Recent research analyzing the impact of digital media and tools on advocacy campaigns and social protest offers valuable insights for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered (GLBT) movement.  These insights are especially relevant now as GLBT advocacy groups and activists look to broaden their political success beyond victories on gay marriage to tackle other civil rights issues in the U.S. and abroad. Yet in our enthusiasm for digital media and tools, we also need to bear in mind that advocacy cannot be limited to the online world. Digital activism can complement and strengthen foundational movement strategies such as coalition building, legal actions, media outreach, street protests or canvassing, but they are unlikely to ever be able to replace them.

In my Doctoral seminar this semester on Advanced Media Theory, students were asked to discuss what research suggests are the important impacts of digital media and tools on political participation, advocacy, and social protest. Among several strong responses was the following short essay by Andrea Hackl, a doctoral student the online activism strategies of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered (GLBT) movement.

Digital Activism and the Future of the GLBT Movement: Insights from Recent Research and Case Studies

Andrea Hackl (@AndreaHackl_AU)

Technological innovations over the past few decades have generated much scholarly and popular debate over the implications of digital media for political engagement and social activism. While some such as Sunstein (2011), fear the polarization and fragmentation of political debate, others such as Benkler (2006) consider the Internet to be inherently democratizing as it facilitates expression of opinion.

In the context of social activism, Bennett and Segerberg (2012) celebrate digital media’s potential as mobilizers of activism. Based on what they dub as the “logic of connective action,” new technological affordances take the place of hierarchical organizations in mobilizing weak-tie networks of constituents around personalized issue frames. These digitally enabled movements complement more traditional forms of activism that assume hierarchical organizations at the center of protest.

While the logic of connective action assumes weak-tie networks at the center of political protest, a study conducted by Campbell and Kwak (2012) analyzing the impacts of mobile phone communication on political participation comes to a different conclusion. In the context of U.S. elections, only among those mobile phone users with comparably large, strong-tie networks did politically-focused texting, phone conversations and information seeking boost overall levels of political participation.

In addition to the “facilitating function” (Van Laer & Van Aelst, 2010) of digital media, technological innovations of the past decades have also afforded new forms of activism, with political conflicts increasingly playing out at the level of Internet architecture (DeNardis, 2012; Kahn & Kellner, 2004). Denial of Service attacks, for instance, target the underlying infrastructure by flooding websites with requests, making them inaccessible for other users (DeNardis, 2012).

These emerging theoretical frameworks and research insights along with the analysis of several important recent case studies offer valuable insights for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered (GLBT) movement as affiliated organizations and activists look to broaden their political success beyond victories on gay marriage to tackle other civil rights issues in the U.S. and abroad.

A frequently used example to illustrate the inherent potential of digital media for social activism is the so-called “Arab Spring” demonstrations, which some have celebrated as “transformative” and “revolutionary.”  Lim (2012), for instance, argues that social media platforms were critical during riots in Egypt as they created networks that “the authoritarian government could not easily control” (p.244).

Howard and Hussain (2011) further point out that new media remained critical even after the authoritative governments had restricted access to social media platforms. Text messaging services were used as means of communication and organizing. In an attempt to weaken the regimes’ power over Internet resources, the hacktivists of Anonymous strategically attacked governmental websites.

Will the Next Revolution Be Tweeted?

The optimism over the Arab Spring and digitally enabled activism, however, is not shared by all. Discussing the role of social media platforms for political activism, Gladwell (2010) argues that Facebook and other social media platforms have afforded weak-tie networks that engage in “Clicktivism” rather than “high-risk” activism. Gladwell further contends that contemporary activists lack the “spark” of their predecessors who occupied lunch counters in their fight for social justice.

Gladwell’s sentiment that the next “revolution will not be tweeted” is also shared by critical voices within scholarship. For instance, a study conducted by Freelon (n.d.) demonstrates that the role of Twitter during the Arab Spring uprisings was to serve as an information resource rather than protest organizer. In this context, the study’s findings demonstrate that attention to Twitter content on the Arab Spring primarily came from outside the protest region.

