Egyptian army soldiers take their positions on top and next to their armored vehicles to guard an entrance of Tahrir Square during a protest in Cairo on Aug. 16, 2013. Online activists elsewhere in the world offered practical support to protesters in this and other international protests. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

Forget the “slacktivist,” the 20-something tweeting or liking Facebook posts from his basement but too lazy to do anything more. In reality, online activists are doing so much more — online and offline — than just tweeting. And they have been ever since they first hit the scene.

We know because we talked to them ourselves. We discuss this research more fully in two journal articles: “Serial Activists: Political Twitter Beyond Influentials and the Twittertariat” and “Being a Serial Activist.”

After collecting 20 million hashtagged tweets from between 2009 and 2013 associated with political protests by 2.5 million unique Twitter users, we identified a population of 191 exceptionally prolific tweeters. These activists were truly transnational and covered protests in up to 17 geographic regions.

We contacted 37 of the serial activists, as we label them, 21 of whom agreed to talk to us. The activists come from diverse backgrounds and are involved in activism far beyond their Twitter timeline. All had stories of working together with other activists in different countries, online and off, to advance their causes. All can be described as “serial” due to their sustained, long-term commitment to airing contentions from all corners of the world.

Who are the serial online activists? 

The activists were much older than the average Twitter user, mostly part of a lower-income bracket and worked predominantly in IT. These factors made their enduring commitment to political activism possible. Their IT and language skills made it technically feasible for them to assist fellow online activists from different countries. They juggle family life and work, health and illness, in daunting life-patterns that make time for their serious commitment to the cause of peaceful democratic protest.

These activists believed themselves to be politically active despite not being political party members nor, in most cases, members of any NGOs. Their activism is notably transnational and collaborative; they engaged in global issues, resided in different countries and addressed various national governments and international actors. The serial activists, however, had relatively modest social capital online. In other words, they often don’t have a lot of followers on Twitter.

Online activists directly support protests on the ground

So what exactly are these activists doing?

First, the serial activists continued to tweet about a vast array of protests around the world for several years. While they focus on local causes, they also stay active about issues in other countries.

Some of the interviewed activists stayed active on Twitter for up to 13 hours a day. Others took turns covering protests, so that actors on the ground had help at all hours. The serial activists also joined local protests in person. Many tweeted right from the heart of real-world protests.

Most impressive, the activists used translation tools, their own language skills, and peer networks to overcome linguistic and national borders and to widen the exposure of uprisings around the world. They coordinated essential tasks online and offline, provided IT support for protesters on location, and remotely supported the actions of people on the ground. Several of the interviewed activists helped Egyptian protesters circumvent the Internet blockade instituted by the regime of then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in January 2011. This assistance kept in place a vital communication lifeline for the local street demonstrators and Egyptian civil society.

In the end, only four serial activists had no stories of working with those on the ground. One interviewee argued that online activism is to marches like air support is to boots on the ground. Many of them highlighted the importance of social media for gathering intelligence during protests, as people at home can listen to the feed from the police scanners and relay this information to protesters on location. One such activist spoke of how she used Twitter to coordinate actions from Scotland with contacts in Egypt:

There was a youth when the shooting broke out in Tahrir Square and it turned into a terrifying pandemonium. He had been born and brought up in an English-speaking country, but he was back in the Middle East with his girlfriend and they got split up. I’d been following him [on Twitter] and it was obvious he was terrified, so I kind of stepped in and said it’s alright, it’s okay, I’m here, what do you need? I helped to calm him down. He found a toddler and everyone was running backwards and forwards and he didn’t know what to do. We managed to get him to this house and they were treating him at the barracks. I managed to get in touch with the toddler’s relatives while we’re trying to find a place to reunite the toddler with his parents and get him out of there. We did that and the wee boy got taken to a mosque, where there was a children’s charity that kept him there until his parents came. We were sitting there watching Al Jazeera and looking at Twitter and telling them what road was blocked, which streets had gunfire in them, which streets to stay away from, and what streets the police had people in handcuffs; go down that street, or go down another one.

Timeline and location of global protests and the relative size of protest hashtags tweeted by serial activists.
Data: Twitter Streaming API.
Figure: Marco T. Bastos.

Online activism can build solidarity

During this five-year project, we learned that, thanks to social media, highly decentralized and fragmented activists are capable of working together across national borders in remarkable ways. Over time, the activists came to form a close-knit network of users that are geographically apart but ideologically proximate; their work helped the uprisings become better known worldwide and offered virtual support when things on the ground were chaotic.

Some may argue that online social networks threaten communities by discouraging the face-to-face communication that is the basis of cooperative social action.  In other words, we are all too busy broadcasting our own thoughts to come to consensus and build the type of real-world solidarity necessary for social change. The stories of these serial activists, however, show that social media has also the power to be the basis of new forms of collective resistance. This phenomenon must be included in any discussion of how future transnational consensuses will or will not coalesce.  

Marco T. Bastos is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at Davis whose research explores the cross-effects between online and offline social networks for information diffusion and contentious communication. 

Dan Mercea is a lecturer in sociology at City University London whose research focuses on the contribution of digital engagement in social movement protests.