What drives success in digital activism?

Effective digital activism, like that seen during the 2011 Egyptian revolution, employs a number of social media tools, says Philip Howard. Tweeting alone is not as successful—and no single tool has a clear relationship with campaign success. (Credit: Ahmad Hammoud/Flickr)

“Digital activism” is most often nonviolent and tends to work best when social media is combined with street-level organization, new research shows.

“This is the largest investigation of digital activism ever undertaken,” says Philip Howard, professor of communication, information, and international studies at the University of Washington. “We looked at just under 2,000 cases over a 20-year period, with a very focused look at the last two years.”


Howard and coauthors Frank Edwards and Mary Joyce, both doctoral students, oversaw 40 student analysts who reviewed news stories by citizen and professional journalists describing digital activism campaigns worldwide.

A year of research and refining brought the total down to between 400 and 500 well-verified cases representing about 150 countries.

A main finding of the report: Digital activism tends to be nonviolent, despite what many may think.

“In the news we hear of online activism that involves anonymous or cyberterrorist hackers who cause trouble and break into systems,” Howard says. “But that was two or three percent of all the cases—far and away, most of the cases are average folks with a modest policy agenda” that doesn’t involve hacking or covert crime.”

Other findings include:

  • Digital activism campaigns tend to be more successful when waged against government rather than business authorities. There have been many activist campaigns against corporations, but they don’t seem to have succeeded as well as those that had governments for a target.
  • Effective digital activism employs a number of social media tools. Tweeting alone is less successful. No single tool offers a guarantee of campaign success.
  • Governments still tend to lag behind activist movements in the use and mastery of new social media tools. They sometimes use the same tools, but it’s always months after others have tried them.

These factors, taken together, “are the magic ingredients, especially when the target is a government—a real recipe for success.”

In time, the data gathered for this work might yield more insight into the world of digital activism, Howard says.

Unanswered questions include why there are regional disparities among digital tool use, why phones are prevalent but text messaging is rare in digital campaigns, and whether external political, social, or cultural phenomena influence patterns and the effectiveness of digital activism.

Funding for the research came from the United States Institute of Peace, the National Science Foundation, and the University of Washington department of communication.

Source: University of Washington