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Social Movements and
New Technology

Victoria Carty

To those who struggle for social justice, and
especially our youth, God speed to you.



Introduction: The Digital Impact on Social Movements

1Social Movement Theories

2New Digital Capabilities and Social Change and the Tea Party

4Arab Spring

5The Occupy Wall Street Movement and Its Precursors

6Occupy Student Debt and the Dreamers

Conclusion: The Digital Future of Social Movements




Electronic technological innovations and applications have had a revolutionary impact on communication, the way social relationships are established and maintained, and how social movements emerge and develop. In Social Movements and New Technology, Victoria Carty provides a brilliant introduction to these topics, specifically on how new technologies are forcing modifications of social movement theories and how they have played crucial roles in recent major social movements.

The impact that individual access to the Internet and social media has had on social movements can be described in reference to Neil Smelser’s classic framework for the development of collective behavior. First, movement participants’ ability to bypass traditional media (which is often controlled by an anti-movement state or corporations) and overcome lack of physical proximity significantly expands the conduciveness of an environment for social movement development. Second, the individual’s ability to video record experiences, conditions, and events and instantly communicate them to others in the digitally expanded public sphere increases the capacity to spread or intensify discontent with an existing regime or policy. Third, new electronic media enhances the ability to spread a shared belief regarding the cause of a problem, which Smelser noted is necessary to establish effective collective action to deal with that problem. The shared belief is an application of the sociological imagination that maintains that the problem people experience or are concerned about is due to social factors that are capable of being changed through collective action. Fourth, personal access to the Internet permits individuals to convey images of emotionally charged episodes of repression and injustice—what Smelser termed precipitating incidents—to a much wider population in a more convincing way than ever before possible.  Being able to electronically witness these events further inflames people’s discontent and reinforces the shared belief. These transmitted recordings act as sparks to ignite the powder keg of built-up frustration, motivating people to take action. Fifth, especially in the early phase of a social movement’s development, the new personalized digital media lessens the need for clearly identifiable, charismatic, intellectual, and managerial social movement leaders. In the past, many of the functions in Smelser’s analysis—such as initiating a movement and developing and communicating a shared belief—were carried out top down by social movement leadership. Now these functions are carried out horizontally among movement activists with little or no fixed leadership.  And sixth, smart phones and other forms of digital communication allow movement participants to rapidly adjust to social control agencies’ actions and develop new plans and tactics in response.

In Social Movements and New Technology, the author describes the effects of digital media on the most important recent social movements, including the and Tea Party movements, the Arab Spring protests and revolutions, the Occupy Movement and its precursors, and the Occupy Student Debt and DREAMers movements. She explains how participants in these movements used the Internet and social media to get their messages out despite often unsympathetic traditional media and rapidly adjusted their tactics in response to the measures taken by hostile governments to stifle or repress them. Further, she describes how activists used the Internet to influence not only domestic opinion but also world opinion, with the goal of getting international support for their movements or at least making it more difficult for other governments to aid their adversaries.

The author notes that effective modern social movements combine the capabilities provided by digital media, the creation of “weak” Internet ties, and shared virtual identity with on-the-ground action that builds “strong” ties among mobilized participants and the resiliency to resist repression. Effective collective action may require the assistance or the formation of real world social movement organizations and leadership. But digital media provides a new means to constantly and effectively re-invigorate and re-democratize social movement organizations that may have become too authoritarian, bound by inertia, or collaborative with the status quo.

Digital media, the author notes, also provides whistle blowers like Edward Snowden the ability to go global with their messages and revelations, undermining government and traditional media censorship and even stimulating movements in other nations.

The author does not ignore the fact that digital technology can also be used by established power holders to frustrate and disrupt social movements through tactics like blocking Internet or cell phone access, spreading false information, or setting up their own counter-movement websites. Governments also have the capability to use high-powered computers to spy on millions of individuals, recording and analyzing their telephone conversations, emails, text messages, and writings, as well as book, magazine, journal, and website preferences. Such information could be used to target and intimidate large numbers of actual or potential activists. The author also provides an excellent description of how the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has demonstrated a sophisticated capacity to use digital media in attempts to influence public opinion and recruit new ISIS soldiers.

Throughout the book, the author integrates social movement theories and concepts, showing how these are useful in understanding the role of modern communication technology in social movements, while also noting how theoretical perspectives should be modified to reflect the impacts of digital devices and instantaneous global communication.

Social Movements and New Technology provides a comprehensive overview of how communication technology has been—and is being—used in recent and emerging movements and of the ways in which social movement development and organization are affected. It is a valuable resource for social movement scholars and courses on social movements and political sociology, and an inspirational and instructive reading for contemporary and future movement activists.

James DeFronzo


The Digital Impact on Social Movements

Digital natives, millennials, Gen Y, Gen 2.0: however you label them, the generation born roughly between 1980 and 2000 has been immersed in revolutionary digital technologies since birth. For those of you who fit into this age cohort, life was experienced very differently in the 1990s, and these technological novelties have had vast repercussions at the individual and societal level. The way people communicate has fundamentally changed with the advent of new information communication technologies (ICTs), from e-mail to Snapchat. Not only can messages, photos, and videos be sent instantly, they have the potential to be spread far and wide through social networks—and the ramifications have been felt in all areas of society.

On a personal level, new technology has resulted in a radical shift in the way individuals view themselves and their social ties. Students of previous generations, for example, interacted in a much more limited though intimate way. Friendships and ways of communicating consisted of conversations in the cafeteria at lunch, bonding through sports or other extracurricular activities, sitting next to someone in class and passing secret notes to (on paper!), or having neighborhood playmates. The main vehicle of communication was physically going to friends’ houses to see whether they were free to play or using the telephone—the one or two stationary phones inside the house that the whole family shared. In sum, communication was initiated, shared, and sustained among people who knew each other personally, and it took effort on the part of the receiver and sender of information. This has changed in many ways as communication now, for many people, takes place to a great extent through digital venues, especially among youth. For example, in 2009 the average US teenager, on Twitter alone, was receiving or sending more than 3,000 messages a month (Parr 2010). In 2010 researchers at the University of Maryland conducted a study of two hundred students who were asked to abstain from using electronic media for twenty-four hours. Though everything else about their college experience was the same—they were surrounded by other students and their identity was intact—not being connected virtually to others horrified the participants. One student stated that he had never felt so “alone and secluded from my life.” Another reported, “Although I go to a school with thousands of students, the fact that I was not able to communicate with anyone via technology was almost unbearable” (Ottalini 2010).

Many long-standing, profitable, and dominant businesses are now obsolete as digitized industries have replaced analog ones: Polaroid declared bankruptcy with the introduction of digital cameras in 2001, iTunes replaced Tower Records as the largest music retailer in United States, and the chain bookstore Borders, which at one point had more than one thousand stores throughout the United States, closed after the rise of e-reading technology such as Amazon’s Kindle (Kansaku-Sarmiento 2011). These are just three examples, but the business world is littered with cases like these. Can anybody really be surprised that “Cyber Monday,” the Monday after Thanksgiving, has overtaken Black Friday as the biggest sales day of the year (Carr 2011)?

Even religion has not escaped the technological revolution: the Catholic Church, one of the institutions that has traditionally been most resistant to change, has finally succumbed to the digital age. The electronic missal enables users to stream Mass online and has made the paper missalette (which contains prayers and Scripture readings) antiquated (Catholic PR Wire 2011). Instead of prayer cards, there is now a touch-screen “Saint a Day.” The Vatican Observatory Foundation recently launched the Vatican-approved iPhone app “Daily Sermonettes with Father Mike Manning,” and users can pray the rosary in their own “sacred space” through the “Rosary Miracle Prayer” app. Pope Benedict XVI used Twitter for the first time in June of 2011, announcing the start of a news information portal that aggregates information from the Vatican’s various print, broadcast, and online media (Donadio 2012). The Vatican also now has a YouTube channel and a Twitter feed (@pontifex) that has nearly 10 million followers in more than six languages. Pope Francis, the current pope, has embraced new media as well. In a papal statement in 2014 he praised the peer-to-peer sharing quality of new ICTs: “A culture of encounter demands that we be ready not only to give, but also to receive. . . . The Internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. . . . This is a gift from God” (Fung 2014).

Though the Vatican has not yet released an official response, in September of 2014 Pope Francis engaged with schoolchildren from Detroit via Facebook when they pleaded with him, through a social media campaign, to visit Detroit during his upcoming tour of the United States slated for 2015. They set up a Facebook page called “Let’s Bring Pope Francis to Detroit in 2015,” which includes personalized letters to the pope and photos of students attending Catholic schools (Montemurri 2014a). At the all-boys Loyola High School (a school that works in the tradition of the Jesuit Order with an emphasis on service), students created a YouTube video asking the pope to visit the area. One student is videotaped making a plea aligned with social justice stating, “You are exactly what we stand for—men for others” (Montemurri 2014b). Though students and the mayor of Detroit (who has vocally supported the students’ campaign) are awaiting an official response from the Vatican, the fact that the students assumed using ICTs was the best method to get the pope’s attention reveals their awareness that this is one of the key ways the pope connects to and interacts with people.


