Information and Communication Technology-facilitated Social Movements

Photo of Noriko

This year's 4S (Society for Social Studies of Science) Annual Meeting was held at the Hyatt Regency-Crystal City in Arlington, VA from October 28 to November 1, 2009. SLIS faculty member Noriko Hara gave a presentation on her research (see abstract below) as a part of session #190 - "Online Worlds."

Information and Communication Technology-facilitated Social Movements

The Internet has long been recognized for its ability to reduce initial barriers to transnational collective action, thus making it easier for the general public to participate (e.g., McCaughey & Ayers, 2003). Although social and political scientists have widely studied social movements for a number of years (Hess, Breyman, Campbell, & Martin, 2008), investigation of technologies to support the activities of these movements has just begun. Historically, technology has constructively influenced social movements; perhaps most compelling is the use of the printing press by European social movements in the late eighteenth century (Tarrow, 1998). With the press, social movement organizers were able to widely distribute their ideas and better coordinate their activities. More recently, telephones, direct mailings, fax machines, and e-mails have commonly been used to disseminate information as well as mobilize a critical mass (McCarthy & Zald, 1977; Porta & Diani, 1999). In a similar vein, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have had a major impact on numerous recent social movements. While participation in social movements has traditionally been limited to so-called activists, today general citizens who may not consider themselves activists are participating in online mobilization (e.g. Hara, 2008).

This paper first reviews a series of articles that question whether ICTs make a difference in social movements and, if so, in what ways. On one hand, some authors, especially in the early literature about online activism (e.g., Arquilla & Ronfeldt, 2001; Castells, Fernandez-Ardevol, Qiu, & Sey, 2007, Danitz & Strobel, 1999; Kahn & Kellner, 2004), support an ‘equalization’ thesis whose argument is that online tools will distribute powers relatively equally, especially in terms of communication channels—access to and dissemination of information. In this view, technologies are a significant factor to drive the change. On the other hand, according to the ‘normalization’ thesis, the Internet and online campaigns have certain limits in reshaping social movements. In this perspective, online social movements are mere reflections of offline environments and will fail to overcome the existing social structure (e.g., Norris, 2000; Stromer—Galley, 2000). While traditional media are accessible to ordinary people, the influence of the Internet depends on the accessibility and the willingness to find information on Web sites (Norris, 2001; van Dijk and Hacker, 2003). Second, the paper examines three types of ICT use in social movements: resources, framing devices, and mobilization tools. Whereas many interesting cases examining ICT’s role in social movements have emerged in recent years, research in this area appears to be focusing on case studies, e.g., the anti-WTO movement (e.g., Kahn & Kellner, 2004), Zapatista movement (e.g., Arquilla and Ronfeldt, 2001), and Indymedia (e.g., Kidd, 2003; Pickard, 2006). The paper provides a synthesis of the literature by presenting a framework to categorize the studies on ICT-facilitated social movements. As such, the contribution of the paper to the science and technology studies literature is to offer an overview of the landscape of online social movement literature.


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van Dijk, J., & Hacker, K. (2003). The digital divide as a complex and dynamic phenomena. The Information Society, 19(4), 315–326.

Posted November 03, 2009