Social Movement Networks

 in Internet Discourse*

Christine Petit

Department of Sociology

University of California-Riverside

Riverside, CA 92521

Presented at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association, San Francisco, August 17, 2004. IROWS Working Paper #25 available at  3425 words

 * Special thanks to the late Tieting Su for introducing me to this method and for his encouragement. He is deeply missed. Also, many thanks to Christopher Chase-Dunn, Robert Hanneman and Ellen Reese for their help and input.


According to world-systems perspective, the United States' hegemonic power is waning. This decline raises questions about what kinds of global political and social changes will occur in the future. Questions regarding global governance and the possibility of global democracy are of specific concern. Currently, many social movements are organized around human rights under a variety of platforms (i.e., labor, indigenous rights). It is my contention that the need for transnational multi-issue movements is evident in the struggle for global democracy. The Internet is an important resource for the mobilization of mass global movements because it allows for quick and broad dissemination of information. For this reason, I chose to examine how social movements are connected through Internet discourse. Using Google, an Internet search engine, I examined the frequency in which several social movements and pairings of such movements occur in web discourse. Further, I looked at how movements are linked to one another utilizing network analysis methods. This research contributes to social movement theory by examining the possibility for coalition building via social movement networks and the role of the Internet in such networks.



Introduction: Social Movements and the World-System

            It becomes increasingly important to study transnational social movements as we enter a point in time when social change seems inevitable. World-systems analysis predicts the decline of United States hegemony and a transitional period that will ensue in the next 25-50 years. Following a historical pattern, this time of transition will most likely be bloody and chaotic until a new order is found under the influence of the next hegemonic power. Still others predict the end of the world-system altogether.

            Wallerstein (1999) asserts that while we cannot predict what will happen in the future, it is important for people to think about what type of world they would like to see. It is clear that Wallerstein is hoping for a system that would be egalitarian and democratic in the broadest senses. He alludes to the possibility of a better world but posits that in order for this to happen we must be “ready to invest our moral energies in its achievement, and … struggle with those who, under whatever guise and for whatever excuse, prefer an inegalitarian, undemocratic world. (4)”

            Following a similar path, Chase-Dunn and Boswell (2002) envision a global society that moves beyond borders and works toward a more equitable solution for all humanity. Chase-Dunn and Boswell look at local movements for examples of the strides that have been made but see them as limited in scope. One cannot truly change conditions by only focusing on the local. According to Chase-Dunn and Boswell, “Global democracy means real economic, political and cultural rights and influence for the majority of the world’s people over the local and global institutions that affect their lives (10).” Global democracy requires that local and national states be democratic and the development of democratic institutions of global governance. Chase-Dunn and Boswell assert that global democracy does not call for the centralization of all things but sees the need for a democratic global government to enforce law and regulate issues of inequality, environmental degradation, population pressure, and peace.

So, Why Use the Internet to Study Social Movements?

            Since its popularization, the Internet has been scrutinized and evaluated regarding its usefulness for sociologists. Kling (1997) argues that utilizing the Internet in a variety of capacities can strengthen sociology as a discipline. He highlights its importance as an effective means of communication and dissemination of information as well as a research medium. In terms of research, Kling notes that the Internet is especially helpful for those interested in researching social behavior in computer networks. He also acknowledges that sociologists are exploring the possibility of using the Internet as a medium for the systematic collection of data. The current study is part of this explorative process.

            Although the utility of the Internet as a research tool for sociologists is still under examination and the development of Internet-based research methods is ongoing, the Internet has proven to be an effective organizational tool for social movements. This is demonstrated in its key role in the mobilization of solidarity actions around the globe, including international days of protest. The anti-war demonstrations that took place during the weekend of February 14-16, 2003 are an example of a global movement in which people from over 60 countries took part. The magnitude and rapid development of this movement has been attributed to the Internet because it was used to disseminate information widely and quickly in order to coordinate global protest action. Further, in examining protest around multilateral economic institutions (MEI) (e.g. World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization), Wood (2003) found that countries, regions, and groups that have little access to the Internet or transnational activist organizations are less likely to hold anti-MEI protest events. Also note-worthy is the Internet's role in the coordination of the annual World Social Forum and thematic and regional social forums therein.

