Internet activism

Internet activism (also known as online activism, digital campaigning, digital activism, online organizing, electronic advocacy, cyberactivism, e-campaigning, and e-activism) is the use of electronic communication technologies such as social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, YouTube, e-mail, and podcasts for various forms of activism to enable faster communications by citizen movements and the delivery of local information to a large audience. Internet technologies are used for cause-related fundraising, community building, lobbying, and organizing.


Sandor Vegh divides online activism into three main categories: Awareness/advocacy, organization/mobilization, and action/reaction There are other ways of classifying types of online activism, such as by the degree of reliance on the internet. Thus, internet sleuthing or hacking could be viewed as purely online forms of activism, whereas the Occupy Wall Street movement was only partially online.

The Internet is a key resource for independent activists, or E-activists, particularly those whose message may run counter to the mainstream. “Especially when a serious violation of human rights occurs, the Internet is essential in reporting the atrocity to the outside world,”[1] Listservs like BurmaNet, Freedom News Group help distribute news that would otherwise be inaccessible in these countries.

Internet activists also pass on E-petitions to be sent to the government and public and private organizations to protest against and urge for positive policy change in areas from the arms trade to animal testing. Many non-profits and charities use these methods, emailing petitions to those on their email list, asking people to pass them on. The Internet also enables organizations such as NGOs to communicate with individuals in an inexpensive and timely manner. Gatherings and protests can be organized with the input of the organizers and the participants. Lobbying is also made easier via the Internet, thanks to mass e-mail and its ability to broadcast a message widely at little cost. Vegh’s concept of organization/mobilization, for example, can refer to activities taking place solely online, solely offline but organized online, or a combination of online and offline. Mainstream social-networking sites, most noticeably, are also making e-activist tools available to their users. An active participatory culture is enabled by the communities on social networking sites because they permit communication between groups that are otherwise unable to communicate. In the article “Why We Argue about Virtual Community: A Case Study of the Fan Community,” Nessim Watson stresses the necessity of communication in online communities. He even goes as far as to say that “Without ongoing communication among its participants, a community dissolve”. The constant ability to communicate with members of the community enriches online community experiences and redefines the word community.[2]

In addition, denial-of-Service attacks, the taking over and vandalizing of a website, uploading Trojan horses, and sending out an e-mail bomb (mass e-mailings) are also examples of Internet activism. For more examples of these types of “direct action”, see hacktivism.[3]

Hashtag activism

Main article: Hashtag activism

Hashtag activism is the use of hashtags from the social media platform Twitter for activist purposes. Its use has been associated with the 2014 Chibok kidnapping, with hopes that it would help keep the story in the news and raise international attention.[4] The hashtag in itself has received 2 million retweets.

Development processes

In one study a discussion of a developmental model of political mobilization is discussed. By citizens joining groups and creating discussion they are beginning their first stage of involvement. Progressively it is hoped that they will begin signing petitions online and graduating to offline contact as long as the organization provides the citizen with escalating steps of involvement (Vitak et al., 2011).[5]

Examples of early activism

One of the earliest known uses of the Internet as a medium for activism was that around Lotus MarketPlace. On April 10, 1990, Lotus announced a direct-mail marketing database product that was to contain name, address, and spending habit information on 120 million individual U.S. citizens. While much of the same data was already available, privacy advocates worried about the availability of this data within one database. Furthermore, the data would be on CD-ROM, and so would remain fixed until a new CD-ROM was issued.

In response, a mass e-mail and E-bulletin-board campaign was started, which included information on contacting Lotus and form letters. Larry Seiler, a New England-based computer professional posted a message that was widely reposted on newsgroups and via e-mail: “It will contain a LOT of personal information about YOU, which anyone in the country can access by just buying the discs. It seems to me (and to a lot of other people, too) that this will be a little too much like big brother, and it seems like a good idea to get out while there is still time.”Over 30,000 people contacted Lotus and asked for their names to be removed from the database. On January 23, 1991, Lotus announced that it had cancelled MarketPlace.[6]

In 1993 a survey article about online activism around the world, from Croatia to the United States appeared in The Nation magazine, with several activists being quoted about their projects and views.[7][8]

The earliest example of mass emailing as a rudimentary form of DDoS occurred on Guy Fawkes Day 1994, when the Intervasion of the UK began email-bombing John Major’s cabinet and UK parliamentary servers in protest against the Criminal Justice Bill which outlawed outdoor rave festivals and “music with a repetitive beat”

In 1995–1998, Z magazine offered courses online through Left Online University, with being taught on “Using the Internet for Electronic Activism.”[9]

