Advocacy and Activism Online

Research Brief: Advocacy & Activism Online

As the digital world has expanded, so too have opportunities for engagement in advocacy and activism, eliminating many physical and geographic limitations for participation. In a 2022 survey, Pew Research found that 15% of teens reported engaging in online activism in the past year (Anderson et al., 2022), amid hashtag activism including #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #MAGA. In an ever-changing digital landscape, it is important to revisit the literature regularly, particularly to center young people’s experiences of digital advocacy and activism as they begin to mature into civically engaged adults.  

In this research brief, we seek to explore adolescents’ experiences with these types of digital involvement in order to further understand what they are experiencing online and how it may affect them now and in the future. Questions include:

  • As barriers for participation have been lowered, has pressure to be involved increased?
  • What specific movements exemplify young people’s online advocacy and action behaviors and what tools and platforms are they using?
  • What are the personal and political results of online advocacy — does online action have measurable offline effects?

While digital activism is prominent around the world, much of the research, examples, and statistical data provided in this research brief reflect the experiences of youth in the United States in order to better evaluate the focused effects of online advocacy and activism within a specific political framework of a country with widespread geopolitical influence. Additionally, as there have been rapid shifts in the digital landscape (e.g. widespread access to the internet, easier use of websites, and a growing number of platforms available to teens) this research brief primarily focuses on publications from 2014 to 2024.

Introduction to the Political and News-Seeking Behaviors of Young People

It is becoming increasingly well understood that young people’s digital and analog lives are deeply intertwined. For instance, Pew Research Center reported that 46% of teens are online “almost constantly”, with a total of 96% reporting at least daily internet use (Rideout et al., 2022; Anderson et al., 2023). In 2019, a national survey of US teens evidenced that 64% of teens reported accessing news at least once a week from social media. The most popular social media news site was YouTube, where 65% of teens reported accessing news (Wronski, 2019). Television has fallen well below social media with 49% of teens from the same sample reporting that they accessed news from television at least once a week (Wronski, 2019). 

Among young adults, the trend of turning to social media for news proliferates. In 2023, 69% of adults aged 18-29 at least sometimes get their news from social media, ten percentage points more than those who report the same for news websites or apps (Liedke & Wang, 2023).

Political Action Online

Adolescents and young adults have played notable roles in advocacy and activism across the world for decades, even leading large political and social movements (Blakemore, 2018). When it comes to political action online, teens who identify within the Democratic party are more likely than Republican teens to have reported engaging in online activism (20% vs 10%, respectively). For teens identifying with either party, the most popular online actions were encouraging others to take action on political or social issues that are important to them (Dem: 14%) and posting a picture to show their support for a political or social issue (Rep: 7%) (Anderson et al., 2022).

Although only a minority of teens report engaging in political acts online, some teens may choose to participate in activism or advocacy action outside of a structured political party or organization, as many are not yet of age to vote. For example, when asked about what social media helps them do, 66% of teens reported that they believe it at least somewhat helps them show their support for causes and issues that are important to them, suggesting that teens’ online social action may not always be related to a specific political affiliation nor overt actions (e.g., posting), but attributed to the benefit and ease of digital platforms generally as a means of propagating positive social change (Anderson & Jiang, 2018). 

Research comparing the online political activities of United States voters suggest that young adults are using media platforms for political actions in increasingly complex ways once they reach voting age. For instance, adults aged 18-29 are much more likely than older adults to say they have used social media for all aspects of political action, including posting a picture to show support for a cause and looking for information about rallies or protests happening in their area. The latter use particularly stands out, with 54% of those 18-29 using social media to access information about rallies or protests, compared to just 35% of all adult social media users (Auxier, 2020). 

In all, findings highlight how younger generations, who have grown up in a digitally-saturated world, use digital technologies for advocacy and activism strategies at comparatively higher rates than older generations. As even young adults approaching 30 years old have seen dramatic shifts in the social media landscape, future longitudinal research should seek to understand the social media advocacy and activism behaviors of the current and future young voting blocs. 

