Notes on Digital Activism

Dr Vera Hoelscher|Lecturer in Marketing| Royal Holloway School of Business and Management

On 19 February 2020, the DOS Research Centre organised a half-day event on Digital Activism. The purpose of the day was to learn about the nature and impact of digitally enabled and enhanced mobilisation for political, economic and social change, and how research and practice can learn from and support each other in this process.  The event brought together artists, academics and practitioners who gave short talks on pertinent issues.  Below we pick out the main themes emerging from the day.

The Requirement to Combine Digital and Physical Activism

We heard first from Janet Gunter who is co-founder of the Restart Project.   The Restart Project aims to help people in repairing their electronic devices as a correction to our throwaway culture and campaigns for legislation to force businesses to produce longer lasting tech.  Janet explained how the Restart Project built its own on-line network of activists which has proven very effective for coalition building, as an organising tool for activist events and for interaction with the public. However greater visibility can have its problems and can create passive involvement so Janet argued a combination of on-line and off-line interaction is required.  Similarly, Vera Hoelscher, lecturer in Marketing at Royal Holloway, discussed her research with digital activist networks in London which noted that entirely online activism leads to a craving for physical action while entirely physical activism can be constraining and claustrophobic, therefore arguing for the qualitatively-distinct benefits of communicating in both physical and digital spaces for activist organizations.   

Innovative Ways of Giving Voice to the Invisible or Under-Represented

Kui Kihoro Mackay, PhD student in Politics at Royal Holloway, shared her experiences of #blacktwitterverse and #BlackJoy as spaces of radical resistance within the Twittersphere, demonstrating the potential for groups to appropriate the digital to counter oppression in their own terms.  Matthias Kispert, musician, artist and PhD student at the University of Westminster, demonstrated how he has used the accessibility of digital platforms to enable voice for casualised labour.  Matthias has co-produced videos with platform workers, and a number of other provocative art works that draw attention to workers’ labour conditions, demonstrating the power of the visual to bring home the activist message.  In a similar vein, Robbie Warrin discussed enabling creative ways for gigworkers to share their experiences and comment on their own lives.  Robbie and his colleagues are founders of the Invisible Worker Zine, which regularly asks for contributions from gig-economy workers that represent in narrative, poetical or visual form the everyday struggles of this fast-growing mode of working.   

Building Digital Picket Lines

This group of speakers sought to illustrate the role of the digital in supporting political action.  Torsten Geelan of the University of Leicester presented his research on the role of social media in the UCU pension debate in late 2019 (and still ongoing).  Drawing on their study which utilised data mining, Torsten argued that social media enabled mobilisation through “personalised collective action frames”, combining personal issues with collective action.  Relatedly, James Sloam, lecturer in Politics at Royal Holloway and author of Youthquake , discussed the distinctive features of online youth movements which work through authenticity rather than the bureaucratic control of traditional political parties.  Our final contributor, Mikko Laamanen, lecturer in Marketing at Royal Holloway, discussed the “F*ck off Google” (FOG) protest and its role in deterring the data giant from re-purposing an existing building in Kreuzberg, Germany, through online resistance, ‘noise events’ and local café-based actions.  On the basis of their investigations, Mikko and colleagues argue for a ‘cosmopolitan localism’ of activist movements, that is, a global networked sharing of knowledge and resources between place-based communities.

Overall, the day drew attention to the myriad approaches and concerns of digital activism, illustrating the many ways in which the digital can both enable activism and be a constraining factor.  An important discussion point that emerged from the day was how academics can best work with community activists, in particular through allowing their research to be guided by the needs of activist groups rather than seeking to impose their own research agendas.  Consequently, the DOS Research Centre will be organising further events that bring together practitioners, academics and members of the public to work on ways in which researchers can best support important social change in the digital sphere.


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