Digital activism for social transformation

Author: Martha R. Villabona works at Subdirección General de Cooperación Territorial e Innovación Educativa of the Spanish Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, where she coordinates the area of multiple literacies.

Photo: Rami Al-zayat / Unsplash

Communication trough networks has changed how relationships between governments, citizens, politicians and other social actors develop. This form of communication, interconnection and interaction is not offered by traditional media. It has led to the strengthening of citizen group movements, achieving social transformations through the use of technology.

The use of technology as a facilitator of communication to carry out activism is not new. One of the precedents is found in the 1990s. A social movement against corporate globalization that sustained that e-mail and websites are means to capture social attention and generate political pressure 1.

Digital activism is a form of social participation that occurs with the use of social networks and digital platforms, which differs from other forms of participation in the network because it seeks to change a current situation that affects society through mobilization and militancy.

Manuel Castells 2 highlights the possibilities of mass communication using Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), since they allow social movements to use the Internet to achieve political change. In the network space, characterized as a public space, there is horizontal and multimodal intervention, which implies an alternative to traditional mass media. Such a space can be reconstructed in different variants: virtual space, the physical space of city places and the space of institutions 3. The advantage of having several spaces is that, if the physical space cannot be occupied, the social movement continues in the virtual one through the dissemination of messages about abuses of power and political control that spread like wildfire through the networks provoking and sustaining indignation (i.e. the Black Lives Matter social movement), the basis from which social movements arise (Castells, 2014). However, when outrage emerges in social networks, it can have different outcomes in the communicative ecosystem. On the one hand, sharing outrage in networks can create common knowledge and organize collective behaviors around important social issues, i.e., shared organization can develop positive collective actions 4 such as the creation of social movements. However, it may also be the case that outrage results in collective action that is ineffective in meeting long-term group goals because it is unable to act strategically 5.

One example of digital activism is the Umbrella Revolution movement. It is a peaceful civil disobedience movement that emerged in Hong Kong in September 2014 during protests for more transparent democratic elections. The movement’s communication strategies are linked to the media and technologies they use. Its leaders established a hierarchical model of communication. There were specific individuals who carried out the official communications on social networks to rally protesters, expose issues, reflect their positions and denounce police violence. Social networks serve as a catalyst for collective action and debate on the city’s political system, inequality or employment.

They mainly used the WhatsApp and Facebook social networks. While the latter, is a network more open to public participation that they used to expose their protests and debate openly; the former, a more discreet network, was used for the leaders to coordinate among themselves, communicate with journalists and reach the population that gives more trust and credibility to the messages that reach them through this channel 6. Another of the movement’s digital communication strategies has been to create memes to make interpretations of the events. Memes are easily shared on FB and WhatsApp and reach their followers faster than the audiences (older profile) of traditional media. Likewise, through the networks, the movement discredited those who published manipulated or false information about the movement’s struggle.

However, the movement was not able to influence the audience outside the movement, an audience more receptive to information coming from traditional media than from social networks (Agur and Frisch, 2019). Although they created a digital space for activism with much impact on the movement itself, they have not been able to persuade the majority of Hong Kong citizens to engage with their goals. Along with this obstacle, the existence of numerous messages on social networks and the age segmentation of these networks have also influenced the reach and engagement of their demands.

In the scientific literature on the relationship between technology and politics, three mechanisms are described: the reduction of participation costs, the promotion of collective identity and the creation of community 7 . The publication and access to information by social movements through ICTs has the potential to alter the flow of political information, reduce the cost of conventional forms of participation and create new forms of cooperation. It also improves the efficiency of coordination and communication. On the other hand, increased communication via these networks does not ensure that commitment to the movement’s objectives increases, since the audience is not always engaged, even if it is agreeable with the cause.



  1. Couldry, N. et al. (2003). Contesting media power: Alternative media in a networked world. Rowman & Littlefield Publisher.
  2. Castells, M. (2009). Comunicación y poder. Madrid: Alianza Editorial
  3. Castells, M. (2014). Space and networked social movements. Revista Academia Mexicana de Ciencias, vol. 65, 4, pp. 58-64.
  4. Spring, V., Daryl, C. & Cikara, M. (2019). Asking different questions about outrage: A reply to Brady and Crockett. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 23, 80-82.
  5. Brady, J. and Crockett, J. (2019). How effective is online outrage? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 23, 79-80.
  6. Agur C. and Frisch N, (2019). Digital Disobedience and the limits of persuasion: social media activism in Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement. Social media + Society.
  7. Garrett, R. (2006). Protest in an Information Society: a review of literature on social movements and new ICTs. Information, Communication & Society, 9:2, 202-224.

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