Communities and Web 2.0

Digital Activism in Online Communities and the Spread of Misinformation on Twitter


Digital activism is a prevalent form of political action which takes many forms of practice online. With an online presence on popular social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, digital activism has encouraged online communities and members of the younger demographics to be involved in expressing political opinion and rallying for social change. While the Internet provides endless amounts of information and credible sources to support boundless political topics, the spread of misinformation is also readily accessible, posing a threat to vulnerable demographics who might be unaware of the difference between verified and unverified information. This paper explores digital activism in the 21st century, social media communities, the role youth have in being involved with digital activism, and the threats that come with information overload. Significant digital activism movements such as #BeenRapedNeverReported, #SchoolStrike4Climate, #BlackLivesMatter and #LoveWins will be referenced to support the argument that social media has significantly facilitated social and environmental change. It is acknowledged that while social media platforms are taking steps in monitoring information, this paper reiterates the importance of encouraging the circulation of factual and verified information as opposed to spreading viral content in online communities.

Keywords: Digital Activism, Twitter, Communities, Youth, Misinformation.


Activism as a display of social action has been referenced throughout history and has adapted to the prevailing social and technological discourses of the era. Modern technology has enabled social change to be communicated and executed significantly and is continually changing. Adapting the methods of communication in the modern era, digital activism has revolutionised the way society has protested for social change and political matters through social media platforms enabling communication to a wider audience than ever before. Yet, with tools to communicate readily accessible information through a range of networked audiences, various implications arise as misinformation is also easily distributed. In recent years, social media platforms like Twitter have become catalysts for digital activism. However, while these technologies have increased awareness of social issues and have encouraged a wider demographic to be involved, misinformation is widely spread through social media, and as a major threat to society, must be monitored. This paper will examine the rise in digital activism among vulnerable demographics including youth and adolescence while highlighting the posed risks of misinformation distributed to the wider public due to the shareable nature of these platforms.  

Origins of Digital Activism

Digital activism is a broad term that engages with traditional means of social advocacy while incorporating technology to distribute opinions. Digital activism is studied in a range of disciplines including sociology, anthropology political science and more due to its diverse subject matter and insightfulness to an array of fields. Kaun & Uldam (2018, p. 2100 ) define digital activism as, “Activism that engages both fixed and mobile devices with access to the Internet such as different forms of hashtag activism, and open source advocacy, or definitions that include all digital media used for political purposes.” Unlike traditional forms of activism such as protests and political campaigning through demonstrations, digital activism utilises social media platforms in real-time to distribute individual voices over the Internet that would generally be unheard in a mass gathering.

These voices, or political stances, may be distributed and re-distributed over a varied period of time enhancing the ability for it to be viewed and recovered at any time; this aspect is only one of the many advantages of digital activism. Though it has modernised the way individuals voice political standpoints, digital activism continues to adopt traditional methods of engagement, and has transitioned through many waves of activism over the course of its beginning. If going by political sociologist Paolo Gerbaudo’s theory, the current digital political climate aligns with the second major wave of digital activism in modern history. The second wave of digital activism emerged around the 2010’s where technology and the Internet advanced significantly. The first wave saw the Internet as an autonomous place for communication with only a small sector of political activists occupying the space away from the constructs of the state and the outside world (Kaun & Uldam, 2018).

Digital activism has seen a major shift since the first wave, as the Internet has now become a generic space which is populated by ordinary citizens (Gerbaudo, 2017). This change in activism is through the shift from cyber-autonomism to cyber-populism, differentiated by the amount of users utilising the Internet and for what purpose. This current techno-political orientation is characterised by an upsurge of social media usage by the vast majority of society and major search engine platforms geared toward mass outreach (Kaun & Uldam, 2018). Though the two waves of digital activism differ significantly, there are parallels. The emergence of cyber-populism was influenced by underground liberation, characterised by niche communities defying traditional media and large-scale institution while cyber-populism has created countless small and large scaled communities in a space of mass mobilisation (Gerbaudo, 2017).

