The Digitally Mediated Freedom of Assembly (2024) 

McPherson, Ella, ‘The Digitally Mediated Freedom of Assembly’, in Tabatha Abu El-Haj, and others (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Peaceful Assembly (online edn, Oxford Academic, 23 Jan 2024)

We must reimagine the digitally mediated freedom of assembly, a misunderstood and misattended manifestation of this human right. Mediation, or the transmission of communication across time and space, is core to the practice of assembly, and so online assembly is a more mediated version of face-to-face assembly – rather than a lesser form. Even so, digitally mediated assembly is discredited as slacktivism – slacker activism, portmanteaued – in Western public spaces. This epithet springs from a tradition of subordinating the freedom of assembly to other communication rights like the freedom of expression because it is seen as a communal (versus individual), emotional (versus rational), and positive (versus negative) liberty. Slacktivism is also a visibility backlash: a reactionary, pervasive, distracting, media-fuelled phenomenon that preserves the status quo of public visibility. Discursively repositioning assembly online as the digitally mediated freedom of assembly extends the protection of this right to more people and more practices. It highlights the importance of incorporating assembly affordances into human rights-centred technology design, such as the affordances of pre-assembly, sight and sound, and gathering. Emergent social media platform trends – like depoliticization, the fragmentations of networks, and user alienation – only make attention to assembly affordances all the more urgent. Furthermore, promoting the idea of collective rights such as assembly helps us reimagine other communication rights currently understood as individual, such as the freedom of expression, raising the possibility of a détente in the current culture wars around this right.