The new age of digital activism

The new age of digital activism

30 Apr 2020

Activism is all about highlighting important messages, engaging as many people as possible and getting results by conveying to the people in charge that enough is enough. So how do we do that from our couch? The new age of activism is here to stay and it's not a second too late.

Could this be the birthplace of new ideas?

When up is down, and down is up

We have previously touched on the topic of activism and how powerful it can be. In that piece, we talked about the importance of activism in pushing a subject to the very top of the global political agenda.

But that was in a time where a massive crowd standing shoulder to shoulder, carrying signs and chanting potent messages of unity and action was a good thing – not an image to be feared as a potential centre for viral spread.

With much of the world in lockdown due to COVID-19, activist groups who still have important messages to share have had to rethink their strategies and operate solely in the digital realm. But are digital campaigns as effective and can they actually achieve their goals?

Canada is indeed too cold. Protest in Los Angeles, U.S.

The rise of digital activism

Those little reminders you may receive informing you of your ‘screen time’ over the last week act as a regular reminder of just how much time we spend in the digital realm.

It’s therefore unsurprising that digital activism has grown in recent years, taking the form of online petitions, social media campaigns, blogs and apps. Back in 2006, Time Magazine named “You” the person of the year, a reference to increased participation in the new digital public sphere.


Perhaps the most common forms of digital activism are signing an online petition or retweeting a hashtag on social media which, let’s face it, don’t require too much effort.

For that reason, this has lead to such actions being sometimes derogatorily referred to as ‘slacktivism’- a term first coined by English-Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell.

As the name suggests, Gladwell used the term to describe what he views as a lazy or ‘armchair’ form of activism that will only extend as far as "liking" a cause but not actually doing anything about it i.e. taking to the streets to demonstrate.

Maybe the term slacktivism was coined too soon?

This would imply that such actions are ineffective. However, the evidence suggests that they can and do work. A recent example is New York activist Tarana Burke’s #MeToo hashtag, created to shed light on the pervasiveness of unreported sexual harassment.

#MeToo was posted over 19 million times in just one year, leading to the establishment of a fund to help victims seek justice. Another example is a petition started by a 14-year-old girl on to lobby UK supermarket chain Tesco into phasing out stocking eggs from caged hens.

This came after writing letters directly to the store proved unsuccessful. The campaign took off, attracting 280,000 signatures, and now Tesco is phasing out eggs from caged hens by 2025.

Part of a bigger whole

Clearly, there’s some power in the online petition and hashtag! They’re great for highlighting issues and mobilising mass support, directly pressuring politicians and organisations by sheer weight of numbers.

But it’s true that many die out before they can properly take off. Often they’re part of something bigger, augmenting and amplifying further digital and offline campaigns.

Graffiti in Athens, Greece.

Enacting change is rarely easy and is usually the culmination of years of work, dedication and more than a little ingenuity. Greenpeace’s ‘Everything is NOT awesome’ campaign, aimed at ending toymaker Lego’s partnership with fossil fuel company Shell, featured a polished video depicting a Lego civilization drowning in oil.

The video went viral and was released in tandem with children building giant Lego animals outside Shell’s London headquarters. The campaign gained enough traction worldwide for Lego to take action and sever the link with Shell.

A lo-fi, more organic example of ‘Everything is Not awesome’ is the Ice Bucket Challenge. Remember that? Silly as it may have seemed at the time, the campaign, started by an ALS charity, saw over 2.4 million videos tagged on social media and raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the charity.

Ice Bucket Challenge in Vancouver, Canada.

We can still make a difference

It’s clear that digital activism, no matter how insignificant it may seem, is a powerful implement of change. Earth Day 2020 took place digitally this year but still managed to remain as vibrant and engaging as ever with contributions from artists, messages from prominent figures including Barack Obama and Greta Thunberg, and millions taking part online.

“While it may seem small, the ripple effects of small things is extraordinary” - Matt Bevin.

Earlier this month, the organisation Global Citizen also harnessed the power of digital to run a successful ‘One World: Together At Home’ campaign featuring famous musicians playing music from their homes (The Rolling Stones still got it).

This aim was to celebrate the role of key workers and it also raised $127million for the World Health Organization's COVID-19 Solidarity Fund to ship medical supplied to countries in need.

Actions, however small, can add up. If you've never been one for taking to the streets, maybe use any extra time you may have to participate in some digital activism? As with anything the more effort the better, and this can be a great way to test out your creative skills and connect with new people.

As always, if you have thoughts or feedback on our editorials, don't hesitate to shoot an email to

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