Digital and Online Activism

Increasing accessibility and the ability to communicate with thousands of citizens quickly has made the internet a tool of choice for individuals or organisations looking to spread a social message far and wide.

Author Anna Rees, 08.06.13

Increasing accessibility and the ability to communicate with thousands of citizens quickly has made the internet a tool of choice for individuals or organisations looking to spread a social message far and wide.

Independent activists the world over are using the internet and digital tools to build their community, connect with other similar-minded people outside their physical surroundings as well as lobby, raise funds and organise events.

Simply put, digital activism is where digital tools (the internet, mobile phones, social media etc) are used for bringing about social and/or political change. Examples of digital activism are scattered throughout the ’80s however, things started to really snowball with the advent of web 2.0 and the dot com boom. The introduction and rapid growth of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter from 2004 onwards helped buttress digital activism to the point where entire campaigns can now be run online (sometimes with little to no offline component) and still have a wide reach.

A good timeline of digital activism around the world can be found here.

The Tools

The tools used by digital activists are vast and changing constantly as technology evolves.

  • Online petitions. Websites such as Change.org, ipetitions.org, Avaaz.org are hubs of online activism, where people can communicate with others worldwide regarding their cause.
  • Social networks. Sites with high usage numbers such as Facebook and YouTube have proven beneficial in spreading a message, garnering support, shining information on a subject that might otherwise be overlooked by mainstream media. Protests in 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt against their respective governments were in part organised and promoted via Facebook. Social media also played a role in mobilising people in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests in 2019, as well as connecting environmental activists around the world as part of Extinction Rebellion or Fridays for Future.

  • Blogs. Essentially a form of citizen journalism for the masses, blogs provide an effective means of non-filtered communication with an audience about any topic and have been used in numerous online campaigns.

  • Micro-blogging. Micro-blogging sites such as Twitter are used to help spread awareness of an issue or activist event. Twitter’s hashtag function, which allows people to have their tweets contribute to a multi-user conversation by typing a keyword or phrase preceded by a hashtag, is used frequently as a digital tool for spreading a message. The Chinese equivalent to Twitter, Weibo is subject to scrupulous government censorship however people circumvent this blockade by using code words when writing about issues that might be government-sensitive. Other massive movements to hit the mainstream, such as #metoo, #blacklivesmatter and #fridaysforfuture, made use of the hashtag to spread a concept rapidly around the world using social media as a tool for resistance and disruption.
  • Mobile phones. Controversy surrounding the 2007 presidential elections in Kenya led to the introduction of Ushahidi Inc., a company which developed a piece of software that allowed people to send texts and pictures of violence following the elections which were plotted geographically on a Google map. The software has since been used to plot activity in disaster zones following earthquakes in Haiti and New Zealand and flooding in Australia and the USA. Furthermore, the built in camera featured on most mobile phones has resulted in dramatic changes to how we respond to global events, and broadcast evidence to uphold social justice (such as documenting police brutality, political protests, etc.) 
  • Proxy servers. As a means of circumventing government intervention when it comes to online protesting, many people employ proxy servers, which act as intermediaries between a user and a site. In 2009, student protesters in Iran took to social media to voice their concern over the contentious reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This led to a cat and mouse game of the government trying to identify which media were being used by the protesters to communicate (social networks and then eventually proxy servers) and shutting them down.
  • Crowdsourcing platforms. Using the internet to distribute problem-solving and resource acquisition, these platforms help individuals and initiatives to mobilize a global community and create collaboration opportunities between groups of (otherwise) unconnected people. Wikipedia is a good example, as well as popular collective funding platforms such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo

Getting the Message out There

One of the biggest benefits of using digital tools for positive change is the ability to connect with a large community and, if applicable, globalise a campaign’s goals. The interconnected nature of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter lend themselves easily to information sharing, meaning an activist can post a slogan, picture or details about an issue, share it with friends, plug into like-minded online communities and distribute info through their networks in a much less time and energy-consuming way than more traditional methods of going door-to-door or standing on street corners and asking passers-by to sign petitions.

Some of the most successful movements make use of social media and online activity to rally support and then combine this with ‘‘leg work’’ on the ground, not just talking the talk, but also walking the walk.  The 2019 climate strike movement is an incredibly successful example of this combination of online and offline activism. Rallying behind Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future, millions of citizens all over the world have mobilise to address the climate crisis and support environmental activism.

