Is digital activism effective?
New technologies – particularly social media – offer distinct possibilities and challenges for social justice and activism. In this post, we explore whether social media campaigning can enable meaningful digital activism.
How is social media used for activism?
Where once broadcast media – often linked to nation states, governments, or large corporations –controlled news sharing, the internet has transferred some of this power to everyday citizens, allowing them to disseminate information through social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok – to name a few.
While this might at first seem like we have entered a liberating, democratic mediascape, these social media platforms are – like the channels and newspapers of the broadcast age – owned by a small number of corporations. Therefore, despite tech-utopian ideas about the internet, the commercialisation of the Wide World Web has created spaces where we feel like we have substantial agency and can voice our opinions, yet we have become commodities ourselves as our data is aggregated, sold and even manipulation both for profit and political aims. Meta and ByteDance dominate the ownership of social media.
With this is mind, we must ask how useful social media platforms are for social justice? Do they offer more risks than opportunities? We invite you to come to your own conclusions on this debate as we discuss some examples of digital activism: citizen journalism and viral campaigns.
What is citizen journalism?
Citizen journalism describes the involvement of citizens in the newsgathering and broadcasting process. It is often used as an umbrella term covering:
- independent blogs or websites run by non-journalists
- sharing information via personal social media accounts
- professional journalistic websites that feature user-generated content.
You will often find the terms ‘citizen’ and ‘participatory’ journalism used interchangeably. However, the latter of the examples above is perhaps best described as ‘participatory journalism’ because it is led by established news agencies, who ask their viewers to participate in their newsgathering on their terms, whilst more activist forms of citizen journalism are led by the wider public often as a response against representation in broadcast media.
In this form, members of the public use social media to document and share breaking developments of protests on the ground or acts of violence as they’re happening. This brings news-worthy content to the attention of millions while circumventing the traditional media channels and processes. It is often used to hold those in power to account.
Examples of citizen journalism include:
- The Arab Spring
In the early 2010s, a series of pro-democracy protests started in Tunisia and spread across much of the Arab world. Young protesters used Twitter and Facebook to document the uprising on the streets, bringing awareness of their fight against autocratic regimes to a global audience. The movement is often credited as one of the first that demonstrated how to use social media for activism that led to widespread political change and inspired other social justice campaigns, including the international ‘Occupy’ movement from 2011. Nevertheless, there has been much criticism since this period about the long-term success of both The Arab Spring and Occupy campaigns.
- The murder of George Floyd
On 25 May 2020, 17-year-old Darnella Frazier used her phone to film the arrest and subsequent murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin, which she then shared online. The viral video sparked mass outrage and led to protests against systemic racism worldwide. Frazier has since been given a journalism award from the Pulitzer Prize board.
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Social media and campaigning
Alongside citizen journalism, activists have also used hashtags to create viral movements around social issues.
Two major examples from recent years include:
- Black Lives Matter
Darnella Frazier’s video of George Floyd’s murder led to a major resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, with activists primarily using social media to share important information, educational resources, and personal accounts of racism. It was also used as a tool to organise and spread the word about large-scale, in-person protests across the world.
A social media report conducted by marketing agency Mediakix and media company Offbeat revealed that:
- the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was used 48 million times between 26 May and 7 June 2020
- TikTok reported 12 billion views for the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag
- Twitter set the record for most active online users in June 2020 (40 million), demonstrating the astronomical levels of engagement around the movement and confirming the platform’s popularity as a place to access news and join in on the conversation.
- Me Too
Activist Tamara Burke began the ‘Me Too’ movement to unify sexual assault survivors and create a space for mutual support and empathy. The term went viral in 2017 when high profile actresses levelled accusations of sexual assault and harassment at film producer Harvey Weinstein. Alyssa Milano, one of Weinstein’s accusers, tweeted to encourage fellow survivors of sexual assault to use the hashtag #MeToo in the hope it might ‘give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.’
In a matter of hours, social media sites were flooded with posts from other women sharing their personal experiences.
Facebook reported that within 24 hours, 4.7 million people globally engaged in the #MeToo conversation, with over 12m posts, comments, and reactions. While Twitter shared that over 1.7 million tweets included the hashtag from users spanning 85 countries. By October 2018, the Pew Research Center reported that the hashtag had been used over 19 million times.
So, is digital activism effective?
While these examples clearly demonstrate how to use social media for activism, there are several limitations and risks attached to this media type that must be considered when evaluating its effectiveness.
The digital divide
Evidence tells us that people with greater capital (economic, social, and cultural) have better and more effective access to social media. This might refer to physical access to the ‘hardware’ required to use social media – such as computers and mobile phones – as well as access to the necessary digital infrastructure and resources to use these platforms effectively. Therefore, while social media has given a platform to many people rarely heard from in mainstream media, there is still a large demographic globally that these platforms don’t serve.
