Twitter as a pivotal platform for engaging and participating in social change movements.

PDF Download


This paper explores digital technology and social networking sites’ abilities to create communities online. Looking at the influence of micro-blogging site Twitter and its ability to provide users with a space to voice opinion, this paper discusses the rise of social movements online. ‘Hashtag movements’ have become common place within society creating spaces where real voices, experiences and opinions are at the forefront of change. Focusing on three recent hashtag movements; #BlackLivesMatter, #BringBackOurGirls and #MeToo, this paper argues that Twitter is pivotal in providing a platform to engage and participate in social change movements and in creating online communities.

Keywords: social networking sites, online community, micro-blogging, Twitter, social movements, hashtags

Creative Commons License


The Internet, with the aid of digital technology, has created environments where individuals online have the ability to produce, share and interact with others in an unrestrained environment. Communities are developing in free-forming narratives online, where the instantaneous nature of communication is generated by users. Micro-blogging site Twitter has produced a platform where continuous conversation is dominantly fast-paced and promotes like-minded users to form communities where geographic barriers form no basis. Where physical locations often share similar socioeconomic situations, Twitter provides a platform that is location independent, allowing the spread of information more broadly. Protesting for and against social change has always been a big part of society and digital technologies have allowed people from all walks of life to voice opinions in accessible ways. Twitter has become a dominant avenue for individuals to engage, speak up and debate important political, social and cultural issues. It has also allowed anyone to say anything and is a platform that can contradict and challenge politics, views and perceptions. Through this platform, there has been a rise in the number of social movements within the last 10 years. #BlackLivesMatter, #BringBackOurGirls, and the #MeToo movements, were all developed online through user-generated responses to important and often disturbing social and cultural issues. The impact of these movements was felt substantially across the world. Through the development of these communities online, frank public opinion has led to real change and impact within society. Through a thorough discussion on online communities and the foundations of social movements focusing on #BringBackOurGirls, #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, this paper argues that Twitter is pivotal in empowering public opinion and assisting individuals to engage with and participate in, social change movements.



Through the integration of the Internet and social networking sites, the notion of community has become an even more, ever-present aspect to many within society. The mobility and instantaneous nature of smartphones and social networking platforms have accelerated the interaction of individuals with others online. This has encouraged the continuous exchanges between users, regardless of geographical location or time (Wellman & Gulia, 1999, p. 1). Physical communities are fundamental to society however, online platforms have moved community into another environment. People world-wide with like-minded interests, views or differences can connect and come together in unpresented and fragmented ways (Katz, Rice & Acord et al., 2004 & Wellman & Gulia, 1999). As communities become global, technology has blurred the previously segmented ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ worlds into a merging of the two, as connections between people in physical and online spaces become intertwined (Katz, Rice & Acord et al., 2004, p. 316 & 362). Communities create an environment where group mentality, a sense of togetherness and accomplishment thrives. Unlike in physical communities where bias and judgement take place, barriers of race, religion, gender and ethnicity have less impact in the setting of online communities (Katz, Rice & Acord et al., 2004, p. 326). The capability to connect and share opinions with diverse people throughout the world, has fostered greater opportunities for people to engage, learn and interact online. Many users of social networking sites engage willingly in communication with strangers, highlighting a fundamental shift in the way online interactions stand apart from the physical (Wellman & Gulia, 1999). This shift has seen an increase in society’s willingness to share personal information that many would not be comfortable to share with strangers in person, all to become a part of a community. This change demonstrates the fascinating affect technology and mediated communication has had on promoting and expanding, whist in many ways condensing communities in online and physical spaces.

Interactions between strangers online can be thought of as a ‘weak-tie’ where relationships exist only through shared interest or experience (Ridings & Gefen, 2004, p. 4). However, this personal and physical separation can generate substantial impact between users online (Ridings & Gefen, 2004). Relationships are fundamental to human life, yet interactions on social networking sites with others personally removed, can foster strong feelings of social inclusion, supporting collectiveness and companionship for many (Ridings & Gefen, 2004, p. 18 & Wellman & Gulia, 1999, p. 6). This sense of belonging developed via the use of technology and mediated communication, shows online platforms are pivotal in encouraging social accomplishment and community. The embrace of mediated communication allows for greater reach between users within society, creating multi-dimensional environments where sustained interactions can develop into their own substantial social ties (Wellman & Gulia, 1999, p. 8 & Katz, Rice & Acord et al., 2004 & Ridings & Gefen, 2004, p. 3). Seen though the rise of social movements mediated online, communities have developed in quick progression through the discussion of important social, racial and cultural issues.