Beyond getting the message out there, digital activism allows anyone with access to the digital world a platform to make their case and call for change and it can be particularly beneficial to those who are often silenced or have no vehicle for their message.  By allowing ordinary citizens to share their stories, it also helps create a better perspective of what is going on – and can pressure governments to take action on issues that are not normally reported on within conventional media.

In April 2014, for example, Boko Haram terrorists kidnapped more than 300 girls from a school in northern Nigeria. Some 50 girls managed to escape but 276 remained captured prompting an international outcry that was largely funnelled into a social media campaign to lobby governments to intervene. The topic #BringBackOurGirls went viral within a week, with people like activist Malala Yousafzai and US First Lady, Michelle Obama, tweeting their support. The rapid fire rate that the hashtag #BringBack OurGirls shot across the internet helped galvanise public support for the families of the girls while the case drew attention from the international media and heads of state offered to help Nigeria find and bring back the missing girls.

Another pertinent example of this is the massive upswell in the use of #BlackLivesMatter to motivate and unite a global movement against police violence, and more broadly, the ongoing challenge of systemic racism, following the killing of George Floyd on May 26th, 2020. After footage of the injustice was shared on social media, it quickly spread, ultimately inciting anti-racism demonstrations in over 60 countries worldwide. Social media continues to play a vital role in documenting the protests, publishing demonstrations of support, promoting donation and allyship opportunities and generally spreading information that the general public may otherwise have been unaware of. Overlapping with the coronavirus pandemic, this latest phase in the Black Lives Matter social movement came at a time when people were already relying on digital tools more than ever to carry out their day to day lives – and some were completely unable to leave their houses to protest in person. This was possibly a factor in why the movement developed online as fast and as strongly as it did, spreading through and connecting a global network of activists, largely via social media.

When social movements and demonstrations are criticising the status quo – such as the police force, racist social structures and historical inequalities – digital forms of media often hold a particlar power because they allow for a greater variety of voices to be heard than would be reflected in traditional media outlets. Writing about the blurring of offline and online activism that occurred in the US following the shooting of African American teenager Michael Brown, founder and director of the Meta-Activism Project, Mary Joyce, stated: ”just like any other kind of activism, digital activism is only necessary when conventional methods of addressing injustice fail. “[I]nternet campaigns calling for justice” are only necessary for those whom the existing system does not serve.”

Where digital activism often enjoys the biggest success however, is when it is used as a complementary tool to offline action or is used as the introductory method to encourage people to engage in offline action. One of the other key attributes of digital activism is that it is, for the large part, a non-violent form of protest. Acts of cyber crime are certainly committed under the guise of ‘digital activism’ (for example, cases of cyberterrorism, malicious hacking and extreme cyber bullying of a company or organisation) however, according to a study by the University of Washington, these make up around two to three percent of total digital activism cases.

Reduced to a Hashtag: Clicktivism and the Threat of Too Many Messages

Generally speaking, clicking like on someone’s Facebook post or retweeting a trending hashtag on Twitter requires less effort and less forethought than signing (or setting up) a petition or joining in a demonstration on the streets. Because of this, digital activism has come under fire with some arguing that much of the online engagement in issues is too reductive and passive, defining this new era of activism as ‘clicktivism’, ‘slacktivism’ and ‘armchair activism’.

Detractors of digital activism point out that it requires people to do the bare minimum to engage in a topic (while allowing them to score some virtual brownie points for their ‘good deed’). Messages and ideals can get brushed aside in the push for more clicks, likes, impressions and page views when campaigning online and the information superhighway is now bumper-to-bumper with causes and campaigns which can make it difficult for any of them to achieve meaningful impact. Just like with traditional media, a lot of the time, certain campaigns and causes only start to gain momentum once a prominent individual or organisation picks up on it.

One of the biggest digital campaigns in recent years took place in summer 2014 in support of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The campaign featured videos of people, including a number of global celebrities, tipping buckets of ice water over themselves before nominating three other people to do the same. As part of what was called the ‘ALS Ice Bucket Challenge’, challengees were asked to make a donation to the ALS Association or other ALS non-profit.