The practice of cyber-dissidence and activism per se, that is, in its modern-day form, may have been inaugurated by Dr. Daniel Mengara, a Gabonese scholar and activist living in political exile in New Jersey in the United States. In 1998, he created a Website in French whose name Bongo Doit Partir (Bongo Must Go)[10] was clearly indicative of its purpose: it encouraged a revolution against the then 29-year-old regime of Omar Bongo in Gabon. The original URL,,[11] began to redirect to[12] in the year 2000. Inaugurating what was to become common current-day practice in the politically involved blogosphere, this movement’s attempt at rallying the Gabonese around revolutionary ideals and actions has ultimately been vindicated by the 2011 Tunisian and Egyption revolutions, where the Internet has proved to be an effective tool for instigating successful critique, opposition and revolution against dictators. In July 2003, Amnesty International reported the arrest of five Gabonese known to be members of the cyber-dissident group Bongo Doit Partir. The five members were detained for three months (See: Gabon: Prisoners of Conscience[13] and Gabon: Further information on Prisoners of conscience[14]).

Another well-known example of early Internet activism took place in 1998, when the Mexican rebel group EZLN used decentralized communications, such as cell phones, to network with developed world activists and help create the anti-globalization group Peoples Global Action (PGA) to protest the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva.[15] The PGA continued to call for “global days of action” and rally support of other anti-globalization groups in this way.[16]

Later, a worldwide network of Internet activist sites, under the umbrella name of Indymedia, was created “for the purpose of providing grassroots coverage of the WTO protests in Seattle” in 1999.[17][18] Dorothy Kidd quotes Sheri Herndon in a July 2001 telephone interview about the role of the Internet in the anti-WTO protests: “The timing was right, there was a space, the platform was created, the Internet was being used, we could bypass the corporate media, we were using open publishing, we were using multimedia platforms. So those hadn’t been available, and then there was the beginning of the anti-globalization movement in the United States.”[19]

In the UK, in 1999, the Government introduced a new employment tax called IR35. One of the first on-line trade associations was created to campaign against it. Within weeks they had raised £100,000 off the Internet from individuals who had never even met. They became a fully formed trade association called the Professional Contractors Group which two years later had 14,000 members all paying £100 each to join. They presented the first ever e-petition to Parliament and organised one of the first flash mobs when using their database to their surprise and others, 1,000 came in their call to lobby Parliament. They later raised £500,000 from the Internet to fund an unsuccessful High Court challenge against the tax though ultimately they secured some concessions. Their first external affairs director, Philip Ross, has written a history of the campaign.[20]

Monumental Moments of Activism

One of the most recognizable and success stories of digital activism is from the movement that occurred in Burma. The Facebook group “Support the Monk’s Protest in Burma” was one of the few outlets for the activists. As Burma has been living under military rule since 1962, citizens, journalists, and activists have been murdered and threatened. This activity went by unnoticed by the rest of the world until “antigovernment protests erupted once again but this time it was significantly harder to prevent acts of witness bearing because a small group of Burmese sent photos and videos from inside Burma to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) via File Transfer Protocol, a standard network protocol used to exchange files over the Internet.” Through this act, thousands of people “became aware of the protests.” People joined the “Support the Monk’s Protest in Burma” Facebook group, which helped “to widely distribute documentary images, videos, and photos all across the Web.” Although this act did not bring an end to the military rule, it has brought attention to the rest of the world through the use of digital activism, bringing awareness of a great issue that needs to be resolved[21]

Selected Internet activists

The possibilities of online activism

The Internet is “tailor-made for a populist, insurgent movement,” says Joe Trippi,[22] who managed the Howard Dean campaign. In his campaign memoir, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Trippi notes that:

[The Internet’s] roots in the open-source ARPAnet, its hacker culture, and its decentralized, scattered architecture make it difficult for big, establishment candidates, companies and media to gain control of it. And the establishment loathes what it can’t control. This independence is by design, and the Internet community values above almost anything the distance it has from the slow, homogeneous stream of American commerce and culture. Progressive candidates and companies with forward-looking vision have an advantage on the Internet, too. Television is, by its nature, a nostalgic medium. Look at Ronald Reagan’s campaign ads in the 1980s – they were masterpieces of nostalgia promising a return to America’s past glory and prosperity. The Internet, on the other hand, is a forward-thinking and forward-moving medium, embracing change and pushing the envelope of technology and communication.

