What challenges, advantages, and opportunities does the web offer activists engaged in bringing about social change? This paper, part of a project that examines the use of the web by anti-human trafficking activists, focuses on how emotion work is conducted online.
Activists have long recognized the importance of emotion, from compassion to outrage, in motivating and sustaining the difficult process of social change. Typically, the shared emotion that is fostered when groups of concerned individuals gather together physically has been considered most effective in turning interest and concern into meaningful collective action, as, for example, occurred in black churches in the civil rights movement.
As society becomes increasingly exposed to and immersed in digital technology, the process of generating collective emotion is also moving online. But can collective emotion strong enough to mobilize action be generated through an electronic screen?
“Indignation, Inspiration, and Interaction on the Internet: Emotion Work Online in the Anti-Human Trafficking Movement” presents evidence that it can and does, because the web provides a rich medium for story-telling and interaction, and facilitates small, individual actions. As users engage with the stories and each other, they can take concrete action that has two advantages. First, these small, individual actions snowball across networks to become powerful collective statements, e.g. the spread of hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter and #JeSuisCharlie. Second, these actions function as gateway activism that could potentially lead to deeper engagement with the issue in the future.
The paper explores three ways in which activists within the anti-human trafficking movement engage in emotion work. First, they use interactive websites such as Slavery Footprint to personalize the issue and evoke feelings of moral outrage and personal responsibility. Second, they tell stories such as that of Vivienne Harr (see below) to inspire action. Third, they interact with users both to build feelings of shared identity and community and to reward participation by acknowledging and affirming action that has been taken.
The online efforts studied in this paper represent just a few of the many ways in which activists are using the web. Understanding such efforts is useful in evaluating web strategy and allocating resources towards it. More importantly, it allows those interested in society and technology to develop and improve best practices surrounding the use of digital technologies for social change.