Technology has played a significant position within the rise of social change movements. The power of public opinion and personal resonance has only become more influential through the use of online platforms (Carty, 2015, p.5 & 8 & Obregon & Tufte, 2017, p. 639). The idea of a social movement is to bring awareness to issues, to spark outrage and create change. Through encouraging participation, social movements online have grown exponentially (Carty, 2015 & Obregon & Tufte, 2017). Yet to be successful, the foundations of a social movement as outlined by Tilly (2004, in Carty, 2015, p. 7) need to include “three main elements; 1. Campaign: long-term, organised, make a collective claim, 2. Repertories: tactics group have at their disposal, 3. WUNC: worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment”. Mediated communication has allowed social movements to become even more mobile where people across cities, states and most noticeably, countries, have the power to engage with one another. The use of technologies, smartphones and online platforms like Twitter, are now common throughout many countries, even in less developed nations. This bridging of social, cultural and political issues through technology, has forged greater senses of community and collective identity, recognising the effectiveness of strangers coming together as ‘weak-ties’ to develop a common goal (Carty, 2015, 28 & Obregon & Tufte, 2017, p. 635). As the importance of ‘weak ties’ becomes ever present online, Twitter has been used to promote and expand these links exponentially, providing influence in the spread of engagement, and participation in, social change movements.

As Marshall McLuhan famously said in the 1960s with the development of the television, “the medium is the message”, this view is still vitally relevant today (in Carty, 2015, p.9). Society’s ability to instantaneously share personal accounts, images and videos have enormous impact on the development of social movements. User-generated content creates the foundations of social change movements presently and the influential role of communication cannot go unnoticed (Carty, 2015, p. 32 &Obregon & Tufte, 2017, p. 641). The use of social platforms like micro-blogging site Twitter has encouraged the expansion of user-generated initiatives, where the focus of a movement is the personal experiences of individuals. Giving power to the people and power to the voices, develops expansive communities online where user’s experiences create extensive narrative and collective action (Obregon & Tufte, 2017). Since its development in 2006, Twitter has become a revolutionary platform for people to share opinions in short, succinct ways. As a micro-blogging site with limitations on how much people can write in one tweet (originally 140 characters, now 280), sharing of personal thoughts has become even more dynamic and engaging (Tamburrini, Cinnirella, Jansen, & Bryden, 2015). Its succinct nature has allowed Twitter to become a vital platform for the spread of information. Hashtags have also been adopted greatly making tweets searchable and identifiable, encouraging users to share opinions by including hashtags of words that are relatable to the contents of their tweet (Portwood-Stacer & Berridge, 2014, p. 1090). Hashtags targeting key social and cultural issues have developed exponentially on Twitter, encouraging other users to share their own personal stories and to shed light on important cases (Yang, 2016, p. 14). Hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter, #BringBackOurGirls and #MeToo have established into enormous social movements, where user-generated content has been at the forefront in the search for social justice. These ‘hashtag movements’ started online through Twitter and expanded across other social networks, the mainstream media and then to the streets where activism, participation and community have grown (Yang, 2016, p. 15). Hashtags thus, have become pivotal avenues for individuals to engage and participate in social change movements.

‘Hashtag movements’ have highlighted societal issues of urgency, increasing awareness and consciousness whilst also encouraging action to be taken (Carty, 2015, p. 25-6). Through the scope of social networking sites, hashtag movements have expanded globally. In America, gun violence is a systemic problem within society and there has been a disturbing rise in the number of unarmed African-American men being shot and killed by police officers and people with power. In 2013, when George Zimmerman, a Neighbourhood Watch Officer was acquitted of all charges for shooting unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida, society had had enough (Yang, 2016). #BlackLivesMatter became a trending topic online, especially on Twitter, where African-American men and women voiced personal accounts of racial unjust and violence, calling for reform of police officers across the country (Ray, Brown & Laybourn, 2017, p. 1795). The use of social networking sites to voice opinion and to enact and seek change, renewed the power of digital technologies in the #BlackLivesMatter case (Yang, 2016, p. 13). Although it started online, #BlackLivesMatter turned to the streets, where protests and marching took place. #BlackLivesMatter has developed further into an official organisation, highlighting further the powerful force that collective expression, personal voice, identity and community have in social change movements (Katz, Rice & Acord et al., 2004, p. 326 & Carty, 2015, p. 3). Sharing of personal experiences people have faced, has helped to shed light on the unjust actions of people with power in communities across America. Whilst there is a long way to go and these horrific events still take place, the power of public voice and the engagement and participation within Twitter in enacting change, can be seen noticeably through #BlackLivesMatter.

