First Monday

The domestication of online activism by Mathias Klang and Nora Madison

The convenience and usability of Web 2.0 platforms has meant that Internet traffic has migrated away from the Web. Through a combination of technological affordances, user regulations, and social norms these platforms are shaping the ways in which we can, and want to, communicate. This work looks at the ways in which these changes have impacted on online activism, and asks the reader to consider what happens when political communication competes with cat memes.


The bright hope of Web 2.0
Understanding activism
A prehistory of Web activism
Online activism in an age of cyberlibertarianism
The tipping point
Domestication of activism
Community standards
The medium is the message
Is slacktivism bad?
Conclusion: Activism after a decade of Web 2.0



The bright hope of Web 2.0

When assessing the role of blogs in 2004, Dan Gillmor wrote that the new levels of interactivity would turn media consumers into media producers. He emphasized this by calling this new group ‘the former audience’ (Gillmor, 2004). In his 2005 definition of Web 2.0, Tim O’Reilly referenced the pessimism following the dot com bubble and the ways in which these exciting new applications, sites, and organizations shared seven design principles and an ideology of “cooperate, don’t control”. In 2006, praising the rise of user-generated content, Time announced the user as the person of the year with the tagline “You control the Information Age”.

This optimism was also seen to cover political communication, freedom of speech and supporting the democratic process (Klang, 2006; Chadwick, 2008; Breindl and Francq, 2008). However, for the online activist this promise of increased democratic participation came with an increasing amount of limitations based in legal restrictions, technological affordances and social norms.

This paper studies the ways in which three types of activism have been changed by the increasing use of Web 2.0. By studying awareness campaigns, civil disobedience and everyday activism this work will show that move to Web 2.0 based communications has fundamentally changed the face of activism. This work will demonstrate (a) how the need of awareness campaigns to compete with online trivia changes their formats and impacts their message; (b) how civil disobedience is suppressed and made all but impossible in this new digital environment; and (c) how everyday resistance is on the one hand given greater reach, but negatively impacted by the choices users make with technology and the choices technology makes for users. The analysis of this work will show that the online activism becomes domesticated in its need to compete in the new arena. Awareness campaigns require more gimmicks; acts of disobedience are all too quickly suppressed, made invisible, and therefore not an efficient method of campaigning online; and everyday activism is too easily seen as trivial slacktivism and therefore easily ignored.



Understanding activism

Social activism is any intentional action with the goal of bringing about social change. In a democratic society the goal of activism is one of persuasion. From the civil rights movements acts of civil disobedience to online campaigns on social media centered around topic awareness, the activists’ objective is to persuade as many people as possible to join their cause in creating some specific social change. However, within this framework change should ideally be brought about through socially legal processes.

Civil disobedience is one of those deceptively easy terms. Not only do the words seem relatively clear and definable, we also have a generous supply of canonical examples. Therefore, we can correctly say that “... as the salt tax was the only one that all Indians, including the poorest, paid. Gandhi therefore made it the cornerstone of his Civil Disobedience campaign.” [1], or “Indeed, the Kennedy Administration was adamant in opposing widespread civil disobedience.” [2]. These statements are readily understandable.

Academics have attempted to explore the limits of civil disobedience in order to understand where the line between just and unjust lawlessness lies. Bedau (1961) defined civil disobedience as an act that was public, non-violent political act contrary to law and carried out with the aim of bringing about change in law or policy. Later Bedau (1970) would broaden his definition to refer to illegal acts, “committed openly ... non-violently ... and conscientiously ... within the framework of the rule of law ... with the intention of frustrating or protesting some law, policy or decision ... of the government.” [3].

John Rawls (1964) wrote of civil disobedience: “Therefore one can sum up the situation that there is an a priori obligation to obey the law. However, this rule may come into direct conflict with moral obligations and have the ability to cause more harm. Or the duty to obey may be overridden in certain cases by other more stringent obligations.” [4]. Peter Singer (1973) added a communicative element to the theory when he defined the process of disobedience as one method for a minority to appeal to the majority to reconsider an injustice. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963), Singer similarly saw disobedience as a necessary element when democratic processes prolong an injustice. In general, civil disobedience, therefore, is not intolerance towards the system as a whole, but the view that democratic processes can perpetuate injustice.