Social Media and the Twitter Community

The accessibility and broad communication platforms on the Internet has seen digital activism evolve and grow in a variety of ways. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have become major networks for the distribution and circulation of information. Twitter, a popular micro-blogging and networking service has become especially prominent in digital activism due to its function and design. Both Twitter and Facebook are largely text orientated and are designed to express thoughts and opinions through short text in a way that can be accessed and viewed by other users. However, Twitter’s short character count for text, hashtag visibility function and the ability to link content makes for a superior platform for political advocacy. These features combined are used to deliver data on a mass scale, providing a democratic platform for the public to express their social and political viewpoints which has provided new ways to engage protesters through a sense of community and concurring interest (Sen, 2018).

Social media may provide an ideal setting for collective action as it enables users to weave their private and political life together, resulting in personal political expression and relatable content (Valenzuela, 2013). As platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other similar social media sites have enabled a space to voice political opinions and interests, to many users it has become a significant space for establishing identity through like-minded communities. The implementation of shareability features on these Web 2.0 platforms allows users to connect instantaneously and form a sense of community with ease, in ways traditional activism could not always achieve.

Twitter has the ability to engage with a mass audience with limited restrictions on the accessibility of content, unlike Facebook as its content is only generally circulated among personal friends on the platform making it more difficult to search for specific content. Twitter on the other hand is much more fluid with shareability through hashtags and its public content as Bertazolli (2019, p. 15) explains, “Twitter is more liberating in this instance as it permits the exploitation of pseudonyms and does not require the disclosure of personal information and real-life relationship ties with other users”. While having an online persona is favourable when it comes to drawing attention to content, anyone can post visible and sharable content in order to  generate traction. A sense of community may be established through unique hashtags belonging to specific political standpoints making similar content easy to find.

Twitter uses are able to engage and share with similar people, affirming personal and political opinions while forming new connections through a support network. The generation of support and community is apparent through instances where Twitter users have utilised the platform to express controversial, personal experiences as evident in #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag which started circulating the platform in 2014. Victims of sexual assault shared their experiences and their fears of the potential emotional consequences that may have followed if the assault was reported (Li et al., 2020). The response from the wider Twitter community was positive, generating a notion of solidarity and support. Due to Twitter’s hashtag feature, countless retellings of these experiences could be viewed and validated, in turn creating a united community of victims and allies.  

The Role of Youth in Digital Activism

Activism in the age of social media has not only generated a new way of expression through modern technology and instant accessibility to networking platforms, it has encouraged the engagement of younger demographics to be involved in politics more than ever before. This is strongly demonstrated through the recent environmental advocacy youth all over the world were involved in by bringing awareness to climate change. Social media platforms are dominated by younger demographics and their presence has transcended on to the online political scene. A recent example of this was through a young Swedish environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, who promoted the idea that humanity was facing an existential crisis arising from climate change. Her presence both online and offline sent waves through the political world, most significantly the demographic of young people who followed in her footsteps. The hashtag #SchoolStrike4Climate, a movement founded by Thunberg, remains a viral hashtag that has consistently trended since Thunberg’s gained popularity in 2018. Teenagers and youth around the world tweet this hashtag accompanying their own form of environmental activism through photos, videos and short text rallying against climate change.

This is not the only significant display of youth banding together online to rally for cultural change, young people have been seen to participate in iconic movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #LoveWins, which gathered huge online attention as recent as 2013 and 2015 (Stornaiuolo & Thomas, 2017). Viral movements like these and the public displays of banding together both online and offline to bring awareness to climate change thrived on Twitter and other social platforms alike due to the involvement of the demographic that is most familiar with these content sharing platforms; the youth. The fact that these platforms have become a place where political expression can be voiced and distributed as social media is so intertwined with youth culture means that young people can counternarrate the world from their perspective and encourage social change.