The Relationship Between Advocacy and Direct Political Engagement

It is important to note that there may be a complicated relationship between advocacy and direct political engagement. Participation in online spaces and offline activism behaviors (such as taking part in demonstrations) may not translate to voting. For young adults who have reached voting age, research shows that there may be a disconnect between social advocacy actions and political participation. CIRCLE with Tufts University, an organization focused on understanding youth civic engagement, found that 77% of young adults of voting age (aged 18-29) in the U.S. believe there are ways for them to get involved; 32% of respondents have signed a petition/boycott; 15% have attended a protest, demonstration, or march; and another 28% would or plan to attend a protest in the future (Booth et al., 2023). However, despite this interest in advocacy and action, only 40% of young adults reported feeling that they’re qualified enough to participate in politics, and, for the youngest voting bloc (18-21), that percentage falls to just 33% (Booth et al., 2023). These patterns are reflected in voting behaviors, where 21% of young people who did not vote in the 2022 election did not do so because they felt they did not have enough information about the candidates or where to vote (Medina et al., 2022). 

More efforts should be placed on meeting young people in spaces they already inhabit, both online and off, in order to educate and engage them in political opportunities.

Fewer Barriers, More Pressure?

Throughout history, advocacy and activism movements have engaged in a wide variety of actions including marches, protests, sit-ins, and voter registration drives. With widespread access to the internet, a shift has occurred in where those actions can, and often do, take place, and the types of activism in which youth can participate. Generally, this would suggest that digital technologies have lowered the barriers to political activism, allowing more youth to learn about and participate in advocacy and activism movements. With these lowered barriers also comes the greater possibility of movements where youth are involved in actions without being directly involved with a centralized political organization.

Lowering the barriers to participation means that internet-based organizations can reach and engage with more diverse groups across wider geographies by removing many of the conflicts that may prevent participation in traditional in-person organizations, such as membership dues and work schedules (McInroy & Beer, 2020). Youth of color may face increased barriers to participation and a higher risk of harm; these include an assumption of criminality when engaged in political behaviors like protests, low representation of BIPOC elected officials, and lack of community resources (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015). Despite these barriers, many youth of color are very active in online campaigns where they are able to confront racialized narratives in ways that may feel safer than offline actions and take leadership roles within online social advocacy movements (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015, p. 9; Earl et al., 2017).

Reaching Young Voters in the Age of Social Media

Another possible result of lowered barriers to participation is the decentralization of advocacy and activism outside of structured political organizations. Research focused on social movement organizations (SMOs) found that while nearly three-quarters of young reported engaging in political activity, only 10% were members of an organization, suggesting that most young people are participating in advocacy and activism behaviors outside of a formal structure (Elliott & Earl, 2018). With direct participation opportunities readily available online and via social media platforms, organizations created by adults may be less appealing to young people, and they are often not engaging young people successfully (Elliott & Earl, 2018). 

Similarly, young people of voting age may not be led to believe their vote, or the issues they care about, matter. In 2022, 46% of young people were not contacted by any organization, candidate, or party about the elections (Medina et al., 2022). This lack of outreach was associated with voting behavior, as young adults contacted about the election were 29 percentage points more likely to have reported voting than respondents who were never contacted (Medina et al., 2022).

Hashtag Activism

An example of an often decentralized movement has been hashtag activism. This involves posting and using a specific hashtag to show collective action about an issue (ex. #metoo as a hashtag on posts discussing harassment and violence against women). While the impact of hashtag activism is debated (see section: Online Work for Offline Change), participation in hashtag movements requires very little effort and no affiliation to an organizing party, but they have the potential to bring large groups of diverse participants together to show support for a cause and even engage in public or private discussions across huge geographic and social distances (Mihailidis, 2020).

However, with lowered barriers to social and political advocacy and activism opportunities may come more pressure to engage in things like hashtag activism or posting to show support for a movement or cause. Research is limited at this time, but there are some indicators that youth may feel pressured to participate for fear of retaliation or being ostracized by peers. 

