Protest and action in the digital age

PROFESSOR SHIV GANESH - School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing - Massey Business School

Technology is often good at bringing people together but is not good at helping people make good decisions.


Despite a wealth of available technology, the fundamental nature of protest and civil action remains remarkably unchanged.

Social movements, civic engagement and protest are not new phenomena, but have globalisation and technology made them easier and more effective? The assumption is that technology helps form connections between people, and that as a result, activism should be more effective and straightforward. The reality is a little more complex.

A Marsden grant-funded project led by Professor Shiv Ganesh of Massey’s School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing looks at how technology has impacted on collective action. As part of the research, he is working with Loomio, a Wellington-based activist group, which has created a decision-making app that is being used by more than 20,000 activist groups worldwide. ‘We have been looking at the different kinds of groups that use the app, and whether the collective action footprint for each kind of group is similar or different,’ Professor Ganesh explains. Analysis of a large survey from the project is still in progress, but so far it appears that technology is creating hybridised forms of collective action and supporting existing forms rather than new ones, and may fall short when it comes to decision-making and forging lasting relationships.

‘Technology is often good at bringing people together but is not good at helping people make good decisions. It enables short-term connections, but not long-term relationships.’

In another project, Professor Ganesh is looking at communication dynamics in natural-resource conflicts. ‘We are looking at the destructive aspects of allegedly constructive processes like dialogue, as communities end up contesting large-scale natural-resource policies.’ The project involves a case study in an indigenous community in India that has been progressively displaced by the creation of a natural biosphere reserve over the last fifty years. ‘We are looking at the disconnect between the networked activism that seems to be happening at one level that led to the creation of legislative change, and the continued displacement of the community on the other hand despite this. We are investigating the depth of networked activism and the extent to which it works almost purely in a symbolic realm, and whether it actually brings any kind of material change to subsistence livelihoods.’

A further project is a study of fifty years of LGBTQ protest in New Zealand — a time during which much has occurred, both in the LGBTQ arena itself, and with technology.

We are also finding that assumptions that people hold about contemporary activism […] are not the case for LGBTQ activism.


The milestones of the gay liberation movement of the early 1970s, the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Act in 1986, the Human Rights Act in 1993 and the Civil Union Act in 2004, and the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2013 would seem to indicate, Professor Ganesh says, that ‘there’s public appetite for change only once every ten years. However, we have found that there have been groups of core activists that worked on issues over many years. There are periods of incipient organising, and periods of manifest organising.

‘We are also finding that assumptions that people hold about contemporary activism — that technology enables it and makes it really easy, and that collective action is paradoxically individualised in a digital age — are not the case for LGBTQ activism. This is a relatively small country of four million people who know each other. The LGBTQ community, especially, is particularly small; everyone knows everyone else.’

The research has also shown that various LGBTQ networks overlap, but are distinct at the same time. ‘A lot of trans-activists, for example, are not that invested in marriage equality. They are much more interested in things like the No Pride in Prisons movement, for example, because it directly impacts transgender people who go to prison given that they are forced to go to the prison of their birth sex, even today. The harder issues such as this need to be addressed, as they continue to be intractable.

‘The interviews we did became so interesting that we do not want any of this to be lost, and so we are working on turning it into a book. A lot of the people we interviewed gave us many pictures, and so we want to publish those also. Overall, I think what the project is saying is that relationships and histories trump technology every time.’

Project details

Project Technological Transformations in Collective Action
Dates 2013–2017
Funder The Marsden Fund

Project Constructivity and Destructivity in Natural Resource Management Conflicts
Dates 2017–2020
Funder Swedish Research Council