Digital Power as the Socio-Technical Continuum of Power Typologies

Philip Olayoku's picture

Power, as an experiential reality, is as old as the universe when considered as the ability to influence. The understanding of its dynamics has therefore been the preoccupation of the knowledge quest from the earlier times, as man sought to understand the relations of power within the operations of nature. The inquiry into the earliest beginnings of the universe, with the proposition of various elements including fire, water, air and the earth as the most basic material components of nature, explored the relevance of these variants of matter to becoming. The human has remained at the centre of the discussions of these power relations, as arguably its most extant representation within sociopolitical ordering and reordering.

Before the embrace of democracy as the standard of participatory and subsequently representative governance, Plato’s Republic had projected a model of absolute power for philosopher-kings within monarchies in an ideal state. This proposition nonetheless remained an utopia when juxtaposed with the possibility for a generally accepted criteria for universal justice, an unattainable paradigm where establishing a generally acceptable context of the rule of law is impracticable (Brooks, 2006). The platonic conception of political power however created an ideological base for the future exploration of power equations within social relations. Using the 20th Century power typologies as a template for Plato’s Republic, expert power thus becomes the most important for social engineering, while reward and coercive forms of power were important for checks and balances within his ideal state (see French and Raven’s 1957). Suffice to state that the conventional description of power as the potential to influence and cause change also reflected in the Aristotelian conception of power, which encapsulated an interchange of primary values when defined in both active and passive forms within frames of the potentiality and actuality of layers of becoming (see Charlton, 1987).

Sadan (1977) has detailed the shifts in debates on power and its typologies from the renaissance. He noted that the modern conceptualization of power dates back to the 16th and 17th Centuries with Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (Sadan, 1997: 33). From the post WWII period, however, the discussions on power typologies extended from the overt state bureaucratic organizational model to its evolution as a covert structurally exclusionist phenomenon where marginal groups are kept as outsiders to protect the latent manipulative interests of those in power. As a counter model to this domination, Gaventa, postulated a theory of social change where the subservient disadvantaged groups are able to mobilize resources in subverting the dominant power and reverse the status quo from acquiescence to active political participation (see Sadan, 1997).

This theorization paved way for a subsequent conceptual shift from the structured bipolarity of power between the domineering elites and marginalized groups to a post-structural exploration of power as championed by Michel Foucault. Within such considerations, power is extrapolated as a transcendent entity capable of influencing actions and reactions within contextualized social incidents (Sadan, 1997). The Foucauldian biopolitics thus decentralized power by designing a trajectory of influence from bodily to psychic control, as was facilitated by the introduction of political technologies. The introduction of human agency by Anthony Giddens, however, creates the needed ethical component for this decentralization. He presents autonomy and dependence as mutually reinforcing attributes of power, which deconstructs the idea of power as an escapist manipulative monster in charge of man’s fate (Sadan, 1997). In order words, there is a moral space for responsibility of action by humans within digital power relations in contrast to the attribution of agency to power as an abstraction, or machines as independent agents.  

As referenced above, French and Raven (1957: 263-268) identified five common bases of power which include reward, coercive, legitimate, referent and expert power. Reward power, as the name suggests, refers to the influence deployed to facilitate reward; while coercive power implies the opposite, as it is the ability to punish. Legitimate power deals with the ability to prescribe behavior, often through internalized set of norms. Referent power, as the fourth type of power, is the influence accruing from identification of an agent with a specific position. Finally, expert power is defined by the knowledge and competence of an agent. Haugaard and Ryan (2012) detailed the debates on the conflictual, consensual and constitutive linguistic analytical variants on power within normative (the conflictual and consensual) and empirical (the constitutive) paradigms. While the conflictual implies domination within asymmetric relations following the Hobbesian tradition of bureaucracy (power over), the consensual is more positive as it refers to the sort of momentum garnered from validation within a social system, as contained in Baruch Spinoza’s political theory  (power to), an empowerment in that sense. The constitutive model refers to a combination of these two elements, as it describes the mannerism of negotiated relations of power and freedom/truth(s) within disaggregated social contexts (power with) in line with the deconstruction in Foulcaudian biopolity.

