This project examined the development of Internet activism across 20 issue areas for five years. Issue areas included standard social movement topics such as abortion politics, the women’s movement, civil rights, environmental/green movement, and the peace movement. Other issue areas focused on issues that have seen large peaks and valleys in protest attention over the last several decades, including immigration, education reform, and poor people’s movements. Finally, other issues were chosen because they represent areas of contention that are more likely to be salient online, such as open source and digital rights movements. In each issue area, the study sought to collect data on multiple sides of an issue; e.g., the abortion politics issue area included websites that were pro-life and websites that were pro-choice.
Three key methodological advances were made in this project. First, the study investigated multiple types of “Internet activism” at the same time. In existing scholarship on the topic, researchers often mean different things when they refer to the generic category of “Internet activism.” Sometimes scholars mean the provision of information on an issue online, at other times they mean the use of online tools to support offline protests such as rallies or strikes, and at still other times they mean the use of online tools to actually engage in protest (e.g., online petitions, online letter writing campaigns) or to organize it. Instead of focusing on only one type of Internet activism, this study developed and deployed measures for all of these types of Internet activism.
The second key methodological advance was to use a technique developed by the Principal Investigator that allows quasi-random samples of websites to be examined on each issue area. To do this, the study assumes that only websites that an individual could find without being directly given the URL are of interest (i.e., if someone could not find the website through links from other sites, through search engines, or through other standard means, the site was not considered part of the public protest arena and, therefore, was not of interest to the project). These sites are referred to as “reachable” sites. Although it is not possible to create a population of all websites on the Web, even for a narrow topic, it is possible to create the population of all reachable websites on the Web for a given topic. To do this, multiple Google queries were run, each yielding up to 1,000 results. Search terms were thoroughly pretested and multiple search terms were used to construct each issue area (from 6 to 14 search terms, depending on the issue). This produced between 6,000 and 14,000 raw results per issue, which were then processed to remove duplicate URLs (i.e., URLs that appeared in more than one search). These reduced lists were treated as populations of reachable sites for each issue and a random sample was drawn for each issue from the relevant population of reachable sites. These samples were then archived in September of each study year. Those archived sites were used by graduate and undergraduate students to “content code” the websites. One can imagine content coding is similar to filling out a survey about something the coder just read. For instance, after reading the site’s contents, coders assessed whether different topics were discussed on the site, whether the site took a position on those issues, and whether specific types of Internet activism were hosted on the website or were reachable through links from the website. Using results from the content coding, it is possible to make generalizable statements about the population of websites in each issue area and across all 20 issue areas.
Third, the project used the sampling technique to produce two different kinds of longitudinal data on websites associated with these 20 issue areas. In both cases, data was collected for five straight years. In one kind of dataset, known as a panel dataset, a group of websites were sampled from each of the 20 issue areas and then followed for five years. Each year, the current version of the site was archived and content coded. This style of longitudinal data collection is helpful in understanding how websites develop and change over time. It is analogous to studying the same group of people for a set period of time (e.g., surveying the same adolescents every year to understand how they are developing as individuals). A second kind of dataset, known as a cross-sectional time series dataset, uses new samples of websites for each issue area each year; these new groups of websites are archived and content coded. This kind of dataset is particularly good at understanding how larger fields are changing due to the entrance of new websites and the closure of other websites. It is analogous to studying an industry over time by surveying which businesses are open each year (since some business will close and others will open). By pairing the two kinds of datasets together in analyses, it is possible to understand whether observed changes were the result of existing sites changing—in which case the panel dataset would show the change—or were only the result of the entire field changing (often from a specific type of website closing while another type of website is becoming common).
Building on these methodological advances, this study was able to reach a number of novel findings about online protest. First, the study was able to demonstrate that kinds of Internet activism that scholars thought were rare, and therefore only studied occasionally, are actually very common and need more attention. Conversely, the study was able to demonstrate that one kind of Internet activism—the use of online tools to support offline protests—was actually less common than had been thought. These findings points to a need to re-orient the kinds of cases that scholars study over time and the need to be much more careful in generalizing findings because different kinds of Internet activism tend to have different dynamics (see Earl et al. 2010 for more on this topic).
