The environmental movement has long advocated in response to mounting concerns about global warming. However, in 2020, the climate movement faced a new challenge as the world confronted a second emergency: the global COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Yet, while life virtually stopped, climate activism did not. Instead, it moved online. This study aims to answer, ‘Did digital organizing lead to transnational advocacy during the 2020 lockdown?’ To answer this question, the study compares the online experiences of Italian activists from FFF and XR during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown with the definition of transnational advocacy established by Margret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink. I find that online organizing returns two out of the three characteristics of transnational advocacy. While activists, bonded by shared information, deepened transnational networks, activism shifted from an organizational pursuit to an individual experience. Without their organizational resources, activists did not collectively frame and thereby channel their message to target international actors or issues. Therefore, online organizing in lockdown lead partially to transnational advocacy.
The environmental movement has long advocated in response to mounting concerns about global warming. In the last few years, thanks to successful campaigns by social movement organizations (SMO) like Fridays For Future (FFF) and Extinction Rebellion (XR), millions more have taken up the call globally. Large SMOs like FFF and XR have uniquely scaled across borders into a transnational movement to address climate change. These organizations inspired their supporters to strike, coordinating in person marches internationally. However, in 2020, these movements faced a new challenge as the world confronted a second global emergency. In December 2019, when the contagious coronavirus spread across the world, strict lockdown measures precluded activists from gathering in person. In a matter of weeks, the COVID-19 crisis brought about the most severe suppression of personal freedoms in a European country since World War II. 1 Yet while life has virtually stopped, climate activism did not, instead it moved online. Yet, the impacts of the pandemic on the transnational strength of the climate movement remains to be seen. In this unique new reality, this study aims to examine: Does digital organizing lead to transnational advocacy?
Online organizing has been categorized as a "new power," made by many, open, participatory, and peer-driven. 2 Online organizing can be a powerful tool to channel information to address international challenges. Whereas Margret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink in Activists Beyond Borders define transnational advocacy as dependent on transnational networks organized to promote principled ideas. 3 These networks, bonded by sharing information across sovereign borders, target international actors and tackle international issues. To understand if online organizing led to transnational advocacy, I surveyed 10 youth Italian activists 4 from FFF and XR. The interviews were conducted in two rounds. The first in March 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown and the second between July and August 2020. Living at the epicenter of the initial European outbreak, these activists provide significant insight on digital Italian climate advocacy and its implications for transnational movements when personal freedoms were restricted. I find that while online organizing during lockdown enhanced transnational networks, activism has shifted from an organizational pursuit to an individual experience. Without the organization and resources normally provided by SMOs, activists are unable to collectively frame and thereby channel their message successfully to target international actors and issues. Therefore, the new form of online organizing in the wake of lockdown leads to transnational networks. Yet, activism in lockdown did not yield a coordinated or renewed international target or issue. In this way, digital activism during the COVID-19 crisis only partially led to transnational advocacy.
Prior to the 2020 COVID lockdown, the Italian environmental movement grew substantially. In the early 2000s, Italian climate activists focused largely on delaying infrastructural projects like No Treno ad Alta Velocità (TAV), a movement against a proposed tunnel connecting Italy and France via high-speed train. However, in 2018, organizations like FFF and XR united environmental activists with a new wave of energized youth galvanized in part by FFF’s founder Greta Thunberg.5 Online tools became common in this most recent iteration climate activism. 6 In this context, online organizing allowed activists to broadcast their decisions to participate in actions and increase the number of interested people. 7 For example, FFF quickly scaled up online from Greta Thunberg’s original Friday school strikes to an international movement. In 2019 alone, FFF organized four Global Climate Strikes on March 15, May 24, September 20-27, and November 29. The notable September strike reached a reported 185 countries with over 6,000 events and 7.6 million participants - the largest global protest to date. 8
While keeping these global developments in mind, both FFF and XR claim to be nonhierarchical organizations where every chapter and its members have substantial autonomy. Each FFF and XR local chapter, delegated members to coordinate between local, Italian, and international chapters.9 Yet despite being international movements, none of the activists spoke about global networks as integral parts of their local SMO actions pre-lockdown. Instead, their local organizational allegiance was evident and FFF or XR would frequently collaborate with city-specific networks like a coalition of climate SMOs "Milano per il clima." 10 For XR, this localized structure is imbued in their organization as each chapter is subdivided into smaller groups that autonomously create goals or focus areas. 11 Before the lockdown, the local FFF and XR chapters remained focused on local mobilization and decision-making.