The Spread of Misinformation on Social Media

The involvement of youth in the interest of politics will have enormous benefits in the progression of the future economy and future social and political matters. However, the constant influx of information readily available to such vulnerable remains a threat as young people are influenced by the prevailing cultural and social discourses present in society. A major facilitator to these cultural discourses is the content that circulates the Internet and social media. A threat tantamount to the influential power of the Internet is the spread of misinformation which can be created and distributed by any member of the public. While the current digital age allows for all demographics to participate in voicing their views and defining their political identities on a range of online platforms, this growth has changed the power dynamics of participation (Bakardjieva, Svensson & Skoric, 2012).

Bakardjieva, Svensson & Skoric (2012, p. 1) explain, “With a massive growth in online social networking, digital infrastructures offer citizens new channels for speaking and acting together and thus lower the threshold for involvement in collective action and, eventually, politics…digital storytelling, for example, is a novel tool for engaging ordinary people in the discussion of issues of wide public significance”. Unlike traditional forms of media and news, anyone can pose as a credible source of information, blurring the line of validity in information and news distribution. Validity and verification can be easily overlooked when new information can be accessed at a rapid speed with minimal effort to access it. Though credible, scientific information and data are readily identifiable and accessible, the type of information and views that populate social media platforms tend to be information that is radicalised, hateful or with shock value (Del Vicario et al., 2016).

This variety of content can be more appealing and scandalous which has the power to turn into viral, misinformation which anyone can spread. The tendency of young people who are hungry for information, entertainment and seeking likenesses in identity online are exposed to the risk of developing harmful and radicalized responses to misinformation (Alfida, Maryam & Rianti, 2019). While the implications of misinformation vary due to the severity of the content, the absorption of uncredible information could encourage traditional education to be replaced with unverified resources online which can be dangerously misleading. Instances of misinformation is ongoing, however, well-known examples of information being spread from uncredible sources can be found in relation to the recent global health crisis surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the anti-vaccination propaganda which has circulated social media for a number of years.

As Twitter enables small network communities, users are likely to follow other people with opinions similar to their own. This network structure results in a tendency of users to engage with only a small subset of content aligned with their ideological preferences and magnified by algorithmic features on social network sites (Shore, Baek & Dellarocas, 2018). The threat of misinformation within this social structure is that of controversial or incorrect information being circulated among like-minded people, where there is a tendency to adopt an even more extreme position on the topic (Shore, Baek & Dellarocas, 2018). In this case, the disparity of the information available to the public on the Internet and social media platforms lies with how these groups choose to utilise this technology; by expressing political views and finding a sense of community through like-minded content or by creating and distributing misinformation maliciously or unknowingly. While social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are working to monitor content and misinformation, the exposure to the distribution of misinformation, fabrication and propaganda must not be overlooked when using these sites. It is imperative to continue making these spaces factual and educational for youth and other vulnerable demographics to be involved in politics and social matters.


The transformation of activism due to modern technology and contemporary forms of communication has resulted in a revolutionary way to convey personal and political expression. Digital activism has progressed into a an inclusive form of communication which strengthens community, raises awareness on global issues and encourages social change. As digital activism is prominently demonstrated on popular social media platforms, it is accurate to assume that a fraction of the digital activism is contributed by younger demographics who heavily use said social media sites. While society should encourage young people to be involved in politics, it is imperative that misinformation is not distributed and over-consumed as opposed to verified information. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook have great protentional in encouraging society to be more involved in politics but must be monitored in ensuring young demographics are safe from misinformation that could harm society.


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13 replies on “Digital Activism in Online Communities and the Spread of Misinformation on Twitter”

Hey Laura,
Really good topic choice! I love reading about digital activism as it is something that’s constantly evolving. It’s definitely important to raise awareness of misinformation, because it can have such a significant negative impact. I liked how you discussed these two important topics together.
I also liked that you gave us a clear and concise definition in the first paragraph – good work! Telling us exactly why Twitter is so effective was a good move as well.
It was interesting to think about how digital media allows communities to connect compared to traditional media. I never really thought about the struggles the old suffragettes would have trying to gather a group without it.
You did a great job of stating a claim and then using evidence to back it up too!
I would have enjoyed a mention of the duplicating nature the Internet has – how it takes one thing and remakes it a thousand times (as seen in memes and remakes of popular viral videos). In my opinion, you can say the same about misinformation – it can be cropped or censored or edited so it only shares what the user wants to share. Did you come across anything like this in your research?
Great paper, thank you for sharing!

