Tag Archives: online activism

Online Platforms Yield New Mobilizing Opportunities

In the post-Trump era, tools like Resistbot and Countable seek to make political engagement easier and more readily accessible to broader audiences. These tools predetermine which political stakeholders users should contact and ensure that collective action efforts to reach elected officials become automated. Recently, I presented in a course alongside a professor and founder of a new kind of tool that hopes to centralize and simplify many of the processes of collective action. Betsy Sinclair, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, developed an online platform she hopes will allow any citizens to start a “micro social movement.” Magnify Your Voice is described as “…the solutions platform for civic, environmental, and political initiatives near you. Create a new project, or join one to help make change in your neighborhood and beyond.” With Magnify, anyone can create a profile and post a project. Take for instance asking faculty to make election day “A Day Off For Democracy.” This particular project seeks to mobilize university members to cancel class and pressure their university president to make election day a holiday.  The project has 49 members who support the initiative and 11 who have already taken an action such as cancelling class on election day or emailing their university president. Several are also part of related growing efforts through https://www.educatorpledge.com/ and http://www.adayofffordemocracy.com/. Continue reading

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More evidence for spontaneity: Accidental activation in online campaigns

By Gabriela Gonzales, Juhi Tyagi, Idil Akin, Fernanda Page, Michael Schwartz and Arnout van de Rijt

We are delighted by the renewed discussion of the role of spontaneous processes in social movements; especially since we have been working on ways to identify and measure emergent processes for the past two years. As pointed out in the previous by Jaime Kucinskas (Spontaneity: An important and neglected topic in social movements), sociologists have to be careful before attributing spontaneity to invisible or unknown mechanisms, which could well be the result of ‘a priori factors.’ This identification problem occurs in much ex post facto research, which is usually unable to control for these a priori factors in order to empirically isolate a mechanism of spontaneity. Continue reading

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#HashtagActivism: Wannabe Protest, or Something More?

On June 23rd, an Egyptian court convicted three Al Jazeera English journalists—Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed—of aiding a terrorist organization and damaging national security by producing false news. Their sentences range from 7 to 10 years and have sparked international condemnation from journalists, activists, politicians, and non-governmental organizations. In response, the hashtag #FreeAJStaff has become reinvigorated as the touchstone slogan of protest, appearing not just on Twitter, but in mainstream media and on other social media platforms as well. Photographs of journalists, activists, celebrities, and concerned individuals displaying the hashtag with their mouths taped shut have proliferated, like this example below. (A Tumblr collection of protest selfies can be viewed here.)


This hashtag, which emerged after the initial imprisonment of the journalists last year, has itself been a focus of concern and of reporting. Prior to the conviction, concerned Twitter users noted that the hashtag was lagging and urged their followers to keep up the momentum. As Kamahl Santamaria (@KamahlAJE) of Al Jazeera English tweeted on June 22, “The #FreeAJStaff hashtag/trend is way too quiet. Let’s get moving people…” The conviction on the following day prompted #FreeAJStaff to be tweeted over 50,000 times, according to #BBCTrending.

Another well-known hashtag campaign, #BringBackOurGirls (sometimes #BringOurGirlsBack), emerged in response to the May kidnapping of hundreds of young girls by the now infamous extremist organization Boko Haram in Nigeria. David Cameron and Michelle Obama were just two notable figures who publicized this hashtag along with expressions of concern and calls for action. The same #BBCTrending article cited above noted that #BringBackOurGirls has been tweeted over 4.5 million times to date.

Michelle Obama joins in.

Tweets and retweets, it is commonly acknowledged, are an indicator of global concern and signify critical events that warrant our attention and action. But the question remains: does hashtag activism actually matter? If so, how might it matter?

The question of whether online gestures matter elicits groans from scholars and activists, partly because such activities come off as Protest Lite. After all, it only takes a second (maybe less) to retweet a call to action or a news byline. As journalist and former Labour MP Dan Hodges wrote recently for The Telegraph, it’s fast, transient, and comes off as superficial. Hashtag activism focuses our attention on certain issues to the neglect of others—such as the 60 women and girls and 31 boys kidnapped by Boko Haram this week, and the 16,000 political prisoners currently languishing in prison, tortured, or disappeared in Egypt. In addition, activists’ time and resources may be disproportionately focused on accruing retweets. The hesitation to ascribe any importance to this form of collective activism reflects legitimate concerns over how fleeting and narrowly-focused online activism can be.

But before we lambaste hashtag activism as useless—or even harmful—let’s consider what it can do. The creation of online publicity by organizations and individuals is a form a collective action that raises awareness about a particular social problem. It is true that some crises get hyped at the expense of others, and that hashtag slogans lack nuance. But these are problems that exists in all forms of media and activism, not just the online variety. We also know that raising awareness in and of itself does not solve social problems. Sympathetic publics alone cannot usually produce meaningful outcomes for the victims of injustice and violence. As Hodges writes, “Boko Haram didn’t #bringbackourgirls.” In the absence of real-world action, hashtag campaigns look weak, and even foolish. But this activism also lets people with at least some capacity to raise a fuss, such as politicians, know that the public (however briefly) cares. And we shouldn’t assume that the tweets stand alone. On the contrary, this form of activism is often partnered with offline actions and diplomatic efforts. Online activism often compliments, rather than substitutes for, mobilization in the form of protests, lobbying, and direct action.