Some forms of activism are clearly understood as activism. History and culture have repeatedly informed us that activities such as protest marches, hunger strikes, and sit-ins are forms of resistance and activism. The concept of activism has come to be intimately connected with the idea of struggle, pain, and even physical and mental suffering. This focus on pain and anguish in activism does not invalidate forms of activism that are conducted without these elements. While activism can span the gamut of the protest march to the sit in, what is often forgotten are the everyday forms of increasing awareness or resistance (Madison, 2016). Social awareness campaigns are a foundational element of activism if we recall that one function of activism is for a minority group to appeal to the majority with the intent to create change.

Everyday activism and resistance are acts that are “quiet, dispersed, disguised or otherwise seemingly invisible” [5]. These are small scale, relatively safe acts which require little or no formal coordination. At the same time, these acts have political intentions or consequences despite not being perceived as confrontational or threatening within that social setting (Scott, 1989). Due to their political nature, they can be interpreted as patterns of resistance (Scott, 1990).

The accessibility of the Internet and social media have been viewed as empowering to citizens’ ability to communicate and there has been a great deal of hope for agents placed in these technologies as agents of social change. As Clay Shirky (2008) emphasized, through technology “we are living in the middle of a remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action, all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organizations” [6]. This view is not without its critics. Evgeny Morozov (2011) argues that we are overly positive towards new technologies of communication and that our “Net delusion” will not necessarily promote an increase in democratic participation or activism but rather it will create a faux participation or “slacktivism” in place of real activism. And Malcolm Gladwell (2010) additionally points out that our online activities result in “weak ties” which create a great deal of online activity but do little to create actual change. Therefore, the effect of activism technology is much like campaigns in off-line spaces. Some campaigns have immediate and spectacular effects, some campaigns have long-term effects, and some campaigns have no effect.



A prehistory of Web activism

Two decades ago — almost a decade BF (before Facebook) and the social media discussion — there were grave concerns about the future of The Web. It was recognized as the next big thing and those who had been users for a while were lyrical about its democratic potential. By overcoming constraints of space and time, real power could be brought to the people. The concern among these techno-optimists and techno-libertarians was that the government would begin to regulate this new technology, and by doing so, limit its powerful potential for social change.

An illustration of this conflict between the cyberlibertarians and technopaternalists can be neatly illustrated in what has probably become to be the most widely cited e-mail message; John Perry Barlow’s “A declaration of independence of cyberspace” written on 8 February 1996. This text is an example of the technolibertarian reacting to the trend at the time to regulate the Internet, and includes passages such as:

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

Aside from the fear of regulation this was a time when the question of whether the Internet could be regulated at all was being widely discussed. For example, Johnson and Post published their seminal “Law and borders: The rise of law in cyberspace” in 1996, discussing the complexity of regulating activities on a transborder network. However, Easterbrook (1996) argued in “Cyberspace and the law of the horse” that society does not need specific Internet regulations since creating specializations in law works to isolate and weaken the application of legal principles. In his 2013 keynote assessing the history of Internet regulation, Murray eloquently sums up the development of legal movements:

“The question of whether cyberspace is regulatable is in the past for lawmakers and regulators. The question is how to most efficiently and effectively regulate it by law. Our role must be to ensure the rule of law is preserved. We must move to the fourth wave of Cyberlaw research and development. The first wave was cyberlibertarianism. The second wave was cyberpaternalism. The third wave was decentred regulation and regulatory theory — it is time to move to the fourth wave — Cyberlaw.” [7]

Affordance as regulation

By the mid-1990s there was growing evidence that the Internet was not going to be free from governmental control. Among the earliest examples of the re-assertion of government control can be seen in the Somm case where German police in 1995 raided Compuserve Deutschland for failing to adequately prevent child pornography. This was German law, regulating an U.S. company, for activity on servers in the U.S. The Somm case proved that the state was not going to be passive and that the Internet could be regulated. We moved from cyberlibertarianism to the second wave, cyberpaternalism. It led, in 1998, to the first prosecution of an online service for information provided over the Internet. The judge stated in his ruling: “Even on the Internet there can be no law-free zones” (Shapiro, 1999).

