The Ineffectiveness of Online Advocacy

In the article “The Problem With Social-Media Protests,” published in The Atlantic, author Antonia Malchick argues that online social movements are likely to experience faster burnout and result in less actual policy change than in-person activism. Before the internet increased the speed at which information travels, it’s claimed, advocacy in general was slower growing, but benefited from the extra time spent deepening social interactions and strengthening the underlying interconnections of the movement. Malchick states “By contrast, mass protests such as Occupy Wall Street formed rapidly but then, lacking that underlying resilience created over time, often lost focus, direction, and, most important, their potential to effect change” (paragraph 3). I believe that the author’s claims are especially relevant in current times, and I further argue that social media activism is inherently less effective than in-person advocacy due to its reduced ability to sway an elected official’s vote, and the threat of social manipulation by foreign actors.

In chapter 18 of You May Ask Yourself by Dalton Conley, the overall effectiveness of online social movements is brought into question. Testimony from sociologist Doug McAdam reveals that despite the easily disseminated nature of information, online-based movements may not utilize preexisting interpersonal relationships to create effective behavioral change. He states “successful movements, movements that take off very quickly, emerge within established communities, and essentially the members of that community are threatened with the loss of member benefits for failure to go along. It’s not clear that the electronic communities have the same capacity to monitor people’s compliance with the new line of action” (Conley). This potentially reduced compliance ultimately results in a lack of accountability within online movements. Empty clicks and inconsequential Tweets take the place of tangible commitment in followers, greatly reducing the likelihood of an elected official treating the cause seriously. As stated further in chapter 18, “politicians and policy makers can easily ignore online social movements. They know that e-mail is cheap and easy, and therefore they value it less” (Conley). In general, lack of legislative potential is a profound reason why internet activism cannot replace physical protests and in-person advocacy.

As communication in our society is increasingly organized online, disinformation and manipulation become more probable threats. The capacity for subterfuge by foreign actors and those who profit from division is only enhanced by the less resilient nature of online social movements. In the journal article “Tackling Disinformation, Online Terrorism, and Cyber Risks into the 2020s,” published in The Cyber Defense Review, author Oz Sultan outlines the complex systems of disinformation and propaganda enabled by social media. He argues that false-narrative stories propagated through alternative media sites are being leveraged by countries such as Russia, as well as copycat campaigns, to influence, confuse, or demoralize social movements and the online population in general. Sultan claims “These anchor stories . . . work like a signal that gets transmitted through several repeaters. Disruption of these stories or weaponized content should actively involve the social media platforms that facilitate their dissemination. However, what we’ve seen in recent years is a reticence by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp to follow through” (page 46). This vulnerability of social movements to the influence of foreign propaganda is another chief reason why online activism is inherently less effective than in-person advocacy.

Digital technology has given rise to previously unfathomable amounts of interconnectivity and readily available information. It is an inevitability that social activists will seek to utilize the online medium to further their causes. However, there are concerns that arise with this newfound arena for advocacy that remain significant and still partly unknown. As Antonia Malchick concludes in her article, “The realities of face-to-face contact and in-person mass protests, the tools of centuries of struggle for full citizenship and rights, have become even more essential to grounding us as we navigate through a new era of humans’ relationship with technology” (paragraph 11). While the creation of tangible, in-the-flesh connections with each other is being tested by factors like COVID-19, its importance is only further highlighted. Overall, I agree with Malchick’s claims and argue that social media activism is inherently less effective than in-person advocacy due to its reduced ability to sway an elected official’s vote, and the threat of social manipulation by foreign actors.

Works Cited:

“Chapter 18: Collective Action, Social Movements, and Social Change.” You May Ask Yourself: an Introduction to Thinking like a Sociologist, by Dalton Conley, W.W. Norton, 2019.

Malchik, Antonia. “The Problem With Social-Media Protests.” The Atlantic, 6 May 2019, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/05/in-person-protests-stronger-online-activism-a-walking-life/578905/. 

Sultan, Oz. “Tackling Disinformation, Online Terrorism, and Cyber Risks into the 2020s.” The Cyber Defense Review, vol. 4, no. 1, 2019, pp. 43–60. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26623066. Accessed 16 Nov. 2020.

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