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In What Ways Has the Internet Affected Social Movements?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Society
Wordcount: 4923 words Published: 18th May 2020

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  1. Introduction

Social movements have been running through the development process of various countries and regions. It can be a democratic expression within the system, and it can also be a way for people to break through the system and express their diverse demands. In recent years, social movements around the world have been significantly involved with the Internet. Marshall McLuhan (2003) points out in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man that media is the essential driving force of social development and the criterion for distinguishing different social forms. The emergence and application of each new media declare that society has entered into a new era. With the advent and development of Internet technology, especially the application and popularization of social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, human beings have gradually been brought into networked society, and social movement has transformed to a new form. This essay takes the recent networked social movements Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and Hong Kong Yellow Umbrella Movement as the example, argues that the Internet affects the mobilizing structure of social movements, which mainly involves the mobilizing organization and mobilizing network, and has changed the traditional collective logic of social movements to connective logic.

  1. Review of Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and Yellow Umbrella Movement

Arab Spring refers to a series of anti-government social movements that took place in Arab countries, countries in North Africa and West Asia with the theme of democracy and economy at the end of 2010. These movements mostly took the form of public demonstrations and Internet protests. The profound and wide-ranging influence of these movements has aroused the whole world’s attention. Occupy Wall Street is a series of rallies mainly taking place in New York. This movement was inspired by the Arab Spring in 2011 and began on September 17th, 2011. The objective of the movement was to fight against the social injustice and inequality brought by large American companies. The Yellow Umbrella Movement, also refers to the Umbrella Revolution, refers to the civil resistance movement in Hong Kong from September 26th to December 15th,2014. Participators spontaneously occupied a number of main roads for sit-ins and demonstrations. Demonstrators demanded the right to nominate citizens for the Chief Executive’s election (general universal suffrage), and rebel against the National People’s Congress of China. All these three movements are typical movements that happened in the Internet age, and the Internet plays a critical role in their mobilization process.

  1. Internet and Mobilizing Structure

Resource mobilization theory, which emerged in the 1970s, was put forward on the basis of criticizing the relative deprivation theory (Merton, 1938). It follows the presupposition of rational choice theory and emphasizes that social movements are the pursuit of interests derived from individual rationality. McCarthy and Zald (1977) formally put forward the concept of resource mobilization and further theorized it. They point out that individual social resentment does not always trigger social movements. It is not social discontent that determines the success or failure of the social movement, but the resources it can mobilize. Internet as a mobilization tool, it can reduce the cost of participation, promote collective identity and the establishment of groups, thus facilitating the mobilization of collective action, accelerating the dissemination and diffusion of the movement, and providing new ways of struggle (Leizerow, 2000; Myers, 2000; Bimber, 2000). However, it is more significant that the Internet may change the mobilizing structure of social movements. In this section, it discusses two critical aspects of mobilization structure: mobilizing organization and activism and mobilizing network to examine how the Internet affects the social movements.

3.1  Mobilizing Organization and Activism

According to the resource mobilization theory, the key to start the social movement lies in the organization’s access to resources, including funds, movement organizations, media resources and even party relations. Resource mobilization also holds the view that the participants in the movement are not rabble, but concern about the pre-division of labor between leaders and followers. The organization of the movement should be responsible for the construction of leadership structure, mass mobilization and propaganda before the struggle. Therefore, most traditional social movements regard hierarchy as an effective organizational form of social movements. In this context, organizations usually have a clear hierarchical division of labor and a structured relationship between leaders and followers. In short, the traditional organizational structure of social movements has the characteristics of professionalization and hierarchy.

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However, in recent years, the organization structure of networked social movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Yellow Umbrella Movement have not developed in accordance with the direction of professional and formal hierarchy organizations described in the resource mobilization theory. With the rise of the Internet, ordinary people can also organize and mobilize collective action by themselves. The organization structures of social movements under the influence of the Internet can be roughly divided into the following two categories:

First, the Internet becomes an organizational substitute (Buechler, 2011), which means that the social media platform becomes the organization and protest field of social movements. In this model, social media assumes the functions of traditional organizations. Administrative appeals or discontent can be expressed and shared on the Internet through personalized ways such as Twitter and Facebook. Relevant information can be quickly disseminated through social platforms or e-mail newsletter lists. For example, in the week before Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, the number of Twitter posts in Egypt rose rapidly from 2,300 to 230,000 (Aday & Farrell, 2013). Participants in the Arab Spring utilized Twitter, personalized social media, as a platform to express discontent and put pressure on President Mubarak. Twitter, as an organizational intermediary, also plays a role in shaping and guiding the discussion of political issues. For example, the slogan of Occupy Wall Street, “We are the 99%” becomes a hashtag, a personalized framework, which shapes the behavior of the participants in the movement. They narrate their personal experience through Twitter and other platforms, upload and share photos, audio and video, so as to disseminate appeals and movement information.

