The Role of Digital Tools in the World of Online Activism

It's impossible to imagine the world of online activism with the digital tools that underpin them. But their impact is not without downfalls.

Autor*in Anna Rees, 02.06.24

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, online 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.

The tools

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

  • Online petitions: Websites such as, and are hubs of online activism. Here, people can communicate with others worldwide regarding their cause.
  • Social networks: Sites with high usage numbers such as Facebook and YouTube have proven to be powerful tools in the sharing of messages and ideas – both for good and bad. Protests related to the Arab Spring in 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt 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. But, 2021 famously saw an attack at the US Capitol inspired by Trump’s inflammatory remarks on Twitter and then aggravated via various social media channels.
  • 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 (now X) are used to help spread awareness of an issue or activist event. X’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 proliferation of cameras has resulted in dramatic changes to how we are able to 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 mobilise 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 X 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 mobilised 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, a better perspective of what is going on forms – a powerful way of applying pressure on 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 particular 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 cybercrime are certainly committed under the guise of ‘digital activism’ (for example, cases of cyberterrorism, malicious hacking and extreme cyberbullying 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, liking someone’s Instagram post or retweeting a trending hashtag on X requires less effort and 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.

The ice bucket challenge “dramatically accelerated the fight” against the disease ALS.

Similarly, the efficacy of, for example, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign mentioned above has been called into question with the girls still in the hands of Boko Haram. This article published by Al Jazeera 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.

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 percent to 90 percent, 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 with 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 percent 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.

Last update: March 2024 (Lana O’Sullivan)

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