How effective is online activism in modern-day protesting and awareness

Online activism saw a big surge in 2020 as the pandemic struck and now it is widely used post pandemic
Online activism saw a big surge in 2020 as the pandemic struck and now it is widely used post pandemic

Activism is steeped into history. Behind any big movement are people pushing for change, for their rights, for peace and for the environment - one mind with one goal; theoretically.

Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic was not the first pandemic the world has seen, it was the first in 100 years, and the landscape of how we view and exchange information has changed.

The George Flloyd protest is a perfect example of that.

Three years ago, in 2020, in almost an international collective effort, hundreds of people around the world protested against the treatment of black people by US police officers, after a video went viral showing how one man was brutally murdered by the police officers arresting him.

His final words "I can't breathe" became a recognisable set of words for people to take action.

Although we were amid a pandemic, people across the UK in London, Birmingham and Manchester were armed with PPE in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests showing that even a lockdown cannot stop people from exercising their right to protest.

What was notable, however, is how this took off in the digital realm. It began to raise the question of how protesting changed, even over a short period, from pre-pandemic to post and just how effective online activism can be.

Galvanised by the pandemic

Dina Rickman, Senior Director of American crowdfunding platform, GoFundMe, says that online activism is not a new phenomenon as British activism has been moving from the streets to online for the last couple of decades. She says: "This has been happening for a long time - sites such as GoFundMe and were running viral campaigns well before Covid. The pandemic galvanised this, and we saw more people embracing virtual events and campaigning."

Ms Rickman says the site has seen a "huge trend" of people having their say, not just in their times of need, but on political and social issues, such as Brexit, food poverty and the NHS. Even on its site, Brexit is one of the topics trending, with a campaign titled “National Rejoin March London II Fundraiser” which has gained £25,276 so far.

Ms Rickman believes that online activism is not mutually exclusive to face-to-face activism, and the two are complimentary of each other. She says: "The internet gets bad press a lot of the time, but it’s extraordinarily helping people raise more money and find causes that move them. What we see on GoFundMe really is the best of the web."

Dr John Hondros, a lecturer in Digital Practice and Online Distance Learning at the University of Sussex, agrees with Ms Rickman and says: "With respect to social and political activism, traditional media has been and still is significant. The printed pamphlets of the French and American revolutions are notable examples of this."

He further explains why people turn to online activism when face to face also works well: "When the latest media technologies become available, they are appropriated by people attracted by the affordances they offer compared to the currently existing activist technologies or practices."

He elaborates by giving the example of using videos. Previously, activist videos would be seen at organised public screenings in local venues, and sometimes they were distributed via physical media, such as videocassette tape or DVD. Now this has become a lot easier, all you have to do is take a video and post it on social media. This only requires one person sharing it once and eliminates the need to attempt to attract a huge crowd.

One major example of this is when Just Stop Oil activists, Phoebe Plummer, 21, and Anna Holland, 20, threw a tin of tomato soup at Sunflowers, the van Gogh painting at the National Gallery in London. This act, done on 14 October 2022, became a talking point for weeks to come - and gained the attention Just Stop Oil was looking for.

Data provided by petition site 38 Degrees showed how more people are using petitions as an effective method to online activism.

In 2022, a total of 1,614 petitions were set up on the 38 Degrees site created either by members of the public or by the 38 Degrees team.

Between July 25, 2022, and July 25, 2023, 207 of these petitions were actively campaigned - staff from 38 Degrees carried out a set of planned activities to bring attention to these campaigns.

The top issues were:

Furthermore, in June 2023, 1,004,994 people got involved with online protesting via the site.

Of these, 868,008 were petition signatures; 13,727 involved using their technology to send individual, personalised messages to MPs or decision makers; 97,449 involved responding to government consultations or taking surveys to share personal experiences; 15, 429 were people contributing to fund powerful campaigning tactics; plus 10,381 ‘other’ actions.

However, online activism can have some downsides. Dr Hondros says that some people question the suitability of popular online platforms as places to have the types of social and political discussions building consensus on issues.

The effectiveness of online activism is also called into account. Despite giving a much greater reach than traditional media, there are questions over the engagement of this wider audience. Terms like ‘clicktivism’ and ‘slacktivism’ thrown about on social media to make people aware that activism and making a change is more than liking a statement on Twitter or TikTok.

Yet, Dr Hondros still thinks online activism is effective. He says: "Although still developing, online activism has undoubtedly proved effective in some situations. For example, where problematic practices of individuals or organisations have been shared on social media to create pressure for change."

On 19 August 2023, a rally gathered outside the Co-op headquarters in Manchester to protest against the supermarket's use of ‘FrankenChickens’ - chickens grown at an accelerated rate, usually to sell their meat, which can cause massive concerns for their welfare.

Nationalworld spoke to the organiser and members of the protest group to ask their thoughts on online activism, and if they thought in-person activism was more effective. Tens of Co-op members gathered on a rainy day in Manchester with banners expressing their feelings towards the Co-op to be a part of The Better Chicken Commitment - a welfare policy addressing issues related to breeding fast-growth and high-yield animal stock.

Hannah Dickson, the protest organiser, says: “We wanted to show up in person to get as many people as possible to support this.

“I don’t think this type of protest would be as effective done online. It’s been great to use our online presence to gather as many people as possible for the protest. But in order to show the Co-op how much this means to people, I think it's so much more effective to get these people out in front of the Co-op building and showing them what we support.”

The video can be viewed below:

Online activism in practice

Campaign site 38 Degrees allows the public to set up their own petitions. One example provided by the site was Annie Ashton, who lost her husband Luke, who has suffered from gambling addiction, to suicide in 2019. Wanting to help others in Luke’s name, in 2021 she set up a petition on the government petition website, calling for Luke’s Law – a law to rein in gambling companies. The petition was closed in six months due to the rules of their site, but the government responded to her petition saying they would publish a new white paper by the end of the year - which didn't happen.

Despite this setback, Ashton decided not to give up and launched a second petition on 38 Degrees, allowing her to run the campaign with no deadline and with the ability to communicate with the people who signed. She gained over 90,000 signatures, and worked with 38 Degrees and Gambling With Lives to turbo charge the campaign, meeting with government ministers, appearing on national news and handing the petition in to Downing St in 2023. Finally, in April 2023, Ashton was successful in making the government publish the white paper they promised.

Megan Bentall, Head of Campaigns at 38 Degrees, said: “As a community of a million people, across every constituency in the UK, working to create a fairer, more respectful and more sustainable Britain, we know that online campaigning tools provide a powerful way for busy people to take small actions that add up to something bigger.

“With online and offline campaigning, we make sure that democracy is something that happens every single day, not just at election times.”