Information Society and Social Activism
Paper for information contours, Itp
Spring 2009

Contemporary society, whether or not it is an “information society”, has clearly been transformed in profound ways by information technology. These technologies, from the internet to contemporary media to the vast databases of every personal, financial and industrial transaction, have been designed to serve the capitalist economy, as noted by Herbert Schiller.  Even much government technology and information (economic data, for example) is created to serve business needs; the political systems in most advanced economies ensure that economic issues take priority in many policy decisions, and commercial interests have extensive power to set the agenda and influence debate, through the financial markets, campaign contributions, lobbying and control of the mass media. However, each new technological innovation – the internet itself, blogging, text messages, social networking and so on – has been heralded as the breakthrough that will empower ordinary citizens, minorities and other disadvantaged groups to speak out and to each other, to increase participation in the public sphere and make society more democratic.  However, despite a number of isolated successful uses of technology by citizen movements, the political process, at nearly all levels of government – local, national and international – is still disproportionately controlled by an elite, capitalist class, delaying, denying or compromising the popular interest on issues including health care, the financial bailouts, climate change, and global trade agreements.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are primarily created and owned by the corporate sector, and they have also enabled corporations to grow and achieve the scale to spread around the world. By crossing borders, corporations have in some ways transcended the nation-state, using their geographic reach to move assets and production to countries with the least regulation, and to avoid paying the taxes that nations are dependent upon for public services. Databases and fast communication networks have been essential to operating global companies with offices, factories, suppliers and customers around the world, and the financial markets that support them. Additionally, much of the media that is consumed in the developed world – print, broadcast and even online – is owned by large corporations, giving them additional power to shape public opinion in ways that benefit corporate interests, whether the issue is deregulation, privatization, free trade, or simply the encouragement to buy and consume more. Information, rather than serving the public interest, is sold as a commodity, to the public, as well as to other companies and investors, and information is also a private asset, as copyrights, brands, and intellectual property.

How can the public assert its own interests within the information society?  How can information technology be used to truly build more democratic processes and just and sustainable economies? Civil society faces a number of challenges in achieving the benefits of technology that is enjoyed by corporations.  The core challenge is that of resources. Business uses technology to generate revenues and profit, which support large workforces and the infrastructure to organize them. NGOs and community groups have limited funds, usually from donations, grants and perhaps some sales and fees, though usually from clients with less to spend. This is usually no match for the budget of a transnational corporation – even the largest NGOs have budgets several orders of magnitude less than the Wal-Marts, Exxons and Citigroups of the world. As a result, they cannot build the same level of technological infrastructure, nor attract the same number or level of technical staff as those companies. As a result, NGOs do not have the same inherent capacity to generate, organize and distribute information that could benefit their own operations and campaigns.  Also, at their smaller scale, they do not have the same reach in the media and influence in government, and few have the visibility or name recognition of a Coca-Cola or an Apple, so they have challenges in gaining credibility and attention from the public to build broad movements.

Early NGO uses of technology reflected traditional approaches to political activism – publishing reports and exposés online, getting users to sign petitions and send email to political leaders, encouraging site visitors to get involved with offline campaigns, boycotts and rallies, and supplementing fundraising efforts with online donations. Kenix (2007) evaluated non-profit organizations’ web sites on six conceptual categories, based on some of the utopian ideals ascribed to the Internet: a deliberative public sphere; the opportunity for activism; a space for marginalized voices; interconnected, instantaneous information; advertising and fundraising revenue; and accountability. Though some of the criteria that were used to evaluate sites in these areas may have been flawed (criteria included variables of questionable significance, such as whether the site included FAQs, guestbooks, fax numbers, etc), the paper’s conclusion was that few non-profits were successfully implementing even the low-hanging fruit of internet activism, except perhaps for fundraising, much less achieving an online utopia.