In the U.S., the perceived importance of peers using their social media platforms to post about issues is particularly strong for Democratic teens. Almost a quarter (22%) of teens who identified as Democrat or lean Democrat responded that it was extremely or very important to use social media to speak out (Anderson et al., 2022). However, the same percentage of teens also reported unfollowing or unfriending people because of posts with political views they disagree with (Anderson & Jiang, 2018). 

The juxtaposition of being politically vocal online via posting and the reality of risking one’s social connections due to making a political point may cause teens to exhibit some hesitancy or fear towards engaging in more active forms of online activism. A survey from CIRCLE found that teen respondents were sometimes afraid to voice opinions online because they felt unqualified (40%) or were afraid of how their peers and friends might react (39%) (McGee et al., 2021). 

Further research should explore how teens decide whether to participate in online advocacy and activism and if they are motivated by a genuine desire to participate or pressure to do so, or if they choose not to due to fear of repercussions.

Specific Movements Rooted in Online Activism and Advocacy

Fandom Activism

Though many young people are participating in online activism and advocacy outside of structured organizations, Fandoms, or communities of young people online with a shared cultural interest, can sometimes be a catalyst for fan action. In 2020, for example, news outlets reported that activists on TikTok and Twitter (now X), many of them teens associated with fan groups for K-pop, encouraged their followers to claim tickets for a rally hosted by Donald Trump without intention of attending, inflating numbers of attendees but resulting in low actual attendance (Lorenz et al., 2020). While there was debate about the efficacy of this particular plan, K-pop fans have participated in political action across the world, highlighting the quick mobilization opportunities available within online fan groups.

Another pop culture fan group that has received attention in research is Fandom Forward (previously known as the Harry Potter Alliance). The activists associated with Fandom Forward are overwhelmingly young people and are geographically dispersed, yet they have participated in numerous movements for social advocacy–often targeting the issue of marginalization (McInroy & Beer, 2022). The group has even sent direct aid through grassroots funding and live streaming fundraisers (e.g. sending cargo planes with medical supplies to Haiti; Terrell, 2014; McInroy & Beer, 2022). An unpublished report from Fandom Forward notes that fandoms are uniquely equipped to manage activist movements because “many of the hallmark activities of fandom participation lend themselves to strong organizing skills — fandom is, after all, a form of community organizing in and of itself” and they encourage movements to include multiple different fandom groups in cross-fandom strategy due to overlap of fans and interests in particular issues (Fandom Forward, n.d.). 

This demonstrates that internet-based activism and advocacy groups are often deeply passionate about their movements, even if they do not operate in the same way as traditional exclusively in-person social movement organizations.

Climate Change

Climate change, and its future effects, are a major concern for many young people. A recent study found that, among a multinational sample of adolescents and young adults (between the ages 16-25 across 10 countries), 59% of respondents were extremely or very worried about climate change (Hickman et al., 2021). In the United States, 32% of young voters cited climate change as one of their top three concerns, and those who did so were significantly more likely to be civically engaged or interested in participating in climate activism (Suzuki, 2022). It is therefore unsurprising that many young people are engaged in climate advocacy and activism.

One particular initiative, Fridays for Future, has been of recent interest in research literature, as it was a global movement started by youth activist Greta Thunberg. When she decided to strike from school every Friday, the information Ms. Thunberg posted on her Twitter and Instagram accounts quickly went viral. An analysis of tweets from influential accounts that tagged #FridaysForFuture (e.g. @GretaThunberg) found that 61.9% of tweets were categorized by the researchers as dissemination, “those that publicize the activism agenda and specific actions such as strikes and demonstrations” (emphasis added by this author) (Lozano-Diaz & Fernandez-Prados, 2022). 

Other research analyzing hashtags on social media platforms have found that this movement may have evolved and expanded to include other experiences of climate striking, and could help build activist communities focused on a specific issue (e.g. Herrmann et al., 2023; Nasrin & Fisher, 2021).

