Expert Commentary

Digital activism and organizing: Research review and reading list

2013 review of studies on digital advocacy, Internet activism and citizen participation online.

The Internet and social media have become powerful channels for learning about public policy issues, exhorting friends and family to vote and supporting one’s favorite causes or candidates. Digital tools have become essential for a variety of groups seeking myriad goals; examples include protesting an initial decision by the Susan G. Komen foundation to end funding of Planned Parenthood, fighting Internet-related legislation and a college campus campaign focused on divesting from fossil-fuel companies. Of course, societies around the globe have seen digital tools employed to challenge governments.

Two recent events furnish perhaps the most important case studies in these new dynamics. The debate over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), proposed in the U.S. Congress, spurred action by a wide coalition of actors. Some scholars see novel dynamics at work in this period of online activism. See “Social Mobilization and the Networked Public Sphere: Mapping the SOPA-PIPA Debate,” a paper from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard (more below.) Further, the “Kony 2012” campaign and the attendant controversy, has been acutely dissected by scholars, as well. See the 2013 papers “Child Soldiers and Clicktivism: Justice, Myths, and Prevention” and “White Noise: Hearing the Disaster” (more below), both published in the Journal of Human Rights Practice.

In any case, organizers across the spectrum — from the Obama 2012 campaign to smaller grassroots efforts — have become familiar with a suite of specific technical tactics: from website search optimization to email fundraising using A/B testing of subject lines to buying Google AdWords and promoting posts on Twitter and Facebook. Many of these capitalize on the ability to get immediate, data-driven feedback while also acknowledging that, increasingly, little gets done online without the consent of the community. The flattening nature of the Internet means, in theory, a much greater emphasis on engagement, working consensus and agenda-setting from the bottom up.

As University of Washington political scientist Lance Bennett notes in a 2012 paper, “The Personalization of Politics,” notions of activism inherited largely from the 1960s and ’70s — the “new social movements,” which frequently revolved around “identity politics” — need to be updated in light of emerging dynamics and social media. Much activism now is characterized by “individualized collective action,” with digital media technologies used to coordinate action. Digital tools are changing the way membership in organizations is defined, as David Karpf of George Washington University has pointed out, and both how money is raised and how goals are conceived.

A leading theorist of how the digital world allows for “organizing without organizations,” New York University’s Clay Shirky has noted that the Internet can lower the traditional barriers to collective action:

Still, for those who understand political activism in its pre-digital form — pounding the pavement to distribute printed handouts, door-to-door networking, participating in telephone trees — the notion of “online activism” can seem an oxymoron. Some observers are concerned about “slacktivism” or “clicktivism” — pseudo-activism enabled through quick and easy online actions; others regard this as merely participation by other means, such as Facebook protests, digital petitions and social cooperation through complex online gameplay. Proponents of digital activism stress that this involves shifting not only the content of political discourse but the playing field as well.

Some fundamentals still apply both online and offline, of course. For a sense of these bedrock organizing dynamics, see this mini-course from longtime organizer Marshall Ganz of the Harvard Kennedy School. Additionally, the latest social science research on fostering collective action has found that motivation is often filtered through specific, deeply embedded cultural norms. Technology must ultimately account for the diversity of human behavior; new communications research suggests that many political messages have little chance of being “universally” successful and rather must negotiate tradeoffs, turning off some people while reaching others.

As MIT Center for Civic Media director Ethan Zuckerman — author of the 2013 book Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection — notes, online activism offers many opportunities, but it also ultimately demands that we “ask some hard questions about what works and what doesn’t”:

Some observers are skeptical of the potential of digital media as a robust vehicle for political action. Malcolm Gladwell’s influential 2010 article “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” compares the courage of 1960s African-American students who staged sit-ins and risked their lives as Freedom Riders to an online activism that succeeds by “not asking too much” of participants. (Gladwell’s article generated heated rebuttals from activists, educators and political operatives.) Others are concerned that the battle to control the Internet may tip away from democracy and open access, and enable repression and control. Evgeny Morozov’s book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, points out that the same tools that can spark a revolution can also be used to suppress one.