This was unsurprising, as it was unlikely that the state would relinquish the power it holds; the question was how and to what extent. Although, the regulatory discussion became really interesting when Lessig (1999) presented a set of important ideas in his book Code and other laws of cyberspace. With this work, Lessig shifted the focus of the regulatory debate by reminding scholars that the law is not the only mode of regulation.

Lessig argued that there are four major regulatory elements: laws, norms, market, and architecture. Often we use an interplay of these to achieve an effect. Therefore, the law of trespass, the norms of respecting other people’s property, the fines that may be levied, and the physical barriers preventing entry protect all act together to protect private property. What Lessig argued was that the online world might be difficult to regulate through Law since the technology enables us to circumvent it. For example, an image that may be illegal in one country may be easily accessible on a server in another country; however, the ability to regulate through code is much stronger online than in the off-line world. The defaults of our devices and the choices of the coders create regulations that effectively enable or prevent users from acting in certain ways. This control through code was dubbed “West Coast Code” in reference to Silicon Valley. Lessig argued that the rise of importance of West Coast Code undermines “East Coast Code”, or the laws made in Washington in accordance to the democratic process.



Online activism in an age of cyberlibertarianism

Up until this point, the theory and practice of civil disobedience was relatively unchallenged, as it remained constrained by political, national, physical, economical barriers. However, with the coming of the Web, the practice, definition, social tolerance, and regulation of civil disobedience was to be challenged. The Critical Art Ensemble was among those who were early to recognize the technological potential and in 1996 they published “Electronic civil disobedience & other unpopular ideas” where they pointed out that the streets were the correct locus for activism in the nineteenth century, power no longer resided in physical places. This therefore means that civil disobedience was no longer effective because “power” has the ability to evade the effect of demonstrations.

“Even though the monuments of power still stand, visibly present in stable locations, the agency that maintains power is neither visible nor stable. Power no longer permanently resides in these monuments, and command and control now move about as desired. If mechanisms of control are challenged in one spatial location, they simply move to another location.” [8]

A powerful example of the ways in which technology has been used for protest is the virtual sit-in, this technique has come to be known under a less positive connotation as a denial of service attack. As this work focuses on the activist’s perspective, the former term will be used.

The virtual sit-in

The virtual sit-in was modeled after the protests carried out in the U.S. civil rights movement where activists would sit at food counters reserved for whites only and demand to be served. By occupying the spaces the restaurant could not serve other customers, this would then force the restaurant to forcibly remove the protesters. Applying this tactic online entailed coordinating protesters to simultaneously visit and refresh the same Web site. When enough protesters attempt to view the same Web page at the same time the server would be overwhelmed and the site would return an error message. The protest would therefore make the site unavailable to other users.

The Electronic Disturbance Theater was one of the early users and proponents of this tactic, automating the process by creating Flood Net software which would not require the protester to manually striking a reload key repeatedly. They saw these actions as a direct development of the classic sit in.

“Electronic Civil Disobedience, as a form of mass decentered electronic direct action, utilizes virtual blockades and virtual sit-ins. Unlike the participant in a traditional civil disobedience action, an ECD actor can participate in virtual blockades and sit-ins from home, from work, from the university, or from other points of access to the Net. Further, the ECD actor can act against an opponent that is hundreds if not thousands of miles away. The Electronic Disturbance Theater, primarily through its Flood Net program, is promoting ways to engage in global, mass, collective and simultaneous Electronic Civil Disobedience and direct action.” (Wray, 1998)

Not all activist groups were in agreement about the legitimacy of the virtual sit-in and especially when carried out with the aid of software. In 2000 an online discussion over the legitimacy question was conducted between the Electohippie Collective and Cult of the Dead Cow. The Electrohippies (DJNZ and the action tool development group, 2000) argued that the virtual sit-in was in line with theories of civil disobedience. They were not hiding, not anonymous, their acts were specific and limited, and in line with freedom of expression.

“This, really, is THE issue that defines the purpose of our actions. We must make cyberspace another, equal, part of society. We will not achieve this by developing ever-better methods of financial transactions and accounting. We will do it by extending the ordinary legal and moral guarantees of freedom of expression and association to this space, and promoting equal access irrespective of race, class or language. If the state and corporations cannot tolerate dissent in cyberspace, then they will have a widespread, and legitimate, backlash from those already using the media for this purpose before the advent of e-commerce.”