Second, the study is also concerned with whether activist sites created by organizations versus those maintained by individuals or informal groups differ. Early findings suggest that some kinds of tactics are more likely on organizational websites than others (see Earl and Kimport 2010 for more on this topic). Interestingly, although research prior to this study showed that non-organizational websites were more likely to host or link to online protests such as online petitions, these data show that organizational websites have closed this gap and now lead in the provision of some online tactics. However, organizational websites are less likely to offer unscripted forms of engagement or to solicit information, feedback, or opinions from website visitors (Earl 2010b). Neither organizational nor non-organizational websites offer illegal tactics with any frequency—such tactics were exceeding rare; rather, illegal tactics tend to be organized through more ephemeral (and therefore harder to monitor and police) forums such as chat rooms. Analyses of these data is continuing, focusing on understanding how organizational sponsorship of different tactics has changed over time, what factors are driving those changes, and whether organizational websites target different kinds of actors for protest campaigns than non-organizational websites.
Other findings from this project include an ongoing examination of how social movements raise the profile of specific issues for other movements (e.g., can the pro-choice movement raise the profile of health care reform for other movements, and if so, under what conditions?). An early approach to analyzing data for this question was laid out in 2010 (see Earl 2010a), but is being revised to take advantage of more complex analytic techniques. The study has also investigated the role of privacy in online protest, showing that online protest frequently takes place on private servers where there is no constitutional right to free speech (Earl 2012). Finally, the study has examined the role that social movement websites play in a larger political ecology in each issue area. Specifically, Earl (2011) was able to show how different issue areas featured relatively co-equal activity on issues between social movement websites, organizational websites, news websites, non-profit websites, government websites, and commercial websites whereas other issue areas only included websites from subset of these groups. Ongoing analyses are being conducted to understand why different issue areas have different political ecologies online.
Future analyses with these data will also include time-trend analyses of the availability of online tactics and the level of automation available in these tactics, as well as an examination of whether groups tend to deploy similar tactics online as offline (e.g., online petitions and offline petitions) or use different tactics online versus offline (e.g., online petitions versus offline rallies).
Broader impacts of this project include substantial training for undergraduate and graduate students, particularly under-represented students, as well as policy implications for fostering democratic participation.
In sum, the project has thus far used several methodological advances to forward our understanding of internet activism in its various forms and the role and impact of organizational involvement in Internet activism, among other topics. Analyses using these data are ongoing, and the Principal Investigator is working with other scholars on designing and deploying a novel solution to public access to these datasets.
Earl, Jennifer. 2010a. “Spillover as Movement Agenda Setting: How Movement Issues Spillover Online.” Paper presented at the MOVEOUT Workshop, Geneva, Switzerland, February 16, 2010.
Earl, Jennifer. 2010b. “Spreading the Word versus Shaping the Conversation: The Use of Web 2.0 Tools in Protest Websites.” Paper presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Sociological Association, Atlanta, GA, August 2010.
Earl, Jennifer. 2011. “Issue Industries: Social Movements and Their Online Political Ecologies.” Plenary Paper Presentation at the Collective Behavior and Social Movements Section Pre-conference Workshop, Las Vegas, Nevada, August 2011.
Earl, Jennifer. 2012. “Private Protest? Public and Private Engagement Online.” Information, Communication & Society 15(4): 591-608.
Earl, Jennifer and Katrina Kimport. 2010. “The Diffusion of Different Types of Internet Activism: Suggestive Patterns in Website Adoption of Innovations.” Pp. 125-139. in Dynamics of Diffusion in Social Movements, edited by Becky Givans, Kenneth Roberts and Sarah Soule. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Earl, Jennifer, Katrina Kimport, Greg Prieto, Carly Rush, and Kimberly Reynoso. 2010. “Changing the World One Webpage at a Time: Conceptualizing and Explaining ‘Internet Activism” Mobilization 15(4):425-446.