education directly impacts future job outlook and advancement. Political and social unrest has made it very difficult of females in some parts of the world to have an education leading them to poverty and dependency on male counterparts.
Second, online safety needs to be prioritized by social media companies in order to minimize harassment and the threat of violence against women. For instance, Twitter has been pressured to act because of concerns about abuse, especially of female and/or minority people and activists, along with the use of the platform by groups seeking or inciting violence, racism, or hate speech (Tufecki, 2017, p.147).
Third, patriarchy, one of the oldest forms of power and coercive control over women needs to be recognized as the root of gender oppression and therefore, dismantled. In some developing countries, patriarchy is the reason why girls do not go to school, have a good-paying careers or even go places by themselves. Collective action is needed to empower women’s rights and improve their access to education and good-paying careers.
Places such as Latin America, Africa, and Asia, amongst others, illustrate how “ICTs can be used to fill a variety of development needs” (Bentley et al., 2019, p. 478) in the Global South. Most encouragingly of all, when ICTs begin to fill development needs, then the wealth divide naturally begins to narrow as individuals empower themselves beyond their circumstances. Just as well-educated women tend to experience greater freedoms in most nations, individuals who manage to achieve economic autonomy through creative means, including through ICTs, will help accelerate the developing world’s transformation to the developed world.
Aside from creating new educational and career opportunities in technology for women in the Global South, we in the Global North have to go the extra mile in supporting causes that will help gender quality. Actions such as donating, volunteering at home or abroad, participating in programs for educational equality are great ways of helping humanity as a whole. Online activism is great because it spreads awareness, but it may not be enough to create meaningful and lasting social change. More effort is needed to create the social transformation we need for the betterment of society.
Writing this blog post brings to mind many elements of today’s technology and how it our society intertwines with it. First and foremost, the purpose of addressing the gender divide around the world was paramount to me because it reflects how we need to do better as people. Tufekci (2017) states that “technology rarely generates absolutely novel human behavior; rather, it changes the terrain on which such behavior takes place” (p. 131), thus reinforcing the idea that social spaces in the Internet is yet another mode of interaction where harassment can occur. Patriarchy must end for the good of society as a whole. Blogs like this, social movements, and online activism raise awareness to those that need to hear it and give voices to those who can’t reach the technology to do so. Digital mediums of communication have become an unprecedented force in the modern world, as well as a force that has transformed the ways in which social activism occurs. Courtesy of enormous social media platforms that facilitate global interactions at virtually any hour of the day or night, activism has achieved scale on a level never previously witnessed. Consequently, within the ICT sector, “one might imagine the potential for a new set of transforming structures and processes which would be more gender neutral” (Heeks, 2017, p. 205). In this regard, ICTs need to be stewarded more responsibly in the developed world, though they continue to offer unparalleled benefits regarding social mobilization towards various causes and collective objectives.
Given the emphasis on the potential of ICTs alongside their current benefits, it is clear that the purpose of this blog also aligned with transforming structures that may govern society in the future.
Bentley, C.M., Nemer, D. & Vannini, S. 2019: ‘When words become unclear’: unmasking ICT through visual methodologies in participatory ICT4D. AI & Society, 34, 477-493.
Heeks, R. (2017). Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D). Abingdon: Routledge.
O’Donnell, A. & Sweetman, C. (2018). Introduction: Gender, development and ICTs. Gender & Development, 26(2), 217-229.
Oxfam International. (2020, January 20). Why the majority of the world’s poor are women. Oxfam International. Retrieved November 3, 2021, from https://www.oxfam.org/en/why-majority-worlds-poor-are-women.
Sein, M.K., Thapa, D, Hatakka, M. & Sæbø, Ø. 2019: A holistic perspective on the theoretical foundations for ICT4D research. Information Technology for Development, 25(1), 7-25.
Tufekci, Z. (2017). Twitter and Tear Gas. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Tyers-Chowdhury, A., & Binder, G. (2021, June). What we know about the gender digital divide for girls: A literature review. Retrieved November 3, 2021, from https://www.unicef.org/eap/media/8311/file/What%20we%20know%20about%20the%20gender%20digital%20divide%20for%20girls:%20A%20literature%20review.pdf.
World Wide Web Foundation (2020). There’s a pandemic of online violence against women and girls. (2020, July 14). Retrieved November 4, 2021, from https://webfoundation.org/2020/07/theres-a-pandemic-of-online-violence-against-women-and-girls/.
Cover photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash.