Case Study: Internet and Political Activism

The internet and mobile communication is reshaping political activism and revitalizing research into social change and social movements. Richard Kahn and Douglas Kellner really helped usher this into the discipline in 2004 with their accessible article on the “Battle in Seattle” against the WTO in 1999. Since that time, a number of publications have documented the tremendous importance of these new communication possibilities for political movements across the world.  I’ve provided just a few of those at the bottom of this post. This past few weeks brought the latest example of recent political demonstrations in Egypt, and recently we’ve seen similar events in Tunisia and Iran.

From a communication perspective, I suggest that each of these events pushes us to recognize the force of urgency and how the processes of communication reshape so as to become as efficient as possible in the moment.  Digital mobile technologies allow information and events to be captured in real time, and disseminated on global cloud-based applications such as Twitter and facebook.  A similar point is made by Matthew Ingram on GigaOm and by the BBC. The phenomenon is by no means settled – unlike a few years ago, governments are recognizing the power of these technologies and are developing and deploying capabilities to block them.

It would be easy enough to believe that the key here is the rapid dissemination of information. I think more is happening. Unlike the forethought and strategic planning characteristic of the WTO riots, the use of technologies in currents events increasingly is emergent and unplanned. Yet even though the individual might be disparate, the uses seemingly cohere in the cloud, where they become meaningful and powerful. Thus, it is this process of emergent coherence — what I call the configuration function of communication–that is newly and distinctly important. The accounts not only share with us what is happening, they give us the raw material to make collective sense of it, and therefore to act.

Questions to consider:

  • How much credit should we give to communication technologies in influencing political events?
  • How do these new capabilities change how we conceptualize communication and social movements?
  • Does the use of these technologies escalate violence by spreading information (and probably also misinformation) too quickly?
  • What is the best balance between openness and security?


  • Twitter blocked in Egypt as thousands of protesters call for government reform, Los Angeles Times, Jan 25, 2011.
  • Atkinson, J. D. (2009). Networked Activists in Search of Resistance: Exploring an Alternative Media Pilgrimage Across the Boundaries and Borderlands of Globalization. Communication, Culture & Critique, 2(2), 137-159. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-9137.2009.01032.x.
  • Gillan, K. (2009). THE UK ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT ONLINE: Uses and limitations of Internet technologies for contemporary activism. Information, Communication & Society, 12(1), 25-43. doi: 10.1080/13691180802158532.
  • Kahn, R., & Kellner, D. (2004). New Media and Internet Activism: From the “Battle of Seattle” to Blogging. New Media & Society, 6(1), 87-95. doi: 10.1177/1461444804039908.
  • Pickerill, J. (2009). SYMBOLIC PRODUCTION, REPRESENTATION, AND CONTESTED IDENTITIES: Anti-war activism online. Information, Communication & Society, 12(7), 969-993. doi: 10.1080/13691180802524469.

Case Study: Weight Loss and Online Social Support

A new study by Amy Aldredge Sanford (Northeastern University) highlights the role that that internet sites can have for social support for the morbidly obese working to lose weight. Weight  loss is a particularly interesting example for the study of communication and social support because of the stigma that can be attached to appearing overweight, and because obesity may be linked to other issues such as addiction or depression.

Possible questions to explore:

  • How do communication processes of online support and offline support compare?
  • Does using the internet for social support raise any new possibilities or new concerns compared to offline support?
  • What are the patterns or qualities of online communication for social support?


  • Sanford, A. A. (2010). “I Can Air My Feelings Instead of Eating Them”: Blogging as Social Support for the Morbidly Obese. Communication Studies, 61(5), 567-584. Routledge. doi: 10.1080/10510974.2010.514676.
  • Black, L. W., Bute, J. J., & Russell, L. D. (2010). “The secret is out!”: Supporting weight loss through online interaction. In L. Shedletsky & J. Aiken (Eds.), Cases on online discussion and interaction: Experiences and outcomes (pp. 351-368). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
  • Suggs, L. S. (2006). A 10-year retrospective of research in new technologies for health communication. Journal of Health Communication, 11(1), 61-74. doi: 10.1080/10810730500461083.
  • Tanis, M. (2008). Health-related on-line forums: what’s the big attraction?. Journal of Health Communication, 13(7), 698-714. doi: 10.1080/10810730802415316.