School-Based Violence

School-based violence, and particularly school shooting prevention, is another concern around which young people in the United States have mobilized activism and advocacy efforts. School shootings are a uniquely American problem; the United States has had 57 times as many school shootings as all other major industrial countries combined, and mass shootings in schools have become more deadly over time (Rapa et al., 2024). Many students are fearful of these events, and a majority of youth surveyed about active shooter drills found them to be emotionally distressing and fear-inducing (Moore-Petinak et al., 2020).

In 2018, survivors of the Parkland, FL, mass shooting led the March for Our Lives protest in Washington, D.C. and across the world. The students used social media to mobilize a walkout and the March for Our Lives rally event, which both happened just a month after the shooting. One student was quoted as saying “without [social media], the movement wouldn’t have spread this fast” (Mejia, 2018). One of the survivors of the shooting joined Twitter to bring attention to gun violence and quickly gained almost 2 million followers (Wong, 2018). Clearly, social media can be a powerful platform for spreading a message about a social issue.

The Online-Offline Advocacy Connection: Are there Personal and Political Benefits?

This research brief has now explored the general interest in online activism as well as just a few examples of experiences and movements where the internet and social media were key to their success. But does online advocacy and action translate to offline behaviors or tangible effects?

Some forms of online advocacy have been considered “slacktivism” in popular media due to their low bar to engagement or low perceived importance in enacting social change (e.g. Gladwell, 2010). However, this reframing contradicts the reality of digital activism. In fact, there may be a more complementary relationship between offline and online advocacy and activism. Chayinska et al. (2021) found that, for university students, offline action predicted increases in the likelihood that a person would participate in advocacy and action online. Alternatively, online and offline activism co-occur with different types of actions (posting vs. protesting), but combine to form a more potent type of mutually reinforcing “hybrid activism” (Milosevic-Dordevic & Zezelj, 2017).  

Further analysis suggests that there may be an increasing connection between those who participate in online activism and advocacy, and offline civic and political participation. Research suggests this may be explained by the rise of social media platforms, more interactive websites, and new tools encouraging online political participation (Boulianne, 2020). A recent example which may exemplify this change is the March for Our Lives movement. Half of young people who were actively engaged in post-Parkland activism also reported they were extremely likely to vote, compared to just 34% of 18-24 year olds overall (CIRCLE, 2018). This suggests a synergetic relationship between online and offline advocacy and activism behaviors. However, as the internet has become inextricably entwined into the everyday lives of young people, the importance of online behaviors in offline advocacy and follow-through in voting must be studied further in order to truly understand the weight and implications for societal change.

One of the person-specific benefits of advocacy and activism for young people is the development of critical consciousness. Coined by Paulo Freire, critical consciousness includes the skills to analyze and act on oppressive and inequitable social structures and phenomena (Freire, 1973). Critical consciousness is protective and beneficial for youth, especially for youth experiencing oppression, and can be developed through engagement with community advocacy and action (Carey et al., 2021; Pinedo et al. 2024). Youth who participate in activist youth organizing groups may also be more likely to continue to participate in civic engagement and politics as they get older (Terriquez, 2015). 

It is clear that youth advocacy can benefit many facets of a young person’s life, but as much of this research has been conducted in offline settings, more research is needed to understand if similar benefits arise through online-only activism and advocacy.


Although online advocacy and activism have sometimes been criticized for the low engagement required for participation, it is clear that the lowering of barriers to participation has allowed for young people to quickly provide information and advocacy opportunities to others in online spaces such as social media platforms. While there is only a minority of young people engaging in online advocacy and action through structured organizational and political avenues, there is evidence to suggest that youth-led movements, like gun violence and climate change initiatives discussed here, are galvanizing many to post, share, and participate in advocacy and activism behaviors. 

Finally, while further research is needed to understand the connection between online and offline advocacy and activism actions of young people, there are signs that youth who find and engage with activism opportunities online are more likely to participate in social, civic, and political opportunities like organizing and voting. Given the rapid technological developments shifting the level of connection that can be cultivated online, there is clearly a need to continue researching the effects of online advocacy and action for adolescents and young adults to reflect their experiences within the modern digital landscape.

This research brief was written by Kaitlin Tiches, MLIS. For more information, please email us.


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