Online activism: how petitions and social media campaigns have changed the world

It’s easy to be cynical about online activism. But done right, petitions, videos and social media campaigns can – and do – change the world. Here’s how.


You might think that sharing a story on social media, using a hashtag, or even signing a petition, doesn’t do much to change things. But the truth is that movements in the UK and worldwide have used the tools of online activism to make amazing things happen.

It might feel like signing a petition or sharing a hashtag is just lazy online activism. Some people even call it “slacktivism”, a combination of the words “slacker” and “activism”.

But in many cases, if the idea gains traction – the hashtag takes off, or a petition is signed by enough voters or a company’s core customer base – everything can change very quickly.

Let’s explore some awesome online actions that really made a difference.

Pressuring those in power with hashtags, petitions and social posts

Think of the big changes in society worldwide as a result of New York activist Tarana Burke’s #MeToo hashtag, which truly captured people’s attention and gave them the courage to share their own stories of sexual harassment.

#MeToo was posted over 19 million times in just one year, and led to the establishment of the Time’s Up legal defence fund, which raised $24 million and connected 3,677 people to attorneys to pursue possible legal action.

Then there’s the simple but strategic Stop Funding Hate, a UK grassroots activist campaign which gets people to ask brands to stop advertising in newspapers publishing racist and anti-migrant content.

And how about 14-year-old campaigner Lucy Gavaghan’s 2016 petition to Tesco to stop selling eggs from caged hens – which made up 43% of the eggs it sold each year? With many signatures and shares on social media, and a lot of press coverage, Tesco announced that they would phase out eggs from caged hens by 2025.

Online actions as bold and daring as outdoor stunts

Many campaigning organisations use online activism to put pressure on big business into behaving better, and Greenpeace is no exception.

On April Fool’s Day, last year Polly Ethelene – Head of Sainsbury’s PR (not really), told the UK about Sainsbury’s new plastic waste storage system – the ocean! – in a spoof video.

This led to Sainsbury’s supermarket receiving more complaints than any other supermarket on social media about their plastic packaging policy, many hashtagged #CouldntCareLess (a play on their own #LiveWellForLess). The company pledged to reduce their plastic packaging by a whopping 50% by 2025 – a move which could see plastic reduction across the whole industry.

And in 2014, Greenpeace released a video called Everything Is NOT Awesome – showing a Lego world drowning in oil set to a melancholy rendition of the Lego Movie’s main theme tune – to expose Lego’s long-running partnership with Shell.

The moving video went viral with nearly six million views. Lego swiftly ended their multi-million pound, fifty-year relationship with the oil company, presumably because a toy brand being associated with a toxic climate-wrecking oil corporation wasn’t great for their image. 

A gateway to more activism, both online and offline

There’s also evidence that taking action online makes someone, well, more of an activist generally, both online and offline.

A Georgetown University study into “slacktivism” found that people supporting causes on social media participated in more than twice as many supportive activities both on and offline as those who didn’t.

Such “slacktivists” are twice as likely to volunteer their time, more than four times as likely to contact political representatives, and five times as likely to recruit others to sign petitions.

Maybe it’s time to drop the derogatory “slacktivist” label, then, and rebrand millions of good-hearted people “online action-heroes” instead?

Ready to try some online campaigning? We’ve got you covered. Here’s a selection of Greenpeace petitions and other digital actions to take right now.


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