The term Online activism describes the use of internet-based technologies and platforms to enact political, environmental, economic or social change. This includes both online actions and the mobilisation of real-world protests through platforms. Much of the world’s population is connected to the net. Platforms and ISPs provide the means for citizens to publish political and social views within a global conversation. Government anti-activist campaigns and bias news reporting of activism is countered by citizen journalism. Citizens now easily connect online to form groups and discuss and align to issues of a political and social nature. The movements formed by activists can produce physical protests, boycotts, shaming of targets via media exposure or online acts of resistance or dissent using technology.
News and Activism
Today many people consume news online in a variety of mediums which include both online mainstream media and citizen journalism and broadcast. Newspapers, Television and Radio news and social commentary exist online in a fragmented and diverse marketplace that is fed by and that feeds blogs, vlogs, and social media platforms.
The internet has intensified consumption of news and political content which feeds activism in the sense that many more people are aware of societal injustices and precedents of activism action against these.
The ability of the internet to connect people in global communication has transformed activism increasing the speed at which activist movements develop, delivered low cost and ease of organisation and mobilisation. It is now easy to start, find and grow global support for a cause using hashtags, online petitions and crowdfunding campaigns.
Taking a cause into the public sphere is just a click away (Cowdry, 2015) yet despite the criticism of feel-good solidarity there are ways to systemically make clicktivist actions more effective such as change. org and Getup. (insert links here) Raising awareness feeds media cycles and has the possibility of changing attitudes over the longer term with increased interest in politics (Howard,2014). Petitions and social media groups empower individuals to create a cause and crowd source support globally, changing brands’ policies and enacting some government policy changes (ITV Report, 2017).
Cowdry (2015) says concerning the Arab spring that Egypt proved not to be a revolution yet notes networked individuals have overcome fear. This is due to continued overthrow of government and ending up with worse conditions each time. I disagree in that the removed fear of protest has nurtured liberation in the minds of the people and I believe the citizens will continue to dissent with a longer-term outcome possible of better government. I believe this true for all groups where stifled political discussions have found a voice on social media.
Pre-net-media Mediated Activism
Historically activism within political discourse has used the media of the time to seed ideas of change, report injustices and inspire and direct action within populations (Jeffries, 2005). Countering forces of media owners, advertisers and government have used media to manufacture consent of populations to the necessity or desirability of maintaining existing structures by censoring content (Kellner, 1981), shaming activism as undesirable radicalism and flooding outlets with content.
Online activism began in 1990 with consumers organising through email and message boards to have their names removed from Lotus Marketplace’s marketing list due to consumer privacy concerns. In 1994 the Zapatistas movement used the internet for activism to seek rights for indigenous people in Mexico as the sale of natural resources for corporate profit left them in poverty. Usenet and email were utilised to organise the occupation of government buildings to destroying land records and release indigenous prisoners, and also to mobilise 100,000 people in Mexico City protesting government suppression of the group. The Zapatistas also pioneered ddos attacks to compromise government websites. According to Smith (2017), the success of this groups global exposure was due to tech-savvy allies and a charismatic spokesperson getting exposure in the New York Times and Mexican newspapers. Here we see a dynamic that continues to this day, in that a successful digitally activated social movement is multifaceted. It involves not only the protest or occupation by activists but global media exposure, support by foreign individuals with technical skills and a fairly clear objective.
The Iranian protests of 2009, known as the Twitter revolution, were a result of a networked society using information garnered via internet tools to track election voting which did not correspond to official results and to organise and mobilise protests. The use of Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and other tools empowered communication within national borders and with global sympathisers. Iranians used proxy servers shared by social media to navigate government blocks until they were found and shut down. This sees some of the first open censorship of the internet, which is a common mechanism to quell dissent by authoritarian governments.
Anti-corporate activism targets brands, where bad press can damage their reputation and effect their income. During the 1990s Nike was targeted by anti-globalisation activists concerning sweatshop labour. The company slowly changed to monitor and fix unethical supply factories leading the industry into change and through their own campaign changed the perception of who is responsible and how to remedy the issue.
Today we are seeing corporations that were once targets not only create ethical self-governing practices but support controversial campaigns where Nike is supporting black rights despite social media backlash. Authenticity is important in corporate activism as in must not be used only to increase sales.
Benefits and Mechanisms of Digital
Authoritarian governance plus minority or gendered injustice are the main inspirations behind traditional activism in developed nations which are now the inspirations of under-developed nations, whereas in developed nations there is a wide array of issues and the internet has provided a means to better organise and mobilise both.
The internet has made it easier to find like-minded people for activism causes, the hashtag feature of twitter is an example of how it is easy to search for a cause. It is now quicker to create grassroots attention for these causes but easier for governments and corporations to counter by using data analysis with propaganda and censorship. Diversified media can greater impact public opinion but it is still a slow process of changing beliefs of citizens, depending on the tools of suppression and propaganda from Governments and corporate players to counter these developing ideologies. Citizens benefit socially and financially by having a stronger voice, by crowd sourcing support for change, and by more easily experiencing change that improves their economic and social wellbeing. Social media has its own power to influence activism without connecting with other media, where it picks up stories that may have been overlooked otherwise.
