The Power of Online Activism

I began an internship/volunteer role with a county-level political party this week.  My role is to build reach and produce content for their social media platforms.  I expect to experience the extremes of all online activism in the next few weeks.  My interest in online activism began a few years ago when I realized impact of quick spreading information.  As much negativity that comes with it, it is also does help to educate and rally people together.  I am now calling it digital canvassing.  I thought I was clever creating the term, but it actually does exist and has become widely used, especially leading up to the 2016 election.  The power of social media tools for facilitating political participation and protest also open the door to use social media as surveillance, repression, censorship, and trolling. Since the introduction to Web 2.0 into our political climate, we’ve seen a rise in issues related to cyberbullying and trolling. (Preface: A decade of Web 2.0 – Reflections, critical perspectives, and beyond). The more volatile our political climate becomes, the more we see how the internet, especially social media, enables individuals to show the cruelest versions of themselves.  However, we also get to see the best by stories and communications of support, cooperation, and collaboration.

 Embed from Getty Images

Howard Rheingold, in Net Smart, discusses convergence culture depends upon what Pierre Lévy calls “collective intelligence”, in reference to Wikipedia.  This idea “refers to a situation where nobody knows everything, everyone knows something, and what any given member knows is accessible to any other member upon request on an ad hoc base.” (Rheingold, 2014, p. 159) This type of collaboration goes well beyond Wikipedia and has been studied in many different social situations.  In an interview with Lévy, Rheingold asked about “the skills needed to participate in and instigate collective intelligence activity.”  The answer exhibits the way we interact on social media platforms or through blogging. It is a creating a “synergy between personal knowledge and collective knowledge management.” (Rheingold, 2014, p. 160). Our collective intelligence is used in online activism.  It may be part of its foundation.  The positive desired outcome is the sharing information to create a likeminded group and to gain members.  However, we’ve also witnessed the ability to troll each other in these interactions which then becomes divisive.

Many users see social media as an especially negative venue for political discussions, but others see it as simply “more of the same”

Merriam-Webster defines power as (entry one of three), “1a(1): ability to act of produce an effect, 1a(2): ability to get extra-base hits, or 1a(3): capacity for being acted upon or undergoing an effect.” (Power)  Understanding that by definition, power is capacity to elicit effect, conveys that power should not necessarily be considered a positive thing.  The power of online activism is its capacity for producing effect, positive and negative.  Since our immersion into Web 2.0, online activism, especially political, has become a daily, sometimes hourly bombardment.  Before the Web, especially, Web 2.0, we were able to limit our political driven activism exposure to television commercials (usually only aired near elections), some print materials, or door-to-door canvassers. Now, we can’t run away from it. Now, is the power of the online activism encouraging our political engagement and encouraging us to vote, or is it deteriorating our moral so severely that we chose to not engage at all?

 37% of social media users are worn out by political content

Is freedom of speech, in coordination with online activism, creating a healthy functioning collective intelligence?  While this could be argued to great lengths and we still wouldn’t all agree, is that the point? The opening line in an article in Forbes discussing the internet and activism states, “How we choose to act in extreme circumstances helps to define our character.”  The article goes on to easily explain how quickly we can find our own collective in the digital world.  From joining Green Peace to save the world or to join a terrorist organization, it is easy to find your own collective. (The internet and the next generation of activism) We’ve had conversations resulting from blogs this semester surrounding the idea, ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say it at all.” At what point are our words creating divisive online activism and actually causing great harm?  I anticipate this question only becoming more difficult to simply answer as our interaction with online activism grows. I think it is better to kind and if you can’t be kind, be silent.


Posted on October 14, 2018, in Creative, Digital, Marketing, Social Media, Technology, Trust and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Hi Jennifer,

    Online activism has become an important part of political campaigns. Russian interference in the 2016 election was done primarily online, and some political experts believe the Russians wanted to not only affect the way Americans voted but also whether they voted at all. Until we can cast our ballots online, voting is done in the real world. All of the digital canvassing that any campaign does makes no difference if people don’t actually vote in person.

    Have you heard of the new HBO series leading up the midterm elections? It’s called Pod Save America. It’s main objective is to get out the vote. In the first episode that aired Friday, there was a segment about canvassing door-to-door. The canvassers in the video make a point of saying, ‘put down your phone, knock on doors, and talk to people face-to-face.’ They argue that canvassing in person is still the most effective way to turn out the vote. I wonder if that’s true for all categories and ages of voters today. You can see the show for free on HBO’s site:

    Thanks for your post,


    • Pod Save America was first a podcast, and it’s great! I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in politics:

      It sounds like this TV series is an extension of the podcast. Thanks for linking the first episode!