U.S. Household Computer and Internet Use, 1984—2011

New Information Communication Technologies and Protest Politics

Unsurprisingly, the rise of digital technology and social media also deeply affects contentious politics as well as the organization of and participation in social movements. Over the past several years, there has been an explosion of protest activity among young people around the globe as they embrace a new vision of the future and demand radical changes in the existing economic and political systems. Time magazine, in fact, named the protester as its Person of the Year in 2011. We can only speculate as to the reasons for this upsurge in social movement activity, but scholar and cultural critic Henry Giroux emphasizes the influence of the communication field on the political environment:

Alternative newspapers, progressive media, and a profound sense of the political constitute elements of a vibrant, critical formative culture within a wide range of public spheres that have helped nurture and sustain the possibility to think critically, engage in political dissent, organize collectively, and inhabit public spaces in which alternative and critical theories can be developed.” (2012, 39).

In essence, the media ecology can either accelerate—or, conversely, impede—serious political discussion and debate, and ultimately facilitate displays of collective behavior. With new digital technology at their disposal, social movement actors have access to innovative media outlets that help nurture a new political terrain within which they can discuss grievances, disseminate information, and collectively make demands.

There are, of course, many factors to consider when examining recent forms of collective behavior—namely, the austere economic conditions around the globe, political disenfranchisement, and a lack of accountability among political elites. The focus of this book, however, is the use of digital technology in different social movements, communities, and campaigns—from the Indignados in Europe and Mexico, to women seeking social justice, to the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa, to Occupy Wall Street and the DREAMers’ quest for immigration reform, to the savvy digital organizing by political groups and communities in the United States. People are challenging political authorities, entrenched dictators, and political and economic systems once taken for granted. On a more micro and individual level, and particularly as it pertains to youth, individuals are mobilizing to confront skyrocketing debt and current policies regarding immigration through contentious politics aided by digital technology.

Indeed, the common thread that runs through all of these case studies in this book is the seminal use of ICTs (this includes the Internet, the World Wide Web, cell phones, texting, Instagram, social media, and social networks) to advance their respective causes. With the recent explosion of e-movements, e-protests, and e-activism, these organizational tools have become an essential component of social movement actors’ repertoire. The emergence of social media networking sites is changing the nature of political struggle and social movement activism in the United States and around the world.

This book will explore how new Web 2.0 technologies enable, facilitate, and encourage social movement activity by allowing individual actors to share grievances, accelerate social movement activity, decentralize mobilization efforts, facilitate recruitment efforts through virtual forms of collective identity, and hold authorities accountable for their responses to protest activity with mobile devices.

It is important to remember while reading the case studies in this book that technology is a tool, and therefore it is neutral. It can be used for both progressive and reactionary social movements, and authorities can use ICTs against activists. For example, a government can track Internet use and e-mails and monitor cell phone activity to locate organizers of, and participants in, dissident politics. Corporations can block or limit service, and authorities can discredit protesters by engaging in disinformation or propaganda campaigns, taking advantage of the anonymity that digital media affords. Facebook can be used to build a community around a progressive cause, and it can just as easily be used to bully a classmate. Mobile video recording devices can keep police abuse in check, but they can also be used by terrorist groups to publicize their acts and recruit new members. The most recent example of this is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which will be covered in depth in Chapter 5. This book does not make the claim that digital technologies are all inherently good or progressive nor that they are the only resource to consider when trying to understand social movement activity. But the important role ICTs have played in recent social movement activity is undeniable, and the specific ways their use can translate into motivation, interest, and participation among social movement actors are worth examining.

As we will see throughout the text, social movement theory serves as a toolkit to unpack the conceptual ways in which ICTs influence the political landscape. This book analyzes the many ways that ICTs are changing the structure and tactics of social movements, and the case studies serve as illustrative (rather than conclusive) examples that can assist in updating social movement theories. What we will see is that by applying various theoretical frameworks in a comprehensive and holistic way and by updating them to include theories of new media, we can better make sense of contemporary forms of contentious politics. These are exciting times, both for those fighting for social change and those studying social movements!

What Are Social Movements?

It is important to take a moment to clarify exactly what social movements are and how they are different from other forms of collective behavior. A social movement is neither a riot nor electoral politics. Rather, it is a sustained collective articulation of resistance to elite opponents by a plurality of actors with a common purpose (Tarrow [1988] 1994). According to Charles Tilly (2004), the three main elements of social movements are campaigns (long-term, organized public efforts that make collective claims on target authorities), repertoires (tactics that a group has at its disposal in a certain sociopolitical environment), and WUNC (worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment). WUNC is an intentional effort by participants in a social movement to publicly present themselves and their supporters as worthy of support from other citizens, which Tilly (2004, 23) encapsulates this way: “Social movements’ displays of worthiness may include sober demeanor and the presence of clergy and mothers with children; unity is signaled by matching banners, singing and chanting; numbers are broadcast via signatures on petitions and filling streets; and commitment is advertised by braving bad weather, ostentatious sacrifice, and/or visible participation by the old and handicapped. WUNC matters because it conveys crucial political messages to a social movement’s targets and the relevant public.”

Key to any social movement are mobilizing strategies—“those collective vehicles, informal as well as formal, through which people mobilize and engage in collective action” (McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald 1996, 3). More specifically, Tilly (2006) introduced the concept of a “repertoire of contention,” which refers to the tactical forms from which social movement actors can choose at any given moment. Repertoires vary over time and across cultures, but some of the most widely used have included armed struggle, nonviolent civil disobedience, self-immolation, protests, rallies, demonstrations, teach-ins, global witnessing, and public vigils.

With the advent of the digital revolution, which began in 2004, social movement scholars and organizers have turned their attention to the new range of nuanced tools that activists have in their arsenal. As history reveals, every social movement is in part shaped by the technology available at the time and its influences on the tactics that social movement actors will pursue. Activists have always utilized the latest communication device to recruit, distribute information, and mobilize support, whether it be the pen, printing press, telegraph, radio, television, Internet, or high-speed digital technologies. Manuel Castells (2007, 239) summarizes the critical role of media in protest politics in the following way: “power relations . . . as well as the processes challenging institutionalized power relations are increasingly shaped and decided in the communication field.”

Technology as a Spark for Social Change

Technology has always played a critical role in shaping social movement pursuits, as far back as the printing press. In the 1700s, the proliferation of local newspapers, pamphlets, and independent printing presses proved critical to the American Revolution. US revolutionary Thomas Paine kindled the political environment with his widely read pamphlet Common Sense (advocating US independence from Britain). One of the key founding fathers of the United States, John Adams, stated, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain” (Bernstein and Rice 1987). As Kaye (2011, 229) points out, the nation was founded as a nation by grassroots independent journalists: “Tom Paine was an unemployed or under-employed journalist, who wrote a pamphlet, Common Sense, and he said on the back of it, ‘I think these are really important ideas but I can’t go everywhere in America. If you like this pamphlet, the copyright is off. Copy it, print it up, and give it out to the next person.’” This radical movement toward free sharing of information is very common today with peer-to-peer sharing of digital information (a mechanism that will be discussed and analyzed throughout the ensuing chapters), yet we can see that it began hundreds of years ago via the printing press, the most innovative technology at the time.

More than a century and a half later, moving images became essential to political struggle. In 1930, as a part of his strategy to free Indian from British rule, Mohandas Gandhi invited reporters and newsreel teams to capture the footage of the 248-mile salt march he organized in 1930. Images of British soldiers beating peaceful marchers with clubs exposed to the world the repression of the Raj (Dalton 2012), swaying public opinion greatly in India’s favor, which played a major role in India’s independence. During the civil rights movement in the United States led by Reverend Martin Luther King, TV images of police violence, of fire hoses and police dogs set loose on activists engaged in civil disobedience across the South, even targeting children, with the most dramatic episodes occurring in Birmingham, Alabama, also garnered support for the demonstrators and energized the social movement.

Later, US public opinion regarding the Vietnam War changed drastically when footage of the carnage was brought into peoples’ living rooms on the evening news, motivating the peace movement (Swerdlow 1992). Similarly, the 1989 images of the peaceful students in Tiananmen Square overrun by tanks as they campaigned for democracy and freedom of speech significantly affected viewers’ sentiments toward the Chinese government and military (James 2009).

New media platforms are changing the social movement terrain even more radically than previous technologies. Though communication and information systems have historically been fundamental sources of power and counterpower, and of domination and social change, this effect has been exacerbated by the explosion of digital technologies. As Marshall McLuhan declared decades ago with the introduction of television in the 1960s, “The medium is the message.” The form of technology through which information is disseminated and received molds cultures; it introduces a new mind-set that alters the landscape of societies, as well as relationships and forms of interaction among individuals in those societies (McLuhan 1964). What is significant about new social media platforms and social networking sites is that, unlike television, they embody a radically individualistic and freelance format that encourages forms of self-expression.

