Audiences worldwide were captivated by the rise of Arab Spring. Some saw it as an overnight Twitter revolution. For Dr. Philip Howard, it was a long time coming.

Howard is a Canadian researcher who has devoted his career to studying and writing about the role digital media play in connecting citizens online and offline.

In the wake of recent events Howard’s work became of great interest.

“Suddenly, in the policy world, [policy makers are] thinking of ways to encourage civic engagement online because it’s clear that most people in the developing world are going to connect, not through laptops, but through their mobile,” Howard said.

What does digital activism look like in Canada?

Canada: a peculiar example of digital activism

Howard founded the Digital Activism Research Project a year ago to examine case studies from around the world. He found Canada has a very specific brand of digital activism.

“Digital activism in this corner of the world involves a lot of e-petitions . . . this is rare in other parts of the world,” Howard said. He sees this as a productive way to reach Parliament when it’s within the “art of e-petitions,” meaning the petitions target people within a specific politician’s constituency. In Please sign here, we note there are many challenges in making an e-petition a successful instrument of change in public policy because their creators are rarely effective in their targeting.

Canadian campaigns tend to not only be limited to Facebook and Twitter. Howard notes there is higher public engagement among Canadians because it’s easier to access the Internet, even for marginalized groups.

That being said, Howard believes Canadian governments can do a lot more to engage with the public online. Even using similar techniques to digital activists. He points to the Senate scandal as an opportunity for the institution to take the lead in finding new ways for it and its member to interact with the public.

“That doesn’t mean the Senate should become tied to digital technology or the whims of popular opinion but digital media works for political expression when organizations play around and are a little innovative,” Howard said.

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