Digital activism: passive participation and divergence of ideas in online social movements

Digital communications Access to information New Zealand

Abstract: This thesis seeks to explore how information technology is being used to engage people in social movements, which may both have a diverse support base and be spontaneous, to rally active supporters around a set of shared goals. New Information and Communication Technologies (NICTs) such as the Internet and social media have enabled an unprecedented level of connectedness that has hitherto remained unknown. This has changed the way that we view social interaction, no longer requiring that social connections be maintained through face-to-face communication. It has enabled us to invest in, and increase the number of our social connections more efficiently, through the use of indirect communication channels. However, this has also had implications for social movements whose mode of communication centres on the use of digital communication, and the requirement of strong social connections to mobilise people and resources into action.

This qualitative research looks at technologically-connected social movements though the lens of Castell’s (2000) network society, Habermas (1992) public sphere, and modern social movement theory (McCarthy & Zald, 1977). Focusing on the Occupy Auckland social movement and its ancillaries as the unit of analysis, this thesis explores, through thematic analysis, the experiences of movement participants and supporters, through unstructured interviews. The themes that have emerged have enabled the construction of ten distinct propositions that frame the core findings of this research.

Namely, that technology is an effective tool for gathering support. However, there is a strong connection between the use of technology in a social movement and leadership within that movement. In the absence of leadership and technological savvy, the movement experiences inertia due to increasing participation which is only passive in nature, which challenges the movement to realise its goals. Without the influence of effective leadership skills and engagement from the general public, social media has, in isolation, limited ability to affect social and political change. This challenges future movements which choose to organise themselves online to have strong a leadership presence online and to develop strategies within the movement to engage would-be passive participants into social action.

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