We are the Message Creators

New media technologies allow users to become not merely receivers of the message but also the creators and distributors of messages. Indeed, the latest generation has an unprecedented degree of control over the production, distribution, and consumption of information and therefore over their cultural environment, which also has powerful implications for serious social and political change. The distribution of information is now immediate, worldwide, often free, and in the hands of ordinary citizens. New Internet media platforms and social networking sites, web publishing tools, and the proliferation of new mobile devices—there are currently more cellphones in the United States than there are humans (Kang 2011)—are all altering the political atmosphere.


New media technologies allow users to become not merely receivers of the message but also the creators and distributors of messages.

In this new communication and media setting, almost anyone and anything can be recorded and disseminated without the permission of the elites (be they the professional mainstream press, corporate gatekeepers, the police, the military, or campaign managers). Through an emerging indigenous free press reliant on “mojos” (mobile journalists), citizens can broadcast unedited live footage from smart phones, flip cameras, and laptops that have digital audio- and video-recording capabilities. In terms of social movement activity, the ubiquity of camera-ready smart phones allows for authentic transparency, as live-streamers serve as journalist mediators between authorities and protesters. Individuals can also send video shots on mobile phones to international news services, which are then beamed via satellite all over the world, thus connecting mobile amateur journalists to the mainstream press. The images can also obviously be posted onto YouTube, Facebook, and other social networking sites where, if they go viral, can instantaneously capture national attention.

In fact, the very concept of journalism itself is being reconfigured. A perfect example of this happened during the 2011 re-election bid of former senator George Allen (R-VA) against Democratic nominee Jim Webb. As part of its strategy, the Webb campaign had a University of Virginia student follow Allen with a hand-held video camera. At one of his rallies Allen introduced the tracker, S. R. Sidarth (who is of Indian American descent) to the crowd as Macaca (considered a racial slur). During the speech Allen interjected, “This fellow here over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is. He’s with my opponent. He’s following us around everywhere. . . . Let’s give a welcome to Macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia” (Sidarth is actually a US citizen, born in Virginia). The video of the “Macaca moment” was played more than 400,000 times on YouTube, and bloggers, especially at the Daily Kos, amplified the story (Shear 2011). The incident later appeared in an article in the Washington Post, illustrating how stories that originate in alternative media often filter into the mainstream media, thereby increasing the visibility and viewership of events. The taping and circulation of this incident helped to foil Senator Allen’s re-election bid, with Webb winning by a narrow margin.

Mojos, as bearers of breaking news, oftentimes beat the mainstream press to highly relevant stories that can have a political impact. For example, amid the hunt for the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks in the United States, a Twitter user in Pakistan, @ReallyVirtual, tweeted live as Osama bin Laden was being killed: “helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).” The news of the assassination circulated on social media immediately and widely. This information was obtainable an hour before President Barack Obama’s address from the White House announcing the killing on broadcast television (Patesky 2011). The proliferation of text messages and peer-to-peer sharing of this information via social networks facilitated ad hoc celebratory assemblies at Ground Zero, Times Square, and outside of the White House. This ability for strangers to organize quickly and in real time was facilitated through the several smart phone apps now available.

The Digital Grassrooting of Social Movements

New technologies are changing more than just the way individuals can share and disseminate information. The actual structure of digitally savvy social movement organizations (SMOs) is unique. Traditional movements tended to rely more on a hierarchical model of formal, well-established organizations with charismatic leaders and professional experts, which provided a clear set of grievances and demands as the cornerstone of the collective behavior. More recently, however, collective behavior manifests itself through a more horizontal infrastructure of connectivity. This broadens the public sphere, as citizens can now share grievances and express their opinions through peer-to-peer networks, contributing to the “electronic grassrooting of civil society.” Castells (2001) coined this term to describe a new type of “informational politics” in which electronic media become the space of politics by framing processes, messages, and outcomes and results in a new kind of civil society.

These new types of communication flows change the organizational process, as collective behavior is now less dependent on professional leadership and expertise and operates at the grassroots level and in ad hoc settings. Unlike past forms of technology, which relied on the one-to-many flow of information, largely controlled by state or corporate interests (for example, heavy, though not exclusive, reliance on newspaper, television, or radio coverage during the civil rights struggle or the women’s suffrage movement), the new media ecosystem is a bottom-up approach to communication. Ordinary citizens, equipped with their tech-savvy sense, now organize and hold politically oriented events to effect social change in both cyberspace and in local communities. Many contemporary social movements have an aversion to naming a specific leader or spokesperson, and some are conscientious about avoiding specific demands. Furthermore, social movement actors are often more flexible than activists who have participated in previous forms of mobilization, in that they demonstrate a proclivity to alter their demands and tactics as protest activities unfold. This approach is made possible by up-to-the-minute information sharing and organizing through new media.

This horizontal structure of social movements, made possible by digital technology, emerged in the early 1990s when the Internet was first utilized for protest activity. For example, the 1994 uprising by the Zapatistas (an indigenous and initially armed group in the southern state of Chiapas) against the Mexican federal government in an effort to protect their indigenous rights and access to land surprised the world, and the only way that the world knew about the revolution was because of the Internet. This new media resource disseminated firsthand accounts of developments in this remote region. The rebellion was not organized over the Internet (as access to computers was clearly lacking in this extremely poor and remote area of Mexico), but commentary, suggestions, debate, and reporting was shared in cyberspace on a peer-to-peer basis, which stirred interest and gained them international support (Cleaver 1998). The Zapatistas handwrote communiqués for distribution to the mass media and gave them to reporters or to friends of reporters, which were then typed or scanned and distributed through the Internet (Arquilla and Ronfeldt 2001).

Another early example is the successful attempt to shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meetings in Seattle in 1999. Despite a lack of face-to-interaction before the major demonstrations, organizations and individuals shared ideas and information as to how to best educate citizens about the WTO and its policies that were deemed harmful to both workers and the environment, as well as how to best plan and carry out the rallies. Demonstrator held protests in more than eighty locations in dozens of countries once the information sharing plateaued (Rheingold 2002). They organized these through the website (now defunct), which put out action alerts in ten different languages letting those interested know how they could get involved.

Getting the Message Out

New ICTs have made it easier and faster than ever before for activists to gain support for boycotts, garner signatures in petitions, or simply get the message out to people sympathetic to their cause. Effective online petitions and calls for boycotts abound, and this form of e-activism is now an integral part of most people’s social media activity. There are websites, such as, that host or link online actions as a free service through which visitors can create and maintain online petitions for any cause. Other sites feature action centers that allow citizens to choose from a menu of a variety of actions such as boycotts; online petitions; virtual sit-ins, rallies, and demonstrations; or e-mail or fax correspondence about a particular cause of concern (Earl et al. 2010).

In one particularly effective case, after a fourth-grade class in Brookline, Massachusetts, read The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss, they discovered on Universal Studio’s website that the environmental themes, central to the story, were not going to be addressed in the upcoming film based on the book. The students started a petition on (host of the world’s largest petition platform) demanding the movie company “let the Lorax speak for the trees” (Kristof 2012). The petition went viral and gathered more than 57,000 signatures. The studio, in response to the outcry, updated the movie site with the environmental message (Kristof 2012).

In another example, Molly Katchpople also used to pursue a cause. She petitioned Bank of America on the site to reconsider its plan to add a five-dollar-per-month fee on its customers’ debit cards (Dias 2011). The petition drive was successful. Later, she put up another petition against Verizon, which also intended to raise its fees by five dollars a month. This also resulted in a victory when the corporation relented in less than forty-eight hours (Kim 2011). In both cases this online activism saved Americans billions of dollars.

After airline passengers were trapped on the tarmac for eight hours in Austin, Texas, on an American Airlines flight in 2009, one of the disgruntled passengers began an online petition, also using The circumstances were horrid, as food and water supplies ran out, toilets overflowed, and patience wore thin. This individual effort snowballed into a national movement for reform across the entire airline industry. Individuals then collectively lobbied Congress to consider the Airline Passenger’s Bill of Rights, which it did as the airlines voluntarily accepted the standards proposed by the petition. The bill, passed by the Senate on February 6, was entitled the FAA Reauthorization Bill (Shirky 2008).

A final example of online activism through the use of petitions is a group called (a think tank that fights for racial justice). The group undertook a three-year campaign to convince mainstream news outlets to stop using the word “illegal” when referring to immigrants living in the United States without the proper documentation, on the basis that the term is racially charged and dehumanizing. They accomplished a major feat when the Associated Press, the largest news gathering organization, agreed to eliminate the use of the “I” word (Rosenfeld 2013). This is of particular significance because the Associated Press feeds hundreds of local television networks and newspapers and serves as a stylebook for all credentialed journalists.

