Digital Media and Social Movements

Dr. Saswati Gangopadhyay*


Digital technology has ridden the wave of globalization and has become available in most places around the world, with the digital technology being used in almost all spheres– social, economic to political. This medium is used by diverse groups of people, with varied intellectual capacities and each deriving different benefits from this medium. This medium is used for multifarious purposes, most commonly for information (search engines, hyper links, news portals etc); education (web pages, pdf documents, e-books, blogs etc); entertainment (songs, videos, games etc); interface and computer mediated communication (networking sites, instant messaging, e-mail, blogs etc). The massive pace of digitization especially of information has changed the lives of people cutting across geo-political boundaries. This has led to formation of new kinds of business partnerships and personal dealings which has led to changes in social and cultural settings globally, further leading to a new understanding of the complexities of the impact on culture and how this medium may be used to develop positive understanding amongst people of multivariate cultures. The social networking sites (SNS) have not just linked two individuals in a very intimate interpersonal communication but has also successfully connected people to form groups and forums ranging from political to social issues. (Gangopadhyay, 2014). E-mail, web sites, chat rooms, blogs, and bulletin boards enable efficient communication, organization, and even deliberation within social movements of any size (Bimber, Flanagin, &Stohl, 2005).

To speak of a social movement generally four elements should be present: (1) a network of organizations, (2) a shared collective identity, (3) mobilizing people to join, mostly unconventional actions (4) to obtain social or political goals (Diani and Eyerman 1992; Duyvendak and Koopmans 1992). While social movement organizations (SMOs)may not have direct access to policy processes, they can help shape the broader political environment in which policy debates occur through framing, or producing and mobilising meaning on a mass scale (Benford and Snow, 2000). Mass media play an important role in this regard. Social movement organisations use mass media to expand the debate around an issue, energise a movement by mobilising a population to action, and build (and then leverage) their legitimacy in the political sphere (Gamson and Meyer, 1996; Gamson and Wolfsfeld 1993; Walgrave and Manssens 2000). The opportunities for social movement organisations to promote themselves and their causes in contemporary media environment seem endless. Social movement organisations can target traditional media outlets such as print, radio and electronic news outlets or go virtual and disseminate information about their causes and goals through blogs, YouTube, twitter, online radio, online news outlets, social media, or their own group websites (Att on 2007; Carroll and Hackett 2006; Gamson 1990; Thörn2007). The introduction of social media such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter as a new way to social network has become the new catalyst tool in the formation of social movements. (Lopes,2014).”E-movements” are social movements that emerge entirely online; these are to be distinguished from traditional SMOs that have augmented their normal activities with an online presence. Traditionally, SMOs have been organised into a centralised, vertically hierarchical command structure. E-movements, however, have the freedom to operate in a different fashion. (Freidland & Rogerson, 2009). Cohesive political movements form when previously unorganised groups find a political voice as vague dissatisfaction’s crystallise into a specific goal or demand for change (Gamson,1975). The rate, ease, and volume of global communication and multimedia distribution on the Internet cannot help but accelerate the normal process of political movement formation and have been shown to speed the diffusion of both social movement information and even protest itself. These accelerations may contribute to the intensification of Internet-aided conflicts. (Garrett, 2006)

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are facilitating collective action in ways never thought possible. Although the broader political climate may have a powerful influence on the success or failure of emerging social movement organisations (SMOs), the Internet is enabling groups previously incapable of political action to find their voices. (Freidland & Rogerson, 2009). Virtual petitions, online money-bombs, forums to debate issues, and the use of social media and email to recruit people for meetings and protests – all are ways in which today’s political activists try to engage citizens and influence the political process. Social movements across the political spectrum use new technologies to effect change and influence party politics. (Rohlinger, Bunnage & Klein, 2012). Petitions, a common action for the nascent social movement, are quite easy to conduct online; especially compared with the time a similar effort takes offline. Free petition setup/hosting services, such as Petition Online  (, further simplify the process, enabling even basic computer users to access this technology. And Internet users have taken notice: in its first eight years of operation, the Petition Online service hosted tens of thousands of petitions and collected more than 47 million signatures (Earl, 2007). Social media introduces speed and interactivity that were lacking in the traditional mobilisation techniques, which generally include the use of leaflets, posters, and faxes.(Eltantawy & Wiest 2011). New digital technologies have not only made it possible to coordinate actions democratically across long distances and multiple organisations; they have also generated new conceptions of participatory democracies as horizontal networks. (Juris, 2008).

Despite its size, the passive nature of the Internet means that users discover only what they seek, and people normally find information that merely reinforces their interests or beliefs. However, this structure likely streamlines the process of political mobilization because like minded people can connect more easily (Rogerson, 2009). ICT makes it easier for social movement organizations to involve supporters in decision-making processes regarding group priorities. This is important because it allows movement groups to represent and mobilize around multiple issues and policy domains while avoiding those that are likely to fracture organizational support. Additionally, giving supporters a regular voice in the organization keeps people involved even when they are not particularly happy with the campaigns or actions of the group. Thus, supporters set aside their personal passions and support the group as a vehicle of political change.(Rohlinger, Bunnage & Klien, 2014).

Theoretical framework

The theoretical framework for this work has been derived from the ideas of Public Sphere. The seminal work of Habermas Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere1962, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989)]traced the growth of democratic public sphere. He defines the public sphere as the sphere of private people who join together to form a “public “and calls it the bourgeois public sphere. Internet as the mediated public sphere serves this purpose by giving free space for public debate that is possible through weblogs and social media allows unidentified persons to interact over digital platforms to form a public driven by some common interest which may be multifarious like political, social, economic etc.