Second, the organization structure becomes relatively loose. The representative movement is the Yellow Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. In this model, spontaneous civil organizations act in loose organizational coordination and mainly use the Internet to connect participants. For example, in the Yellow Umbrella Movement, organizations like Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), Scholarism and Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) spontaneously form mobilization. They are independent organizations but cooperative with each other. This mobilization also has no clear hierarchy. There are some microcelebrities not only from the student organizations but also from social political parties and university professors. These microcelebrities come from different levels of society, and there is no hierarchy distinction. They communicate horizontally at the same level, spread information through the social media platform.

3.2  Mobilizing Network

Another essential part of the resource mobilization theory is the emphasis on the role of interpersonal networks in social movements. The interpersonal network is the basis of collective action and social movement mobilization. Any mobilization of social movements must be carried out through pre-existing networks. McAdam (1982) pointed out two roles of interpersonal networks in the study of the black civil rights movement in the United States. Firstly, the network has the function of communication, which can transmit information and assist the emergence of cognitive liberation. Through this autonomous communication network, individuals are more likely to accept external information and realize the possibility of changing the current situation. Secondly, the network also provides solidarity incentive. In the highly integrated group, members will regard their collective participation as a real reward, rather than a cost they have to endure, thus solving Olsen’s free-rider problem (1965). The communication networks usually exist between individuals with substantial heterogeneity, while solidarity networks are usually attached to a group with high homogeneity, which corresponds to the weak tie and strong tie concept of Granovetter (1973). For social movements, both strong ties and weak ties are indispensable. A weak tie helps to cross the boundaries of groups and communicate among groups with strong heterogeneity, so as to obtain more external resources and expand the scope of mobilization of social movements. A strong tie helps to generate feelings of trust and loyalty, thus strengthening cohesion within groups and enhancing the density of mobilization. However, social changes and advanced technology have promoted the emergence and development of the new media field. At the same time, the society based on the organization has gradually transited to an individualized society (Castells, 2007). These factors provide the possibility for the weak tie interpersonal network to be constructed in the social movements.

In fact, the Internet provides a weak tie, which helps social movement participants to communicate with each other more efficiently, makes social movement connect society and build up new networks with a more considerable distance. Twitter, Facebook and other new media’s vertical information dissemination share the characteristics of instantaneity and de-regionalization enable social movements to overcome geographical obstacles. Even people who are entirely dispersed in geographical distribution can get timely information, which provides the possibility for the occurrence of social movements. The weak tie of the Internet contributes to the formation of cyberspace, which enables social movements to transcend geographical space restrictions and to effectively connect and mobilize social movement participants or potential supporters scattered around the world.

In the Yellow Umbrella Movement, Twitter, Facebook and other new media are the main channels to activate potential interpersonal networks, and also the crucial tools to build interpersonal networks across geographical constraints. Leading organizations OCLP, Scholarism and HKFS all have their own Facebook public homepages. The number of Facebook fans of Scholarism was only 55,000 before “occupying the center,” which increased rapidly to 273,000 after the outbreak of the movement. What is more, according to the survey (Zheng & Chen, 2017), there are 1.6 million Umbrella Movement related tweets, over 50% (53.18%) of which are in English rather than their mother language. It can be seen that the movement network has crossed the geographical limitations and attracted international attention.

To be concluded, the Internet not only contributes to a new form of organization structure but also changes the communication network. The organization structure becomes relatively loose, or the Internet replaces the organization and becomes an independent protest field. Different to the traditional strong tie, the Internet tends to build a weak tie, which enlarges the mobilization network and the scales of social movements.

  1. The Connective Logic of Networked Social Movement

According to the analysis above, it can be found that the mobilization structure of social movements in the Internet era is different from that of traditional social movements. Traditional social movements are regarded as mobilizing in accordance with the logic of collective action, while the social movements combined in the Internet era combine the traditional face-to-face social movement with a virtual field, which brings the concept of networked social movement and changes the logic of traditional social movement.

