The relationship between activism and the Internet/social media is, as the question suggests, difficult to unpack. To address the intricacy, think about some key causes that have been brought to light online and how they’ve impacted people offline.
One such cause is sexual assault. In the last few years, the #MeToo movement has helped women feel comfortable about coming forward and sharing their trauma when it comes to rape, sexual harassment, and sexual misconduct. It’s possible to argue that #MeToo has effectively brought change into the physical world. It’s led to the expulsion and, in some cases, imprisonment of sexual predators. Additionally, the activism has compelled a number of organizations and companies to rethink how they deal with sexual offenses.
It’s also possible to argue that the changes that the online activism has engendered has been limited to women in relatively affluent spaces such as media, politics, and tech. While #MeToo presents itself as a movement for all women, it appears as if women with less money have seen less tangible change.
Another cause to parse is #BlackLivesMatter. One might claim that the movement has effectively used social media to draw attention to the ongoing brutality that people of color face from police. It’s resulted in police-reform legislation from state governments and the federal government. Yet some argue that the shootings that end up going viral on social media reinforce a type of racism. One scholar, Jackie Wang, contends that, in order to go viral, the Black victim must be passive and helpless—a condition that reinforces racist stereotypes about Black suffering.
Another way to measure the effectiveness and/or hollowness of online activism is to look at what groups and parties have been able to change without notable Internet activism. Republicans and people on the right have been able to pass voter suppression laws, pro-gun laws, and anti-choice laws separate from online activism.
Meanwhile, despite a fair amount of online activism for gun control and pro-choice policies, Democrats and people on the left have not been, on the whole, successful in turning this digital energy into concrete legislation that could produce change in the material world.