2010 Dissertations IV: Activism

Researchers in social movements or social activism face something of a crossroads in the face of the Internet.  Movements are an area of empirical communication research that — at least in traditional research — seem to have effectively identified recurring and successful dynamics and patterns, and to have developed a fairly straightforward agenda for building on research in this area.

One part of that agenda is identifying and documenting cases of movement or activist strategies and tactics, and articulating what is effective, or less so, within these cases. What part, then does the Internet play? I’ve written elsewhere how online communication is opening new questions about what constitutes activism  (“Case Study: Internet and Political Activism”).  Two 2010 dissertations take up this question in different ways.

Amy Pason (PhD University of Minnesota, faculty at U Nevada-Reno) conducted a rhetorical analysis of Cindy Sheehan’s protest of the US involvement in the Iraq War.  Pason examined a wide range of texts, including Sheehan’s online writings. In this sense, Pason has naturalized online communication, as it becomes simply another source of texts.  What is interesting, however, is the way in which Pason uses an online-based metaphor to identify the emergence of (and to advocate for) a new activist strategy. From the abstract of Cindy Sheehan and the peace movement: Networks of care and rhetorical exploits:

“…resistance is defined through the concept of exploit, where, like computer viruses, movements use rhetorical forms to exploit norms of dominant systems to gain access, “recode” norms, or disrupt systems. Movements, employing distributed structures, work to “write code” or build new systems through a politics of the act .”

Activists as hackers? An interesting upending of the formula, though I look forward to future work to really explore the robustness of this idea.

A second part of the agenda of social movement research is to delve deeper into the motivations and identifications of activists. If we accept that there is such a thing as an “activist” identity, what are the communication processes that recruit individuals to that identity, and that keep them engaged and motivated?

Donjin Lim (PhD SUNY-Buffalo) conducted experiments to analyze how processes and practices typically associate with successful activism translated into online social networking contexts. Not surprisingly, Jin found that reciprocity and contact frequency were positively related to enacted support.  Jin measured the extent to which participants engaged in acts of altruism–i.e., completing requested tasks–which could be taken as an indicator of social mobilization.  Interestingly, the extent to which participants held to local social norms was a key factor.  Which raises an interesting paradox — one strength of the Internet is mass mobilization, yet the effectiveness of this mobilization might depend on provincialism.  Further large-scale investigation of “internet activists” might explore this question.

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. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/technology/2011/01/twitter-blocked-in-egypt-as-thousands-of-protesters-clash-with-police.html
  • 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.