Vail (2004: 2, 40-41) conceptualized power in terms of genomic interrelatedness of different elements in reality, while positing that power relationships, not entities in such relations, are the true representations of reality. Within this conceptualization, the relationships that undermine the goal of revolutions to mainstream the marginalized members of the society into the power equation, which has often been defeated by replacing one hierarchical power structure with another, become crystalized. He thus proposed the model of rhizomes, a web-like structure of connected but independent entities, as ideal for teleological power within activists’ aspirations. Cammaerts (2015) leverages on this alternative using the SPIN Model, an acronym for the relations of Segmentation (flexible and diverse objectives), Polycentricity (multiplicity of identities), Integration (nonhierarchical interconnectivity) and Networks (the expanded connection of integrated cells of activists). This horizontal paradigm advocates for the establishment of institutionalized networks of rhizomic structures within a social reality that incorporates ‘ownership by use’ - which delimits ownership to immediate needs as obtainable within a micro functional self-sufficiency model, in contrast to abstract ownership which creates hierarchical relations based primitive accumulation (Vail, 2004: 42). This extends Amartya Sen’s human capabilities’ approach, which proposes a rehumanisation of the population by enabling independent rational choices for empowerment as against the imposed development of individual capacities which are always constrained by the system.  The relevance of Vail’s rhizomic structural model is also in the effectiveness of loose horizontal connections within networks which allows for independence of entities within the networks, as against the propensity for distortion in imposing structures within hierarchies (45-46).

Turner (2005: 4) questioned the traditional definition of power hinged on the influence derived from the control of rewards and costs (punishments), especially as the use of influence does not always yield the desired result. This is premised on the fact that people, within group identities, can also make choices outside of such influence, in line with the self-identification theory. In other words, there is the possibility of the rejection of the demands of one perceived to be in the position of power. His three-process theory juxtaposes the concepts of persuasion (making people believe in certain forms of correctness), authority (belief by a target group in the legitimacy of control by an entity) and coercion (enforcement through conflictual control implemented by using resources to manipulate the behavior of a resisting target). For him, this relational process is hinged on the mobilization and deployment of resources using group identities as weapons of influence in the exercise of power (Turner, 2005:12-14). This further establishes the position that violence, rather than being an assertion of power, is a negation of influence that reflects a deficiency in the ability to mobilize of resources.

The introduction of political technologies in Foucauldian biopolitics laid the foundation for the sociotechnical consideration of power as an emerging frame of control within digital spaces. The creation of smart cities and the advancement of the technological age changed the spatio-temporal dynamics of digital activism. Historically, the practice of digital activism is traced to Mexico’s Zapatista movement. The movement used the digital space in its struggle for the protection of indigenous land in 1994. Within the same period, the use of the digital media for activism was adopted by the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s (Edwards, Howard and Joyce, 2013; Kaun and Uldam, 2018). The theorization of digital activism has been based on both universalist and particularistic paradigms. While the universalism of Karatzogianni’s (2015) four waves of digital activism followed the lines of its geographies of evolution within certain time periods (1994-2000; 2001-2007; 2008-2009; 2010-2013), Gerbaudo (2017) made a broad division into two epochs of digital activism. The first is cyber autonomism, characterized by interpersonal communication from the early beginnings in the 1990s. This transitioned into cyber-populism where the internet was used for mass mobilization of protest movements. However, Kaun and Uldam (2018) contended the universalist approach and proposed the need for contextualizing digital activism within geopolitical and technological specificities. The theorization of digital activism must thus integrate the spatio-temporal bridge, which enforces global activists’ solidarity as enabled by microblogging and other social media platforms. This derives from the glocalisation of activism within the intersections of independent salient identities that are evolving into new digital cultural communities, serving as new spheres of influence.

Consequently, digital power has emerged in the equation of power typologies as the sociotechnical phase founded on the Foucauldian technological biopolitics from the mid-90s. There have been contextual diversion from Foucault’s thought with netizens now being conditioned by the computers, tablets and phones in place of the surveillance cameras within the prison system. The surveillance mode itself has become digitalized with new mechanisms for state censorship to counter the new spheres of influence by regulations. Kavada (2010: 102-3) highlighted the impact of digital technologies on social movements to include enhanced methods of mobilization, coordination and community building within rhizomic structures. The flexibility and nonhierarchical structure that the internet enables incorporates an affordable unrestrictive participatory model, in which accessibility to information within the age of the Internet of Things is a driver for collective action by cells of individuals with salient identities. The internet has therefore become a site for the assertion of self amidst group goals through the development of old and new alliances. Edwards, Howard and Joyce (2013: 12-13) observed that Facebook (categorized as the social media network), Twitter (a microblog) and YouTube (digital video platform) are the mostly used digital platforms for such alliances, and they reinforce digital activism within regional preferences and possibilities.

