Digital Activism With Real Impact | Part 1

Digital Activism With Real Impact | Part 1

Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was a watershed moment for the internet. Up to that point most online activity was geared toward either commercial activity, or purely social engagement. But the Obama campaign was a collective “Ah Ha!” moment for activists, organizers and strategists from the political, public and non-profit sectors.

Suddenly everyone wanted a piece of the online influence. People began using digital media to promote their causes, circulate petitions and speak directly to those in positions of power with greater frequency and volume. Email campaigns became an art form. Crowdfunding was launched for every manner of project. A whole new wave of online platforms started cropping up to help organizers harness the internet to ‘make an impact.’

Still, few groups have been able to replicate the success of the Obama campaign when it comes to generating real world results from online activism(s). While many online activists have managed to created buzz around their causes, they have had isolated successes influencing policy and creating lasting change where systemic injustice exists.

Digital activism has definitely had an influence on mainstream media, which pays close attention to trending conversations and then amplifies these conversations – sometimes going so far as creating articles that are comprised entirely of copied tweets.  Journalists camp out all day on Twitter, and every news program from national to local has a hashtag. But media coverage does not a revolution make. There’s still a disconnect between online influence and the ability to influence ‘real world’ change that confounds strategists. Even when they do employ analytics to measure campaign success, these tend to lack dimension and reflect only the efficacy of the tools they are using.

In February 2016, I circulated an online poll to people who identify as digital activists. In one of the questions, I asked how likely they felt they were able to influence people through online conversations about their areas of activism.

Out of 150 respondents, only 3.3% thought they were ‘very likely’ to influence or persuade others to their point of view. Almost twice as many (6%) said they thought it was ‘not likely’ that they are able to influence or persuade people through online conversations. About half of all respondents (49.3%) hovered in an area between ‘not likely’ and ‘very likely’ which leads me to believe that they aren’t quite sure how effective they’re actually being in their work online.

For activists to be effective, they must be able to measure their impact. That’s not to say that all the benefits of activism can be quantified. I’m certainly not an advocate for purely data-based strategies which remove the intuition and humanizing elements of online engagement; but the reality is that very few online activists use even the most basic metrics to evaluate their campaigns. Neither do I think it’s wise to base an entire strategy on anecdotal accounts; but I do think there’s a lot of benefit to examining case studies of successful campaigns.

In this blog series, I’ll be exploring the strategic and tactical efforts in online activism, and talk about the challenges to online activists, as well as some of the real world success stories with both non-profit and for-profit campaigns.