In 2014, 276 Nigerian school girls were kidnapped as radical terror group Boko Haram stormed a local school. Boko Haram greatly oppose western influence, especially on women and girls and have kidnapped over 2,000 since the incident in 2014 (Olson, 2016, p. 772). Thekidnapping of school girls sparked outrage across the world and the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls grew traction on social networking sites. Human rights organisations and activists, celebrities and politicians got behind this social movement, urging for the local government to intervene and retrieve the girls (Olson, 2016, p. 773). The power of this online activism grew, showing the influence conversation can have outside of mainstream media. In 2014, the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag was mentioned over four million times on Twitter, with even Michelle Obama, then First Lady of the United States, voicing her concern of global women’s issues and unjust in disadvantaged communities (Olson, 2016, p. 773 & 784). Online conversations have the ability to spread quickly as seen in #BringBackOurGirls. Its capability to become internationally recognised and to disrupt the oppressive policies and government in Nigeria, shows the influence public participation can have in online communities (Olson, 2016, p. 775 & 784). There is a willingness within society now to participate and voice concern for issues outside of their immediate location. However, it is important to acknowledge that to do so, access to Twitter and other online platforms is needed and is a vital, dependant and key factor in online activism. #BringBackOurGirls showcased the power of like-minded people from vast socioeconomic and geographical locations to use Twitter, to raise awareness globally, on an important situation and engage and participate to enact change.

In October of last year, the New York Timesran a lengthy article on the horrendous sexual abuse perpetrated by movie producer Harvey Weinstein against multiple women. Within hours and throughout the days, weeks and months after, more and more women came forward with further experiences of sexual assault. Actress Alyssa Milano, one of those named in the original article, used Twitter to encourage other women to come forward. Milano and activist Tarana Burke, encouraged users to use the #MeToo hashtag to raise awareness on the systemic issues of violence, sexual abuse and harassment faced by women (Zarkov & Davies, 2018, p. 3). The use of the #MeToo hashtag, empowered women and men to voice their personal stories and showed that people from all walks of life can and do face similar issues. Just like #BlackLivesMatter and #BringBackOurGirls, #MeToo built traction internationally, highlighting the demand for recognition of injustice and the need for immediate change and societal accountability (Zarkov & Davies, 2018, p. 9). Again, Twitter and the implementation of hashtags has been used powerfully to spark debate, to spread conversation and to action change on important societal issues. (Carty, 2015, Obregon & Tufte, 2017,Portwood-Stacer & Berridge, 2014, p. 1090 & Zarkov & Davies, 2018, p. 4-6). #MeToo has become front and centre of mainstream media across the world and has impacted greatly on public opinion and perception. Sharing of personal experiences through Twitter has developed a web of ‘weak ties’, creating strong online communities where its members now have the power to enact collective societal change.



The development of online communities has grown exponentially through the increase use and adoption of technology and social networking sites. Through micro-blogging site Twitter, the power of public opinion has been vital to the traction of key social change movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, #BringBackOurGirls and #MeToo. These movements have been pivotal in creating genuine change within society and altering public opinion on issues that are quite often, kept private. Bringing community issues to the forefront of discussion and encouraging participation has helped to challenge systemic attitudes and issues thus, enacting tangible change within society. Twitter has become a pivotal platform for providing people with a space to engage and participate in social change movements, whilst also developing ‘weak ties’ into strong online communities.



Carty, V. (2015). The digital impact on social movements. In V. Carty (Eds.), Social movements and new technology(pp. 1-18). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Retrieved from

Carty, V. (2015). Social movement theories. In V. Carty (Eds.), Social movement and new technology (pp. 19-34). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Retrieved from

Katz, J. E., Rice, R. E., Acord, S., Dasgupta, K., & David, K. (2004). Personal mediated communication and the concept of community in theory and practice. In P. Kalbfleisch (Ed.), Communication and community: Communication Yearbook 28(pp. 315-371). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. Retrieved from

Obregon, R., & Tufte, T. (2017). Communication social movements and collective action: Toward a new research agenda in communication for development and social change. Journal of Communication, 67, 635-645. doi:10.1111/jcom.12332