Although large numbers truly make online campaigns effective, get the attention of those being targeted, and often translate into the perceived worthiness of the cause, it is important to keep in mind that these are more “flash campaigns” and not genuine social movements. They are not persistent mobilizations (an essential component for social movements according to Sidney Tarrow), and there is typically no clear sense of collective identity. Nevertheless, they give us insights into the tactics that those seeking social change can utilize, and online mobilization efforts do have the potential to transform into social movements. What the above examples also show is that is has never been easier, cheaper, and faster for activists to get their message out, quickly reach a critical mass, and mobilize into a formidable political campaign.

Because of the digital revolution, individuals now have an unparalleled degree of control over the production, dissemination, and consumption of information, which has a significant impact on their efforts to affect social change through displays of collective behavior. Indeed, the emergence of the Internet, social media networking sites, and e-activism are changing the nature of political struggle and social movement activism in the United States and around the world. As the case studies in this book will show, new ICTs are now an essential component of social movement actors’ repertoire in their ability to facilitate and speed up the process of organizing, recruiting, sharing information, and galvanizing support among the public.

The Case Studies

Of course, not all social movements are impacted by ICTs. But the case studies in this book were chosen because of their timely, ongoing nature and because they have received substantial media attention in the mainstream press and on social networking sites. They are of particular interest to students because most are youth based and are related to issues that concern young people—a shaky economy, a dysfunctional political system, and perhaps most importantly skyrocketing student debt. Additionally, the text doesn’t discuss only US- or North American-based social movement activity but looks at the global nature of social movements by examining outbreaks of contentious politics in various parts of the world. This provides students with an awareness of how some of the struggles that they may be familiar with in the United States compare and contrast to social movements in other parts of the world.

To understand contemporary displays of collective behavior, this book combines traditional and revised versions of social movement theory and complements them with theories that emphasize the role of digital technology in social movement activity. The case studies informs social movement theory by categorizing and evaluating the influence of new ICTs on the way social movements emerge and succeed, and each chapter outlines which theories are particularly useful given the particular case study.

By looking at the examples and case studies through this lens, we can best analyze and conceptualize the historical, political, and social context within which protest activity occurs, how activists mobilize (what strategies and tactics they employ and why they choose them), how new members are recruited and influenced to participate in often high-risk activities, how groups form alliances and use them to their advantage, the key role that these networks play in the sustenance of contentious politics, and how activists frame issues and use the mainstream and alternative media in addition to social networking sites to help sway public opinion in their favor. In sum, the theoretical frameworks serve as a toolkit that unlocks how a new generation of mobilized citizens is building new collectivities and representing a new type of digitally savvy activism.

Structure of the Book

Chapter 1 provides a summary of the history and trajectory of social movement theory as it has been developed and adjusted over the past few decades. It serves as a foundation for the analysis of recent social movements discussed throughout the rest of the book and lays the groundwork for the question, Are these digitally cutting-edge movements and uprisings forcing theorists to re-examine and refocus some of the more conventional explanations of collective behavior?

Chapter 2 explores ICTs as tools for social change outside of formal SMOs. We will see how ordinary citizens, with new powerful digital tools at their disposal, are organizing and mobilizing in ways that are distinct from previous mobilization efforts.

Chapters 3–6 examine specific contemporary social movements to highlight the relevance of new media in contentious politics and to explore how this use of ICTs and new media informs and updates social movement theories. These chapters examine the historical, cultural, social, and political context within which the movements occurred, how activists mobilized (their strategies and tactics), how they recruited and forged alliances with other groups, how they framed their issues and used the mainstream and alternative press to sway public opinion, and the outcomes or consequences of their mobilization efforts. They situate the movements in question within social movement theory and evaluate how well the various theories explain their emergence and evolution. Finally, the chapters will each ask the question, Does this case study give us reason to update or modify traditional social movement theories? At the end of each chapter a “Theory Toolkit” gives the reader a snapshot of the different theories that can be used to analyze the social movement.

Discussion Questions

  1. In what ways are social movements a distinctive form of collective behavior? Can you think of examples not provided in this book that might blur the line between social movements and other repertoires of contention? For example, in some cases, can we perceive armed struggle or war to be a social movement?
  2. What does McLuhan mean by “the medium is the message”? How does the digital revolution fit into this schema? How has it played out in a recent social movement that this book does not cover? Are there flaws in his theory?
  3. Mojos are important for mobilizing efforts and contentious politics. How can efforts of mojos potentially backfire? Create a scenario where this might be the case.
  4. Think of ways in which “flash campaigns” might be considered social movements or turn into a sustainable campaign. Come up with some concrete examples from your own independent research.

CHAPTER 3 and the Tea Party

This chapter examines two SMOs, or, as we will see, what can more accurately be described as social movement communities (a term that Wollenberg et al. 2006 use). They are on opposite ends of the political spectrum:, which is a left-wing organization that advocates for progressive causes and the Tea Party, which is a conservative entity that is more reactionary in its agenda.

In a snapshot, is known as one of the original and most successful digital public policy advocacy groups. It has been hailed for its pioneering tactics in support of progressive issues, and it raises large amounts of money to support Democratic candidates. is made up of Civic Action, which is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporation, and MoveOn Civic Action, which focuses on education and advocacy as they pertain to national issues. It also has a federal political action committee that contributes to the campaigns of many candidates across the country.

The Tea Party arrived later on the scene and in some ways, like, resembles a social movement community more than a formal social movement in the typical sense, though its structure is more disparate and harder to classify. In essence, the Tea Party is an umbrella organization, an amalgam of somewhat loosely connected groups that consist mainly of libertarians, religious conservatives, independents, and some citizens new to politics who are frustrated with the contemporary political landscape. What unites the various groups is a shared, yet loosely held, set of beliefs. They are sometimes linked to national organizations such as the Tea Party Express and the Tea Party Nation, though they mostly operate independently (Williamson, Skocpol, and Coggin 2011). Other associated groups operate exclusively online, such as the National Tea Party Federation, whose goal is to enhance and facilitate communication among the various groups affiliated with the Tea Party.

These two very different organizations give us some important insights into contemporary forms of social movement organizing in the United States that cut across both contentious and institutional politics. Both groups rely on some traditional methods that have been used in previous social movements, while concomitantly adopting other more innovative tactics. They demonstrate that what is often perceived as a zero-sum game between new and old activism is a false dichotomy: online and offline activism often reinforce each other. There are strong similarities between the organizational structure of MoveOn and the Tea Party as well as the combination of online and offline strategies they employ—they are both hybrids of sorts when it comes to promoting social change. This chapter invites us to think theoretically and conceptually about what constitutes a social movement in the digital age, which subsequently raises questions as to how to best theorize the tactics and strategies of nuanced groups such as these.

Furthermore, a central concern of this chapter is how online sharing of information and e-activism leads to mobilization on the ground, or the spillover effect. We consider whether virtual activism replaces, complements, or has no effect on concrete forms of participation for social and political change.

A comparison of the two groups also raises the question of how to define grassroots organizations and their relationship to the public sphere, or communicative action, as posed by Habermas (1993, 1989). Chapter 1 noted his concerns about the shrinking role of the public sphere with the onset of television and the encroachment of professional experts (elites in the media and other major corporations) and contended that they have come to dominate public dialogue and debate, and civil society in general. However, the arrival of the Internet and digital technology prompts us to update his theory as the old top-down and hierarchal structures and modes of communication are being challenged, in some ways, by grassroots entities. MoveOn and some of the Tea Party groups are examples of Castells’s (2001) informational politics that result in the electronic grassrooting of democracy.


MoveOn’s model for electronic recruitment shows how “weak” virtual ties can lead to activism in the streets.

MoveOn emerged in the late 1990s in cyberspace via an online petition. In 1998, during the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Silicon Valley computer entrepreneurs Wes Boyd and Joan Blades created an online petition that called on Congress to censure but not impeach President Clinton. Boyd e-mailed it to thirty friends, and within two weeks more than half a million people had signed the petition (Bennet & Fielding 1999). A few years later he heard from Eli Pariser, who had created an online petition urging moderation and restraint in responding to the September 11 terrorist acts. This petition also exploded in popularity, and at Boyd’s suggestion the two merged their websites, and was born (Markels 2003). The organization currently has more than 5 million members, and its running slogan is “Democracy in Action.”

MoveOn’s main strategy is to activate people on a few different issues at a time, often for short durations as legislative battles change, and this model allows it to play an important role as a campaign aggregator—inviting people in on a particular issue and then introducing them to additional issues (Markels 2003). According to Boyd, what unites MoveOn activists is support for progressive issues and a different type of politics, and the Internet is an essential tool for staying politically connected.

