The Culture and Effectiveness of Online Activism:
An Examination of Alternative Perspectives
Ever since computer mediated communication (CMC) and social media gained popularity approximately one decade ago, critics have primarily taken utopic perspectives that highlight the positive range of connections between asynchronous time, unbound space and democracy. As such, academic observations and research pull these three features and their effects underneath a single umbrella, and an assumption arises that digital media yield environments that are strong enough to form virtual communities, social change, spins on societal ideologies and promote other measurable outcomes in the online and offline worlds.
Others argue that online networks and their technical affordances are not steady foundations for community identity and engagement; rather, these elements serve as tools for participatory resources, transnational networks, and professional communication (Diani, 2000). When activist groups solely base their campaigns on social media, the outcomes consistently result in what Malcolm Gladwell (2011) describes as “slacktivism,” or passive sentiment towards an issue that never takes action outside of the virtual borders. Social media networks and CMC are consequently effective when they becomes extensions formed by face-to-face communication in the offline world (Diani, 2000).
In these alternate perspectives- social media’s influence under positive and negative thinking- the general norms of the online networks collectively promote awareness, yet they also distract audiences from directly resolving any particular issue. By examining the definition of public relations (PR) in new media, social activists’ PR challenges in online campaigning and the three features of online activism- community identity, the commercialization of campaigns and the political environment- one may conclude that it is more accurate to view such platforms through a strategic public relations lens of awareness and promotion rather than a tool for progressive social activism.
This paper uses previous literature to answer the following questions about online activism and communities: (1) Is the culture of online media strong enough to foster deep solidarity and identity in virtual communities? (2) What are the positive and negative consequences of utilizing social media in a campaign model? (3) How do governments and online participants threaten the progression of a specific social movement? (4) Are there supported ways to utilize online media for public relations and activist activities (i.e. building awareness, relationships and loyalty)? These examinations and the following review propose that additional research ought to be conducted to better understand how politics, online culture and social media strategies affect the progression of online social activism. Future PR specialists, activists and other advocates can therefore design new media methods that effectively spread awareness and action for their messages.
Defining Public Relations in New Media
Public Relations Society of America (2009) describes the field as a “strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” This definition entails that the interests of public relations specialists align with the engagement and relationship building between multiple public communication channels. To achieve their positions as representatives in the media, the message senders must investigate and interpret public opinion, manage the organization’s social or citizenship responsibilities, implement and evaluate plans to inform public understanding of the organization’s stance and activate efforts and resources to “influence or change public policy” (PRSA, 2009). The formal practice of PR dates back to the early 20th century, but the occupation is constantly evolving with technological advances and changing roles.
Duhe (2012) identifies advocacy, alliances and assessments as three themes that recur in the PR professionals’ roles in new media. Advocacy is impactful on professional practice when an individual and the collective group focus on the values, ethics and diversity within the business. This is the distinguishing point that separates the work of a PR practitioner from the journalist. Alliances stem from relationships that are shaped through mutual interests and engagement with the public. Strategic PR relationships must be confident representations and reflections of the organization’s core values. Finally, assessments measure and evaluate performances to recognize the progressive methods, status and opportunities that maximize engagement with the public.
Duhe (2012) recognizes that new media, especially social networks, directly benefit PR practitioners’ work because their content becomes archived, visible representations of transparency with audiences. The author applies Wright’s (1960) functional approach theory to social media’s interpersonal communication model, and the theory argues that a “uses and gratification perspective” at the individual distribution level enhance an open-system approach to PR and contribute to a campaign’s survival. Social media networks and other forms of new media differ from the traditional PR methods, such as news releases and media advisories, because the middle communicators between the PR specialists and public are removed to create a direct channel.
Though new media are effective for promoting awareness and relationships, Duhe (2012) and Diani (2000) argue that PR representatives addressing controversial and high-level affective thinking issues must use these communication channels as extensions of interpersonal, face-to-face communication. Diani (2000) concludes that neutral social movements and political activism are engaging and successful with CMC and social media, but participatory movement organizations- especially heavily debated and high-risk activities- ought to be done with direct, offline communication because they require relational trust and highly collective identification.
Social Activists’ PR Challenges in New Media
Sommerfeldt, Kent, and Taylor (2012) say that social activism is closely linked to these definitions and characteristics of PR professionals, because the advocates need strategic planning, campaigns and quality relationships to drive the societal issues toward successful change. The authors primarily focus on analyzing the online activities of such activist groups, because despite the utopic ideologies about the potential for dialogic communication in digital culture, a decade’s worth of research indicates that social media have come up short, despite earlier promises.
Sommerfeldt, Kent and Taylor (2012) suggest that organizations need to understand that websites and social media do not attract new attention through their mere online appearances. Rather, new traffic is stimulated by relationships that are built through internal and external conversations, meaning that potential members are persuaded to virtually follow the organization through references. As such, no research indicates that loyal membership is gained through this vaguely identified system, because traditional measurements for successful activism quantify the amount of resources gained by the promotion. This is done through determining the average rate of donations before and after a campaign, and the resources are defined as anything an organization needs to survive. They include assets such as “money, facilities and a means to publicize the group and its activities” (Sommerfeldt, Kent & Taylor, 2012). To combat this antediluvian, quantitative measurement issue in new media, recent technological developments have made donor communications and monetary offerings easier to monitor and facilitate online.
