Our research on grassroots digital activism in Canada has revealed some of the strategies organizers use to deal with the technological, interactional, and personal barriers of digital activism. In our research, we have identified some strategies that organizers use to overcome the technical, interpersonal and emotional barriers associated with digital activism.
Read more: Leading an online social movement requires offline work.
People’s use of social media for activist purposes clashes with the commercial goals of these platforms. For example, as these platforms prioritize popular and recent content, activist messages have to be constantly updated and liked or shared in order to remain visible to wider audiences. This places the burden on activists, who must make the best of these tools within the constraints set by the platforms’ algorithms.
Dilution or dissemination?
Social media can improve activist communication but at the expense of losing Control of the message. In collective action, this is important because it’s essential to have a set of clearly communicated demands and complaints in order to gain political recognition.
In 2014, during the teachers’ strike in British Columbia, three parents had the idea to host playdates outside the offices of B.C. legislators. Legislative Assembly Members (MLAs). Parents wanted to press the provincial government into negotiating with teachers to end the strike. They pondered the possible message-diluting effects of #MLAPlaydates as they shared the idea on social media:
It’s not traditional command and Control. You can play around with the idea and see what it’s capable of. You pass stuff on …. This is a new framework for activism …. Like beta testing. You never know how it will fly.
They used “open-source” activism to monitor social media in order to reinforce their message, prevent it from becoming co-opted, and invite supporters to personalize and adopt this message.
Digital activists find it hard to communicate outside their own networks because of filter bubbles. Some platforms, however, are more open than others. They use different algorithms to make their content visible to users.
The organizers of Alberta’s #SafeStampede wished to draw attention to the culture of rape surrounding the annual Calgary Stampede. They found:
Facebook is by far the best way to engage in a real discussion [about these issues]. However, it’s a feedback loop because you are mostly talking to friends.
To overcome this barrier, organizers created profiles public on more open platforms such as Twitter and Tumblr in order to break the echo chamber effect.
Social media visibility is often determined by the freshness of a message and its reactions. Activists must constantly monitor the algorithms that push content up to the top of users’ newsfeeds. They are forced to act and think like digital marketers and strategize their message distribution and production.
Our research revealed that digital activists spoke about the need to adapt to platform-specific practices as well as their learning curve to understand these practices.
If you post five times per day, every day, and you don’t have good descriptions or hashtags, then you won’t get the same response. You want to be careful about what you post and how often.
Allies and Trolls
Digital activism faces its challenges when it comes to social media interaction, which is a part of algorithms.
Social media helped find the #SafeStampede organizers through their existing networks. Face-to-face interactions and meetings grew out of online connections, which facilitated the backstage work for their social media campaign.
I don’t believe anything happens exclusively on social media anymore. It needs to reach a point when things transcend social media, and you have real conversations with other people and build relationships.
The campaign was also open to abuse and trolling on social media. Another gender-related movement, the Women’s MarchMarch in Alberta, had a similar experience. Organizers described how people who searched for terms such as “transgender,” “pussycat,” and “pussy dress” launched a calculated gender-biased attack just days before the March. The organizers used a “block, delete and report” strategy to deal with the backlash. They pointed out:
We tried to avoid letting our emotional and mental energy and time be sucked into that.
The camaraderie that developed online and offline helped to mitigate the impact of these confrontations. Even so, trolling and online attacks can quickly deplete the limited resources available to citizen activists.
Burnout and dropout
While participants in our discussions minimized their personal and professional costs associated with digital activism, they also mentioned burnout as a factor that makes long-term involvement impossible.
Social media had tied activists’ public names with their activism, making it difficult to escape the emotional costs of trolls and backlash.