The organizational features of MoveOn are representative of contemporary social movements as theorized by new social movement theorists such as Melucci (1996): they are constituted by loosely articulated networks that permit multiple memberships and part-time participation, and there is little if any distinction between leaders and rank-and-file members, members and nonmembers, and private and public roles. MoveOn is often members’ first step into political action, and what brings them to take that step is typically an e-mail message sent from one of the organizers or forwarded from a family member, friend, or colleague. This resonates with Castells’s (2001) concept of informational politics and Giugni’s (1998) research on the importance of electronic forms of communication among trusted sources that would-be participants in a social or political cause may not receive otherwise. For many members contributing money to a candidate or a political ad in response to an e-mail is the first time they participate in politics outside of voting (Boyd 2003).

MoveOn’s success also highlights the importance of flexible and contingent forms of (wired) collective identity that developing theories of new media address, in particular Giugni’s work noted above. Pariser explains:

Every member comes to us with the personal endorsement of someone they trust. It is word-of-mouth organizing in electronic form. It has made mixing the personal and political more socially acceptable. Casually passing on a high-content message to a social acquaintance feels completely natural in a way handing someone a leaflet at a cocktail party never would. The “tell-a-friend” phenomenon is key to how organizing happens on the Net. A small gesture to a friend can contribute to a massive multiplier effect. It is a grassroots answer to the corporate consolidation of the media. (Boyd 2003)

As the statement shows, the way information is sent, received, and accessed represents a more pluralistic, fluid, and issue-oriented group politics among many contemporary activists that theories of new media, as well as theories of new social movements recognize. Members and organizers of contemporary forms of collective behavior increasingly operate outside of state-regulated and corporate-dominated media and rely on innovative actions mainly mediated across electronic networks. These in turn enable new forms communicative action that assist in recruitment efforts and can result in concrete forms of mobilization. This exemplifies the grassrooting of civil society that Castells (2001) describes, and it is also illustrative of H. Jenkins’s (2006) conceptualization of the importance of civic media in participatory democracy and the spillover effect. These new outlets for organizing can help update resource mobilization theory and illustrate how collective identity is established in new ways, thus calling for a modification of cultural theories to account for weak ties that lend to activism in the streets.

New Technology Campaigns

In terms of campaigns, from its inception, MoveOn’s website has distributed e-mail action alerts that inform its members of important current events and has provided petitions and contact information of members’ elected officials so that members can respond to those events. Its first campaign supported candidates running against impeachment backers. In 1999, in less than twelve weeks, it signed up over 500,000 supporters and received pledges of $13 million (Burress 2003). As a great example of e-activism, in June of that same year it set records for online fundraising by collecting more than $250,000 in five days, mostly in individual donations under $50 (Potter 2003).

Once the Clinton impeachment trial ended, MoveOn centered much of its energy on the peace movement in the wake of the 9–11 attacks. It hosted the online headquarters for the Virtual March on Washington—an act of online civil disobedience to protest the imminent invasion of Iraq. It was sponsored by the WinWithoutWar Coalition, which serves as an online umbrella organization for the peace movement. Using e-mail connections to coordinate and organize a protestor base, on February 26, 2003, more than 200,000 individuals signed up and made more than 400,000 phone calls and sent 100,000 faxes to every senate office in the United States with the message DON’T ATTACK IRAQ! (MoveOn 2004). Every member of the US Senate also received a stream of e-mails, clogging virtual mailboxes in Washington, DC.

Another tactic MoveOn has used repeatedly as part of its repertoire is candlelight vigils, organized completely online. The March 16 vigils against the pending invasion of Iraq involved more than one million people in more than 6,000 gatherings in 130 countries and were organized in six days by MoveOn over the Internet (Stewart 2003). The online resource Meetup made the event possible, speeding the flow of politics, what Bimber (2003) refers to as accelerated politics. MoveOn’s fundraising ability also contributed to the antiwar effort. In less than one week, members raised $37,000 over the Internet to run an advertisement in the New York Times on December 11, 2002, thus using alternative media to infiltrate mainstream media in an effort to influence public opinion. In February 2003 MoveOn solicited donations to raise $75,000 in just two hours to place an antiwar advertisement on billboards in four major American cities with a similar message (Stewart 2003).

Although resource mobilization theory has always directed attention to the need for financial backing for political mobilizing efforts, typically the assumption was that most of this would consist of large sums of money from organizations or wealthy individuals. With new technology, however, organizers of a political campaign can instead, as this example shows, raise large sums of money through relatively small donations, and quickly, through word-of-mouth sharing of information online. This beckons us to modify resource mobilization theory to account for these new digital tactics for garnering resources.

After the invasion of Iraq began, MoveOn members petitioned their congressional representatives to continue the inspections for weapons of mass destruction. More than one million signatures were collected in less than five days and were delivered to the UN Security Council. Signatory names and comments were also sent to the petitioners’ respective congressional representatives. Additionally, on a single day 200,000 people called their representatives, and, in the run-up to the Senate vote on the Iraq resolution in October of 2003, MoveOn volunteers met face to face with every US senator with “Let the Inspections Work” petitions (Utne 2003). The organization also started to more aggressively engage in political campaigns, urging its supporters to donate money to Democratic House and Senate members who had opposed the Iraq resolution.

In sum, during the above campaigns MoveOn excelled at garnering available resources, people, and computer skills to increase sociopolitical awareness, influence public opinion, mobilize citizens and network with other SMOs, and help elect progressive candidates. It did so by using new technology to tap into submerged networks that could participate in Internet-mediated forms of civic engagement. Therefore, theories of new media best explain the success of MoveOn. Resource mobilization theory also informs our understanding of new groups such as with its attention to traditional resources that activists have at their disposal such as labor power, financial backing, and support of allies and influential elites.

Cultural and Symbolic Tactics: Combining New and Traditional Media

Cultural and symbolic forms of political expression, as advocated by cultural theorists of social movements and certain strands of the new social movement school of thought, are viewed as key variables to a social movement’s success. These tactics played another central role in MoveOn’s repertoire of contention.

For example, the group used celebrities for political purposes. One of the group’s first interactions with Hollywood came when filmmaker and cofounder of Artists United to Win Without War Robert Greenwald organized celebrities to join the Virtual March on Washington (Brownstein 2004).

Over one hundred celebrities joined as members of this group, including Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, and Mike Farrell (Bond 2002). One of the most direct and visible forms of protest occurred when filmmaker Michael Moore spoke out against the war at his acceptance speech at the 2003 Oscars only a few days after the invasion: “We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons. Whether it’s the fictitious duct tape or the fictitious orange alerts, we are against this war. Mr. Bush. Shame on you. Mr. Bush, shame on you” (Zakarin 2013). That same night at the Oscars ceremony, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins flashed peace signs to photographers. Actor Sean Penn went even further in resisting the war by traveling to Iraq in 2002. On his return he commented, “I cannot conceive of any reason why the American people and the world would not have shared with the Iraqis the evidence of the claim to have weapons of mass destruction. I think that the more information we push for, the more information we are given, the better off we are all going to be, and the right thing will happen” (Zakarin 2013).

Other celebrities who traveled internationally also spoke out against the impending invasion. For example, actor Dustin Hoffman publicized his displeasure during an awards ceremony in London, claiming, “This war is about what most wars are about: hegemony, money, power and oil.” In Berlin actor Richard Gere spoke out as well, saying, “We have to say ‘stop,’ there’s no reason for a war. At the moment, Hussein is not threatening anybody” (Zakarin 2013). Perhaps the most radical departure from the US government’s agenda was the country music trio the Dixie Chicks at a concert in London. Lead singer Natalie Maines opined that she was “ashamed” that President Bush was also from Texas, where she was born and raised. Upon return to the United States, several country stations refused to play the Dixie Chicks’ music in retaliation for her remarks.

MoveOn also has given substantial financial support to a number of Greenwald’s films and documentaries to promote more independent and critical voices outside of mainstream and corporate-dominated media. Its website offered his Uncovered: The Next War on Iraq DVD as a premium to members who pledged thirty dollars or more, and approximately 8,000 individuals made pledges within the first three hours. More than 2,600 members hosted screenings in their homes and at community venues, and the movie was ultimately distributed in theaters across the country (Deans 2004).

House parties are another innovative tactic MoveOn uses to broaden the public sphere and the realm of civil society by combining the private and public spheres. It also adds to the explanatory power of theories that focus on the importance of collective identity (for example Snow et al. 1986; Benford 1993) and of morally and ethically based reasons for participation in collective behavior that some of the new social movement theories recognize (Giddens 1991; Tomlinson 1999; Johnston 1994). A few years later MoveOn provided free copies of Greenwald’s Iraq for Sale and The Ground Truth documentaries for members to show at house parties. After viewing the films attendees made phone calls and wrote letters to voters. MoveOn also helped Greenwald finance Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. Taking advantage of the mainstream media, it also took out a full-page ad in the New York Times declaring, “The Communists had Pravda. Republicans have Fox” (Deans 2004).


House parties are an innovative tactic MoveOn uses that broadens the public sphere and the realm of civil society by combining the private and public spheres.