In examining movements in the international context, it may be useful to think about online activism along a spectrum: from the online “mobs” that can form spontaneously around particular issues, to the longer-term social movements that employ digital tools to further their goals; and finally to the established civil society organizations, which are more permanent and may have “offline” infrastructure in addition to online elements. Zeynep Tufecki, of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has examined the nuanced dynamics of social media and collective action under authoritarian regimes.

The Personal Democracy Forum site Tech President collects examples of technology and new media being harnessed to advance an array of political projects; it is a one-stop shop for this emerging daily “beat.” For other useful reading lists, see this syllabus from Nicco Mele of the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Below is a selection of recent scholarship relating to online activism, including outreach, organizational strategies, information dissemination and reception:


“Social Mobilization and the Networked Public Sphere: Mapping the SOPA-PIPA Debate”: Study from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. By Yochai Benkler, Hal Roberts, Rob Faris, Alicia Solow-Niederman, and Bruce Etling.

Summary: This study uses new digital mapping tools from the Media Cloud project (jointly run with MIT’s Center for Civic Media) to examine news coverage of the debate surrounding the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and companion bill PIPA, from 2010 to 2012. A tiny coterie of “small-scale commercial tech media, standing non-media NGOs, and individuals” managed to spotlight the issue, wake the mainstream media from their dogmatic slumbers and ultimately raise enough hell to thwart the bill. A close look at the information flows over time shows certain subtleties that highlight how smaller actors played outsized roles at certain points: “A major node like Wikipedia may be secondary, while an otherwise minor node, such as the blog of a law professor commenting on an amendment or a technical paper on DNS security, may be more important…Fluctuations in attention given progressive development of arguments and frames over time allow for greater diversity of opportunity to participate in setting and changing the agenda early in the debate compared to the prevailing understanding of the power law structure of attention in digital media.” In the ongoing debate over the relative power of Internet activism, SOPA-PIPA furnishes an “optimistic” story. Overall, the data lend “support to the feasibility of effective online mobilization providing sufficiently targeted action to achieve real political results.”


“Revenge of the ‘Nerds’: Collective Action against Intellectual Property Maximalism in the Global Information Age”
Sell, Susan K. International Studies Review, February 2013, doi: 10.1111/misr.12021.

Abstract: “For the first time in 30 years of ever stronger intellectual property policies, a transnational coalition of Internet users was able to kill two U.S. anti-piracy bills that were backed by some of the most politically connected and economically powerful interests in U.S. politics. Combining insights from the literatures on social movements, networks, and Internet activism, I analyze the structure for social mobilization, the form of the coalition, the role of framing, and the use of technology contributing to its success. The literature on social movements and contentious politics addresses situations of threats or grievances that lead actors to mobilize for collective action. In this case, Goliath’s latest gambit to ratchet up intellectual property standards threatened David’s use of the Internet. This time David beat Goliath.”


“Online Advocacy: Analysis of Human Rights NGO Websites”
Kingston, Lindsey N.; Stam, Kathryn R. Journal of Human Rights Practices, 2013. DOI:10.1093/jhuman/hus036.

Abstract: “Recent events illustrate the connection between Internet usage and political action, yet non-governmental organizations (NGOs) still seek effective Web strategies for human rights advocacy. Although most NGOs have websites and engage with technologies such as social networking, initial research shows that many organizations simply use the Internet to enhance existing programmes and activities. NGOs are far less likely than individual activists to undertake cutting edge, creative activities that utilize the potential of new technologies. At the same time, adults and young people around the world are becoming more dependent on the Internet for information and networking. This study analyses the websites of 100 human rights NGOs to better understand how such organizations currently utilize the Internet and how their advocacy efforts may be strengthened. The article outlines existing literature related to online activism, stressing the divide between ‘supersize’ activities that build on existing strategy and ‘theory 2.0’ actions that use the Internet in new and dynamic ways. The results of this study are outlined, highlighting statistics that illustrate the current ways that NGOs use the Web and paying particular attention to creative models. Finally, recommendations are provided for enhancing online strategies for more effective human rights advocacy.”


“Online Political Mobilization from the Advocacy Group’s Perspective: Looking Beyond Clicktivism”
Karpf, David. Policy & Internet, December 2010, Vol. 2, No. 4, 7-41. doi:10.2202/1944-2866.1098.

