ocial activists have always utilized technology to strengthen their work, mobilize communities and spread their message. It was, after all, the televised images of police brutality against Black Americans crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge that led to a turning point in the Civil Rights movement.
From citizen journalists documenting events on their smartphones to activists using social media platforms to urge their followers to vote, technology can serve a significant role in building a better world.
Simultaneously, technology has its challenges. For instance, the media producers controlled the narrative of Bloody Sunday they chose to show on television. During the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, police tracked people, planted false evidence and used technology to disrupt peaceful protests forcefully. The Iranian government limited Internet access in the wake of the Mahsa Amini protests against their regime.
Each technological evolution brings its own set of opportunities and challenges to social activism. We’re on the precipice of such a pivotal moment with the inception of Web3 — a point of no return that, if utilized properly, can become a critical tool in the activist's kit. Implemented without adequate thought and care, however, Web3 will replicate existing inequalities and injustices at lightning speed.
What Is Web3 and How Can It Be Used for Social Activism
The next evolution of the web is a decentralized ecosystem built on blockchain technology. Web3 is, as yet, a placeholder term for decentralized apps, platforms and organizations that don’t have a central gatekeeper. These entities are governed by communities that build and maintain them.
Web3 inherits its characteristics from blockchain, which makes it:
- Decentralized — no central authority governs the blockchain.
- Distributed — all participants in the blockchain have a copy of the digital ledger, and hence all actions are transparent.
- Immutable/Append-Only — transactions on the blockchain are validated and added to the digital ledger, and no one can alter that information.
- Run on Consensus — the blockchain uses a consensus algorithm for decision-making, no one user/node can make a decision.
So, what’s the connection between Web3 and social activism?
Organizations, apps, and platforms built with these characteristics mark a departure from the current iteration of the web. Web2 is centralized and undermines user privacy, freedom, democracy, and stability.
An immutable, transparent and consensus-led system allows every citizen both to access correct information and to collaborate, propose, and vote on desired solutions. Further, the community is rewarded for their work and participation in the democratic process.
For instance, as early as 2015, the European Union started the D-Cent project. D-Cent was built on blockchain with the aim to enable political deliberation and democratization of decision-making. Local communities were rewarded for their contributions via Freecoin, a blockchain-based reward scheme that’s transparent, auditable, and incentivizes participation.
Blockchain came to be in the wake of the 2007 financial crisis. It’s inherently aimed at challenging societal power structures and uses technology to solve social, economic and political problems. As the EU has proved, Web3 tools can give everyone the power to have their say, be inclusive, and dismantle the status quo if it’s not serving them.
In February 2022, Brantley Millegan, the director of decentralized autonomous organization Ethereum Name Service, wrote homophobic, transphobic and misogynistic tweets. She256, a blockchain-based nonprofit objected, noting that this was “a chance for the collective to take action. The power is literally in *your* hands.” And so they did; the community voted to remove Millegan from the steward role in the organization.
Some Equate Web3 With Activism — It Couldn’t Be Further From The Truth
Given its ability to reorganize power structures, many view Web3 as a socio-political movement and as a way to safeguard democracy.
However, an isolated technological means of decentralization doesn’t consider the political and social entities that must use this technology to ensure decentralization in the first place.
Web2, at its inception, was also filled with similar promises, like an open digital economy and democratizing the Internet. But ultimately, it concentrated the market power into the hands of Big Tech.
The paradigm of decentralizing power, may be the promise of Web3. Yet, a handful of crypto-whales own $2.5 trillion worth of crypto assets in circulation and 40% of all Bitcoin.1 The worst-case scenario is that Web3 becomes centralized and is co-opted by powerful banks and organizations.
Historically, every technological evolution has concentrated political and economic power into the hands of the few. Unfortunately, without proper safeguards, this could happen on Web3, too.
What preventative measures can we take to safeguard Web3?
Preventing the centralization of Web3 means considering how it’s built and how it’s used.
Despite rising from the ashes of a financial crisis, Web3 is not a social movement, nor is technology political. Web3 mechanisms like peer-to-peer and zero-knowledge tools and features like consensus mechanisms and immutability will not solve any social, economic or political problems. These features can, however, become integral tools in the social activists’ playbook.
Founder of the Center for Transformational Change Lina Srivastava and founder of Changeist Scott Smith wrote in Stanford Social Innovation Review, “There is nothing inherently magical about Web3. Merely aiming it towards at-risk economies is tantamount to what media activist Olivier Jutel calls ‘blockchain imperialism.’ The problems that plague the real world, the original Internet and Web 2.0 also inhabit Web3, and these problems can travel at the velocity of cryptocurrency trading, creating (and recording) damaging power asymmetries as they do.”2
They point out what the four basic tenets of any Web3 initiative should be:
- Mutually affirmed norms
- An ethics framework
Approaches to Using Web3 Tools for Social Activism
Web3’s consensus and validation mechanisms depend on the idea that users don’t have to trust each other because they can trust the algorithm. A trustless system may be apt to maintain transparency, but it does little to build community. And the central focus of Web3 is community.
For social activism in Web3 to work, members need trust, compassion and impactful engagement. They will have to work together and take responsibility for their actions to make changes in the real world.
Social activism is just beginning to unfold on Web3, and we’re seeing some new ways to connect, collaborate and change the world:
Fundraising 3.0: Post-Roe, activist and founding member of Pussy Riot Nadya Tolokonnikova released an NFT pictured as ‘bottles of feminism’ to support reproductive rights. She said buying the NFT was akin to “Own[ing] your proof of protest.”
Sahar Afrakhan, the co-founder of ChoiceDAO, also mobilized the community to raise funds for reproductive rights. She said this kind of global activism and engagement using Web3 has much bigger repercussions. “Our hope is that this new model of activism goes beyond reproductive healthcare. Think Fundraising 3.0. Many nonprofits and social movements are hamstrung by capital. We hope to change that by unlocking the potential of the global community in Web3. Any movement can and should tap into this.”3
A Counter to Deepfakes: Witness is an international nonprofit organization that trains and assists citizen journalists to use video and other technology to document human rights violations globally. Program director Sam Gregory says that although for a decade they’ve “created trustworthy content that protected the truth, an increasing amount of falsehoods, lies and manipulations of video has started to emerge.”
Many are using technology to manipulate videos, create false narratives, and perpetuate harm. At the same time, centralized Web2 is increasingly subject to government-enforced Internet shutdowns like in Iran and forced removal of content.
That’s why recently, Witness started using the Web3 tool Coda to document its work. Gregory says, “The decentralized web better allows for that. It’s decentralized, it’s robust, it’s verifiable, it’s less subject to decisions made by social media giants. [Web3 is] a more robust way to preserve the integrity of that content over time and to verify it. And it can provide a way for human rights communities around the world to set governance rules specific to them.”4
Incentivized Activism: Social activism is not about grand gestures. Smaller steps like building a community garden or convincing a neighborhood to elect the right leader often have a greater impact. Besides, colossal problems like fighting the climate crisis require everyone to work together.
However, real impact requires on-the-ground actions sustained over a longer period, not one-off efforts that lead to no change. Grassroots activism often fizzles out because of a lack of resources, tools, or incentives.
Rabble is a decentralized autonomous organization that provides learning tools and resources to grassroots activists and nonprofits, as well as incentives and rewards that help sustain their work and make a bigger impact. At Rabble, every community member is an invested stakeholder whose work benefits them personally and their community.
Join us on @rabbleio and learn how you can turn your passion to change the world into action and be rewarded for it.