The Cult of the Dead Cow (2000), however, disagreed and in direct response to the paper above wrote:

“Denial of Service attacks are a violation of the First Amendment, and of the freedoms of expression and assembly. No rationale, even in the service of the highest ideals, makes them anything other than what they are — illegal, unethical, and uncivil. One does not make a better point in a public forum by shouting down one’s opponent.”

While the activists were arguing the legitimacy of their actions the state was attempting to define, and come to terms with, how these acts were to be classified. In her 2000 testimony on Cyberterrorism before the U.S. House of Representatives Special Oversight Panel on Terrorism, Dorothy E. Denning stated:

“To the best of my knowledge, no attack so far has led to violence or injury to persons, although some may have intimidated their victims. Both EDT and the Electrohippies view their operations as acts of civil disobedience, analogous to street protests and physical sit-ins, not as acts of violence or terrorism. This is an important distinction. Most activists, whether participating in the Million Mom’s March or a Web sit-in, are not terrorists. My personal view is that the threat of cyberterrorism has been mainly theoretical, but it is something to watch and take reasonable precautions against.”

Discussions such as these are illustrations of the state attempting to organize the activity of the protesters. This process of definition is highly important and at this point the question was whether or not those involved in these online acts could be seen as terrorists. Naturally, had the state decided that online activism was terrorism the participants would have faced harsh consequences. Had the state found that the acts were legitimate acts of free expression they would been not criminalized. Once again the Critical Art Ensemble (1996) was early in its understanding of the situation:

“Whether or not the barbarian hordes — the true nomads of cyberspace — are ready to sweep through the orderly domains of electronic civilization remains to be seen ... The hordes do have one advantage: They are without a domain, completely deterritorialized, and invisible. In the realm of the invisible what’s real and what’s hyperreal? Not even the police state knows for sure.” [9]

As we shall see, the solution has leaned heavily towards the criminalization of acts of online disobedience rather than tolerance. In many areas of regulation the “deterritorialized” nature of the Internet is being met with high levels of international legal cooperation as with for example the International Convention on Cybercrime.



The tipping point

In 2001, the Groups “Libertad” and “Kein Mensch ist illegal” were organizing protests against the airline company Lufthansa’s participation in the deportation of asylum seekers. Among the off-line activities the groups were also organizing a online blockade (or virtual sit-in) to take place on the 20 June at 10am.

Media reports after the event stated that the Web site received a large increase in visitors but the site adjusted for the increased load and remained online (Brauch, 2001). However, from a publicity perspective the action was a success, with media reporting about the action and Germany’s Ministry of Justice publicly expressing its doubts as to whether the planned event was legal. The organizers claimed 13,000 people participated in an act that was legal under Article 8 of the German constitution, “all Germans have the right to assemble without prior notification or permission peaceably and without arms.”

The organizer of the online blockade, Andreas-Thomas Vogel, was taken to court. While the activists argued that they had conducted a non-violent sit-in, the State Prosecutor argued the campaign constituted coercion and the activists were inciting others to break the law. Vogel was found guilty under Section 240 of the German Penal Code. The state once again demonstrated that it would not tolerate the use of technology for these types of protest purposes. Vogel, however, did not accept the judgment, and under appeal the Frankfurt Higher Regional Court heard the case. In its verdict of 22 May 2006 the court overturned the earlier ruling and found the accused not guilty as no force had been used. This verdict remains the most important court decision in the field of online civil disobedience to this day.

However, in the years between 2001–2006, two major regulatory shifts would radically impact the use of the Internet as a space of protest. The first was the result of the second wave (cyberpaternalism) regulation. State actors drafted and legislated national and international regulations that would directly criminalize acts of virtual disobedience. Examples of these regulatory instruments include the International Convention on Cybercrime, Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and USA Patriot Act, which all criminalize denial of service in the U.S., and the Computer Misuse Act of 2002 criminalizes the same in the U.K. The second regulatory shift has occurred because ever larger groups of users gravitate towards social media sites whose technology and user rules make disobedience more difficult. Since the purpose of civil disobedience is to communicate an injustice to a majority in order to make social or legal changes, it became important for the activists to transfer their attentions to the sites were many people congregated.



