It’s a great question, and a complicated one as you noted. Like any other keyword in academic research, this is a term with multiple definitions and a whole family of related keywords that various scholars and stakeholders prefer. But it’s definitely smart to spend time in your first year figuring out how the terms you’re studying have been defined.
Fortunately/unfortunately for you, the debates around this term are a focal point in my dissertation and part of my bone to pick with existing work on social movements and media, so here’s my long-winded answer:
In my understanding, “media activism” is used to mean two different but related things: 1) Individual or collective efforts to reform policies related to media, communication, and technology and/or expand access to these tools; and 2) Any individual or collective effort to create change using media. My interests tend toward the second, but there can be crossover between these types of media activism. For example, movements for net neutrality in the U.S. fall under #1, but if a group got together and launched a hashtag campaign for net neutrality, thereby calling on people to participate in a mediated form of protest, it would cross over into #2.
I am definitely not a media policy/media reform expert, so I can’t speak much more to the first definition. But as for the second definition, when it comes to the study of how media have been used for activist purposes, scholars have largely conceptualized media in one of two ways: 1) media as a resource to be mobilized in the pursuit of political work happening elsewhere (for example, using Facebook to tell people when and where a street protest is taking place); or 2) media as a political practice of activism in an of itself.
In my own work, I think of media as political practices. I’m interested in how feminist media-making, whether it’s a hashtag, a zine, or an underground newspaper from the 1970s, functions as a political action in and of itself, regardless of whether it produces other non-mediated actions elsewhere. For example, in my work, I’ve looked at how posting under a feminist hashtag like #MeToo works to shift the discourse surrounding sexual violence — a political act in its own right, even if it never produces other actions like street protests or policy efforts. I’ve also looked at how, for feminist activists here in Philly, the act of producing and circulating zines is a community-building practice, in which zine-makers and readers create a safe space for expression and connection. In my view, when scholars of movements and media treat media as only a resource or only a set of texts, they overlook how media have historically functioned as important spaces for political participation and how, behind-the-scenes, activists invest a great deal of thought and energy into creating a set of media tactics that reflects their values. Also, for researchers really invested in activist scholarship that is participatory and grounded in the movements they study, framing media as practices shifts the analysis toward the actual practitioners and their organizing work. When we approach media as resources, we only really need to look at media texts, not the people behind them.
The idea that media-making can function as a form of political activism may not sound like that much of a radical claim. I came into this work assuming that this argument was kind of common sense, based on my own experiences as an activist and also based on my background as an English major reading feminist literary theory about writing and expression as liberatory acts. But then I started getting pushback from sociologists, political scientists, and communication folks who either work from an understanding of what counts as “politics” that is rooted in the government and state-based institutions or from an understanding of political change that requires more immediate, concrete measures, such as numbers of policies passed or resources created. I soon learned that some classic works in social movement theory (much of which is rooted in sociology and political science), such as Contentious Politics by Charles Tilly and Sydney Tarrow, define activism/collective action/contentious politics (another set of debated keywords that all describe similar phenomena) as public-facing actions directed at the state. This is really problematic for U.S. feminists who have spent a lot of time using tactics that revolve around media, expression, and discourse to highlight the ways in which the personal can be political. In this framework, for example, #MeToo doesn’t count as political activism. So, in my work, I use a definition of media activism that frames media as political practices in and of themselves, to expand what “counts” as politics and activism and highlight the political dynamics of feminist media-making.
In case you’re looking for theoretical resources, I use Nick Couldry’s “media-as-practice” framework and I draw on Foucault’s concept of discourse, Stacey Young’s theory of discursive activism, and Patricia Hill-Collins’ work on rearticulation and black feminist thought to make the case for media as political practices. I also draw on counterpublic theory (Nancy Fraser and Michael Warner) and theories of prefigurative politics (Francesca Polletta) to talk about how the act of media-making can produce communities that reflect the type of world or society activists are trying to build — again, a form of political work, even if it’s not directed at the state or policy creation.
This annotated bibliography Betty, Jasmine, and I worked on with Guobin may also be useful. We used to the phrase “activist media,” rather than "media activism," to signal our focus on how media are used for activist purposes.
And finally, for your Google Scholar search term purposes, and to highlight the fact that we are still trying to articulate what, exactly, media activism is, here are some descriptions scholars have placed before “media" to talk about media activism/activist media: “alternative," “citizens’,” “radical,” “community,” “civil society,” “critical,” “tactical,” “autonomous,” “rhizomatic,” “small,” “our,” and “DIY” media.
I hope this is helpful! Thanks for giving me the time to nerd out a bit here, and let me know if you ever want to chat more in person about this area of research.