Olson, C. C. (2016). #BringBackOurGirls: Digital communities supporting real-world change and influencing mainstream media agendas. Feminist Media Studies, 16(5), 772-787. doi:10.1080.14680777.2016.1154887

Portwood-Stacer, L., & Berridge, S. (2014). The year in feminist hashtags. Feminist Media Studies, 14(6), 1090-1090. doi:10.1080/14680777.2014.975415

Ray, R., Brown, M. & Laybourn, W. (2017). The evolution of #BlackLivesMatter on twitter: Social movements, big data and race. Ethics and Racial Studies, 40(1), 1795-1796. doi:10.1080/01419870.2017.1335423

Ridings, C. M., & Gefen, D. (2004). Virtual community attraction: Why people hand out online. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(1), 1-24. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2004.tb00229.

Tamburrini, N., Cinnirella, M., Jansen, V. A. A., & Bryden, J. (2015). Twitter users change word usage according to conversation-partner social identity. Social Networks 40, 84-89.

Wellman, B., & Gulia, M. (1999). Net surfers don’t ride along: Virtual communities as communities. In P. Kollock & M. Smith (Eds.), Communities and Cyberspace. New York, NY: Routledge. Retrieved from

Yang, G. (2016). Narrative agency in hashtag activism: The case of #BlackLivesMatter.Media and Communication, 4(4), 13-17. doi:10.17645/mac.v4i4.692

Zarkov, D., & Davies, K. (2018). Ambiguities and dilemmas around #MeToo: #ForHowLong and #WhereTo? European Journal of Women Studies, 25(1), 3-9. doi: 10.1177/1350506817749436

10 thoughts on “Twitter as a pivotal platform for engaging and participating in social change movements.

  1. Hi Peggy, Twitter does seem to have what it takes to mobilise weak ties to gain support and re-action for social movements quickly and incisively and successfully. You clearly indicate how online activism quickly catches on and transitions into other online spaces through the #hashtag and to broadcast media and to the formation of offline demonstrations. I appreciated how you outlined the elements required for a successful movement, like organisation, collective claim, tactics, and particularly WUNC, worthiness, unity, numbers, commitment, which really self-explains. I found your paper really informative, easy to read and digest. Thanks. Alice.

    1. Hi Alice, Thank you for reading – it’s greatly appreciated. Can you think of any other social movements that have originated online? I find it quite amazing still, that we can engage and voice our opinions through online movements whilst sitting at home. But do you think this can lessen its affect or make people feel like they are doing ‘good’, whilst really not doing much to make physical or social changes?

      1. Hi Peggy,
        Yep I do think it’s doing good because the #hashtag expands the conversation and audience. I think slacktivism, (as online activism is sometimes known), provides great possibilities and is positive in that when that ‘like’ button is clicked, that tiny bit of supportive information is disseminated far and wide into your circles, then into your friends circles and on into the cybersphere. Somewhere in this broad penetration it will find people with passion who will pick up the ball and do more or donate or take affirmative action. Meantime it touches many and creates awareness and a sense of solidarity. So, yeah I think it is a good and worthwhile communication channel for social movements.

        Regarding other born digital social movements, I mentioned #sosblakaustralia in my paper – which may interest you, as it follows the same vein as yours. You may like to read it if you haven’t already, and comment (yes please). It’s in stream 5 and it’s the only paper there “First Australians: Building comm-unity online through activism and Web 2.0. Regards, Alice.

        1. Great to hear your thoughts Alice, thank you. I agree that using hashtags to create awareness is a powerful tool and like you said, expands the conversation. I think your points on ‘slacktivism’ are spot on, however I feel that many in society may think that by just including a hashtag onto their post means that their work is done, however there is so much more that goes into creating awareness and change. I think hashtag movements need to move into the physical world to really show societal change – like we saw in #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. I’ll definitely check out your paper too, it sounds really interesting. Thanks again Alice.

          1. Hi Peggy, I agree with you about hashtag movements needing to push beyond the cybersphere and into real world dynamics via broadcast media or physical demonstrations and actions to realise maximum potential for impact. For gaining momentum in activism though, the hashtag really gets things humming.

            The thing about some of those so-called ‘slacktivists’, is that there’s every chance they wouldn’t get involved at all, unless it was as simple as clicking. A lot of people are time poor. Activism is scary for some. There are many reasons for non-participation, even when the sentiment is genuine. Sometimes just a feeling a empathy will derive a click of support, without any drive to get involved further. Sure slacktivism is a little lacklustre in terms of human commitment, but it’s better than zip, and has potential to develop, or at least contribute to something bigger. That’s the nature of social media and weak ties, amplification from small personal investment.