Domestication of activism

Social media is a conveniently vague term for a collection of sites that allow for a greater level of ease in user participation and interaction. The largest among these today still have a relatively brief history. LinkedIn began in 2002, MySpace and Second Life were both launched in 2003, and Facebook opened for business in 2004. The role of social media in general for activism should not be understated, and it should also be made clear that different media allow for different modes and content of communication.

As we have seen, the second wave of regulation entailed a tightening of the legal regime, which had the effect of creating a strong disincentive for activists carrying out work online. Additionally, the migration of peoples’ online activities into social media platforms provided an incentive for activists to tailor their messages to these platforms in order to reach out to the largest possible audience. By 2012, Facebook had announced its billionth user (Baldwin, 2012), and in 2015 Facebook announced that a billion people were using Facebook daily.

It could therefore be argued that Facebook is the place where the majority of users can most easily be reached. As Singer (1973) argued, disobedience is a method for a minority to appeal to the majority to reconsider an injustice the goal of the activist is to reach the largest audience. Or as Thomas, an activist and videographer, stated succinctly:

“You can’t have a demonstration without filming it. That makes it pointless ... If there are riots in Copenhagen, they’ll only go global if there’s video footage. Otherwise it’s pointless; you may as well not bother.” [10]

The way in which we use technology affects the ways in which we consume news and information. The sentiments echoed here by Thomas, show that unless the message of the protest can be packaged in a format that will appeal to a wider audience it will not serve a valuable purpose. This requires knowledge of the current norms and trends in communication, as well as access to technologies of recording and distribution. The videographer needs to be able to record the message as well as communicate it to a wider audience. While there are more sophisticated methods, the ability to record and store images, audio, and video are widely available on smartphones and therefore accessible to many users. The final piece is the ability to share content. Distribution of user-generated content is available through social media giants such as Facebook and YouTube, as well as platforms like Tumblr, Instagram, Vimeo and others, providing potentially enormous as well as global audiences.

This work argues that the migration of activism onto Web 2.0 sites, while having the potential to reach a greater population, comes at a cost to activism. This cost is due to the regulation of activism through the technology, rules and norms that exist on the platforms. By choosing to engage in activism via social media the tradeoff for access to the audience is the domestication of the mode and content of activism. This will be explored in the following three sections.



Community standards

The purpose of activism in a democracy, as previously discussed, is to inform and persuade the majority to change its views. If the views become incorporated into the social norms they can more easily be tolerated and/or regulated through law and social action. For this process to be successful it may often reach a Catch-22 situation. In order for the message to be tolerated it must be accepted. But the purpose for transmitting the message is to inform the majority that messages such as these are not tolerated.

Online activists are very much aware of the fact that the online environment lacks public space in the off-line sense of the word. The popular quote by Clay Shirky — “The Internet is not a public sphere. It is a private sphere that tolerates public speech” (Newland, et al., 2011) — serves as an important reminder that the infrastructure we use is all in private hands. This toleration of communication has never been clearer than when it is conducted on social network sites.

Using Facebook as a site for sharing protest messages therefore has an additional barrier since the site could decide to remove the content for violating its community standards. For example, Facebook’s real name policy caused an Ethiopian LGBT activist to be banned for using the pseudonym HappyAddis. The activist used a pseudonym as homosexuality is illegal in Ethiopia, a country which enforces strict penalties for this crime (Davidson, 2015). The East African country considers homosexuality a crime and those convicted of same-sex relations can face 15 years in prison.

Lactation activism on Facebook

Other example where norms are challenging user agreements can be seen in the ways in which Facebook has been reacting to breastfeeding images uploaded to the site. Facebook’s reaction to breastfeeding has generally been to ban the images and, at times, even temporarily block the users who have uploaded them (Cassidy, 2012). From Facebook’s perspective breastfeeding images have been viewed as nudity and therefore have been banned. Despite this the site is less concerned with sexually objectifying or debasing women. The result is that bodies displayed for the male gaze are more likely to be permitted than depicting one’s own body for non-sexual reasons.

