6 Activism

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As of summer 2020, online activism has grown into a transformative societal practice. In this chapter, we begin our look at activism facilitated by social media with images of the summer 2020 protests organized online over the killings of George Floyd and other black citizens by police. (Click any photo to enlarge.)

An abbreviated history of online activism

Before the internet was an effective product marketing tool, it was a tool of activism – and social media has extended and complicated the ways activists can use it (in other words, its activist affordances). This chapter takes a few key movements as examples – from 1994 when Mexico’s Zapatista movement forced the Mexican government into a ceasefire, to 2017 when Black Lives Matter hashtags now quickly activate publics in the US and beyond. I refer to these movements under the umbrella of . What ties these movements together is their creativity in using the affordances of the internet to promote activist agendas and avoid the pitfalls of oversimplification and appropriation.

Note: This chapter focuses on movements that have coalesced (formed) around racial and ethnic identity groups, as well as income inequality and political decisions.

Zapatistas gathering in support of their cause
Zapatistas in Chiapas used early social media to advance their cause and protect their lives.​

The Zapatistas

In early 1994, only a tiny percentage of the world was online, and the term “social media” did not exist. The internet was very young and very Web 1.0, with static pages that did not allow visitors to contribute. (You can review Web 1.0 vs Web 2.0 in Chapter 2). Yet our first example of creative online activism begins here, with Mexico’s . Creative deployment of the affordances of a young, sparse internet both saved indigenous protesters in Chiapas, Mexico from slaughter and allowed them to influence the new global economy.

NAFTA signing
NAFTA signing by leaders of Mexico, Canada, and the US


NAFTA signing by leaders of Mexico, Canada, and the US

The beginning of the story was the end of life as many in rural Mexico knew it. Governments of the US, Canada, and Mexico began negotiating the  in the early 1990s, forging interdependence between their economies. Among other deals, this trade agreement would subsidize corporations taking over Mexican land to grow cheap crops. Many Mexicans – particularly the native, or indigenous, people – foresaw that this would lead to drastic alteration of the land and to farming by genetic crop modification and spraying of chemical pesticides.

As their political leaders worked toward NAFTA, Mexican farmers fought it using traditional methods. In the early 1990s, protestors staged in-person demonstrations at the zocalo (town square) in Mexico City. And they organized and wrote impassioned statements in print media about the devastating consequences NAFTA would have on farming and many other aspects of life in their country. But North American governments ignored these offline pleas and signed NAFTA into effect in 1992 and 1993.

On January 1st, 1994, NAFTA became the law of the land in the US, Mexico, and Canada – and the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) rose up against the Mexican Government under the leadership of a masked man known as Subcomandante (Subcommander) Marcos. This army of “Zapatistas” – an army of mostly poor, rural, indigenous people inspired by the historic Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata – peacefully occupied the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas, to demand that their protests against NAFTA be seen and heard. Rising up against the Mexican government seemed like a catastrophic move by the EZLN occupiers, many of whom were poor indigenous farmers from the Chiapas area. The Mexican government was enthusiastic about

Statue of Janus
The internet can be “a Janus machine, an engine of liberation and an instrument of repression.'” (L. Dery via Martinez-Torres, p. 348).

NAFTA, as they would benefit financially from corporate NAFTA investment even if their farmers suffered. So it seemed certain the formidable Mexican army would covertly slaughter the small EZLN forces before their protest could make Mexico look bad as a corporate investment.

But ironically, in this case the internet was what Martinez-Torres describes as  , helping governments repress people while helping those people protest that repression at the same time. While young, online global networks made it possible for economies to globalize and to crush poor people in the process, they also made it possible to mobilize networks of popular protest and fight back.

Enter information warfare

When on-the-ground resistance alone got the Zapatistas little traction in their resistance to NAFTA, they turned to the internet and began a campaign of  – the strategic use of information and its anticipated effects on receivers to influence the power dynamics in a conflict. Thanks to the affordances of the early internet to connect people in similar struggles in different places, international peace activists were already networked online in the mid-1990s; the Internet Archive has lists and snapshots of pages describing some of these organizations. Some of these activist organizations were witnessing or supporting similar struggles in other countries, as poor people battled transnational trade agreements that would destroy their ways of life.

