Online Activism Defined
Online activism is the use of communication technologies for various forms of activism such as funding, community building, lobbying, promoting and organising. Online activism occurs when activists or individuals accomplish change by digital communicative action. In other words, some sort of social mobilisation occurs through the use of digital platform(s). Digital platforms encourage participatory culture and this then creates new dialogue and discourse. Citizen movements use these for faster communication and to deliver their message to a wider audience. Throughout its emergence, this phenomena has collected a myriad of names, including Online Activism (McCaughey & Ayres 2003; Vegh 2003), Online Movement (Kang 1998), E-movement (Earl & Schussman 2003) computer-supported social movement (Juris 2005), Digital Campaigning, Digital Activism, Electronic Advocacy, Cyberactivism (McCaughey & Ayres 2003), Cyberprotest (Van de Donk et al. 2004) E-activism, and Clicktivism; as well as a whirlpool of debates, theories and criticisms surrounding both the positive and negative aspects associated with online activism.
Author Sandor Vegh in 'Classifying forms of Online Activism: The Case of Cyberprotests against the World Bank' (2003) arranges online activism into three main categories; awareness/advocacy, organisation/mobilisation and action/reaction or measured by their degree of reliance on the Internet. The Internet and ICT’s are unprecedented as ways of communication and transmitting. They encourage participatory culture and allow for instant, unregulated communication which operates beyond geographic boundaries. Awareness/advocacy is characterised by public awareness being ‘raised by accessing information that is relevant to the cause’ (Vegh 2003, p. 72). Organisation/mobilisation is using the Internet to ‘call for an action that normally happens offline, but can be more efficiently done online’ (Vegh, 2003 p. 74). And action/reaction is where the Internet is used as a tool for inflicting damage on the resources of a target group - in other words, ‘cyberattacks’' (Vegh 2003, p. 75).
In an introduction Vegh states that ‘Activists now take advantage of the technologies and techniques offered by the Internet to achieve their traditional goals’ and their strategies are either ‘Internet enhanced’ or ‘Internet based’ (2003, p. 71). The former involves the Internet only being used as an additional tool to enhance traditional advocacy techniques, in order to deliver the activist message to a larger audience, raising a higher level of awareness, and orchestrating and mobilising action more efficiently than possible prior to the Internet. The latter is when the Internet is used for activities that are only possible online and characterise the Internet as a ‘new tactical site’ that can be used to protest against targets online, like virtual sit-ins or hacking (Vegh 2003, pp. 71-72). This usually comes under the umbrella of ‘hacktivism’, online activism’s more extreme form.
While digital communication technologies may empower those already active in causes, in certain cases it is merely creating an illusion of activism and ‘real change’ in general. Some people have utopian views of the Internet as a potential revolutionary tool but we know this is not necessarily the case. A recent study published in the Journal of Sociological Science reveals majority of people who ‘like’ a Facebook page for a cause do not follow up that gesture with a donation. The study looked at the 2006 ‘Save Darfur’ Facebook page as a case study which at its height was one of the largest on any social network. The data collected was a monitor of the behaviour of its members over 989 days. Out of over one million Facebook members, plus sign-ups, less than 3000 donated a culmination of $90,000 over three years. Kevin Lewis, the author of the published study concludes the page was simply ‘an illusion of activism rather than facilitating the real thing’ (Lewis, 2014, p. 1). Rosalie Tostevin (2014) who looked at this study pointed out ‘it is easy to click but just as easy to disengage’. Here lies the crux of online activism: “Slacktivism” also known as “Clicktivism”.
Slacktivism, in plain terms, is the seemingly lazy and passive form of online activism and is a threat to its offline influence. Slacktivism occurs when we take access to information for granted, when we don’t pay enough attention to what we are consuming and quickly forget about it, and when we think that clicking ‘like’ or retweeting something is enough of a contribution or difference-making. Natalie Fenton looks at social media as providing an ‘illusion of direct control through self-expression’ but not as a pathway to revolutionary movements (Fenton 2012, p. 170). Some of those concerned that the Internet will decrease activism believe that the Internet already occupies free time that can no longer be spent performing in-person activism. However, with already time-poor, fast-paced societies, online activism serves as an opportunity for participation amongst those who lack time or motivation otherwise. Activism fatigue is another effect to be weary of, as when audiences are bombarded with too many calls to online activism they become disinterested, and campaigns are less effective.
Online activism is certainly a tool with the potential to aid activists so much so that it contributes to real, offline change, but there are certain ways in which they must be used to create any measurable influence and there are certain flaws or negatives to be wary of, which prevent online activism to actualise its entire potential.