Likewise, in person organizing methods remained important before the lockdown. XR’s and FFF’s pre-lockdown mobilization efforts were held almost exclusively offline. For example, XR Bologna held an aperitivo weekly to integrate new members.12 Although like FFF, XR activists reported that they relied on social media to publicize their mobilization efforts, one XR member stated that the clear majority of newcomers to the introduction events had in-person invitations. 13 XR also held a variety of small online activities mostly for the purposes of mobilization of new members, publicizing events to the community, and information sharing between members. Similarly, while FFF excelled at employing online methods for a high turnout at low-risk events like the Climate Strikes, face to face and in person invites persisted as the most useful technique to garner turnout. One study found less than 3% of students and 20% of adults came without an in-person invitation. 14 Pre-lockdown, the local FFF and XR chapters used mixed online and offline activism, yet in-person was highly favored and resulted in higher rates of physical engagement. In contrast, online mobilization techniques were employed for passive national and international engagement and communications.
Transnational Networks in Lockdown
In lockdown, online activism became obligatory. In this unique reality, activists retreated to the online space to communicate, share, and continue their operations. Contrasting how local FFF and XR chapters adapted to mandatory online organizing, this study aims to deduce if these organizations’ new online activism translated into transnational advocacy. In the lockdown, digital advocacy advanced one out of the three components of Keck and Sikkink’s transnational advocacy: the transnational network.
As all interactions moved online, the importance of location diminished while national networks grew. Some activists identified the absence of physical presence as an opportunity to involve new community members, especially those outside urban centers, which often host chapters. 15 The lack of physical distance encouraged investment in existing networking channels. More specifically as social movement scholar Jen Schradie underlines, digital presence flattened communication networks, reduced the costs of membership and coordination, and thus increased the possibility for participation.16 Schradie’s conclusion follows the academic consensus that online organizing presents new opportunities to create networks, as informal contacts can be scaled up to rally around a shared goal.17 In March the lack of physical activity aided mobilization efforts. A weekly onboarding meeting organized by the national XR Italy had over 1,100 people interested on Facebook each week. Whereas the comparable weekly event prior to the local down between October 2019 – January 2020 attracted only about 60 attendees interested on average. One XR activist stated, "We find ourselves in a limited, but also unlimited space." 18 Activists agreed that their networks were expanding given the new online space.
These growing networks carried new information sharing capacity and methods. FFF Italy created a new campaign, "Cameretta Tour," where various celebrities spoke about climate issues on their Instagram. Furthermore, a particularly successful FFF venture named "Quarantena for Future" expanded the SMO’s national site to function as a database of books, TV, film, and other materials on climate change. Activists from XR also spoke to the increase in information sharing with weekly online workshops and articles to enrich their supporters’ knowledge on the environmental movement.19 XR expanded their ‘empathy circles,’ a structured dialogue covering politics, identity, and climate.20 In the lockdown, these circles expanded past their normal confines and included members from peripheral locations whose participation was reinforced by shared information. When limited to the online space, information sharing became the principal action of SMOs. Consequentially, transnational networks are characterized not only by their growth out from their local origin, but by information sharing, which forms the core of the advanced network. 21
Networks were further developed transnationally. Unable to protest on February 28, 2020, FFF Milan decided to post their strike online. On March 13, 2020, the digital strike grew from Milan nationwide and the subsequent week, Greta Thunberg launched the digital strike internationally as the world began to face the same predicament as Milan had weeks before. Supporters posted photos of themselves holding protest signs on social media, sharing information, articles, and thoughts, coining the hashtag #DigitalStrike. This online action grew as a direct result of the pandemic. In the first weeks of the lockdown, activists saw a surge the use of #DigitalStrike. Unlike physical protests, FFF extended its reach quickly online through easily digestible content. Keck and Sikkink assert that framing, through a collective identity, which employs a higher level of organizational resources, is the mechanism by which transnational networks can channel information sharing to influence international issues and target international actors. Functionally, framing an issue is the relationship between the movements’ interpretive work and its ability to influence broader public understanding. 22 A common action frame, such as #DigitalStrike, is key to "broker and bridge organizational differences" to expand beyond local borders and create resonance with audiences. 23 Furthermore, some members autonomously participated in international calls organized by the United Nations with dozens of activists globally. In these calls, activists not only shared ideas for actions, but also exchanged information about their countries’ responses to the pandemic. 24 These calls can be characterized as a ‘frame bridging operation:’ a strategic tool that allows one issue to be translated into a different context, vital to create a "common frame mechanism" to unite the cultural diversity implicit in transnational advocacy.25 Uninhibited by physical mobilization, transnational networks developed in lockdown.
