Social media has evolved from simple tools to connect with friends and family to our personal news feed. News breaks online before anywhere else; celebrity obituaries are published mere minutes after the person has passed away. People are free to share their thoughts on current events for the whole world to see, and debate and discussion is well facilitated by social networks.
Social media is quickly becoming an important tool for activists of all stripes. Campaigns to raise awareness about various social justice issues have taken off on Twitter and Facebook, allowing marginalized people a space to organize movements and build a community of activism. Activism on social media is an effective way of connecting citizens on the ground to an audience around the world. A great example of the power of social media activism is illustrated by the online firestorm that was ignited following an instance of police violence in the United States.
In August 2014, after the death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown, residents of Ferguson, Missouri took to the streets to protest what they saw as an incident that personified the tumultuous relationship between the African-American community and police. News organizations were on the streets as protesters marched through neighbourhoods and clashed with police. But Ferguson’s residents wanted to tell their story themselves and took to Twitter, Facebook, and live-streaming apps to document the protests. Millions of people around the world got a first-hand, first-person glimpse of what was unfolding in the streets.
Social Media Gives Voice
Citizens of Ferguson believed the level of force exhibited by the police was excessive, and were able to convey this through their live documentation of it. Images of violent arrests, police officers wielding military grade weaponry, and the volume and size of the crowds had shock value and were effective in galvanizing support from concerned people not just in the United States but around the world. Social media was key in providing a voice for a population that is often left voiceless. DeRay McKesson, an organizer and leader who rose to prominence as Ferguson began to grip the nation, puts it succinctly when he says to The Atlantic:
“Missouri would have convinced you that we did not exist if it were not for social media. The intensity with which [police] responded to protesters very early — we were able to document that and share it quickly with people in a way that that we never could have without social media. We were able to tell our own stories.”
Image Source: Maclean’s
Critics of social media activism often label it as largely performative and incapable of affecting any real change. They argue that although social media is a great way of informing people of a certain issue, it fails to bring any real results. Some go as far to say that social media activism is usually a perpetuation of the injustice it is trying to draw attention to. The name of an African-American slain by police becomes a hashtag, trends for a week, and then is forgotten until the next death.
No change is brought, but those “expressing solidarity” online through tweets feel they have contributed something. At the same time, incarceration rates for African Americans in the United States stay high, police officers are not disciplined for their actions, and people are comforted by the fact that online, they are “activists”.
The belief that the world is your Facebook feed, that solidarity is expressible in retweet and “like” form, is harmful. It incapacitates well-meaning citizens who wish to see and make change. Instead of organizing by meeting and talking with folks you agree (and disagree) with, people are reduced to spouting off opinions on a platform that, quite frankly, is imaginary. Government decisions do not take place on Twitter; congress and parliament does not meet on Instagram or Facebook.
Although there is value to these mediums in terms of consciousness-raising, spreading important information, and providing an outlet for people on the ground, it is no substitute for those people on the ground. As Zach Blumenfield writes in Paste Magazine, “Even though massive public protests will be the only way to bring about police reform, it’s just too convenient to join in from the online sidelines, adding your own voice to the swollen tide and feeling like you’ve made a contribution.”
So is social media effective?
Activism is not a phenomenon that appears and reappears over the course of history. It is an entity and activity that challenges the established order and demands change on all levels, be they social, political, cultural, or an amalgamation of the three. Methods of activism have definitely evolved over the decades, and we should welcome this evolution and seek to utilize it in a positive way.
But this does not mean an abandonment of the values and practices that brought us to where we are now. Twitter was not around during the days of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, but these figures found a way to connect with a large population of people and preach a message that brought about immense change in the United States and around the world. We would be remiss if their methods were lost to us and we only embraced online, 21st century social media activism. There is still a place for marching and petitioning, and if it works in conjunction with hashtags, it could prove a powerful tool indeed.