The web-friendly nature of the campaign (the use of videos, the involvement of celebrities as well as nominating others to do the challenge, thereby ensuring the spread of the campaign) saw it weave through the web quickly with more than 2 million video uploaded to Facebook and over 3 million up in Instagram, dominating social media feeds as well as online and offline media. The challenge helped raise 220 million USD globally for ALS yet drew criticism from some about the fact that the serious aspects of the campaign (the disease) were buried under jaunty, jovial videos of people dousing themselves in cold water. Some iterations of the challenge meant that those taking part did not have to make a donation while a number of videos uploaded made no mention of ALS at all.

Similarly, the efficacy of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign mentioned above has been called into question with the girls still in the hands of Boko Haram. An article published by Al Jazeera in 2014 highlights that despite the huge level of awareness raised about the kidnapping, to date, little has been done to successfully bring the girls back. In the article, protest coordinator Hadiza Bala Usman stated “People need to remember that 219 girls remain in captivity. We appreciate the fact that the media propelled a lot of support around the world, but that support has not translated into any rescue. For us, if whatever is said and done doesn’t translate into the rescue of the girls, it hasn’t really achieved anything.” The reaction on social media to the girls’ kidnapping was sharp and swift but attention dropped off as other campaigns and issues (such as the ALS challenge) took precedence. As stated in an article by the BBC about the ice bucket challenge, “our mental budget for charity is finite”.

Co-creator of the Occupy Wall Street protests (which called for an end to social and economic inequality and challenged the amount of corporate influence on government) Micah White has argued that this passivity is undermining traditional forms of activism. In a 2010 piece for the Guardian, he wrote: ”The truth is that as the novelty of online activism wears off, millions of formerly socially engaged individuals who trusted digital organisations are coming away believing in the impotence of all forms of activism. Even leading Bay Area clicktivist organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to motivate their members to any action whatsoever. The insider truth is that the vast majority, between 80% to 90%, of so-called members rarely even open campaign emails. Clicktivists are to blame for alienating a generation of would-be activists with their ineffectual campaigns that resemble marketing.”

The 24 hour news cycle coupled with the breakneck pace at which we learn of, digest and move on from certain issues can often mean that issues and campaigns can run hot across the web one day and vanish the next.

Computer Literacy, Internet Accessibility, Censorship and Mobile Campaigning

Of course, a number of factors come strongly into play here regarding who can get involved and how, particularly in parts of the world where access to the internet and digital literacy skills are low or where web activity is highly monitored and often interrupted by the government and authorities.

To help circumvent issues around digital literacy and access to the web, activists use technology and media that has high penetration in some of these areas. For example, the number of people who regularly use the Internet in India hovers around the 560 million mark. Based on these figures, there are some who argue that precedence should be given to mobile campaigning in India (which has already had success when used during blood donation drives) given that 74 per cent of the population uses mobile phones.

As mentioned earlier, many activists in China use coded language in order to dodge the heavy censorship laws in the country. In 2014, as the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests approached, officials placed strict limits and blocks on any online activity or searches relating to the anniversary or the event itself. To get around this, the online community went covert, employing actions such as wearing a black shirt, replacing the protest’s date (June 4 1989) with May 35 in online activity and photoshopping giant yellow ducks over the tanks in the iconic Tank Man photo and spreading that online. This endless cat-and-mouse game, whereby censors try to keep up with the codes and ban them, could result in action and codes becoming so obscure that they have reduced impact, as a 2014 article in the MIT Technology Review pointed out.

Measuring Success

The success of online and digital activism can be difficult to determine. Mary Joyce, founder of DigiActive and Meta-Activism Project, states that overall success can be perceived if the activist’s initial campaign goal was achieved. However, in many cases of online activism, the goal of the online components may have been achieved (awareness building, mobilization of people) while the overall goal of the campaign was not. This trend leaves the field ripe for argument from critics of online activism to discuss the validity of it as a movement.

The larger-scale campaigns get the attention of the media, however smaller-scale campaigns can be just as effective and often meet their goals. Examples of this include non-profit organisations using online platforms to raise funds for a cause or corporations withdrawing advertising or products as a result of online backlash and petitions.

While digital activism has a lot to offer the savvy campaigner, it also does sometimes have limitations as to how much effective change it can generate. With this in mind, it is worth considering that all online activity should be coupled with offline activity in order to have greater impact.

Author: Anna Rees/ RESET editorial.

Last update: May 2020 (Kristine Mitchell)

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