In 2008–2009 lactation activism directly challenged these norms staging a “virtual” nurse-in on Facebook. The action resulted in 80,000 women posting images of them breastfeeding, purposely violating company obscenity policy (Boyer, 2011). As of writing Facebook’s breastfeeding policy states: “Yes. We agree that breastfeeding is natural and beautiful and we’re glad to know that it’s important for mothers to share their experiences with others on Facebook. The vast majority of these photos are compliant with our policies.”

However, the rules remain strict. While Facebook does allow breastfeeding images, the nipple must not be visible. If a picture receives a complaint and that picture depicts a breastfeeding baby and a visible nipple the image will be blocked despite the obvious purpose of the image. Aside from being banned from posting images of breastfeeding the critique against the social networking site has been that they operate a double standard as highly sexualized images (with and without visible nipples) are easily found on Facebook (Dodsworth, 2015).

As already seen the question of the unclothed female body, when the purpose is non-sexual, gives us a shining example of this dilemma. Off-line, the regulation of nudity is a complex set of norms based on a large array of factors that vary in time and space. The acceptance of showing the male or female form, and how much of it, is not a static question.

Breastfeeding is not the only area where these questions are relevant. Facebook has come under fire for removing images of double mastectomies and only changed their policies when faced with a large petition and bad publicity (Johnson, 2013). These questions become increasingly difficult when we move beyond the dominant binary gender roles. An example is the case of Courtney Demone, a transgender woman activist who has been posting images online as she transitions. Her images and her campaign #DoIHaveBoobsNow? directly impact the interpretation of the community norms on nudity. The images can be seen as an exploration into what makes the female nipple more offensive than the male. Or, as activist Paris Lees asks “Is it the presence of breast tissue beneath? And if so, how much?” (Parkinson, 2015).

While social norms are complex in off-line spaces, their regulation is supported through the constraints of time and geography. Most of us have internalized the norms of local society and understand the social rules expected of us. With its ability to remove barriers of time and space, online environments challenge our social knowledge. As a global player which social norms should Facebook reflect? And how should Facebook react to those who transgress them?



The medium is the message

In his critique of the impact of television on politics Postman (1985) writes:

“Thinking does not play well on television, a fact that television directors discovered long ago. There is not much to see in it. It is, in a phrase, not a performing art, and so what the ABC network gave us was a picture of men of sophisticated verbal skills and political understanding being brought to heel by a medium that requires them to fashion performances rather than ideas.” [11]

Social media users are well aware of the ways in which affordances and limitations of the medium they use allows them to use the technology, but many are less aware of the implications (Klang, 2014). The medium has an excellent system of metrics that allows us to measure success in the number of friends, likes, retweets, and shares. Therefore, a successful message is the one that is shared widely across the network. Ideally, individuals who have critically read and support the message are the ones who will share it. The activist wishing to undertake a campaign on social media must therefore play by the rules of that media if the campaign is to be successful.

Once again, the goal is to transfer the message to the widest possible audience. In order to do this on social media the goal is to make the message go viral. One strategy to increase the likelihood of this is in the production, where high quality productions that play on cultural norms and existing concepts are more likely to spread (Coombe and Herman, 2001).

Therefore, in order for an activist campaign to be successful the production choices that are to be made must reflect this tradeoff. Much in the same way as Postman criticized the influence of television creating performances rather than ideas, social media has the same impact on the activist messages. The producer will be required to make choices that may prioritize the virality of the message over the content.

There is another effect that social media has on design choices and it is connected to the abundance of information offered to the user. The Internet provides the user with a seemingly infinite source of information. Indeed there is more information being produced and uploaded than can be consumed. The activist competes for attention in an information-rich world. The consequences of this has not become less true since Herbert Simon (1971) wrote about it four decades ago:

“... in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” [12]

Considering the information about a social cause is presented in the same packaged information on Facebook as any other information — whether it is a selfie or a cat meme — the question then becomes one of attention. For social media users, as with all other media consumers, attention is a limited resource.

This attention is, according to Davenport and Beck (2001), our focused mental engagement on a particular item of information. Information flows past the users and they must chose to focus on a particular item and after consuming the information chose whether to invest more time or not. The result of this is that the vital social cause that an activist is trying to bring to the audience’s attention is in direct, and equal, competition with the latest humorous cat meme. The activist must be aware of this and act accordingly.