            In addition to existing social movement organizations going online to publicize protest information, the emergence of “e-movements” and new forms of “e-protest” and “e-activism” (Earl & Schussman 2003) suggests the importance of the Internet as an organizational tool for those interested in social change. Of specific interest is the role of leadership and decision-making. In their interviews with webmasters of strategic voting sites, Earl and Schussman found an emphasis on the needs of website users (i.e., issues of privacy, legal concerns, and ease of use) whereas leadership was downplayed. They attributed this difference to the role of members in social movement organizations versus users in e-movements.

            Relating this to pre-existing social movements that have gone online and the emergence of transnational social movement networks, one can see how the Internet assists social movement networks in overcoming problems of leadership and decision-making. Castells (2000) notes that in the past, large, centralized apparatuses usually outperformed networks in the mobilization of resources and completion of specific tasks. However, Castells argues that the Internet gives “networks the capacity to decentralize and adapt the execution of tasks, while coordinating purpose and decision making.” He believes that the transformative power of the Internet will allow networks to outperform centered, hierarchical forms of organization. Similarly, Chase-Dunn and Boswell (2002) contend that the Internet can facilitate the coordination and integration of movements favoring global democracy. They write, "The liberated potential of decentered and democratized communication is great" (6). While they see this as a possibility, they also assert that the Internet could further differentiate political mobilization. In general, Chase-Dunn and Boswell agree that the Internet has liberatory potential but believe that the conditions of globalized capitalism will ultimately prompt movement integration.

            As social movements go online, sociologists interested in studying them follow. Almeida and Lichbach (2003) compare activist-based Internet data with four conventional media sources in their coverage of the late 1999 anti-WTO protests. Findings in Almeida and Lichbach's study suggest that activist-based websites report higher numbers of transnational protest events than traditional media outlets. They are also less positively influenced by intensity properties (i.e., violence, large numbers of participants, et cetera) than mainstream media. Although Almeida and Lichbach detail some limitations of activist-based Internet data, such as the variability of content and the necessity to confirm event occurrence, they ultimately highlight the usefulness of such data to social movement analysts.

            While sociologists, such as Almeida and Lichbach, have used the Internet to gain insight on social movements, little research has been done to examine social movement networks via the Internet. Although different, Starr's (2001) work most closely resembles the current research. Starr examines fifteen movements that fall under the umbrella of anti-corporatism. Using the world wide web, alternative press, organizational documents, and participant observation to collect data, Starr looks at how each movement understands its enemy and its vision for change. Additionally, and relevant to the current research, Starr uses network methods to illustrate the connections between the anti-corporate movements.

            The current study seeks to examine networks among a wide variety of movements from the left. This study charters new territory in its attempt to examine the representation of social movements in global culture through the Internet search engine, Google. The existence of or potential for collaboration among social movements is the focus of this research.






            Data was collected on July 28, 2004 using Google, an Internet search engine. First, 19 social movement categories were entered into Google's search engine using quotes to restrict the results. This provides us with the total number of websites that contain each movement category as part of its content. For example, I typed in the phrase “civil rights movement” and noted the number of websites containing that text. The social movements included in this analysis and the total number of websites each movement was mentioned in are shown in descending order in table 1.

Table 1

Total Numbers from Google Search of Social Movements


civil rights movement                 572,000

labor/labour movement 400,000

peace/anti-war movement         382,000

women's/feminist movement      266,000

environmental movement           146,000

socialist movement                      52,000

communist movement                  40,000

gay rights movement                   37,100

human rights movement   36,500

anti-globalization movement        30,300

anarchist movement                    25,100

national liberation movement       16,300

global justice movement              11,500

slow food movement                   10,500

indigenous movement                    8,090

fair trade movement                      8,080

trade justice movement     6,750

sovereignty movement       5,310

anti-corporate movement              1,780




            While table 1 shows the prevalence of individual social movement categories, my primary concern is examining the amount of overlap between movements and the potential for coalition building among them. In order to do this, I conducted Google searches that involved pairings of social movements, for example, “civil rights movement” and “labor movement.” This was done for every possible pair in the matrix. Due to space limitations, only a portion (the first five movements) of this matrix is shown in table 2.