Greater concerns for online activism drift from the quantitative representations toward the largely ill-defined qualitative representations. Researchers and scholars are specifically skeptical about the strength and dependability of these relationships that are frequently built through online networks and communities.
Community Identity and Solidarity
In a New Yorker article titled, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” Gladwell (2010) notices that modern activist communities are defined by their tools of interactivity and conversation rather than the root cause. He believes social media are the root cause of this phenomenon because the networks are forms of “weak ties,” meaning that a person engages with others who are either strangers or loosely connected to that individual. These forms of relationships are successful in spreading new ideas and information, yet online activist communities are rarely motivated to make real sacrifices or offline actions for the campaign. Rather, they stay in a virtual bubble of organizing and disseminating information through social media reposts, “likes” and comments.
Gladwell (2010) uses the Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam’s analysis that compares new media campaigns to historical activist movements to highlight the difference between “weak ties” and “strong ties,” which are defined by the “degree of personal connection.” McAdams specifically studied the effectiveness of a 1960 civil rights movement in Greensboro, North Carolina that drew thousands of college-aged white and black protesters from surrounding states. He concluded that the primary difference was not in the ideological commitment, but the emotional investment and personal relevancy of each supporter- both active and withdrawn- toward the consensual goals and values of the particular movement (Gladwell, 2010). Thus, Gladwell concludes that supporters’ deeply connected networks successfully implement perseverance and action.
Online Activist Commercialization
The virtual communities’ motivation for social media campaigns remain unclear, however many online activists have adopted a commercialized system into their business model by persuading followers to purchase tangible souvenirs that display support.
Seay (2014), a journalist for the Washington Post, analyzes various cases of new media usage in campaigns and their outcomes. In one article, the author discusses how organizations instill a business model that encourages social media users to buy supportive tokens to foster more community engagement, and many others believe campaigns with viral content- such as Buzzfeed articles or self-produced videos- increase the likelihood of active participation that yields financial support. Seay (2014) found that the commercialization of an organization through popular content and sellable products does increase supporter engagement, because the actions psychologically place monetary value onto the activists’ message.
Seay (2014) concludes that the strongest and resourcefully rich support occurs when people’s public actions reflect their private beliefs. As such, the author suggests that advocacy organizations should promote the values that signify the causes’ stances. When this is tied to commercialization, the organization has the potential to change interested consumers into “committed, policy-changing activists” (Seay, 2014). Meyer and Bray’s (2013) research on the Toms and To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA) business models supports this idea, and the results additionally mention that consumers are more willing to follow the content, purchase an organization’s viral campaign products or make online donations when they believe the cause aligns with their interests. Furthermore, another major factor is the social desirability effect, because social media make a public acknowledgment of the users’ actions (Meyer & Bray, 2013).
Meyer and Bray’s (2013) analysis of the commercialization in public spaces serves as an example to demonstrate how digital and social media cultures carry certain social ideologies. These ideologies indicate that users ought to accept the general community norms to determine their “true” candidacy as active participates in virtual spaces. This suggests that online communities contain political power relations where voices compete to be heard. The political nature that exists among all virtual groups challenges activists to find communication methods that successfully reach and gain acceptance with these target audiences.
Agnostic Democracy. Many digital media critics and experts refer to the public sphere theory as an explanation for online rhetoric. This theory suggests that the Internet is designed as an open platform that equalizes opportunities for politically active dialogue among users, but Shaw (2012) argues that this theory neglects the acknowledgment of online deliberate democracy. The author also claims that the public sphere theory provides a consensus-based understanding of politics, which suggests that minority voices are left unheard. This proposed theory contradicts the occurrences of online activism, and Shaw (2012) suggests that Mouffe’s agnostic democracy fits online rhetoric because it takes into account that there are dominant and resistant power relations and political exclusions in virtual communities. Thus, the agnostic democracy theory provides an “us” versus “them” model that also supports the notion that unanimous identity politics are not necessary for active participation in online democracy (Shaw, 2012).
Governmental Pressure. Shirky’s (2012) opinion of online democracy closely reflects the agnostic democracy theory, because the author believes access to activists’ campaign information differs between cultures and the people who tend to use the Internet’s resources for different purposes. Shirky (2012) draws his ideas from Gladwell’s (2011) “slacktivism” concept that suggests new media networks make virtual communities indolent in taking action for certain causes. Offline action does not frequently occur through digital media, because the Internet makes it easy for individuals to follow a group with little voice. Secondly, governments abuse their social responsibility through limiting citizens’ access to information. Shirky (2012) uses the Chinese system as an example, because the government has crafted a national norm for their web services to censor users and users to censor themselves. Their message states that such operations exercise nationalism and public morals.