The liberal rhizomic structure of the digital space also challenges the attempt to enforce a vertical power structure of state surveillance through the creation of alternate routes of expression using the darkweb and hacktivist tools. The flexibility of this mode of power is that it accommodates different, even if intersecting, layers of influence from the individual person through cells of persons to masses of people. The ability to exert real time influence across geographies with the livestreaming features deconstructs the bordering of the spatio-temporal and advances global activists’ solidarity (Cammaerts, 2015); within a liberal structure in which citizen journalism becomes customary for the mobilization agenda of activists. This digital order has also empowered activists to neutralize digital outflanking of the new voyeurs by instant interconnectivity and the ability to garner support for causes across spaces at the barest minimum time. The fallout of this is the conflict between legitimate and digital types of power in the bid for regulations, with the conservatism of the former suited to the perpetuation of oppressive structures and the progressive turn of the latter demanding shifts in these structures.

Netizens have devised different participatory and coping mechanisms for the new order. In exploring the various coping modes, Akhlaghpour and Vaast (2018: 2) distinguished between symbolic and substantive actions within the digital space. While symbolic actions, described as clicktivism / slacktivism, were delimited to activities on virtual sites such as likes, comments and sharing of posts; the latter involves the transposition of activities to the physical space either directly (through participation on street protests) and/or remotely (through volunteering and donations). While creating a model for understanding the connections between action frames and salient identities within digital activists’ spaces using the crowdfunding website, they established that though there are transpositions in certain instances from the symbolic to the substantive actions, the study reflected that the frequency of substantive actions remain disproportionate to originating symbolic gestures (Akhlaghpour and Vaast, 2018: 2). Sesena and Seker (2019) in their study of students from the Nigde Omer Halisdemir University also intervened in the debate on the effectiveness of online and physical activism. Their findings confirmed the rhizomic model as atomized university students displayed the likelihood of joining a collective based on salient identities.  There was more gender-neutral preference for online activism as opposed to physical civic and political participation among them.

In debunking the valorization of new media technologies as tools for liberation, Cernat (2012), using Tim Wu’s theory of open and closed cycle, contended that technological determinism is a farce. She established its value-neutral characteristic with the proposition that it could be deployed for both liberation and oppression. In advancing this argument, she noted that oppressive regimes could convert liberating technologies to serve authoritarian purposes, and that the internet could be a neoliberal feudalized environment being monopolized for profit by big corporations such as Google, Twitter and Facebook. She exemplified this with the paradox of restrictive access with overt government censorship as seen in Iran, China and Egypt; and the contradictions of decentralizing information to allow penetrative access within sovereign states which also accommodate the capitalist profit-oriented centralization of the information media through censorship, under the pretense of protecting intellectual rights. Using the Moldovan example, she aligned with the proposition that salient identity, in this case the experience of economic crises, was important in transposing symbolic activism by Natalia Morar and her group to substantive action through the mobilization of about fifteen thousand (15,000) young protesters in hours.

Kavada (2010: 109) aligns with the view that digital activism is an effective complement to physical protests with the utilization of digital picketing services such as Distributed-Denial-of-Service (DDoS), virtual sit-ins (belaboring websites with data requests) and email bombing (over-flooding official email addresses with mails). The durability of such an endeavor, as Kavada (2010: 113) notes, may be facilitated by the use of common slogans. Within the recent activists’ agenda, different hashtags have been used to harness trans-border support within the digital space, including the #BlackLivesMatter, #RhodesMustFall, #FeeMustFall, #BringBackOurGirls, #EndSARS, #EndPoliceBrutality, #FightForHongKong, #HongKongProtests. As the protests progress, there is sometimes the transmutation of objectives, as witnessed during the recent #EndSARS campaign in Nigeria. Several hashtags trended as the base of the digital protests expanded. What began as #EndSARS evolved into #EndBadGovernance and #EndPoliceBrutality, through to the #LekkiMassacre, which was used to call out state actors that were affiliated with the shooting at unarmed protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos.