            Thanks for reading my paper over on Stream 5 – I’ll respond there. All the best, Alice.

  2. Fantastic read. I’m wondering how Australian politics would play out if platforms such as Twitter were used more. I know they occasionally come up online & reread in the news but in America, they certainly refer to Donald Trumps reign as a “Twitter Presidency”. I’m wondering if Australian politicians are more reserved about using social media platforms.
    On Malcolm Turnbulls Google Profile he mostly gets 1-star reviews, so perhaps they are scared of online comments & reviews that may not make them look so good to voters for upcoming elections. Facebook is more of a closed off social network, but I’m wondering how public opinion would go if it were all made more public in Australia the way Donald Trump Tweets to his public on Twitter as you said about “Online conversations can spread quickly”.

    It’s also nice to see how human rights awareness can be broadcast via the Twitter social media platform. People such as Michelle Obama can help voice concerns as you say. Should we in Australia be using Twitter more to get our messages from the general public to our leaders in Australia about issues such as human rights, trade vs human rights and not to mention everyone being unhappy with all the bad political decisions our leaders are constantly making?
    The quote you used from Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s television being the medium becoming the message is certainly true. Will socio-cultural groups keep using Twitter? It did seem to have a shaky start from what I recall at the beginning, but it’s certainly got a more of a public profile from people such as Donald Trump to use it as an immediate means of broadcasting.

    1. Hi David, thanks for reading. I personally think it’s a good thing that Australian politics doesn’t run ragged on social platforms, however it’s use within electron campaigns will be a given. I think the reliance that Trump has on Twitter is broadcast his views is incredibly detrimental as he uses it in a very ‘reactive’ way. What do you think?

      I think we do need to incorporate more interactive ways for people to engage with ideas and for Governments to listen. The day’s of writing letters to our local representatives is probably not as popular now, could Twitter be used to interact directly with them? Or do think there is an over abundance of opinions online and would it make it harder to differentiate and shuffle through legitimate opinions and concerns using social platforms in this way?

  3. Hello Peggy,

    Thanks for a great read. I have traditionally held a largely negative view towards Twitter, mainly due to publicised war of words between noted people and its capacity to circulate messages of hate. Through this course, I have begun to see its power for good as well and I think your piece best exemplifies my shift in perspective. Particularly, the examples you gave of the power of hashtags are the most relevant to its benefits.

    As you have correctly pointed out, there is still a long way to go, particularly when politically motivated campaigns online spawn more opposition, as demonstrated by white nationalist protestors who have adopted the (rather unimaginative) slogan ‘White lives matter’. The sense of unity and power that people who champion the #BlackLivesMatter movement experience is enough to suggest it is a force that is moving in the right direction.

    I found #MeToo very inspiring, and whilst I know sexual assault is commonplace, it illuminated just how many of my female friends had been victims. Often women are too afraid to speak out through fear of victimisation (Turchik & Hassija, 2014) and this campaign has changed the landscape dramatically in a short space of time. And as it transcends international and cultural boundaries, women all over the world feel as strong and supported as the next and display a united front.

    Turchik, J., & Hassija, C. (2014).Female sexual victimisation among college students: assault severity, health risk behaviours, and sexual functioning. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 29(13), 2439-2457.

    1. Hi Joel,

      Thanks so much for your insight and perspectives on these hashtags movements. I too have been weary of Twitter & still air with caution as like you’ve mentioned it can (& is to a group of people) used to promote racist and discriminatory views. However, seeing the positive affect it has had on providing a platform for people to share their stories/experiences I believe is very powerful. To see that this has actually changed systemic issues within society (or at least started to change), further highlights its positive influence. Thanks for reading Joel.

  4. Hi Peggy – Late to the conversation, but I enjoyed your paper and this is a topic that I can see further research can be done in the future on this particular topic. I myself would love to do some follow up research on the “reasons” people’s motivations behind attaching a particular hashtag to their social posts, whether it be to participate in a movement, or just be perceived as a participant to others. One of the Curtin Uni lecturers Sky Croeser wrote an interesting paper on the #occupyOakland movement and how social media played a large part in its success. See the link below if you’d like to have a read.

    Croeser, S., & Highfield, T. (2014). Occupy Oakland and #oo: Uses of Twitter within the Occupy movement. First Monday, 19(3). doi:

Comments are closed.