How the Internet can accelerate social movements

Author: Lucy Hocking , Research assistant, RAND Europe

Technology has always been at the forefront of social movements

Even before the digital revolution, social movements have been taking advantage of modern technologies, such as the radio and fax machines, to connect members and spread their message to a broader audience.

Since its development, the internet has been used to widen the scale of social movements, connecting activists around the world to tackle social and political challenges. For example, in 1996, the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition (CIEC) was set up. With over 56,000 internet users, the group campaigned against the American government’s Communications Decency Act, which would have imposed strict regulations on what could be posted online. Since then, online activism has continued to grow and is now a key accelerator of social movements.

Access to the internet can broaden the reach of activism

The rise of the internet has meant that the ‘distance between talk and organised action has grown smaller’. Instead of networks developing on a small, local scale, the internet allows activists around the globe to connect with each other, creating a greater drive behind movements. Using the internet also removes many of the barriers associated with traditional methods of activism. Online involvement is a lot easier than attending events in person, individuals don’t need to commit as much time and they don’t need a specific set of skills or a high income to be involved. This allows everyday citizens to have their voices heard alongside experts, which has been termed ‘citizen blogging’.

The internet also makes it easier for people who are passionate about a particular subject to start their own social movement. Individuals do not need a great amount of power or money, just access to the internet. There are a variety of online tools that can be used by members of the public to set up or expand a social movement. These include virtual petitions, such as the website Change.org, online money-bombs in which a large sum of money is raised in a short amount of time, setting up online forums for debate and using social media and email for recruitment. To be effective, social movements often use online teaching on how to get involved in activism in the real world, e.g., providing advice on how to host gatherings or organise rallies.

How has the internet been involved in recent social movements?

Online social movements are often started as a result of particular events or ongoing issues. In the UK, social media was a key driver of the 2010 student protests. In response to rising tuition fees, a call to action was announced on Twitter using the hashtag #demo2010 and within two hours, a national protest was planned. Students also used social media to spread the word about the protests to a larger number of people across multiple online platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

Internet-driven social movements often involve cooperation from people around the world, rather than just one country. For example, All Out, a global movement to support global LGBT rights began a petition in 2016 to free two teenage girls who had been imprisoned in Morocco under anti-homosexuality laws. An initial 104,000 people signed the first online petition, which led to the girls being granted bail. All Out then teamed up with L'Union Féministe Libre in Morocco to launch a new online tool which allowed 1,700 members to send postcards to the imprisoned girls. These two online activism methods contributed to the girls being found innocent two months after their arrest. Similarly, Asmaa Mahfouz from Egypt used Facebook to organise protests against the government in Cairo in 2007. The use of social media allowed the message to reach many Egyptians, resulting in 20,000 protestors taking part. The protests contributed to the resignation of President Mubarak.

Online social movements are not a quick fix for political change

Although online activism can be beneficial, helping to create solutions to society’s concerns, they can also be used in a negative way, for example, by repressive governments. The Sudanese government created a fake pro-democracy page on Facebook which they used to organise anti-government protests and demonstrations and subsequently arrested those who attended.

The move to online activism also creates practical challenges for governments. For example, it is extremely difficult to gauge how many people will actually attend protests organised online, which causes issues for security and safety. Additionally, the use of mobile phones to record videos and share these on social media, such as on Facebook Live, has exposed incidents of police violence during demonstrations. Such accounts can result in backlash from the public towards the police or government. For example, in 2009, Ian Tomlinson died from excessive police force at the G20 protests. The moment was filmed on a mobile phone and subsequently shared on journalism websites. This being said, online activism can also be beneficial to the police service as it can allow them to engage with individuals online who wouldn’t usually cooperate with them.

The internet is driving collective action in a completely new way

Access to the internet means individuals can easily be involved in activism related to any topic in any country. However, estimates suggesting that 4 billion people worldwide are still not connected to the internet, mainly in developing countries that could receive the greatest benefit from online social movements. More should be done to facilitate internet access for these people to give them the chance to start their own social movements, as well as receive the other benefits of having internet access.

Despite the challenges online activism brings, the internet has caused a shift in the balance between social movements and politics, with activism driven by online tools giving the public more power and influence. The internet is ‘facilitating collective action in ways never thought possible’ and will likely continue to do so in the future.