The Promises and Limitations of Online Activism as a Tool for Democratic Politics
Student # 48553168
December 11, 2017
POLI 100 section 2
The Promises and Limitations of Online Activism as a Tool for Democratic Politics
Robert Dhal’s “Criteria for a Democratic Process” as outlined in “What is Democracy” argues that democracy provides opportunities for effective participation, equality in voting, gaining enlightened understanding, exercising final control over the agenda, and the inclusion of adults (Dhal, 1998, p.38). He further argues that if these requirements are violated, the members will not be politically equal. Adopting Dhal’s criteria, this paper puts forth that the promise of online activism as a tool for democratic politics is that it allows citizens to form political opinions and mobilize their cause, but it is limited by its seldom ability to transform public grievances into systemic changes.
Online activism is a relatively new concept which represents the process by which digital tools are used to create, manage, and operate activism of any type. Similar to traditional activism, the goal of online activism is to initiate a citizen-based movement toward a specific goal, cause, or objective (Technopedia, paragraph 1). The platform for online activism today is social media. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter serve as communication channels dedicated to community-based input, interaction, and content sharing. On these platforms, users are able to negotiate their identity by creating online profiles, engage and vocalize their opinions through personals posts and content sharing, and connect with others of similar commonalities by following individuals or joining interest groups. It also allows them to expand their knowledge and gain an understanding of concepts and topics that they may not otherwise have access to (Yamamoto, 2006). Such extensive participation encourages users to exercise their political voice which in turn encourages political engagement (Valenzuela, 2012). Ethan Zuckerman refers to this engagement as “participatory civics” which is characterized by user’s “ability to share their perspectives and views with the world, and their influence in terms of how many proper reads and share their words” (Zuckerman, 2013, p. 156). This behaviour which can promote personal and group identity construction (Dalton, Sickle, Weldom, 2009) can build trust among their created online community and instil interest in collective issues (Bennett & Segerberg, 2011) which is conducive to political engagement (Gil de Zuniga & Valenzuela, 2011).
The Black Lives Matter Movement which was formulated after the repeated killing of unarmed black men by police officers in the United States is an example of how the expressed opinion of one can formulate an online dialogue that would eventually prompt many to react. “I just saw someone die” is a simple tweet that summed up the scene of the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown of Ferguson Missouri by police officer Darren Wilson. This one tweet accompanied by one photo of Michael Brown’s body lying lifeless in the street with his hands in the “hands up” position went viral, attracting the attention of national and global citizens. Coverage and updates began to flourish on social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Vine. Within the first week, under the hashtag #Ferguson and #HandsUpDontShoot, 3.6 million posts appeared on Twitter alone, documenting the emerging details of Michael Brown’s death (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015, p. 4). Another movement that mirrored similar results was the Anomalous Wave movement in Italy. The movement which was mobilized by students, administrative workers, and elementary school teachers were geared towards combating a provisional law aimed at reducing state funds, pressuring schools and universities to rely on private money. (Treré, 2012, p.2359). “We won’t pay for your crisis” was mobilized, once again through social media, and from July 2008 to early 2009 effectively echoed across major cities in Italy such as Rome, Turin, Milan, Pisa, Florence, Bologna, etc. (p.2360) The movement was strongly received not only from city to city, but was adopted from university to university also (2360). The generation of these movements and its ability to involve and engage its citizens exemplifies Dhal’s criteria of the democratic process as it outlines citizens’ right to participation, gaining of enlightened understanding, and the inclusion of adults. With informed access to a social cause, citizens are now equipped to take the necessary steps to mobilize their injustices towards the correct agents of change.
A common misconception of online activism is that it happens only on one platform. Popular movements such as Black Lies Matter or the lesser known Tahrir campaigns are said to be known as the Facebook or Twitter campaign. Reasons for this might be because of the amount of attention that campaigns receive from online platforms, but inevitably the rate of their success is accredited to multiple networks and organizational structures. The “one-medium bias” is a term used when reducing the complexity of the internet to just one of its portions or platforms. This approach undermines the roles of different platforms and mobilizing agents in a movement. (Treré, 2012, p.2362). In order for a movement to mobilize, however, it requires the use of multiple platforms, both online and offline organization, and what Zuckerman considers to be “thin” and “thick” participation. Thin participation is characterized as online tweets, profile picture changes, etc., while “thick participation” refers to figuring out what needs to be done and finding the means of accomplishing it. (Zuckerman 2014. 158).