Recent protests initiated as digital activism have often been characterized by the conflation of activities in the physico-digital space, with intermittent swings of actors between both divides. Increasingly, the sphere of influence of the internet has been broadened with the bridging of the age/class-gap among netizens. Class remains a lingering basis of exclusion though, with the challenges of affordability of digital tools and technological literacy subsisting among populations residing in peripheral areas. Nonetheless, the mutual reinforcement of the physical and digital spaces has been effective in advancing activists’ drives by facilitating the mobilization for boycotts, donations, signatures for petitions; as well as for information dissemination.

It is important to note that a study by Edwards, Howard and Joyce (2013: 11-12) debunked the attempt at essentializing violence as an attribute of digital activism. The noted that data generated from not less than one hundred and fifty one (151) countries reflected that only 4% of digitally driven campaigns resulted in physical violence, and just 2% resulted in hacktivism. Cammaerts (2015) describes one of the digital activists’ tactics to include sousveillance, which involves intelligence gathering on the state, its institutions and actors. An example of this is the use of miniaturized equipment for filming and disseminating evidence of abuses perpetrated by state agents on protesters during demonstrations. The power outage and removal of surveillance camera by the Lekki Concession Company preceding the arrival of the soldiers at the Lekki Toll Gate on October 20, 2020 in Nigeria captured an attempt by the state to evade sousveillance. This undermined the ability of the protesters to produce credible evidence before Lagos Judicial Panel on Police Brutality set up to investigate the event that has popularly being tagged as the ‘LekkiMassacre’. The video evidence from alternative cameras confirmed Cernat’s (2012) argument of the vulnerability of technology to state manipulation with the timeframe of the recording excluding vital details of the incident, with the Nigerian state denying livestreamed videos as fake news. The intermittent surveillance and counter-surveillance (or sousveillance) by actors on opposing sides blur levels the power equation between the watcher and the watched; as conflicting parties switch roles. Perhaps, the possibility of making recourse to international bodies fulfils the aspiration of Pettit’s (1996: 590) concept of antipower, an emancipation that leverages on non-voluntaristic regulations preventing arbitrary interference with impunity by the state on citizens’ choices. These documentations have also made the digital space a repository of memorial sites where artifacts are domiciled and referenced for physical interventions (Cammaerts, 2015).

Suffice to state that with the conflation of the physical and digital spaces, propaganda remains central for digital mobilization by both state and non-state actors. The recent obsession with combatting fake news and hate speech has become the new censorship drive adopted in undermining the legacy media by different state actors. The adoption of microblogging platforms as official communication channels by national leaders partly discredits the credibility of legacy media with allegations of purported misrepresentation of facts by state actors. What is more, during the recently concluded elections in the United States, state actors went beyond the attempt to discredit the legacy media to the electoral process on Twitter. This hijack of the digital media by the state to upturn the people’s mandate has opened up a channel for investigating future possibilities of oppression through appropriation of digital power by state actors.  In some other climes, netizens are more susceptible to state suppression through internet censorship. Incidents such as surveillance, blocking, filtering and removing internet protocol addresses have been recorded in Iran, Bahrain, Syria, China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia; while bloggers have been arrested and killed when perceived as threats. The alliance between the state and big technology firms has also resulted in the weaponisation of fear and money to intimidate and induce social media influencers (Edwards, Howard and Joyce, 2013; Cammaerts, 2015).

Within the prevailing context, Joyce (2020: 211) observes that there is a strategic knowledge gap that needs to be filled to devise appropriate tactical approaches to digital activism. A good start point is the development of a predictive mechanism to diagnose vulnerabilities of digital activists and devise management tactics for the sustenance of influence within the exercise of digital power. Similarly, the contextualization of geopolitical climates specific to certain digital activists’ agenda is important as the universalist approach of technological determinism is opposed to the realism of digital activism. In conclusion, the discourse on digital power remains a continuum which would necessarily follow the trajectory of evolution of technologies developed as activist tools to meet the need for more cost-effective mobilization strategies (Cammaerts 2015) towards political transformation.


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