Social Media and Mobilisation Reading

Philip N. Howard et al., ‘Social Media, Civic Engagement, and the Slacktivism Hypothesis: Lessons from Mexico’s ‘El Bronco’’ in Journal of International Affairs, 70(1), 55-73.

An article that debates to what extent social media can result in meaningful mobilisation of people. Although it is speaking about political engagement, with a case study on a Mexican state governor candidate, I think it raises points that can be applied more broadly to the role of social media in creating activism.

  • Slacktivisim hypothesis: if citizens use social media for political conversations, those conversations will be fleeting and vapid – supposition that if internet or social media use increases, civic engagement decline

Pro-slacktivism hypothesis:

  • Most political and activist groups are still in the dark on how best to mobilise people
  • Main difficulty arises because citizens’ decisions about how much to participate in a cause depend on how they perceive the efforts of the leader/organisation
  • Among advanced democracies, social media seems to have resulted in only modest forms of activism, such as petition signing or sharing political content from affinity groups over networks of family and friends
  • Content shared over social media relating to politics usually consists of short messages shared by people with short tempers in short conversations – conversations are often anaemic, uncivil or polarising
  • During major political events/when an issue is a particularly topical, social media users will use platforms to learn about and interact with issues, but they tend to acquire new knowledge that is favourable to their preferred viewpoint – digital echo chamber
  • Social media use causes people to turn their social networks into ‘filter bubbles’ that diminish the chance of exposure to new or challenging ideas
  • Questions how much new information can be found? On the other hand, topics and subjects you are interested in are easier to find e.g. facebook events
  • Now the importance of social media is clear: multiple examples of traditional social movements that have scored impressive victories through their effective use of social media, as well as new social movements that have originated online and become stable civil society actors
  • Complicated by the growing problem of algorithmic control over social media messaging: automated programmes can be used to activate citizens or to discourage their engagement
  • Evidence that young adolescents’ use of social media – in conjunction with the intent to participate and the consumption of TV news – creates a virtuous circle of civic engagement

Anti-slacktivism hypothesis:

  • Studying how an independent candidate from Mexico won the race for state governor through using social media to communicate with the public and eschewed traditional media outlets – triggered sustained public engagement well beyond election day
  • Demonstrates that social media can be used to sustain a large quantity of civic exchanges about public life well beyond a particular political event
  • Pro-democracy protests: activists and protest leaders say social media was essential to the organisation of the protests
  • When a leader and citizens are comfortable using social media, the impact is positive for both kinds of political actors
  • If candidates for elected office and the public use social media for political conversation, they can create new patterns of civic engagement that can last for months beyond an election
  • I think this can be translated into a climate change context: if leaders of groups, e.g. XR, can engage the public then they can maintain civic engagement that can last for months beyond a high-profile/high-turnout protest

Historical perspective on climate change

Historical Perspectives on Climate Change – James Roger Fleming (1998)

This book raised some interesting points about how climate change has been perceived, investigated and discussed throughout history. It begins by describing how climate change was at first considered an anthropogenic issue: i.e. extreme weather was seen as an expression of god’s dissatisfaction with morally vulnerable people, the concept of sin account. In these more superstitious days, groups such as witches were used as a convenient scapegoat. Although this perspective may seem irrelevant to our concept of climate change today, it highlights that the fears we experience today are not new – what differs is the knowledge that underpins those anxieties. Fleming goes on to describe how the impressionistic Enlightenment view of climate and its changes was rebutted in 2 distinct ways: literary and scientific – and how this contributed to the radical transformation of climate discourse. The literary path launched an offensive against poorly reasoned and unscientific modes of climate discourse, whereas the scientific path established a trend of citing meteorological records rather than ancient authorities. Additionally, Fleming highlights the 1950s as a high point of public awareness, as many people were certain that atmospheric nuclear testing, due to the Cold War, was changing the Earth’s weather. It is during this period that concerns began to be expressed in the popular press about changing climates, rising sea level, loss of habitat and shifting agricultural zones.

