Geo-Locating Protest: The Changing Role Of Tech In Social Movements Part I

Posted by on May 21, 2019 at 6:17 PM


In 2016, women in several cities began receiving pop-up ads on their smartphones whenever they went near or inside a clinic providing abortions. The ads, which had been sent by anti-choice/ pro-life organizers, offered advice to women who were contemplating abortion. These particular women had been targeted because they had previously looked for Planned Parenthood information online. This practice was ruled an illegal infringement of personal health care data by the attorney general of Massachusetts, but it is one of a number of examples that signal a new phase in the use of technology by activists.

From the Arab Spring to the Tea Party to Black Lives Matter to #MeToo, protesters, organizers, and mobilizers of all political stripes and ideologies have been using the internet to connect and coordinate their movements. Their values and goals are obviously very different, but they all face new tactical opportunities for reaching supporters and achieving their political objectives. One major opportunity arises from the way in which the internet has become increasingly tied to geographic location. In addition to the geographic information system (GIS) capacity of smartphones, the number of people who have joined hyperlocal online spaces has risen exponentially. By connecting to people where they are and where they live, activists, officials and other leaders can advance their causes in ways that are more direct and “in your face” – and in ways that leverage political power because they fit the geography of political jurisdictions.


There are multiple factors that affect whether people are willing to join a protest or movement, but across many different societies and situations, the psychological reasons often seem to be the most influential. The mere fact that people are oppressed or discriminated against doesn’t necessarily mean that they will mobilize, rebel, or just speak up. They are more likely to act when they begin to feel that they are not alone, that their voices will be heard, and that their cause can achieve critical mass.

Some existing, widely-used digital technologies have helped organizers build a broader movement consciousness:

  • Photo-sharing, which is a core component of almost every major social media platform, allows people to see their movement in action. For example, many of the students who participated in “Text, Talk, Act” during the National Dialogue on Mental Health tweeted photos of their groups. By uploading, sharing, and tagging pictures and videos, people can provide visual evidence that they are part of something larger than themselves.
  • Participatory mapping, one of the first uses of geo-locating capacities of our devices, enabled people to see themselves in relation to a physical space. Protesters during the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and the anti-austerity demonstrations in Spain were able to map their locations, producing visual proof that they could peacefully dominate the streets and plazas of their cities.
  • Posting and commenting through social media, in itself, has allowed people to contribute to or even dominate the narrative on a particular issue or cause. Recognizing this new threat, many governments and corporations have created “troll farms” and other sophisticated operations to try to retake control of the narrative, amplify their own messages, and even to target, harass, and intimidate protesters.
  • Instant polling, which can be accomplished through a wide array of tools, apps, and platforms, can also be used to gauge support for particular actions and to show that large numbers of people stand behind a given cause or movement.

Organizers are using these and other tools to compel people to consciously step forward and join causes and movements. Protesters used social media posts to rapidly gather and heckle Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen about immigration policies as they dined in public restaurants. Increasingly, organizers have the capacity to use subconscious technologies, like the anti-abortion/pro-life protesters in Massachusetts, to target potential recruits and people they are trying to influence.

By bringing the revolution(s) to our doorstep, the capacity to make protest and mobilization hyperlocal and geo-locatable has the potential to make political conflict more extreme and more personal. It raises new questions about the rules of the game, the role of tech corporations in the public square, and whether these new conditions also present possibilities for bridge-building and compromise.

As notions of space and place change, can technology create new opportunities for people to connect and work together? We’ll explore this as well as who owns the public square in “Geo-locating Protest: Tech’s Role in Advancing Movements” Part 2 in the next installment of this blog series on Rewiring Democracy.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are strictly those of the author and do not represent the views of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund, the Bridge Alliance, or the Bridge Alliance’s member organizations. Additionally, the Bridge Alliance Education Fund makes no representations as to the accuracy of this post’s contents.