Despite these barriers, when contextual factors align with good strategy, community activists and NGOs have been able to use technology and information to build movements with real impact. One of the earliest examples, in 1994, when the internet was just beginning to become mainstream, was the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico. The EZLN, the organization behind the movement, used the internet to broadcast its message and updates, building a base of international support despite being a regional movement faced with repression and censorship from the Mexican government (Cleaver, 1999).  Online organizing was a key component of the WTO protests in Seattle, which brought together activists from hundreds of NGOs together with labor, religious and other community leaders. Much of the coordination took place online prior to the protests, which derailed the WTO trade talks and emboldened developing countries to take a stand against the form of corporate globalization being promoted at the talks. The organizing of the protests helped spawn the Indymedia network of progressive citizen journalists around the US and the world, the World Social Forum process, and subsequent protests against the World Bank and IMF, G-8 summits, the Free Trade Area of the Americas and the World Economic Forum.

The Internet has also played a key role in the more traditional political process., started in response to the Clinton impeachment process, reached full speed by the 2004 presidential election cycle, raising millions of dollars for running television commercials against George W. Bush and his policies, and building an email list of millions of members, who are frequently asked to contact their congressional representatives and other government officials as a rapid response to emerging issues. By the 2008 presidential cycle, bloggers were recognized as influential voices in the public sphere, and courted by presidential candidates in the primaries and the general election. Finally, the Obama campaign has been recognized for its masterful use of the Internet to raise campaign funds, engage supporters and build volunteer networks. 

Still, the successful online movements have proven difficult to sustain, replicate and expand into an enduring and effective counterweight to global capitalism.  The global justice movement that emerged from the Seattle protests had much of its energy dissipate in the United States after 9/11 (Hadden and Tarrow, 2007), though it has continued with some success in Europe, and in South America, through the World Social Forum. Indymedia, while perhaps paving the way for bloggers as citizen journalists, never really reached a mass audience.  Much of the online and offline energy behind the Kerry and Obama campaigns dissipated shortly after the elections, with the movement existing as an email distribution list but little else.

Online activism still relies on technology and communication systems designed for commercial activity – while open-source, community alternatives exist for some functions, most are still not developed to have the capabilities of information systems developed for Wall Street and the multinational corporations.  Secondly, structural barriers still exist for exercising power. While new communities continue to emerge and grow, with the aid of communication technology, to support social change in a variety of areas, the political process has changed little, limiting the opportunity for ordinary citizens to effect change primarily to voting and political contributions. Finally, the availability of so much information, including user-generated content, social media, and escapist and commercial content created by the corporate media, has led to fragmentation of the public attention, burying public affairs content with an avalanche of tweets, email, blog posts, YouTube videos, reality shows and blockbuster movies.

Where do opportunities exist to use ICTs to build enduring social movements? A review of research on how social movements grow is informative here, with an eye on how individuals and corporations are successfully using technology today.  Garrett (2006) summarizes two similar frameworks from McAdam et al (1996) and van de Donk et al (2004) which describe the factors that contribute to the emergence of social movements: mobilizing structures, opportunity structures and framing processes. Mobilizing structures include social structures and organizations, and tactical repertoires, a set of familiar forms of protest and action. Opportunity structures refer to the conditions that make change possible, including accessibility to the political process, the degree of censorship and repression in society, and openness to change within the institutions and elites. Framing processes are the methods used to craft and disseminate the message and demands of a movement.

Garrett subdivides the uses of ICTs for enhancing mobilizing structures into three areas: participation levels, contentious activities and organizational issues. Though he finds little evidence that ICTs have greatly increased participation in social movements, the opportunity still seems to be tantalizingly present. Technology has already enabled organizations, campaigns and movements to grow more quickly and bring together a geographically dispersed membership. Advances and increased participation in social networking is an area to explore. Facebook enables rapid dissemination of news and calls to action via a social network, though there are few, if any examples, of a sustained movement to emerge on Facebook or any other general-purpose social networking site. Nevertheless, ICTs reduce the transaction costs for individuals to join a movement, and for organizations to recruit, communicate with, and coordinate its members, so ultimately it should be easier to build a movement if the right conditions exist and the right strategy is employed.  

