In this talk, I will revisit a qualitative research project examining how digital activists navigate risks posed to them in online environments. I examined how a group of activists across ten different non-Western countries adapted and responded to threats posed by two types of powerful actors: both the state, and technology companies that run the social media platforms on which many activists rely to conduct their advocacy. Through a series of interviews, I examined how resistance against censorship and surveillance manifested in everyday practices, not just the use of encryption and circumvention technologies, but also the choice to use commercial social media platforms to their advantage despite considerable ambivalence about the risks they pose. Much has changed in the digital landscape since I first conducted this work: in the discussion I plan to engage with how these findings prefigured larger concerns about misinformation and digital surveillance, and illustrate the importance of balancing locally contingent interpretations of risk against the larger geopolitical backdrop in which technology companies now play an important role.
Note the changed time.
Sarah Myers West is a postdoctoral researcher at the AI Now Institute, where her research engages with the culture, politics and practices of technology developers, and incorporates both historical and ethnographic methods. Her current projects explore themes of power and resistance in the history of AI. She holds a doctorate from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, where her dissertation examined the cultural history and politics of encryption technologies from the 1960s to the present day. Her work is published in journals such as New Media & Society, the International Journal of Communication, and Policy & Internet.