Main Body

Chapter 6 – Digital Activism


Not long ago (in terms of human history), if you wanted to cause change or influence a social or political situation, you had to take to the streets in a mass demonstration. (Ken Burns’ “Vietnam” documentary includes interviews and footage of protesters who describe their motives and feelings about mass protest.)

Today, SM has enabled a single individual to start a sustained campaign where millions of people around the world can participate. SM has disrupted the dimensions of power in unimaginable ways.

But even though SM enables millions more to participate in a campaign, is it any better at causing change than organized, traditional, on-the-ground protests such as we’ve seen in the past?

We will review theories on how SM can be a vehicle for change and examine how ordinary people used SM to promote their causes.

Key Terms

Hashtag – A term used in the body of a post to be used as a filtering mechanism for others. Hashtags are written with a hash (or pound) symbol in front of it, such as #donuts. Clicking on a hashtag will list other posts that have used that same hashtag in its content. Hashtag filtering enables participants to “listen” to the discourse centered around a given topic or issue. Hashtags are not determined in advance by a governing body, though some organizations or themes have adopted specific hashtags as their own. Anyone can create a hashtag for any reason, and can use any term they want.

Hashtag Activism – Activism that is centered around the use of a defined hashtag in SM to identify one’s message or participation in a campaign.

Digital Activist – A person who uses SM as a means to promote a cause or to mobilize people towards awareness of a cause.

Meme [Pronounced “meem”] – A theme or idea that is used as a basis for commentary or creative variations which are then shared through SM.

Viral – When a post or meme is shared among millions of people in a short period of time. An example of a viral meme was the ALS “Ice Bucket Challenge”  that spread across SM.

What should you be focusing on?

Your objectives in this module are:

  • Identify the tools and techniques used by digital activists to promote a cause or movement.
  • Evaluate whether those campaigns were successful or not successful

Readings & Media

Thematic narrative in this chapter

In the following readings and media, the authors will present the following themes:

  1. People seem to have a lot of time on their hands to do good things because it does’t take much effort to do it.
  2. Digital activism uses the power and open accessibility of SM to raise awareness and organize people.
  3. Digital activism doesn’t actually work!
  4. Yes it does.

    Required     Video: Clay Shirky – “How Cognitive Surplus Will Change the World” (12:51)

Clay Shirky describes a phenomenon called “Cognitive Surplus”, which is “leftover” cognitive energy people are willing to spend on promoting a cause because of a sense of generosity and civic value.

What to look for as you watch:

  • How can you put tribal members to work in your app idea (Option #1) or story (Option #2) to solve problems and promote well-being by designing for generosity?
clay shirky
Shirky, Clay. (2010, June). How cognitive surplus will change the world [ Video file ]. Retrieved from

    Required     Audio: The Exchange – “Digital Activism: What Happens When Activists Take Their Work Online” (From 01:45 – 13:15)

In this NPR segment, “Digital Activism: What Happens When Activists Take Their Work Online,” one of the interviewees, Mary Joyce – activism consultant, co-founder of the Digital Activism Research Project – describes digital activism as “Anytime a person uses the power they do have instead of the power they are supposed to have.”

Listen for how SM has the power to change behavior. Ethan Zuckerman refers to the Human Rights Campaign to persuade people to “rainbow” their SM icon during the Supreme Court marriage equality decision.

What to listen for:

  • Take note of the techniques described as the toolkit for digital activists.
Knoy, L. (Producer). (2016). The Exchange [Radio series episode].  Digital Activism: What Happens When Activists Take Their Work Online. Concord, NH: NHPR.

    Required     Article: “Hashtag Activism: #powerful or #pointless?” (10 pages)

Albright’s article disputes the claims made by digital activists. She suggests that hashtag activism causes awareness but doesn’t really bring about substantial results.

Albright, D. (2015, February 11). Hashtag Activism: #powerful or #pointless?. Retrieved from URL

    Required     Video (8:25): PBS NewsHour “How online social movements translate to offline results”

This segment features an interview with Zeynep Tufekci, author of the 2017 book, “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.”

While the research on the effect of digital activism is still relatively new, Tufecki offers a rebuttal to the argument that “slacktivism” achieves no significant change.

What to look for as you watch:

  • What are the arguments Tufecki proposes that suggest “just clicking” has some value towards causing change?
  • What impact do the algorithms in SM systems play in activist communication?
  • What does Tufecki identify as the limitations of SM-based activism?

PBS NewsHour. (2017, June 10). How online social movements translate to offline results [ Video file ]. Retrieved from

    Required     Video (2:53): “Troy Library: Book Burning Party”

The video below describes some clever digital activist techniques used to combat opposition to a tax increase to sustain its library. The video description is as follows:

“Troy, Michigan couldn’t afford to sustain its library, so it scheduled a vote for a tax increase. A strong anti-tax group waged a dominating campaign against it.

Posing as a political group, we posted signs around town that said, “Vote to close Troy library Aug 2, book burning party Aug 5.” We invited everyone to our Facebook page, adding Twitter, Foursquare, want ads, flyers and more to drive engagement.

Hilzenger, Glen. (2012, May 21). Troy Library: Book Burning Party [ Video file ]. Retrieved from

Optional: Supplemental resources related to digital activism


Article: Peer reviewed research – “Digital activism: After the hype” by Anne Kaun, Julie Uldam. First Published September 19, 2017.

Kaun, A., & Uldam, J. (2018). Digital activism: After the hype. New Media & Society, 20(6), 2099–2106.


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