In other cases various directors and film producers helped MoveOn construct homemade advertisements once sufficient funds were raised by its members. The “Real People” ads, for instance, were created by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris and featured ordinary members of the Republican Party explaining why they were crossing party lines to vote for Democratic nominee John Kerry (Deans 2004). This was the first time both the content and the funding for an ad campaign came from the grassroots membership of an organization, typical of social movement communities operating without an established vanguard (Wollenberg et al. 2006). The “Bush in 30 Seconds” ads challenging administration policies were shown during his State of the Union address. Grammy-nominated musician Moby helped to design them, held a competition for members to submit ads, and recruited a panel of celebrity judges that culminated in an awards show in New York City to raise funds for other anti-Bush television ads (Stevenson 2004).

This example shows us that the roles of leaders, spokespersons, formal SMOs, and elite allies—all of which played a prominent role in the development of the resource mobilization framework—are less relevant for many contemporary mobilizations. Theories of new media and some components of the new social movement school of thought are more useful because they highlight the decentralized and more egalitarian structure of today’s contentious politics (Melucci 1996 most directly brings this to our attention). Also helpful is Mann’s (2000) conception of the interstitial location, where activists promote their agendas outside the formal political system and traditional institutions.

The organization and its supporters also combatted infringement of corporate and elite domination of the cultural sphere in the fight against censorship when theaters across the United States were being pressured by right wing groups to bar Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore’s controversial film. It asked members to pledge to see the film on opening night with other members to send a message to theater owners that the public supports Moore’s message of peace (, e-mail to all members). Bridging the offline and online worlds and combining entertainment with serious political discussion, more than 4,600 parties were thrown across the United States, and at each Moore spoke to members over the Internet about his movie and his hope they would each bring at least five nonvoters to the polls for the upcoming November 2004 election (Brownstein 2004). This novelty bridges entertainment, activism, and institutional politics.

During the ten-week Don’t Get Mad Get Even! events preceding the 2004 election, MoveOn and America Coming Together held rallies and rock concerts that incorporated celebrity appearances by artists, authors, and actors. As part of the Rock the Vote tour, they jointly held a concert in New York City right before the Republican National Convention that featured rock stars such as Bruce Springsteen, the Dave Mathews Band, Pearl Jam, REM, the Dixie Chicks, Jackson Browne, and John Mellencamp. Some MoveOn members threw house parties to watch the concert, at which members wrote letters to swing-state voters. Additionally, relying on mainstream media platforms, “Don’t Get Mad, Get Even!” television advertisements featured celebrity activists such as Matt Damon, Rob Reiner, Woody Harrelson, and Al Franken (Carty 2010).

Thus, MoveOn combines conventional forms of organizing with more nuanced tactics. Rock concerts that support their cause, pledging to view Michael Moore’s film, and throwing house parties each serve to open up the public sphere more broadly to ordinary citizens (which Habermas feared we are losing to corporate and elite control), and are also displays of symbolic forms of protest. With this in mind, we can modify some of Habermas’s theory to account for new tactics, many of them aided by new technology (for example, the organization of house parties through web-based tools). Parts of new social movement theories help in our assessment of how MoveOn operates as these kinds of activities also serve to politicize new areas of social life.

Bridging Online and Offline Activism

MoveOn continued its grassroots mobilization during the 2006 midterm election. Recognizing the essential role of on-the-ground (public) efforts to compliment e-activism, it trained and supported volunteers on the ground to organize rapid responses to events and to hold news conferences, editorial board meetings, and rallies to target vulnerable Republican incumbents. As both political-process and political-mediation scholars would suggest (for instance Meyer 2005; Tarrow 2001; Soule and King 2006), politicians are vulnerable during election years and swaying public opinion is key, and these two theories assist us in clarifying MoveOn’s strategizing. According to a Yale University study, the emphasis on face-to-face voter mobilization through social networks increased turnout by seven percentage points (Middleton and Green 2007). Prior to the election MoveOn members held more than 6,000 actions in these districts and organized 7,500 house parties (MoveOn 2007 annual report).

Members also donated enough money to establish the Call for Change program that used web-based tools and a call-reporting system to reach voters. Once again circumventing professional pollsters (and once again Mann’s [2001] interstitial locations is fitting here), the web-based “liquid phone bank” allowed MoveOn members to call from wherever they lived into wherever they were needed within a day or two. Middleton and Green (2007) found that the phone bank was the most effective volunteer calling program ever studied and that it increased voter turnout by almost 4 percent.

Also during the 2006 election, a successful framing approach allowed MoveOn to combine parody and serious political discourse. Cultural as well as new social movement theories (Gamson 1992) that evaluate the effectiveness of social movement activity by their framing of issues are applicable here. For example, activists deployed the metaphor of being caught red handed by displaying giant foam red hands and signs as they followed their representatives to town hall meetings, appearances, and fundraisers, questioning their allegiance to special interests. In Virginia Beach, members attended every Coffee with Thelma event that Representative Thelma Drake held and asked questions about her allegiance to special interests. In Louisville, Kentucky, members rallied at a gas station to tell voters about Representative Ann Northup’s ties to big oil with flyers describing war profiteering. Members in Fayetteville, North Carolina, attended a defense contractor tradeshow that Representative Robin Hayes sponsored. During this campaign alone local media wrote more than 2,000 stories about MoveOn’s actions ( 2008 annual report), and, of the nine long-shot races members targeted, five won. As an overall tally, in 2006 Democrats supported by MoveOn lost four and won eighteen races, which helped build a Democratic majority in the Senate (Center for Responsive Politics 2006).

The red-handed campaign represents what MoveOn does best—framing issues in a way that resonates with voters and taps into their frustration, using humorous and innovative techniques by employing diagnostic and prognostic framing (Snow et al. 1986). Its success at harnessing popular entertainment to broadcast alternative voices, whether in the form of rock concerts, fundraisers, Bush-bashing ads, publicity stunts, or supporting alternative forms of media, and doing this jointly with representatives of the artistic community, is something MoveOn has excelled at.

The Importance of Social Media

As MoveOn evolves and relies on new resources and tactics, new media are becoming increasingly important to understanding how it now operates. The group still uses e-mail extensively but now also relies heavily on other forms of social media. In response to the negative ads against President Obama by Republican Super PACs that played out on television during the 2012 elections, for example, MoveOn stated in a March 1 e-mail,

Over the last year we’ve been quietly developing a groundbreaking plan to counter these lies through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter—where millions of people now get their news, bypassing the corporate media. The results so far have been amazing. There have been 65 million views in the last year. We increased our web traffic tenfold. And we tripled our audience of Facebook fans who can spread the word. But to counter Fox’s lies this election we need to raise $200,000 to pay for the researchers, editors and developers necessary to ramp up.

A link was included at the end of the e-mail asking members to chip in fifteen dollars to help fund the efforts.

MoveOn’s recent strategizing has some theoretical implications for our understanding of contentious politics. It illustrates that people are now receiving news through sources outside of corporate-dominated media, and the news that they are receiving through digital outlets such as Facebook and Twitter is being shared in a horizontal fashion, through peer-to-peer networks. Therefore, SMOs’ direction of social movement activity and dispersion of information is being complemented by these informal and decentralized hubs of activity, informing us how we can update resource mobilization theory put forth by Tilly (1978) and McCarthy and Zald (1973). We can complement this work with recent analyses that incorporate theories that focus on new media. Most prominently, Castells’s (2001) notion of an explosive informational politics and grassrooting of democracy, McAdam and Paulsen’s (1993) recognition of the importance of weak social ties forged in the virtual sphere that spread information about mobilization efforts in support of a cause, Bimber’s (2003) reference to accelerated pluralism, and Kahn and Kellner’s (2003) emphasis on the importance of virtual public spheres in initiating and sustaining momentum for social movement activity all come into play.

Another e-mail read, “This is the strategy. Every day, a team of 50 of MoveOn volunteer editors will collect the most timely and persuasive progressive news and opinion from around the web. Graphics debunking Republican lies about the economy. Live video coverage of the Occupy movement.<el>Then we’ll push the most timely and persuasive stuff out to hundreds of thousands of people, who share it with millions more. We believe that people-powered media, funded by people like us, can be a secret weapon against the conservative noise machine” (March 9, 2012). This statement further indicates how reliant social movement actors are on web-based tools to share information, create a critical mass of support through peer-to-peer sharing, and create new sources of collective identity and community, thus broadening the public sphere on which much of Habermas’s (1989, 1993) theorizing is based. It also supports Bennett and Iyengar’s (2008) claims that new forms of grassroots civic engagement though online forms of communication can be resistant to state and corporate regulation.

MoveOn continued its distribution videos that spoof serious political challenges during the 2012 presidential election. It launched a video, “Mitt’s Office,” in which actor Justin Long played Mitt Romney—depicting him as caring only about the 1 percent. The e-mail that disseminated it asked members to share the video with friends and family on Facebook or via e-mail (December 26, 2012). That same month it asked members to protest laws that would restrict voter registration drives and early voting and require voters to present photo IDs at the polls, and it urged them to donate money to try to prevent the laws from passing (January 13, 2013). Supporters protested outside of federal courthouses to contest the ruling on Citizens United (which allowed corporations, as well as unions, to donate undisclosed and unlimited amounts of money to candidates running for office), and MoveOn sent a petition to call on President Obama to sign an executive order that would require corporations that do business with the government to disclose their political spending and declare support for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics permanently.

