The Empowering Potential of Digital Activism
In 2017, accusations of sexual harassment raised against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein caused a ripple effect that turned the scandal into a digital movement lead by the hashtag "MeToo". Following the public outrage caused by the allegations, many other celebrities spoke up about their own experiences of abuse thanks to the emotional encouragement “me too” expresses: “the phrase represents an acknowledgement of other women’s experiences relating to one’s own, creating a larger space for identification and a bond between the addresser and the addressee(s). It encompasses solidarity, empathy and self-awareness” (Dobrin, 2020, p. 4). When it turned into a hashtag after actress Alyssa Milano posted a tweet about it, the initiative became viral and solidified itself as a means for women to share their own stories, pairing their individual experiences and personal contributions with the campaign slogan. Such combination is the reason the MeToo movement is considered an example of personalized communication, which is becoming increasingly common in digitally networked action (DNA), the most common form of social mobilization in the age of social media. Connective action—digitally networked politics—and traditional collective action—physical and centralized organizations—are often compared to analyze the efficacy of the currently developing digital forms of protest and to ponder their advantages and disadvantages.
Connective action is understood as the result of a shift from group-based collective action, which entails a certain participation cost (physically attending protests, donating money, organizing marches), to more fluid large-scale movements fueled by digital social networks, which allow easier and immediate contribution to the cause (sharing content like memes, videos, photos on social media, signing petitions, etc.). In many Western contexts the increasing individualization of contemporary society has affected the political sphere as well, especially for younger generations who consider “engagement with politics as an expression of personal hopes, lifestyles, and grievances” (Segerberg and Bennet, 2012, p. 743), often revolving around environmental issues or civil rights. Thus, in most cases of personalized action, the process of identification with a particular cause is rooted in personal ideas and interests rather than a common group ideology.
A key distinction between collective and connective action is that the former brings to light issues caused by participation costs, since it requires people to physically show up, instead of merely engage by sharing a post online. These demands can hinder the inner cooperation of a movement and its efficacy, because it is more rational for the individual to not contribute: it is much easier to free-ride on other people’s efforts and at the same time avoid having to participate in vain, in case not enough people join and the effort is not successful. In such large-scale action frames, official organizations seem necessary to coordinate and encourage individuals to join their efforts. Examples of connective action, however, show the possibility of conjoint action that does not include centralized and hierarchical structures and where organizations are replaced by horizontal, decentralized networks enabled by digital media. In connective action, participation costs are dramatically reduced and, since political and social contribution becomes part of one’s self-expression, the drive to join a cause is self-motivated and does not necessarily need to be incited from the outside (Segerberg and Bennet, 2012, p. 749).
Despite the apparent advantages, connective action has also raised concerns about its efficacy in mobilizing efforts and leading to actual change. The dispersive, de-centralized nature of its modes of communication and organization is thought to potentially undermine engagement strength and allow weaker forms of commitment. When political action is filtered through individual lifestyles and is encouraged by the need to display one’s participation publicly, such action can turn out to be the result of a “pursuit of public experiences of the self rather than of collective solidarity” (McDonald in Segerberg and Bennet, 2012, p. 771). Personalized connective action—especially in the context of modern-day social media use—is therefore believed to have two main limitations: the lack of a unifying and solid collective identity and the risk of indulging in performative digital activism. Both concerns presuppose trends of individualization as the core of connective action and social media use, and therefore tie political engagement to the condition that personal identities will successfully identify with a cause, instead of it being fueled by a stabler, less fleeting collective identity. This tendency is present in the phenomenon of performative digital activism, or symbolic actions. “A successful linkage between movement and [...] salient identity, and support of this linkage from those persons who help in sustaining this identity” (Akhlaghpour and Vaast, 2018, p. 2) is what fuels one’s decision to adhere to a cause, and social media allows individuals to be content with limiting their contributions to symbolic actions, or clicktivism (for instance, following charities’ social media pages, sharing their links or posts, etc.), instead of taking substantive action, like volunteering, joining protests, or donating money.
