What is digital activism?

Updated: Dec 16, 2021

Did you ever look around yourself at work and noticed that someone was not treated right because of his/her cultural background or gender? If you noticed and tried to take action, such as organising a protest on discrimination or gender inequality with your colleagues in front of your workplace, then that is a form of activism; by trying to make a change in the environment you work in.


A while back, activism meant physical demonstrations, marches, directly writing to a government representative, or doing extreme actions, such as chaining oneself to a fence, as George and Leidner discuss in their article “From clicktivism to hacktivism: Understanding digital activism” (2019, p. 1). Trying to make a change in the world meant months, even years of planning and recruiting the right people.


Nowadays, because of technological developments, organising a protest in front of an institution, for example, means only using your social media account to write an insightful post on the issue and open the discussion. Because the internet is such a wide network, promoting the post to the right audience may help the individual to collect many likes because people might see the post and join the virtual social movement. In this way, the issue he/she is promoting gets validated by the number of likes it receives. Compared to the first example, namely the traditional activism, today’s digital activism is “broad-reaching, impactful, and immediate” (George & Leidner, 2019, p. 1).

“Digital activism has enabled social movements to mobilize very rapidly, scaling up their level of support in ways that were not possible prior to the emergence of digital media. Simultaneously, digital activism enables contemporary social movements to by-pass corporate or state-controlled news media that are frequently antagonistic to their goals.” – Carragee, 2019, p. 363.

Considering that the information circulates far easier and faster on the internet and that it can reach audiences from the opposite part of the globe, digital activism, through the social movements that are promoted by the individuals themselves and media, has a greater impact on society it is considering and has the capacity of restructuring laws, and even strengthen the relationship between political change and news media. In other words, the actual actors of society have more freedom of expression on the issues they see in the society they live in and can write a post on the internet about it to open a discussion. From that point on, if the right audience sees the post, they can all mobilise by supporting the cause and hopefully secure changes.


However, even if the individual who noticed the issue and started the social movement has collected the right people by promoting the issue, the change they want might not happen because, as Carragee (2019, p. 364) discusses in her article “Communication, Activism and the News Media: An Agenda for Future Research”, “the use of digital media in this way takes place in an on-line environment dominated by a few corporate actors, including Facebook and Google”. Therefore, if a Facebook employee wants to make a change in their workplace by promoting his/her arguments on Facebook, this may be harder to accomplish.


“Clicktivism”


In her article, Carragee (2019, p. 363) argues how in the twentieth century, some intellectuals thought that film, radio, and television might be ways to “create a more democratic and robust public sphere”. However, their hopes were not realized given “the increasingly commercialized nature of the media over time”. Media is a great tool in promoting a cause, however, one cannot expect that the audience’s engagement on social media platforms, for example, can start the change. Some people comment or like posts only in a spontaneous way because maybe in a matter of minutes they completely forget about the promise or the statement they made through the comment or the like.

“The existence of a social movement does not guarantee organizational success or even if it will gain any attention or followers, and social movements can and do exist outside of taking any action to promote their cause. However, social movements that have achieved progress towards their goals generally rely upon some form of activism to promote change” – George & Leidner, 2019, p. 4.

This type of digital activism is called “clicktivism” by scholars, being defined as a “digital spectator activism” by George and Leidner (2019, p. 7), which indicates political action or being a part of the cause through liking a post on social media.


"Clicktivism allows individuals to demonstrate which causes or SMOs they advocate in a remote, detached manner. Anyone may use this technology and they may use it anywhere, if they have a social media account, a computer, tablet, or smartphone, and internet access, therefore, it requires few digital resources. It is considered one of the lowest forms of engagement because it is noncommittal and impersonal." – George & Leidner, 2019, p. 7.

In some cases, those where thousands of people are involved can make a great and valid impact but in other cases, such as the previous example of spontaneous liking, can remain at the action of just hearing of the issue and not being involved in the movement, which, in the end, does not help at all.


#Metoo Movement


It is not a surprise to hear on the news that another girl has been sexually abused because, unfortunately, this happens daily. In an article on this topic written on the Safeguarding and Child Protection Association’s website on 27th September 2021, the statistics show that “more than 70 young girls suspected of being the victims of sexual abuse are referred to social services every day” in Britain. This is an issue that is extremely relevant and repetitive in the digital activism field.


Bhattacharyya introduces this topic in her article “#Metoo Movement: An Awareness Campaign” (2018, p. 2) by telling the story of a 14 years-old girl, Ruchira Girhotra, who was molested by S.P.S. Rathore while taking tennis lessons. Even if her parents reported the incident to the police, the system did not care about this ordinary girl because S.P.S. Rathore was holding a powerful position. Three years later, Ruchira committed suicide. However, this unfortunate event did not start the “#metoo movement” but it is a real example of how the power of a person is more important than their actions.

“Indeed, the #metoo movement was created more than a decade ago by Tarana Burke in 2006 to help victims of sexual violence/abuse. This movement helps us to gain a sense of the problem, and make people aware of the scale of the sexual harassment that remains pervasive in the public space/workspace.” – Bhattacharyya, 2018, p. 2.

Millions of women have joined this movement throughout the years since its creation. Because it became an extremely popular movement globally, it gave a voice and courage to the victims because they had support to expose the predators. Gaining more popularity, they took the action to the streets, protesting sexual harassment at the workplace. Maybe corporations can ignore one single voice but when it is about hundreds of women’s voices, then that cannot be ignored.


To better understand the movement’s impact on society, Bhattacharyya (2018, p. 3-4) describes it as being something historically important that “has emerged as a powerful whistleblower hitting the highest offices of the world – the European Parliament, the Westminster, and much more”.


To conclude, anyone can be a change agent with a few clicks or be involved in any other way in social and political movements if they want to be. Digital activism is about keeping your eyes open, noticing issues that might be changed, and creating or being part of a community that shares the same interests in promoting and solving an issue within society.



Reference List:

Bhattacharyya, R. (2018) "#Metoo Movement: An Awareness Campaign". International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change. 3(4). March 2018. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3175260 (Accessed 6 October 2021).

Carragee, K. M. (2019) "Communication, Activism and the News Media: An Agenda for Future Research". Communication & Society. 32(4). pp. 361-378. (Accessed 6 October 2021).

George, J. J., Leidner, D.E. (2019) "From clicktivism to hacktivism: Understanding digital activism". Information and Organization. 29(3). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.infoandorg.2019.04.001 (Accessed 6 October 2021).

Sacpa. (2021) More than 70 girls A DAY are referred to social services over fears of sexual abuse | Sacpa. Available at: https://www.sacpa.org.uk/2021/09/27/more-than-70-girls-a-day-are-referred-to-social-services-over-fears-of-sexual-abuse/ (Accessed 6 October 2021).


This article is written as part of an assignment for the Digital Activism class in the MA Media and Creative Cultures program at the University of Greenwich.

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