Following, the most successful non-profit social media campaign in recent years is the ice bucket challenge. This was a campaign to raise money for research about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The participants were told to nominate others to take the challenge of either filming themselves having a bucket of ice water poured on their heads or donate to ALS research. The ice bucket challenge went viral on social media during July–August 2014. The campaign was criticized for focusing less on ALS information or research and that many simply joined the ice bucket fun without donating (Pardes, 2014). Despite the criticism the campaign, donations to ALS were massively increased (ALS Association, 2014).

Not only do campaigns such as the ice bucket challenge demonstrate the need to create innovative and quirky campaigns in order to attract attention, their success also underlines the performance element of activism. In order to be successful in grabbing peoples attention and desire to participate the campaign used less information about the cause and more elements geared to allowing people to share information online. It may be difficult to instigate such competitive and playful elements in campaigns demanding more gravitas — these therefore would be less successful in the social media environment.



Is slacktivism bad?

Facebook provides a communications platform with a low barrier of entry. Users can just as easily share information about their breakfasts as they can about a political stance or a social injustice. While the platform does allow other users to read and comment on others posts the most common form of interaction is the “like”, a generic and often ambiguous thumbs up.

This interaction has been criticized as being a lazy form of activism and been called by the portmanteau slacktivism. The concept is a pejorative to demean individuals who are showing less than complete dedication to the cause. The implication is that the simple acts carried out on social media are intended to make the participant feel good rather than having a true impact on the cause (Morozov, 2009; Serup Christensen, 2011).

Activism on social media is obviously different to activism in other forms of media, or even on the streets. While this difference is important, the more important question is whether slacktivism deserves such a negative connotation. Recent research has begun to question this negative attitude (Serup Christensen, 2011; Breuer and Farooq, 2012; Skoric, 2012). The importance is that the medium creates differences in expression but these different forms of political activism are not necessarily of lesser worth.

The early promise of the Internet as an instrument of civil disobedience was a cyberlibertarian dream that was likely to be difficult to achieve. The power of the state was not about to submit quietly to the online activists. This paper has demonstrated that state regulation has had a chilling effect on the use of the Internet for civil disobedience.

The use of technology for disobedience moved in two directions. Organizations that were comfortable to remain outside the law, such as for example the group Anonymous, would continue to use denial of service as a strategy of protest (Coleman, 2014). The second direction for civil disobedience is that of the provocateur. This can be seen in the actions of Ricardo Dominguez, currently an associate professor at University of California San Diego. In 2010, Dominguez, a co-founder of the Electronic Disturbance Theater, organized hundreds of students in a virtual sit-in directed at the Office of the University President in protest of protest budget cuts and tuition increases (Kolowich, 2010). Despite having tenure, the university threatened Dominguez’s position, but eventually backed down. With his background in civil disobedience and his research in activism, Dominguez was employed as an activist with the support of the faculty; hence his position was not terminated (University Council–AFT, 2010). However, acts such as Dominguez activism and the activities of Anonymous must be seen as outliers.



Conclusion: Activism after a decade of Web 2.0

As early as 1995, Nicholas Negroponte was expounding the vision of the daily me, this was a Web full of possibility for each user to choose only material that was of interest and ignoring everything else. Cass Sunstein (2007) discussed the negative aspects of these choices and the creation of online echo chambers. The plurality of information sources and our ability to chose freely meant that we would only choose information that supports our previously held views.

Added to this, our social networks, despite having enormous reach, are also likely to silence those who “who have received a strong negative reaction to their politically related posts are likely to censor themselves, exemplifying the spiral of silence effect.” [13]

It is also important not to forget the role of technology as an actor in the supply of information. In their desire to become more personalized and efficient technology companies have been making choices for the user in which information is presented. Based on earlier interests everything from Facebook to Google is presenting users with the “best” information and therefore creating a “filter bubble” (Pariser, 2011). The impact of the reach of Web 2.0, filter bubbles, echo chambers and online news consumption remains under debate. Flaxman, et al. (2016) argue that there is both an increase in polarity but that counterintuitively the reach of the channels results in more varied media consumption. However, Nahon (2016) argues that “social media algorithms are not only non-neutral, but heavily biased politically”, this viewpoint is supported by Kreiss’ (2014) argument that Web 2.0 can never be independent from the laws, economics, culture and social norms of the platform providers. This work supports the positions of Nahon and Kreiss in arguing that Web 2.0 users are only free within margins set by the technology providers.