Use in political campaigns

When discussing the 2004 U.S. presidential election candidates, Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said of the candidates which benefited from use of the Internet to attract supporters: “They are all charismatic, outspoken mavericks and insurgents. Given that the Internet is interactive and requires an affirmative action on the part of the users, as opposed to a passive response from TV users, it is not surprising that the candidate has to be someone people want to touch and interact with.”[23]

A more decentralized approach to campaigning arose, in contrast to a top-down, message-focused approach usually conducted in the mainstream. “The mantra has always been, ‘Keep your message consistent. Keep your message consistent,'” said John Hlinko, who has participated in Internet campaigns for and the electoral primary campaign of Wesley Clark. “That was all well and good in the past. Now it’s a recipe for disaster … You can choose to have a Stalinist structure that’s really doctrinaire and that’s really opposed to grassroots. Or you can say, ‘Go forth. Do what you’re going to do.’ As long as we’re running in the same direction, it’s much better to give some freedom.”[1]

Two-thirds of Internet users under the age of 30 have a SNS, and during the 2008 election, half of them used a SNS site for candidate information (Hirzalla, 2010).[24]

Non-traditional activism

The Internet has become the catalyst for protests such as Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring as those involved have increasingly relied on social media to organize and stay connected. In Myanmar, Online news paper Freedom News Group leak some government corruption and fuel to protests.[25][26]

Corporate activism

Corporations are also using Internet activist techniques to increase support for their causes. According to Christopher Palmeri with BusinessWeek Online, companies launch sites with the intent to positively influence their own public image, to provide negative pressure on competitors, to influence opinion within select groups, and to push for policy changes.[27]

The clothing manufacturer, American Apparel is an example: The company hosts a website called Legalize LA that advocates immigration reform via blog, online advertising, links to news stories and educational materials.[28][29] Protest groups have responded by posting YouTube videos and establishing a boycott website.[30][31]

Corporate methods of information dissemination is labelled “astroturfing,” as opposed to “grassroots activism,” due to the funding for such movements being largely private.[32] More recent examples include the right-wing which organized the “Taxpayer March on Washington” on September 12, 2009 and the Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights, which opposes universal health care in the U.S.[33]

Religious activism

Cybersectarianism is a new organizational form which involves: “highly dispersed small groups of practitioners that may remain largely anonymous within the larger social context and operate in relative secrecy, while still linked remotely to a larger network of believers who share a set of practices and texts, and often a common devotion to a particular leader. Overseas supporters provide funding and support; domestic practitioners distribute tracts, participate in acts of resistance, and share information on the internal situation with outsiders. Collectively, members and practitioners of such sects construct viable virtual communities of faith, exchanging personal testimonies and engaging in collective study via email, on-line chat rooms and web-based message boards.”[34]

Impact on everyday political discussions

According to some observers, the Internet may have considerable potential to reach and engage opinion leaders who influence the thinking and behavior of others. According to the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet, what they call “Online Political Citizens” (OPCs) are “seven times more likely than average citizens to serve as opinion leaders among their friends, relatives and colleagues…Normally, 10% of Americans qualify as Influentials. Our study found that 69% of Online Political Citizens are Influentials.”[35]

Information Communication Technologies and Online Activism

Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) do indeed make our lives easier but they are dangerous in that they can become almost mindless interactions—there are millions of Facebook accounts, Twitter users and websites. All this access is so readily available at the click of a button. You can find any information or videos you want on the Internet, and educate yourself on how to do just about anything. While this is for the most part a positive thing, it can also be dangerous. For example, you can read up on the latest news events relatively easily and quickly; however, there is danger in in the fact that apathy or fatigue can quickly arise when we are inundated with so many messages, or that the loudest voice on a subject can often be the most extreme one—distorting public perception on the issue.

These social networks which occupy ICTs are in fact just modern forms of political instruments which pre-date the technological era.[36] We now go to online forums or Twitter, instead of town hall meetings. People can essentially mobilize world-wide through the Internet. Women can create transnational alliances and lobby for rights within their respective countries; they can give each other tips and share up-to-date information. This information becomes “hyper textual”, available in downloadable formats with easy access for all.[36] The UN organizations also use “hyper textual” formats. They can post information about upcoming summits, they can post newsletters on what occurred at these meetings, and links to videos can be shared; all of this information can be downloaded at the click of a button.[36] The UN and many other actors are presenting this information in an attempt to get a certain message out in the cyber sphere and consequently steer public perception on an issue.[37]

With all this information so readily available, there is a rising trend of “slacktivism” or “clicktivism”. While it is positive that information can be distributed so quickly and efficiently all around the world, there is negativity in the fact that we often take this information for granted, or quickly forget about it once we have seen it flash across our computer screens.[36] Viral campaigns are great for sparking initial interest and conversation, but they are not as effective in the long term—people begin to think that clicking “like” on something is enough of a contribution, or that posting information about a current hot topic on their Facebook page or Twitter feed means that they have made a difference.

