Skip to main content

Online activism, a forum for 21st century giving

By Trudy Dunham

My colleague Jennifer Skuza's new profile photo.
Did you add a rainbow to your Facebook profile photo last week?  Did you think twice before making your decision? Was it a risky choice for you? Did you think of it as a meaningful action?

Following the Supreme Court decision on June 26 that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right, more than a million Facebook users changed their profile images in celebration.

We don’t know how many viewed that action as risky. Likely fewer than those who changed their profiles in March 2013 to the red "equals" sign, the logo of the Human Rights Campaign, which was an early demonstration of widespread support for same-sex marriage.

Using social media as a forum for one’s civic activism has been denigrated as clickactivism and slacker-activism -- an easy, no-cost, low-effort, almost meaningless action. One click and you’re done. I agree it is easier – especially for those with busy lives, or who live in communities that do not have forums for organized civic action.  But it;s not necessarily without risk or meaning. For many, it may be the first time they take a public stand on a controversial issue, or the first time that they “tell” parents, neighbors, colleagues and acquaintances their opinion.

I’ve often told youth that they shouldn’t post anything online that they don’t want their parent, religious leader, future/current employer, college admissions officer, best friend or worst enemy to see. This encouraged (I hoped) a rather conservative approach to online postings. I’d still give that advice for the party pics and juvenile humor.  But what about issues of human rights and social justice? How should we advise youth when their opinions and values conflict with those who have power over or relationships with them?

I am reading Giving 2.0 by Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen.  I am struck by her definition of philanthropy.  In addition to the giving of money, expertise and time, she stresses that we have other resources we can give: our influence, our networks, and our voices. And these resources are available now; we don’t need to wait until we graduate or make a lot of money or retire. While I have often contacted people for a cause, or given permission for a cause to use my name, I’ve never before thought of using my networks and influence as a form of philanthropy, as an act to promote human welfare.

Using our influence and networks is a powerful gift.  Research indicates that many of us need proof that others support a social issue before we will speak up for it online.  This suggests that the speaking out, including changing your profile to indicate support, is risky. Research also indicates that those who speak up early provide a safe context for others to act, and to add their voices and influence. It only takes a few of those early voices to make the difference.  Research also indicates that people who engage in online activism see themselves as making a substantial contribution, and that they intend to follow up the click with participation in offline civic activism.

Each of us has influence, networks and a voice. It only takes a few seconds to click like, or to change a profile. In a world where social media is a vital medium to maintain relationships with our families, our friends and our world, using our voices and influence in support of human rights and social justice can make a big difference, encouraging others to speak out or question their beliefs. But there are risks, especially when those with power over us disagree. It takes a strong person to stand up for what they believe. Youth will need to weigh concerns for their safety against speaking their values.

The Internet is a disruptive innovation; it is changing how we advocate and influence. Instead of demeaning the clicks and tweets of social media, consider how you can use them to use your influence and networks, in support of human rights and social justice.

-- Trudy Dunham, former research fellow

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Trudy, I really appreciate this timely piece. I agree that for many people, online activism can remain an easy and rather disengaged approach to activism. But I would also argue that for many of us, it serves as a sort of “gateway activism”—an entry point into both awareness and action. I know in my own life, those likes and petitions have led to getting connected into action networks that then send me informational updates, action alerts, and invitations to real-world protests, lobbying days, and other solidarity actions. We need to look no further than the Arab Spring or the Black Lives Matter movements to witness how online and physical world activism are inextricably interwoven and inter-referential. Revolutions start in language, and the spaces for that exchange of language is largely online today.

    I also concur with the critical importance of talking with young people about the impact of their behavior and actions, both in the physical world and online. Just two days ago, I had a conversation with a young person in my life about some online behavior that was really destructive. So often, we do not realize the impact that we can have on others, or how broadly our words can reach, particularly online. This is precisely why online activism is so effective, but it can be both generative and destructive. As the singer Ani Di Franco said, “Every tool is a weapon if you just hold it right.” We need to be in conversation with young people to help them discern how to hold their power on the internet, and in turn be educated by them about the ever-expanding possibilities that exist there.

    1. Thanks Kathryn. Your experience reflects the research - I'm always heartened to see this. :-) I'm glad your work with youth includes helping them understand the power we have to influence others through our online behavior. It is an essential skill as social media increasingly forms a backdrop to all parts of our lives.