How to approach new media and activism

This blog will deal how new media is used by activists and social movements for development. This is a large field of analysis and through the different contributions made, we hope to examine the contemporary state of play highlighting what new information communication technology (ICT) offers social movements, how it is implemented and the discussions around its use. We will reflect on what ICT means for development.

The traditional divide between those who consume information and those who produce it has become far less pronounced through the advance of new media. An individual can be both. They can ingest media through various sources but simultaneously create content, offer opinion, form interest groups and foster both direct action and also raise awareness.

Lievrouw (2011) stated that new media is defined by the ICT devices used, the communicative structures of their use and also the resulting social groups that are formed and furthered by their use. Through these capacities it has become apparent that social movements have harnessed the capabilities that new media offer.

a list of the different kinds of new media activism as categorized by Lievrouw (2011: 35)


Mobile phone text messaging was central to organizing the protests that led to President Estrada’s removal in the Philippines in 2001 (here) as it was in exposing the 2009 election fraud in Moldova and the removal of the Spanish Prime Minister in 2004. The use of Twitter and Facebook through the Occupy Movement is also an example of the organisational capacity that new media holds to coordinate protests and quickly distribute information (Castells 2012).

anti-government protest in Moldova 2009
anti-government protest in Moldova 2009


However, there are also many times where online activism failed to succeed. For example, the Iranian Green Movement in 2009 and the Red Shirt Uprising in Thailand a year later failed to foster any change. Moreover, access to new technology (a ‘Digitial Divide’), censorship of its use and notions of ‘clicktivism’ or ‘slacktivism’ all must be weighted against its promise.

Clay Shirky (2011) argues that the promise of social media for social/political change is not immediate. Rather, it is an incremental process that takes time. As more people gain access to ICTs, communication networks become deeper, entrenched and more participatory. As this process develops, more individuals and groups will have access to information, engagement and action that will result in social and political change.

According to Shirky, the potential of social media is in adding to the public sphere and cultivating civil society in a slow burn over many years. When analysed as a tool for immediate political protest or regime change, it is not as effective.
In order to view the efficacy of new media on development then it is important to view the contemporary power it holds but also what longer term capacity it holds for development.




Castells, M (2012) Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. Oxford Polity
Lievrouw, Leah (2011) Alternative and Activist New Media Oxford: Polity Press.
Shirky, C. 2010:The political power of social media technology, the public sphere, and political change,Foreign Affairs90: 28-I.


  1. Tom W

    Hi Stuart – this is a nice statement of purpose, and I really like the Lievrouw citation in particular – her idea of the creation of publics and groups as central to classifying the effects of media is really important.

    I also think it’s useful to note (as you do in your Philippines example) that much of this debate predates Twitter and Facebook. In fact, I’ll be posting soon about the bias towards novelty and asking how much of this is really new.

  2. Yoseph Berhane

    Stuart, your article argues that the more people use social media platforms, the more likely they strengthen authoritarian regimes rather than weaken them. Right?

    There is some truth to that. Skeptics have long argued that social media doesn’t create any real change. While social media campaigns have been effective at raising awareness around the issues they are tackling, not all of them have forced real action. What social media has done is open up a space for a lot of people to do different levels of activism and different levels of engaging.

    I think online activism has failed to succeed because of censorship and lack of access to new technology. For instance, Iran’s “Twitter Revolution” failed to foster any change because the majority of people in Iran did not have access to twitter in 2009. In addition to that, censorship practices were used to monitor and track activists with the help of software companies based in Western countries.

    In my opinion, social media can be a powerful tool for regime change and it can lead to democracy. Online activism has been effective at pressuring politicians and governments to change. Repressive regimes in Egypt and Tunisia would not have been changed had it not been for the effective use of social media by activists.

    But social media has its own limitations. It can not achieve social or political change by itself, nor can it replace traditional activism and is not sufficient for effective social and political activism. However, it can facilitate public dialogues and create a platform for awareness and change. What social media can do is give a voice to those who are otherwise voiceless.

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