Subcomandante Marcos and Comandante Tacho in La Realidad, Chiapas
Subcomandante Marcos (on left): Masked spokesman for the EZLN army of “Zapatistas” in Chiapas, Mexico

The EZLN Army got the international word out about their cause with remarkable speed, thanks to these online peace networks. With the charismatic masked leader Subcommandante Marcos as a spokesperson, the EZLN Zapatistas created a dramatic campaign online. Their vivid imagery of the EZLN’s masked army of farmers spread rapidly across international online networks.

At the height of their online visibility, twelve days after declaring war on the Mexican Government, the Zapatistas publicly called for a ceasefire. The Mexican government still had the physical power to annihilate EZLN – but now the world was watching. Once EZLN called for peace, any action against their forces including women and children would make Mexico look evil – and risky as a corporate investment destination. As a result, the Mexican government was forced to accept the EZLN ceasefire. They could not reverse NAFTA; it would take more than an awareness campaign to reverse such a powerfully backed agreement. But the EZLN protesters lived and continued their demands for social change.

The EZLN’s Information War has inspired many civil society movements visible today. These include current movements against genetically modified food and for “fair trade” compensation of farmers. In terms of online strategies, the Zapatistas’ activist campaign was an early example for activists of how media can be used sociopolitically to demand civil rights – and to recognize how, Janus-faced, those same media can also work against those rights.

In the next sections I demonstrate now the Zapatistas’ strategies fall under the umbrella of creative online activism and why such strategies remain powerful.

Creative online activism in recent times

Organizers have continued using the internet to mobilize, and their work has arguably been made easier with the development of mobile phone apps and social media. This timeline by Mashable gives a selective overview of noted online activist movements through 2011.

A collage for MENA protests. Clockwise from top left: 2011 Egyptian revolution, Tunisian revolution, 2011 Yemeni uprising, 2011 Syrian uprising.
Arab Spring

Creative online activism has developed in conjunction with social media apps since the mid-2000s. These apps are certainly not created equal when it comes to facilitating activism; in fact, some have been found to intentionally hinder the exposure of social injustice. For example, although they have had a huge user base for the last decade, Facebook algorithms have been found to hide or slow controversial and “negative” stories from its users’ feeds, making it a poor platform for activism.

But the platform is only a small part of the recipe for an activist movement. Human creativity has facilitated the use of technologies in activism in ways software developers never imagined. In a typical example of human shaping of technology, Twitter leadership didn’t build hashtags into the platform intentionally and even rejected the idea that they would be widely used; human users proved them wrong. Several years later, Twitter hashtags began playing important roles in online activism, including in the Arab Spring protests.

Social media platforms like Twitter are sometimes practically credited with creating movements, but this technological determinism fails to recognize how much complex human wrangling is required to run an online campaign and keep control of its message. Only a small percentage of protestors used Twitter to exchange key information and then disseminated that information through face-to-face communication and other media. All messages that spread widely online face the threat of oversimplification and appropriation; only the best-executed retain their depth and complexity. And, regardless of platform, the real work for social change still happens across various digital and analog (non-digital) platforms – and most crucially, on the ground.

The Black Lives Matter Movement

One of the most well-known online movements to date is Black Lives Matter. The central phrase and hashtag of this movement came from Alicia Garza and Patrisse Marie Cullors-Brignac in July 2013 in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of 12-year-old Trayvon Martin. Armed with this concise phrase – and fueled by outrage over injustices against black citizens by American institutions including law enforcement today – has built into a sophisticated movement online and offline with profound influence on government policy and popular consciousness.

Although its signature phrase began online, the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction over the next year as Twitter users deployed #blacklivesmatter to mobilize on the ground. Subsequent hashtags used in connection with #blacklivesmatter networked protestors and helped them assemble massive on-the-ground demonstrations very quickly after subsequent police killings. These included #ferguson to organize protests in Ferguson, Missouri after police were acquitted in the killing of Michael Brown there in November 2014.

Creative online activist strategies in Black Lives Matter and beyond

Sign reading. "Stop Killing Black People"
A Black Lives Matter demonstration: broad, inclusive online activism for the 21st century

Black Lives Matter campaigns have deployed several strategies that were key to the EZLN campaign, as well as to other online activist movements. To make it easy to understand the strategies these movements deployed in common, I will list them and describe them in the next section.

