Building Your Research Paper on Cyber-Activism

[Reminder: the final research paper is due on Tuesday, 20 April, 2010 — in H-1125-11 between 4:00pm and 5:00pm, or sooner (deposit it in the departmental mailbox marked “Forte”). The paper is worth 35% of the final course grade. You should aim for a paper that does not exceed 2,500 words, or, generally 10 pages typed, double-spaced.]

First Steps: Done!

The good news is that you have already taken the first, and some of the most important steps. Indeed, a good part of your actual, final research paper has been written in different exercises thus far, which provide you with different components of your paper. In particular, these are the components you should be using in your final paper, to varying degrees:

  1. An obvious one: identifying the cause, campaign, or movement you are dealing with, and the specific activists who were at the focus of your research. This can be written into your introductory paragraph. This was from guided research exercise #1.
  2. Perhaps two paragraphs dealing with gaining access to the people at the centre of your research, and the difficulties posed by Twitter use. How difficult was it to gain familiarity with the “scene” or the “setting” of your research? Also describe the nature of your interactions with the specific persons you were following, and how you explained your research to them, and what their reactions were. This is largely from guided research exercise #3.
  3. An overview of the network formed by the persons you follow, who they “retweet” most often, who they converse with the most, and the extent to which the persons involved may be deemed “influential” — more “node” than “bridge.” Work done for guided research exercises #4 and #6 can be condensed here, and should probably not extend for more than 40% of your paper (charts and graphs will not be counted towards your overall word count).
  4. A description of the politics of the persons you follow, and the campaign with which they most closely identify, and for which they militate. This should not take up more than 20% of your paper, but it should be very well written, condensed, specific, precise, and accurate. Here we are referring to guided research exercise #5.

Next Steps:

The main work you have remaining could be described in the following way:

(a) Editing — piecing together your research exercises, and your research overall, into a cohesive whole, that makes sense;
(b) Further description — reproducing, when appropriate, samples of dialogues involving the persons you follow, either between them, or between you and (one of) them.
(c) Background — more on the political phenomenon you are ultimately studying, and here you should consult at least a handful of academic articles, not to mention any newspaper articles you may have/should have read about the political movement/group/cause at the centre of your research.
(d) Analysis — this is a critical part of the research paper, see more below.


Conceptualizing, interpreting, and explaining your case study is a very critical part of the research paper — it is hard to quantify as a component, as it could be woven into almost everything above. Some old-fashioned research papers are structured in terms of (a) the problem, (b) background, (c) methodology, (d) data/results, and (e) analysis. You are free to choose that format, and in that case it becomes easier to quantify the analytical component: about 30% of your paper.

When preparing your analysis, think of the many concepts we have already encountered in this course, in our discussions, in our assigned readings, on the course blog, and in our tweets — everything from the meanings of activism to the spinternet.

Think also of some of the problems, of analyses that may have over stated the role of Twitter, or misidentified its exact role in a protest movement, problems of verifiability, accountability, and the strange love-hate relationship between social media and old mass media (which themselves have become part of social media networks). If these issues and problems obviously relate to your case study, then you should discuss them.

Discuss the roles performed by the activists you followed in Twitter. In addition, think of the more complex issues:

  • How does Twitter use affect their political campaigning and strategizing?
  • Why do they use Twitter?
  • Does it do their cause any good?
  • How do their politics affect how they use the technology, and vice versa. How is their political work in Twitter, for example, structured by the Twitter phenomenon as a whole?
  • To what extent has the technology filtered out, or over emphasized, certain aspects of the broad political movement with which your activists identify?
  • How have they been able to use social media to react to, relate, or generate concrete effects “on the ground”?

In very broad terms, this should be an opportunity for you to reflect on what you have learned about politics, democracy, activism, and social media…and how these connect or conflict.


Our readings on cyber-activism provide us with a range of critical questions. You may think of many more questions to add to the list, or that emerge from your work (and, if so, they should appear in your paper). Some of the questions below will be very relevant (if so, address them in your analysis, and your conclusions), and some might be hardly relevant at all (use your judgment, avoid easy dismissals, but also avoid going for “the whole hog”). However, always remember this: because a particular reading was not specifically and empirically about your particular case study, that does not mean it was not relevant. Look at the larger analytical and interpretive issues our authors have struggled with…they may be more common to us all than you might have been willing to recognize. Hence, review readings, and review the ones you did independently of course.

Here are some of the questions that we encountered:

  • Do the activists you studied change your perceptions about how the Internet should be used?
  • How does the Internet assist those seeking political change?
  • How does the Internet affect political sentiment and political organizing?
  • Does the Internet empower activists, or is this an illusion?
  • Does the Internet connect activists to each other, to other agents and institutions, or does it further their disconnection?
  • Does cyber-activism amount to a lesser/inferior form of activism, compared to physical, on-the-streets type of political activism?
  • To what extent does the Internet create or not create activist opportunities?
  • Does the Internet represent a new political opportunity, a new political resource for activists, or is its impact marginal? What would the movement to which your study relates look like without the Internet?
  • Does the Internet overly maximize the role of individual action, while diminishing the collective?
  • What stands out more in your observations of activists using social media, that is: do they use it more for sharing, more for conversation, more for collaboration (and what does that entail), or more for collective action — and, depending on your answer, what does that tell you about activists’ engagement with social media and their relationship to their cause?


About Maximilian C. Forte

I am a professor of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. My areas of research and teaching interest are centered in Political Anthropology, with a focus on imperialism, neoliberalism and globalization, nationalism, democracy, and the international political economy of knowledge production.
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1 Response to Building Your Research Paper on Cyber-Activism

  1. While I am not part of this course nor am I submitting a paper, but I did read the web page and have a couple of questions that I pose in a paper I am writing called “The Right to Bear Cyber Arms”

    1. Does knowingly allowing your computer to be used as a bot in a botnet that attacks the critical infrastructure of the United States or any component of the government or military constitute taking up arms against the country?

    2. Given cyber weapons are now said to be categorized as weapons of mass destruction, is it illegal to create one or have one on your computer or on a CD?

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