Weaponising social media in politics
If we acknowledge that those with the greatest capital get the most effective access to social media, it follows that political parties with access to vast resources can use it to target and mislead vulnerable users and even disrupt democratic elections. For example, the Cambridge Analytica scandal came to characterise the potentially dangerous relationship between new media and political campaigns. In 2018, the consulting firm bought millions of Facebook users’ personal data and sold it without their consent for use in political campaigns, including Donald Trump’s 2016 presential election campaign.
Slacktivism and virtue signalling
A common criticism levelled at social justice campaigns conducted on social media is that they encourage slacktivism: a kind of ‘lazy’ activism that requires very little personal commitment to a cause, for example, retweeting a viral hashtag. This can also be considered an act of virtue signalling, where social media users post to attain credit for speaking out in support of a cause. At best, this behaviour is simply empty of real political action, and at worst, it can harm the cause at stake. For example, on 2 June 2020, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, millions of social media users posted a black square to their feed as part of the #BlackOutTuesday trend, accompanied by the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #BLM. However, many pointed out that this ended up drowning out important information about the movement. As Twitter user Anthony James Williams explained: ‘It is intentionally and unintentionally hiding critical information we are using on the ground and online … Tell me how this helps Black folk. It doesn’t, and it in fact makes things a lot worse. Tell your friends and fam to stop.’
Brands have also faced criticism for their perceived slacktivism as many jump on viral hashtags and commercialise important social justice issues. Furthermore, many people have pointed out the inherent hypocrisy of these actions when the brands sharing the hashtags are guilty of the discriminatory or unjust practices the social campaigns seek to combat. For example, brands including Netflix, L’Oreal and Disney all came under fire for posting about #BlackLivesMatter while failing to address issues of racism in their company.
While posting and sharing on social media can make us feel like we are actively changing the world, we are also engaging in what media academic Marc Andrejevic has called passive interactivity – with every post we are giving our data to corporations like Meta and ByteDance. Such companies aggregate data, sell it, and even at times manipulate it. For example, Facebook faced controversy in 2014 when it was revealed it had been conducting experiments into controlling users’ emotions by manipulating the sort of posts they saw on their news feed.
While it’s necessary to highlight and scrutinise the shortfalls of social media, it’s also important to note the many opportunities it presents for activists too. These include:
Empowering marginalised groups
Historically, mainstream media channels have represented and reflected the interests of dominant social groups, caused in part by their ownership by ruling elites and powerful corporations. This means that marginalised voices and perspectives are often either misrepresented or completely absent in traditional news reporting. Social media can therefore be viewed as a revolutionary alternative to dominant media platforms. On it, groups that were previously relegated to private realms can both represent their lived experiences and mobilise powerful social movements.
Democratising access to information
Linked to the idea above, the emergence of media technologies, including social media, has enabled much broader access to information across society. Of course, this is particularly important when we consider the issue of political engagement.
All forms of participatory politics rely on the assumption that forms of informed decision-making are possible. This requires, at its most basic, that information is available, and that people can access that information. Social media has therefore provided a way for more disenfranchised communities (although not all) to access the resources needed to take part in the democratic process.
Bringing about change
Despite the risks of digital activism outlined above, there are examples from recent history which demonstrate changes brought about by social media campaigns. Let’s take the movements we’ve explored already as examples.
The #BlackLivesMatter campaign prompted a global reckoning on the issue of racism. In addition to the mass protests in cities around the world, former police officer Chauvin was convicted on all three counts related to Floyd’s death, police reforms were introduced in several US states, and brands and celebrities donated millions of pounds to social justice charities.
In the case of #MeToo, it prompted the launch of the Time’s Up Legal Defence Fund, supported by over 300 high profile actors, producers, writers, agents, directors and entertainment executives. In just one month, the project raised £15 million to fund legal assistance for people who have experienced sexual harassment, abuse or assault at work. Following the accusations aimed at Harvey Weinstein, who has since been convicted, hundreds more women working across various industries were also emboldened to report their experiences of sexual assault, with 262 other high profile people facing allegations from April 2017 to February 2020.
However, despite these initial actions, it’s important to acknowledge that racist and misogynistic crimes and everyday behaviours persist in society. In the aftermath of #MeToo, we’ve seen several high-profile cases of abuse towards women, including the murder of women by police officers as in the case of Sarah Everard.
Black Lives Matter may have provoked pledges, but many have been empty promises. Racism continues in myriad forms including profiling and poorer health outcomes for people of colour – a fact laid bare during the Covid-19 pandemic in which non-white medical staff and patients have been disproportionally affected.
Social media campaigns can create an intense effect that has the potential to spread across the world. But whether this form of digital activism can bring about meaningful and lasting social change is a debate that, for now, remains unsettled.
The Media, Ethics and Social Change MA (online) course at the University of Sussex delves into the issues and debates explored in this blog and many more. It challenges you to think about how you could use such platforms for good or whether new digital tools are needed.
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