Given its overwhelming popularity, the importance of Web 2.0 for the democratic discourse this lack of freedom should be an area of concern not only to the users but also to governments. However, as revelations by Snowden have shown, governments are more than happy to provide users with this limited freedom, as they are keen to use Web 2.0 as a platform for mass surveillance. Given how the technology has developed, it seems clear that using technology for civil disobedience is held in lower regard than the ability to use the as a surveillance system. The knowledge of this eavesdropping has resulted in a chilling of political discourse (Stoycheff, 2016) and a limitation to the ways in which technology is used as a tool of political protest.

As this paper has shown, the use of Web 2.0 in activism has had a deep impact on the ways in which activism is done. Through a mix of regulation, technological affordances, and social norms the fundamental realities for the political activist intent on using technology have radically changed. Alongside the changes in legal position the affordances of the social media platforms have had a huge impact on the way in which the protest message is composed and transmitted. Regulation is also conducted through the user terms supplied by the platforms, and the social norms prevalent on the site.

The resulting change differs on tactics such as awareness campaigns, civil disobedience, and everyday activism. The Web 2.0 platforms where much of Internet activity now takes place have, for the most part, confined permissible forms of protest to advertising campaigns. The vast amounts of information available require the campaigner to produce something quirky to be heard above the cat memes. In order to be acceptable as a message, the technical formats of the platform must be adhered to; in order to compete with all other content, the message must be able to compete in style and presentation. Finally, to be successful the message must be heard over the stream of competing information. As messages are competing with well-funded commercials and humorous memes, serious content is transformed, gimmicky in order to be successful in its reach. In sum, messages of activism being transmitted widely over social media platforms are by necessity sanitized and domesticated to suit the law, the platform, and the consumer. This has the effect of diminishing the content of the message and focusing on its form.

Web 2.0 has been devastating to civil disobedience as the technology either makes it impossible or at least non-viable as a useful form of activism. This has the additional effect of ending the debate on the legitimacy of using invasive technological measures as a form of civil disobedience. As the ability to conduct such disobedience wanes, so does the debate. Finally, the impact on everyday resistance is that it furthers the reach of the activist. The ability to communicate to vast audiences is obviously a great boon. However, the impact of practices such as echo chambers and filter bubbles ensure that the activist conforms to a certain degree for fear of losing the good will of the public.

What does activism mean in the Web 2.0 environment? The awareness campaign must have high production values and be tailored to a sophisticated and picky audience. The social conditions necessary to be disobedient have been severely curtailed through technological limitations, community rules, and social norms. It is only possible to disobey technology as long as the platform provider supports disobedience. Therefore it isn’t disobedience. Thus civil disobedience is not visible on Web 2.0 platforms, which may lead users of these social networks to erroneously think that civil disobedience is the past. The acts of everyday activism seem to be faring the best as the reach of the individual has never been as great. However, even here, the individual activists must ensure that the message is tailored, is easy to comprehend, and allows for a low barrier to entry. In so doing, the activist faces the charge of being presumed a slacktivist.

After a decade of Web 2.0 the position of online activism has allowed for a much larger former audience to become active in social issues of importance to them. However, for the dedicated activist these communication tools are not entirely without issue. End of article


About the authors

Mathias Klang is Associate Professor in Political Communication at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He specializes in digital rights with a focus on the use of technology for democratic activism and resistance. For more information or Twitter @klangable
E-mail: klang [at] umb [dot] edu

Nora Madison is Assistant Professor in Communication at Chestnut Hill College. Her work focuses on online activism and digital representations of identity. More information is available at or @gendergeek
E-mail: madisonn [at] chc [dot] edu



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Editorial history

Received 27 May 2016; accepted 28 May 2016.

Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

The domestication of online activism
by Mathias Klang and Nora Madison.
First Monday, Volume 21, Number 6 - 6 June 2016