    • Angie,

      I actually just learned about the HBO special this week but haven’t watched it yet. I’ve heard the arguments and I see their point in believing in physical canvassing. However, I just really believe that digital canvassing should be given more credit and that’s why I wanted to focus on it. But, you are right, what’s the point if no one gets out and votes anyway? I am very curious to see if digital canvassing becomes bigger and if it ends up being effective. I expect it to be preferred by the younger generations.


  2. I love that you talked about digital canvassing as it related to the readings this week! Just this past week I had an experience with this. I was sitting on my couch when I got a text from an unknown number, it read: “Hi Brittney! This is Chandler with the Wisconsin Democrats. I’m sure you know we have an important electing coming up on Nov. 6th. Are you planning to support the Democrats this year?” and when I responded, I received a follow up message reading “We need you to help us elect Tammy, Tony, and all the Democrats! Can we count on your to come knock some doors with us this weekend?” And when I responded, “no” the texting stopped.

    It is much more likely that I respond to a text like this than someone knocking on my door. For starters, it’s pretty difficult for canvassers to get to my door. I live in an apartment building where the entry door is locked, along with the hallway door on my floor, and then my apartment door itself. And although I am more likely to respond to this text than it is likely for someone to catch me at my apartment, I wonder what level of engagement and participation it has in total? It is as useful as actually going door to door? Or, since it is via text, does it lose some of it’s power compared to an in-person ask? This online activism has made it much easier for politicians to access voters.

    • There are some people who believe traditional canvassing is the way to continue doing it. I understand the rational but it doesn’t work on me. I’m betting that many are like you and I. The texts are fine. It helps us know what is going on and it reminds of things, like get out and vote. However, we are able to better protect our boundaries. I personally hate it when my doorbell rings. My daughter and I don’t even answer the door when someone does ring it. I don’t like people showing up at my door without texting or calling first (personal, business, whatever) and actually have a “no soliciting” sticker on my door (which FYI, doesn’t apply to political “canvassers”). Your apartment protects your boundaries, awesome! In general, I don’t see the younger generations appreciating traditional door canvassing. And I like getting all my information and reminders online.

  3. This exchange reminds me of a few things: 1) the later chapters of Alone Together that we’re reading this week that talk about how high school kids/younger people use social media “to figure themselves out” and can oftentimes be crueler online than they really are in person; 2) a sitcom or show I watched within the last year that talked about how young people are afraid of door bells (people text as they approach; no one uses a door bell) and 3) how I’ve been receiving similar texts from the Democrats to which I never reply because I’m afraid of that very same reply: “Will you help?” Similarly, it freaks me out when the door bell rings (I have been known to skulk to avoid being seen) or I figure it’s just the UPS guy delivering an Amazon package.

    I wrote a paper a few years ago about how the omnipresent use of the Net enabled Obama to win the youth vote. I wonder now as everyone political has multiple online presences if it can sometimes be too much. I find myself easily getting over-saturated with news/ads/headlines, and I just tune out. I realize that I’m not actively participating in the democratic citizenry, but being in tuned to it all day long is just not good for my mental health. It’s like I get paralyzed by all the news coming at me, I feel helpless, and then I just want to unplug. It’s not just a brochure stuck in our front door, or an occasional TV ad, it’s everyone we go online (and especially on Facebook right now).

    • I feel paralyzed by all the news and information, too. It is overwhelming and it causes me to have anxiety. I’m pulling away from everything unnecessary to preserve my mental health.

  4. Hi JJ,

    Your post was very insightful this week and I thoroughly enjoyed reading what you had to say and hearing more about your internship experience.

    I concur with you that the nature of political activism is starting to increase especially with the use of social media. The internet allows for users to share and say just about anything at any time. The virtual world we live in today can also skew or trick viewers who do not understand the difference between native ads (paid content) versus organic content. The interesting aside is that native ads tend to pick up more attention and interest amongst viewers on social media, because they use attention grabbing images. However, some of these images do not contain sources and some users fall prey to what is included in the ad and refer to it as credible and noteworthy information. You can read more about a study that observed young individuals behaviors and patterns on locating and deeming information to be credible on social media –

    – Kim

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