Castells sees the mass self-communication phenomenon in the information society. On the one hand, it is mass communication. Through peer-to-peer communication and Internet connection, everyone’s message has the potential to reach more people and more information. On the other hand, it is a diverse communication. It can use any content, any form to increase its diffusion on the Internet. (Castells, 2007). In Networks of Outrage and Hope Social Movements in the Internet Age, Castells (2012) further discusses several important social movements around the world in recent years, including the Jasmine Revolution, Icelandic Revolution, Egyptian Revolution, Indignados movement, the Occupy Wall Street Movement and the Arab Spring. In summary, Castells points out that although these social movements are embedded in different social and cultural contexts and have different appeals, they have some commonalities. Castells’ analysis attempts to outline the basic features of a new type of social movement. He claims that they are the social movements in the Internet age, and uses the concept of “networked social movement” to cover their common characteristics, including multiple networks, decentered structure, and autonomous participation. 

Multiple networks refer to the complex and interlaced multiple interpersonal networks between participants, rather than simply belonging to an organization or recognizing a core movement leader in the traditional social movements. More specifically, this so-called “a network of networks” refers to various network relationships that overlap and interweave in complex forms. Decentralized organizational structure refers to under the multiple networks, the movement often does not have a clear command center. This structure expands people’s opportunities to participate in movements to the greatest extent. At the same time, it also reduces the risk of repression, because there is no specific object of repression. Autonomous participation refers to the formation or outbreak of social movements, which is often the spontaneous response from the individual participants. In general, Castells believes that although networked social movements cover many different forms of interpersonal connections and interaction, digital communication tools and the network formed by the Internet are indispensable elements of such movements. Without this necessary condition, such movements without central leadership cannot be formed, developed or continued.

Castells is not the only person who advocates that new technology brings the qualitative change of social movements. Bennett and Segerberg also attempt to generalize the common characteristics of the new social movement model and emphasize that the old explanatory discourse is not enough. Bennett and Segerberg (2011,2012) pointed out that not all social movements follow the traditional logic of collective action, digital social media does bring new logic of action. They put forward the logic of connective action to contrast and distinguish.

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Different to the traditional collective logic, the connective logic believes that new technology enables individualized expression, work results and information to be easily shared and widely disseminated in a cost-free manner. When those individualized expressions are shared, recognized and repeated by others, people will get a self-motivation mechanism to participate in the action, and it might be easier to establish a weak tie in this context (Benkler, 2006). This kind of co-production and co-sharing has replaced the logic of free rider in collective action and the core position of organizations with distinct hierarchy.

Combined with the analysis above, the Umbrella Movement conforms to the form of networked social movement and connective action in several aspects. Firstly, the focus of the Umbrella Movement is to occupy the central public sphere, and the participants of the movement have constructed an autonomous space composed of urban space and cyberspace. The participants are mostly self-motivated. After the emergence of several occupied areas, the occupation movement showed a clear tendency of decentralization. Participants at the occupied areas and the central organizations of the movement often have different opinions on specific issues, and the central organizers are not able to persuade participants to follow their own persuasion. What’s more, the Umbrella Movement takes a short and robust slogan “I want true universal suffrage” as a practical and straightforward framework for personal action. The slogan does not clearly define genuine universal suffrage and does not emphasize specific solutions such as citizen nomination. Similarly, the main symbols of the movement, yellow ribbon and the yellow umbrella also have not been strictly interpreted. Therefore, the openness and individualization of these symbols and slogan can be preserved. In this context, these symbols and slogans are widely shared on the Internet. Supporters and participants change their profile picture into a yellow umbrella, a yellow ribbon to connect with movement, to indicate the identity of movement supporters.


  1. Limitations of Networked Social Movements

As the logic of action changes from collective action emphasizing discipline and consistency to more individualized and de-centralized connective action. The transformation of the action logic helps to strengthen the scale of the movement since the connected logic allows people to participate in the way they like. The participants are not required to fully agree to the organizer’s guidance, which encourages more citizens to participate in the movement. However, connective action can also bring difficulties and challenges to social movements. Since there are only loose ties between the participants and the main organizers, it greatly enhances the difficulty to make strategies and achieve goals.