Decoupling Activism from SMO
Employing this digital "new power" to accomplish a transnational goal requires organizational hierarchy and resources. The most successful organizations use online tools to mobilize more participants as well as offline tools to invest and develop the capabilities of the members. 26 What ultimately distinguished organizers was their ability to recognize the members’ individual drive for action is based on the intra-organizational relationships. 27 Organizers are successful because of their hierarchical organizational system that keeps members accountable and thus systemized. However, the organizers identified as the linchpin for successful online organizing by scholars was precisely what was missing from the lockdown space. Instead, organizations and their members were decoupled, which obstructed the path from online organizing to transnational advocacy.
As physical location became a prohibited component of engagement, the online space flattened and decoupled individuals from their organizational allegiance. The principal action online, information sharing, was not done collectively, but instead individually. These personalized and often technologically enabled interactions that define Bennett and Segerberg’s ‘connective networks’ revealed that casual online relationships and information sharing were inherently individual endeavors. The logic of connective action is common online where formal organizations play a smaller role and are replaced by large-scale, fluid social networks. Centrally, these connective action networks are dependent on content in the form of personalized ideas on the campaign theme.28 Each post of the #DigitalStrike or attendance to a workshop was an independent venture that did not require a long-term or previous engagement with the formal SMO. Instead, individualized online organizing allowed participants to create and sustain various and diversified identities as opposed to stagnant group membership.
The online space that at the beginning of lockdown was marked with online workshops by SMOs and transformation of their organizations’ physical activities gave way to decentralized actions, decoupled from their previous institutional banner. During a second round of interviews, many activists revealed that they had stopped participating in collective action and instead focused on varied individual projects. In the online space, the definition of a member to these organizations blurred with attendees performing the same action. For example, while several FFF activists in Milan kept ties with others in their SMO, some began a specialized organization with an action-oriented mission. During the pandemic, they volunteered as aids for the elderly confined to their homes. Still others broke ties completely with their SMOs citing the limited use of their organization as their message could be spread online easily without organizational resources.29 One FFF member claimed that activists became "not entrepreneurs, but intra-preneurs," meaning they were looking inward for self-reflection rather than strategic communication with their organization. 30 Hanrie Han characterizes this type of activist as a lone wolf who is set apart by their knowledge accumulation and individual activism, only strategizing scantly with other members of the organization. 31 Consequentially, the ambition of activists had separated from the communal issues and targets of their transnational organizations.
The central hindrance of connective action is that it favors short term, voluntary engagement over the creation of a collective frame that inspires long-term, transitional action or targeting. While transnational networks have emerged with the influx of shared information, individuals have become decoupled from the organizational resources, vital for long-term collective framing. This failure to create a collective frame denotes a lack of strategic organization to generate politically usable information. 32 Following, participation in the #DigitalStrike has declined since March 2020. Academics claim that although online community is the largest source of new ideas and information, these causal ties seldom directly lead to high risk or committed activism. 33 This decline was echoed in participation rates in XR, who without a comparable online campaign to #DigitalStrike, saw their onboarding numbers sharply decrease in the Summer. 34 Moreover, the transnational ground that was gained in lockdown was not accessible to all activists. Schradie affirms that the "individualized internet cannot combat institutionalized marginalization." 35 For example, new international dialogues were underscored as independently sought out and separate from their SMOs precisely because of the lack of organizational affiliation and English language barrier. 36 Importantly, while the online space yields new frontiers for greater reach, the digital activism cultivated in lockdown, without collective action frames supporting transnational goals or targets, falls short of Keck and Sikkink’s definition of transnational activism.
The unique reality of online organizing in lockdown demonstrated the casualties between the digital space and transnational advocacy. In pre-lockdown, both FFF and XR enjoyed a mixed mobilization technique utilizing both offline and online tools. In lockdown, the landscape changed. Transnational networks blossomed from increased information sharing brought about by digital organization. 37 However, sharing information was simply not enough to warrant transnational advocacy, which only follows when transnational networks manage to channel information to address issues or target international actors. Principally this partial realization of transnational advocacy was a consequence of the separation between SMOs and their members. The SMOs restricted in lockdown to an online world are left with only connective networks foraged by personal, individualized frames for their messages to address climate change. Individuals are no longer tied to organizational resources or strategies, which developed their capacities for framing their messaging aboard. Without successful organizational management or tools, participation faltered, and mobilization of new members dwindled. Individuals are framing their messaging from their own personal perspective, rather than coordinating with their SMO to form a cohesive collective action frame. Therefore, while information sharing enabled transnational networks, the climate activism of these local groups did not manage to coherently address international actors or issues. In conclusion, apart from transnational networks, digital organizing during the COVID-19 did not lead to transnational advocacy.