Table 2

The First Five Cases in the Social Movement Overlap Matrix


                                                            Total                (1)        (2)        (3)        (4)        (5)

(1) civil rights movement                       572,000                       11,200 10,600 12,000   4,550

(2) labor movement                              400,000           11,200               9,260   6,410   3,190

(3) peace/anti-war movement                382,000           10,600    9,260              5,690   3,670

(4) women's/feminist movement 266,000           12,000    6,410  5,690               3,000

(5) environmental movement                 146,000             4,550    3,190  3,670   3,000





            The next step was to turn the raw data into percentages. To do this, I divided the amount of overlap by each movement’s initial total number. This new matrix is asymmetric because the total numbers for each movement is different; thus making the amount of overlap different from the movement it is paired with. The percent matrix for the first five movements is shown in table 3.

Table 3

The First Five Cases in the Percentage Matrix


                                                            (1)        (2)        (3)        (4)        (5)

(1) civil rights movement                       0.00%  1.96%  1.85%  2.10%  0.80%

(2) labor movement                              2.80%  0.00%  2.32%  1.60%  0.80%

(3) peace/anti-war movement                2.77%  2.42%  0.00%  1.49%  0.96%

(4) women's/feminist movement 4.51%  2.41%  2.14%  0.00%  1.13%

(5) environmental movement                 3.12%  2.18%  2.51%  2.05%  0.00%





            The next step was to construct matrices that indicate significant social movement overlap for network analyses. Here the question of what would constitute significant overlap arose. I ended up choosing four cutting points to indicate high, medium, low and very low overlap. To do this, I looked at the distribution of values in the percent matrix by constructing a frequency chart (see chart 1). Nine to 14 percent constitutes high overlap. Five percent and above is considered medium overlap and three percent and above falls under low overlap. Finally, two percent and above corresponds to very low overlap. Table 4 shows the very low overlap adjacency matrix for the first five movements.

Table 4

The First Five Cases in the Very Low Overlap Adjacency Matrix


                                                            (1)        (2)        (3)        (4)        (5)

(1) civil rights movement                       0          0          0          1          0

(2) labor movement                              1          0          1          0          0

(3) peace/anti-war movement                1          1          0          0          0

(4) women's/feminist movement 1          1          1          0          0

(5) environmental movement                 1          1          1          1          0




            In order to examine relations between social movements, network methods were used. Specifically, this study looks at the cliques found in this social movement network. A clique is a maximal subnetwork containing three or more actors that are all connected to each other.


Only one high overlap clique was detected. This clique is comprised of the:

·        peace, anti-globalization, and anti-corporate movements.

In terms of medium overlap, three additional cliques were found. The cliques are as follows:

·        labor movement, socialist movement, communist movement

·        labor movement, anti-globalization movement, anti-corporate movement

·        peace/anti-war movement, anti-globalization movement, fair trade movement

Looking at low overlap, seven additional cliques emerge:

·        labor movement, anti-globalization movement, anarchist movement

·        labor movement, anti-globalization movement, global justice movement

·        labor movement, communist movement, national liberation movement

·        civil rights movement, women's/feminist movement, gay rights movement

·        peace/anti-war movement, anti-globalization movement, global justice movement

·        peace/anti-war movement, socialist movement, communist movement

·        peace/anti-war movement, communist movement, national liberation movement

Regarding very low overlap, the size and structure of the cliques changed. The ten very low overlap cliques are as follows:

·        labor movement, peace/anti-war movement, women's/feminist movement, environmental movement, anti-globalization movement

·        labor movement, peace/anti-war movement, women's/feminist movement, anti-globalization movement, anarchist movement

·        labor movement, peace/anti-war movement, anti-globalization movement, global justice movement, anti-corporate movement

·        labor movement, peace/anti-war movement, socialist movement, communist movement, national liberation movement

·        labor movement, peace/anti-war movement, socialist movement, anarchist movement

·        civil rights movement, labor movement, peace/anti-war movement, women's/feminist movement, environmental movement

·        civil rights movement, labor movement, peace/anti-war movement, global justice movement, anti-corporate movement

·        peace/anti-war movement, environmental movement, anti-globalization movement, fair trade movement

·        civil rights movement, women's/feminist movement, human rights movement

·        civil rights movement, women's/feminist movement, gay rights movement[1]



Internet as a Research Tool for Social Movement Networks

            Because this study has few prior examples to work off and expand upon, it has largely been a methodological exercise. Thus the use of the Internet must be examined as it relates to this study.

