The Possibilities and Limitations of Internet Activism

The health of the public sphere as a gauge to the possibilities and limitations of internet activism in the networked society

Activism today is dominated by networks and global forms of organisation made possible through today’s digitally hyperconnected world. The ground-breaking work of Manual Castells (2007, 1999, 2016, 2017) has articulated a utopian vision of a network society emerging in the transition from the industrial age to the information age, powered by new technological and communication capabilities. In this new decentralised architecture of society, multidirectional and multidimensional communication can occur unrestricted by time and space, thus challenging traditional, hierarchical vertical relationships (2016, 2017). This new paradigm of social organisation helps facilitate network activism defined as ‘contentious activities associated with the use of the Internet and other new communication technologies’ (Yang, p. 3) because of the democratising potentials made available. These types of activities amount to a new global public sphere (Castells, 2008). However, in analysing the potentials and limitations of internet activism in the new nodal environment, what becomes pertinent is whether these potentials have been surrendered to persisting forms of hierarchical power like state control, or a social media and digital platform environment dominated by some of the biggest monopolies in history (Rushkoff 2019, McChesney 2013).

Castells and the global public sphere of the networked society

Manuel Castells has been optimistic about how new technologies like social media allow horizontal structures and activist activities to flourish and that new global public sphere is forming (2008). For Castells, communication networks are seen as a place of social power where citizens gather to discuss politics as ‘public diplomacy, as the diplomacy of the public, not of the government, intervenes in this global public sphere, laying the ground for traditional forms of diplomacy to act beyond the strict negotiation of power relationships by building on shared cultural meaning, the essence of communication’ (2008, p1). This is an optimistic message of hope for activists offering an invitation to enter a co-partnership in the formation of power. Activists are taking up the invitation to the new, global public sphere as an increased number of local/global NGOs, transnational non-state actors, environmental groups and grassroots organisations adopt global frames of reference, mobilising and uniting citizens in solidarity. Social networks and blogs have become the new networked space for open democratic discussion, reinvigorating a web of ideas to occupy important nodes in the networked society.

A new paradigm

Castells’ vision of a networked society is an evolution and a paradigm shift in the social organisation which has been enabled, but not determined, by new technologies (2017). With ‘the diffusion of the Internet, a new form of interactive communication has emerged, characterized by the capacity of sending messages from many to many, in real time or chosen time, and with the possibility of using point-to-point communication’ (Castells 2007, p.55). In this new paradigm, activists can now more readily gain autonomy and self-determination, extend their social networks and produce their own DIY discourses, because networks enable informal, horizontal communications which can aptly manage complexities and rapidly changing social conditions while increasing the efficiencies of societies they occupy.
This is a society enabled by digital formats, microprocessors and the telecommunications which now facilitate many to many communications relatively inexpensively and over long distances. Instead of top-down information flows confined to a place and time, horizontal, non-hierarchical, social interactions can now take place anytime and anyplace (2017).

Nodes not terminals

This pervasive effect results in the rise of nodes and network as the organisational structures of the new era defined by connections rather than components. In this new ecology of hypoconnectivity, context is less defined by the ownership and management of resources in closed organisations, but rather, by the availability of connections in open networks. A whole spectrum of new possibilities emerges for marginalised groups. Castells points out that in this environment activists are empowered to use networks and disrupt traditional power structures and to coordinate events, block government websites and servers, stage virtual protests and ultimately gain autonomy and self-determination (2017). Lievrouw (2011) similarly claims the network society helps activists ‘extend their social networks and interpersonal contacts, produce and share their own ‘DIY’ information, and resist, ‘talk back’ to, or otherwise critique and intervene in prevailing social, cultural, economic, and political conditions’ (p.19).