Consider a parallel example from the pre-internet age: television and print media coverage of violence enacted against peaceful Civil Rights Movement protesters did not by itself produce policy changes. But it has been widely credited in sociological literature with turning the tide of public opinion against southern segregationists and justifying federal intervention. Rather than thinking of internet-based awareness as an insufficient condition for action, it may be more accurate to think of it as a necessary condition that prods external actors into taking concrete actions in some cases.

Rarely, if ever, is a Twitter campaign going to produce policy change or direct intervention on behalf of victims across borders. But maybe what it does—if only for a few days or weeks—is to signify that people care. This kind of global solidarity may never produce immediate, tangible results (which is, ironically, what hashtags call for), but it can provide much-needed moral support for grieving family members and for activists who aim to take direct action, especially for those who face risks in doing so. It may also signal to media outlets, whose articles on the subject are being bitly’d and retweeted along with the hashtag, that they should continue to commit resources to the issue at hand.

Perhaps more than anything, hashtag activism suggests the limits of symbolic gestures. But aren’t most protests symbolic gestures? And isn’t online outrage more productive than no outrage? Share your thoughts in the comments, or tweet them with the hashtag #dohashtagsmatter.


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The Mobilizing Powers of Collective Traumas: A Role for Moralities and Emotions

By Stephen F. Ostertag

Scholarship examining the role of trauma, moralities, and emotions in explaining mobilizations is undergoing a renaissance (e.g., Goodwin, Jasper, and Polletta 2000, 2001; Goodwin and Jasper 2006; Flam and King 2007; Jasper 1998, 2011).  New questions on how people experience, understand, and [re]act to traumatic events and the role of morals and emotions in these developments will help uncover some of the dynamic and nuanced social processes that underscore mobilizations (Kurzman 2008).

David G. Ortiz and I have spent the past four years examining a variety of digitally-mediated mobilizations and civic participations that people organized and took part in in the wake of hurricane Katrina (Ortiz and Ostertag 2014). Continue reading

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Using Automated Content Analysis to Study Social Movements: A Review of “Computer-Aided Content Analysis of Digitally Enabled Movements” by Alex Hanna

 The use of the internet by contemporary social movements is providing immense amounts of data to social movement scholars, and more and more researchers are devoting their energy to studying this phenomenon. The size, scale, and richness of these data, however, present a number of methodological hurdles. Alex Hanna highlights some methods we can use to analyze the content of text-based internet data–using Facebook as a case study–in his article “Computer-Aided Content Analysis of Digitally Enabled Movements” (Mobilization: An International Quarterly 18(4): 367-388, 2013).

Hanna did an immense amount of work to prepare his data for analysis, he thought carefully about his methods, and his descriptive statistics go a long way toward an empirical understanding of the way social movements use Facebook. His article is a great introduction to automated text analysis methods and is an example of how these methods can be used to study social movements and internet data. Continue reading


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Online Feminism: Who is Listening?

A few months ago PBS came out with the documentary “Makers: Women Who Make America,” which tells the story of the most sweeping social revolution in American history”, i.e. the women’s movement. It’s a wonderful video, and everyone should watch it. While it was generally lauded as a success, one of the sections, the section on “Feminism Today,” drew extensive critiques. In this section old arguments about contemporary feminism are repeated: most women today who do “feminist” things refuse the label feminist, younger women are apathetic and take for granted the rights that the past feminist movement won, etc. It adds the somewhat new claim that today’s active feminist movement focuses its energy on global issues rather than domestic issues.

A number of active feminists immediately critiqued the documentary’s take on the current women’s movement, in particular for missing the important work being done by younger feminists. One common critique is that the documentary did not even mention the vast world of online feminism. Continue reading

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CFP for Use of Internet, Activism, and Social Movements Datasets

From 2006-2012, I had a NSF CAREER Award to collect data on online protest across 20 different issue areas. That effort produced two time-series datasets: a panel dataset tracking about 1,200 websites across 5 years, and a cross-sectional dataset tracking new samples of websites each year for five years. Each of these datasets is really two nested sets: one on the overall websites and one on all protest actions that were hosted or linked to from study websites.

After discussions with potential users at the CBSM pre-conference in Las Vegas, several data collection team members and I designed a data release process based directly on potential user input that is engineered to develop a strong and informed user base and reviewing community for the dataset. Continue reading


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From Paper Petitions to E-Petitions

Every day, I receive an email petition. I sign one maybe once a month, but I hardly ever follow up specifically on what happened to the particular petition I signed online. Today was the first time I tracked down the petitioning outcomes, or what the sites call “victories” and “more victories“. Surprisingly, I could not find any overall statistics regarding online petitioning after googling around for a while.

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