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The reality of social media activism

By Mariana Goncalves – Member of the Street Law Project

Modern day activism is distinctly different from what it once was; the Civil Rights Movement saw the emergence of more traditional activism, which sparked protests, marches, and policy changes. However, today’s activism occurs predominantly online, using social media to incite this hunger for change. The #MeToo movement and the Black Lives Matter movement are two instances of movements that grew and gained dominance through the act of posting pictures, videos, and posts of speeches that highlighted the horror and demand for change in society. Due to the use of social media, these events turned into violent protests and marches that served as a tangible manifestation of the outrage and demand for change expressed by people’s anger.

Online protest or cause advocacy through social media is known as social media activism. As a result of hashtags and viral posts it created crucial significance in social media movement mobilisation; through hashtags, postings, and campaigns, social media activism involves raising awareness of social justice concerns and demonstrating solidarity. Real social media activism is backed up by demonstrable commitments to change, donations, and practical activities.[1]

Social media activism was first seen in the early 2010s with the Arab Spring movement, where social media played a big role, enabling its citizens to share information and express their dissatisfaction with their political situation and show what has really happened in real time during the uprisings. Not only was the Arab Spring movement a successful from of social media activism but also, the Ice Bucket challenge helped raise millions and awareness to the research of ALS by individuals posting themselves getting cold water poured on them.

With the rise of social media activism, the term ‘Slacktivism’ started to appear, ‘Slacktivism’ is defined as “the self-deluded idea that by liking, sharing, or retweeting something you are helping out”[2]. Academics such as Kristofferson et al have compared slacktivism with moral licensing, i.e., once an individual has performed a moral deed, for example, liking or sharing a post about a social injustice happening; they feel relieved in the need of performing further moral deeds, such as engaging in offline activism[3]. This is something that many people fall victim of, feeling that posting on social media would fulfil their moral duties, leading them to stop engaging in more effective activism, i.e., offline activism such as signings petitions, marches, donating and protests.

However social media activism does not always result in slacktivism; movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo are examples of social injustice activism that originated online and eventually spread to offline actions including marches and protests. Nevertheless, even how “successful” the Black Lives Matter movement was in creating a big momentum offline it did not occur without their flaws, this can be seen in the use #blackouttuesday as a caption while posting a black picture. This usage of social media creates the issue of ‘trends’, this then results with many individuals posting because they feel the ‘need’ to mimic and not because they really feel a genuine need to create awareness or to bring about change[4]. Many argue while the majority took part in #blackouttuesday in wanting to bring real awareness to the Black Lives Matter Movement; what happened was the viral hashtag redirected attention from activists using the hashtag that documented racial violence by the police and informed people about the upcoming demonstrations[5].

Yes, social media activism does work when people are willing to go beyond the hashtag and engage in a more traditional form of activism. Is not to say that social media activism without offline activism is completely useless; sharing, liking posts and tweeting creates a wider awareness of the social injustice occurring in every single part of the work. This can be seen through what is going on in Iran, without the presence of social media the majority of the people would not be aware of what is happening. However, creating awareness is not the end goal; it is going beyond sharing stories on social media and actually joining collective action to see real change happening.

[1] Christina Newberry, Ashley Reid Social Media Activism in 2023: How to Go Beyond the Hashtag (2022) [2] Richard Fisher, The subtle ways that ‘clicktivism’ shapes the world (2020) [3] Salena Diaz, Carly Pullen, and Nicole Iannone, Black Lives Matter, Black Stories Matter, Black Voices Matter: Black Lives Matter Protests, COVID-19, and Streaming Services (2022) [4] Divya A Shanmugam, Commentary: The problems with social media activism [5] Jolynna Sinanan, Blackout Tuesday: the black square is a symbol of online activism for non-activists (2020)

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