            Concerns around Internet research pertinent to the current study are issues of content and generalizability. One limitation related to content is the epistemological insensitivity of search engines (Kling 1997). Rather than reflecting the research criteria for the study, such as how movements are linked through discourse or the actual collaborative work among movements, search engines rank documents based upon syntactic criteria. For example, when I conducted Google searches on the "women's movement" and "labor movement" combined, the pages retrieved were quite mixed. These pages included an article about coalition building between the women's and labor movements, textbook advertisements, information about the Rural Women's Worker Movement in Brazil, book chapters, interviews, sociology course descriptions, publicity for speakers, et cetera. Looking at the numbers alone, one is unable to know the content of each reported website and to pinpoint exactly how the movements are linked to one another within the context of each site.  In order to determine how these movements are linked through Internet discourse, pages containing information on social movement networks of interest will be sampled and analyzed.

            Issues of generalizability are related to representativeness. Limitations to representativeness in the current study are Internet accessibility, English as the research language, and search syntax. Castells (2000) notes the increasing number of Internet users; "248 million users currently, in 2000; 700 million projected by the end of 2001; 2 billion by 2007" (694). However, the Internet is not equally accessible to the world's population. Thus, it follows that social movements prevalent or emerging in those regions of the world with little or no access to the Internet (mainly peripheral countries) are less likely to appear in Internet discourse. Starr (2001) raises related issues in her examination of anti-corporate social movement networks. Of her research she writes, "This is an attempt to document, from the United States, an international movement, using sources available in English that have been transferred to electronic media and coincidentally match my conceptual encodings" (xiii). The current study is operating from a similar framework. The use of English excludes many sources and creates research that can be critiqued as Euro and/or core centric. Additionally, the specific syntax used to examine the presence of each movement may limit the results. For example, the use of "labor movement" may exclude related movements operating under different names or relevant websites that do not employ the specified wording. However, I did make an attempt to be as inclusive as possible in my search criteria. For example, searching for "labor movement" or "labour movement".

            Also connected to the generalizability of this study is the extent to which Internet reality reflects social reality. That is, how do social movement networks on the Internet translate into actual coalitions and cooperation between social movements? Castells (1989) notes the importance of the Internet, which he sees as a society that transcends place, as an organizational tool. "While organizations are located in places, and their components are place-dependent, the organizational logic is placeless, being fundamentally dependent on the space of flows that characterizes information networks. ...The more organizations depend, ultimately, upon flows and networks, the less they are influenced by the social context associated with the places of their location" (169-170). Although Castells is referring to the global economy in this work, parallels to social movement organizations can be made. In his trilogy, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture (1996, 1997 and 1998), Castells argues that the Information Age is more than a catchphrase, rather it is a historical reality.

            Unlike Castells, Starr (2001) does not promote the Internet as a "new society" or social reality. In her study, she shies away from defending the Internet as a research device. Instead, she notes that it was used to expand her search for anti-corporate movements without the aim of representativeness. Starr presents this as a somewhat haphazard process. "The web provided a glimpse of this emerging movement in its institutionalized, technology-wielding instances those who have the resources to present themselves on the web) and who appeared through some happy coincidence of their and my articulations" (xiii). Starr acknowledges that the discourse examined in her study is different than the action taken by movements in connection with one another.

            In examining the presence of social movement networks in Internet discourse, the current study also recognizes a difference between discourse and action. Future research should be conducted to examine if similar networks exist among actual social movement organizations and how coalition building can be facilitated.




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[1] Also present as a low overlap clique.