ICTs have also been used for movements to mobilize, coordinate and adapt their “contentious” activities. This includes activists using mobile phones to report police activity in the Republican National Convention protests in New York in 2004, and more recent demonstrations in the Philippines and Belarus (Shirky, 2008).  As mobile technology becomes more powerful and ubiquitous, these tools will be able to coordinate larger movements and become a more familiar part of citizen activists’ tactical repertoires. In some countries, mobilization has been limited by government control of communication systems. However, technology is emerging that will allow citizens to evade government controls and censorship. New software is being spread in Iran, China and other countries to help internet users go around those countries’ firewalls (Markoff, 2009).

Meanwhile, movements have also been inhibited by the difficulty in building and sustaining large, global organizations. Existing ICTs have been created and designed for just that, and are successfully deployed for transnational corporations. If this software can be made cheaper and easier to deploy and use, civil society will be better able to exploit their advantages. At the same time, technology may enable new forms of organization. Already, more decentralized organizations have formed which delegate decision-making away from hierarchical structures, enable more rapid and more local responses to problems and crises, are more resilient to changes in composition, and bring together groups with different ideologies and agendas (Bennett, 2003).

The software that enables citizens to evade government censors may also enable changes to movements’ opportunity structures.  Prior to this software, governments could fairly easily control the flow of information into and out of a country – while these controls have not been absolute, the difficulty in sending and receiving information, and distributing it within the country, effectively limited the possibility of a large-scale movement to be galvanized by information. Authoritarian governments in North Korea and Burma depend on their control of information to control their citizenry. With access to information, and the means to spread it electronically, we can finally envision a tipping point in those countries akin to the fall of Eastern European Communist governments. Closer to home, the election of Barack Obama and large Democratic majorities in Congress, the financial crisis and subsequent backlash against the neoliberal ideology of free markets and deregulation has created a change to the opportunity structures in the United States that is ready to be exploited with or without ICTs.

Additionally, technology may enable new forms of democracy. There have been utopian claims that it could enable direct democracy via electronic debate and voting on a range of issues – this raised a number of problems that haven’t been solved – but there are other changes that may be more accessible.  Already, the variety of new ways that citizens can communicate online have changed the shape and forms of public discourse, the foundation of a healthy democracy. Citizen activists also have new ways to effect change by influencing corporate and individual behavior, rather than through legislative means, through the spread of ideas via social networks and user-generated content.

These technological trends influence framing processes – the explosion of user-generated content via blogs, social networks, wikis, YouTube and other sites seem to have reached a critical mass and now play a significant role in influencing public opinion, and the mass media itself, by providing alternative viewpoints, elevating issues and propagating existing information. Meanwhile, journalism is facing its own crisis of viability, with the Internet wreaking significant havoc on the business models of newspapers, magazines and network news. To be sure, user content, and content from NGOs, still have some distance to go in achieving the levels of quality, credibility and distribution of the “professional” media, but technology may have a role to play in closing these gaps as well, with improved filtering, rating and targeting. As the functionality and usability of the technologies behind these sources mature, the content can be expected to improve as well.

Transnational corporations’ dependence on information also opens up other opportunities. Activist campaigns can simply target a company’s brand, rather than their factories, offices or regulatory environment, which have been the strategies in the past. A successful campaign against Nike’s use of sweatshops targeted the company image (Bennett, 2003). Public information (and information revealed by whistle-blowers) that companies generate as a by-product of their operations can be scrutinized for ways to expose their impacts on the environment, economy and society. Continuous improvements in technology for commercial activity also expand the information capabilities of activists.


While technology has not fulfilled the utopian claims made by the evangelists of each new development, it may be best viewed as something to be slowly and deliberately adopted and adapted to fit, enhance and evolve well-established models of social activism. By understanding how information and communication technology is utilized by the corporate sector, and the dynamics of how social movements form, grow and create change, opportunities for effective use of technology are revealed, along with directions and paths for exploration, innovation and development.



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Copyright © Derek Chung