Fundraising capability

The Internet has also made it easier for small donors to play a meaningful role in financing political campaigns. Previously, small-donor fundraising was prohibitively expensive, as costs of printing and postage ate up most of the money raised.[citation needed] Groups like MoveOn, however, have found that they can raise large amounts of money from small donors at minimal cost, with credit card transaction fees constituting their biggest expense. “For the first time, you have a door into the political process that isn’t marked ‘big money,’ ” says Darr. “That changes everything.


Demographic issues

Critics argue that Internet activism faces the same challenges as other aspects of the digital divide, particularly the global digital divide. Some say it gives disproportionate representation to those with greater access or technological ability.[38][39] Groups that may be disadvantaged by the move to activist activity online are those that have limited access to technologies, or lack the technological literacy to engage meaningfully online; these include ethnic and racial minorities, those of lower socioeconomic status, those with lower levels of education, and the elderly.

A study looked at the impact of Social Networking Sites (SNS) on various demographics and their political activity. Not surprisingly college students used SNS for political activity the most but this was followed by a more unlikely group, those that had not completed high school. In addition the probability for non-White citizens to consume political information was shown to be higher than that of Whites. These two outcomes go in the face of normal predictors of political activity. Despite these surprising findings older generations, men and whites showed the highest levels of political mobilization. Acts of political mobilization, such as fundraising, volunteering, protesting require the most continued interest, resources and knowledge (Nam, 2010).[40]

Real debate?

The experience of the echo chamber is easier to create with a computer than with many of the forms of political interaction that preceded it,” Sunstein told the New York Times. “The discussion will be about strategy, or horse-race issues or how bad the other candidates are, and it will seem like debate. It’s not like this should be censored, but it can increase acrimony, increase extremism and make mutual understanding more difficult.

On the other hand, Scott Duke Harris of the San Jose Mercury News noted that “the Internet connects [all sides of issues, not just] an ideologically broad anti-war constituency, from the leftists of ANSWER to the pressed-for-time ‘soccer moms‘ who might prefer MoveOn, and conservative activists as well.”[41]

Another concern, according to University of California professor Barbara Epstein, is that the Internet “allows people who agree with each other to talk to each other and gives them the impression of being part of a much larger network than is necessarily the case.” She warns that the impersonal nature of communication by computer may actually undermine the human contact that always has been crucial to social movements.[42]

Moving to offline action

Famed activist Ralph Nader has stated that “the Internet doesn’t do a very good job of motivating action”, citing that the United States Congress, corporations and the Pentagon do not necessarily “fear the civic use of the Internet.”[43] Ethan Zuckerman talks about “slacktivism“, claiming that the Internet has devalued certain currencies of activism.[44] Citizens may “like” an activist group on Facebook, visit a website, or comment on a blog, but fail to engage in political activism beyond the Internet, such as volunteering or canvassing. This critique has been criticized as Western-centric, however, because it discounts the impact this can have in authoritarian or repressive contexts.[45] Journalist Courtney C. Radsch argued that even this low level of engagement was an important form of activism for Arab youth because it is a form of free speech, and can spark mainstream media coverage.[46]


Another concern, expressed by author and law professor Cass Sunstein, is that online political discussions lead to “cyberbalkanization“—discussions that lead to fragmentation and polarization rather than consensus, because the same medium that lets people access a large number of news sources also enables them to pinpoint the ones they agree with and ignore the rest.

Scholars are divided as to whether the Internet will increase or decrease political participation, including online activism. Those who suggest political participation will increase believe the Internet can be used to recruit and communicate with more users, and offers lower-costs modes of participation for those who lack the time or motivation to engage otherwise. Those concerned that the Internet will decrease activism argue that the Internet occupies free time that can no longer be spent getting involved in activist groups, or that Internet activism will replace more substantial, effortful forms of in-person activism.


Another criticism is clicktivism. According to techopedia, clicktivism is a controversial form of digital activism. Proponents believe that applying advertising principles such as A/B testing increases the impact of a message by leveraging the Internet to further its reach. Opponents believe that clicktivism reduces activism to a mere mouse-click, yielding numbers with little or no real engagement or commitment to the cause.[47]

Micah M. White argues, “Political engagement becomes a matter of clicking a few links. In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.”[48] He argues that political engagement becomes a matter of clicking a few links and neglects the vital, immeasurable inner-events and personal epiphanies that great social ruptures are actually made of. It reduces activism to a mere mouse click.[49] Micah M. White goes on to argue that “…clicktivism reinforces the fear of standing out from the crowd and taking a strong position. It discourages calling for drastic action. And as such, clicktivism will never breed social revolution. To think that it will is a fallacy. One that is dawning on us”.[48]

State repression

In Net Delusion, author Evgeny Morozov argues against cyberutopianism. He describes how the Internet is successfully used against activists and for the sake of state repression.[50]


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