The internet as a public sphere for activists

Such optimism would amount to the facilitation of a healthy public sphere as Haberman defined it (1981, 1989). Haberman first articulated the public sphere to the egalitarian lively rational deliberation which occurred in the somewhat exclusive coffee shops of 18th Century Europe. This unpowered social space allowed public opinion to form between the state and civil society through lively discussions and egalitarian relationships formed. Rational ideas came to influence the state, and this was progress compared to the previous top-down, lord-over-the-surf relationships: a paradigm shift in part facilitated by the communication technologies of modernism. Haberman, however, started to notice at the time of the French Revolution, that the quality of public sphere deliberations was regressing into the closed communication and vertical relationships of feudalism in new lord-over-the-serf relationships. Self-interest in profits and increased state authoritarianism, the growth of advertising coercing editors into tabloid styled formats to maximise shareholder profits, acted to co-opt the public sphere (Haberman 1989).

Unequal power structures persist

Contemporaries in the Habermas tradition now argue these unequal power structures have persisted to dominate and undermine mass media through to the internets democratising potentials (Rushkoff 2019, McChesney 2013). As Haberman came to question the health of a public sphere where government and corporations controlled and dominated public deliberations with highly emotive public relations campaigns, comparisons are made with the strip mall the internet has become. Publicity had changed the public sphere’s meaning in the era of mass media and where originally it was ‘a function of public opinion it has become an attribute of whatever attracts public opinion’ (Haberman 1989, p. 2). Instead of an emancipatory effect, mass media was restabilising the hierarchical, bureaucratic relationships of feudalism through the domination and extinction of public opinion.

The masses are always one step behind the elites in reclaiming autonomy

Media theorist, Douglas Rushkoff (2019) argues, ‘it would be naïve to think that digital technology would be more intrinsically or inevitably more empowering than any medium that came before it’ (p. 59). While messages can flow from the bottom up and ‘the inside out’, if the potentials are not seized by activists they will inevitably become seized by elites as is the historical trend (p. 60). Rushkoff’s work shows the masses one step behind affordances promised in the previous revolution. The literate culture was used to keep track of stock and slaves. In the Renaissance, people learned to read but the king controlled the texts. People learned to create texts in the networked society activists now can blog, tweet, and post videos those but those platforms are now controlled and coded by the Elites ( McChesney 2013). Media revolutions become distracted by the novelty of technologies losing sight of their revolutionary purpose of reclaiming human autonomy.

The utopian vision surrendered to the market

The huge potential for social and political empowerment offered in the DIY of the early days of the internet was likewise largely surrendered. Search engines of academic thought became advertising agencies and social media turned to data collection. In the transition from a knowledge economy to an attention economy, there is a disorientating effect of a digitally-enforced constant assault of automated manipulation (Rushkoff 2019 p. 63). In the new media environments, platform designers, instead of creating a public sphere, work hard to thwart cognition and open communication by employing one-way persuasive technologies, controlled gamification and the science of strategic addictions (Rushkoff 2019, p. 65). Autonomy and self-determination for marginalised groups are co-opted as the internet’s promise of the free-flow of information and a transformation of society is surrendered to the market. The free flow of information evident when Tim Burners-Lee and others gifted the open source software, email and Apache servers becomes mere fodder for marketing materials for Silicon Valley global monopolies. Activists will then need to employ all their savvy in creating new literacies to negotiate this challenging environment as vertical and horizontal structure converge.

Traditional and vertical vs networked horizontal structures

Vertical relationships have historically been associated with traditional power and horizontal relationships with social power. Malcolm Gladwell has argued vertical power structures are superior and able to dominate relatively ineffective, conflict-prone, horizontal networks which lack the clear lines of leadership needed to achieve consensus. Due to the structure of vertical relations, their central organisation and rules dominate and intrench existing power structures (Gladwell, 2010). These problems lead activists in the networked society to seek out ‘low risk’ slacktivism activities instead of the historically proven ‘ground’ activities that have proven successful in the past (Gladwell, 2010).