For example, in the late period of the Umbrella Movement, due to the lack of relatively clear core leadership team and political ideas, the protestors began to ask for diverse demands and participate randomly. Some participants define the movement as a purely political movement, talking only about general democratic elections. However, some political groups hope the movement can develop deepen to solve multi social problems. They want to integrate the rich-poor divisions, class confrontation and political struggle into the movement, which not only makes it difficult for the government to meet various needs but also makes the movement organization hard to intergrade their existing appeals and conduct effective negotiations with the government.

What’ more, the openness and individualization of new media platforms mean that everyone can become a source of information and a publisher of information. However, ordinary people can easily turn the platform as a place for spite and add personal emotional orientation. Without the guarantee of objectivity and authenticity, it may become the source of rumors and even incite participants of the movement to rebel in the wrong direction. In interviews with participants of the Umbrella Movement, it has found that most of the participants did not know what the specific goal of the movement is, but only knew that participation could complete the redemption of Hong Kong society (Cheng & Chen, 2017). The most influential movement Arab Spring directly evolved into a violent revolution involving other countries under the vicious incitement of the insurgents, leading to civil war between the government and the rebels, seriously affecting the regular order of society and causing long-term instability in the country.

Malcolm Gladwell (2010) argues that social media provides a platform to strengthen weak ties that do increase the potential participants for the social movements. However, in reality, many social movements with marches and demonstrations are high-risk organizational actions, which requires a clear organizational relationship and clear objectives to maintain and coordinate the process of social action, which is precisely contrary to the de-centralization nature of new media. Although the weak ties on the network can be consolidated and strengthened by consensus, it is difficult to exist in the real context for a long time without a strict contract.

Similar to Gladwell, Morozov (2011) believes that the great potential of Internet mobilization is overestimated. He believes that digital activism like sitting in front of a computer and supporting through the “like” and “repost” button is totally different from real action participation. Sometimes, people’s digital action cannot adequately represent attitude and support, but maybe simply because of peer pressure or the desire to package himself in front of peers. Morozov also surrounds the concept of “slacktivism” to explain that the Internet is not necessarily helpful to the overall effectiveness of social movements, especially in the case of high-risk, resource-consuming social demands. For example, the lower cost of information dissemination makes mobilization easier and allows people to assemble quickly. However, people willing to assemble on the street does not equal to an organized and efficient long-term social movement.

The important role of the Internet in the mobilization of social movements can easily lead to the illusion of media centralism, which holds that grasping the most advanced media channels can occupy an absolutely dominant position in the social movement. Whether in the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street or the Yellow Umbrella Movement, the new media is a significant factor in social mobilization, but not the only one. It pushes the mobilization structure to a new level, but it also retains many hidden problems in the concrete action. The function and effect of the Internet always depend on the social members involved in mobilization and the changing social situation. It can be considered that the Internet makes social movement easier to mobilize, but more challenging to succeed. On the one hand, networked society and connective action allow more people to participate in the way they prefer, so as to enhance the momentum of the movement. On the other hand, the tendency of de-centralization can make it more challenging to set strategies and make decisions.


Moreover, although the Internet changes the logic of social movements, it is not the fundamental reason to arouse social movements. From the Occupy Wall Street Movement, it can be seen that behind the movement is the economic downturn of the United States and the intensification of internal contradictions. The fundamental reason for the movement is the institutional crisis of corruption, social privilege and money politics in American democracy. The root of the Arab Spring lies in the rigidity of the political system and the lack of democracy caused by the long-term absolute monarchy. Especially the corruption of officials, which leads to the sharp decline of the reputation, legitimacy and authority of the government. In 2011, a survey in six Arab countries and Iran showed that social media is seen as a useful tool rather than as a sponsor or abettor of the social movements (Ahmed, 2015). In summary, the role of the Internet in social movements should not be exaggerated.


  1. Conclusion

This essay concludes that the power of the Internet has exerted a profound influence on the social movement, and the social movement has transformed into a new structure. Organizations of social movements no longer stick to the traditional hierarchy structure. They try to use digital media communication technology as an organization or construct loose organizational coordination through the Internet. In terms of interpersonal network, social movements in the new media era develop a weak interpersonal network, which is considered to be more conducive to expanding the scope of mobilization. To some extent, the Internet has helped social movements form a more flexible action network that can span different contexts and issues. Social movements in the Internet age has transformed into “networked social movement,” and this new social movement also formed a new action logic, connective logic. However, the de-centralized feature of networked social movements also brings challenges to the conduct and organize of social movements, which makes it easier to mobilize but harder to succeed. The function of the Internet in social movements also should never be exaggerated.

Reference List

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