The digital transformation of social movements: is it good to be “seen”?

Evronia AzerAssistant Professor | Centre for Business in Society at Coventry University

It is argued that the rise of social media has given rise to new forms of protest action, where the digital space has empowered activists and given lots of opportunities for activism to be successful. Lately, more researchers and media outlets are starting to pay a closer attention to the dual role of technology that can be paradoxical.

I’ve explored the concept of “paradoxes” of technology in collective action as part of my PhD at the School of Management at Royal Holloway University of London. Paradoxes mean that if technology is used in a certain setting, it can have dual results, implications and consequences, which can be contradictory to each other. So, while technology can appear to be facilitating activism, it is also undermining activism in many ways.

Social media has allowed activists to be visible or “seen” online. This means that their causes are visible and recognisable to the public, who in turn can easily find many things to do in order to support social movements, like following their news, joining their rallies or donating to them. On the other hand, being visible and present online means that you can also be tracked, put under surveillance, or bullied. Through my research, I’ve found three paradoxes of technology, particularly of being visible or “seen” online. The first is how technology is empowering movements through spreading their causes and calls for action, but at the same time making movements vulnerable once the movements grow and their figures are identified to the public. In the Hong Kong protests for example, you can see how dangerous facial recognition is in identifying protesters, and how some protesters are using face masks to protect their identities. Also, activists in different contexts have been targeted with phishing attacks that trick them into giving away their online accounts’ credentials.

The second is how technology helps activists spread their narratives about their causes, but at the same time, technology is manipulated by different groups to spread fake news, attack activists, or deliberately trick the public through “misinformation”. This has been exemplified through the Cambridge Analytica scandal for example, as social media data was used and analysed in a way that aims to trick the public with fake news.

The final paradox is how individuals using technology for collective action deal with the feeling of being monitored all the time. Some feel they don’t care about any surveillance but others are more careful and aware, and therefore have different cybersecurity behaviours. For example, they avoid using platforms that they consider insecure or unencrypted.

You probably won’t think about any of this when you see an event for a climate change protest on your timeline and you click “going”. However, as people collectively use social media on daily basis for activism, they also face opposite forces from social media, big data analysis tools, and surveillance and face recognition software in more sophisticated ways technically and socially. This makes every string of data produced online counts.

The implications for understanding technology differently are crucial, as they allow us to see its “dark side”. However, it’s not that technology has been designed to be evil, but it’s how it’s used, by whom, and the context in which it is used. Technology is powerful indeed, but we need to have more critical understanding of this power, which can paradoxically be utilised to control or liberate individuals.


Azer, E., Zheng, Y., & Harindranath, G. (2018). Paradoxes of Visibility in Activism. The 12th Mediterranean Conference on Information Systems. Corfu, 28-30 September 2018

About the author

Evronia Azer is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Business in Society at Coventry University. She is affiliated with the DOS centre at Royal Holloway, where she did her PhD in the area of ICTs in collective action.

Photo credit: Daniel Tafjord on Unsplash

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