Abstract: “Academic observers and public intellectuals frequently criticize mass email action alerts as ‘slacktivism’ or ‘clicktivism,’ arguing that the lowered transaction costs of the medium produce a novel form of activism that carries with it hidden costs and dangers for the public sphere. This article challenges those claims, relying on a combination of personal observation within the advocacy community and on a new quantitative dataset of advocacy group email activity to articulate three points. First, that mass emails are functionally equivalent to the photocopied and faxed petitions and postcards of ‘offline’ activism, and represent a difference-of-degree rather than a difference-in-kind. Second, that such low-quality, high-volume actions are a single tactic in the strategic repertoire of advocacy groups, thus reducing cause for concern about their limited effect in isolation. Third, that the empirical reality of email activation practices has little in common with the dire predictions offered by common critiques. The article responds to a previous Policy & Internet article: ‘The Case Against Mass E-mails.’”


“The Logic of Connective Action: Digital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics”
Bennett, W. Lance; Segerberg, Alexandra. Information, Communication & Society, 2012, Vol. 15, No. 5, 739-768. doi: 10.1080/1369118X.2012.670661.

Abstract: “The linchpin of connective action is the formative element of ‘sharing’: the personalization that leads actions and content to be distributed widely across social networks. Communication technologies enable the growth and stabilization of network structures across these networks. Together, the technological agents that enable the constitutive role of sharing in these contexts displace the centrality of the free-rider calculus and, with it, by extension, the dynamic that flows from it — most obviously, the logical centrality of the resource-rich organization. In its stead, connective action brings the action dynamics of recombinant networks into focus, a situation in which networks and communication become something more than mere preconditions and information. What we observe in these networks are applications of communication technologies that contribute an organizational principle that is different from notions of collective action based on core assumptions about the role of resources, networks, and collective identity. We call this different structuring principle the logic of connective action.”


“Spill-over Effects Between Facebook and On/Offline Political Participation? Evidence From a Two-Wave Panel Study”
Vissers, Sara; Stolle, Dietlind. Canadian Political Science Association Annual Meeting, June 15-17, 2012 in Edmonton, AB, Canada.

Findings: “We can point to the concrete types of activities that might hold most mobilizational power. We found that posting and reading political messages and comments on other people’s Facebook walls and on one’s own are activities that inspire future political activities in other venues. This is particularly true for donating for political causes, petition signing (not surprisingly), and contacting politicians. Interestingly, protesting was more affected by joining institutionalized Facebook groups. While there is no strong theoretical claim here as to why certain activities are more affected by Facebook participation than others, the few relationships we found suggest that posting and reading political messages on Facebook is not an act without further political consequences.”


“Assessing Success in Internet Campaigning: The Case of Digital Rights Advocacy in the European Union”
Breindl, Yana. Information, Communication & Society, 2012, 1-22. doi: 10.1080/1369118X.2012.707673.

Findings: “Inspired by the hacker and free and open-source software principles, activists from various countries intervene in policy-making to defend civil liberties in digital environments as well as the open architecture of the Internet from enclosure-oriented efforts of private companies or governments. Contrary to cyber-libertarians, European activists do not favour an Internet free from state intervention. The Internet’s openness or the free and open source software model should be legally protected and the most efficient way to assure this is to pass by the European Union policy process, due to its effect on all member states legislation. Digital rights campaigning succeeded in raising broad awareness among decision-makers sensitized on graduated response and net neutrality. Despite the complexity of the reform and the technicality of the issues at stake, sufficient citizens were mobilized to attract MEPs’ attention to the campaign. It is hard to estimate how many citizens participated but the intensity of their actions was certainly enough to be noticed by all MEPs.”


“Too Fat to Fly: A Case Study of Unsuccessful Fan Mobilization”
Phillips, Tom. Transformative Works and Cultures, 2012, Vol. 10.

Findings: “Others within the fan community made the tactical decision that any [activist] action would be a fruitless task. In opposition to Smith’s rallying cry against institutional domination … the respondents here believe that their efforts would largely have little to no effect on Southwest’s practices…. In forgoing the gathering process of activism and instead embracing comedy, Smith’s fans demonstrate their response via a method more familiar to their fan experience, despite an apparent suitability for mobilization agency. The relationship between Smith and his fans, touted by both as somewhat closer than other fandoms, would appear to be apt for a defensive, retaliatory activist campaign. However, the fact that Smith seemingly addressed the situation himself apparently led the community’s demonstration of identification to be informed by the preexisting discourses in the relationship between producer and fan, resulting in a comedic fan reaction more appropriate to the fandom, rather than a more readily recognizable form of activism.”