Five strategies deployed by creative online activist movements:

  • 1. Speed
  • 2. Visuals
  • 3. Performances
  • 4. Inclusiveness
  • 5. “Masked” leadership


Speedy response has been key in the Black Lives Matter movement​

1. Speed

Like the Zapatista online campaign, it was crucial in 2015 that Black Lives Matter protestors mobilize with speed. Responding fast to the actions of government or authorities allowed both movements to gather large publics when outrage over authorities’ decisions was high. In Black Lives Matter, an immediate response also sent the message that this public would not tolerate police violence any longer – effective immediately.

people with their hands up at a protest
Hands up, don’t shoot is a powerful phrase: It became a hashtag, an easily recognized gesture, and an on-the-ground synced performance​.

2. Visuals

In both the Zapatista and Black Lives Matter movements, campaign organizers gathered attention through effective use of visual content. Images of the masked Zapatista army are still widely circulated online. This article in WIRED Magazine explores the spreadable content of the Black Lives Matter movement, especially the visuals – photographs easily shared online that evoked the in-person experience of being black, in protest.

3. Performances

We must also remember the performances involved in each of these protests. The Zapatistas called a truce at a dramatic moment that would have cast the Mexican government as the villain if they continued to fight the small EZLN army. In Black Lives Matter, hashtags like #handsupdontshoot remind us that these protestors moved together in synced gestures that gave tremendous energy to their on-the-ground protests. Reenactment has also been an effective performance strategy, exemplified in protestors using the #icantbreathe hashtag to reenact the video of Eric Garner dying after police ignored his repeated pleas of “I can’t breathe.”

​Online activism scholar Paulo Gerbaudo phrases it this way: Online media can be used for the “” in organizing on-the-ground demonstrations. That is, online organizers can choreograph individual acts of cultural repetition (memes, discussed more in Chapter 7), such as clothing or gestures protestors can repeat to recognize and reinforce one another’s work. And they can organize the meeting places, escape routes, and conduct of massive groups of people. Gerbaudo notes that these actions can influence public consciousness most powerfully when they occur in a – some meaningful public place that serves as a theatrical stage for activism to be seen and performed. A park at a city center, a football field, the Olympic medal ceremonies, a memorial statue: All of these have been symbolic centers for protest in the US and abroad.

4. Inclusiveness

Black Lives Matter’s strategy was also similar to the Zapatistas’ in the inclusiveness of the campaign. It was understood and stated by those in the movement that women must have equal access to the rights being fought for, and that in-family violence was part of what they were fighting. In Black Lives Matter, rights around gender and sexuality were always part of the discussion, as exemplified in this movement “herstory.”

Today’s social media-fueled movements tend to use rhetoric that acknowledges differences in power among the people they fight for or represent. This sets modern rights campaigns apart from some rights movements in the past. Both the Civil Rights and Black Panther movements focused on black men more than other citizens. The 20th-century women’s rights movements focused more on white women than any others. The 20th-century gay rights movement centralized the identities of white gay men. “Not your grandfather’s civil rights movement,” is one way Black Lives Matter has been described, reminding us that today’s movements broaden the focus from fathers and grandfathers to the rest of the family, the organization, and the community.

Powerful Zapatista Imagery


5. “Masked” organizers

In modern online activism, leaders wear masks – literally, and sometimes, figuratively. In the 20th-century, a much-remembered feature of social activism campaigns like the Civil Rights Movement was their visible leadership and culture of “heroes.” Dr. Martin Luther King is commonly remembered as the “father” of the Civil Rights Movement. Meanwhile, as this article by Jamil Cobb on Black Lives Matter reminds us, there were other strategies at work in the Civil Rights movement as well as leaders who shunned the spotlight, like Ella Baker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Today, the branding has shifted, with many declaring today’s online activist movements “leaderless.”

A member of the group known by the pseudonym Anonymous, at the Wall Street occupation protest in New York on September 17, 2011.
Anonymous as masked activist

The Zapatista spokesman Subcomandante Marcos was a bridge between these two styles of organization, the 20th-century heroic leader versus the 21st-century decentralized campaign. Marcos was the Zapatistas’ most visible “hero.” But he wore a mask, hid his true identity, and chose the false title of “Subcommander” (subordinate Commander) rather than “Commander.” A decade later, the “hacktivist” group Anonymous began organizing actions on 4chan in which the identities of the organizers and participants were not known; Anonymous made significant appearances during protests against the World Trade Organization. More recently, there have been figurative masks on many popular online movements including Occupy Wall Street, with all insisting there are no leaders. The strategy of “masked” organizers makes a movement difficult to defeat, while also resisting the persistent surveillance that is a function of the internet, and that can get activists jailed or killed.