The examples Gladwell uses to point out how much more effective ‘on the ground’ activism is, also contain viral elements that helped in their effectiveness and this highlights that it is how the integration of vertical and horizontal are configured that matters (Jones, 2013). The strategic and accidental configurations of vertical and horizontal connections and how these influence each other ultimately determines the possibilities and limitations of internet activism and not the technology itself. The ‘continuing hybrid nature of both state power and activism suggests a need to continue exploring how power and counterpower affect such hybrids’ (para 15, 2013). As both vertical and horizontal power structures have their own strategic advantages, activists and states employ them both in concert. And while vertical structures have long been the domain of power and the means of production which facilitates monopolies and the accumulation of resources around centralised entities like churches, states and more recently corporations, connectivity acts to bring down these old structures as the lack of local, spatial and temporal boundaries make it difficult to maintain distinct traditional social and political contexts leading to further change.

The Arab Spring as configurations of vertical and horizontal

These dynamics played out in the Arab Spring uprisings in the activist’s battle against authoritarian rule. The Arab Spring is often presented as the poster child to represent the resilience and effectiveness of the networked society and the public sphere and the promise of emancipatory outcomes. Trottier & Fuchs (2014) have argued that in the case of Egypt, ‘clear inroads were made into the political sphere due to the use of social media’. Because social media is both a technical tool and a space in which political acts are played out, this helped in toppling the authoritarian regime otherwise entrenched in Egypt. As the media become more open to radical public opinions in virtual counter-public spheres, these ideas spread to the mainstream media creating political space and eventually leading to the mass mobilisation which toppled Mubarak. Trottier & Fuchs site sources that show how social media helped in brokering connections between disconnected groups and provided a space to express grievances against the regime. But there was also a sense of distrust with the social media platforms and most of the public in Egypt were not online. The networked society worked with global news organisations like Al Jazeera and the groups on the ground in a configuration of vertical and horizontal.

An ecological approach

There were also other factors involved which show the technologies are not intrinsically democratising. States also have become progressively more adept at controlling online interactions with offensive measures which silence and shape users’ behaviours. Trottier and Fuchs also found in their examination that the commercial nature of the networks themselves often mean they are structured for the optimisation of profits rather than activism echoing Habermas’ concerns. The author found that in confronting dictatorial regimes what is required is an ‘ecological approach’ which uses a ‘combination of platforms’ both ‘commercial and non-commercial’ for translating, circulating, and curating information across geographical locations to a network of bloggers, activists and people on the ground (Trottier & Fuchs 2014).

The favoured human values that shape communications

While the Arab Spring is often argued to show how new media can play a role in toppling authoritarian states, these claims are contentious and many of the replacement regimes in the Arab Spring were in themselves nationalist movements (Rushkoff 2019). Inevitably it is the favoured human values that shape communications, networks and technologies as elites quickly adapt to perpetuate established power structures. Despite the novelty new technologies and communications provide, authoritarianism and traditional socioeconomic systems persist. New issues like cyber surveillance, slacktivism, and the echo chambers which act to create new walls and boundaries as old ones come down only add the challenges to the public sphere and activism.

Castells is optimistic about the effect of the open networked society because it allows individuals to draw from a diverse range of world views and ideologies and this provides for a new global public sphere for activists to organise, coordinate activities, and openly discuss matters of civic concern (2008). However, while the networked society does offer these potentials, the technology itself does not determine their inevitabilities. History has demonstrated how dominant power structures and elites quickly adapt to each new medium (Rushkoff, 2019). Many who were pioneers of the internet advocating for its democratising potentials now have expressed concerns that the public sphere was regressing back into feudalism in the era of tabloidized mass media (Rushkoff 2019, McChesney, 2013). The dictum whoever controls the media controls society remains relevant in a neo-liberal-era where much activism takes place on platforms operated by global monopolies on communication flows and data collection and surveillance for the purposes of commercial extraction, or oppressive governmental control encroaches. The possibilities and limitations of internet activism are tied to the hybrid structures, configurations, and integrated approaches which organisations take in negotiating the intersection of the converging paradigms of vertical and horizontal topographies (Jones, 2013). Neither a future dominated by commercially convenient echo chambers and matrix-like entrapment or a totally emancipated global village are predetermined by the rise of the networked society. Activists have some work to do yet to realise the emancipatory potentialities envisaged by Castells and bring the dream to fruition.


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