The PR and political characteristics of online activism create strong platforms for promoting awareness, but there are significant drawbacks to the model. For instance, Ekman (2014) uses a case study of Swedish right-wing extremists’ video strategies on YouTube to enlighten the potential dangers of new media persuasion. The Swedish extremists abused social media’s technical affordances and aesthetic nature to cultivate strong political communities that were only exposed to one particular message. Ekman (2014) found that the propaganda had a large outreach since the messages could be embedded into areas outside of the YouTube community. In addition, the asynchronous timing of online content gives the opportunity for political organizations to control their messages and strategically adjust their identities to match the values of potential supporters. These possibilities negatively take opposing messages out of context and allow such groups to play on audience’s affective logic, which opens political agenda to personal interpretation.
Secondly, Harlow (2014) discusses unintentional limitations of virtual PR work on activist campaigns. In an analysis about immigrants in Austin, Texas, the author says that the digital divide between campaign advocates and those affected by the issue serves as an illustration to show how online activism generally receives low transfer to offline action. Such digital divides create a disconnection between the communities and personal relevancy is lost. In conclusion, social media seems effective for efficiently spreading information, but it also creates an illusion that online communities have made a difference without the same level of active participation or dedication as offline activists (Harlow, 2014).
Conclusion and Future Study
As suggested previously in this review, the general norms of the online networks collectively promote awareness, yet they also distract audiences from directly resolving any particular issue. After examining the definition of PR in new media, social activists’ PR challenges in online campaigning and the three features of online activism- community identity, the commercialization of campaigns and the political environment- one may conclude that such social activists should use their online networks and resources to spread awareness and promotion.
Many academic and journalistic studies address the commercialization, social and political aspects of online communities and social activism, but there is still little research or experimentation about how this information can be used to enhance future campaigns. Aaker and Adler’s (2010) “Dragonfly Effect” uses the metaphor of an insect that can fly in any direction to propose social media strategies that have “cross-disciplinary insight, coordination and balance” (see Appendix A for an illustration of the Dragonfly Effect). The model contains useful strategies in social media, but little is told about how an organization can measure value and success. Likewise, Knibbs (2013) believes that online media are still in their early stages, and so evolution through time is the only indicator until more research on reception and attitudes is conducted through qualitative analysis.
The Dragonfly Effect (Aaker, Smith, & Adler, 2010)
Aaker, J., Smith, A., & Adler, C. (2010). The dragonfly effect: Quick, effective, and powerful ways to use social media to drive social change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass: A Wiley Imprint.
Diani, M. (2000). Social movement networks virtual and real. Information, Communication & Society, 3, 386-401. doi: 10.1080/13691180051033333
Duhe, S. (2012). Public relations and new media: Advocacy, alliances, and assessments. Global Media Journal: Canadian Edition, 5 (2). Retrieved from http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=8dfd061e-9f1b-4e75-af4a-77d3440fb3be%40sessionmgr4005&vid=25&hid=4106
Ekman, M. (2014). The dark side of online activism: Swedish right-wing extremist video activism on YouTube. MedieKultur: Journal of Media & Communication Research, 30, 79-99. Retrieved from http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=32e68881-07d3-45ca-803f-78956f7f03a2%40sessionmgr115&vid=22&hid=130
Gladwell, M. (2010, October 4). Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/04/small-change-malcolm-gladwell
Harlow, S., & Guo, L. (2014). Will the revolution be Tweeted or Facebooked? Using digital communication tools in immigrant activism. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 3, 463-478. Retrieved from http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=32e68881-07d3-45ca-803f-78956f7f03a2%40sessionmgr115&vid=25&hid=130
Knibbs, K. (2013, May 15). Slacktivists, unite! Social media campaigns aren’t just feel-good back patting. Digital Trends. Retrieved from http://www.digitaltrends.com/social-media/slacktivists-unite-social-media-campaigns-arent-just-feel-good-back-patting/
Meyer, M. D. E., & Bray, C. W. (2013). Emerging adult usage of social networks as sites ofactivism: A critical examination of the TOMS and TWLOHA movements. Ohio Communication Journal, 51, 53-57. Retrieved from http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=32e68881-07d3-45ca-803f-78956f7f03a2%40sessionmgr115&vid=4&hid=130
Public Relations Society of America. (2009). About public relations. PRSA. Retrieved from https://www.prsa.org/aboutprsa/publicrelationsdefined/#.Vw9uKT-5dpk
Seay, L. (2014, March 12). Does slacktivism work? The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/03/12/does-slacktivism-work/
Shaw, F. (2012). The politics of blogs: Theories of discursive activism online. Media International Australia, 142, 41-49. Retrieved from http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=32e68881-07d3-45ca-803f-78956f7f03a2%40sessionmgr115&vid=19&hid=130
Shirky, C. (2011). The political power of social media: Technology, the public sphere, and political change. Foreign Affairs, 90, 28-41. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25800379?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Sommerfeldt, E. J., Kent, M. L., & Taylor, M. (2012). Activist practitioner perspectives of website public relations: Why aren’t activist websites fulfilling the dialogic promise?Public Relations Review, 38 (2). doi: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2012.01.00