Moreover, the powerful role of governments in controlling Internet architecture can have fatal consequences for digitally enabled movements. In Egypt and other Arab regions, the government responded to uprisings by shutting down the Internet (DeNardis, 2012). More generally, communication infrastructure theory (CIT) established by Kim and Ball-Rokeach (2006), suggests that not all communities have access to the technological infrastructure enabling them for political engagement.

Digital media have also been found to be an effective tool for the work of advocacy groups, facilitating the mobilization of constituents around key political issues. In the context of climate change, Hestres (2013) investigated how the advocacy groups 1Sky and utilized digital media for mobilizing efforts. In interviews with representatives of both groups, Hestres found that Internet-based advocacy strategies were mostly used to mobilize the “alarmed issue public”, referring to the group of individuals already concerned about climate change.

Both advocacy groups used their Internet presence to reach out to this core group of highly concerned individuals. Blogs and social media outlets were believed to be useful platforms to inform and engage core constituencies. While the advocacy groups considered the Internet a central tool for activism, it did not replace traditional forms of offline activism. Rather, online media were used as organizational tool for offline protest, informing and mobilizing constituents around grassroots efforts.

The recent debate revolving around digitally enabled activism has several important implications for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered (LGBT) movement. Considering the technological innovations of the past decade, digital media are no longer mere facilitators of political protest. Similar to other political conflicts, LGBT activism increasingly plays out at the level of Internet architecture (DeNardis, 2012). Advocating for LGBT equality, however, the movement needs to bear in mind that not everyone has access to digitally mediated content. Thus, the movement needs to build a wide repertoire of strategies utilizing both traditional and digital media.

In our enthusiasm for digital media, we also need to bear in mind that activism cannot be limited to the online world. Across the history of the LGBT movement, street activism has played a central role in educating the public and fighting for policy change. In the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the movement took to the streets to fight societal marginalization. The HIV/AIDS-epidemic of the 1980s became known for the radical protests of ACT UP that challenged societal misinformation and lack of governmental response.

In the fight for same-sex marriage in California, canvassing efforts became a central tool in building bridges across voter segments and in strengthening coalitions. Undoubtedly, digital media are providing new, cost effective tools for movement building and mobilization. These tools should be used to organize meaningful grassroots activism that reaches beyond the core constituency to change hearts and minds across broader segments of society.


Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks: How social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Bennett, L. W., & Segerberg, A. (2012). The logic of connective action: Digital media and the personalization of contentious politics. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 739-768. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2012.670661.

Campbell, S. W., & Kwak, N. (2012). Political involvement in “mobilized” society: The interactive relationships among mobile communication, network characteristics, and political participation. Journal of Communication, 61(6), 1005-1024.

DeNardis, L. (2012). Hidden levers of Internet control: An infrastructure-based theory of Internet governance. Journal of Information, Communication and Society, 15(3), 720-738. doi: 10.1080/1369118X.2012.659199.

Freelon, D. (forthcoming). Watching from afar. Media consumption patterns around the “Arab Spring.”

Gladwell, M. (2010, October 4). Small change. Why the revolution will not be tweeted. The New Yorker. Retrieved from 10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell

Hestres, L. (forthcoming). Preaching to the choir: Internet-mediated advocacy, issue public mobilization and climate change. New Media & Society.

Howard, P. N. & Hussain, M. M.(2011). The role of digital media. Journal of Democracy 22(3), 35-48.

Kahn, R., & Kellner, D. (2004). New media and Internet activism: from the `Battle of Seattle’ to blogging. New Media & Society, 6(1), 87-95. doi:10.1177/1461444804039908

Kim, Y. C., & Ball-Rokeach, S. J. (2006). Civic engagement from a communication infrastructure perspective. Communication Theory, 16 (2), 173-197.

Lim, M. (2012). Clicks, Cabs, and Coffee Houses: Social Media and Oppositional Movements in Egypt, 2004–2011. Journal of Communication.

Sunstein, C. (2001). The daily we: Is the internet really a blessing for democracy. Boston Review. Retrieved from

Van Laer, J., & Van Aelst, P. (2010). Internet and Social Movement Repetoires. Information, Communication & Society, 13(8), 1146-1171.