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Cyberactivism

Bottom-up citizen science is a form of cyberactivism. As Wikipedia describes it, cyberactivism (broadly construed as synonymous with Internet activism, online activism, digital campaigning, digital activism, online organizing, electronic advocacy, e-campaigning, and e-activism) constitutes “the use of electronic communication technologies such as social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, YouTube, e-mail, and podcasts for various forms of activism to enable faster communications by citizen movements and the delivery of local information to a large audience.” This is an unfortunately thin description that ignores its more substantive features. In the present instance, the focus is on cyberscience activism, an aspect of cyberactivism that is seldom otherwise discussed, as a necessity emerging from efforts to address substantive public-sphere problems.

Prior to the creation of cyberspace, bottom-up activism was prefigured by top-down science activism. Nuclear scientists and engineers who created the Federation of Atomic Scientists, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and later the international Pugwash movement to lobby against nuclear weapons testing and proliferation provide one example. Another was biologist Rachel Carson, who sought to popularize her scientific knowledge to alert the public of the dangers of chemical pollution so that those affected could take political action to limit pesticide contamination of the environment. In cyberspace it has become possible—indeed, necessary—to complement such top-down noblesse oblige scientific activism with bottom-up public activism that both uses and provides guidance for technoscience.

Cyberactivism in this new sense also depends on cyberliteracy that goes beyond technical tool learning for more effective performance. Laura Gurak, for instance, argues that “what we really need to understand is not just how to use the technology but how to live with it, participate in it, and take control of it” (Gurak, 2003 p. 11). Cyberliteracy must help people develop critical perspectives on such issues as the speed, reach, and interactivity of the Internet; privacy and digital rights; and how to distinguish genuine information from fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism (to reference the standard forms of scientific misconduct).

Bottom-up, citizen-initiated cyberscience activism is grounded in efforts to exercise a right closely associated with cybereducation and cyberscience: the right to know. This is a right not limited to scientists and their acquisition or production of knowledge; neither is it equivalent to scientists’ contestable claims concerning a right to do any research they want—even when enhanced by the top-down management of citizen support. Cyberactivism in the strongest sense rests on peoples’ right to participate in and influence those decisions and activities that affect them (see Mitcham, 1997).

This right to participate also entails a right to knowledge that makes such participation intelligent and effective. More generally, according to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted 1966, in force as of 1976), Article 19, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

Although this right to know bears primarily on the political information necessary to enable intelligent democratic behavior, given that civil society is increasingly a locus of scientific and technological action, it must be extended to scientific and technological knowledge.

In most advanced technoscientific countries, a “right to know” related to technoscientific knowledge takes two forms: one related to the workplace, another to the environment. It is now a generally accepted legal principle that workers have a right to know the chemicals to which their jobs may expose them and that citizens have a right to know any hazards to which their communities may be exposed. Both rights to know were initially promoted by top-down noblesse oblige scientific activism.

Enacting these rights to scientific knowledge is nevertheless complicated by multiple factors. One major issue is the extent to which scientific research is now influenced by private money. Since the mid-1980s, the proportion of scientific research funded by the private rather than the public sector has significantly increased. In the academic world, young career researchers have increasing difficulty securing research support. One empirical study of early and midcareer scientists found that 15 percent reported modifying the design, methodology, or results of their work as a result of pressure from a funding source (Martinson et al., 2005). More dramatically, journalists have described the rise of “junk science” in the courtroom, as scientists are hired by attorneys to testify for their clients (Rampton & Stauber, 2001). Indeed, there is a growing general distrust of scientific experts and risk managers (Collins &Evans, 2009).

The definition of junk science is contested in ways that further highlight the problem. Although the term initially emerged in the courtroom to disparage paid expert witnesses defending corporate interests, it has come to be applied by corporate interests to any science that might threaten corporate behavior. Scientists defending tobacco companies have been accused of purveying junk science, but so have members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The need for scientific testimony points toward a second difficulty in securing rights to scientific knowledge. In traditional legal cases, expert witnesses are seldom necessary. If someone harmed another’s person or damaged property, common sense could usually determine who was responsible and at what level. Over the course of the twentieth century, however, personal harm and property damage by technoscientific activity became increasingly difficult to determine. When injuries are caused by radiation from nuclear weapons development or tests or the release of toxic chemicals from industry or involve complex dose-response relationships over extended periods of time (as with asbestos-related mesothelioma), then science is necessarily required to help determine legal liabilities. Common sense is often incapable of dealing with the complex consequences of technoscientific activity.

At the same time, the increasing role played by technoscience in public- sphere discussions of economic affairs, health care policy, and national defense makes citizens increasingly in need of scientific knowledge. Concerned citizens have to organize to understand what is going on, how they can change things, and how they can have a better life than markets and technoscientific systems alone are able to construct. Questions go beyond any simple enjoyment of the benefits of science and technology; citizens also need to protect themselves and to improve decisions. Cyberactivism becomes not just a possibility but a duty.

 
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