After President Obama announced a federal investigation into Wall Street in his January State of the Union address, an e-mail from MoveOn stated, “This is truly a huge victory for the 99% movement. Hundreds of thousands of us signed petitions, made calls, and held signs outside in the cold to make this issue something that President Obama couldn’t ignore. Here’s some of what MoveOn members and our allies did to bring about this victory” (January 26, 2012). It went on to note that members engaged in Facebook and Twitter activity, and it included a link where readers could post a message of thanks on the White House Facebook wall. It then stated, “And, we need to keep pushing for more wins for the 99%, including our campaigns to get big money out of politics and tax the rich fairly.<el> MoveOn doesn’t get big checks from ban CEOs! So please click here to donate to keep the momentum going” (January 24, 2012).

MoveOn is not as grassroots as it may appear, however. For instance, it works in collaboration with powerful progressive groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, America United for Change, and United for Peace and Change. Though it does not receive any funding from corporate donors, it has received substantial financial support from international financier George Soros, who spent millions of dollars opposing President George Bush’s re-election in 2004 (Drehle 2008). One difference from those funding Tea Party organizations, as we shall see later in the chapter, is that his motivation, as a peace activist, is to support a cause rather than to influence a political party.

In conclusion, MoveOn perhaps can best be conceptualized as a hybrid in terms of its status (part insider / part outsider) and a chameleon in terms of tactics (disruptive yet also engaged in the institutionalized side of the continuum of contentious/institutional politics). Though the social movement organization, or community, emerged as a dissident organization, it eventually evolved into more of a political advocacy group that supports pinpointed candidates for office and operates in an ad hoc fashion without a traditional organizational structure. The case of MoveOn also illustrates that nuanced ICTs have not replaced traditional models of organizing nor replaced activism in the material world. Rather, they have altered the contours of mobilizing strategies and participatory democracy in important ways that vary along the spectrum of contentious and electoral politics. What makes this entity additionally intriguing is the way its online operations allow it to not only straddle the virtual and material spheres in terms of collective identity, organization, and mobilization, but to also engage in both protest and institutional politics.

The case of leads to the logical question of whether this new type of SMO is an anomaly or can we expect other SMOs to adopt similar ways of organizing and mobilizing. To address this query the next section provides an analysis of the Tea Party, which many view as the conservative counterpart to MoveOn (though it has a more institutionalized structure and forms of financial and strategic backing). An examination of this group allows us to draw some comparisons to, and differences from, MoveOn in terms of agenda and organizational style, and it poses similar theoretical questions that can aid our understanding of contemporary forms of collective behavior.

The Tea Party


The multiple groups that constitute the Tea Party have been able to take advantage of current political trends, in part by forming networks with other constituencies.

The Tea Party has been compared to in terms of its organizational structure and the tactics it employs (though as we will see some of these comparisons are not accurate). In fact, FreedomWorks and other groups behind the Tea Party have long declared their intention to create the equivalent to MoveOn. Broadly, TEA (taxed enough already) Partiers hope to spearhead a movement that aims to reduce government spending and taxes, through an umbrella organization made up of various politically conservative groups and factions. It is this ideological connection that fosters a sense of collective identity among the disparate groups and individuals.

The Tea Party is also flexible and at face value, at least, leaderless, as it is composed of unconnected collections of local chapters with varying agendas. This organizational structure clearly resembles that of a new social movement: an assembly of roughly affiliated groups consisting of supporters rather than members in the traditional sense. Wollenberg et al. (2006) refer to these types of organizational structures as “social movement communities” rather than SMOs, and these are also at the forefront of Khan and Kellner’s (2003) research on virtual public spheres as well as Bimber’s (2003) work on the accelerated pluralism that new ICTs allow for. Therefore, as with MoveOn, we are encouraged to revise and update resource mobilization theory in some ways to account for these new types of horizontal structures, and we should also update cultural theories to understand what constitutes collective identity and how it is created.

In addition to the Tea Party Nation and Tea Party Express affiliations mentioned earlier in this chapter, there are other core groups that represent the interests of Tea Partiers. For example, Tea Party Patriots is a for-profit organization that organizes national conferences. It was born out of resistance to the Wall Street bailouts and what members view as runaway government spending. At the center of its agenda is an endeavor to restore the founding policy of the constitution, limited government control, and a free market economy (Kroll 2012).

Tea Party Express is a political action committee that actively campaigns in support of specific candidates. It is extraordinarily successful in this capacity. According to the Federal Election Committee, it raised $6.6 million during the 2010 midterm elections, making it the single biggest independent supporter of Tea Party candidates (Williamson, Skocpol, and Coggin 2011). Similar to MoveOn’s success in the 2006 and 2008 elections, the Tea Party’s influence was undeniably decisive in the 2010 elections, as supporters propelled Republicans to huge gains in the House, helped secure Senate victories for some barely known candidates such as Rand Paul, and captured seven hundred seats in state legislatures (Tanenhaus 2012).

The Tea Party’s Impact on Electoral Politics

Political process theory (Tarrow 1996; McAdam 1982; C. Jenkins and Perrow 1977) argues that social movement agents have an advantage when the existing political system appears to be vulnerable to challenges, and this is especially true during times of electoral instability. This advantage is further enhanced when opponents can manipulate competition between key figures in the polity. The multiple groups that constitute the Tea Party have been able to take advantage of current political trends, in part by forming networks with other constituencies, and therefore resource mobilization theory is particularly relevant to grasping and assessing the success of the Tea Party.

For example, joining forces with the Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama (a Tea Party–linked political action committee), the Tea Party entered Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin’s recall fight in the wake of his attempt to curtail collective bargaining rights for public workers. Copying MoveOn’s example, Tea Party groups used both digital and mainstream media to pursue the cause. Through e-activism it blasted several e-mails to supporters and launched a $100,000 money bomb fundraiser to help defend Walker, and it ran television ads defending his policies (Kroll 2012). In the summer of 2011 Tea Party Nation, together with Tea Party Express, launched a four-day bus tour across Wisconsin defending six Republicans facing recall elections for their roles in the collective bargaining battle (the Walker recall election will be discussed in more detail in a later chapter). Just like MoveOn, the Tea Party groups’ use of new information and media technologies is often complemented by contentious politics in the material world.

One of the Tea Party’s first successes was when barely known Republican Scott Brown ran a grassroots campaign in the Massachusetts special election to win the seat vacated by Ted Kennedy, which had been held by Democrats since 1978. Resource mobilization theory contributes to our understanding of this victory given the financial backing provided by wealthy Tea Party advocates who used digital means to fundraise. They emulated some of MoveOn’s tactics by organizing an online money bomb (raising more than $1 million online in twenty-four hours) and orchestrated an “on the ground” get-out-the-vote campaign (Stauber 2010). This again combined online and offline activism, and it forged institutional and extrainstitutional political activity. In another simulation of MoveOn’s approach, through its Take America Back website it offered a web-based call center through which members could talk to voters from anywhere.

Allies as a Key Resource

One of the distinctions between the Tea Party and MoveOn is the Tea Party’s reliance on powerful allies (as already noted, the Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama was key to the struggle in saving Walker’s job)—though this is not to deny that MoveOn also has some wealthy financial backers. One of the major groups funding and organizing the Tea Party is FreedomWorks (formerly chaired by Dick Armey, former Republican Speaker of the House). This SMO provides abundant resources in terms of money, advice, knowledge, and personnel to invigorate and sustain the movement. It helped to organize the first Tea Party March on Washington on September 12, 2009, in conjunction with Glenn Beck’s 912 projects and the Tax Day Tea Party campaign (such as Fox News) for the event (Bai 2012). It also utilized mainstream media to try to influence public opinion and promote civic engagement. On May 13 Beck launched this project on his Fox News program. He also mobilized it through a social networking site built by his production company, Mercury Entertainment Group (Rose 2010). The 912 demonstrations were planned over the Internet, with local chapters coordinating activities through digital tools such as and The occasion was designed to build national unity around his stated nine principles and twelve values rooted in commitment to the United States and good morals and ethics (labeled the “Take America Back” convention).


Protesters rally against government taxation and spending policies at the US Capitol on September 12, 2009.

Americans for Prosperity, another core group behind the Tea Party, together with FreedomWorks provided funding for the ensuing eight hundred Tea Party protests held across the United States during the Tea Party Express bus tour (Bai 2012). Fox News gave extended coverage of the cross-country caravans that appealed to the media through the use of historical costumes, props, and catchy slogans (Rose 2010). The unpredictable protests, accompanied by symbolic displays of rebellion and disruptions of town hall meetings, as part of the Tea Partiers’ repertoire, were also media friendly in their spontaneity and entertainment value. These symbolic forms of political protest parallel some of the tactics that MoveOn uses, and new social movement theories and constructionist theories can help us make sense of them. The use of symbolic displays of grievances and demands, and framing issues in a clear way that resonates with disgruntled citizens is something that both groups have mastered. They also open up the public sphere for more discussion and innovative forms of communicative action (using Habermas’s 1993 terms).