Advancing and and complicating social activism through online engagement

There are many critiques of online activism as inferior to more traditional forms of activism. For example, techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufecki argues that by removing the hard work and shared risk of social organizing, social media technologies gather demonstrators too quickly for them to understand one another and think together. In another critique, scholar Evgeny Morozov uses the term “” to characterize certain low-risk levels of “activism” such as signing online petitions, which offer participants the illusion they are contributing significantly, at zero risk to themselves. While these critiques may overlook the subtle shifts in the public consciousness that online chatter can effect, they have merit. As illustrated by the Zapatistas in Chiapas and Black Lives Matter in Missouri, online activism is at its most powerful when on-the-ground action provides roots to online campaigns.

However they are branded, successful online activism movements are never dependent only on leaders, and they are also never leaderless. Rather, modern activist movements in the US in particular are often ignited through interactions between key driving forces or personalities, and then mobilized networked groups of people who respond together. This idea, which author David Karpf has called an “” of American political advocacy, may be the closest we can come to accurately describing the real effects of the internet on how we do activism.

Core Concepts and Questions


Core Concepts

activist movements that deploy creativity in using the affordances of the internet to promote activist agendas and avoid the pitfalls of oversimplification and appropriation

an army of mostly poor, rural, indigenous people rose up against the Mexican government in 1994, and successfully used the early internet to reach out for witnesses and support

a symbol, derived from ancient Roman mythology, of something that simultaneously works toward two opposing goals

the strategic use of information and its anticipated effects on receivers to influence the power dynamics in a conflict

an agreement between the US, Mexico, and Canada in the early 1990s forging interdependence between their economies, including subsidies for corporations taking over Mexican land to grow cheap crops

a sophisticated movement online and offline, fueled by outrage over injustices against black citizens by American institutions including law enforcement today

Speed, Visuals, Performances, Inclusiveness, Masked leadership

Paulo Gerbaudo’s term describing how successful online organizers preplan social activist movements that will ensue on the ground

Paulo Gerbaudo’s term for a meaningful public place that serves as a theatrical stage for activism to be seen and performed, such as park at a city center, a football field, the Olympic medal ceremonies, or a memorial statue

coined by Evgeny Morozov, this concept relates to critiques of online activism as inferior to more traditional forms of activism, with organizing online perceived as so fast, easy, and risk-free, it results in insufficient gains or change

political scientist David Karpf’s term for the networked groups of people responding together who he argues form the most important agents for change in American political advocacy today


Core Questions


Related Content


Consider it: A new era in online activism?

First, read the article “The Second Act of Social Media Activism” by Jane Hu, published in June 2020 in New Yorker Magazine.

Also consider findings from the Pew Research Center’s 2018 study of American perceptions of the internet as a tool for social activism.

Techno-sociologis Zeynep Tufecki argued in 2015 that the tools to organize activist movements online may move too fast to build coalitions that “think together”.  Whether that was true then, is it now? Support your answer, including what might you say to others in the Pew polls who think differently than you in order to explain your views.












Graphics by Pew Research Center.

Read it: Grassroots activists must consider the costs of digital campaigns (Delia Dumitrica, The Conversation)

Grassroots activists must consider the personal costs of digital campaigns

Attendees at the women’s March on Edmonton, Alta on Jan. 21, 2017.
Mylynn Felt, Author provided

Delia Dumitrica, Erasmus University Rotterdam and Mylynn Felt, University of Calgary

Widespread use of social media has made it easier to mobilize collective action, yet citizen activists struggle to navigate these digital tools and increasingly report feeling burned out. Our research on grassroots digital activism in Canada has revealed some of the strategies organizers employ when dealing with the technological, interactional and personal barriers of digital activism.

People’s use of social media for activist purposes clashes with the commercial goals of these platforms. For example, as these platforms prioritize popular and recent content, activist messages have to be constantly updated and liked or shared in order to remain visible to wider audiences. This places the burden to adapt upon activists, who must make the best of these tools within the constraints set by the platforms’ algorithms.

Dilution or dissemination?

Social media can enhance activist communication at the cost of loss of control over the message. This matters in collective action, because a clearly communicated set of demands and complaints is essential to obtaining political recognition.

During the 2014 teachers’ strike in British Columbia, three parents came up with the idea of hosting playdates in front of the offices of members of the B.C. Legislative Assembly (MLAs). The parents wanted to pressure the provincial government to negotiate with teachers and end the strike. As they circulated the idea of #MLAPlaydates on social media, they reflected on the possibility of message dilution:

It’s not the traditional command and control. It’s like: here’s an idea, why don’t you play with it and see what you can do. You share, you pass on stuff.… So, it’s a different framework of activism.… It’s like beta testing, you don’t know where it’s going to fly.

