How the Internet is Shaping Social Change, and Social Change is Shaping the Internet


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?

A new report from the Center for Media Justice says the answer depends on the strategy — and offers new approaches and recommendations, from a diverse cross-section of leaders, for building effective social movements in an age of big data and digital technology.

Key Takeaways

The strategies and approaches in the Digital CultureSHIFT report provide a path forward for addressing the way social movements integrate new approaches , or remain stuck in a cycle that limits our effectiveness.

What We Learned

  • 100% of those interviewed said that digital strategies and platforms provide a voice when mainstream media ignores issues.
  • The vast majority of leaders interviewed widely use digital platforms to catalyze action, but say over-reliance on these tools can limit relationship-building.
  • The Internet is helping to shift national organizations from centralized to decentralized, from geographically specific to geographically diverse, and from hierarchical leadership to multi-level leadership.
  • Targeted surveillance is a top concern — but the vast majority of leaders of color interviewed felt that advocacy for digital privacy did not include their voices or their visions for change.


This ground breaking report illustrates how powerful and important it is to re-imagine the way we look at the internet to build social movements. It is crucial that as we continue to fight for Black Lives, we also integrate a clear understanding of the technology and tools that have been so important in that fight.
Alicia Garza, co-founder, Black Lives Matter

Today we are in at a critical juncture in the fight for equity and rights. As an online civil rights organization built from the ground up, we at understand the power of technology to amplify the voices of marginalized communities, leverage systemic change, and strengthen our democracy.

Even with that, recent revelations about the Department of Homeland Security monitoring the activities of Black Lives Matter activists reminds us that technology exploited for purposes of social control could have a chilling effect on any movement for justice. This report lays out a bold vision for philanthropic organizations who now have the opportunity to work with social justice organizations to ensure that our privacy is protected, our infrastructure is fortified, and that our movements have the digital oxygen they need to hold government and institutions accountable to communities.
Rashad Robinson,

As new technologies continue altering how people communicate, learn, and organize, social justice activists must critically examine the social justice issues presented by technology while also looking at how to leverage new platforms to make change. An understanding of technology must be integrated into every civil rights agenda, not treated separately, precisely because technology is getting integrated into every issue that activists are working on. This reports highlights the challenges and opportunities for engaging movement leaders on the issues presented by technology.
danah boyd, Data and Society

This insightful paper should be read by anyone concerned about technology and social change, especially organizers, advocates and funders. The Internet isn’t going to be the solution to any problem, but it will be part of the solution to every problem. The amazing new communications tools at our fingertips can be used to oppress people or liberate them — but if we want liberation, then we must break down the silos between activists and technologists, the grassroots and the netroots, and recognize digital justice as an essential part of our broader struggles.
Craig Aaron, Free Press

Report Excerpts

Groups are going online because that’s where they believe they can find their base. From undocumented immigrants to next-generation civil rights organizers, four out of six of the non-Netroots leaders we interviewed use email and social media to mobilize their base for offline actions and to grow their constituency.

Often, people find each other online, then build deeper relationships and develop leadership offline.

Even though the platform has changed, the approach remains the same.
The leaders we interviewed made clear that the core principles of community organizing haven’t changed — only the platform has.