Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Organising millions online: The growing power of digital activism

Organising millions online: The growing power of digital activism
Published 2 Nov 2015   Follow @fergushanson

Fergus Hanson is author of Internet Wars: The Struggle for Power in the 21st Century. Part 1 of this series looked at economic cyber espionage; part 2 at cyber war. The next and final part in this series examines economic chokepoints.

The internet has presented the masses with radical new ways to aggregate their voice in order to exert influence on decision makers. For the first time in history, we are able to do this on a regular basis, outside formal structures like trade unions and political parties.

What is remarkable about this transformation is the scale on which it is occurring. Several online citizen-aggregation sites  have memberships in the tens of millions., the biggest, claims more than 100 million users. Others, like Avaaz  and Care2, have 42 million and 32 million respectively. To put these numbers into context, in the 2012 US presidential election, Barack Obama received a little under 66 million votes in his successful bid for re-election.

Unsurprisingly, these membership numbers mean big business. The for-profit sites ( and Care2 are B-corporations) sell access to their membership. 

It also means great influence for the individuals leading the campaigning sites. They can exercise this by shaping which campaigns have the most prominence on a site, and allocating in-house resources to help the campaigns they like with editing of material, generating media and behind the scenes lobbying. A prominent example in Australia was the Stop the Super Trawler campaign run by GetUp! [fold]

When a Tasmanian woman, Rebecca Hubbard, started an online petition on the GetUp! community campaigning platform protesting the trawler's arrival, staff soon realised they had a winner. Hubbard started the campaign as 'Stop the Trawler Coalition', but GetUp! staff soon rebranded it to the significantly scarier sounding 'Stop the Super Trawler' (emphasis added), a loaded term that was quickly adopted by all media outlets. It then lobbied furiously for the cause.

There is a now a long list of examples where these organisations have exerted influence on corporations and politicians, but they are still undergoing considerable evolution.

Many of the large citizen aggregation sites rely almost exclusively on petitions. This is probably driven by commercial motivations to grow membership with a view to selling access to it. But petitions are limited in their ability to effect change, especially as politicians become desensitised to them. 

GetUp! is one group that has led considerable innovation beyond simple petitioning: crowd-sourcing funds, running successful high court challenges, stationing members at polling booths and hijacking corporate meetings. If the larger petition sites follow suit and more aggressively mobilise their memberships, their influence would grow considerably.

There is also a potential evolution underway in their politics. Most campaigning sites are openly progressive in orientation, but this is changing. In late 2012, controversially shifted its policy to allow advertising from non-progressively aligned groups. Conservative groups have also started to digitally mobilise, a prominent example being the Heritage Foundation in the US, which has a significant online presence.

Whatever their political leanings, the policy reality of this new force is messy.

The nature of online campaigning is not always conducive to good policy because the groups lack institutional policy-making expertise and often launch campaigns off the backs of crises, allowing little time to think through consequences.

Ironically, these people-power sites also face a question of legitimacy. Three hundred very vocal people with a clever campaign can sometimes drive change that the majority wouldn't necessarily support. The nature of the internet can also occasionally make it hard to distinguish between the views of local nationals and foreign citizens voicing their concerns from abroad. Finally, there is the question of the legitimacy of the heads of these organisations, who can be unelected business-people with outsized influence.

This is not the only way the internet is empowering citizens and disrupting global power dynamics. Internet Wars looks at three messy, but intriguing ways citizen power is reshaping the world.

Photo: Getty/Alex Bramwell.

You may also be interested in