Online for Power? Shifting Our Movements Toward the Future

Written by Julie Quiroz

August 13, 2015

Last year, as the uprising in Ferguson and the movement for Black lives sparked direct action all across the country, many of us turned out on the streets – and actively spread the word to others via the Internet.

On our organization’s Facebook page we planned to broadcast information about actions as far and wide as we could, using “boosts”, a click that allows you to pay a few dollars for Facebook to proactively place content into the feeds of your followers and their followers, boosting visibility for important things.

But, when I went to boost these calls to action I found that for the first time in my short Internet career, my boosts were denied. Thinking it was a glitch I tried again and again, until it was clear that boosting any #BlackLivesMatter action would be denied – an experience I confirmed with other people trying to do the same.

Of course a denied Facebook boost is minuscule and embarrassingly unsurprising, especially compared to really dangerous things like government surveillance and white supremacists breeding violence online.

And of course #BlackLivesMatter has always (in the words of co-founder Alicia Garza) used “social media and online platforms to expand people’s consciousness about the lives of Black people” and “create a space for Black people to organize.” With great care #BlackLivesMatter has built real relationships online and off, so the trust and momentum and communication was deep and ready for action when the moment demanded it. t-shirt











The movement for Black lives was powerful enough. But my moment of Internet struggle was real and maybe a little too familiar for a lot of us, reminding me how limited and vulnerable our ride on the Internet is, and underscoring the findings of a report released today:

Unlike mainstream media, which is moderated by external gatekeepers, [social justice] groups see the Internet as a platform they control – the effect of the corporate ownership of the Internet is less visible to them.

The report, The Digital CultureSHIFT: From Scale to Power – How the Internet Shapes Social Justice Movements and Social Justice Movements Are Shaping the Internet was put out by Center for Media Justice in partnership with and Data & Society and analyzes results from interviews with 22 progressive social change leaders (folks from places like from, Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, Jobs with Justice, #BlackLivesMatter, and CREDO Action). DigitalCultureSHIFT found that:

  • 100% of those interviewed said that digital strategies and platforms provide a voice when mainstream media ignores issues.
  • The vast majority widely uses digital platforms to catalyze action, but say over-reliance on these tools can limit relationship building.
  • The Internet is changing the meaning of membership and forcing social change leaders to re-think the forms of organization. More than 80% of respondents indicated that Internet was helping to shift national organizations from centralized to de-centralized, from geographically specific to geographically diverse, and from hierarchical leadership to multi-level leadership.
  • Targeted surveillance is a top concern, particularly for organizations working with communities of color, migrants, or poor communities—but the vast majority of leaders interviewed felt that the movement for digital privacy did not include their voices or their visions for change. Still, digital rights groups are finding common cause with legacy and emerging civil rights groups to counter the discriminatory collection and application of data.

These findings make it clear: there’s a lot at stake.

Nonetheless, says DigitalCultureSHIFT,

The use of the Internet to drive strategies for racial and economic justice remains disconnected from fights to promote and preserve digital rights and access. This separation reduces the effectiveness of each, and weakens overall movement strategies for change.

DigitalCultureSHIFT asks an important question:

As activism for police accountability, fair wages, just immigration, and more takes center stage– social justice movements of the 21st century are using technology to achieve greater scale and reach wider audiences. But, are these digital strategies building power for long-term social change? Or helping maintain the status quo?

How can we, as movements, shift so that our digital strategies build power?

Recommendations put forward by DigitalCultureSHIFT include things like:

  • New approaches in both the field and philanthropic organizations, in which digital strategies are driven by values, focused on equity, rooted in a long-term social change vision, supported by universal digital access and rights.
  • Changing the platform to change the issue. The more open and democratic our systems of communication are, the more those platforms will drive a healthy and participatory public debate on social issues.
  • Scaling up successful projects like Van Jones’ Yes We Code, or the Open Web Fellows program to inject digital experts with best-in-class algorithm skills into social movements.
  • Changing the way we “do change”: those in social justice fields and in the philanthropic organizations that fund this work must develop new approaches that trust and support organizers, fund at intersections, and invest in shared infrastructure, multi-level stakeholder collaboration, and digital leadership development.

The moment is urgently now, writes Color of Change’s James Rucker in the introduction to DigitalCultureSHIFT, for our movements to engage with the Internet as both a tool and as arena for change:

As the nation emerges from a decade-long fight to keep the Internet open into a period of extraordinary contest for the role digital technologies will play in the lives of Black Americans and others, missing this opportunity would empower the forces that benefit from a corporate-controlled media: large, incumbent corporations and those who currently enjoy disproportionate power.

“After years of progress bridging the gap between technology, Black representation, and social justice, writers Rucker, “this is a cost Black communities – and all those pushed to the margins of both democracy and debate – just can’t afford.”

Julie Quiroz

Julie Quiroz lives in Michigan and leads New Moon Collaborations, a fiscally sponsored project of Movement Strategy Center.

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