In the view of Gerhards & Schafer, the structure of the internet mirrors that of the public sphere in that several levels can be distinguished that differ in the extent of organizational structure, the level of participation and the impact they have on society. The online counterpart of the traditional ‘encounter public sphere’ is internet-based interpersonal communication such as e-mailing or instant messaging. The organizational prerequisites to keep this forum going are rather low, and the opportunities for participants to make themselves heard are high, but the impact on the larger societal debate remains low due to the small amount of people reached. Internet fora, discussion boards and blogs constitute the second level of the internet public sphere (although some of them, due to very small readership, may actually come close to interpersonal communication.) (Gerhards & Schafer, 2009)


Using the case study method, three social movements have been taken up as case studies for discussion. In case of these movements, the focus is on political, economic and gender justice respectively. All these social movements have used internet in many ways and hence it is imperative to find out the impact the new digital media has upon such social movements.

Case studies

Anna Hazare-Anti Corruption Movement

Social worker and anti-corruption crusader from Maharashtra, Anna Hazare started the national movement for a strong anti-corruption law. He and some like-minded people from different parts of India came together to form a loose consortium  to protest against the 2011 central government’s anti-corruption Lokpal bill which was to be discussed in parliament. The protesters felt that the Lokpal bill was too weak and needed much more executive power to become effective in curbing corruption. The protest climaxed with a fast unto death at Delhi by Anna Hazare. All along the mass media were highlighting the sequence of the protests and lot of discussions were on in the social media with netizens giving opinions in chat rooms or having petitions circulated and signed. ‘The question is whether mainstream media helped in giving shape for a huge movement or media had no choice than establishing its credentials in a democratic set up to claim for its continuous guardian and fourth pillar status. Some scholars also believe that it was the social media which provided momentum for a huge movement that the main stream media could not ignore. As a result the subsequent intervention of electronic and print media has made the agitation into a mass movement.’ (Mohapatra, 2013).

Occupy Wall Street Movement

This was yet another movement which started in September, 2011 in New York City’s financial hub Wall Street. It was an outburst by common people led by activists because of the economic meltdown which had led to a large number of people being rendered jobless due to capitalists greed symbolized by all the well-known financial institutions of Wall Street. The protestors camped for weeks in Zucotti Park near the New York Stock Exchange. Later on this movement spread to different parts of the country like Occupy Chicago and other parts of the world to spearhead movements like Occupy London and Occupy Hong Kong. Later in November the protestors were forcibly evicted by the New York City Police. For this movement to gather steam before the actual occupation many months of preparation was needed and communication between people was imperative. The social media played a very crucial role. Again, for the movement to spread to different places, social media played a very important role.”The communication tools for a majority of the activists at Occupy Wall Street as well as those who began to champion the messages of the social movement were poured out via social media platforms. The surge in Tweeting about Occupy Wall Street as well as visiting the homepage was intertwined with the public’s awareness and finding out about the social movement.”(Clark,2012)

Nirbhaya Rape Protest Movement

In December 2012, a young physiotherapy intern was brutally gang raped and critically injured in a moving bus in Delhi. Few days later this brave heart Nirbhaya (name coined by media) died due to internal injuries in a Singapore hospital. The entire nation’s outrage emerged in the public domain not only through mass media but also in a major way through social media. Ordinary citizens led demonstrations and candlelight vigils all across the country to demand that the central government take some strong action against the culprits and bring major changes in the existing rape laws.  It seems the social media was able to galvanize the public to take this sort of action.  The massive protests led the government to set up Justice Verma committee to bring changes in the rape law. ‘For the first time in the history of India many citizens come forward to report the events. As Citizen Journalists they were actively posting photographs and videos online and the main stream media was taking user generated content. The young technology savvy Indians spread their outrage across the country and came together to voice their opinions against the weak law and the flaws in our legal system. Within days it became a place for social change in India.'(Mishra & Krishnaswami, 2014). Social media played a pivot role in mobilizing people to India Gate. No doubt T.V. was telecasting all the developments in the case but it was mobile phone which was updating those seating on streets. Every news item was reaching them on their cell phone via Facebook and Twitter etc. (Kaur&Kaur, 2013)

Concluding remarks

It may be safely assumed that with reference to these three case studies the information communication technology or digital medium has played a very crucial role. Firstly, it reaches large number of people quickly with in-depth information which is not possible through mass mediums due to scarcity of space and time. Secondly, discussion and clarifications have happened using chat room discussions wherein organisers have been able to motivate people virtually to the cause using the interpersonal and group communication advantages and many such motivated individuals have physically reached the venues of the protests. Thirdly, a large number of people have signed online petitions which have been forwarded by organisers to mainstream media and relevant governmental or non- governmental agencies, for the purpose of showcasing the public opinion on the pertinent issue in question.

All these have been non-violent social movements in recent times which have happened in different parts of the world with digital media playing a very pivotal role. Social movements via internet have some very distinct advantages due to use of the technologies. The most important hindrance in any social movement is the lack of participation of majority. This can be due to time constraints or some other factor but mobilizing people is easier online than in the real world. People can be called for a protest march on one day but preparation for the big date can be done through online meetings among netizens many times before the actual event. Online petitions are quicker and flexible to sign and hence get more responses. In bulletin boards or chat rooms people can discuss, share ideas and give opinion. As most of the social media is still perceived as being democratic, getting correct feedback is easier and faster. These help organisers understand the disposition of majority of the supporters. Hence it may be safely assumed that for most social movements the ground work may be done using the internet and then the denouement would occur successfully in the real world and that such events would also be the focus of further social media intervention to reach a larger number of people.


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