The Black Lives Matter movement started as an online hashtag geared towards bringing awareness of the shooting of unarmed Black men by police officers. The hashtag became an information hub for social media users to gather instant updates regarding the development of the case and staying on top of demonstrations between the public and the police. The basis of the campaign leads to the initiation of political dialogues, the forming of solidarity groups online, and the demand for justice for Black people from the online community. Valenzuela offers that opinion expression and joining social causes through social media was significantly associated with participating in protest activities (Valenzuela, 2012, 934). For Black Lives Matter one tweet lead to daily demonstrations and protests between citizens and police officers (Bonila & Rosa, 2015). As the popularity of the hashtag grew, so did the number of protesters and size of protests across the nation and internationally. These protests required organization beyond online participation and were organized by local communities and civil right groups such as the Nation Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. As the movement continued to expand, each city formed its own chapter dedicated to mobilizing in the interest of the movement.
The Anomalous Wave movement saw themselves mobilizing from a local dimension to national attention in a timespan of fewer than three months. Behind the scenes of what would appear to be a “fever” protest, strategic plans of actions were being accounted for. These actions consisted of online mailing systems, web radio, social networks, Skype interviews, etc. and multiple platforms that would enable the movement to not only participate in political expression but most importantly allow them to mobilize their offline oriented movements (Treré, 2012, p.2365). Through these networks, they were able to convene rallies, schedule meet-ups, formulate agendas, etc. The success of their movement in gaining attention is accredited to their ability to adapt and create information ecologies and their ability to shift between online and offline information systems (p.2369). Even with consistent political expression and organizational structures, activists are still faced with some limitations of online activism as a tool for democratic politics.
Control over the agenda occurs when ‘members are given the exclusive opportunity to decide how, and if they choose, what matters are placed on the agenda,” thus voting equality would follow when ” every member has equal and effective opportunity to vote when decisions about policies need to be made”((Dhal, 1998, p.38). Dhal suggests that each component of the democratic process is essential for citizens to be equal in governing affairs (p.40).
The Black Lives Matter movement has been successful in bringing awareness of multiple cases of police brutality leading to the fatality of unarmed black men such as Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, to name a few. As the movement mobilized, its purpose expanded from getting society to acknowledge that there’s a problem, to seeking ways to infiltrate the criminal justice system and bringing about societal change (Siscoe, 2016, p.19). The movement took all steps, participating in both online and offline activism in order to bring awareness of these unnecessary killings, and also to ensure that race-neutral policies that are written in the judicial system are executed in a manner that reflects their standard (p. 20). The verdict in Michael Brown’s trial, like many others including Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, did not reflect the race neutrality that the justice system implies. Instead, it reflects a reality for online activism and that is, its seldom ability to bring enough force to influence political change in major bureaucratic structures.
The Anomalous Wave Movement is another example of this reality. The wave managed to gain awareness and rally support from thousands of citizens, both online and offline in major cities across Italy. The movement which was said to have left a “deep impression on the Italian protests environment,” amongst many things, was also credited for its success in building networks of communication and action between different political actors (Valuenza, 2012, p. 2361). Even then, the Wave was not successful in their efforts to stop the controversial provisional law, therefore failed in blocking the Gemini reform (p. 2361).
This author offers that the reason that online activism is seldom successful in its task is that it does not offer users equal access to control of the agenda and voting rights. Online activism works concurrently with offline activism as its goal is to bring awareness to social injustices and demand social change.
It can mobilize social causes to the doorsteps of bureaucratic systems that are responsible for infiltrating changes that activists deem essential for the progression of society. But, given that we elect these leaders to make decisions on our behalf, we have also elected them with trust that they will make decisions that are in the best interest of our morals, safety, and values. In some cases, the decision to proceed with a system that is familiar and satisfying to the status-quo is easier than one decision to revolutionize its foundation and rebuild. It can also be suggested that the necessary changes that activists would like to see are not ones that can occur overnight, but like its own campaign, it requires time, planning, and dedication before implementation.
Bonilla, Y., & Rosa, J. (2015). #Ferguson: Digital protest, hashtag ethnography, and the racial politics of social media in the United States. American Ethnologist, 42(1), 4-17. doi:10.1111/amet.12112
Dahl, R. A., & Shapiro, I. (2015). On democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Siscoe, T. (2016). #BlackLivesMatter: This Generation?s Civil Rights Movement. University Honors Theses, 1-25. doi:10.15760/honors.279
Treré, E. (2012). Social Movements as Information Ecologies: Exploring the Coevolution of Multiple Internet Technologies for Activism. International Journal of Communication, 6, 2359-2377. Retrieved October 26, 2017.
Valenzuela, S. (2013). Unpacking the Use of Social Media for Protest Behavior. American Behavioral Scientist, 57(7), 920-942. doi:10.1177/0002764213479375
What is Cyberactivism? – Definition from Techopedia. (n.d.). Retrieved Oct. & nov., 2017, from https://www.techopedia.com/definition/27973/cyberactivism
What is social media? – Definition from WhatIs.com. (n.d.). Retrieved Oct. & nov., 2017, from http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/social-media
Zuckerman, E. (2014). New Media, New Civics? Policy & Internet, 6(2), 151-168. doi:10.1002/1944-2866.poi360