1. Donadio, R. (2020). "Italy Shut Down. Which Country Will Be Next?", The Atlantic. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/03/italy-coronavirus-covid19-restrictions-democracy/607729/(Accessed on: 14 November 2020).
2. Heimans, J. & Timms, H. (2014). "Understanding "New Power," Harvard Business Review Online.
3. Keck, M.E. & Sikkink, K.(1998). "Introduction", in Activists Beyond Borders. Cornell: Cornell University Press, p. 5.
4. The individuals interviewed ranged from the ages of 20 to 32.
5. Somma, N.M. & Medel, R.M. (2019). "What makes a big demonstration? Exploring the impact of mobilization strategies on the size of demonstrations", Social Movement Studies,18(2), pp. 233-251.
6. Hestres, L.E. (2015). "Climate Change Advocacy Online: Theories of Change, Target Audiences, and Online Strategy", Environmental Politics, 24 (2), pp. 193–211.
8. Chase-Dunn, C. & Almeida, P. (2020). Global Struggles and Social Change, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; de Moor, J., Katrin U., Wahlström, M.,Wennerhag, M. & De Vydt, M. (eds.) (2020). Protest for a future II: Composition, mobilization and motives of the participants in Fridays For Future climate protests on 20-27 September, 2019, in 19 cities around the world.
9. Interview with FFF Activist 3, Interview with XR Activist 3.
10. Interview with FFF 1, 3, XR Activist 2.
11. Interview with XR Activist 2.
12. Interview with XR Activist 2.
13. Interview with XR Activist 1.
14. Della Porta, D. (2005). "Multiple Belongings, Flexible Identities and The Construction Of "Another Politics": Between the European Social Forum and The Local Social For a", Transnational Protest and Global Activism, Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, pp. 175–202.
15. Interview with XR Activist 3.
16. Schradie, J. (2019). The Revolution that Wasn’t, How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives, Harvard University Press: Harvard.
17. Kahler, M. (2009). "Introduction", In Networked Politics: Agency, Power, and Governance, edited by Miles Kahler, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, pp. 1-20.; Slaughter, A.M. (2017). The Chessboard and the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World, New Haven: Yale University Press.; Owen, T. (2015). Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age, New York: Oxford University Press.
18. Interview with XR Activist 3. Translated from original: "ci ritroviamo in uno spazio limitato e allo stesso momento illimitato"
19. Interview with XR Activist 2, Interview with XR Activist 3.
20. Empathy Circle Website
21. Keck, M.E. & Sikkink, K., 1998.
22. Keck & Sikkink, 1998.
23. Ibid.; Bennett & Segerberg, 2012.
24. Interview with XR Activist 2, 3; Interview with FFF Activist 3.
25. Snow, D. A., Rochford, B.Jr., Worden, S. K. & Benford, R. D. (1986). "Frame alignment processes, micromobilization, and movement participation", American Sociological Review, 51, pp. 464–481; Snow, D. A. & Benford, R. D. (1988). "Ideology, frame resonance, and participant mobilization", International Social Movement Research, 1, pp. 197–217; Keck & Sikkink, 1998; Benford, R. D. & Snow, D. A. (2000). "Framing processes and social movements: an overview and an assessment", Annual Review of Sociology, 26, pp. 611–639.
26. Han, 2014.
29. Interview with XR Activist 2, 3; Interview with FFF Activist 3.
30. Interview with FFF Activist 2.
31. Han, H. (2017). "Want Gun Control? Learn From the N.R.A",New York Times, 4 October.
32. Keck and Sikkink, 1998.
33. Hestres, L.E. (2015). "Climate Change Advocacy Online: Theories of Change, Target Audiences, and Online Strategy", Environmental Politics, 24 (2), pp. 193–211.
34. Interview XR Activist 2.
35. Schradie, 2019, p.18.
36. Interview with FFF Activist 1, XR Activist 3.
37. Keck & Sikkink, 1998