Hi AnneMArie,

Thanks so much for taking the time to read my paper, I really appreciate your support and feedback.
That’s a really great point you raise and I definitely should have expanded on the duplicating nature of content on the Internet as you mentioned. I briefly touched on small subsets of content, or misinformation, being circulated. It’s called the “echo-chamber” effect, or homogenous clusters, where specific beliefs are circulated and reinforced inside a closed system. Theres a really interesting link between this and the virality of misinformation, I came across an article that claimed participants in political echo-chambers have a greater change of being radicalised. Misinformation especially among young people is concerning, it seems anyone can access “validated” information and claim it is credible, especially when there is endless access and algorithmic information.
I never thought to include and expand on this terminology in my paper fearing it would stray me off topic but now that you have raised this point from another perspective, I wish I did elaborate.

Thanks again AnneMarie.


Hi Laura,

Digital activism is especially important I feel during the times of COVID-19 and around global warming. There are so many varying opinions (think COVID and anti-vaccine families) that there is so much room for debate which I think is great though with this comes often uninformed opinions with highly personal reasoning.

I think your comment about people only following those with similar views to themselves is so important to consider! Yes there may be lots of great information out their with digital activism though if people are only following those with the same beliefs and values of their own their is no learning or growing happening. Do think this will result in nothing changing? Despite the growing number of people exposing and talking about certain global and political topics?

With the rapid growth of technology and its affordances and the youth who have grown up with it becoming adults, what do you think politics will look like in another ten years? I can only imagine the effects and growth of digital activism will increase as technological affordances do and our youth get older and more involved.

Hey Emily,

Thanks for taking the time to read my paper, I appreciate your feedback and for responding with interesting questions. In response to your first question, I think that even though there is a lot of misinformation circulating the Internet, most people know not to trust every tweet and article they come across. I feel that while the Internet and its users are forever expanding, and while there will be small groups of people who only consume information aligning with their own beliefs, people will remain vigilant with the type of information and media they consume and spread. I don’t see digital activism slowing down in the future, there have been so many empowering movements made possible by the Internet and social media. Following on from your second question, its hard to say what politics will look like in another ten years. Its hard to imagine what society will become in ten years with technology rapidly changing, I can only imagine that digital activism and politics will continue to make up a huge sector of online communication and networking. I absolutely agree it will be interesting to see the growth of digital activism with those who have grown up on modern technology and social media.

Thanks again, Emily.


I guess as people become more well versed in technology and social media as it continues to grow and be so entwined in our lives we will all get better at filtering through and knowing what is fake and what is real.

I agree with you it is hard to see where it will all go though considering how far it has come in such a short period I think SNS will only grow in how much they offer the news and we will become even more reliant on them for quick news burst! Hopefully if this happens it also promotes less misinformation!

Hi Laura,

Firstly, an excellent paper! Well done!

I like how you described how young people counter narrate the world from their perspective and encourage social change. I researched the #SchoolStrike4Climate group for my paper and have found their transition from online to offline (and now back again) activism quite seamless. Would you agree? They’ve adapted to the changing environment quickly and are quite creative in keeping the momentum going.

I know that social platforms are taking steps to identify and stop misinformation from spreading, and as technology advances, fake news spread by bots may increasingly be detected. Although as technology advances, bots also become more sophisticated! I wondered if you came across anything in your research about what steps schools are taking to educate young people about how to identify/ question information?