The censorship of networks is now commonplace since the Arab spring. This movement involved a number of Arab countries rising up against authoritarianism. Cohen (2011) sees technology as an accelerant and citizens publishing images where the mainstream media then amplifies the story. With oppressed nations social media and smartphones act as an accelerant to direct action. This digital technology has enhanced political participation in countries where media and civil disobedience is repressed (Cowdry, 2015)and the internet facilitates organisation when the moment of revolution has come (Parker, 2014).
Incrementally Empowered Citizens
Communities and individuals benefit socially even if is just creating momentum for further action in the future, and often they are willing to forfeit economic benefits short term. Digital technology has empowered citizens to access government censored information and create, share and access content not covered by traditional media. Citizens are increasingly using their ability to be broadcasters and journalists to voice their opinions on issues they care about.
Networked activism compared to non-networked activism bypasses hierarchies and allows large groups of people to collaborate to solve problems cheaply and quickly.
Policy change is often not an immediate process, even if social media has the power to quickly garnish support and mobilise movements. Government and corporate powers are influenced to move toward policy change, despite the frequent short-term quelling of action through psychological mainstream media bias and authoritarian PR the status quo begins to shift in people’s minds for addressing rights at a later time. These powers find less easy to suppress information due to the internet creating a diversified media enabling citizens to become journalists and broadcasters through blogs, podcasts, YouTube, twitter and dissemination of news with user comments and global discussions.
Has Internet Weakened Activism and Benefited the Powerful?
The internet has weakened activism as well. Filter bubbles are easily formed where people only communicate with people that reinforce their beliefs. On twitter users can block and unfollow people, resulting in people that only follow each other if they have similar views.
Kimport and Earl discovered that the less activists physically come together and participate in petitions, email campaigns and boycotts, the more superficial the effects of their actions (Earl & Kimport, 2011) but now collectively citizens can subvert mainstream media setting public opinion and seed new ways of thinking in populations.
Online activist actions are tracked via metadata collection by national governments. In democratic countries corporations can buy this type of data from companies such as google, and those that can afford to pay can predict trends can put out propaganda to counter it. The internet has allowed a power elite to access data and manipulate the thoughts of people and put out their own campaigns overtly and covertly.
In non-democratic country we see the constant shutting down of the internet by government to quell social media use for mobilising protests and the amping up of punishment and police action to once again create public order through instilling fear in populations against becoming activists.
In the case of Julien Assange and Wikileaks we see the U.S. Government trying to incite fear of becoming a whistleblower by harsh punishment despite societal benefits. Hacktivism has empowered citizens to challenge not only state-sponsored censorship (Flew, 2014) but digital gatekeepers and corporations. Early hacktivism seen in the Zapatista affiliates has continued to develop with groups like Anonymous targeting corporates and governments.
I disagree with Cowdry’s position that digital technology has not altered “the basic distribution of opportunities for political participation…in developed democracies”(2015, p615). In all nations the will of citizens to resist injustice through civil disobedience and global conversations on injustices has intensified shown in the fact that corporate and mainstream media are now open to promoting activism (Rattray, 2015).
Cowdry (2015) talks about how networked citizens are empowered with hope by being connected and this is a power for political change. Looking to permanent changes from activism before and after the inception of the internet we see long processes with entrenched injustices. In the developed world at least there is progress through raising awareness and civil disobedience. Surely this is just a further distance for developed nations to traverse.
A transformation of power from pre-internet media to networks means that they are the new elites (Cowdry, 2015) who can supplant their ideologies onto communications. The platforms on which we share activism are corporate and not citizen owned (Cowdry, 2015) so this has placed huge power in the platforms to fairly facilitate the dissemination of information. Luckily for citizens there is a leftist leaning of Californian tech despite news prioritising algorithms protecting advertising revenue for these gatekeepers. De-monetising activist citizen journalism on platforms will not stop those that value justice over income. Alternatives to social media inspire hope for new platforms to develop that can counter mainstream platforms if censorship becomes an issue with the masses.
Businesses such as getup that function on donations and carry out sustained campaigns and their funding can come from wealthy left-leaning benefactors (Thomas, 2014) showing that not all wealthy are interested in neoliberal ideologies. Those that are look to usurp such powers.
Cowry (2015) states that it is difficult to garner sustained attention over the long term to a cause in a saturated media landscape and we are now more interested in event-based issues over the short term. I believe that the frequency of event-based activism is increasing due to this change and continued intensification will lead to sustained attention over the longer term towards political change as seen in successful pre-internet activism, as we see the civil rights movement continues today with Black Lives Matter (Clayton, 2018).
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