“Digital Prefigurative Participation: The Entwinement of Online Communication and Offline Participation in Protest Events”
Merceu, Dan. New Media and Society, February 2012, Vol. 14, No. 1, 153-169. doi: 10.1177/1461444811429103.

Findings: “The analysis revealed a potentially significant contribution of CMC [computer-mediated communication] to the mobilization of the unaffiliated. At the high-risk event, unaffiliates seemed to have a sense that using the Internet to prepare for their participation had influenced their decision to attend. At the low-risk protest, unaffiliates relied exclusively on the Internet to glean information about the event and interact with the organizers. CMC seemed to afford the unaffiliated immediate access to event organizers and to practical information about the events, as well as to a pool of prospective participants similarly engaged in one or more aspects of digital prefigurative participation. In that way, CMC may possibly be an avenue for the induction of unaffiliates into activism as well as a supplement to their face-to-face participation which precedes and augments the latter.”


“Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society”
Castells, Manuel. International Journal of Communication, 2011, Vol. 1. No. 1, 238-266.

Abstract: “This article presents a set of grounded hypotheses on the relationship between communication and power relationships in the technological context that characterizes the network society. Based on a selected body of communication literature, and of a number of case studies and examples, it argues that the media have become the social space where power is decided. It shows the direct link between politics, media politics, the politics of scandal, and the crisis of political legitimacy in a global perspective. It also puts forward the notion that the development of interactive, horizontal networks of communication has induced the rise of a new form of communication, mass self-communication, over the Internet and wireless communication networks. Under these conditions, insurgent politics and social movements are able to intervene more decisively in the new communication space. However, corporate media and mainstream politics have also invested in this new communication space. As a result of these processes, mass media and horizontal communication networks are converging. The net outcome of this evolution is a historical shift of the public sphere from the institutional realm to the new communication space.”


“The Political Power of Social Media”
Shirky, Clay. Foreign Affairs; January/February 2011, Vol. 90, No. 1, 28-41.

Summary: The article analyzes the political impact of social media. It argues that Internet freedom helps to advance civil society in the long run, while helping to prevent abuses of power in the short term. Examples of text messaging and online social networks being used by political activists in the Philippines, Moldova, and Iran are cited, but it is noted that wireless Internet coordination does not guarantee political success. An official statement by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, regarding the U.S. policy on Internet access and freedom, is discussed in this context.


“Tweeting Social Change: How Social Media Are Changing Nonprofit Advocacy”
Guo, Chao; Saxto, Gregory D. Non-profit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 2013, Vol. 42, Issue 1.

Findings: In the wake of the viral “Kony 2012″ campaign, the researchers review the social media use of 188 non-profit, 501(c)(3) advocacy organizations (all those in the sample were reasonably well established and well funded) and try to identify patterns among their strategies. They focus on Twitter, which about 80% of the sample currently employ as an organizational and communications tool. The average organization has about 2,500 followers and tweets about 100 times over a four-week period, though some sent out as much as 1,000 messages over that time. The study concludes that, for nonprofits, Twitter is most commonly used as “public education” tool (40% of all tweets fell into this category), not necessarily a mobilization tool: “[W]e found the majority of the tweets were aimed at providing information to stakeholders, followed by building an online community, and then calling that community to action.” The researchers ponder whether, as more advocacy goes online, the very nature of these organizations may change substantially. The paper can also inform debates over “slacktivism” and related topics.


“White Noise: Hearing the Disaster”
Waldorf, Lars. Journal of Human Rights Practice, 2012, Vol. 4, No. 3, 469-474. doi: 10.1093/jhuman/hus025.

Excerpt: “Kony 2012 exemplifies ‘commodity activism’: the branding and consumption of humanitarian projects — and the humanitarian identity — as products’ (Brough, 2012.) The focus is on producers and consumers of humanitarian products rather than the eventual beneficiaries. So it’s no surprise then that the voice and agency of northern Ugandans is largely absent from the initial video.”