Their solution was a form of “open-source activism,” which entailed monitoring social media to reinforce the message and prevent it from being co-opted, while inviting supporters to adapt and personalize this message.

Echo-chamber effect

Filter bubbles of like-minded people make it difficult for digital activists to get their messages outside of individual networks. Yet, some platforms are more public than others, using different algorithms to make content visible to their users.

Organizers of Alberta’s #SafeStampede wanted to call attention to the rape culture around the annual Calgary Stampede. They found that:

Facebook is far and away the best place to have actual discourse [around these issues], but again, you’re mostly talking to your own friends, so it does become a bit of a feedback loop.

To combat this barrier, organizers created public profiles on more open platforms like Twitter and Tumblr to breach the echo chamber effect.

Popularity contests

On social media, visibility is often enabled by the newness and reactions a message receives. Activists need to constantly monitor how algorithms push content to the top of other users’ newsfeed. This pressures them to think and act like digital marketers, strategizing their message production and circulation.

The digital activists in our research spoke to the necessity of adapting to platform-specific practices, as well as the learning curve of understanding these practices in the first place.

You have to be careful of the algorithms, so if you’re posting too much, you’re not going to get as wide of an audience.… With Instagram, if you posted three or four really good pictures with good descriptions and hashtags a week, you’re going to get more of a response than if you’re posting like, you know, five times a day every day. So, you want to be kind of conscientious in what you’re posting, and how often.

Allies and trolls

Alongside algorithms, interaction on social media brings along its own challenges to digital activism.

For the #SafeStampede organizers, social media platforms helped them find each other through their existing networks. Online connections grew into face-to-face meetings and relationships, facilitating critical backstage efforts to their public social media campaign:

I don’t think anything exclusively happens on social media anymore. There needs to be a point where things transcend social media and you end up having real conversations with people and you build relationships.

Social media also opened the campaign up for abuse and trolling. This was also the experience of another gender-related movement, the Women’s March in Alberta. The organizers described how people searching terms like “transgender” and “pussy hat” launched a gender-biased calculated attack a few days before the march. To deal with the backlash, the organizers resorted to a strategy of “block, delete, report, repeat,” pointing out that:

It had to be done, and we just tried really hard not to let all of our time and emotional energy get sucked up by that.

The camaraderie built online and offline helped mitigate the toll of these confrontations. Still, online attacks and trolling can easily deplete the already scarce resources that citizen activists have at their disposal.

Burning out and dropping out

While our participants minimized the personal and professional costs of their digital activism during our conversations, they also spoke of burnout making long-term involvement unsustainable.

The emotional cost of trolls, backlash and hyper-aggression on social media was difficult for organizers to escape as social media tied their public names to their activism:

You attract negative comments on you … attract people who feel they have the right to attack you … I try not to think about this too much, having too much information out there leaves me open to potential stalkers, or people who want to harm me or my child.

Distancing one’s self, either from the movement or from the potential risks of your activities, seems to be the only possible strategy for organizers in these situations.

Furthermore, because social media algorithms display the messenger alongside the message, organizers also expressed concern that their visible activism may create potential career risks.

Digital organizing strategies

The citizen activists interviewed in our research employed various strategies to navigate barriers to digital activism. Here are some of their lessons for other activists:

  • Stay up-to-date with how algorithms are designed and updated for the platforms you are using.
  • Use multiple platforms to reach different audiences and mitigate the effects of echo chambers.
  • Allow some for some change in your message, but monitor the conversation in order to maintain its core.
  • Connect with fellow organizers and supporters offline.
  • Join a local, regional or national collective so you have fellow activists to lean on and pass the baton to when you need to step away.
  • Anticipate the costs and risks of activism, and reflect on where you need to draw your own boundaries.
  • Build flexibility and adaptation into your tactics of action.

While digital activism can be a crucial part of any successful campaign, activists needs to remain aware about the costs and limitations of social media.The Conversation

Delia Dumitrica, Associate professor, Department of Media and Communication, Erasmus University Rotterdam and Mylynn Felt, PhD Candidate, Communication, Media and Film, University of Calgary

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.









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Humans are Social Media, OER Edition 2021 by Diana Daly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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