Performative activism is usually linked to the need to have one’s identity validated by others and to peer pressure, which pushes to show that one is doing one’s part in sharing information. In some cases, social media influencers share political content online because it is “trendy”. Viral posts or hashtags like MeToo are particularly exposed to being used as means of performative activism, but even when it happens, it has not been a substantial threat to the strength and persistency of the initiative. The possibility of performativity has to be taken into consideration in determining the efficacy of a movement, but in the case of the MeToo it surely has not gotten in the way of a “cultural impact [that] changed the conversation around sexual violence” (Dobrin, 2020, p. 2).
Secondly, digital initiatives are often characterized by different development stages. Traditional collective action builds up to a participation peak—a physical organized protest or even spontaneous riots—and then slowly disperses after either having obtained its goal or being suppressed, whereas connective action often happens in more fluid and dynamic waves of engagement. Whenever involvement becomes less visible and more sporadic, the movement experiences moments of rupture and temporary decline, also known as abeyance periods. Although often mistaken for a sign of instability and weakness of connective action, abeyance periods serve important functions, such as “promoting the survival of activist networks, sustaining a repertoire of goals and tactics, and promoting a collective identity” (Leong et al., 2019, p. 175). Periods characterized by lower intensity of protests also allow for the initial uprising to enter people’s everyday life and create subcultures that contribute to the movement’s continuity and longevity, as observable in the case of MeToo, whose impact is still noticeable today and has expanded beyond the geographical borders of North America.
Social media plays an important role in empowering people during abeyance periods, when protesters cannot be galvanized by each other’s physical presence in a street protest. Digital spaces blur the boundaries between public and private, they maintain and amplify interpersonal networks. Opportunities for reciprocal empowerment—power for the powerless—are important in contexts where repression is particularly violent. They are a valuable form of collective empowerment, achieved through emotional involvement and remembrance of shared experiences and events. Therefore, when participation rates drop, social media use is crucial for keeping commitment alive and allowing power accrual, the accumulation of latent power of a community which would contribute to a future joint action (Leong et al, 2019, p. 190). Attributing this much potential to digitally enabled action even in its weakest manifestations might seem too optimistic, especially since stressing the positive side of abeyance periods presupposes that they lead to concrete future actions, which is not a given, but cultural impact ought to be taken just as seriously as real, material change, since neither can happen and bring meaningful change individually.
In conclusion, although digital activism carries the risk of performativity and low engagement efforts, it does not mean that such a prospect always occurs, or that it will cause inevitable and irreparable damage to a movement. The strength of collective action lies in the physical and concrete presence of centralized and often leader-led groups, which connective action often lacks. This aspect of traditional action, however, also makes it easily identifiable and a vulnerable target to whatever entity it is protesting against. The weak ties that characterize digitally enabled action are a flaw, but they also represent an opportunity for fluidity, adaptability, and resilience in the face of repression.
Akhlaghpour, S., & Vaast, E. (2018). Digital Activism for Social Causes: Understanding Clicktivism and Substantive Actions. SSRN Electronic Journal.http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3220833
Bennett, W. L. & Segerberg, A. (2011). Digital Media and the Personalization of Collective Action, Information, Communication & Society, 14(6), 770-799. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2011.579141
Bennett, W. L. & Segerberg, A. (2012). The Logic of Connective Action, Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 739-768. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2012.670661
Dobrin, D. (2020). The Hashtag in Digital Activism: A Cultural Revolution. Journal of Cultural Analysis and Social Change, 5(1), 03. https://doi.org/10.20897/jcasc/8298
Leong, C., Pan, L. S., Bahri, S. & Fauzi, A. (2019). Social media empowerment in social movements: power activation and power accrual in digital activism, European Journal of Information Systems, 28(2),173-204. https://doi.org/10.1080/0960085X.2018.1512944
Cover Image. Yeon-Je, J. (2018). A South Korean demonstrator during International Women's Day. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.axios.com/2018/10/13/metoo-hashtag-used-over-19-million-times-on-twitter
Figure 1. Milano, A. (2017). The tweet that caused #MeToo to go viral. [Screenshot]. Retrieved from: https://www.cbsnews.com/sacramento/news/me-too-tweets-alyssa-milano/
Figure 2. Ghayrat, G. (2018). Protestors at the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance March, New York. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.sbstatesman.com/2018/03/01/fmla-hosts-march-in-support-of-the-metoo-movement/
Figure 3. Dovarganes, D. (2017). Protesters march against sexual assault and harassment in Hollywood. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/08/challenge-of-archiving-the-metoo-movement/