“Divergent Views: Social Media Experts and Young Citizens on Politics 2.0”
Kaun, Anne; Guard, Carina. International Journal of Electronic Governance, Vol. 4, No. 1/2, 104-120. doi: 10.1504/IJEG.2011.041710.

Abstract: Political election campaigns often function as test sites for new communication technologies and strategies. Prior to the Swedish national election 2010, the Swedish public was dominated by a discourse on the revolutionising potential of new media for political campaigning and restyling of democracy. In particular, the participatory potential of social media was celebrated. ‘Confronting’ the main claims of prominent Swedish social media handbooks with the perceptions of one important voter segment, namely students, this paper aims to present major contradictions characterising the present discourse on democracy 2.0 showing a tremendous gap between the potential voters and their actual practices.


“’Cultural Acupuncture’: Fan Activism and the Harry Potter Alliance”
Jenkins, Henry. Transformative Works and Cultures, 2012, Vol. 10.

Excerpt: “The HPA [Harry Potter Alliance] materials are not always as polished as those of some other activist groups, who work with professional media makers and consultants. Rather, the HPA embraces fandom’s own DIY ethos, lowering barriers to participation by respecting the work of novices and amateurs. Many of the HPA’s most effective videos simply depict students, in their bedrooms, speaking directly into the camera. The HPA has formed a strong partnership with the video blog community Nerdfighters, whose capacity to mobilize its members was a key factor in the HPA’s success in a 2010 Chase Manhattan Bank online competition. Other HPA videos, such as a campaign supporting workers’ rights that depicted Harry’s battles against the Dark Lord WaldeMart [sic], involve broad parodies of the Rowling content world.”


“New Media, Micromobilization, and Political Agenda Setting: Crossover Effects in Political Mobilization and Media Usage”
Bekkers, Victor; Beunders, Henri; Edwards, Arthur; Moody, Rebecca. The Information Society: An International Journal, 2011, Vol. 27, No. 4, 209.219. doi:

Findings: “When supported by micromedia [such as texting or twitter messages], the effects of micromobilization can generate strategic surprises for policymakers and traditional intermediary organizations. To some extent, the nature of these strategic surprises depends on the opportunity structure that Web 2.0 technologies provide for the micromobilization of individuals. These technologies enable rapid and massive sharing of experiences, which helps to create a shared understanding or a shared story between loosely coupled individuals. This facilitates a process of frame alignment, which helps to expand both the issue and the group of people to be mobilized … the mass media play an important role in strengthening the frames that micromobilizing individuals produce, and they help to legitimize their actions (frame alignment). Second, these frames and the stories behind them are picked up by the mass media, as long as the stories are consistent with the logic that governs their operations (media logic). The power of these frames, however, does not depend solely on the nature of the media. Our research shows that the framing of the issue itself is very important. Third, the access that the mass media provide to protest leaders as a relevant platform may help them to acquire additional authority. This strengthens their position within the process of consensus mobilization, particularly when their presence and image fit into the logic of the media. Traditional media thus continue to play an important intermediary role in present-day protest politics.”


“Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics”
Aday, Sean; Farrell, Henry; Lynch, Marc; Sides, John; Kelly, John; Zuckerman, Ethan. Peaceworks, United States Institute for Peace, September 2010.

Abstract: “Despite the prominence of ‘Twitter revolutions,’ ‘color revolutions,’ and the like in public debate, policymakers and scholars know very little about whether and how new media affect contentious politics. Journalistic accounts are inevitably based on anecdotes rather than rigorously designed research…. The impact of new media can be better understood through a framework that considers five levels of analysis: individual transformation, intergroup relations, collective action, regime policies, and external attention. New media have the potential to change how citizens think or act, mitigate or exacerbate group conflict, facilitate collective action, spur a backlash among regimes, and garner international attention toward a given country…. Although there is reason to believe the Iranian case exposes the potential benefits of new media, other evidence — such as the Iranian regime’s use of the same social network tools to harass, identify, and imprison protesters — suggests that, like any media, the Internet is not a ‘magic bullet.’ At best, it may be a ‘rusty bullet.’ Indeed, it is plausible that traditional media sources were equally if not more important.”

Tags: research roundup, technology, Twitter, Facebook

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