Key points:

  • Climate is an important cultural function, an idea that mediates between the human experiences of ephemeral weather and the cultural ways of living – it is perhaps inevitable that people will have been anxious about it’s destruction 
  • Climate change was not just discovered in a linear fashion
  • Global warming became significant to the public agenda in the 1940s and 50s
  • Historical studies can make particularly valuable contributions by elucidating the intellectual, social and cultural roots of environmental issue = better scientific understanding, more effective policies and a view of the human dimensions of global changes rendered more complete by a study of the past
  • Relevancy: – role of mass media, before social media, in bringing issues from scientific experts into the public discourse – impact of controversies (i.e. Cold War nuclear testing) on adding saliency to scientific issues – links to spectacle

Climate change activism pre-social media

In order to address what impact social media has made on climate change activism I did some research on how environmental issues were raised and addressed in a pre-Internet and pre-social media world.


I found ‘Riot City: Protest and Rebellion in the Capital’ by Clive Bloom to be a hugely helpful reading as it spanned across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, thereby bridging the gap between pre and post internet protests. Additionally, its focus on London ties in nicely with our research on Extinction Rebellion as it foregrounded the city as a site of protest.


‘Riot City’ key points:

  • The capital has long been used as a battleground for new demands and ideological standpoints
  • A moral agenda has replaced political talk: more movements based around direct action rather than parliamentary decisions
  • Interesting that Bloom found technology, initially at least, to be restrictive as could only be harnessed by the media savvy and therefore created a virtual ghetto for their ideas and restricting accessibility – development of social media and the internet to be more widely accessible and commonplace
  • Bloom believed that, at the turn of the millennium, there would be an increase in more targeted and possibly more violent protests occurring at organisations that are perceived to be the worst polluters


Bloom’s points reminded me of the Greenham Common Peace Camp Protest, which I studied and wrote on at sixth form. Although the anti-nuclear protest was not necessarily about climate change, it did have a strong environmentalist theme and I think it could be interesting to look at it from a historical perspective as an example of a pre-social media movement.


Greenham Common key points:

  • 1981: march from Wales to Greenham Common, Berkshire to protest the nuclear weapons being stored there
  • The camp was active for 19 years
  • Strong female focus: played on their identity as mothers to call on society to recognise the damage that nuclear warfare would do to their children/future generations, refusal to go home every day and in fact set up camp was a challenge to the traditional notion that a woman’s lace was in the home and outside of political issues
  • Pre-internet methods of engagement:
    • Newsletters
    • Chain letters: 30,000 women responded to a letter sent out for an ‘Embrace the Base’ event
    • Media attention that surrounded the camp inspired people across Europe to create similar camps e.g. Widow Peace in NYC


‘Embrace the Base’ Chain Letter


This week we worked on narrowing in on the scope of our question and researching more on our case studies. We confirmed that the direction for our presentation would be the role of the internet in climate change activism and potential marginalisation within this. We will likely discuss how the internet is used in terms of:

  • Appealing to the public
  • Manifestos
  • Dispersing their message
  • Who it leaves behind – marginalisation


We also noted the importance of circling back to the theme of conflict that is inherent in activism, as protest against the state, throughout our presentation. Additionally, we will acknowledge that through the process of selecting the information for our protest, we too will be marginalising certain narratives, e.g. global north and global south.

Ahead of the next meeting we will split up to research our case studies further.

Research for Yellow Vests:

  • How the movement is about marginalised people
  • Use of social media to get the message out
  • Hashtags
  • Confusion and co-option of message: environmental? Tax? Freedom?
  • Tweets and posts about the different aims of the movements
  • Criticisms of the movement

Research for Extinction Rebellion:

  • Grassroots movement
  • Manifesto
  • Social media as a recruitment and organisation tool
  • Hashtags
  • Criticisms of movement: long-term plan?
  • Potential to contact the leader through social media

Potential secondary reading:

  • Eco-futurism

Finally, we discussed whether it would be necessary to fill out a Minimal Ethical Risk Registration form for our presentation in regards to using public posts.

Abstract of Essay

My essay was written on the sub-theme of conflict with a basis in the discipline of History. I chose to examine the relationship between the state and a marginalised group (single mothers) because it throws up interesting questions about the extent to which the government can control the moral conscience of the people it governs. Specifically, I looked at the extent to which the Thatcher governments were able to reinforce traditions gender norms on single mothers through their social welfare policies. I chose to analyse the provision of state-funded childcare facilities, as this directly influenced single mothers’ ability to move from the private to the public sphere in terms of domestic and employment expectations. I also looked at the role housing policy played in the stigmatisation of single mothers as outliers to the morally conservative nuclear family. I used a variety of primary sources in order to give me a broad picture of what policies the government was championing, how these policies and messages were dissipated through society, and what impact they had on the lived experience of single mothers.