I look forward to hearing from you,

Hey Charlotte,

Thank you for reading and responding to my paper. I remember seeing you post about researching the #SchoolStrike4Climate, I am looking forward to reading your paper! I’m sure I will learn a lot more as you went more in depth. I definitely agree that youth adapt so quickly to changing environments, it’s interesting to see the #SchoolStrike4Climate and #StayAtHome hashtags used together in tweets from children all over the world, still advocating for climate strikes though not able to attend school. Kids are getting creative with their signage and how they advocate from the comfort of their own home.
Knowing how to educate children in deciphering misinformation from credible sources is a really excellent concept following on from social media platforms taking steps in ensuring this safety. In hindsight this would have been a great link between the two main topics of my paper considering how much time children spend on devices. Surprisingly, I did not come across much information on this during my research. My assumption would be for schools and parents to start an open conversation on how to decipher credible information by considering who the author is and to what audience is it intended for, whether its a reliable source and missing any important information. Knowing what a suspicious website and URL looks like too would be useful. I believe that studying at a higher education level helps many people to decipher what is credible and what is not; maintaining an education and not replacing validated sources with social media posts is imperative.

Thanks again for taking the time to respond to my paper, Charlotte.


Hi Laura,
Thanks for your reply.
That’s a good point – I think being able to identify a suspicious URL/ website at any age is essential, particularly for that less digital-savvy or who haven’t grown up with technology. I’m grateful for not having access to mobile devices when I was in school in a way. Although now I rely on immediate access to information, I do suffer from information overload like anyone else and see this as potentially limiting me in ways as there is only so much that you can take in before you move onto the next thing.

Hi Laura
I really liked your paper and especially the belief which you expressed in digital activism and its power to change the world. I think the relationship between information and truth is very interesting when discussing power, politics and activism. If the point of our activism is to change something about the world, of necessity it will be information which supports that change that is created and posted. Whether this also supports truth is another question and in terms of creating and sustaining a successful digital activist community, perhaps not one which really matters.

Thanks for such a thought provoking paper.

Hey Nicola,

Thank you for taking the time to read my paper and leaving a really thought provoking comment. That is very true, the truth makes up only a fraction of digital activism and every political stance has its own truth. Clickbait shock factor and shareable content do the rest.

Thanks again, Nicola.


Hi Laura,

Your paper was very well informed and made some really insightful observations.

I agree that there is danger in people reading and interacting with only the information from ‘like-minded’ posters – this tends to bring about a lot of the ’emotional contagion’ that has been mentioned in many other papers in this conference and I think then takes a little away from their argument. I dismay often at the viciousness of many posts that involve political activism and the hatred between the Left and the Right seems to be so much more insidious online.

Although I support online activism totally, and I do believe that voices from all sides are really important, as your paper cautions, we need to read (and consider) many perspectives before we can form our own critically informed views.

Sometimes too as online participants, if we read too much of the ‘same same’ we just switch off, which doesn’t help the activist’s cause.

I think education going forward around ‘picking your battles’ online and arguing constructively rather than with emotionally charged content, will help young people who genuinely want to bring action and attention to causes that are really important.

Hi Leanne,

Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my paper, your insights on this topic are very thought provoking. That is a great point about switching off when being bombarded with similar information, it becomes hard to decipher any new or factual content as a lot of what we see online is regurgitated from other sources, I know I am guilty of scrolling through or past similar content even if I am interested in the topic or political stance. I agree with that approach of education moving forward, it is so easy to distribute emotionally charged content but is there much substance to it underneath, and can these people form critical opinions without it?

Thanks again, Leanne.


Hi Laura,
I enjoyed reading about your many examples of activism through Twitter and discussing how Twitter can be a united community of solidarity and support. On the other hand, it is clear that it also has the ability to be the opposite with the use of misinformation.
With regards to the fact that users on Twitter tend to follow other users with similar beliefs as their own, do you think that digital activism on certain topics reach far enough to the users who could benefit from it? Also, would you agree that for users to only follow people with similar beliefs and values to their own, doesn’t really benefit them in the long run? As their perspectives on important topics would never be fully challenged if they surround themselves with people who would have the same opinion to theirs. I am curious to see what you think about how this would affect an individual’s identity on Twitter. It also made me think about Anna’s paper in regards to confirmation bias online and how this may reiterate the same issues and wonder if this would hinder change for some.
Well done on your paper, I really enjoyed it!

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