The events that the Tea Party hosted and the rhetoric they engaged in are good examples of both frame alignment and frame amplification as promoted by social movement theories that focus on cultural aspects of social movements at the micro level (Snow et al. 1986 in particular). This is a tactic that activists can use to tap into deeply held morals, values, and beliefs that are congruent with other SMOs and that are embedded in the general population. Participants also used frame bridging to resonate with other organizations calling for resistance to the federal government. They also situated diagnostic framing in a way that promoted a critique of what they perceived to be the radical socialist agenda of the Obama administration. Other prognostic and motivational frames were embedded in a call to arms, with slogans such as “take your country back” and “what we need is revival and revolt!” (Rose 2010).

How to Define the Tea Party: Astroturf or Grassroots?

Some of the organizations that are affiliated with and support the Tea Party are corporate, while others are more grassroots in nature, and this led to some criticism of the Tea Party. Critics argue that its attempts to frame itself as a grassroots and ad hoc popular uprising are contrary to the reality of how the Tea party is structured and funded. For example, the supposed spontaneous interruptions and heckling of both Democrats and moderate Republicans during the 2009 town hall meetings were not entirely unrehearsed. Much of this was orchestrated and funded by well-established insider groups such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. It is the Koch brothers (David and Charles) who provide most of the funding for both of these groups. They own 84 percent of Koch Industries, which is the second-largest privately held US company, and they financially back a number of libertarian and conservative organizations and think tanks, such as the Cato Institute, as well Tea Party candidates, through their political action committee (Fisher 2012).

The Tea Party groups that participated in the caravans also received advice and encouragement from Beck’s (no longer available) national website (, and other conservative leaning websites such as (also no longer in service) provided talking points. FreedomWorks suggested particular questions Tea Party representatives should ask at the town halls and maintained a link detailing how members could infiltrate the meetings, spread inaccurate information, and harass members of Congress), and thus the strategy was actually very top down. Although most supporters consider the movement to be populist in, FreedomWorks, as mentioned earlier, is a well-funded, well-connected, DC-based think tank. The organization spent more than $10 million on the 2010 elections on campaign materials alone and set up a Super PAC through which it donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians (Coffey 2012).

Despite these top-down tactics, Tea Party participants assert that the movement is a mainstream resurgence among powerless, ordinary citizens. Detractors, however, view their primary agenda as one attempting to preserve their collective privileges, as most activists are middle-aged, middle class, and white. They contend that the Tea Party engages in reactive rather than progressive politics, responding to threats to their sense of entitlement and sometimes engaging in racist or xenophobic rhetoric. An example of this is displayed in an e-mail sent out in August 2010 by Tea Party Nation to its 35,000 members, asking them to post their “horror stories” about undocumented immigrants on its (now taken down) website (Young 2010).

Thus, although Tea Partiers brand the movement as a grassroots uprising, others view it as a tool of the Republican Party that has been used and co-opted by powerful political actors connected with the political establishment in the Beltway (Pilkington 2011). MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow describes the movement in the following way: “They’re called Fox News Channel tax day Tea Parties because all the big Fox News Channel personalities appeared at tax day Tea Party events. They were Fox News endorsed and promoted and, in some cases, hosted events. They didn’t just cover the Tea Party protests. They ran ads for them. They used Fox News Channel staff production time and ad time on the air to promote the events. They ran tea party promotions” (MSNBC 2006). This free access to traditional media helped catapult the movement into national consciousness and related it to public sentiment of frustration with the government. MoveOn had done this earlier; however, it relied more on the Internet and digital media as a resource, as it does not have the connections to, or much support from, corporate-owned media.

Hybrid SMO

Regardless of these differences and criticisms, each organization extensively employs both e-activism and contentious street protests as a part of its repertoire, and both straddle electoral and contentious politics by taking advantage of the shifting political context to influence public opinion, which political mediation theory highlights the relevance of (Soule and King 2006). In sum, although the 2012 election did not bode well for Tea Party candidates and it appears that the organization may have lost its momentum, it is important to acknowledge that social movements ebb and flow, and the Tea Party might very well bounce back in the next election. Regardless of what the future brings, through their framing devices Tea Partiers have been able to persuade many citizens that the issues they raise are urgent, that alternatives are possible, that they have the moral high ground, and that citizens can be invested with agency. This has served well as a recruitment mechanism. Their injustice frames explicitly appeal to moral principles for organizational outreach by resonating with deeply held values and beliefs among the general population and linking them to movement’s causes. Framing their grievances as a threat to the very existence of “everyday Americans” helps to create a sense of collective identity among Tea Partiers and their supporters who see changes in the economic, political, cultural, and social spheres—and specifically the changing demographics—as a threat to their entitlements. Although different groups work on different issues, there is a very strong emotional thread that holds them together, which indicates that a vehement sense of solidarity cuts across the various segments of participants. This is typical of Mann’s (2000) conceptualization of contemporary social movements within the rubric of the new social movement theories that focus on forms of collective behavior that bring diverse groups together to support emotionally charged issues and promote new sets of values in a collaborative way.

The Internet and digital technology were essential resources for the emergence and outburst of Tea Party activism because it was in the virtual world that ordinary citizens first began to spread their message. By establishing weak ties in cyberspace, like-minded people were able to communicate with one another and show support for the causes that the Tea Party supports. This shows how the public sphere and sources of connectivity are changing because of the digital revolution, which allows for information to be created, disseminated, commented on, and circulated through diffuse networks. It also demonstrates how these in turn lead to on-the-ground local forms of participation in political and social issues. Therefore, theories of new media are important supplements to resource mobilization and cultural theories, in particular, their attention to what H. Jenkins (2006) calls the spillover effect.

Theory Toolkit

MoveOn and the Tea Party

We can apply a few of the theories discussed in Chapter 1 to the emergence and evolution of and the Tea Party:

  • New social movement school of thought, cultural theories, resource mobilization theory, and political process theory. These theories are all very useful in aiding our understanding of these new hybrid types of organizations. Each in some way informs us about how these two groups operate in both the realm of institutional politics (challenging vulnerable candidates for office; i.e. political process theory) and extrainstitutional politics (rallies, marches, the use of celebrities, house parties, etc.; strands of new social movement theories). Most important and applicable to these two cases are cultural theories that address the critical role of collective identity and framing.
  • Theories of new media. As used in a complementary fashion to resource mobilization, these theories demonstrate (1) the importance of the peer-to-sharing of information within these two groups and across broader spectrums of society without heavy reliance on the mainstream media, (2) ways in which recruitment may be easier for contemporary social movement actors, (3) how weak ties forged in cyberspace can develop into strong ties with on-the-ground mobilization efforts and protest activity, and (4) nuanced forms of organizational flexibility that allow for more grassroots forms of participation and a broader spectrum for conversation and discussion.


Although different in their ideologies, tactics, and funding, what MoveOn and the Tea Party have in common is that they both take advantage of new ways of organizing and mobilizing their devotees through digital means. They both also rely heavily on different types of media in the hopes of influencing public opinion. Each has raised abundant amounts of money for advertisements and political campaigns. To impact the realm of institutional politics, MoveOn and the Tea Party have also pressured office holders through e-mail and face-to-face lobbying efforts, and they have taken advantage of the vulnerability of politicians during election years. And, finally, both entities successfully used framing to pitch their concerns in a way that resonated with frustration among voters and citizens on both sides of the political spectrum.

MoveOn’s and the Tea Party’s mobilization endeavors therefore represent the growing symbiotic relationship between e-activism and local organizing, as they both work in the blogosphere as well as in real communities to impact institutional and extrainstitutional politics. Their strategies underscore the need to expand conceptualizations of Habermas’s conception of the “public sphere” and participatory democracy.

Discussion Questions

  1. In what ways are MoveOn and the Tea Party hybrids when it comes to social change? Analyze another group that you consider to be a hybrid, and discuss how its tactics, strategies, and goals compare and contrast to those of MoveOn and the Tea Party.
  2. How do the two entities resemble new social movements in some ways, but are actually top down in other ways? Is either group really an outsider? Are there other advocacy groups you can locate that may be subject to similar criticisms?
  3. Examine a social movement that utilizes cultural and symbolic tactics similar to those of MoveOn and the Tea Party. In your opinion, are these effective (especially groups that use somewhat “radical” tactics meant to shock or disturb). Do they do a better job of pulling people into the movement, or do they drive people away?
  4. What other causes or social movements rely on celebrities to promote a cause? What are the pros and cons of using celebrities for political issues? How might this backfire? Give specific examples.

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